Chapter 3 - Bread, Peace and Land
Many people today, filled with a justified suspicion for governments and politicians of all types, will wonder whether the Bolsheviks feathered their own nests, especially after they emerged from underground struggle to find themselves in positions of power and influence.
But during the first years of the Russian revolution, when Soviet democracy and the revolutionary initiative of the masses were at their height, the Bolsheviks built into the system a series of safeguards against bureaucracy, privilege and the abuse of power.
To stop what Frederick Engels had once called “place-hunting and careerism”, members of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars (the government elected by the Soviets to run the country – Commissar being a less pompous title for a Minister of State) were paid the average wage of a skilled worker – just 500 roubles a month.
All working people were to carry arms so that the revolution could be protected from any threat, whether from within or without, and to stop influential generals or officials from taking power themselves.
In the capitalist “democracies” governments are elected after the people place a cross on a ballot form every four or five years at the most. But the Soviets drew their authority from regular mass meetings in workplaces and farms across Russia.
Unlike parliamentrary deputies today, Soviet delegates could be recalled and replaced at any time by the workers who had elected them. Local Soviets sent delegates to higher regional and All-Russian Soviets.
In this way, the Soviet system enabled working people to have real control over every aspect of political life and decision making. It was a government of the working class and peasant majority, not a government of a tiny bourgeois minority.
In every sphere of life the Bolsheviks pursued a programme of liberation. The national minorities, long oppressed by Tsarism, were given full freedom, most importantly the right to self-determination for their nations, up to and including the right to set up their own sovereign states. The privileges that underpinned great Russian chauvinism were abolished.
Women, for so long kept in medieval servitude under the old regime, were mobilised to fight for their own liberation and provided with the material means of doing so through the state provision of child care, through massive education drives and through legal changes that recognised them as equal citizens.
Laws against homosexuality, still in place today in many modern so-called “civilised” western societies, were abolished. Artists, freed from the tyranny of state censorship, were encouraged to experiment, to find ways of reaching a mass audience.
To this day many people remain amazed at the creative genius that was unleashed in Russia after the October revolution, marvelling at the films, plays, poetry and paintings that Soviet citizens were able to enjoy.
Although the new government implemented many revolutionary policies in a wide area of social, cultural and political life the Russian revolution is famous above all for the slogan of “Bread, Peace and Land”.
On these issues the Bolsheviks did something that the capitalists of the West had never expected any government to do. They kept their promises.
The war and the ruinous policies of the Tsar and Kerensky had left the Russian economy in a terrible state. This was a problem that could not be solved overnight. To feed the people the Bolsheviks had to take control of food supplies out of the hands of the rich and into the hands of the starving masses themselves.
Only three days after the Soviets took power the new government decreed that food supplies should be put under the control of local representatives. Four days later workers were encouraged by the regime to set up committees to exercise control over the factories and the companies they worked for.
To stop the rich feeding themselves instead of the workers, factory committees were to check and control all the records and accounts.
The decisions of the factory committees were declared binding. What is more, the government abolished all “business secrets”, so that the bosses could not lie to the people about what was possible and what was available.
In every sphere the government encouraged the greatest possible initiative from below. As Lenin explained:
“While no Parliament has ever, anywhere, given the slightest support to the revolutionary movement, the Soviets blow into the fire of revolution and say imperiously to the people: ‘Fight: take everything in your own hands: organise yourselves!’”.
The masses responded eagerly to the challenge. Before the revolution the Tsarist regime had a policy of requisitioning food and supplies to help their war effort. This practice was continued under Soviet power, but with three crucial differences.
First, the Soviets requisitioned supplies to feed the people, not to continue the imperialist war. Secondly, the requisitioning was carried out by the people themselves, not by the Tsar’s police and soldiers. Finally, the people whose property was to be seized were not ordinary citizens but the rich.
Across Russia, local Soviets seized food from the pampered merchants, raiding their houses with the same ruthlessness that had previously been used against the poor. Nor did they stop at food supplies. Bed-clothes, winter garments and boots were all taken.
The homeless were housed by confiscating the spacious second and third homes of the rich – and this was all now legal and encouraged by the Soviet government. The workers were now the rulers of Russia – they must be fed, clothed, and housed!
The Bolsheviks acted to end Russia’s suffering in the bloody imperialist war that had raged for almost four years. The very first decree of the Congress of Soviets was a bombshell striking at the foundations of the warmongering capitalist governments of Britain, Germany and France:
“The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government, established by the revolution of 24-5 October, and based on the Soviets, invites all the belligerent nations and their governments to open negotiations without delay for a just and democratic peace.”
The new government declared that there should be no conquests of territories, and that no nation should be forced to remain within another state against its will.
For the capitalists, this was bad enough. But “worse” was to come! The Soviet state cancelled all secret treaties that the Tsarists had signed with their wartime allies, Britain and France. They announced that in future all diplomatic negotiations and agreements would be open – nothing would be concealed from the people.
Soon afterwards the truth about the real reasons for the war came out. The Bolsheviks captured and published all the documents that set out the secret terms of Russia’s wartime alliance, listing the conquests of foreign territories that the Tsar had been promised by his fellow imperialists.
The Bolsheviks’ peace declaration was as reasonable as possible in the circumstances, so that if the German and Allied governments refused to make concessions and end the war, it would be clear to workers all over the world exactly who was responsible for the continuing slaughter in the trenches.
The Tsar’s main wartime allies, Britain and France, were beside themselves with fury at the thought of Russia making a separate peace with Germany. Their blood turned cold when, on 7 November 1917, Trotsky broadcast an appeal by radio to all the main countries involved in the war, declaring that they should now begin negotiations to reach an overall peace settlement.
The German capitalists and generals were more than ready to negotiate. They saw a chance to release their armies from the Eastern Front and send them westward to break the log-jam in the trenches of France and Belgium.
But as dyed-in-the-wool imperialists, they were far from ready to accept the democratic terms that the Russian socialists were suggesting: no conquests of territories, no payments by defeated countries to the victors, and self-determination for all peoples.
Negotiations began in the town of Brest-Litovsk in December. Before Trotsky’s arrival, the imperialists tried their usual tricks to impress and corrupt the Soviet delegates, with sumptuous meals, plenty of wine and abundant flattery.
Aristocrats and generals exchanged pleasantries with the Soviet representatives – workers, soldiers, peasants, and hardened revolutionaries, including Vitsenko, who stood out, not only as a woman in exclusively male company, but also as a former terrorist who had assassinated one of the Tsar’s war ministers.
Then Trotsky arrived. He put an immediate stop to the pretence of friendliness. From now on the Russian delegation would take their meals separately – there was to be no more socialising. The reason? These people were enemies of the working class.
They were to be treated as such. The Austrian Foreign Minister could not help but notice the difference, noting in his diary that, “the wind seems to blow in a very different direction than it did until now.”
Ignoring flattery and threats alike, Trotsky defended the right of the Soviets to hand out leaflets to German soldiers calling on them to rise up in revolution. He insisted, to the horror of the generals and the noblemen, that the negotiations should be carried out in public rather than under the usual veil of secrecy.
He drew constant attention to the German and Austrian governments’ policies of conquest and annexation, and demanded that all nations should determine their own future. And when the German general, Hoffman, accused the Soviet government of being based on force, Trotsky replied:
“Up to the present moment there have been no other varieties of government in history. It will always be so, as long as society is composed of hostile classes. But what makes our actions amaze and alarm the governments of other countries is that, instead of arresting strikers, we arrest the employers who organise lock-outs; instead of shooting the peasants who demand land, we arrest and we shoot the landlords and the officers who try to fire on the peasants.”
The Germans were determined to drive the hardest of bargains. They refused to withdraw their troops from a single millimetre of the territory they had occupied. By January 1918 the talks had got nowhere. The terrible choice facing the Bolsheviks was to give in to German demands and sacrifice territory to imperialists, or to continue the very war they had promised to bring to an end.
The Bolsheviks were divided on how to respond. Lenin supported peace as soon as possible. Bukharin and others argued for a revolutionary war. Trotsky spoke for neither the one nor the other. He argued that the negotiations should be dragged out for as long as possible, in the hope that revolution would quickly break out in Germany and Austria, bringing Soviet Russia’s isolation to an end.
The argument was very sharp but Trotsky’s middle position was eventually adopted.
Back at Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky set out the Soviet position declaring:
“We cannot put the signature of the Russian revolution under a peace treaty which brings oppression, woe, and misfortune to millions of human beings.”
Russia would leave the war without signing a peace treaty. The army would be demobilised. Nothing of the kind had ever happened before or since. General Hoffman shouted aloud, “Unheard of!”. The delegates, in stunned silence, left and returned home.
Trotsky thought this a triumph. Yet while he was still making his way back to Petrograd, German troops were getting their orders to advance deep into Russian territory.
Lenin had been proved right. By delaying the signing of the peace, even more territory freed by the revolution would now be lost. Exhausted, the Russian Army could not be expected to continue the war. By mid-February the Germans had seized the town of Dvinsk and were set to capture the whole of the Ukraine.
On the 18 February, Trotsky could defend his position no longer. He switched sides and backed Lenin. The Soviet government issued a request for peace.
The German terms were appalling – far worse, as Lenin had warned they would be. Russia had to withdraw from Finland and Ukraine, and hand over Latvia and Estonia to Germany. A vital lesson had been learned – the hard way. Revolutionaries cannot afford to reject all compromises on principle.
There is a world of difference between a traitor who unnecessarily signs away the rights or the interests of the workers, and a realist who is forced to accept the temporary strength of the enemy.
Soviet Russia lost out heavily in the peace of Brest-Litovsk. But the workers’ state survived. Moreover, within months Lenin was proved right more convincingly than even he could have hoped. For German imperialism had revealed its true intentions – conquest and seizure of territory, and a disregard for the rights of smaller nations.
Under German occupation the peasants of Ukraine and the southern territories of Russia resisted and tied down German troops. By November 1918, the war was over and revolution swept Germany, bringing down the Kaiser and freeing Russia from the terms of the Treaty.
Again, Trotsky revealed his revolutionary integrity by admitting his mistake. He explained this openly to a Soviet meeting on 3 October 1918:
“ . . . at the hour when many of us, including myself, were doubtful as to whether it was admissible for us to sign the Brest-Litovsk peace, only Comrade Lenin maintained stubbornly, with amazing foresight and against our opposition, that we had to go through with it to tide us over until the revolution of the world proletariat. And now we must admit that we were wrong.”
The idea of infallible leaders belongs to the Catholic Church or to capitalist dictatorships. It has no place in the revolutionary movement. Even at times of great crisis, great workers’ leaders, like Trotsky, acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.
The promise of peace, land and bread was honoured by immediate measures. On 26 October, only a day after the revolution, the Bolsheviks issued a long decree based on proclamations already issued by hundreds of peasant Soviets across Russia.
The first clause of the new law summed up the sweeping change that was being proposed:
“The landowners’ right to ownership over the soil is abolished forthwith, without compensation.”
This had been part of the programme of the SRs. But they had refused to carry it out. The Bolsheviks did it, right away.
Originally the Bolsheviks had wanted to avoid dividing the large estates up among the peasants, in order to be able to develop large-scale collective agriculture as part of a socialist planned economy.
But, without abandoning their socialist aims, they knew when compromises were unavoidable. The landlords had been overthrown by a violent movement on the land, a movement from below. The division of the large estates into hundreds of thousands of smaller land holdings had already begun.
So the Bolsheviks changed their policy and gave official recognition to the land seizures. Lenin declared:
“The last government tried to solve the agrarian question by agreement with the ancient, immovable bureaucracy of the Tsar. Far from settling the problem, the bureaucracy simply attacked the peasants . . .
So the peasants want to solve the agrarian question themselves. Let there be no amendments to their plan! . . . the main thing is for them to have the firm assurance that there will be no more landlords and that they can set about organising their lives.”
In this way they were able secure the support of millions of peasants for the new workers’ government.