Socialist Revolutionaries

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early organization
srs and other revolutionary groups
from 1905 to 1917: revolution and defeat

The Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR) organized workers, peasants, and the intelligentsia to overthrow the tsar and bring socialism to early-twentieth-century Russia. Although the PSR adapted Marxist ideology to Russian circumstances, it differed from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in tactics and political program. The PSR was organized in 1901 and 1902, developed a program in 1906, experienced factional conflict between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and in February 1917 emerged as the leading mass political party only to be defeated by party schisms over policy issues and political maneuvering in the Soviet government.

early organization

In mid-nineteenth-century Russia, most socialists were populists who hoped that Russia could skip capitalism and develop socialism based upon the peasant commune. Populism produced a political party, Land and Liberty, which subsequently split over tactical and political questions. After the terrorist faction, the People's Will, assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, populist organizations were decimated by arrests. Coupled with the advance of capitalism, the repression of the terrorists forced a reconsideration of revolutionary theory and practice. As a result, three neopopulist groups emerged in the 1890s. Centered in Saratov, Voronezh, and Minsk, the neopopulists focused agitation on urban centers and generally retained the populist tactic of terrorism. In January 1901 the first SR newspaper, Revolutionary Russia, was published in Moscow.

In a series of meetings in 1901 and 1902, the neopopulists Grigory A. Gershuni (1870–1908), Yekaterina K. Breshko-Breshkovskaya (1844–1934), Mikhail R. Gots (1866–1906), and Victor M. Chernov (1876–1952) engineered the formation of the PSR. Final impetus for unification was drawn from the peasant risings in 1902, which justified a role for the peasantry in the coming revolution. Chernov, arrested as a student in Moscow, later exiled to Tambov and an émigré after 1899, was the chief architect of the draft program adopted at the first party congress in January 1906. Chernov's program synthesized populist ideology and Marxism. While retaining a role for the individual, Chernov called for the formation of a revolutionary political party, based on mass agitation and propaganda, comprising peasants, workers, and the revolutionary intelligentsia. The program supported civil rights and liberties, separation of church and state, rights for nationalities within a federation, four-tailed (free, equal, secret, and direct) suffrage, election of a constituent assembly, and the formation of a people's militia. The agrarian program called for socialization of the land based upon the "right to land" and self-administration. Workers were promised an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, legal unions, social insurance, and progressive taxation. The party's Fighting Organization, organized in 1901 to carry out terrorist activities, supported terror for the purpose of defending the party from state repression, avenging unjust persecution of political activists, and demonstrating individual honor and self-sacrifice of its membership. As part of a system of revolutionary activity, the PSR asserted, terror could disorganize the state and cause the masses to act. Indeed, the assassinations of the minister of the interior, V. K. Plehve, in July 1904 and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in February 1905 by the Fighting Organization persuaded many to join the PSR.

srs and other revolutionary groups

The PSR differed from the Social Democrats and other Marxists in its theory of class, in the decision to adopt terrorism, and in its theory of revolution. Chernov and the PSR defended the revolutionary intelligentsia as an avant-garde born of ideas not socioeconomics. Marxists relegated the intelligentsia to the capitalist class, although they conceded that the intelligentsia could become professional revolutionaries and adopt the worldview of workers. The PSR also allowed for the development of socialism among the peasantry because both peasants and workers remained impoverished and therefore oppressed by capitalism. Chernov and the PSR remained convinced that the unity of workers and peasants was required in Russia for a successful socialist revolution. Marxists believed the peasantry to be reactionary not revolutionary. The tactic of terror evoked the most serious conflicts between Marxist theorists and the PSR. Karl Marx indicated that terror, an act of isolated individuals, actually separated the party from the masses and could never act as a catalyst for revolution. Disorganization of the government could be accomplished only by a broad mass organization, never by the action of individuals. Finally, Russian revolutionaries convinced of Russian backwardness and the weakness of the bourgeoisie struggled with the theory of revolution. Marx indicated that the stage of capitalism was a necessary precondition for the socialist revolution, thereby effectively postponing Russian socialism to the distant future. To correct this dilemma, Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), a Russian Marxist, argued that the bourgeois revolution had to be made permanent by the actions of the proletariat, or working class, who would carry out the revolutionary tasks assigned by Marx to the bourgeoisie and transform Russia into socialism. Chernov's revolutionary theory called for a transitional revolutionary dictatorship between the bourgeois and socialist revolutions accompanied by socialization of the land to win socialism in the countryside.

The organizational structure of the PSR was similar to that of other revolutionary political parties in Russia. A central committee remained the leading institution directing the actions of committees at district, village, city, regional, and provincial levels. Leaders were both elected and co-opted following traditional methods in existence at local levels. An organizational bureau established in 1906 coordinated communication between the center and the periphery and administered finances and distribution of illegal literature. The party congress, which met only twice before 1914, was to decide major tactical, program, and policy issues. To supplement the rare congresses, party councils were held to address crises in the party such as responses to elections and the Azef affair in 1909. The PSR was financed by personal donations, dues, and foreign fund-raising trips to the West. Both formal organization and funding hindered centralized operations especially after 1907.

from 1905 to 1917: revolution and defeat

By 1905, the PSR had become a mass party with cadres in urban centers as well as village committees. After the October Manifesto (1905) and the promulgation of the Fundamental Laws (1906), which promised a parliamentary regime and civil liberties, the PSR voted to boycott elections to the First Duma or Russian parliament. The PSR participated in elections to the Second Duma and collaborated with other socialist parties in the elections to secure victories for revolutionary activists. In 1907 state repression ended the party's temporary renunciation of terror.

Factional conflict plagued the PSR from the onset. On the left the Maximalists adopted economic terror against industrialists and landowners. By 1906 their determination to use bribery, expropriation, and extortion led to their formal expulsion from the PSR. On the right, the People's Socialists left the party during the "days of freedom" (1905–1907) when it became possible to abandon illegal organization. After the legalization of associations in 1906, many revolutionaries remained reluctant to return to underground activity. Before World War I, Chernov had successfully defeated the call by some party members to abandon illegal activity and concentrate agitation in legally recognized associations.

The most dangerous controversy involved the admission of the Central Committee in 1909 that Evno Azef (1869–1918), a prominent figure in the party and a leader of the Fighting Organization, was a police spy. Despite earlier evidence that Azef might be guilty, the Central Committee had refused to investigate and continued to promote Azef into prominent positions. Many in the Central Committee rejected the continuation of terrorist tactics as a result. The Fighting Organization remained ineffective after the scandal despite attempts to revive it.

From 1907 to 1917, the PSR participated in legal and illegal revolutionary activity inside Russia. Cooperation and collaboration with Social Democrats produced a broad-based revolutionary culture before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Socialists cooperated in a number of legal congresses and conferences called to assemble doctors, women, teachers, leaders of cooperatives, and other professionals inside Russia. These activities contributed to the PSR's popularity among the widest cross section of Russian revolutionary groups—workers, peasants, and the intelligentsia.

During World War I, factions again emerged among most revolutionary groups. Chernov adopted an internationalist stance, while other party leaders became "defensists" and sought to secure Russia against defeat especially after the tsar was overthrown in the February Revolution of 1917. The Provisional Government formed in February was considered to represent the bourgeoisie, while the soviets represented the working masses. After a crisis threatened to topple the Provisional Government, PSR members on the right decided to cooperate with liberals and other moderate socialists. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries rejected cooperation with the Provisional Government and remained with the Bolsheviks in the Soviets. As the war continued, political and economic instability deepened and the Left SRs supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October 1917. The SRs held a majority in the Constituent Assembly that met in January 1918. It was dissolved within days by the new Bolshevik-dominated Soviet government. In March 1918 the Left SRs abandoned the government when a separate peace was signed with Germany. During the civil war, many SRs openly opposed the Soviets. After the defeat of opposition forces, many fled into exile abroad while others joined the Soviet government and became members of the Communist Party. The PSR was officially disbanded inside Russia in 1922.

See alsoBolsheviks; Mensheviks; Populists.


Primary Sources

Breshko-Breshkovskaia, Ekaterina Konstantinovna. Hidden Springs of the Russian Revolution: Personal Memoirs of Katerina Breshkovskaia. Stanford, Calif., 1931.

Chernov, Viktor M. Zapiski sotsialista-revoliutsionera. Berlin, 1922. Reprint, with a new introduction by Constantine Brancovan. Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

Secondary Sources

Hildermeier, Manfred. The Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party before the First World War. New York, 2000. English translation of the 1978 classic study of the SRs before 1914.

Melancon, Michael. Stormy Petrels: The Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia's Labor Organizations, 1905–1914. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1988. Systematic archival study of local activities between the revolutions.

Perrie, Maureen. The Agrarian Policy of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party from Its Origins through the Revolution of 1905–1907. Cambridge, U.K., 1976. Focuses on the peasantry and the SRs.

Radkey, Oliver H. The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, February to October 1917. New York, 1958. First three chapters cover the period before 1917.

Rice, Christopher. Russian Workers and the Socialist Revolutionary Party through the Revolution of 1905–07. New York, 1988. Focuses on the urban activity of the SRs.

Alice K. Pate