On The Famine. A Letter to The Workers Of Petrograd

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On the Famine (A Letter to the Petrograd Workers) was written by Lenin after a conversation with A. V. Ivanov, chairman of the Putilov (now Kirov) Works purchasing commission. Lenin paid close attention to what the Putilov workers’ representative had to say, then asked him to tell the Petrograd workers that the Government was “taking resolute measures to improve the country’s food situation” and handed him a copy of a decree to pass on to the Putilov workers. The decree gave the People’s Commissar for Food emergency powers to fight the famine. In a letter to A. D. Tsyurupa, Lenin wrote of his conversation with Ivanov: “I told him my opinion: if the best Petrograd workers do not create a picked, reliable workers’ army” for a campaign against the rural bourgeoisie, “famine and the destruction of the revolution are inevitable” (Lenin Miscellany XVIII, p. 163). Lenin told the People’s Commissariat for Food to give every assistance to the Petrograd workers’ detachments.

At the beginning of June 1918, the Petrograd workers sent off their first food detachment of 400 men.

22 May, 1918[edit source]

Comrades, the other day your delegate, a Party comrade, a worker in the Putilov Works, called on me. This comrade drew a detailed and extremely harrowing picture of the famine in Petrograd. We all know that the food situation is just as acute in many of the industrial gubernias, that famine is knocking just as cruelly at the door of the workers and the poor generally.

And side by side with this we observe an orgy of profiteering in grain and other food products. The famine is not due to the fact that there is no grain in Russia, but to the fact that the bourgeoisie and the rich generally are putting up a last decisive fight against the rule of the toilers, against the state of the workers, against Soviet power, on this most important and acute of issues, the issue of bread. The bourgeoisie and the rich generally, including the rural rich, the kulaks, are thwarting the grain monopoly; they are disrupting the distribution of grain undertaken by the state for the purpose and in the interests of supplying bread to the whole of the population, and in the first place to the workers, the toilers, the needy. The bourgeoisie are disrupting the fixed prices, they are profiteering in grain, they are making a hundred, two hundred and more rubles’ profit on every pood of grain; they are disrupting the grain monopoly and the proper distribution of grain by resorting to bribery and corruption and by deliberately supporting everything tending to destroy the power of the workers, which is endeavouring to put into effect the prime, basic and root principle of socialism: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” “He who does not work, neither shall he eat”—every toiler understands that. Every worker, every poor and even middle peasant, everybody who has suffered need in his lifetime, everybody who has ever lived by his own labour, is in agreement with this. Nine-tenths of the population of Russia are in agreement with this truth. In this simple, elementary and perfectly obvious truth lies the basis of socialism, the indefeasible source of its strength, the indestructible pledge of its final victory.

But the whole point is that it is one thing to subscribe to this truth, to swear one’s allegiance to it, to give it verbal recognition, but it is quite different to be able to put it into effect. When hundreds of thousands and millions of people are suffering the pangs of hunger (in Petrograd, in the non-agricultural gubernias, and in Moscow) in a country where millions upon millions of poods of grain are being concealed by the rich, the kulaks, and the profiteers-in a country which calls itself a socialist Soviet Republic-there is something to which every conscious worker and peasant must give serious and profound thought.

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat”—how is this to be put into effect? It is as clear as daylight that in order to put it into effect we require, first, a state grain monopoly, i.e., the absolute prohibition of all private trade in grain, the compulsory delivery of all surplus grain to the state at a fixed price, the absolute prohibition of all hoarding and concealment of surplus grain, no matter by whom. Secondly, we require the strictest registration of all grain surpluses, faultless organisation of the transportation of grain from places of abundance to places of shortage, and the building up of reserves for consumption, for processing, and for seed. Thirdly, we require a just and proper distribution of bread, controlled by the workers’ state, the proletarian state, among all the citizens of the state, a distribution which will permit of no privileges and advantages for the rich.

One has only to reflect ever so slightly on these conditions for coping with the famine to see the abysmal stupidity of the contemptible anarchist windbags, who deny the necessity of a state power (and, what is more, a power ruthless in its severity towards the bourgeoisie and ruthlessly firm towards disorganisers of government) for the transition from capitalism to communism and for the ridding of the working people of all forms of oppression and exploitation. It is at this moment, when our revolution has directly, concretely, and practically approached the tasks involved in the realisation of socialism-and therein lies its inestimable merit-it is at this moment, and exactly in connection with this most important of issues, the issue of bread, that the need becomes absolutely clear for an iron revolutionary rule, for a dictatorship of the proletariat, for the organisation of the collection of food products, their transportation, and distribution on a mass, national scale, taking into account the requirements of tens and hundreds of millions of people, calculating the conditions and the results of production for a year and many years ahead (for there are sometimes years of crop failure, sometimes land improvements essential for increasing grain crops require years of work, and so forth).

Romanov and Kerensky left to the working class a country utterly impoverished by their predatory, criminal, and most terrible war, a country picked clean by Russian and foreign imperialists. Bread will suffice for all only if we keep the strictest account of every pood, only if every pound is distributed absolutely evenly. There is also an acute shortage of bread for machines, i.e., fuel; the railways and factories will come to a standstill, unemployment and famine will bring ruin on the whole nation, if we do not bend every effort to establish a strict and ruthless economy of consumption and proper distribution. We are faced by disaster, it is very near. An intolerably difficult May will be followed by a still more difficult June, July and August.

Our state grain monopoly exists in law, but in practice it is being thwarted at every step by the bourgeoisie. The rural rich, the kulak, the parasite who has been robbing the whole neiglibourliood for decades, prefers to enrich himself by profiteering and illicit distilling.. it is so good for his pocket, and he can throw the blame for the famine on Soviet power. That, too, is the line of the political defenders of the kulak-the Constitutional-Democrats, the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, and the Mensheviks-who are overtly and covertly “working” against the grain monopoly and against Soviet power. The party of the spineless, i.e., the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, are displaying their spinelessness here too: they are yielding to the covetous howls and outcries of the bourgeoisie, they are crying out against the grain monopoly, they are “protesting” against the food dictatorship, they are allowing themselves to be intimidated by the bourgeoisie, they are afraid to fight the kulak, and are flapping about hysterically, recommending that the fixed prices be raised, that private trading be permitted, and so forth.

This party of the spineless reflects in politics something akin to what takes place in ordinary life when the kulak incites the poor peasants against the Soviets, bribes them by, say, letting some poor peasant have a pood of grain not for six, but for three rubles, so that the poor peasant, thus corrupted, may himself “make a bit” by profiteering, may “turn a penny” by selling that pood of grain at a profiteering price of one hundred and fifty rubles, and himself become a decrier of the Soviets, which have prohibited private trading in grain.

Anyone who is capable of reflecting, anyone who is willing to reflect ever so little, will see clearly what line this fight has taken.

Either the advanced and class-conscious workers triumph and unite the poor peasant masses around themselves, establish rigorous order, a mercilessly severe rule, a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat-either they compel the kulak to submit, and institute a proper distribution of food and fuel on a national scale; or the bourgeoisie, with the help of the kulaks, and with the indirect support of the spineless and muddle-headed (the anarchists and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries), will overthrow Soviet power and set up a Russo-German or a Russo-Japanese Kornilov, who will present the people with a sixteen-hour working day, an ounce of bread per week, mass shooting of workers and torture in dungeons, as has been the case in Finland and the Ukraine.


There is no middle course. The situation of the country is desperate in the extreme.

Anyone who reflects upon political life cannot fail to see that the Constitutional-Democrats,. the Right SocialistRevolutionaries, and the Mensheviks are coming to an understanding about who would be “pleasanter”, a RussoGerman or a Russo-Japanese Kornilov, about who would crush the revolution more effectively and reliably, a crowned or a republican Kornilov.

It is time all class-conscious and advanced workers came to an understanding. It is time they bestirred themselves and realised that every minute’s delay may spell ruin to the country and ruin to the revolution.

Half-measures will be of no avail. Complaining will lead us nowhere. Attempts to secure bread or fuel “in retail fashion”, “each man for himself”, i.e., for “o-ur” factory, “our” workshop, are only increasing the disorganisation and facilitating for the profiteers their selfish, filthy, and blackguardly work.

That is why, comrades, workers of Petrograd, I have taken the liberty of addressing this letter to you. Petrograd is not Russia. The Petrograd workers are only a small part of the workers of Russia. But they are one of the best, the advanced, most class-conscious, most revolutionary, most steadfast detachments of the working class and of all the working people of Russia, and one of the least liable to succumb to empty phrases, to spineless despair and to the intimidation of the bourgeoisie. And it has frequently happened at critical moments in the life of nations that even small advanced detachments of advanced classes have carried the rest with them, have fired the masses with revolutionary enthusiasm, and have accomplished tremendous historical feats.

“There were forty thousand of us at the Putilov Works,” the delegate from the Petrograd workers said to me. “But the majority of them were ’temporary’ workers, not proletarians, an unreliable, flabby lot. Now there are fifteen thousand left, but these are proletarians, tried and steeled in the fight.”

That is the sort of vanguard of the revolution-in Petrograd and throughout the country-that must sound the call, must rise together, must understand that the salvation of the country is in their hands, that from them is demanded a heroism no less than that which they displayed in January and October 1905 and in February paid October 1917, that a great “crusade” must be organised against the grain profiteers, the kulaks, the parasites, the disorganisers and bribetakers, a great “crusade” against the violators of strictest state order in the collection, transportation, and distribution of bread for the people and bread for the machines.

The country and the revolution can be saved only by the mass effort of the advanced workers. We need tens of thousands of advanced and steeled proletarians, class-conscious enough to explain matters to the millions of poor peasants all over the country and to assume the leadership of these millions, resolute enough to ruthlessly cast out of their midst and shoot all who allow themselves to be “tempted” as indeed happens-by the temptations of profiteering and turn from fighters for the cause of the people into robbers; we need proletarians steadfast enough and devoted enough to the revolution to bear in an organised way all the hardships of the crusade and take it to every corner of the country for the establishment of order, for the consolidation of the local organs of Soviet power, and for the exercise of control in the localities over every pood of grain and every pood of fuel.

It is rather more difficult to do this than to display heroism for a few days without leaving one’s accustomed place, without joining in a crusade, confining oneself to an impulsive uprising against the idiot monster Romanov or the fool and braggart Kerensky. Heroism displayed in prolonged and persevering organisational work on a national scale is immensely more difficult than, but at the same time immensely superior to, heroism displayed in an uprising. But the strength of working-class parties, the strength of the working class has always been that it looks danger boldly, squarely and openly in the face, that it does not fear to admit danger and soberly weighs the forces in “our” camp and in “the other” camp, the camp of the exploiters. The revolution is progressing, developing, and growing. The tasks we face are also growing. The struggle is broadening and deepening. Proper distribution of bread and fuel, their procurement in greater quantities and the very strict account and control of them by the workers on a national scale-that is the real and chief prelude to socialism. That is no longer a “general revolutionary” task but a communist task, a task which requires that the working people and the poor engage capitalism in a decisive battle.

And this battle is worth giving all one’s strength to it; the difficulties are grea’c, but so is the cause of the abolition of oppression and exploitation for which we are fighting.

When the people are starving, when unemployment is becoming ever more terrible, anyone who conceals an extra pood of grain, anyone who deprives the state of a pood of fuel is an out-and-out criminal.

At such a time-and for a genuinely communist society, it is always true-every pood of grain and fuel is veritably sacred, much more so than the sacred things which priests use to confuse the minds of fools, promising them the kingdom of heaven as a reward for slavery on earth. And in order to rid this genuinely sact.ed thing of every remnant of the “sacredness” of the priests, we must take possession of it practically, we must achieve its proper distribution in practice, we must collect the whole of it without exception; every particle of surplus grain must be brought into the state stores, the whole country must be swept clean of concealed or ungarnered grain surpluses; we need the firm hand of the worker to harness every effort to increase the output of fuel and to secure the greatest economy of fuel, the greatest efficiency in its transportation and consumption.

We need a mass “crusade” of the advanced workers to every centre of production of grain and fuel, to every important centre of supply and distribution-a mass “crusade” to increase the intensity of work tenfold, to assist the local organs of Soviet power in the matter of accounting and control, and to eradicate profiteering, graft, and slovenliness by armed force. This is not a new task. History, properly speaking, is not advancing new tasks-all it is doing is to increase the size and scope of old tasks as the scope of the revolution, its difficulties, and the greatness of its worldhistoric aim increase.

One of the greatest and indefeasible accomplishments of the October Revolution-the Soviet revolution-is that the advanced worker, as the leader of the poor, as the leader of the toiling masses of the countryside, as the builder of the state of the toilers, has “gone among the people.”

Petrograd and other proletarian centres have given thousands upon thousands of their best workers to the countryside. The detachments of fighters against the Kaledins and Dutoys, and the food detachments, are nothing new. Only the proximity of disaster, the acuteness of the situation compel us to do ten times more than before.

When the worker became the vanguard leader of the poor he did not thereby become a saint. He led the people forward, but he also became infected with the diseases of petty-bourgeois disintegration. The fewer the detachments of best organised, of most class-conscious, and most disciplined and steadfast workers were, the more frequently did these detachments degenerate, the more frequently did the small-proprietor instincts of the past triumph over the proletarian-communist consciousness of the future.

Having begun the communist revolution, the working class cannot instantly discard the weaknesses and vices inherited from the society of landowners and capitalists, the society of exploiters and parasites, the society based on the filthy selfishness and personal gain of a few and the poverty of the many. But the working class can vanquish the old world—and in the end will certainly and inevitably vanquish it—with its vices and weaknesses, if against the enemy are brought ever greater detachments of workers, ever more enlightened by experience and tempered by the hardships of the struggle.

Such and only such is the state of affairs in Russia today. Single-handed and disunited, we shall not be able to cope with famine and unemployment. We need a mass “crusade” of advanced workers to every corner of this vast country. We need ten times more iron detachments of the proletariat, class-conscious and boundlessly devoted to communism. Then we shall triumph over famine and unemployment. Then we shall make the revolution the real prelude to socialism, and then, too, we shall be in a position to conduct a victorious war of defense against the imperialist vultures.

May 22, 1918

N. Lenin