Forests and the Revolution

23 March, 2021

forests russian revolution

In this article…

Forests, capital and class struggle

Last Sunday was the International Day of Forests one of those absurd celebrations of the United Nations to promote international programs with empty messages. The press simply uses it as an excuse to sell tourist trips or to proudly present forests as part of the national capital.

Environmentalists seem to understand slightly more when they introduce biodiversity into the discussion, but in reality their vision pits Humanity and Nature against each other because they are incapable of thinking of a Humanity emancipated from capitalism. Some environmental NGOs go so far in internalizing such alienation that they propose to divide the planet in two: a half for forests and wild nature in general, the other half… for capitalism.

But the proletariat carries in its movement and in its program the promise of a very different relationship with Nature. Many decades before the emergence of environmentalism, the first extensive experience of workers’ power, the Russian Revolution, featured a strong forestry policy and revolutionary plans for wilderness. The soviets discovered from the first moment, however, that Nature is not a minor battlefield in the class struggle.

Proletariat and peasantry during the Russian Revolution

The hammer and sickle, symbol of the alliance between workers and peasants in the October revolution
The hammer and sickle, symbol of the alliance between workers and peasants in the October revolution

Let’s start by remembering the basics: what the Russian Revolution was. In 1917 the development of workers’ struggles against the war gave rise to a process of massive class organization of the workers parallel to a peasant revolution in rural areas. In March 1917, February according to the Russian calendar of the time, the tsarist state apparatus collapsed. A bourgeois republic was proclaimed.

However, the de facto situation is that of a dual power: on the one hand a provisional government representing the interests of the propertied classes, continuing the war. On the other, the worker and peasant soviets. The workers’ insurrection of November (the Red October) will overthrow the provisional government and hand over power to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, i.e., the body which represented the alliance and contradictions between the proletariat and the peasantry… the massive force of the Russian petty bourgeoisie.

The peasants represented the vast majority of the Russian population at the time. Although there was a small layer of day laborers and farmhands, generally aligned with the positions of the proletariat in the cities, for the most part peasants were small landowners who were products of liberation from serfdom and remained in subsistence production while not exploiting labor power. They were hungry for land and their revolution was nothing other than the demand for an agrarian reform that would allow them to reach a sufficient scale to get out of misery… scale that under capitalism meant nothing other than taking the leap to exploit workers.

The peasantry also included the so-called middle peasants and the large landowners, the kulaks, who represented the interests of agrarian capitalism and who were also the connection between the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie of the cities.

The revolutionary movement of the workers, with the Bolsheviks at its head, understood that the solution to the agrarian question was not to distribute land, since it could only end in the concentration of property and the development of the power of the kulaks. However, in October they renounced their agrarian program and handed over the design of agrarian policy to the left SRs, the party of the peasant revolution. This is the worker-peasant alliance that would be symbolized by the (peasant) sickle and the (proletarian) hammer.

From then on, the relationship between peasantry and proletariat could only be contradictory. The Russian proletariat expects from the extension of the World Revolution a change in the overall correlation of forces between classes within Russia itself… and from the inevitable experience of land concentration that at least a part of the poor peasantry will be placed under the political impulse of the Revolution represented in the countryside by the day laborers. The sword of Damocles of a peasant insurrection against the soviets will hang over the whole revolutionary period.

Forests and the class struggle

Firefighting in the forest. Poster from 1918
The fight against forest fires. 1918 poster

The new agrarian holdings that the peasantry were taking over lacked prior capitalization. Spontaneously throughout the country, but especially in European Russia, peasants initiated massive clear-cutting to expand their new holdings and to sell timber and resources with which to finance their own development.

But if the workers’ leadership of the soviets was, for tactical reasons, in favor of greenlighting and legalizing the land allotments that were taking place, it was certainly not in favor of handing over sovereignty and ownership of the territory and its resources to the local peasant soviets. The forests thus became a permanent bone of contention between the workers’ and peasants’ programs. And in the same decree on the land to whom the administration of the forests belongs remained on hold pending further development.

This would not come until May 1918, between two key moments in the relationship between Bolsheviks and left SRs, or, in other words, between the political expressions of the workers’ and peasants’ revolutions. In March of that year the left SRs, who did not accept the conditions imposed by Germany in the Brest-Litovsk peace, left the government. In July, on the eve of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, they carried out an attack against Mirbach, the German ambassador, as they would later do against Lenin. The attack, ordered by the left-wing SR Central Committee, will lead to the illegalization of the party.

At the Fifth Congress it would become clear that the reason for the break went beyond the conditions of peace with Germany. At the heart of the split were the Committees of Day Laborers and Poor Peasants spurred by the Bolsheviks…and with them the Forestry Law enacted in May. The SRs revolted in the first place against the attempt of the committees to operate expropriated farms by means of labor cooperatives and other formulas of worker operation when there were in the same regions peasants hungry for land. And secondly against their efforts to prevent the ransacking of the forests with the new Soviet basic law in hand.

The basic law on forests

The contradictory alliance between workers and peasants that was the key to October, had in the forest a zone of conflict.
The contradictory alliance between workers and peasants that was the key to October, had in the forest a zone of conflict.

The principles of the Basic Law on Forests can be understood as the forestry program of the proletariat in the Russian Revolution. The law opens by declaring the forests the common property of the soviet republic and asserts equal forestry rights for all. In other words, it begins with an assertion of centralism versus local sovereignty and the right of the agrarian petty bourgeoisie to exploit them unchecked.

In fact, the law established two types of forests: exploitable and protected. Protected forests became forbidden territories for productive use. The reasons contemplated for protecting a forest – and most forests would become protected – included purely environmental ones – to avoid erosion or unwanted weather transformation – but also two new categories: aesthetic-cultural ones and the protection of natural monuments.

With respect to exploitable forests the approach to the forest was from the point of view of the generic needs of the population as a whole – that is, the needs of consumption, not those of capitalization of small landowners. At the time and in the context of the incipient civil war that meant fundamentally access to firewood.

This was in the months when Lenin was calling on the urban proletariat to organize into large consumer cooperatives to self-determine their basic needs under the slogan socialism is a big cooperative. The law fit this purpose by mandating the establishment of global consumption needs of the entire population and creating a central administration that would census resources and organize production under scientific principles that would ensure its sustainability.

Forests and landscapes as “natural monuments”

Astrakhan Zapovednik
Astrakhan Zapovednik

The emphasis on introducing scientific criteria into production – which we already saw in areas such as clothing or food – was understood as being oriented above all toward what today would be called sustainability. It included the constant regeneration of the native species pool, fire and pest prevention and control. And this in turn must be placed in the framework of the attempt to overcome the fragmentation of the sciences. Just as was happening between psychology, neurology and pedagogy, the revolution gave way to the first attempts to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge about nature.

It is this framework of expectations and principles in which to understand the function of the Natural Monuments instituted by law. The organizational model was given by the activity of the Commissariat of Instruction headed by Lunacharsky at that time. Natalia Sedova, who was in charge of the protection of historical and artistic monuments and treasures, had not limited herself to preservation and classification. She had turned the endeavor into the basis for the first historical laboratories and the first museums aimed at the education of the great peasant and working-class masses.

Natural Monuments, the zapovédnik created by the basic law on forests are today simply associated with protected areas or natural parks. At the time they were called living laboratories. And this difference is very important, because despite what the SRs criticized at the time, this was not about separating the protected forest from people and turning it into a sacred area, untouchable and separate from human life, but quite the opposite.

The forest and protected areas were actually research spaces – the first to serve such a function – immersive schools in the style of interpretation centers, and places for aesthetic and artistic reflection. All at the same time… and despite the framework in which the war was engulfing the territory controlled by the soviets.

Was the revolutionary forest the workers’ forest?

When we tell these things it is usual for a quibble to arise. Did the workers share this Marxist vision or was it a leadership thing?

An illustrative story is that of the first zapovednik. Let us place ourselves in Astrakhan, besieged by the brutal White army in 1919. The local workers’ soviet had seized power in 1917 in a pitched battle against the Cossacks, who owned most of the land in the region. In 1918 the city, encircled from the first moment of the civil war, had barely managed to keep up communications with the rest of the soviets and the Red Army that was organized under Trotsky’s commissariat.

And yet, thinking of the day after the war, they sent a delegation to Moscow to request the declaration of the Volga delta as the first zapovednik under strict legislation that would prevent the extinction of sturgeons and the destruction of forests in the face of the Cossacks’ insatiable hunger for land, water, timber, firewood, game and catch. From 1921 onwards a battery of laws develops from the Astrakhan experience and the Natural Monuments, creating the first massive network of protected areas in Europe.

The NEP reaches the forest

We undoubtedly owe the survival of the Volga Delta, today a biosphere reserve, to the Astrakhan workers. But the same fate did not befall much of the forests of European Russia.

By the end of the civil war, the country was devastated and starvation was rampant. The greatest fear of the soviets and the communist party was a resurgent peasant insurrection. And the forests remained a permanent source of conflict. It was necessary to give ground and appease the situation. The requisitions were put to an end and the New Economic Policy (NEP) defined by Lenin as a state capitalism under conditions of dictatorship of the proletariat. And it was under its guidelines – empowering the peasantry and the kulaks – that a new forest code was drawn up in 1923.

Under the new legal framework a distinction is made between forests of local importance – which are handed over to the peasant soviets – and those of state importance, whose control remains in the hands of the state and within which Natural Monuments are incorporated. But when a census of the forests is made it is discovered that 75% of the forests that were intended to be transferred to the peasants had already been destroyed by the peasants and turned into bushes and swamps.

The forests thus reflected the Pyrrhic victory in the civil war. The zapovedniks and much of the forests in less densely populated areas had been spared, but the European forests were seriously damaged, many would now be irretrievable.

The peasantry was now aspiring to get a bigger piece of the forest and to freely over-exploit it by exporting hardwoods directly to European countries. The NEP was to yield hopelessly in the first part. But Lenin will be opposed to giving the opportunity to the agrarian petty bourgeoisie to establish direct relations with the European bourgeoisie. To do so, he would have to confront and obtain the dismissal of Stalin, who for the first time occupied the post of secretary of the Council of People’s Commissars. The counterrevolution was beginning to show a very different face from that of the white army… but that is another story.