The Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs or ‘Esers’) was a Russian revolutionary party formed in 1902. They were, for many years, Russia’s largest political party. The SRs remained active through to the Russian Civil War when many joined the White movement. The SRs were socialists but not Marxists. They drew on the Narodniki or populist revolutionary traditions, embracing Russia’s peasants as the obvious source of revolution and, where necessary, using violence and terrorism. They would play a significant role in the political development of Russia, particularly in 1905.
The SRs were formed in Kharkiv in 1902 from a coalition of populist groups. Before long, they had become the largest political organisation in Russia.
As its name suggests, the party was explicitly revolutionary. It called for the removal of the tsarist government – or, at the very least, radical reforms.
The agenda of the Socialist-Revolutionaries lacked the complicated political philosophy of Marxism, nor was it particularly interested in world revolution. Instead, the SRs platform was chiefly concerned with Russia and its people, particularly the peasantry.
As mentioned, the SRs were socialists rather than Marxists, though they did acknowledge and accept some of Marx’s theories. The party came to develop its own policy of land reform often referred to as ‘agrarian socialism’.
In summary, the SRs called for ‘land socialisation’ – the confiscation of large landholdings, especially those of Russia’s royals and nobility, and the equitable redistribution of this land to the ordinary people.
This focus on land reform, along with their simpler philosophy and clearer objectives, allowed the SRs to become the most popular political party in Russia.
Terrorism and assassinations
In the first years of the 1900s, SR activity was largely confined to anti-government violence and terrorism. During this period, SR agents engaged in more than 2000 political assassinations.
Among the victims of SR terrorists were the hated police chief Vyacheslev von Plehve (July 1904) and the tsar’s brother-in-law, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (February 1905). These murders attracted public attention but also severe repression from the tsarist police.
The 1905 Revolution produced changes in the SRs, their party structure and their agenda. The leadership of the party became more moderate and the assassins and terrorists were pushed to the party’s fringes. Party leaders suspended all terrorist activity after the publication of the October Manifesto.
As a consequence of this moderation, the SRs began to receive support from the middle classes and trade unions. The party opted to boycott the first State Duma in 1906, despite having 34 of its members elected as deputies. They participated in the second Duma in 1907 but boycotted the third and fourth Dumas, a protest against Pytor Stolypin’s rigging of elections.
Divisions and factionalism
The size of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party should have been its strength. Instead, it became a weakness by encouraging factionalism and disunity.
With a large membership came considerable diversity of opinions and positions. As a consequence, the SRs struggled with party unity and cohesion. Factions in the party debated and bickered over a number of issues, particularly support for the Duma, the war effort and the Provisional Government.
Alexander Kerensky, later to become the first socialist minister in the Provisional Government and Russian prime minister, belonged to the Trudoviks, another SR faction.
After 1905, these fractures widened further, chiefly over disagreements about Russia’s war policy. By late 1917, the party was irrevocably split. Despite this schism, the SRs retained peasant support and won a small majority in the Constituent Assembly elections of November 1917.
A historian’s view
“The Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party is one of the losers of history. As a result of the October Revolution of 1917, it was driven from power by the Bolsheviks and soon banned. The party leaders were degraded to ‘yesterday’s people’ and had to emigrate… Nevertheless, the downfall of the SRs should not obscure the great importance of this party in the Russian revolutionary movement.”
1. The Socialist-Revolutionaries or SRs were a non-Marxist socialist party. This party was formed in Kharkov in 1902 as a coalition of disparate populist groups.
2. Unlike Marxists, the SRs saw Russia’s peasants as a source of revolutionary energy and sentiment. Their primary policies were the overthrow of tsarism and sweeping land reform.
3. In its first years, the Socialist-Revolutionaries were best known for their radicalism and violence. SR extremists carried out numerous politically motivated assassinations.
4. The party became more moderate during the 1905 Revolution, acquired more middle-class support and fielded candidates for the Duma and the Constituent Assembly.
5. The vast size of the Socialist-Revolutionary movement meant that it was prone to division and factionalism, particularly over critical issues such as World War I.