Social Revolutionaries (SRs)

photo of Viktor Mikhaylovich Chernov
Viktor Mikhaylovich Chernov, founder of the Social Revolutionary Party. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Social Revolutionaries were socialists in a pre-Bolshevik Russia who drew on greater rural support than more Marx-derived socialists ever managed and were a major political force until they were outmaneuvered in the revolutions of 1917, at which point they vanish as a notable group.

Origins of the Social Revolutionaries

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, some of the remaining Populist revolutionaries looked at the great growth in Russian industry and decided that the urban workforce were ripe for conversion to revolutionary ideas, a contrast to the previous (and failed) Populist attempts to convert the peasants.

Consequently, the Populists agitated among workers, and found a receptive audience for their socialist ideas, as did many other branches of socialist (and there were quite a few, including more Marxist ones).

The Dominance of the Left SRs

In 1901 Victor Chernov, hoping to reshape Populism into a group with a concrete base of support (a realistic assessment of what would be needed during a revolution, such as happened in 1917), founded the Social Revolutionary Party, or the SRs. However, from the start, the party was essentially split into two groups: the Left Social Revolutionaries, who wanted to force political and social change through direct action like terrorism, and the Right Social Revolutionaries, who were moderate and believed in a more peaceful campaign, including collaborating with other groups. From 1901 – 05 the Left was in the ascendance, killing over two thousand people: a major campaign, but one which had no political effect other than bringing the government's anger down upon them.

The Dominance of the Right SRs

When the revolution of 1905 led to the legalization of political parties, the Right SRs grew in power, and their moderate views led to growing support from peasants, trade unions, and the middle class. In 1906, the SRs committed to a Revolutionary Socialism with the major aim of returning land from big holders to the peasants.

This led to great popularity in rural areas, and the breakthrough in peasant support that their forerunner’s the Populists could only have dreamed of. The SRs consequently looked more towards the peasants than other Marxist Socialist groups in Russia, who focused on urban workers.

However, factions emerged, and the party became a blanket name for a number of different groups rather than a unified force, which was to cost them dearly. While the SRs were the most popular political party in Russia until they were banned by the Bolsheviks, thanks to their huge support from the peasants, they were outmaneuvered in the revolutions of 1917. Despite polling 40% compared to the Bolshevik’s 25% in the election which followed the October Revolution, they were crushed by the Bolsheviks, in no small part to the fact they were a loose, divided grouping, whereas the Bolsheviks, while lucky chance takers, had a tighter control. In some ways, Chernov's hope of a solid base was never realized enough for the Social Revolutionaries to survive the chaos of the revolutions, and they could not hold on.