Alexander Herzen believed that any socialist revolution in Russia would have to be instigated by the peasantry. According to Edward Acton, the author of Alexander Herzen and the Role of the Intellectual Revolutionary (1979): "Nineteenth-century Russia was overwhelmingly a peasant society, and it was to the peasantry that Herzen looked for revolutionary upheaval and socialist construction. Central to his vision was the existence of the Russian peasant commune. In most parts of the empire the peasantry lived in small village communes where the land was owned by the commune and was periodically redistributed among individual households along egalitarian lines. In this he saw the embryo of a socialist society. If the economic burdens of serfdom and state taxation were to be removed, and the land of the nobility made over to the communes, they would develop into flourishing socialist cells."
Herzen's ideas had a significant influence on intellectuals and attempts were made to form a socialist peasant party. In 1896 the Northern Union of Socialist Revolutionaries was formed. This was followed by other such groups in other parts of Russia. In 1901, some of the leading figures in these groups, including Catherine Breshkovskaya, Victor Chernov, Gregory Gershuni, Nikolai Avksentiev, Alexander Kerensky and Evno Azef, founded the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (SR).
The main policy of the SR was the confiscation of all land. This would then be distributed among the peasants according to need. The party was also in favour of the establishment of a democratically elected constituent assembly and a maximum 8-hour day for factory workers.
Victor Chernov edited the SR journal, Revolutionary Russia, where he argued against Marxists who claimed that the peasants were a totally reactionary social class. George Buchanan claimed: "Chernov was a man of strong character and considerable ability. He belonged to the advanced wing of the SR party, and advocated the immediate nationalization of the land and the division among the peasants awaiting the decision of the Consistent Assembly. He was generally regarded as dangerous and untrustworthy."
The SR, was influenced by the tactics used by the People's Will and had a terrorist wing, the SR Combat Organization. Membership of this group was secret and independent of the rest of the party. Gregory Gershuni, became its head and was responsible for planning the assassination of the Minister of the Interior, Dmitry Sipyagin. The following year he arranged the assassination of N. M. Bogdanovich, the Governor of Ufa. Gershuni was unaware that his deputy, Evno Azef, was in the pay of the Okhrana. In 1904 Azef secretly provided the secret police with the information needed to arrest and try Gershuni with terrorism.
Eugen Levine was one of those who joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party. His wife, Rosa Levine-Meyer, the author of Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (1973) pointed out: "He (Levine) received his first revolutionary ideas from the Social Revolutionaries whose programme included acts of individual terror. They believed that by assassinating certain dignitaries of state, above all the Czar, they could shatter the foundation of the existing system and bring about socialism. This programme called for a great deal of individual gallantry and self-sacrifice. It was only too natural that the young and inexperienced Levine should be fascinated by its heroic aspects. To correct injustice, to give his life for the oppressed - had this not been his dream since childhood? He became an enthusiastic member of that party."
After Gershuni's arrest Evno Azef became the new leader of the SR Combat Organization and organized the assassination of Vyacheslav Plehve in 1904 and Father Gregory Gapon in 1906. At the same time he was receiving 1,000 rubles a month from the Okhrana. Several members of the police leaked information to the leadership of the SR about the undercover activities of Azef. However, they refused to believe the stories and assumed the secret service was trying to undermine the success of the terrorist unit.
The SR played an important role during the 1905 Revolution. It led a rising in support of the Potemkin Mutiny and Nikolai Avksentiev was one of the main leaders of the St Petersburg Soviet. Although the Socialist Revolutionaries decided to boycott the Duma elections in 1905, some members stood as Trudovik (Labour) candidates. In February, 1907, the SR stood won 34 seats while the Trudovik had over 100 successful candidates.
The Socialist Revolutionaries continued to infiltrated by agents employed by Okhrana. Between 1911 and 1914, Dmitri Bogrov supplied information about the party. However, in what appeared to be an act of remorse, Bogrov entered the Kiev Opera House on 1st September, 1911, and assassinated the Minister of the Interior, Peter Stolypin.
After the February Revolution, a former member of the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, Alexander Kerensky, was appointed as Minister of Justice. Later, Victor Chernov entered the cabinet as Minister of Agriculture and Kerensky became prime minister.
The First Congress of Soviets that was held in June, 1917, had 1,090 delegates representing more than 400 different soviets. Of these, 285 were Socialist Revolutionaries, 248 Mensheviks and 105 Bolsheviks. Soon afterwards the SRs split between those who supported the Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks who favoured a communist revolution. Those like Maria Spirdonova and Mikhail Kalinin who supported revolution became known as Left Socialist Revolutionists.
The party strongly opposed the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution. In the elections held for the Constituent Assembly in November, 1917, the SR won 20,900,000 votes (58 per cent), whereas the Bolsheviks won only 9,023,963 votes (25 per cent).
In 1918 the Soviet government closed down the Constituent Assembly and banned the SR and other anti-Bolshevik parties. Some SRs now resorted to acts of terrorism. On 30th August, 1918, Vladimir Lenin was shot by Dora Kaplan and soon afterwards Moisei Uritsky, Commissar for Internal Affairs in the Northern Region, was assassinated by another supporter of the SR.