Paul Lafargue 1884

Peasant Proprietary in France

Source: To-Day, Jan-June 1884, pp.257-275;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In England, as on the Continent, social questions are forcing their way to the front and are pushing into the back ground all political quackery; as a solution of the problem presented by the land question both in England and Ireland, statesmen, economists, moralists, philosophers, and penny-a-liners of every creed, of high or low degree, while shuddering at the bare thought of nationalising the land without compensation, have not shrunk from proposing the creation of a class of peasant proprietors and have dared to point to France as the Eldorado of the Paysan Propriétaire.

Now, inasmuch as French matters are concerned, a Frenchman may perhaps be allowed to have his say and bring forward a few facts that bear upon the question.

In order to a clear view of the subject we must consider property in land, as we find it established in the social system of the bourgeoisie[1] not as an ideal form that always has existed and always will exist, but as a transitional form that, comparatively recent as it is, is already entering on a new phase. The latest historical theory propounded by Maurer and introduced into England by Sir Henry Maine, shows us how peasant proprietary was evolved out of communal proprietary and is itself the stepping-stone to the modern great estates. In this article, too short for such a subject, I shall endeavour, with a view to determining the value of the land-doctors’ panacea, to trace the origin of peasant proprietary in France and to give some notion of the social milieu in which it had existence and of its struggles and its sufferings when this social milieu changed and was converted into the present social system of the great machine industry and free trade.


The system of land tenure in feudal society may be considered as a kind of peasant ownership; the large estates of the church and of the nobles were portioned out in parcels of which the peasants were the hereditary owners or the life tenants, cultivating the soil much as it is cultivated down to our own times in the more backward parts of France. The obligations of these peasants, serfs as they were, were limited to some compulsory labour (corvée) and to certain redevances, whether in kind or in money. By the side of the great landholders there lived a numerous class of peasant proprietors holding their land upon feudal service to the lord of the manor and to the village community. This peasant property had come to be sub-divided so infinitesimally as to cause the despair of the agriculturists of the eighteenth century. “How can we expect,” exclaims Du Monceau, “to have artificial pastures in countries where the land is so broken up and sub-divided that most of the parcels have only a few perches in width (a perch is equal to 20 feet.) It costs as much time to turn the plough and to transport it from parcel to parcel as to plough the land.”[2] F. de Neufchâeau, President of the Senate, found the land in Burgundy “ sub-divided among the inhabitants; few are without some land ... It is so absurdly apportioned that a territory (finage) of 1250 acres is generally broken up into 500 or 600 parcels belonging to 50 or 60 individuals, some of whom own as many as 20 separate lots. This sub-division results partly, if not wholly, from the division of the land, on successions, between brothers and sisters, which cause acting throughout centuries has given an acute form to the complaint.”[3] In another passage he makes mention of a landowner who possessed 455 separate parcels in one commune. This disintegration of the land, the outcome of peasant ownership, renders all scientific agriculture impossible. It exists wherever small property prevails; in the Pays de Bray, situated on the borders of the departments of Seine Inferienre and Oise, 354,745 acres of agricultural land were, in 1880, divided into 172,361 lots belonging to 26,572 inhabitants. In la Meuse 170 proprietors owned 5,893 parcels.

The peasant proprietary met with in the north and centre of France in the eighteenth century, traces back its origin to the old village communities, then in the last stage of decay. In 1844 a peasant community of Haute Auvergne, the last of its kind, could show title deeds of property handed down from Karolingian times. The peasant of the eighteenth century, in addition to the bit of land he owned, enjoyed certain rights in common with the other members of the community to which he belonged, and it is these rights alone that enabled him to retain property in land and hold his own throughout so many centuries and such dire political feuds. The two most important of these rights were the right of pasturage on large commons and forest land, and the right of vaine pâture, the right, that is, of converting all arable land into common pasture.

The vaine pâture, now legally, if not as yet practically, wholly abolished in France, imposed a particular method of culture; arable lands were submitted to triennial rotation (wheat or rye, spring crops, fallow) to admit of the fields, after the gathering in of the crops, being thrown into one and converted into pasture-ground for the cattle of the village; the feudal lords “having equal rights to pasture with the labourers and other inhabitants.”[4] These rights were the mainstay of peasant proprietary. They enabled the peasant to have cattle and so provided him with milk, meat, wool and manure. But these rights and in particular that of the vaine pâture fettered the development of the large estates and stood in the way of all agricultural improvements. The land-owners and agricultural writers of the last century attacked it bitterly. “The right of vaine pâture,” says Ethis de Novéan, “infringes on the rights of property. Any estate burdened with this right becomes common property when the proprietor has removed his crops on the day assigned him. His property in it ceases from that moment, and is made over to the public.”[5] “There is no such thing as absolute property in le Berry. The owner of a wood sees his neighbour’s cattle break through the hedges. Any person that encloses his field encroaches on vested rights; the enclosure is destroyed again and again and the field is left open to plunder. A grazing ground laid out at the expense of one man will equally benefit his neighbour and he that sows clover, lucern or grass in a field of his own, that is held to be common property, must expect to get only just so much for his share as his neighbours may feel disposed to leave him.”[6]

From the first the rights of the peasant proprietor had been antagonistic to those of the feudal lord. In the Middle Ages this antagonism, existing all over Europe, broke out in the bloody peasant risings. In the last half of the 18th century this antagonism had once again taken an acute form and the hour had come for the abolition of the peasant rights and the transformation of feudal property. Manufactures had been developed throughout France, and division of labour had made the greatest progress. The industrial classes, concentrated in towns and no longer producing their own food, as heretofore, when every artisan possessed his bit of land, were dependent upon the agricultural classes.

New roads were opened up by land and water; the bulky agricultural products, stationary hitherto and consumed where grown, now began to be carried hither and thither, from the country to the towns, and from province to province, while their prices went up extraordinarily.[7]

It was necessary that agriculture to answer the requirements of the times should do away with the old methods of culture which, but slightly modified, continued identical with those described by Virgil and the Latin writers. But all radical change was out of the question so long as there stood in the way the rights of the peasant proprietor. These called for destruction, and the destruction of these rights was the work of the Revolution of 1789 — the revolution which, according to Louis Blanc, Michelet, Victor Hugo, and the legion of democrates vulgaires, was made for the peasant.

Encroachments on the property of the peasant communities had begun centuries before; indeed the property of the feudal lord was almost wholly made up of the spoils of the peasant. The bourgeois revolution of 1789, directed ostensibly against the landed aristocracy, in effect legalised all its plunders, and in the name of the bourgeois trinity, — Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, shamefully stripped the peasant of his rights. It decreed the division of the commons and the rights of enclosure, and prohibited the pasturing of cattle on other peoples’ land; thus dealing a death-blow to peasant proprietary. From the moment that the feudal and the peasant rights were abolished, property in land assumed the bourgeois form. If the feudal lord had rights, they were limited, and he had corresponding duties, whereas the bourgeois proprietor has unlimited rights and no duties at all. The abuse of these rights, conferred upon ignorant peasants and greedy speculators, has wrought ruin and desolation in the land; it has stripped the mountains of their forests, and has caused the rivers to overflow.[8] The bourgeois revolution in abolishing tithes and compulsory labour (re-established under the disguised and uglier form of Government taxes and the conscription), and in confiscating the lands of the clergy and nobility (bought up wholesale by land-jobbers and resold in small lots to the peasants with enormous profits) made believe that it established peasant proprietary, while in fact it cut away the ground from under it. We shall see how the economic forces of bourgeois society wrested the land from the clutches of the peasant, and flung him penniless among. the Proletariat of the towns.


In his Topographie du departement du Gers, 1803, C. Dralet writes: “A peasant proprietor lays out his property in such a way as to have pasture land for cattle, land for corn, wine, vegetables, and wood for fuel. He follows too closely the maxim of Columella: “He is a bad husbandman who buys. what he can get his land to supply him with.” Some 25 years ago I had occasion to see this maxim put in practice in a wine-growing district, le Bordelais. By the side of large properties, laid out as vineyards, were a number of small estates of 25 to 45 acres, owned by peasants or by bourgeois living in towns and employing metayers (peasants whose wages are a share in the produce) for the cultivation of their land. Irrespective of the size of the estate, the nature of the soil, the profits yielded by wine-growing, these diminutive properties were cut up into small plots, like the squares of a draught-board, for the production of corn, rye, hay, flax, and for wood-land that should supply vine poles, resin, hoops for casks, etc., etc. As wine growing was beginning to yield great profits, one would have thought that the peasant proprietors would have enlarged their vineyards. Not at all. They had no mind to part with the hard cash they possessed (after land their dearest thing in life), for the wheat they wanted for their bread, and the resin they required for their candles; so they left their tiny corn fields and their wee pine-woods intact. How absurd soever this mode of cultivating the land may appear from a commercial or scientific point of view, it is, nevertheless, the only rational one from the stand-point of the peasant proprietor. On no account whatever must he buy or sell in the open market where lurk his deadliest enemies; he is constrained to live on his own land and to find there all he wants. He must grow his corn, bake his bread, breed his sheep, and spin his wool himself; when forced to apply to others, say the weaver or the wheelwright, he must find such assistance close at hand and pay for it in kind and not in money — in corn or in field-labour, as the custom is down to our own days in the Indian village communities.

To these Indian communities we must turn if we would meet with true peasant ownership, but they too (like the Russian agrarian communities) are fast succumbing under the weight of Government taxation and English mis-rule.

In a bourgeois system of society, with its fully developed free trade in land-produce and its great industry, the only possible property in land is the great estate or the small holding of the market gardener. The life of the peasant proprietor, as it was cut out for him by the bourgeois revolution, is one of misery ended by ejectment for debt. Let him who doubts or denies this study the history of peasant proprietary in France.

Peasant ownership is thrice blessed; by the taxes of the State, the usury of the money-lender and the fees of the lawyer. How few are the peasants holding land free of mortgage! In 1875 such mortgages amounted to upwards of three millions of pounds sterling. The amount of debt on notes of hand is unknown, and the illegal interest of it quite unknowable. In the department of la Creuse, the country pre-eminently of small property, loans, according to the Comte d'Esterno, were contracted at 100 per cent.[9] In this wise the land is held in pawn by the money-lender. The peasant proprietor toils not only to maintain himself but to satisfy the claims of the usurer and the Government. Both Government and usurer have to be paid in money, and not as heretofore in kind. With the produce of his land the peasant must buy money. At all times in sorest need of cash, he is at the mercy of the corn-merchant whose exactions grow with the borrowers’ distress. Harvest time is the season for organised plunder on a large scale. “No sooner is the corn housed,” says the Comte d'Esterno, “than the corn-dealers, millers and others go their rounds, and call upon the cultivators who, sunk in debt, sued and threatened with eviction, are compelled to make the poorest bargains. So general are these evictions and so numerous are the cultivators involved in debt that the price of corn falls for some three or four months after the harvest. Later on it rises again, but with no beneficial result to either cultivator or consumer, but only to some useless middle-man.”[10]

To console him for the loss of the commons and the vaine pâture, the French peasant is now given over to the usury of the. money-lender and the sharp practice of the corn merchant. While the peasant had the benefit of the commons and the vaine pâture, he merely required to eke out his means of existence by tillage of the soil. Deprived of these advantages he is no longer able to keep cattle, and must make up for the profits formerly accruing therefrom by wage labour. So that compulsory labour, so emphatically proclaimed as abolished by the great bourgeois revolution, has been re-established under a new name for the benefit of the large landowners and their farmers, who now find the labourers they want more easily and more plentifully than prior to the revolution.

In the South of France the labour-market is held every Sunday morning under the portals of the churches, great and small proprietors meet there to make contracts of hire for so many days in the week. The peasant goes to church to transact business — not to hear mass. The religious feeling of the French peasant is one of the myths of Catholicism; superstition he has, and to spare, but no religion: the gods of his divinity are his pig and bit of land. But agricultural labour on the property of others proving insufficient to gain them a livelihood, the French peasants have had to supplement it by industrial labour. In Auvergne and in the south they have found employment in the plaiting of straw hats, in glove stitching and lace making; in the Cevennes, the departments round Lyons and in the North, in weaving and spinning.

All such work, executed at their own fire-side, was done to order for town merchants who supplied the raw material. This supplementary labour took also another form; the peasants migrated for a great part of the year and worked for wages at a distance from their homes. No sooner does the snow fall in the Pyrennees than the peasant leaves his mountains to labour in the vine-yards: the peasants of the Cevennes come down in the summer months before their harvest season to cut and thresh the corn in le Languedoc. “In the department of Orme from 9,000 to 10,000 men migrate annually either to practise some trade in Paris or to ply the surrounding country as mole-catchers, hawkers, etc.”[11]

La Marche et le Limousin supply large numbers of masons. The number of masons supplied by the department of la Creuse alone was estimated in 1856 at 50,000, the total population being 287,000, the contingent thus furnished re-presenting one-sixth or almost the totality of the male and valid population.[12] In the departments of the centre the peasants were accustomed to work in kilns, glassworks, etc.; in the mining districts of the Loire they worked in the mines and foundries. The country round Marseilles and Aix supplied the towns with the hands required for their soap and oil factories, the hard and unhealthy work in which was objected to by the workmen of the towns. I have not of course the slightest intention of invoking moral principles where economical phenomena are concerned, but I must state as a matter of fact that it is the male portion only of the population which migrates, and that it habitually brings back with it from the towns the filthiest diseases, which but for this migration would have remained unheard of in the country. And so it happens that small property, which is the basis on which rests the peasant family, cannot exist in a bourgeois society without introducing into the homes of the peasants the vices and diseases of civilisation. Throughout France, wherever peasant ownership is met with, one or other of the different forms of compulsory labour is its concomitant, rendered inevitable by the fiscal claims of the State, and the exactions of the money lender.

The industrial labour of the peasant proprietor has, however, been profoundly modified by the progress of modern machinery. Domestic labour is daily losing ground. Hand-spinning is altogether abolished; lace, with but few exceptions for the finest kind of work, is manufactured by machinery; as regards silk-weaving and the manufacture of velvets, the work for the most part is done in large work-shops; plain tissues and foulard silks being the only ones still woven in the country. The hand weaving of flax and cotton has almost wholly disappeared, and for woollen tissues the power-loom is everywhere replacing the hand-loom. Periodical peasant migration from the country no longer answers to the requirements of our modern great industry. The working machinery set up on a colossal scale represents an enormous capital and cannot be stopped at given times in the year to suit the convenience of the peasants who have their crops to look to. Every idle day in a factory is a day of heavy pecuniary loss, for the interest on the capital sunk in the machinery falls due whether the machines are set at work or not, and their deterioration is greatest during inaction. The industrial population must cease to be a nomad one; it must remain upon the spot, even when out of work, in order that at all times may be had a full supply of “hands,” liable to be wanted at any given moment for the working of the machines. In the mining and industrial districts the population is no longer a fluctuating one, coming and going at stated intervals; there is a settled population exclusively devoted to industrial labour and divorced from all agricultural pursuits.

The great change wrought in the supplementary labour of the peasants to some extent explains the rapid growth of urban agglomeration at the expense of the rural population. The following tables show the rate of progression during the last thirty years:

 Proportion of the Urban to the Rural Population for each 100 Inhabitants.
Urb. Pop.24.4225.5227.3128.8630.4631.1232.44
Rur. Pop.75.5874.4872.6971.1469.5468.8867.56

After having some thirty years ago formed three-fourths of the total population of France, the rural population in our day forms little more than two-thirds of it.

So long as the commons and his field supplied the peasant with everything that he required, it mattered little whether he applied spade labour to the land or whether he ploughed it with asses, cows or horses,[13]* it mattered little whether a bushel of corn cost him one day’s or a dozen day’s labour. All that he needed to make sure of was that the produce of his harvest would suffice to maintain himself and his family all the year round. But as soon as he is compelled to produce exchangeable commodities to buy money with, there is superadded to the three primordial blessings already his, a fourth blessing in the shape of the corn dealer. When, finally, the peasant carries his crops to market, he meets there a new enemy and then comes the tug of war. His bushel of corn competes with the bushel of corn of the great farmer; the price of sale is determined not by the peasant’s costs of production but by those of the great farmers, and victory is with him who grows the cheapest.

We have been thus far merely considering the process by which the peasant is cheated out of a portion of his earnings. People there are who still hug the illusion that evils such as these admit of remedy. Yet who shall control this economical fate; the struggle for low prices, the struggle between small and high farming? All things on the contrary tend to intensify the fierceness of the battle to be fought out between science, machinery and capital on the one hand and ignorance, routine and poverty on the other.

Capital is the sinews of high farming and poverty is the constitutional disease of peasant proprietary. And not money alone it is that the French peasant lacks, he lacks also the brains to apply the new processes of agriculture. Full of cunning as he is and able, as Balzac says, on any disputed point to out-Talleyrand all the Talleyrands of diplomacy, the French peasant is, for all that, narrow-minded, obtuse and routinier. Moreover he instinctively feels that to meddle with the established order of things is to indirectly attack his right of property. As a necessary consequence he opposes to the uttermost all new methods of culture, his natural distrust of which has been aggravated by his own experience of failure where such methods have been imperfectly applied. And when in spite of himself he has been driven to make use of foreign seeds, guano and chemical manures, his ignorance has caused him to fall so easy a prey to the fraud and quackery practised upon him by the trade that his dislike of innovations has become inveterate. Liebig said that the cultivator ought to have an “encyklopädische Bildung” whereas in point of fact the class of peasant proprietors is the most ignorant of the nation.

The inferiority of the peasant proprietors’ small farming as opposed to high farming is best shown by a comparison of the official tables of wheat production. From 1872 to 1878 the average production of the whole of France was only 15 hectolitres, 6 centilitres per hectare or about 17 bushels per acre.[14] The production of 31 departments out of the 87 departments of France was above this average: Seine, 28 hectolitres 81 centilitres. Seine et Oise, 23. 69; Nord, 23. 53; Oise, 21. 78; Seine et Marne, 21. 71; Pas de Calais, 21. 27; Aisne, 21. 16; Haut-Rhin, 19. 80; Loiret, 19. 72; Somme, 19. 45; Eure et Loire, 19. 13; Seine Inferieure, 18. 37; Marne, 18. 16; Loir et Cher, 17. 61; Eure, 17. 56; Rhone, 17. 50; Ardennes, 17. 49; Mayenne, 17. 24; Calvados, 17. 08; Allier, 16. 53; Doubs, 16. 48; Cotes-du-Nord, 16. 37; Loire Inferieure, 16. 23; Pyrénnées Orientales, 16. 16; Aube, 16. 03; Maine et Loire, 16. 60, &c. Now a glance at the map will show us that these 31 departments are for the most part situated in the N. E. where are found the great industrial centres. Here small property, except in the neighbourhood of towns, where market gardening is carried on, has generally disappeared, the metayers having been replaced by farmers as in England. If we read the list of the 56 departments which in corn crops are below the average, we shall find that they are wine-growing countries like the Gironde (14 hectolitres, 57 centilitres,) Herault (13 hectolitres, 99 centilitres,) Haute Garonne (13 hectolitres, 94 centilitres,) &c., where wheat growing is of little importance, or that they are countries of peasant proprietary like Corse (14 hectolitres, 26 centilitres,) Correze (13 hectolitres, 60 centilitres,) Creuse (12 hectolitres, 61 centilitres,) Basses Alpes (8 hectolitres, 7 centilitres,) &c.: of these last three departments the reports of the fire insurance companies state: “That only one out of every four houses is slate or tile-covered, the roofs generally being of wood or thatched with straw.”

In 1851, according to the official census, France had the misfortune to boast of a population of 7,846,000 landed proprietors. Of this number 3,000,000 paid no personal contributions on account of their acknowledged poverty and 600,000 paid contributions amounting to five centimes! (one half-penny.) There remained therefore 4,246,000 great or small landowners properly so called.

These 3,600,000 landowners paying no taxes or contributing the sum of five centimes are in the truest sense of the word rural proletaires. Their strip of land is but a chain to bind them to the country in order that the great landed proprietor may find labourers, when he wants them, for the tillage of his fields. Leonce de Lavergne who was fairly well acquainted with the condition of the agricultural labourer in France and in Great Britain, says: “Although the French labourer is frequently proprietor of the land and thus adds a little profit to his wages, he does not live as well as the English farm-labourer. He is not as well fed, not as well clothed, is less comfortably lodged; he eats more bread but it is generally made of rye with the addition of maize, buck-wheat and even chesnuts .... he rarely eats meat. Alas! I am acquainted with part of France where the people live on 70 centimes (7d.) a day.”[15]

The horrible disease — la pellagra — the disease of agricultural countries, that for the last century has decimated the field-labourers of Lombardy, at the terrible rate of 80 out of 1,000, has now likewise begun to ravage the richest countries of the South of France. In some parts of the Gironde there are found as many as 200 pellagrosi for every 6,000 inhabitants[16] most of whom are small landowners. La pellagra is the disease of persons overworked and underfed and fed on unwholesome food.

Now let us see what has become of the 4,246,000 land-owners existing in 1851. French official statistics are unique! While giving for each department the exact number of geese, ducks and capons it contains, they would seem to be drawn up with a view to mislead as to the true condition of property. “In the absence of official data that the Government alone can furnish,” writes B. Lavergne, “I shall describe what I have seen around me. As the causes are not local, as they spring from a common organisation, I fear that in writing the history of that part of the country in which I live, I shall write the history of the greater part of the country, if not of the country at large. I have been in a position to study five adjoining communes of the department of Tarn, having an area of 21,011 hectares and containing 8,311 inhabitants, These five communes contain 304 estates of which 197 were, 50 years ago, in the hands of peasant cultivators. At this day only 81 out of these 197 remain in the family of the old proprietors; 116 estates have been sold. Out of these 116 estates, 71 have been bought up by bourgeois who farm them, the remaining 45 have been sold to peasants and subdivided to infinity.”[17] Thus by a slow but sure process does property pass out of the peasant’s hands and go to swell the estates of the great landowner, while the land that remains in the possession of the peasant is so absurdly subdivided as to render the cultivation of it more and more laborious and unprofitable.

The process observed by B. Lavergne has been going on with varying degrees of intensity all over France, as can be demonstrated notwithstanding the intentional confusion of French statistics. In order that I may not be charged with making the figures say what I want them to say, I will take my facts from the Republique Française, the official organ of the late M. Gambetta, the professed friend of the French peasant. The philanthropic money-lenders of Paris, patronised by the opportunist patriot, being anxious to extend their speculations to the remotest rural districts, proposed to confer upon the peasants the blessing of agricultural banks and of the Credit Mobilier. To get at a knowledge of the number of small proprietors to whom credit was to be accorded they consulted the statistics and so found that in 1874 there existed in France 2,826,000 landowners offering guarantees entitling them to share in the benefit of the “Golden Shower.” — (La Republique Française, 21 Août, 1879.) So that from 1851 to 1874 the number of landowners properly so-called had dwindled from 4,246,000 to 2,826,000, a reduction of 1,420,000! This credit was to be graciously; if not gratuitously given in the name of the “Republique Democratique,” because, said the Republique Française, “everything that stands in the way of the extension of the class of peasant proprietors fetters the development of national wealth.” And what must be the upshot of this financial boon? To curb the peasants under the grinding domination of the great credit institutions of Paris and to accelerate the process, now slowly going on, of their expropriation; for with a view to granting this credit the money-lenders demand “the simplification and curtailment of the legal processes of ejectment.”[18]

It would be an error to believe that poverty and disastrous agricultural enterprise are the sole causes of this. diminution in the number of landed proprietors in France. “Many peasant proprietors,” wrote the Republique Française, “ stimulated by the hope of gain, better acquainted than heretofore with the centres of activity, have sold their lands and taken the road to the towns.” The peasant proprietor, grown a wiser, if a sadder man, has lost his love of land; he has become a bourgeois; he no longer hesitates between the industrial and financial profits that allure him and the dangers and difficulties of agricultural enterprise that ruin him. Instead of hoarding their half-crowns in queer money-boxes for the purchase of land, “all our small cultivators,” writes Viscomte d'Anthenaise, “ hurry off to the railway stations to invest their savings in railway shares or Government funds yielding 41/2 per cent. without risk or trouble, which money sunk in the soil would not give such interest.”[19]

The conclusion that must inevitably he drawn from the history of peasant property in France, is that a peasant proprietary — except under certain special conditions — can exist only in a feudal system of society, but that in the social system of the bourgeoisie it forms (save in the environs of towns) an anachronism that all the forces of capitalist production are tending to wipe away. Large landed proprietors and men of science await the event impatiently; the former because the destruction of small property will enable him to swell his acres; the latter in order that scientific agriculture may be more generally introduced. It is with a view to hurry on the inevitable event that many great proprietors and most professors of agriculture openly demand free trade in agricultural products. Nor do they mince matters. M. Hamon, a large landed proprietor in the Calvados, writes in the Journal d'Agriculture Pratique of 8th May, 1879: — “The intelligent cultivator, in good average circumstances, and having at his disposal the necessary capital, has nothing to fear from American competition . . . Small farmers cannot struggle with it, because they cannot produce as cheap, being unable to use agricultural machinery and to give the earth the manure that the crops require.” The Comte d'Esterno adds: “If some cultivators are ruined and forced to sell, we have the consolation of knowing that the instruments of national production have been taken out of unskilled hands and been put into stronger and more judicious ones.” And with those cultivators who fail to feel any joy in the beauty of a vigorous national production in other hands than their own, M. Bidarol, Professor of Agriculture, argues: “That in order to compete with American corn it is necessary to increase the national production, and to replace the scandalous crops of 10, 12, 14 hectolitres per hectare by crops of 30 and 35 hectolitres, like those of the Departement du Nord (Journal d'Agriculture Pratique, 7th August, 1879). “But,” retorts M. Lemoine, in the following number, “if we produced 30 hectolitres per hectare, we should have an average production of 200,000,000 hectolitres, and France requires for her own consumption only 100,000,000. After having found the means to grow, we should have to find the ways to sell.”[20]

Small property in France is driven into a corner, and all the moral and political twaddle in the world will not avail to help it out thereof. For, note the dilemma: the competition of the great landowners of France and of the United States compels the peasant proprietor, in the face of overwhelming difficulties, to improve his method of culture; by improving these he increases the national production, swamps the market, and intensifies the agricultural competition.

The philanthropists who, in utter disregard of economical phenomena, propose to bridge over the gulf that yawns between the labouring and the propertied classes by a class of small proprietors that shall, in times of revolution, form a bulwark for the ruling classes, give evidence of very good intentions and of much kind solicitude for the interests of their superiors, but at the same time lay bare their ignorance and incapacity to solve the problem. What they propose to do, although they know it not, would be to raise up against the landlords their worst of enemies. Through the length and breadth of France the peasant proprietor nurses an inveterate hatred against the large landed proprietor and his farmers: they are the men that undersell his products.

Looking round on the broad acres of the great landowner, he points to the small farms that have one by one been sucked into the hungry maw of the great property, and he foresees the time when his own miserable patch of ground shall be swallowed up in its turn! The peasant was a Bonapartist in the past because Napoleon, to him, symbolised the revolution that had crushed the aristocracy and clergy; to-day he is a Republican because the great landowners are Bonapartists, Legitimists, Orleanists, and priest-ridden.

Socialist propaganda is barely beginning to reach our peasants, but once it shall have penetrated into their homes, in the perplexed mind of the peasant proprietor, harassed by economical difficulties, and embittered by his hatred of the great landowner, the Socialist, like the revolutionist of old, will find a kindly soil, made ready to his hand, wherein to sow the seeds of communism.

Paul Lafargue.


1. In the following pages I shall have to use the word bourgeoisie to characterise the social system that superseded feudal society.

This word, so familiar on the continent, has no English equivalent, notwithstanding that, since the repeal of the corn-laws, middle-class rule, the economical and political rule, that is, of manufacturers, traders and money-lenders has been paramount in England.

2. Duhamel du Monceau, Elements d'agriculture 1762. Vol. II.

3. F. de Neufchateau. Voyage agronomique dans la senatorerie de Dijon, 1806.

4. La Poix de Freminville. Traité géneral de gouvernement des biens des communautés, 1760.

5. E. de Novéan. Mémoire sur in vaine pâture, couronné par 1'academie de Besancon et publié dans la Gazette du commerce et des Finances de 1767.

6. Rapport sur les causes de la langueur du Berry, presenté a 1'assemblée provinciale du Berry, tenue à Bourges en 1783.

7. As a striking example I give the following extract: “The facilitating of the exportation of corn naturally led to a rise of prices. The liberty of export, made general in 1764, gave a value to corn that it could not have in the absence of markets and buyers.”

In 1763 the price of the setier of corn was 12 livres 12 sous.
In 1765 the price of the setier of corn was 15 livres 4 sous.
In 1763 the price of the setier of corn was 20 livres 7 sous.

Tableau de la Province de Tourraine de 1762 à1766, publié d'apres le manuscript en 1863.

8. In the French Alps, stripped of their forests since the Revolution, there remain 900,000 acres that require re-planting; “The estimate of costs for the protection of the town of Grenoble against inundation amounts to millions.” Rapport de M. Roux, sous-inspector des eaux et forets à Grenobles. 1880.

9. Comte d'Esterno. De la crise agricole et son remède, 1866.

10. Comte d'Esterno. De la crise agricole et son remède, 1860.

11. Baudrillart, Etude economique des populations agricoles en Normandie, 1880.

12. Leonce de Lavergne, L'agriculture et la population, 1857.

13. In the neighbourhood of Arles, for the last thirty years, mules have replaced oxen for the purpose of ploughing; asses had previously been employed in many parts of the country.” M. Paris, Economie rurale de l'arrondissement de Tarascon, 1809.

14. The hectare is equal to two acres and a half; the hectolitre to three bushels less one fifth of a bushel.

15. Leonce de Lavergne. Economie rurale de l'Angleterre, de l'Ecosse et de l'Irlande, 1852.

16. La Pellagra in Italia Annali di Agricultura. Published by the minister of Agriculture and Commerce. Rome, 1880.

17. Lavergne. L'Enquête — les Souffrances de l'Agriculture. 1866.

18. Lettre de M. Damourette, directeur de la Banque de France, publié dans le Journal d'Agriculture pratique du 20 Mars, 1879.

19. Journal d’ Agriculture Pratique, 12 Juin, 1879.

20. Contrary to the belief of the benighted Malthusians, the dread of the producer in our capitalist society is not a dearth of the means of consumption, but a dearth of consumers.