Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


Chapter III. The Landowners’ Transition from Corvée to Capitalist Economy

II. The Combination of the Corvée and
the Capitalist Systems of Economy

The Corvée system of economy was undermined by the abolition of serfdom. All the main foundations of this system were undermined: natural economy, the self-contained and the self-sufficient character of the landed estate, the close connection between its various constituents, and the landlord’s power over the peasants. The peasant’s farm was separated from that of the landlord; the peasant was to buy back his land and become the full owner of it; the landlord, to adopt the capitalist system of farming, which, as has just been observed, has a diametrically opposite basis. But such a transition to a totally different system could not, of course, take place at once, and for two different reasons. First, the conditions required for capitalist production did not yet exist. A class of people was required who were accustomed to work for hire; the peasants’ implements had to be replaced by those of the landlord; agriculture had to be organised on the same lines as any other commercial and industrial enterprise and not as the business of the lord. All these conditions could only take shape gradually, and the attempts of some landlords, immediately after the Reform, to import machinery and even workers from abroad could not but end in a fiasco. The other reason why the transition to the capitalist conduct of affairs was not possible at once was that the old Corvée system of economy had been undermined, but not yet completely destroyed. The peasants’ farms were not entirely separated from those of the landlords, for the latter retained possession of very essential parts of the peasants’ allotments: the “cut-off lands,”[5] the woods, meadows, watering places, pastures, etc. Without these lands (or easement rights) the peasants were absolutely unable to carry on independent farming, so that the landlords were able to continue the old system of economy in the form of labour-service. The possibility of exercising “other than economic pressure” also remained in the shape of the peasants’ temporarily-bound status,[6] collective responsibility, corporal punishment, forced labour on public works, etc.

Thus, capitalist economy could not emerge at once, and Corvée economy could not disappear at once. The only possible system of economy was, accordingly, a transitional one, a system combining the features of both the Corvée and the capitalist systems. And indeed, the post-Reform system of farming practised by the landlords bears precisely these features. With all the endless variety of forms characteristic of a transitional epoch, the economic organisation of contemporary landlord farming amounts to two main systems, in the most varied combinations – the labour-service[1] system and the capitalist system. The first consists in the landlord’s land being cultivated with the implements of the neighbouring peasants, the form of payment not altering the essential nature of this system (whether payment is in money, as in the case of job-hire, or in produce, as in the case of half-cropping, or in land or grounds, as in the case of labour-service in the narrow sense of the term). This is a direct survival of Corvée economy,[2] and the economic characterisation of the latter, given above, is applicable almost entirely to the labour-service system (the only exception being that in one of the forms of the labour-service system one of the conditions of Corvée economy disappears, namely, under job-hire, where labour instead of being paid in kind is paid in money). The capitalist farming system consists of the hire of workers (annual, seasonal, day, etc.) who till the land with the owner’s implements. The systems mentioned are actually interwoven in the most varied and fantastic fashion: on a mass of landlord estates there is a combination of the two systems, which are applied to different farming operations.[3] It is quite natural that the combination of such dissimilar and even opposite systems of economy leads in practice to a whole number of most profound and complicated conflicts and contradictions, and that the pressure of these contradictions results in a number of the farmers going bankrupt, etc. All these are phenomena characteristic of every transitional period.

If we raise the question as to the relative incidence of the two systems, we shall have to say, first of all, that no precise statistics are available on the matter, and it is not likely that they could be collected: that would require a registration not only of all estates, but of all economic operations performed on all the estates. Only approximate data are available, in the shape of general descriptions of individual localities as to the predominance of one or another system. Data of this kind are given in a summarised form for the whole of Russia in the above-mentioned publication of the Department of Agriculture, Hired Labour, etc. On the basis of these data, Mr. Annensky has drawn up a very striking chart showing the incidence of these systems (The Influence of Harvests, etc.,[7] I, 170). Let us summarise these data in a table, and supplement them with figures on the cultivated area on private owners’ lands in 1883-1887 (according to Statistics of the Russian Empire, IV. The average harvest in European Russia in the five years 1883 1887. St. Petersburg, 1888).[4]

Average harvest in European Russia in five years 1883-1887.

Thus, although the labour-service system predominates in the purely Russian gubernias, the capitalist system of landlord farming must be considered the predominant one at present in European Russia as a whole. Moreover, our table gives a far from complete picture of this predominance, for Group I of the gubernias includes some in which the labour-service system is not applied at all (the Baltic gubernias, for example), whereas Group III includes not a single gubernia, and in all probability not a single farmed estate in which the capitalist system is not applied at least in part. Here is an illustration of this based on Zemstvo statistics (Raspopin; “Private-Landowner Farming in Russia According to Zemstvo Statistics,” in Yuridichesky Vestnik [Legal Messenger ], 1887, Nos. 11-12. No. 12, p. 634):

Estates hiring labourers and farm labourers.

Lastly, it must be observed that sometimes the labour-service system passes into the capitalist system and merges with it to such an extent that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. For example, a peasant rents a plot of land, undertaking in return to perform a definite number of days’ work (a practice which, as we know, is most widespread; see examples in the next section). How are we to draw a line of demarcation between such a “peasant” and the West-European or Ostsee “farm labourer” who receives a plot of land on undertaking to work a definite number of days? Life creates forms that unite in themselves with remarkable gradualness systems of economy whose basic features constitute opposites. It becomes impossible to say where “labour-service” ends and where “capitalism” begins.

Having established the fundamental fact that the whole variety of forms of contemporary landlord farming amounts to two systems – the labour-service and the capitalist systems, in various combinations, we shall now proceed to give an economic description of the two systems and determine which of them is eliminating the other under the influence of the whole course of economic evolution.


[1] We are now replacing the term “Corvée” by the term “labour-service” since the latter expression corresponds in greater measure to post-Reform relations and is by now generally accepted in our literature.—Lenin

[2] Here is a particularly striking example: “In the south of Yelets Uyezd (Orel Gubernia),” writes a correspondent of the Department of Agriculture, “on the big landlords’ farms, side by side with cultivation with the aid of annual labourers, a considerable part of the land is tilled by peasants in return for land leased to them. The ex-serfs continue to rent land from their former landlords, and in return till their land Such villages continue to bear the name of ‘Corvée’ of such-and-such a landlord” (S. A. Korolenko, Hired Labour, etc, p. 118) Here is one more example: “On my farm,” writes another landlord, “all the work is done by my former peasants (8 villages with approximately 600 persons); in return for this they get the use of pastures for their cattle (from 2,000 to 2,500 dess.); except that seasonal workers do the first ploughing and sow with seed drills” (ibid., p. 325. From Kaluga Uyezd)—Lenin

[3] “Most of the estates are managed in the following way: part, although a very small part, of the land is cultivated by the owners with their own implements, with the aid of labourers hired by the year” and other “workers, but all the rest of the land is leased to peasants for cultivation either on a half-crop basis” or in return for land, or for money (Hired Labour, ibid., 96). . . . “On the majority of estates simultaneous resort is made to nearly all, or at any rate many, forms of hire” (i.e., methods of “providing the farm with man power”). Agriculture and Forestry in Russia published by the Department of Agriculture for the Chicago Exhibition, St. Petersburg, 1893, p. 79.—Lenin

[4] Of the 50 gubernias of European Russia the following are excluded: Archangel, Vologda, Olonets, Vyatka, Perm, Orenburg and Astrakhan. In these gubernias the area cultivated in 1883-1887 amounted to 562,000 dess. on private owners’ estates out of a total of 16,472,000 dess. cultivated on such land in the whole of European Russia. – Group I includes the following: the 3 Baltic gubernias, the 4 Western (Kovno, Vilna, Grodno and Minsk), the 3 South-Western (Kiev, Volhynia, Podolsk), the 5 Southern (Kherson, Taurida, Bessarabia, Ekaterinoslav, Don), and 1 South-Eastern (Saratov); then follow the St. Petersburg, Moscow and Yaroslavl gubernias. Group II includes: Vitebsk, Mogilev, Smolensk, Kaluga, Voronezh, Poltava and Kharkov. Group III includes the rest of the gubernias. – To be more exact one should deduct from the total area cultivated on private owners’ land the gown area belonging to tenants, but no such statistics are available. We would add that such a correction would hardly alter our conclusion as to the predominance of the capitalist system, since a large part of the landowners’ fields in the black-earth belt is rented, and the labour-service system predominates in the gubernias of this belt.—Lenin

[5]Cut-off-lands ” (otrezki ) – the pasture lands woods, etc., which the landlords “cut off,” i.e., of which they deprived the peasants when serfdom was abolished in Russia.

[6] Temporarily-bound peasants – serfs who, after the abolition of serfdom in 1861, were obliged to perform certain services for the landlords, i.e., do Corvée service or pay quit-rent. The “temporarily-bound status” continued until the peasants, by agreement with the landlords, had acquired their allotments by the payment of redemption money. The landlords were obliged to accept redemption payments only after the edict of 1881, by which the “obligatory relation” between the peasants and the landlords had to cease as from January 1, 1883.

[7] The two volumes of The Influence of Harvests and Grain Prices on Certain Aspects of the Russian National Economy reached Lenin in the village of Shushenskoye in 1897. He made a careful study of them while working on The Development of Capitalism in Russia, as is proved by his numerous marginal comments in the volumes. While he exposed the method which the Narodniks were so fond of employing, the distortion of the actual situation by quoting “average” statistics which in fact obscured the differentiation of the peasantry, Lenin carefully checked and made use of the concrete material in the volumes. Thus, on page 153 of Vol. 1 Lenin drew up a table showing the distribution, in the different gubernias of Russia, of the various forms of economy (capitalist, labour-service, and mixed). This material, along with some additions from other sources, went to make up the table given in the text.

  I. The Main Features of Corvée Economy | III. Description of the Labour-Service System  

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