Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


Chapter III. The Landowners’ Transition from CorvĂ©e to Capitalist Economy

IV. The Decline of the Labour-Service System

The question now arises: in what relation does the labour-service system stand to the post-Reform economy of Russia?

First of all, the growth of commodity economy conflicts with the labour-service system, since the latter is based on natural economy, on unchanging technique, on inseparable ties between the landlord and the peasant. That is why this system is totally impracticable in its complete form, and every advance in the development of commodity economy and commercial agriculture undermines the conditions of its practicability.

Next we must take account of the following circumstance. From the foregoing it follows that labour-service, as practised in present-day landlord farming, should be divided into two types: 1) labour-service that can only be performed by a peasant farmer who owns draught animals and implements (e. g., cultivation of “cycle dessiatine,” ploughing, etc.), and 2) labour-service that can be performed by a rural proletarian who has no implements (for example, reaping, mowing, threshing, etc.). It is obvious that for both peasant and landlord farming, the first and the second type of labour-service are of opposite significance, and that the latter type constitutes a direct transition to capitalism, merging with it by a number of quite imperceptible transitions. In our literature labour-service is usually referred to in general, without this distinction being made. Yet in the process of the elimination of labour-service by capitalism the shifting of the centre of gravity from the first type of labour-service to the second is of enormous importance. Here is an example from Statistical Returns for Moscow Gubernia : “On the majority of the estates . . . the cultivation of the fields and the crops, i.e., the jobs on the careful fulfilment of which the harvest depends, are done by regular workers, whereas the harvesting, i.e., the job in the performance of which promptness and speed are the prime consideration, is given to neighbouring peasants to be done in return for money lent, or for the use of pasture and other grounds” (Vol. V, Pt. 2, p. 140). On such farms most of the hands are hired on the labour-service basis, but the capitalist system undoubtedly predominates, and the “neighbouring peasants” are at bottom turned into rural workers, similar to the “contract day labourers” in Germany, who also have land and also hire themselves out for a definite part of the year (see above, p. 179, footnote). The enormous drop in the number of horses owned by peasants and the increase in the number of horseless households as a result of the crop failures of the 90s[1] could not but exert great influence in accelerating this process of the elimination of labour-service by the capitalist system.[2]

Finally, one of the most important reasons for the decline of the labour-service system should be sought in the differentiation of the peasantry. The connection between labour-service (of the first type) and the middle group of the peasantry is clear and a priori – as we have already observed above – and can be proved by Zemstvo statistics. For example, the abstract for Zadonsk Uyezd, Voronezh Gubernia, gives returns of the number of farms doing job-work, in the various groups of peasantry. Here are the data in percentages:

Number of farms doing job work.

From the above it is clear that participation in job-work is less prevalent in the two extreme groups. The largest percentage of households taking job-work is to be found in the middle group of the peasantry. Since job-work is also frequently assigned in Zemstvo statistical abstracts to the category of “employments” in general, we see here, consequently, an example of the typical “employments” of the middle peasantry – exactly as in the preceding chapter we acquainted ourselves with the typical “employments” of the bottom and top groups of the peasantry. The types of “employments” examined there express the development of capitalism (commercial and industrial establishments and the sale of labour-power), whereas the type of “employments” mentioned here, on the contrary, expresses the backwardness of capitalism and the predominance of labour-service (if we assume that in the sum-total of “job-work” the predominant jobs are such as we have assigned to labour-service of the first type).

The greater the decline of natural economy and of the middle peasantry, the more vigorously is labour-service bound to be eliminated by capitalism. The well-to-do peasants cannot, naturally, serve as a basis for the labour-service system, for it is only dire need that compels the peasant to undertake the worst-paid jobs, jobs that are ruinous for his own farm. But the rural proletariat are equally unsuitable for the labour-service system, though for another reason: having no farm of his own, or possessing a miserable patch of land, the rural proletarian is not tied down to it to the extent that the “middle” peasant is, and, as a consequence, it is far easier for him to go elsewhere and hire himself out on “free” terms, i.e., for higher pay and without bondage at all. Hence the universal dissatisfaction of our agrarians at the peasants leaving for the towns or for “outside employments” generally, hence their complaints that the peasants have “little attachment” (see below, p. ). The development of purely capitalist wage-labour saps the very roots of the labour-service system.[3]

It is supremely important to note that this inseparable connection between the differentiation of the peasantry and the elimination of labour-service by capitalism – a connection so obvious in theory – has long been noted by agricultural writers who have observed the various methods of farming on the landlord estates. In the preface to his collection of articles on Russian agriculture written between 1857 and 1882, Prof. Stebut points out that . . . “In community peasant agriculture the farmer-industrialists are becoming differentiated from the farm labourers. The former, who are becoming cultivators on a big scale, are beginning to employ farm labourers and usually cease to take job-work, unless they find it absolutely necessary to enlarge their crop area somewhat, or to obtain the use of pasture land, which in most cases cannot be done except by taking job-work; the latter, on the other hand, cannot take any job-work for lack of horses. Hence the obvious necessity for a transition, and a speedy transition, to farming based on wage-labour, since the peasants who still take job-work by the dessiatine are, due to the feeble state of their horses and to the multitude of jobs they undertake, beginning to turn out work that is bad from the viewpoint both of quality and of promptness of fulfilment” (p. 20).

References to the fact that the ruin of the peasantry is leading to the elimination of labour-service by capitalism are also made in current Zemstvo statistical material. In Orel Gubernia, for example, it has been observed that the drop in grain prices ruined many tenants and that the land owners were compelled to increase the area cultivated on capitalist lines. “Simultaneously with the expansion of the area cultivated by the landlords, we observe everywhere a tendency to replace job-work by the labour of regular farm hands and to do away with the use of peasants’ implements . . . a tendency to improve the cultivation of the soil by the introduction of up-to-date implements . . . to change the system of farming, to introduce grass crops, to expand and improve livestock farming and to make it profitable” (Agricultural Survey of Orel Gubernia for 1887-88, pp. 124-126. Quoted from P. Struve’s Critical Remarks, pp. 242-244). In Poltava Gubernia, in 1890, when grain prices were low, there was observed “a diminution in peasant renting of land . . . throughout the gubernia. . . . Correspondingly, in many places, despite the severe drop in grain prices, there was an increase in the area cultivated by landowners employing regular labour” (The Influence of Harvests, etc., I, 304). In Tambov Gubernia, a considerable increase has been observed in the prices paid for work done by horses: for the three years 1892-1894, these prices were 25 to 30% higher than for the three years 1889-1891 (Novoye Slovo, 1895, No. 3, p. 187). This rise in the cost of work done by horses, a natural result of the decline in the number of peasant horses, cannot but entail the ousting of labour-service by the capitalist system.

It is by no means our intention, of course, to use these separate references in order to prove that labour-service is being eliminated by capitalism: no complete statistics on this subject are available. We are merely using them to illustrate the point that there is a connection between the differentiation of the peasantry and the elimination of labour-service by capitalism. General and mass-scale data, which prove irrefutably that this elimination is going on, relate to the employment of machinery in agriculture and to the employment of labour freely hired. But before passing to these data, we must first deal with the views of the Narodnik economists on contemporary farming by private landowners in Russia.


[1] The horse census of 1893-1894 in 48 gubernias revealed a drop of 9.6% in the number of horses possessed by all horse owners, and a drop of 28,321 in the number of horse owners. In Tambov, Voronezh, Kursk, Ryazan, Orel, Tula and Nizhni-Novgorod gubernias, the decline in the number of horses between 1888 and 1893 was 21.2%. In seven other gubernias of the black-earth belt the decline between 1891 and 1893 was 17%. In 38 gubernias of European Russia in 1888-1891 there were 7,922 260 peasant households, of which 5,736,436 owned horses; in 1893-1894, there were in these gubernias 8,288,987 households, of which 5,647,233 owned horses. Consequently, the number of horse-owning households dropped by 89,000, while the number of horseless increased by 456,000 The percentage of horseless households rose from 27.6% to 31.9% (Statistics of the Russian Empire, XXXVII. St. Petersburg, 1896.) Above we have shown that in 48 gubernias of European Russia the number of horseless households rose from 2.8 million in 1888-1891 to 3.2 million in 1896-1900 – i.e., from 27.3% to 29.2%. In four southern gubernias (Bessarabia, Ekaterinoslav, Taurida, Kherson), the number of horseless households rose from 305,800 in 1896 to 341,600 in 1904, i.e., from 34.7% to 36.4% (Note to 2nd edition.)—Lenin

[2] Cf. also S. A. Korolenko, Hired Labour, etc., pp. 46-47, where, on the basis of the horse censuses of 1882 and 1888, examples are cited of how the drop in the number of horses possessed by peasants is accompanied by an increase in the number of horses possessed by private landowners.—Lenin

[3] Here is a particularly striking example. Zemstvo statisticians explain the comparative incidence of money renting and renting in kind in various parts of Bakhmut Uyezd, Ekaterinoslav Gubernia, in the following way:

“Money renting is most widespread . . . in the coal and salt-mining districts, and least widespread in the steppe and purely agricultural area The peasants, in general, are not eager to go out to work for others, and are particularly reluctant to accept irksome and badly paid work on private estates. Work in the coal mines, in ore-mining and in metallurgy generally, is arduous and injurious to the worker’s health, but, generally speaking, it is better paid, and attracts the worker with the prospect of monthly or weekly wages in cash, as he does not usually get money when he works on the landlord’s estate for the reason that there he is either working in payment of the ‘bit’ of land he has rented, or of straw or grain he has borrowed, or has managed to get his pay in advance to cover his ordinary needs, etc.

“All this induces the worker to avoid working on estates, and he does avoid doing so when there is an opportunity of earning money in some place other than the landlord’s ‘estate.’ And this opportunity occurs mostly where there are many mines, at which the workers are paid ‘good’ money. With the ‘pence’ the peasant earns in the mines, he can rent land, without having to pledge himself to work on an estate, and in this way renting for money establishes its sway” (quoted from Results of Zemstw Statistical Investigations, Vol. II, p. 265). In the steppe, non-industrial divisions of the uyezd, on the other hand, land renting on a skopshchina and a labour-service basis establishes its sway.

Thus, to escape labour-service the peasant is ready to flee even to the mines! Prompt payment in cash, the impersonal form of hire and regular working hours “attract” the worker to such an extent that he even prefers the mines underground to agriculture, the agriculture about which our Narodniks wax so idyllic. The whole point is that the peasant knows from bitter experience the real value of the labour-service idealised by the agrarians and the Narodniks, and he knows how much better are purely capitalist relations.—Lenin

  III. Description of the Labour-Service System | V. The Narodnik Attitude to the Problem  

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