Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


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

V. The Narodnik Attitude to the Problem

The point that the labour-service system is simply a survival of Corvée economy is not denied even by the Narodniks. On the contrary, it is admitted – although in an insufficiently general form – by Mr. N.–on (Sketches, § IX) and by Mr. V. V. (particularly explicitly in his article “Our Peasant Farming and Agronomy,” in Otechestvenniye Zapiski, 1882, No. 8-9). The more astonishing is it that the Narodniks do their utmost to avoid admitting the clear and simple fact that the present system of private-landowner farming is a combination of the labour-service and the capitalist systems, and that, consequently, the more developed the former, the weaker the latter, and vice versa. They avoid analysing the relation of each of these systems to the productivity of labour, to the payment of the worker’s labour, to the basic features of the post-Reform economy of Russia, etc. To put the question on this basis, on the basis of recognising the “changeactually taking place, meant to admit the inevitability of the progressive elimination of labour-service by capitalism. To avoid drawing that conclusion, the Narodniks did not stop even at idealising the labour-service system. This monstrous idealisation is the basic feature of the Narodnik views on the evolution of landlord economy. Mr. V. V. even went so far as to write that “the people . . . are the victors in the struggle for the form of agricultural technique, although their victory has resulted in their greater ruin” (The Destiny of Capitalism, p. 288). To admit such a “victory” is more eloquent than to admit defeat! Mr. N.–on discerned in the allotment of land to the peasants under Corvée and under labour-service economy the “principle” “of linking the producer and the means of production,” but he forgot the tiny circumstance that this allotting of land served as a means of guaranteeing a supply of labour for the landlords. As we have indicated, Marx, in describing pre-capitalist systems of agriculture, analysed all the forms of economic relations that, in general, exist in Russia, and clearly emphasised the necessity of small-scale production and of a tie between the peasant and the land in the case of both labour-rent, rent in kind and money rent. But could it ever have entered his head to elevate this allotting of land to the dependent peasant into a “principle” of an eternal tie between the producer and the means of production? Did he forget even for a moment that this tie between the producer and the means of production was the source of, and condition for, medieval exploitation, constituted the basis for technical and social stagnation and necessarily required all sorts of “other than economic, pressure”?

An exactly similar idealisation of labour-service and of bondage is displayed by Messrs. Orlov and Kablukov in Moscow Zemstvo Returns when they quote as a model the farm of a certain Mme. Kostinskaya in Podolsk Uyezd (see Vol. V, Pt. I, pp. 175-176, and Vol. II, pp. 59-62, Sect. II). In Mr. Kablukov’s opinion, this farm proves “that it is possible to arrange matters in such a way as to preclude (sic !!) such an antagonism” (i.e., antagonism of interests between landlord and peasant farming) “and assist in achieving a flourishing (sic !) condition of both peasant and private farming” (Vol. V, Pt. I, pp. 175-176). It seems, then, that the flourishing condition of the peasants consists in labour-service and bondage. They have no pastures or cattle runs (Vol. II, pp. 60-61), – which does not prevent Messrs. the Narodniks from regarding them as “sound” peasants – and rent these grounds, for which they pay the proprietress in work, performing “all the jobs on her estate ... thoroughly, punctually and promptly.”[1]

That is the limit in idealising an economic system which is a direct survival of Corvée service!

The methods employed in all such Narodnik reasoning are very simple; we have only to forget that the allotment of land to the peasant is one of the conditions of Corvée or labour-service economy, we have only to omit the circumstance that this allegedly “independent” cultivator must render labour-rent, rent in kind or money rent, – and we get the “pure” idea of “the tie between the producer and the means of production.” But the actual relation between capitalism and pre-capitalist forms of exploitation does not change in the least from the fact of simply omitting these forms.[2]

Let us deal somewhat with another, very curious, argument of Mr. Kablukov. We have seen that he idealises labour-service; but it is remarkable that when he, as a statistician, describes real types of purely capitalist farms in Moscow Gubernia, his description, in spite of himself, and in a distorted way, is a reflection of the very facts that prove the progressive nature of capitalism in Russian agriculture. We beg the reader’s attention, and apologise in advance for our rather lengthy quotations.

Besides the old types of farms employing hired labour, there is to be found in Moscow Gubernia

“a new, recent, emergent type of farm that has totally broken with all tradition and regards things simply, in the way people regard every industry that is to serve as a source of income. Agriculture in this case is not regarded as . . . a lord’s hobby, as an occupation anybody may engage in. . . . No, here the necessity is recognised of having . . . special knowledge. . . . The basis of calculation” (as to the organisation of production) “is the same as in all other forms of production” (Statistical Returns for Moscow Gubernia, Vol. V, Pt. I, pp. 185-186).

Mr. Kablukov does not notice that this description of the new type of farm which has only “recently emerged,” in the 70s, proves precisely the progressive nature of capitalism in agriculture. It was capitalism that first turned agriculture from a “lord’s hobby” into ordinary industry, it was capitalism that first compelled people “to regard things simply,” “to break with tradition” and to equip themselves with “special knowledge.” Before capitalism this was both unnecessary and impossible, because the farms of the different manors, village communities and peasant families were “self-sufficing,” were not dependent on other farms, and no power on earth could drag them out of their age-long stagnation. Capitalism was the force which created (through the medium of the market) the social accounting of the output of the individual producers, and compelled them to reckon with the demands of social development. It is this that constitutes the progressive role of capitalism in agriculture in all European countries.

Listen now to the way Mr. Kablukov describes our purely capitalist farms:

“Only then is account taken of labour-power as a necessary factor in acting upon nature; without this factor all organisation of the landlord’s estate will be fruitless. Thus, with all appreciation of its significance, this element, at the same time, is not regarded as an independent source of income, as was the case under serfdom, or as is the case now in those instances when what is made the basis of the estate’s profitability is not the product of labour, the obtaining of which is the direct purpose of its application, not the striving to apply this labour to the production of its more valuable products and thereby to enjoy its results, but the striving to reduce the share of the product which the worker gets for himself, the desire to reduce the cost of labour to the master as near as possible to zero” (p. 186). Reference is made to farming based on labour in return for the use of cut-off lands. “Under these circumstances, for a farm to be profitable the owner requires neither knowledge nor special qualities. All that is obtained from this labour represents clear income for the owner or at all events such income as is obtained almost without any expenditure of circulating capital. But such farming cannot, of course, be well conducted and cannot be called farming in the strict sense of the term, any more than the leasing of all pasture and other grounds can be called such; there is no economic organisation here” (186). And quoting examples of the leasing of cut-off lands in return for labour-service, the author concludes: “The main emphasis in the farm economy, the manner of extracting an income from the soil, is rooted in the exertion of influence upon the worker rather than upon matter and its forces” (189).

This argument is an extremely interesting example of how distorted is the picture of actual facts when viewed from the angle of a wrong theory. Mr. Kablukov confuses production with the social system of production. Under every social system production consists in “the exertion of influence” upon matter and its forces. Under every social system only the surplus product can be the landowner’s source of “income.” In both respects the labour-service system of economy is fully identical with the capitalist system, Mr. Kablukov’s opinion notwithstanding. The real difference between them is that labour-service necessarily presupposes the lowest productivity of labour; hence, no possibility exists for increasing income by increasing the surplus product; that can only be done by one means, namely, by employing all sorts of bonded forms of hire. Under purely capitalist economy, on the contrary, bonded forms of hire must go by the board, for the proletarian, not being tied to the land, is useless as an object of bondage; – to raise the productivity of labour becomes not only possible, but also necessary as the sole means of increasing income and with standing severe competition. Thus, the description of our purely capitalist farms, given by the very Mr. Kablukov who so zealously tried to idealise labour-service, fully confirms the fact that Russian capitalism is creating the social conditions which necessarily demand the rationalisation of agriculture and the abolition of bondage, whereas labour-service, on the contrary, precludes the possibility of rationalising agriculture and perpetuates technical stagnation and the producer’s condition of bondage. Nothing could be more frivolous than the customary Narodnik exultation over the fact that capitalism in our agriculture is weak. So much the worse if it is weak, for it only indicates the strength of pre-capitalist forms of exploitation, which are incomparably more burdensome to the producer.


[1] Cf. Volgin, op. cit., pp 280-281.—Lenin

[2] “It is said that the spread of labour-service renting in place of money renting . . . is a retrogressive fact. But do we say that it is desirable or beneficial? We . . . have never asserted that it is progressive,” stated Mr. Chuprov on behalf of all the authors of The Influence of Harvests, etc. (see Verbatim Report of the Debates in the F E. S. of March 1 and 2, 1897,[3] p. 38) This statement is untrue even formally, for Mr. Karyshev (see above) described labour-service as “help” to the rural population. And in substance this statement absolutely contradicts the actual content of all the Narodnik theories with their idealisation of labour-service. It is to the great credit of Messrs. T.-Baranovsky and Struve that they have correctly presented the question (1897) of the significance of low grain prices: the criterion for appraising them must be whether such prices promote the elimination of labour-service by capitalism or not. Such a question is obviously one of fact, and in answering it we differ somewhat from the writers mentioned. On the basis of the data given in the text (see particularly § VII of this chapter and also Chapter IV ), we consider it possible and even probable that the period of low grain prices will be marked by a no less, if not more, rapid elimination of labour-service by capitalism than was the preceding historical period of high grain prices.—Lenin

[3] The Verbatim Report of the Debates of March 1 and 2 appeared in the Transactions of the Free Economic Society, 1897, No. 4.

  IV. The Decline of the Labour-Service System | VI. The Story of Engelhardt’s Farm  

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