Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


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

VI. The Story of Engelhardt’s Farm

Quite a special place among the Narodniks is held by Engelhardt. To criticise his appraisal of labour-service and capitalism would mean to repeat what has already been said in the preceding section. We think it far more expedient to set against Engelhardt’s Narodnik views the story of Engelhardt’s own farm. Such a critique will also be of positive value, because the evolution of this farm reflects in miniature, as it were, the main features of the evolution of all private-landowner farming in post-Reform Russia.

When Engelhardt settled down on the farm it was based on the traditional labour-service and bondage, which preclude “proper farming” (Letters from the Countryside, 559). Labour-service was the cause of the poor condition of cattle raising, of the poor cultivation of the soil and of the monotonous persistence of obsolete systems of field cultivation (118). “I saw that it was impossible . . . to go on farming in the old way” (118). The competition of grain from the steppe regions was bringing down prices and making farming unprofitable (p. 83).[1] We would observe that from the very outset, along with the labour-service system a certain part was played on the farm by the capitalist system: wage-workers, although very few in number, were also employed on the farm when it was run in the old way (the cowman and others), and Engelhardt asserts that the wages of his farm labourer (drawn from among allotment-holding peasants) were “fabulously low” (11), low because “it was impossible to give more ” considering that cattle-raising was in a bad way. The low productivity of labour made it impossible to raise wages. Thus, the starting-point on Engelhardt’s farm was the features, familiar to us, of all Russian farms: labour-service, bondage, the very lowest productivity of labour, “incredibly low” payment of labour, routine farming.

What changes did Engelhardt introduce into this state of things? He began to sow flax – a commercial and industrial crop requiring the employment of labour on a big scale. The commercial and capitalist character of the cultivation was accordingly enhanced. But how was he to obtain labour? Engelhardt tried at first to employ in the new (commercial) cultivation the old system, that of labour-service. Nothing came of that; the work was badly done, the “dessiatine” proved to be beyond the strength of the peasants, who resisted with all their might “gang work” and bonded terms of labour. “The system had to be changed. Meanwhile I got on my feet. I acquired my own horses, harness, carts, ploughs and harrows and was already in a position to run the farm with regular workers. I began to produce flax, partly with my regular workers and partly on a job basis, hiring labourers for definite jobs” (218). Thus, the transition to the new system of farming and to commercial cultivation demanded the replacement of labour-service by the capitalist system. To increase productivity of labour, Engelhardt resorted to the well-tried method of capitalist production: piece work. Women were engaged to work by the stack, or the pood, and Engelhardt (not without some na\"ive triumph) tells of the success of this system; the cost of cultivation increased (from 25 rubles per dess. to 35 rubles), but profit also increased by 10 to 20 rubles; the women’s productivity of labour increased following the change from bonded to hired labour (from half a pood per night to a whole pood) and the earnings of the women increased to 30-50 kopeks per day (“unprecedented in our parts”). The local textile merchant was full of praise for Engelhardt: “Your flax has given a great fillip to trade” (219).

Applied at first to the cultivation of the commercial crop, hired labour gradually began to embrace other agricultural operations. One of the first operations to be withdrawn by capital from the labour-service system was threshing. It is well known that on all farms run by private landowners this work is mostly performed on capitalist lines. “Part of the land,” wrote Engelhardt, “I lease to peasants for cultivation in cycles, for otherwise I would find it hard to cope with the reaping of the rye” (211). Thus, labour-service functions as a direct transition to capitalism, by ensuring the farmer a supply of day labourers in the busiest season. At first cycle-cultivation included threshing, but here, too, the poor quality of the work done compelled the farmer to resort to hired labour. Land began to be leased for cycle-cultivation without threshing, which latter was done partly by farm labourers and partly, through the medium of a contractor, by a team of wage-workers, at piece rates. Here, too, the results of replacing labour-service by the capitalist system were: 1) an increase in the productivity of labour: formerly 16 people threshed 900 sheaves per day, now 8 did 1,100 sheaves; 2) an increase in the yield; 3) a reduction in threshing time; 4) an increase in the worker’s earnings; 5) an increase in the farmer’s profits (212).

Further, the capitalist system also embraced tillage operations. Iron ploughs were introduced in place of the old wooden ones, and the work passed from the bound peasant to the farm labourer. Engelhardt triumphantly reports the success of his innovation, the diligence of the labourers, and quite justly shows that the customary accusations flung at the labourer of being lazy and dishonest are due to the “brand of serfdom” and to bonded labour “for the lord,” and that the new organisation of farming also demands something of the farmer: a display of enterprise, a knowledge of people and ability to handle them, a knowledge of the job and its scope, acquaintance with the technical and commercial aspects of agriculture – i.e., qualities that were not and could not be possessed by the Oblomovs[2] of the feudal or bondage suffering countryside. The various changes in the technique of agriculture are inseparably connected with one another and inevitably lead to the transformation of its economy. “For example, let us suppose you introduce the cultivation of flax and clover – that will immediately necessitate numerous other changes, and if these are not made, the business will not run smoothly. The ploughing implements will have to be changed and iron ploughs substituted for wooden ones, iron harrows for wooden ones, and this in turn will require a different type of horse, a different type of labourer, a different system of farming as regards the hire of labourers, etc.” (154-155).

The change in the technique of agriculture thus proved to be inseparably bound up with the elimination of labour-service by capitalism. Particularly interesting in this regard is the gradualness with which this elimination takes place: the system of farming, as hitherto, combines labour-service and capitalism, but the main weight gradually shifts from the former to the latter. Here is a description of how Engelhardt’s reorganised farm operated:

“Nowadays I have much work to do, because I have changed the whole system of farming. A considerable part of the work is done by regular labourers and day labourers. The work is extremely varied. I clear brushwood for wheat growing, uproot birches for flax growing. I have rented meadow land by the Dnieper, and have sown clover, lots of rye and much flax. I need an enormous number of hands. To secure them, you have to make arrangements in good time, for when the busy season starts everybody will be occupied either at home or on other farms. This recruitment of labour is done by advancing money or grain for work to be done” (pp.116-117).

Labour-service and bondage remained, consequently, even on a “properly” conducted farm; but, firstly, they now occupied a subordinate position as compared with free hire, and, secondly, the very labour-service underwent a change; it was mainly the second type of labour-service which remained, that implying the labour not of peasant farmers, but of regular labourers and agricultural day labourers.

Thus, Engelhardt’s own farm is better than all arguments in refuting Engelhardt’s Narodnik theories. He set out to farm on rational lines, but was unable to do so, under the given social and economic conditions, except by organising the farm on the basis of employing farm labourers. The raising of the technical level of agriculture and the supplanting of labour-service by capitalism proceeded hand in hand on this farm, as it does on all private-landowner farms in general in Russia. This process is most clearly reflected in the employment of machinery in Russian agriculture.


[1] This fact that the competition of cheap grain serves as the motive for change in technique and, consequently, for replacing labour-service by free hire, deserves special attention. The competition of grain from the steppe regions was also felt even in the years of high grain prices; the period of low prices, however, lends this competition particular force.—Lenin

[2] Oblomov – a type of landlord who lacked will-power, did nothing and was extremely lazy. A character in Goncharov’s novel of that name.

  V. The Narodnik Attitude to the Problem | VII. The Employment of Machinery in Agriculture  

Works Index   |   Volume 3 | Collected Works   |   L.I.A. Index
< backward   forward >