V. I.   Lenin

The Agrarian Question in Russia Towards the Close of the Nineteenth Century



Let us now examine the organisation of the landlord economy. It is generally known that the main feature of this organisation is the combination of the capitalist system (“free hire”) and labour-service economy. What is this labour-service system?

To answer this question we must glance back to the organisation of landlord economy under serfdom. Everyone knows what serfdom was legally, administratively and domestically. But seldom do people ask themselves, what essentially were the economic relations between the landlords and the peasants under serfdom? At that time the landlords allotted land to the peasants. Sometimes they loaned the peasants   other means of production too, for example, wood lots, cattle, etc. What did this allotment of the landlords’ land to the serf peasants mean? The allotment at that time was a form of wages, to employ a term applicable to present-day relationships. In capitalist production, wages are paid to the workers in money. The profit of the capitalist is realised in the form of money. Necessary labour and surplus-labour (i. e., the labour that pays for the maintenance of the worker and the labour that yields unpaid . surplus-value to the capitalist) are combined in the single process of labour in the factory, in a single working day.at the factory, etc. The situation is different in the corvée economy. Here, too, there is necessary labour and surplus-labour, just as there is in the system of slavery. But these two kinds of labour are separated in time and space. The serf peasant works three days for his lord and three days for himself. He works for his lord on the latter’s land or on the production of grain for him. For himself he works on allotted land, producing for himself and for his family the grain that is necessary for maintaining labour-power for the landlord.

Consequently, the feudal or corvée system of economy is similar to the capitalist system in that under both systems the one who works receives only the product of necessary labour, and turns over the product of surplus-labour gratis to the owner of the means of production. Serfdom, however, differs from the capitalist system in the three following respects. First, serf economy is natural economy, whereas capitalist economy is money economy. Secondly, in serf economy the instrument of exploitation is the tying of the worker to the land, the allotting of land to him, whereas under the capitalist economy it is the releasing of the worker from the land. In order to obtain an income (i. e., surplus-product), the serf-owning landlord must have on his land a peasant who possesses an allotment, implements and live stock. A. landless, horseless, non-farming peasant is useless as an object of feudal exploitation. In order to obtain an income (profit), the capitalist must have before him precisely a worker without land and without a farm, one who is compelled to sell his labour-power on a free labour-market. Thirdly, the allotment-holding peasant must be personally dependent upon the landlord, because he will not, possessing   land, work for the landlord except under coercion. This system of economy gives rise to “non-economic coercion”, to serfdom, juridical dependence, lack of full rights, etc. On the other hand, “ideal” capitalism implies the fullest freedom of contract on a free market—between the property-owner and the proletarian.

Only if we are clear in our minds as to this economic substance of serf economy, or what is the same thing, corvée economy, can we understand the historical place and significance of labour service. Labour service is the direct and immediate survival of the corvée. Labour service is the transition from the corvée to capitalism. The substance of labour service is this: the landlord’s land is cultivated by the peasants with their own implements in return for pay partly in cash and partly in kind (for land, for cut-off land, for use of pastures, for loans granted in the winter, etc.). The form of economy known as the métayer system is a variety of labour service. The landlord economy based on labour service requires a peasant who has an allotment, as well as implements and livestock if only of the poorest kind; it requires also that the peasant be weighed down by want and place himself in bondage. Bondage instead of free hire is the necessary concomitant of labour-service economy. Here the landlord acts not as a capitalist entrepreneur who owns money and the sum total of the instruments of labour, but—in a system of labour-service economy—as a usurer, taking advantage of the poverty of his peasant neighbour to acquire his labour for next to nothing.

To illustrate this point more clearly, let us take the data of the Department of Agriculture—a source above all suspicion of being unfriendly towards the landowning gentlemen. The well-known publication, Freely Hired Labour on Farms, etc. (Issue V, “Agric. and Stat. Inf. Obtd. from Agricultural Employers”, St. Petersburg, 1892),[6] gives information concerning the Central Black-Earth Belt over eight years (1883-91). The average payment for the complete cultivation of a dessiatine of winter grain by a peasant using his own implements should be reckoned as 6 rubles. If we calculate the cost of the same amount of work performed by freely hired labour—says the same publication—we get 6 rubles 19 kopeks for the work of the man   alone, not counting the work of the horse, which cannot be put at less than 4 rubles 50 kopeks (ibid., p. 45, quoted in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, p. 141[1] ). Consequently, the price of freely hired labour amounts to 10 rubles 69 kopeks, while under labour service it is 6 rubles. How is this phenomenon to be accounted for, if it is not some thing accidental or exceptional, but normal and usual? Words like “bondage”, “usury”, “extortion”, etc., describe the form and nature of the transaction, but do not explain its economic substance. How is a peasant able over a number of years to perform work that is worth 10 rubles 69 kopeks for 6 rubles? He is able to do it because his allotment covers part of the expenditure of his family and makes it possible for his wage to be forced down below the “free-hire” level. The peasant is compelled to do so precisely because his wretched allotment ties him down to his landlord neighbour, for it does not enable him to live off his own farm. Of course, this phenomenon can be “normal” only as one of the links of the process by which the corvée system is eliminated by capitalism. For the peasant is inevitably ruined by these conditions, and is slowly but surely being transformed into a proletarian.

The following are similar, but slightly more complete data concerning Saratov Uyezd. The average price for tilling one dessiatine of land, and for reaping, carting and threshing the grain, is 9 rubles 60 kopeks if contracted in the winter, 80 to 100 per cent of the wage being paid in advance.. The price is 9 rubles 40 kopeks when the job is done as labour service for the lease of land. In the case of freely hired labour it is 17 rubles 50 kopeks! Reaping and carting done as labour service is valued at 3 rubles 80 kopeks per dessiatine, and in the case of freely hired labour at 8 rubles 50 kopeks, etc. Each of these figures tells its long story of the peasant’s endless poverty, bondage and ruin. Each of these figures shows to what extent feudal exploitation and the survivals of the corvée persist in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century.

It is very difficult to calculate to what extent the labour-service system is prevalent. Usually, on the landed estates the   labour-service system is combined with the capitalist system, and both are applied to various operations in agriculture. An inconsiderable part of the land is tilled by hired labourers using the landlords’ implements. The greater part of the land is rented to peasants on a métayer and labour-service basis. The following are a few illustrations taken from the detailed work by Mr. Kaufman, who has compiled some of the latest data on privately-owned estates.[2] Tula Gubernia (the data refer to 1897-98): “the landlords have retained the old three-field system ... the outlying land is taken by the peasants”; the cultivation of the landlords’ land is extremely unsatisfactory. Kursk Gubernia: “the distribution of land to the peasants in dessiatines, which was profit able owing to the high prices prevailing ... has led to the exhaustion of the soil.” Voronezh Gubernia: . . .the medium and small proprietors “largely run their economies exclusively with the aid of peasants’. implements, or lease them out ... on most estates the methods practised are distinguished for the complete absence of any improvements”.

Statements like these show that the general description of the various gubernias of European Russia given by Mr. Annensky in his book The Influence of Harvests, etc., as regards the prevalence of the labour-service or the capitalist systems can be fully applied to the conditions prevailing at the end of the. nineteenth century. We shall quote this description in tabular form:

  Number of gubernias Total privately-owned arable (thousand dess.)
Black- Earth Belt Non- Black- Earth Belt Total
I. Gubernias where the capitalist system prevails 9 10 19 7,407
II. Gubernias where a mixed system prevails 3 4 7 2,222
III. Gubernias where the labour-service system prevails 12 5 17 6,281
Total 24 19 43 15,910

Thus labour service definitely prevails in the Black-Earth Belt, but yields place in the total of the 43 gubernias included in the above table. It is important to note that group I (the capitalist system) includes areas which are not representative of the central agricultural regions, viz.: the Baltic gubernias, those in the south-west (sugar-beet area) and in the South, and the gubernias of the two capital cities.

The influence of the labour-service system on the development of the productive forces in agriculture is graphically illustrated by the material compiled in Mr. Kaufman’s book. “There cannot be any doubt,” he writes, “that small peasant renting of land and métayage represent one of the conditions which most of all retard the progress of agriculture." ... In the reviews of agriculture covering Poltava Gubernia, repeated reference is made to the fact that “the tenants till the land badly, sow it with poor seed and allow it to become overgrown with weeds”.

In Mogilyov Gubernia (1898), “any improvement in farming is hindered by the inconveniences of the métayer system”.. The existence of skopshchina[7] is one of t.he main reasons why “agriculture in Dnieper Uyezd is in such a state that it is futile to expect any innovations or improvements”. “Our data,” writes Mr. Kaufman (p. 517), “definitely point to the fact that even within the bounds of one and the same estate, old and obsolete farming methods continue to be employed on land that is rented out, whereas new and improved methods have already been introduced on land that is cultivated by the owners.” For example, on the land that is rented out, the three-field system is retained, sometimes even without the land being manured; on lands farmed on economic lines, however, crop rotation has been introduced. Métayage hinders grass cultivation, the extended use of fertilisers, and the employment of the best agricultural implements. The result of all this is strikingly reflected in the yield figures. For example, on a large estate in Simbirsk Gubernia, the rye crop in the part cultivated on economic lines is 90 poods per dessiatine, wheat 60 poods, oats 74 poods; in the métayer lands it is 58, 28 and 50 poods respectively. Here are general figures for a whole uyezd (Gorbatov Uyezd, Nizhni-Novgorod Gubernia).

Yield of rye in poods per dessiatine
Soil grades Allotment land Privately-owned lands
Economic crops Métayer Rented
I . . . . 62 74 44
II . . . . 55 63 49
III . . . . 51 60 50 42
IV . . . . 48 69 51 51
All grades . . 54[3] 66 50 45[4]

Thus, landlords’ lands cultivated in feudal fashion (on a métayer basis and rented out in small lots) produce smaller yields than allotment lands! This is a fact of tremendous importance, because it irrefutably proves that the main and fundamental cause of Russia’s agricultural backwardness, of the stagnation of the whole of the national economy and the degradation of the tiller of the soil to a degree unparalleled anywhere else in the world, is the labour-service system, i. e., the direct survival of serfdom. No credits, no land reclamation, no “aid” to the peasant, none of the measures of “assistance” beloved of the bureaucrats and liberals, will yield results of any importance so long as there remains the yoke of the feudal latifundia, traditions, and systems of economy. On the other hand, an agrarian revolution which abolishes landlordism and breaks up the old medieval village commune (the nationalisation of the land, for example, will break it up, not in the police and bureaucratic manner), would unfailingly serve as the basis for remarkably rapid and really wide progress. The incredibly low yield on métayer and rented lands is due to the system of working “for the squire”. If this same farmer were relieved of the duty of working “for the squire”, yields would increase not only on these lands, but would inevitably increase on the allotment lands as well, simply because of the elimination of the feudal hindrances to farming.

As things are at present, there is, of course, some capitalist progress on the privately-owned economies, but it is exceedingly plow, and inevitably burdens Russia for many   years to come with the political and social domination of the "wild landlord”.[8] We shall now examine how this progress manifests itself, and try to define some of its general results.

The fact that the yield of the “economic” crops, i. e., the landed estates cultivated on capitalist lines, is higher than on the peasant lands is an indication of the technical progress of capitalism in agriculture. This progress is due to the transition from the labour-service to the wage-labour system. The ruin of the peasants, the decline in horse owner ship, the loss of implements, the proletarisation of the tiller, compel landlords to change over to cultivating their land with their own implements. Increased use is being made in agriculture of machinery, which raises the productivity of labour and inevitably leads to the development of purely capitalist relations of production. Agricultural machinery was imported into Russia to the value of 788,000 rubles in 1869-72, 2.9 million rubles in 1873-80, 4.2 million rubles in 1881-88, 3.7 million rubles in 1889-96, and 15.2 and 20.6 million rubles respectively in 1902 and 1903. The output of agricultural machinery in Russia was (approximately, according to rough industrial statistics) 2.3 million rubles in 1876, 9.4 million in 1894, and 12.1 million in 1900-03. It is indisputable that these figures indicate progress in agriculture, and precisely capitalist progress, of course. But it is similarly indisputable that this progress is exceedingly slow compared to what is possible in a modern capitalist state: for example, in America. According to the census of June 1, 1900, the acreage of farms in the United States was 838.6 million acres, i. e., about 324 million dessiatines. The number of farms was 5.7 million, the average acreage per farm being 146.2 acres (about 60 dessiatines). Now, the production of agricultural implements for these farms amounted to Th7.7 million dollars in 1900 (in 1890, 145.3 million dollars, in 1880, 62.1 million dollars).[5] The Russian figures are ridiculously small by comparison, and they are small because the feudal latifundia in Russia are great and strong.

The extent to which improved agricultural implements   were employed by landowners and peasants respectively was the subject of a special questionnaire circulated by the Ministry of Agriculture in the middle of the nineties of last century. The results of this enquiry, which are given in detail in Mr. Kaufman’s book, can be summarised in the following table.

District Percentage of replies indicating extensive employment at improved agricultural implements
Landlords Peasants
Central Agricultural 20-51 8-20
Middle Volga 18-66 14
Novorossia 50-91 33-65
Byelorussia 54-86 17-41
Priozyorny 24-47 1-21
Moscow 22-51 10-26
Industrial 4-8 2

The average for all these districts is 42 per cent among the landlords and 21 per cent among the peasants.

In regard to the employment of manure, all the statistical data irrefutably prove that “in this respect the landlords’ farms have always been, and still are, far ahead of the peasant farms” (Kaufman, p. 544). Moreover, it was a wide spread practice in post-Reform Russia for the landlord to purchase manure from the peasant. That is the result of direst poverty among the peasants. Recently this practice has been on the decline.

Finally, precise and abundant statistics are available on the level of agricultural technique on landlord and peasant farms respectively as regards grass cultivation (Kaufman, p. 561). The following are the principal conclusions.

Year Area under fodder grasses in European Russia
On peasant farms (dess.) On land- lords’ estates (dess.)
1881 49,800 491,600
1901 499,000 1,046,000

What is the effect of all these differences between landlord and peasant farming? All we have to go on here are the yield figures. Throughout the whole of European Russia, the average yield over a period of eighteen years (1883-1900) was as follows (in chetverts):

  Rye Winter wheat Spring wheat Oats
Landlords . . 6.0 5.75 5.0 8.5
Peasants . . 5.0 5.0 4.25 7.0
Difference . . 16.7% 13.0% 15.0% 17.6%

Mr. Kaufman is quite right when he says that the “difference is very slight” (p. 592). We must bear in mind not only that the peasants were left with the worst land in 1861, but also that general averages for the whole of the peasantry conceal (as we shall see in a moment) big differences.

The general conclusion we must arrive at from the examination of landlord farming is the following. Capitalism is quite obviously paving a way for itself in this field. Farming on a corvée basis is being replaced by farming on the basis of freely hired labour. Technical progress in capitalist agriculture compared with labour-service and petty-peas ant farming is definitely in evidence in all directions. But this progress is exceptionally slow for a modern capitalist country. The end of the nineteenth century finds in Russia the most acute contradiction between the require- merits of social development as a whole and serf agriculture which, in the shape of the latifundia owned by the landed nobility and the labour-service system, is a brake on economic evolution and a source of oppression, barbarism, and of innumerable forms of Tatarism in Russian life.


[1] See present edition, Vol. 3, p. 202.—Ed.

[2] The Agrarian Question. Published by Dolgorukov and Petrunkevich, Vol. II, Moscow, 1907, pp. 442–628, “Regarding the Cultural and Economic Significance of Private Landownership”. —Lenin

[3] In Mr. Kaufman’s book, p. 521, there is obviously a misprint in these two figures. —Lenin

[4] In Mr. Kaufman’s book, p. 521, there is obviously a misprint in these two figures. —Lenin

[5] Abstract of the Twelfth Census, 1900, third edition, Washington, 1904, pp. 217 and 302—agricultural implements. —Lenin

[6] The full title of the book is Freely Hired Labour on Private Landowner Farms and the Movement of Workers According to a Statistical and Economic Survey of Agriculture and Industry in European Russia. Compiled by S. A. Korolenko, St. Petersburg, 1892 (Agricultural and Statistical Information Based on Material Obtained from Farmers, Issue V).

[7] Skopshchina—the name given in the southern parts of Russia to a type of rent in kind on terms of bondage, the tenant paying the landlord a share of the crop s kopny (per corn-shock), and usually fulfilling miscellaneous labour services in addition.

[8] Wild landlord—a type of landlord described by Saltykov-Shchedrin in his satirical fairy-tale published in English under the title of “Wild Gentleman”.

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