V. I.   Lenin

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



Let us now sum up what has been said above about the essence of the agrarian question and the agrarian crisis in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century.

What is the essence of this crisis? M. Shanin, in his pamphlet Municipalisation or Division for Private Property (Vilna, 1907), insists that our agrarian crisis is a crisis of agricultural methods, and that its root cause lies in the need for raising the technique of agriculture, which is incredibly low, in Russia, in the need for changing over to more efficient methods of arable farming, etc..

This opinion is wrong, because it is too abstract. Undoubtedly a change over to higher techniques is necessary, but, in the first place, this transition has actually been going on in Russia since 1861. However slow the progress, it is beyond all doubt that both landlord farming and peasant farming, as represented by the well-to-do minority, have been going over to grass cultivation, to the use of improved implements, to more systematic and careful manuring of the soil; etc. And since this slow progress in agricultural technique has been a general process since 1861, it is obvious that it is not enough to quote it as an explanation of the universally admitted intensification of the agricultural crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. Secondly, both forms of “solution” of the agrarian question that have been advanced in practice—both the Stolypin solution from above, by preserving landlordism and finally doing away with the commune, by having the kulaks plunder it, and also the peasant (Trudovik) solution from below, by abolishing landlordism and by nationalising all the land—both these solutions, each in its own way, facilitate the transition to a higher technique and promote agricultural progress. The only difference is that one solution bases this progress on accelerating the process of forcing the poor peasants out of agriculture, while the other bases it on accelerating the process of eliminating labour service by abolishing the feudalist latifundia. That the poor peasants farm their land very badly is an undoubted fact. Undoubtedly, therefore, if their land is allowed to be sacked and plundered by a handful of well-to-do peasants, agricultural technique advances to a higher level. But it is just as   undoubted a fact that the landed estates worked on the basis of the labour-service system and bondage, are cultivated very badly, worse than the allotment lands (recall the figures quoted above: 54 poods per dessiatine from allotment land; 66. from landed estates farmed on capitalist lines, 50 from estates cultivated on the métayer system, and 45 from land rented by peasants by the year). The labour-service system of land lord economy means the preservation of incredibly obsolete methods of cultivation, the perpetuation of barbarism both in agricultural technique and in the entire life of society. It is beyond doubt, therefore, that if labour service is rooted out, i. e., if landlordism is completely abolished (and with out redemption), then agricultural technique will advance to a higher level.

Consequently, in the agrarian question and the agrarian crisis the heart of the matter is not simply the removal of obstacles to the advance of agricultural technique, but what way these obstacles are to be removed, what class is to effect this removal and by what methods. And it is absolutely necessary to remove the obstacles to the development of the country’s productive forces—necessary not only in the subjective sense of the word, but also in the objective sense, i.e.,. this removal is inevitable, and no power on earth can prevent it.

The mistake made by M. Shanin, as well as by many others who write on the agrarian question, is that he approached the correct thesis of the need to raise the level of farming technique in too abstract a fashion, failing to take account of the peculiar forms in which feudalist and capitalist features are interwoven in Russian agriculture. The main and. fundamental obstacle to the development of the productive forces in Russian agriculture is the survivals of serfdom, i, e., primarily labour service and bondage, then feudalist taxes, the peasant’s inequality in the matter of civic rights, his degraded status in relation to the higher estate of society, etc., etc. The elimination of these survivals of serfdom has long become an economic necessity, and the crisis in agriculture at the end of the nineteenth century has become so intensely aggravated precisely because the process of emancipating Russia from medievalism has been dragging out too long, because labour service and bondage have lingered too long.   They have been dying out since 1861 so slowly that the new organism has come to need violent means for ridding itself of them quickly.

What is this new economic organism of Russian agriculture? We have tried above to show this in particular detail, because the economists in the liberal-Narodnik camp have particularly wrong ideas on this subject. The new economic organism that is hatching out of its feudalist shell in Russia is commercial agriculture and capitalism. The economics of landlord farming, when it is not being conducted on the basis of labour service or the bondage of the allotment-holding peasant, clearly reveal capitalist features. The economics of peasant farming—in so far as we are able to look inside the commune and see what is going on in real life despite the official equalisation of allotment land—again reveal purely capitalist features everywhere. Commercial agriculture is steadily growing in Russia in spite of all obstacles, and this commercial agriculture is inevitably being transformed into capitalist agriculture, although the forms of this transformation are diverse in the highest degree and vary from district to district.

What should constitute that violent elimination of the medieval shell, which has become necessary for the further free development of the new economic organism? The abolition of medieval forms of landownership. In Russia, to this very day, ownership both by the landlords and, to a considerable extent, by the peasants is medieval. We have seen how the new economic conditions are breaking down this medieval framework and divisions in landowning, compelling the poor peasant to let his allotment which he has held from time immemorial, compelling the well-to-do peasant to build up his own comparatively large farm out of the fragments of different types of land: allotments, purchased land, land rented from the landlord. On the landed estate, too, its division into lands cultivated on the basis of labour service, rented to peasants on annual leases, and farmed on capitalist lines, shows that new systems of farming are being built up outside the framework of the old, medieval system of land ownership.

That system can be abolished at one stroke by a determined break with the past. Such a measure would be the nationalisation   of the land, which all the representatives of the peasantry were demanding, more or less consistently, in the period between 1905 and 1907. The abolition of private property in land in no way changes the bourgeois basis of commercial and capitalist landowning. There is nothing more erroneous than the opinion that the nationalisation of the land has anything in common with socialism, or even with equalised land tenure. Socialism, as we know, means the abolition of commodity economy. Nationalisation, on the other hand, means converting the land into the property of the state, and such a conversion does not in the least affect private farming on the land. The system of farming on the land is not altered by whether the land is the property or “possession” of the whole country, of the whole nation, just as the (capitalist) system of farming by the well-to-do muzhik is not altered by whether he buys land “in perpetuity”, rents land from the landlord or the state, or “gathers up” the allotment ’plots of impoverished, insolvent peasants. So long as exchange re mains, it is ridiculous to talk of socialism. The exchange of agricultural produce and means of production does not depend upon the forms of landowning at all. (I will remark in parenthesis that I am setting forth here only the economic significance of nationalisation, not advocating it as a programme; that I have done in the work referred to above.[1] )

As to equalisation, we have already shown above how it is applied in practice in the distribution of allotment land. We have seen that, within the commune, allotment land is distributed fairly equally, with only a slight tendency in favour of the rich peasants. But in the long run very little trace is left of this equalisation, owing to the fact that the poor let their land and that rented land is concentrated in the hands of the rich. Clearly, no equalisation of landholding is able to eliminate inequality in the actual use of the land, so long as there exist property differences among the peasants and a system of exchange which aggravates these differences.

The economic significance of nationalisation does not lie. at all where it is very often sought. It does not consist in the. fight against bourgeois relationships (as Marx showed long ago,[3] nationalisation is a highly consistent bourgeois   measure), but in the fight against feudalist relationships. The multiplicity of medieval forms of landowning hampers economic’ development; the social-estate divisions hamper trade; the disparity between the old system of landowning and the new economy gives rise to sharp .contradictions; owing to the latifundia, the landlords prolong the existence of labour service; the peasants are shut up, as in a ghetto, within the allotment system, the framework of which is being broken down in practice at every step. Nationalisation makes a clean sweep of all medieval relations in landowning, does away with all artificial barriers on the land, and makes the land really free—for whom? For every citizen? Nothing of the kind. The freedom of the horseless peasant (i.e., 3 1/4 million households) consists, as we have seen, in letting his allotment land. The land becomes free for the farmer, for the one who really wants, and is able, to cultivate it according to the requirements of modern farming in general and of. the world market in particular. Nationalisation would hasten the death of serfdom and the development of purely bourgeois farming on land free of all medieval lumber. That is the real historical significance of nationalisation in Russia—what it has come to mean by the end of the nineteenth century.

As for the other, objectively not impossible, road to clear up landowning for capitalism, it consists, as we have seen, in the accelerated plundering of the commune by the rich, and in consolidating private landed property among the well to-do peasantry. This way leaves the principal source of labour service and bondage untouched; the landlord latifundia are left intact. Obviously, this method of clearing the way for capitalism guarantees free development of the productive fortes to a far lesser degree than the first one. Once the latifundia are retained, this inevitably means also the retention of the bonded peasant, of métayer, of the renting of small plots by the year, the cultivation of the “squire’s” land with the implements of the peasants, i.e., the retention of the most backward farming methods and of all that Asiatic barbarism which is called patriarchal rural life.

The two ways I have indicated of “solving” the agrarian question in developing bourgeois Russia correspond to the   two paths of development of capitalism in agriculture.. I call these two paths the Prussian and the American paths. The characteristic feature of the first is that medieval relations in landowning are not liquidated at one stroke, but are gradually adapted to capitalism, which because of this for a long time retains semi-feudal features. Prussian landlordism was not crushed by the bourgeois revolution; it survived and became the basis of “Junker” economy, which is essentially capitalistic, but involves a certain degree of dependence of the rural population1 such as the Gesindeordnung,[4] etc. As a consequence, the social and political domination of the. Junkers was consolidated for many decades after 1848, and, the productive forces of German agriculture developed far more slowly than in America. There, on the contrary, it was not the old slave-holding economy of the big landowners that became the basis of capitalist agriculture (the Civil War smashed the slave-owners’ estates), but the free economy of the free farmer working on free land—free from all medieval fetters, from serfdom and. feudalism on the one hand, and from the fetters of private property in land, on the other. Land was given away in America, out of its vast resources, at a nominal price; and it is only on a new, fully capitalist basis that private property in land has now developed there.

Both these paths of capitalist development quite clearly emerged in Russia after 1861. The progress of landlord farming is undoubted, and the slowness of this progress is not accidental, but inevitable so long as the survivals of serfdom remain. It is also beyond doubt that the freer the peasants are, the less they are weighed down by the remnants of’ serfdom (in the south, for example, all these favourable conditions exist), and finally, the better, all in all, the peasants are provided with land, the greater is the differentiation among the peasantry and the more rapid is the process of forming a class of rural capitalist farmers. The whole question of the further development of the country boils down to this: which of the.two paths of development will ultimately prevail, and, correspondingly, which class will carry through the necessary and inevitable change—the old land- owning gentry or the free peasant farmer?

It is often thought in Russia that nationalisation of the land means removing the land from the sphere of commerce.   This, undoubtedly, is the point of view of the majority of the advanced peasants and of ideologists of the peasantry. But this view is deeply fallacious. The very opposite is the case. Private property in land is an obstacle to the free investment of capital in land. Therefore, where the free renting of land from the state exists(and this is the essence of nationalisation in bourgeois society) the land is drawn more energetically into the sphere of commerce than is the case where private property in land prevails. There is much more freedom of capital investment in land, and freedom of competition in agriculture, where land is freely rented than where land is private property. Nationalisation of the land is, as it were, landlordism without the landlord. And what landlordism in the capitalist development of agriculture means is explained in the remarkably profound arguments of Marx in his Theories’ of Surplus-Value. I have quoted these arguments in my work on the agrarian programme mentioned above, but in view of the importance of the question, I take the liberty of repeating them here.[2]

In the paragraph on the historical conditions of Ricardo’s theory of rent (Theorien über den Mehrwert, II. Band, 2. Teil, Stuttgart, 1905, S. 5-7), Marx says that Ricardo and Anderson “start out from the view, regarded as very strange on the Continent”, viz., they presume that “no landed property exists as an obstacle to any investment of capital in the land”. At first sight this would seem a contradiction, because it is precisely in England that feudal landed property is considered to have been preserved more completely than anywhere else. But Marx explains that it was in England of all countries that capital “dealt so ruthlessly with the traditional relations of agriculture”. England is in this respect “the most revolutionary country in the world”. “All historically inherited relations—not only the position of the villages but the very villages themselves, not only the habitations of the agricultural population, but this population itself, not only the ancient economic centres, but the very economy itself—have been ruthlessly swept away where they were in contradiction to the conditions of capitalist production in agriculture, or did not correspond to those conditions. The   German [continues Marx] finds economic relations determined by the traditional common-land relations [Feldmarken], the position of economic centres, and particular conglomerations of the population. The Englishman finds that the historical conditions of agriculture have been progressively created by capital since the fifteenth century. The technical expression customary in the United Kingdom, the ’clearing of estates’, does not occur in any continental country. But what does this ’clearing of estates’ mean? It means that, without regard for the local population—which is. driven away, for existing villages—which are levelled to the ground, for farm buildings—which are torn down, for the kind of agriculture—which is transformed at a stroke, being converted for example from tillage to pasture, all conditions of production, instead of being accepted as they are handed down by tradition, are historically fashioned in the form necessary under the circumstances for the most profitable investment of capital. To that extent, therefore, no landed property exists; it allows capital—the farmer—to manage freely, since it is only concerned about the money income. A Pomeranian land owner [Marx refers to Rodbertus, whose theory of rent he refutes brilliantly and in detail in this work], his mind full ’of his ancestral common lands, economic centres, and the agricultural collegium, etc., is quite likely, therefore, to hold up his hands in horror at Ricardo’s ‘unhistorical’ views on the development of agricultural relations.” As a matter of fact, “the English conditions are the only ones in which modern landed property, i. e., landed property modified by capitalist, production, has developed adequately [in ideal perfection]. Here the English theory [i.e., Ricardo’s theory of rent] is the classical one for the modern, i.e., capitalist mode of production."

In England, the clearing of the estates proceeded in revolutionary forms, accompanied by the violent break-up of peasant landowning. The break-up of the old and obsolete order is absolutely inevitable in Russia ’too; but the nineteenth century (and the first seven years of the twentieth) have not yet settled the question’ as to which’ class will do the’ breaking-up that we need, and in what form. We have shown above what the basis of the distribution of land is   in Russia at the present time. We have seen that 10 1/2 million peasant households with 75 million dessiatines of land are confronted by 30,000 owners of latifundia with 70 million dessiatines. A possible outcome of the struggle, which cannot help breaking out on this basis, is that the holding of land by the ten million households will be almost doubled, while the holding of land by the upper 30,000 will disappear. Let us examine this possible outcome from the purely theoretical point of view, from the point of view of the state of the agrarian question in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. What should be the results of such a change? From the standpoint of landowning relations, it is obvious that the medieval ownership of allotments and medieval landlordism would be completely refashioned. The old order would be utterly swept away. Nothing ’traditional would be left in landowning relations. What factor, however, would deter mine the new agrarian relations? The “principle” of equalisation? That is what the advanced peasant, affected by Narodnik ideology, is inclined to believe. That is what the Narodnik thinks. But it is an illusion. In the commune the “principle” of equalisation, recognised by law and hallowed by custom, leads, in fact, to landownership becoming adapt ed to differences in property status. And on the basis of this economic fact, confirmed a thousand times over both by Russian and West-European data, we assert that hopes of equalisation would be shattered as an illusion, and that the refashioning of landownership would be the only durable result. Would the significance of such a result be great? Very great, because no other measure, no other reform, no other transformation could give such complete guarantees for the most rapid, wide and free progress of agricultural technique in Russia, and for the disappearance from our life of all traces of serfdom, social-estates, and the Asiatic way of life.

Progress of technique?—some may object. But has it not been proved above by means of precise data that land lord farming is on a higher level than peasant farming in ’regard to grass cultivation, the employment of machines, the manuring of the soil, and, of course, the quality of live stock, etc.? Yes, it has been proved, and this fact is absolutely beyond doubt. But it must not be forgotten that all   these differences in economic organisation, technique. etc., are summed up in yield. And we have seen that the yield on the landlords’ lands cultivated by peasants on a métayer or other such basis is lower than the yield on allotment land. That is the point nearly always overlooked when the agricultural ’level of landlord and peasant farming in Russia is discussed. Landlord farming is on a higher level insofar as it is conducted on capitalist lines. And the whole point is that this “insofar”, at the end of the nineteenth century, has left the labour-service system as the predominant system of farming’ in our central districts. Insofar as the landlords’ lands are still cultivated by the bonded peasant with his antiquated implements, methods, etc., to that extent landlordism is the principal cause of backwardness and stagnation. The change in the system of landownership that we are discussing would increase the yield on métayer and rented land (at the present time the yield on such land—see the figures above—is 50 and 45 poods as compared with 54 poods on allotment land and 66 poods on landlords’ land cultivated on capitalist lines). Even if this yield were increased only to the allotment-land level, the progress would be tremendous. Needless to say, the yield on allotment land would also in crease,’ both as a result of the peasant being freed from the yoke of the feudal latifundia, and also because the allotment lands, like the rest of the land in the state, would then be-. come free land; equally accessible (not to all citizens, but to citizens owning agricultural capital, i. e.—) to farmers.

This conclusion follows not at all from the data we have quoted concerning yield. On the contrary, these data, have been quoted merely’ to give a graphic illustration of the conclusion that follows from the sum total of data concerning the evolution of Russian landlord and peasant farming. To refute this conclusion, one has to refute the fact that the history of Russian agriculture in the second half of the nineteenth century is the history of the replacing of feudal by bourgeois production relations.

By sticking to the data concerning the number of peasant farms ’at the present time we may get the impression that the agrarian transformation we are examining would lead to a considerable fragmentation of agriculture. Just think of it! Thirteen million households on 280 million dessiatines   of land! Is not this a monstrous splitting up of the land? To this we reply: it is now that we see such a tremendous splitting up of the land, for it is now that thirteen million farms are operating on an area of less than 280 million dessiatines! Consequently, the change we are interested in would not make things worse at all in this respect. More than that. We would ask further whether there are any grounds for thinking that in the event of this change the number of farms will remain unchanged? That is the view usually taken by those who are influenced by Narodnik theories or by the opinions of the peasants themselves, whose every thought and striving is drawn to the land and who can even dream of the industrial workers being converted into small tillers of the soil. Undoubtedly, a certain number of Russian industrial workers at the end of the nineteenth century also adhere to this peasant point of view. The question, however, is whether this point of view is correct, whether it conforms to the objective economic conditions and to the course of economic development. One merely has to put this question clearly in order to see that the peasant ’point of view is conditioned by the obsolescent and irrevocable past, and not by the growing future. The peasant point of view is wrong. It represents the ideology of yesterday, whereas economic development is, in effect, leading not to an increase but to a diminution of the agricultural population.

The change in landownership relations that we are examining will not and cannot abolish this process of diminution of the proportion of the agricultural population, a process common to all countries of developing capitalism. I may be asked, in what way could this change bring about a diminution of the agricultural population, once the land becomes freely accessible to ’all? I shall reply to this question with a passage from a speech delivered in the Duma by a peasant deputy Mr. Chizhevsky (Poltava Gubernia). Speaking on May 24, 1906, he said: “In our district, the peasants, the electors who sent us here, figured things out like this: ’If we were a little better off, and if every one of our families could afford to spend five or six rubles a year on sugar—then in every uyezd where it is possible to grow sugar-beet several sugar refineries would be built, in addition to those which already exist.’ It is quite natural that if these sugar refineries   were built, what a mass of hands would be needed if production were intensified! The output of the sugar refineries would increase, etc.” (Verbatim Reports, p. 622.)

This is a very characteristic admission by a local leader. Had he been asked his opinion on the significance of agrarian reform in general, he would probably have expressed Narodnik views. But once it was a question not of “opinions” but of the concrete consequences of reform, capitalist truth immediately prevailed over Narodnik utopia. For what the peasants told their deputy Mr. Chizhevsky is precisely the capitalist truth, the truth of capitalist reality. There really would be a tremendous increase in the number of sugar refineries and in their productivity in the event of any appreciable improvement in the condition of the mass of small tillers of the soil. And it goes without saying that not only the beet-sugar industry,’ but all the manufacturing industries—textile, iron, engineering, building, etc., etc.—would receive a tremendous impetus, and would need a “mass of hands”. And this economic necessity would prove stronger than all the fond hopes and dreams about equalisation. Three and a quarter million horseless households will not become “farmers” as a result of any agrarian reform, or any changes in landownership, or any “allotting of land”. These millions of households (and quite a few of one-horse households), as we have seen, straggle on their patches of land, let their allotments. An American development of industry would inevitably divert from agriculture the majority of such farmers, whose position in capitalist society is hopeless, and no “right to the land” will be able to prevent this. Thirteen million small farmers with the most miserable, beggarly and obsolete implements, scratching away at their allotment and the landlords’ land—that is the reality of today; that is artificial over-population in agriculture, artificial in the sense of the forcible retention of those feudalist relations which have long outlived their day, and which could not be maintained for a single day without floggings, shootings, punitive expeditions, etc. Any tangible improvement in the condition of the masses, any serious blow to the survivals of serfdom, would inevitably strike at the roots of this over-population of the countryside and would immensely accelerate the process (which is taking   place slowly even now) of diverting the population from agriculture into industry, reduce the number of farms from 13 million to a much lower figure, and would lead Russia f or- ward in the American and not in the Chinese manner, as is the case now.

The agrarian question in Russia towards the close of the nineteenth century has imposed upon the classes of society the task of putting an end to the old feudal past and sweeping clear the landowning system, sweeping clear the whole way for capitalism, for the growth of the productive forces, for the free and open struggle of classes. And this very struggle of classes will determine the manner in which this task will be accomplished.

July 1 (new style), 1908


[1] See present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 294–325.—Ed.

[2] See present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 272–76.—Ed.

[3] Cf. K. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow, pp. 173-87.

[4] Gesindeordnung—"Regulation for Servants”, 1854. One of numerous laws in Prussia depriving farm labourers of all civil rights. Under this law the mere attempt of labourers to organise a strike was punishable with imprisonment.

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