V. I.   Lenin

New Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in Agriculture

PART ONE—Capitalism and Agriculture in the United States of America


5. The Capitalist Nature of Agriculture

Capitalism in agriculture is usually gauged by the data on the size of farms or the number and importance of big farms (in terms of acreage). I have examined some of these data and shall return to the problem later on, but it must be said that all these are, after all, indirect indications, for acreage is not always an indication, and not by any means a direct indication, that a farm is really big as an economic enterprise, or that it is capitalist in character.

In this respect the data on hired labour are far more indicative and offer better proof. Agricultural censuses taken in recent years, such as the Austrian of 1902 and the German of 1907, which I shall examine elsewhere, show that the employment of hired labour in present-day agriculture—and especially in small-scale farming—is much greater than is generally believed. Nothing so obviously and categorically refutes the petty-bourgeois myth about small “family” farms as do these figures.

American statisticians have collected very extensive material on this, for each farmer’s individual census form asks whether he spends anything on hired labour, and, if he does, exactly how much. In contrast to European statistics—such as those of the two countries just named—no record is made in American statistics of the number of hired labourers employed at the time by each farmer, although that could be easily discovered, and the scientific value of such in formation, in addition to the returns on the total expenditure on hired labour, would indeed be very great. But the worst thing is the very poor tabulation of these returns in the 1910 Census, which is in general presented much more poorly than the 1900 Census. The 1910 Census groups all   farms by acreage (as does the 1900 Census) but, by contrast, it does not give any figures on the employment of hired labour by these groups. This makes it impossible for us to compare the employment of hired labour by farms with small and with large acreages. The Census merely gives the average figures for the states and the sections, i.e., data lumping together capitalist and non-capitalist farms.

I shall make a special point of going into the more elaborate data for 1900 later on; meanwhile, here are the figures for 1910; in fact they relate to 1899 and 1909.

Sections Percentage of farm hiring labour (1909) Increase of expenditure
on hired labour
1899-1909 (%)
Expenditure on hire labour per acre of improved land ($)
1909 1899
The North 55.1 + 70.8 1.26 0.82
The South 36.6 + 87.1 1.07 0.69
The West 52.5 +119.0 3.25 2.07

The U. S. A. 45.9 + 82.3 1.36 0.86

The first thing that is made obvious by these figures is that agriculture is most capitalistic in the North (55.1% of farms employ hired labour); then, follows the West (52.5%) and, lastly, the South (36.6%). That is just as it should be when any densely populated and industrial area is being compared with an area still under going colonization and with an area of share-cropping. It goes without saying that figures on the proportion of farms employing hired labour are more suitable for a precise comparison of the sections than data on the expenditure on hired labour per acre of improved land. For the latter type of data to be comparable, the level of wages in the sections would have to be the same. No information on farm wages in the U.S.A. is available but in the light of the basic distinctions between the sections it is inconceivable that their wage levels are the same.

Thus, in the North and in the West—the two sections which together have two-thirds of the improved land and two-thirds of the livestock—more than one-half the farmers cannot manage without hired labour. The proportion is smaller in the South only because there the semi-feudal (alias   semi-slave) system of exploitation in the form of share-cropping is still strong. There is no doubt that in America, as in all the other capitalist countries, a part of the handicapped farmers have to sell their labour-power. Unfortunately, American statistics do not contain any information about this, in contrast, for example, to the 1907 German statistics, in which these data have been collected and worked out in detail. According to the German statistics, hiring themselves out as labourers is the main occupation of 1,940,867 persons, i.e., over 30%, of the 5,736,082 owners of farms (a total which includes the very small “owners”). To be sure, the mass of these farm-hands and day-labourers with a bit of land of their own belong to the poorest groups of farmers.

Let us assume that in the U.S.A., where the smallest farms (of less than three acres) are as a general rule not registered at all, only 10% of the farmers sell their labour-power. Even then we find that more than one-third of the farmers are directly exploited by the landlords and capitalists (24% share-croppers who are exploited by former slave-owners in feudal or semi-feudal fashion, plus 10% who are exploited by the capitalists, or altogether 34%). This means that of the total number of farmers a minority, hardly more than one-fifth or one-quarter, neither hire labourers nor hire themselves out or sell themselves into bondage.

Such is the actual state of affairs in the country of “model and advanced” capitalism, in the country with free distribution of millions of dessiatines of land. Here again the famous non-capitalist, small-scale “family” farming proves to be a myth.

How many hired labourers are engaged in American agriculture? Is their number increasing or decreasing in proportion to the total number of farmers and the total rural population?

It is regrettable that American statistics do not provide a direct answer to these highly important questions. Let us find an approximate answer.

Firstly, we can obtain an approximate answer from the returns on occupations (Volume IV of the Census reports). These stalistics are not an American “success”. They are   compiled in such a routine, mechanical, incongruous manner that they contain no information on the status of the persons employed, i.e., no distinction is made between farmers, family workers, and hired labourers. Instead of making a precise economic classification, the compilers were content to use “popular” terminology, absurdly bracketing members of farmers’ families and hired labourers under the head of farm workers. As we know it is not only in American statistics that there is complete chaos on this question.

The 1910 Census makes an attempt to bring some order into this chaos, to correct the obvious mistakes and to separate at least a part of the hired labourers (those working out) from members of the family working on the home farm. In a series of calculations the statisticians correct the total number of persons engaged in farming, reducing it by 468,100 (Vol. IV, p. 27). The number of females working out is set at 220,048 for 1900, and 337,522 for 1910 (an increase of 53%). The number of males working out in 1910 was 2,299,444. Assuming that in 1900 the proportion of hired labourers to the total number of farm workers was the same as in 1910, the number of males working out in 1900 must have been 1,798,165. We then obtain this picture:

Total engaged in agriculture
Number of farmers
Number of hired labourers
+ 5

That is, the percentage increase in the number of hired labourers was over five times greater than in that of farmers (27% and 5%). The proportion of farmers in the rural population decreased; the proportion of hired labourers increased. The proportion of independent farm operators to the total farming population dropped; the number of dependent, exploited persons, increased.

In 1907, hired farm labourers in Germany numbered 4.5 million out of a total of 15 million persons working on the home farm and working out. Consequently, 30% were hired labourers. In America, according to the estimate given above, the figure was 2.5 million out of 12 million, i.e., 21%. It is possible that the availability of vacant   land distributed free, and the high percentage of share cropping tenants tended to lower the percentage of hired labourers in America.

Secondly, an approximate answer may be provided by the figures on expenditure on hired labour in 1899 and 1909. During the same period, the number of industrial wage-workers increased from 4.7 million to 6.6 million, i.e., 40%, and their wages from $2,008 million to $3,427 million, i.e., 70%. (It should be borne in mind that the rise in the cost of living cancelled out this nominal increase in wages.)

On the strength of this we may assume that the 82% increase in expenditure on hired farm labour corresponds to an increase of approximately 48% in the number of hired labourers. Making a similar assumption for the three main sections we obtain the following picture:

Sections Percentage increase from 1900 to 1910
Total rural population
Number of farms
Number of hired labourers
The North + 3.9 + 0.6 +40
The South +14.8 +18.2 +50
The West +49.7 +53.7 +66

The U. S. A. +11.2 +10.9 +48

These figures also show that for the country as a whole the increase in the number of farmers is not keeping pace with the growth of the rural population, while the increase in the number of hired labourers is outstripping the growth of the rural population. In other words: the proportion of independent farm operators is decreasing, and the proportion of dependent farm workers is increasing.

It should be noted that the great difference between the increase in the number of hired labourers obtained in the first estimate (+27%) and in the second (+48%) is quite possible because in the former only the professional farm labourers were enumerated, and in the latter, every instance of employment of hired labour was taken into account. In farming, seasonal hired labour is highly important, and it should be the rule, therefore, that it is never enough to determine the number of hired labourers, permanent   and seasonal, but that an effort must also be made to determine, as far as possible, the total expenditure on hired labour.

At any rate, both estimates definitely show a growth of capitalism in agriculture in the U.S.A., and an increase in the employment of hired labour, which is proceeding at a faster pace than the growth of the rural population and of the number of farmers.


  4. Average Size of Farms, “Disintegration of Capitalism” in the South | 6. Areas of the Most Intensive Agriculture  

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