Engels 1894: The Peasant Question in France and Germany

Part 1: France

The rural population in which we can address ourselves consists of quite different parts, which vary greatly with the various regions.

In the west of Germany, as in France and Belgium, there prevails the small-scale cultivations of small-holding peasants, the majority of whom own and the minority of whom rent their parcels of land.

In the northwest — in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein — we have a preponderance of big and middle peasants who cannot do without male and female farm servants and even day labourers. The same is true of part of Bavaria.

In Prussia east of the Elbe, and in Mecklenburg, we have the regions of big landed estates and large-scale cultivation with hinds, cotters, and day laborers, and in between small and middle peasants in relatively unimportant and steadily decreasing proportion.

In central Germany, all of these forms of production and ownership are found mixed in various proportions, depending upon the locality, without the decided prevalence of any particular form over a large area.

Besides, there are localities varying in extent where the arable land owned or rented is insufficient to provide for the subsistence of the family, but can serve only as the basis for operating a domestic industry and enabling the latter to pay the otherwise incomprehensibly low wages that ensure the steady sale of its products despite all foreign competition.

Which of these subdivisions of the rural population can be won over by the Social-Democratic party? We, of course, investigate this question only in broad outline; we single out only clear-forms. We lack space to give consideration in intermediate stages and mixed rural populations.

Let us begin with the small peasant. Not only is he, of all peasants, the most important for Western Europe in general, but he is also the critical case that decides the entire question. Once we have clarified in our minds our attitude to the small peasant, we have all the data needed to determine our stand relative to the other constituent parts of the rural population.

By small peasant we mean here the owners or tenant — particularly the former — of a patch of land no bigger, as a rule, than he and his family can till, and no smaller than can sustain the family. This small peasant, just like the small handicraftsman, is therefore a toiler who differs from the modern proletarian in that he still possesses his instruments of labor; hence, a survival of a past mode of production. There is a threefold difference between him and his ancestor, the serf, bondman, or, quite exceptionally, the free peasant liable to rent and feudal services. First, in that the French Revolution freed him from feudal services and dues that he owed to the landlord and, in the majority of cases, at least on the left bank of the Rhine, assigned his peasant farm to him as his own free property.

Secondly, in that he lost the protection of, and the right to participate in, the self-administering Mark community, and hence his share in the emoluments of the former common Mark. The common Mark was whisked away partly by the erstwhile feudal lord and partly by enlightened bureaucratic legislation patterned after Roman law. This deprives the small peasant of modern times of the possibility of feeding his draft animals without buying fodder. Economically, however, the loss of the emoluments derived from the Mark by far outweighs the benefits accruing from the abolition of feudal services. The number of peasants unable to keep draft animals of their own is steadily increasing.

Thirdly, the peasant of today has lost half of his former productive activity. Formerly, he and his family produced, from raw material he had made himself, the greater part of the industrial products that he needed; the rest of what he required was supplied by village neighbors who plied a trade in addition to farming and were paid mostly in articles of exchange or in reciprocal services. The family, and still more the village, was self-sufficient, produced almost everything it needed. It was natural economy almost unalloyed; almost no money was necessary. Capitalist production put an end to this by its money economy and large-scale industry. But if the Mark emoluments represented one of the basic conditions of his existence, his industrial side line was another. And thus the peasant sinks ever lower. Taxes, crop failures, divisions of inheritance and litigations drive one peasant after another into the arms of the usurer; the indebtedness becomes more and more general and steadily increases in amount in each case — in brief, our small peasant, like every other survival of a past mode of production, is hopelessly doomed. He is a future proletarian.

As such, he ought to lend a ready ear in socialist propaganda. But he is prevented from doing so for the time being by his deep-rooted sense of property. The more difficult it is for him to defend his endangered patch of land, the more desperately he clings to it, the more he regards the Social-Democrats, who speak of transferring landed property to the whole of society, as just as dangerous a foe as the usurer and lawyer. How is Social-Democracy to overcome this prejudice? What can is offer to the doomed small peasant without becoming untrue to itself?

Here we find a practical point of support in the agrarian programme of the French Socialists of the Marxian trend, a programme which is the more noteworthy as it comes from the classical land of small-peasant economy.

The Marseilles Congress of 1892 adopted the first agrarian programme of the Party. It demands for propertyless rural workers (that is to say, day laborers and hinds): minimum wages fixed by trade unions and community councils; rural trade courts consisting half of workers; prohibition of the sale of common lands; and the leasing of public domain lands to communities which are to rent all this land, whether owned by them or rented, to associations of propertyless families of farm laborers for common cultivation, on conditions that the employment of wage-workers be prohibited and that the communities exercise control; old-age and invalid pensions, to be defrayed by means of a special tax on big landed estates.

For the small peasants, with special consideration for tenant farmers, purchase of machinery by the community to be leased at cost price to the peasants; the formation of peasant co-operatives for the purchase of manure, drain-pipes, seed, etc., and for the sale of the produce; abolition of the real estate transfer tax if the value involved does not exceed 5,000 francs; arbitration commissions of the Irish pattern to reduce exorbitant rentals and compensate quitting tenant farmers and sharecroppers (me'tayers) for appreciation of the land due to them; repeal of article 2102 of the Civil Code which allows a landlord to on the distraint crop, and the abolition of the right of creditors to levy on growing crops; exemption from levy and distraint of a definite amount of farm implements and of the crop, seed, manure, draft animals, in shirt, whatever is indispensable to the peasant for carrying on his business; revision of the general cadastre, which has long been out of date, and until such time a local revision in each community; lastly, free instruction in farming, and agricultural experimental stations.

As we see, the demands made in the interests of the peasants — those made in the interests of the workers do not concern us here, for the time being — are not very far-reaching. Part of them has already been realised elsewhere. The tenants' arbitration courts follow the Irish prototype by express mention. Peasant co-operatives already exist in the Rhine provinces. The revision of the cadastre has been a constant pious wish of all liberals, and even bureaucrats, throughout Western Europe. The other points, too, could be carried into effect without any substantial impairment of the existing capitalist order. So much simply in characterisation of the programme. No reproach is intended; quite the contrary.

The Party did such a good business with this programme among the peasants in the most diverse parts of France that — since appetite comes with eating — one felt constrained to suit it still more to their taste. It was felt, however, that this would be treading on dangerous ground. How was the peasant to be helped — not the peasant as a future proletarian, but as a present propertied peasant — without violating the basic principles of the general socialist programme? In order to meet this objection, the new practical proposals were prefaced by a theoretical preamble, which seeks to prove that it is in keeping with the principles of socialism to protect small-peasant property from destruction by the capitalist mode of production, although one is perfectly aware that this destruction is inevitable. Let us now examine more closely this preamble as well as the demands themselves, which were adopted by the Nantes Congress in September of this year.

The preamble begins as follows:

Whereas according to the terms of the general programme of the Party producers can be free only in so far as they are in possession of the means of production;

Whereas in the sphere of industry these means of production have already reached such a degree of capitalist centralisation that they can be restored to the producers only in the collective or social form, but in the sphere of agriculture — at least in present-day France — this is by no means the case, the means of production, namely, the land, being in very many localities still in the hands of the individual producers themselves as their individuals possession;

Whereas even if this state of affairs characterized by small-holding ownership is irretrievably doomed (est fatalement appete' a dispaitre), still it is not for socialism to hasten its doom, as its task does not consist in separating property from labor but, on the contrary, in uniting both of these factors of all production by placing them in the same hands, factors the separation of which entails the servitude and poverty of the workers reduced to proletarians;

Whereas, on the one hand, it is the duty of socialism to put the agricultural proletarians again in possession — collective or social in form — of the great domains after expropriating their present idle ownership, it is, on the other hand, on less its imperative duty to maintain the peasants themselves tilling their patches of land in possession of the same as against the fisk, the usurer, and the encroachments of the newly-arisen big landowners;

Whereas it is expedient to extend this protection also to the producers who as tenants or sharecroppers (me'tayers) cultivate the land owned by others and who, if they exploit day laborers, are to a certain extent compelled to do so because of the exploitation to which they themselves are subjected —

Therefore the Workers' Party — which unlike the anarchists does not count on an increase and spread of poverty for the transformation of the social order but expects labor and society in general to be emancipated only by the organisation and concerted efforts of the workers of both country and town, by their taking possession of the government and legislation — has adopted the following agrarian programme in order thereby to bring together all the elements of rural production, all occupations which by virtue of various rights and titles utilise the national soil, to wage an identical struggle against the common for: the feudality of landownership.

Now, for a closer examination of these "whereases".

To being with, the statement in the French programme that freedom of the producers presupposes the possession of the means of production must be supplemented by those immediately following: either as individual possession, which form never and nowhere existed for the producers in general, and is daily being made more impossible by industrial progress; or as common possession, a form the material and intellectual preconditions of which have been established by the development of capitalist society itself; that therefore taking collective possession of the means of production must be fought for by all means at the disposal of the proletariat.

The common possession of the means of production is thus set forth here as the sole principal goal to be striven for. Not only in industry, where the ground has already been prepared, but in general, hence also in agriculture. According to the programme, individual possession never and nowhere obtained generally for all producers; for that very reason, and because industrial progress removes it anyhow, socialism is not interested in maintaining but rather in removing it; because where it exists and in so far as it exists it makes common possession impossible. Once we cite the programme in support of our contention, we must cite the entire programme, which considerably modifies the proposition quoted in Nantes; for it makes the general historical truth expressed in it dependent upon the conditions under which alone it can remain a truth today in Western Europe and North America.

Possession of the means of production by the individual producers nowadays no longer grants these producers real freedom. Handicraft has already been ruined in the cities; in metropolises like London, it has already disappeared entirely, having been superseded by large-scale industry, the sweatshop system and miserable bunglers who thrive on bankruptcy. The self-supporting small peasant is neither in the safe possession of his tiny patch of land, nor is he free. He, as well as his house, his farmstead, and his new fields, belong to the usurer; his livelihood is more uncertain than that of the proletarian, who at least does have tranquil days now and then, which is never the case with the eternally tortured debt slave. Strike out Article 2102 of the Civil Code, provide by law that a definite amount of a peasant's farm implements, cattle, etc., shall be exempt from levy and distraint; yet you cannot ensure him against an emergency in which he is compelled to sell his cattle "voluntarily", in which he must sign himself away, body and soul, to the usurer and be glad to get a reprieve. Your attempt to protect the small peasant in his property does not protect his liberty but only the particular form of his servitude; it prolongs a situation in which he can neither live nor die. It is, therefore, entirely out of place here to cite the first paragraph of your programme as authority for your contention.

The preamble states that in present-day France, the means of production — that is, the land — is in very many localities still in the hands of individual producers as their individual possession; that, however, it is not the task of socialism to separate property from labor, but, on the contrary, to unite these two factors of all production by placing them in the same hands. As has already been pointed out, the latter in this general form is by no means the task of socialism. Its task is, rather, only to transfer the means of production to the producers as their common possession. As soon as we lose sight of this, the above statement becomes directly misleading in that it implies that it is the mission of socialism to convert the present sham property of the small peasant in his fields into real property — that is to say, to convert the small tenant into an owner and the indebted owner into a debtless owner. Undoubtedly, socialism is interested to see that the false semblance of peasant property should disappear, but not in this manner.

At any rate, we have now got so far that the preamble can straightforwardly declare it to be the duty of socialism, indeed, its imperative duty,

"to maintain the peasants themselves tilling their patches of land in possession of the same as against the fisk, the usurer and the encroachments of the newly-arisen big landowners."

The preamble thus imposes upon socialism the imperative duty to carry out something which it had declared to be impossible in the preceding paragraph. It charges it to "maintain" the small-holding ownership of the peasants although it itself states that this form of ownership is "irretrievably doomed". What are the fisk, the usurer, and the newly-arisen big landowners if not the instruments by means of which capitalist production brings about this inevitable doom? What means "socialism" is to employ to protect the peasant against this trinity, we shall see below.

But not only the small peasant is to be protected in his property. It is likewise

"expedient to extend this protection also to the producers who, as tenants or sharecroppers (Metayers), cultivate the land owned by others and who, if they exploit day laborers, are to a certain extent compelled to do so because of the exploitation to which they themselves are subjected".

Here, we are entering upon ground that is passing strange. Socialism is particularly opposed to the exploitation of wage labor. And here it is declared to be the imperative duty of socialism to protect the French tenants when they "exploit day laborers", as the text literally states! And that because they are compelled to do so to a certain by "the exploitation to which they themselves are subjected"!

How easy and pleasant it is to keep on coasting once you are on the toboggan slide! When now the big and middle peasants of Germany come to ask the French Socialists to intercede with the German Party Executive to get the German Social-Democratic Party to protect them in the exploitation of their male and female farm servants, citing in support of the contention the "exploitation to which they themselves are subjected" by usurers, tax collectors, grain speculators and cattle dealers, what will they answer? What guarantee have they that our agrarian big landlords will not send them Count Kanitz (as he also submitted a proposal like theirs, providing for a state monopoly of grain importation) and likewise ask for socialist protection of their exploitation of the rural workers, citing in support "the exploitation to which they themselves are subjected" by stock-jobbers, money lender, and grain speculators?

Let us say here, at the outset, that the intentions of our French friends are not as bad as one would suppose. The above sentence, we are told, is intended to cover only a quite special case — namely, the following: In Northern France, just as in our sugar-beet districts, land is leased to the peasants subject to the obligation to cultivate beets, on conditions which are extremely onerous. They must deliver the beets to a state factory at a price fixed by it, must but definite seed, use a fixed quantity of prescribed fertilizer, and on delivery are badly cheated into t he bargain. We know all about this in Germany, as well. But,if this sort of peasant is to be taken under one's wing, this must be said openly and expressly. As the sentence reads now, in its unlimited general form, it is a direct violation not only of the French programme, but also of the fundamental principle of socialism in general, and its authors will have no cause for complaint if this careless piece of editing is used against them in various quarters to their intention.

Also capable of such misconstruction are the concluding words of the preamble according to which it is the task of the Socialist Workers' Party

"to bring together all the elements of rural production, all occupations which, by virtue of various rights and titles, utilize the national soil, to wage an identical struggle against the common foe: the feudality of landownership".

I flatly deny that the socialist workers' party of any country is charged with the task of taking into its fold, in addition to the rural proletarians and the small peasants, also the idle and big peasants and perhaps even the tenants of the big estates, the capitalist cattle breeders and other capitalist exploiters of the national soil. To all of them, the feudality of landownership may appear to be a common foe. On certain questions, we may make common cause with them and be able to fight side by side with them for definite aims. We can use in our Party individuals from every class of society, but have no use whatever for any groups representing capitalist, middle-bourgeois,or middle-peasant interests. Here, too, what they mean is not as bad as it looks. The authors evidently never even gave all this a thought. But unfortunately they allowed themselves to be carried away by their zeal for generalization and they must not be surprised if they are taken at their word.

After the preamble come the newly-adopted addenda to the programme itself. They betray the same cursory editing as the preamble.

The article providing that the communities must procure farming machinery and lease it at cost to the peasants is modified so as to provide that the communities are, in the first place, to receive state subsidies for this purpose and, secondly, that the machinery is to be placed at the disposal of the small peasants gratis. This further concession will not be of much avail to the small peasants, whose fields and mode of production permit of but little use of machinery.


"substitution of a single progressive tax on all incomes upward of 3,000 francs for all existing direct and indirect taxes".

A similar demand has been included for many years in almost every Social-Democratic programme. But that this demand is raised in the special interests of the small peasants is something new and shows only how little its real scope has been calculated. take Great Britain. There the state budget amounts to 90 million pounds sterling, of which 13.5 to 14 million are accounted for by the income tax. The smaller part of the remaining 76 million is contributed by taxing business (post and telegraph charges, stamp tax), but by far the greater part of it by imposts on articles of mass consumption, by the constantly repeated clipping of small, imperceptible amounts totalling many millions from the incomes of all members of the population, but particularly of tis poorer sections. In present-day society, it is scarcely possible to defray state expenditures in any other way. Suppose the whole 90 million are saddled in Great Britain on the incomes of 120 pounds sterling = 3,000 francs and in excess thereof by the imposition of a progressive direct tax. The average annual accumulation, the annual increase of the aggregate national wealth, amounted in 1865 to 1875, according to Giffen, to 240 million pounds sterling. Let us assume it now equals 200 million annually; a tax burden of 90 million would consume almost one-third of the aggregate accumulation. In other words, no government except a Socialist one can undertake any such thing. When the Socialists are at the helm there will be things for them to carry into execution alongside of which that tax reform will figure as a mere, and quite insignificant, settlement for the moment while altogether different prospects open up before the small peasants.

One seems to realize that the peasant will have to wait rather long for this tax reform so that "in the meantime" (en attendant) the following prospect is held out to them:

"Abolition of taxes on land for all peasants living by their own labor, and reduction of these taxes on all mortgaged plots."

The latter half of this demand can refer only to peasant farms too big to be operated by the family itself; hence, it is again a provision in favor of peasants who "exploit day laborers".


"Hunting and fishing rights without restrictions other than such as may be necessary for the conservation of game and fish and the protection of growing crops."

This sounds very popular, but the concluding part of the sentence wipes out the introductory part. How many rabbits, partridges, pikes, and carps, are there even today per peasant family in all rural localities? Would you say more than would warrant giving each peasant jut one day a year for free hunting and fishing?

"Lowering of the legal and conventional rate of interest" —

hence, renewed usury laws, a renewed attempt to introduce a police measure that has always filed everywhere for the last two thousand years. If a small peasant finds himself in a position where recourse to a usurer is the lesser evil to him, the usurer will always find ways and means of sucking him dry without falling foul of the usury laws. This measure could serve at most to soothe the small peasant, but he will derive no advantage from it; on the contrary, it makes it more difficult for him to obtain credit precisely when he needs it most.

"Medical service free of charge and medicines at cost price" —

this at any rate is not a measure for the special protection of the peasants. The German programme goes further and demands that medicine too should be free of charge.

"Compensation for families of reservists called up for military duty for the duration of their service" —

this already exists, though most inadequately, in Germany and Austria and is likewise no special peasant demand.

"Lowering of the transport charges for fertilizer and farm machinery and products" —

is on the whole in effect in Germany, and mainly in the interest — of the big landowners.

"Immediate preparatory work for the elaboration of a plan of public works for the amelioration of the soil and the development of agricultural production" —

leaves everything in the realm of uncertitude and beautiful promises and is also above all in the interest of the big landed estates.

In brief, after the tremendous theoretical effort exhibited in the preamble, the practical proposals of the new agrarian programme are even more unrevealing as to the way in which the French Workers' Party expects to be able to maintain the small peasants in possession of their small holdings, which, on its own territory, are irretrievably doomed.