Engels 1894: The Peasant Question in France and Germany


The bourgeois and reactionary parties greatly wonder why everywhere among Socialists the peasant question has now suddenly been placed upon the order of the day. What they should be wondering at, by rights, is that this has not been done long ago. From Ireland to Sicily, from Andalusia to Russia, and Bulgaria, the peasant is a very essential factor of the population, production and political power. Only two regions of Western Europe form an exception. In Great Britain proper, big, landed estates and large-scale agriculture have totally displaced the self-supporting peasant; in Prussia east of the Elbe, the same process has been going on for centuries; here, too, the peasant is being increasingly "turned out", or at least economically and politically forced into the background.

The peasant has so far largely manifested himself as a factor of political power only by his apathy, which has its roots in the isolation of rustic life. This apathy on the part of the great mass of the population is the strongest pillar not only of the parliamentary corruption in Paris and Rome but also Russian despotism. Yet it is by no means insuperable. Since the rise of the working-class movement in Western Europe, particularly in those parts where small peasant holdings predominate, it has not been particularly difficult for the bourgeoisie to render the socialist workers suspicious and odious in the minds of the peasants as partageux, as people who want to "divide up", as lazy, greedy, city dwellers who have an eye on the property of the peasants. The hazy socialist aspirations of the revolution of February 1848 were rapidly disposed of by the reactionary ballots of the French peasantry; the peasant, who wanted peace of mind, dug up from his treasured memories the legend of Napoleon, the emperor of the peasants, and created the Second Empire. We all know what this one feat of the peasants cost the people of France; it is still suffering from its aftermath.

But much has changed since then. The development of the capitalist form of production has cut the life-strings of small production in agriculture; small production is irretrievably going to rack and ruin. Competitors in North and South America and in India have swamped the European market with their cheap grain, so cheap that no domestic producer can compete with it. The big landowners and small peasants alike can see ruin staring them in the face. And since they are both owners of land and country folk, the big landowners assume the role of champions of the interests of the small peasants, and the small peasants by and large accept them as such.

Meanwhile, a powerful socialist workers' party has sprung up and developed in the West. The obscure presentiments and feelings dating back to the February Revolution have become clarified and acquired the broader and deeper scope of a programme that meets all scientific requirements and contains definite tangible demands; and a steadily growing number of Socialist deputies fight for these demands in the German, French, and Belgian parliaments. The conquest of political power this party must first go from the towns to the country, must become a power in the countryside. This party, which has an advantage over all others in that it possesses a clear insight into the interconnections between economic causes and political effects and long ago descried the wolf in the sheep's clothing of the big landowner, that importunate friend of the peasant — may this party calmly leave the doomed peasant in the hands of his false protectors until he has been transformed from a passive into an active opponent of the industrial workers? This brings us right into the thick of the peasant question.