Vladimir Ilyich Lenin


Chapter III. The Landowners’ Transition from Corvée to Capitalist Economy

X. The Significance of Hired Labour in Agriculture

Let us now attempt to depict the principal features of the new social relations that take shape in agriculture with the employment of hired labour, and to define their significance.

The agricultural workers who come to the South in such masses belong to the poorest strata of the peasantry. Of the workers who come to Kherson Gubernia, 7/10 make the journey on foot, since they lack the money for railway fare; “they tramp for hundreds and thousands of versts along the railway track and the banks of navigable rivers, admiring the splendid pictures of rapidly-moving trains and smoothly-gliding ships” (Tezyakov, 35). On the average, the worker takes with him about 2 rubles[1]; often enough he even lacks the money to pay for a passport, and gets a monthly identity card for ten kopeks. The journey takes from 10 to 12 days, and after such a long tramp (sometimes undertaken barefoot in the cold spring mud), the traveler’s feet swell and become calloused and bruised. About 1/10 of the workers travel on dubi (large boats made out of rough boards, holding from 50 to 80 persons and usually packed to the limit). The reports of an official commission (the Zvegintsev Commission)[10] note the grave danger of this form of travel: “not a year passes but that one, two or even more of these overcrowded dubi go to the bottom with their passengers” (ibid., 34). The overwhelming majority of the workers have allotments, but of absolutely insignificant dimensions. “As a matter of fact,” Mr. Tezyakov quite justly observes, “all these thousands of agricultural workers are landless village proletarians, for whom outside employments are now the sole means of livelihood. . . . Landlessness is growing rapidly, and at the same time is swelling the ranks of the rural proletariat” (77). Striking confirmation of the rapidity of this growth is the number of worker novices, i.e., of those seeking employment for the first time. These novices constitute as many as 30%. Incidentally, this figure enables us to judge how rapid is the process that creates bodies of permanent agricultural workers.

The mass migration of workers has given rise to special forms of hire peculiar to highly-developed capitalism. In the South and South-East, numerous labour markets have arisen where thousands of workers gather and employers assemble. These markets are usually held in towns, industrial centres, trading villages and at fairs. The industrial character of the centres is of particular attraction to the workers, who readily accept employment on non-agricultural jobs, too. Thus, in Kiev Gubernia, labour markets are held in Shpola and Smela (large centres of the beet-sugar industry), and in the town of Belaya Tserkov. In Kherson Gubernia, they are held in the commercial villages (Novoukrainka, Birzula and Mostovoye, where on Sundays over 9,000 workers gather, and many other villages), at railway stations (Znamenka, Dolinskaya, etc.), and in towns (Elisavetgrad, Bobrinets, Voznesensk, Odessa, and others). In the summer, townspeople, labourers and “cadets” (the local name for tramps) from Odessa also come to hire themselves out for agricultural work. In Odessa rural workers hire themselves out in what is called Seredinskaya Square (or the “Mowers’ Market”). “The workers make for Odessa, avoiding other markets, in the hope of getting better earnings here” (Tezyakov, 58). The township of Krivoi Rog is an important centre where workers are hired for agriculture and mining. In Taurida Gubernia, the township of Kakhovka is particularly noted for its labour market, where formerly as many as 40,000 workers gathered; in the nineties from 20,000 to 30,000 gathered there, and now, judging from certain data, the number is still smaller. In Bessarabia Gubernia, mention should be made of the town of Akkerman; in Ekaterinoslav Gubernia, of the town of Ekaterinoslav, and Lozovaya Station; in Don Gubernia, of Rostov-on-Don, frequented every year by as many as 150,000 workers. In North Caucasus, of the towns of Ekaterinodar and Novorossiisk, Tikhoretskaya Station, and other places. In Samara Gubernia, of the village of Pokrovskaya (opposite Saratov), the village of Balakovo and other places. In Saratov Gubernia, of the towns of Khvalynsk and Volsk. In Simbirsk Gubernia, of the town of Syzran. Thus, capitalism has created in the outer regions a new form of the “combination of agriculture with industries,” namely, the combination of agricultural and non-agricultural hired labour. Such a combination is possible on a wide scale only in the period of the final and highest stage of capitalism, that of large-scale machine industry, which attenuates the importance of skill of “hand labour,” facilitates the transition from one occupation to another, and levels the forms of hire.[2]

Indeed, the forms of hire in this locality are very peculiar and very characteristic of capitalist agriculture. All the semi-patriarchal, semi-bonded forms of hired labour which one so frequently meets in the central black-earth belt disappear here. The only relationships left are those between hirers and hired, a commercial transaction for the purchase and sale of labour-power. As always under developed capitalist relations, the workers prefer hire by the day, or by the week, which enables them to make the pay correspond more exactly to the demand for labour. “Prices are fixed for the area of each market (within a radius of about 40 versts) with mathematical precision, and it is very hard for the employers to beat down the price, because the muzhik who has come to the market prefers to lie around or go on to another place rather than work for lower pay” (Shakhovskoi, 104). It goes without saying that violent fluctuations in prices paid for labour cause innumerable breaches of contract – only not on one side, as the employers usually claim, but on both sides: “concerted action is taken by both sides”: the labourers agree among themselves to demand more, and the employers – to offer less (ibid., 107).[3] How openly “callous cash payment” reigns here in the relations between the classes may be seen, for example, from the following fact: “experienced employers know very well” that the workers will “give in” only when they have eaten up their food stock. “A farmer related that when he came to the market to hire workers . . . he walked among them, poking with his stick at their knapsacks (sic !): if they had bread left, he would not talk to them; he would leave the market” and wait “until the knapsacks in the market were empty” (from the Selsky Vestnik [Rural Herald ], 1890, No. 15, ibid., 107-108).

As under developed capitalism anywhere, so here, we see that the worker is particularly oppressed by small capital. The big employer is forced by sheer commercial considerations[4] to abstain from petty oppression, which is of little advantage and is fraught with considerable loss should disputes arise. That is why the big employers, for example (those employing from 300 to 800 workers), try to keep their workers from leaving at the end of the week, and themselves fix prices according to the demand for labour; some even adopt a system of wage increases if the price of labour in the area goes up – and all evidence goes to show that these increases are more than compensated by better work and the absence of disputes (ibid., 130-132; 104). A small employer, on the contrary, sticks at nothing. “The farmsteaders and German colonists carefully ‘choose’ their workers and pay them 15 or 20% more; but the amount of work they ‘squeeze’ out of them is 50 per cent more” (ibid., 116). The “wenches” who work for such an employer “don’t know day from night,” as they themselves say. The colonists who hire mowers get their sons to follow on their heels (i.e., to speed up the workers!) in shifts, so that the speeders-up, replacing one another three times a day, come with renewed energy to drive the workers on: “that is why it is so easy to recognise those who have worked for the German colonists by their haggard appearance. Generally speaking, the farmsteaders and the Germans avoid hiring those who have formerly worked on landowners’ estates. ‘You’ll not stand the pace with us,’ they say quite frankly” (ibid.).[5]

Large-scale machine industry, by concentrating large masses of workers, transforming the methods of production, and destroying all the traditional, patriarchal cloaks and screens that have obscured the relations between classes, always leads to the directing of public attention towards these relations, to attempts at public control and regulation. This phenomenon, which has found particularly striking expression in factory inspection, is also beginning to be observed in Russian capitalist agriculture, precisely in the region where it is most developed. The question of the workers’ sanitary conditions was raised in Kherson Gubernia as early as 1875 at the Second Gubernia Congress of Doctors of the Kherson Zemstvo, and was dealt with again in 1888; in 1889 there was drawn up a programme for the study of the workers’ conditions. The investigation of sanitary conditions that was carried out (on a far from adequate scale) in 1889-1890 slightly lifted the veil concealing the conditions of labour in the remote villages. It was seen, for instance, that in the majority of cases the workers have no living quarters; where barracks are provided, they are usually very badly built from a hygienic point of view, and “not infrequently” dug-outs are met with – they are inhabited, for example, by shepherds, who suffer severely from dampness, overcrowding, cold, darkness and the stifling atmosphere. The food provided is very often unsatisfactory. The working day, as a rule, is from 12 1/2 to 15 hours, which is much longer than the usual working day in large-scale industry (11 to 12 hours). An interval during the hottest part of the day is met with only “as an exception” – and cases of brain diseases are no rarity. Work at machines gives rise to occupational division of labour and occupational diseases. For example, working at threshing machines are “drummers” (they put the sheaves into the drum; the work is very dangerous and most laborious: thick corn-dust beats into their faces), and “pitchers” (they pitch up the sheaves; the work is so heavy that the shifts have to be changed every hour or two). Women sweep up the straw, which boys carry aside, while from 3 to 5 labourers stack it in ricks. The number employed on threshing in the whole gubernia must exceed 200,000 (Tezyakov, 94).[6] Mr. Tezyakov’s conclusions regarding the sanitary conditions of agricultural work, are as follows: “Generally speaking, the opinion of the ancients that the labour of the husbandman is ‘the pleasantest and healthiest of occupations’ is hardly sound at the present time, when the capitalist spirit reigns in agriculture. With the introduction of machinery into agriculture, the sanitary conditions of agricultural labour have not improved, but have changed for the worse. Machinery has brought into the field of agriculture a specialisation of labour so little known here before that it has had the effect of developing among the rural population occupational diseases and a host of serious injuries” (94).

A result of the investigations into sanitary conditions (after the famine year and the cholera) was the attempt to organise medical and food depots, at which the labourers were to be registered, placed under sanitary supervision and provided with cheap dinners. However modest the scale and the results of this organisation may be, and however precarious its existence,[7] it remains an important historical fact, revealing the trends of capitalism in agriculture. At the Congress of Doctors of Kherson Gubernia it was proposed, on the basis of data gathered by practitioners: to recognise the importance of medical and food depots and the need for improving their sanitary condition and extending their activities to give them the character of labour exchanges providing information on the prices of labour and their fluctuations; to extend sanitary inspection to all more or less big farms employing considerable numbers of labourers, “as is done in industrial establishments” (p. 155); to issue strict regulations governing the employment of agricultural machines and the registration of accidents; to raise the question of the workers’ right to compensation and of providing better and cheaper steam transport. The Fifth Congress of Russian Doctors passed a resolution calling the attention of the Zemstvos concerned to the activities of the Kherson Zemstvo in the organisation of medical and sanitary inspection.

In conclusion, let us return to the Narodnik economists. Above we have seen that they idealise labour-service and close their eyes to the progressive nature of capitalism as compared with that system. Now we must add that they are unfavourably disposed to the “migration” of workers, and favour local “employments.” Here, for example, is how this usual Narodnik view is expressed by Mr. N.–on: “The peasants . . . set off in quest of work. . . . How far, one may ask, is it advantageous from the economic point of view? Not personally for each individual peasant, but how far is it advantageous for the peasantry as a whole, from the national economic point of view?. . . What we want is to point to the purely economic disadvantage of the annual peregrination, God knows where to, for the entire summer, when it would seem that one could find plenty of occupations at hand. . .” (23-24).

We assert, the Narodnik theory notwithstanding, that the “peregrination” of the workers not only yields “purely economic” advantages to the workers themselves, but in general should be regarded as progressive; that public attention should not be directed towards replacing outside employments by local “occupations close at hand,” but, on the contrary, towards removing all the obstacles in the way of migration, towards facilitating it in every way, towards improving and reducing the costs of all conditions of the workers’ travel, etc. The grounds for our assertion are as follows:

1) “Purely economic” advantage accrues to the workers from “peregrination” in that they go to places where wages are higher, where their position as seekers of employment is a more advantageous one. Simple as this argument is, it is too often forgotten by those who love to rise to a higher, allegedly “national-economic” point of view.

2) “Peregrination” destroys bonded forms of hire and labour-service.

Let us recall, for example, that formerly, when migration was little developed, the southern landowners (and other employers) readily resorted to the following system of hiring labourers: they sent their agents to the northern gubernias and (through the medium of rural officials) hired tax-defaulters on terms extremely disadvantageous to the latter.[8] Those offering employment consequently enjoyed the advantage of free competition, but those seeking it did not. We have quoted instances of the peasant’s readiness to flee from labour-service and bondage even to the mines.

It is not surprising, therefore, that on the question of “peregrination” our agrarians go hand in hand with the Narodniks. Take Mr. S. Korolenko, for example. In his book he quotes numerous opinions of landlords in opposition to the “migration” of workers, and adduces a host of “arguments” against “outside employments”: “dissipation,” “rowdy habits,” “drunkenness,” “dishonesty,” “the striving to leave the family in order to get rid of it and escape parental supervision,” “the craving for amusement and a brighter life,” etc. But here is a particularly interesting argument: “Finally, as the proverb says, ‘if it stay at one spot, a stone will gather moss,’ and a man who stays at one spot will certainly amass property and cherish it” (loc. cit., p. 84). The proverb does indeed very strikingly indicate what happens to a man who is tied to one spot. Mr. S. Korolenko is particularly displeased with the phenomenon we referred to above, namely, that “too” many workers leave certain gubernias and that the shortage thus created is made good by the arrival of workers from other gubernias. In noting this fact as regards, for example, Voronezh Gubernia, Mr. S. Korolenko points to one of the reasons for this, namely, the large number of peasants possessing gift-land allotments. “Evidently such peasants, who are relatively worse off materially and are not worried about their all too meagre property, more frequently fail to carry out the obligations they undertake and in general more readily leave for other gubernias, even when they could find plenty of employment at home.” “Such peasants, having little attachment (sic !) to their own inadequate allotments, and sometimes not even possessing implements, more readily abandon their homes and go to seek their fortunes far from their native villages, without troubling about employment locally, and sometimes even about obligations undertaken, since they have nothing on which distraint can be made” (ibid.).

“Little attachment!” That’s just the term.

It should give food for thought to those who talk about the disadvantages of “peregrination” and the preferableness of local “occupations close at hand”![9]

3) “Peregrinations” mean creating mobility of the population. Peregrinations are one of the most important factors preventing the peasants from “gathering moss,” of which more than enough has been fastened on them by history. Unless the population becomes mobile, it cannot develop, and it would be na\"ive to imagine that a village school can teach people what they can learn from an independent acquaintance with the different relations and orders of things in the South and in the North, in agriculture and in industry, in the capital and in the backwoods.


[1] Money for the journey is obtained by the sale of property, even household goods, by mortgaging the allotment, by pawning things, clothes, etc., and even by borrowing money, to be repaid in labour, “from priests, landlords and local kulaks” (Shakhovskoi, 55).—Lenin

[2] Mr. Shakhovskoi refers to another form of the combination of agricultural and non-agricultural labour. Thousands of rafts are floated down the Dnieper to the towns in the lower reaches of the river. On every raft there are from 15 to 20 workers (raftsmen), mostly Byelorussians and Great-Russians from Orel Gubernia. “For the whole voyage they get practically nothing”; they count chiefly on getting employment at reaping and threshing. These hopes are rewarded only in “good” years.—Lenin

[3] “At harvest time in a good year the worker triumphs, and it is a hard job to get him to give way. He is offered a price, but he won’t consider it; he keeps repeating: give me what I ask and it’s a go. And that is not because labour is scarce, but because, as the workers say, ‘it’s our turn now.’”- (Reported by a volost clerk; Shakhovskoi, 125.)

“If the crop is a bad one and the price of labour has dropped, the kulak employer takes advantage of this condition to discharge the worker before the contract has expired, and the worker loses the season either in seeking work in the same district or in tramping the country,” a landlord correspondent confesses (ibid., 132).—Lenin

[4] Cf. Fr. Engels, Zur Wohnungsfrage. Vorwort. (F. Engels, The Housing Question. Preface. –Ed.)[11]Lenin

[5] The same characteristics are displayed by the “Cossacks” of the Kuban Region: “The Cossack resorts to every possible method to force down the price of labour, acting either individually or through the community” (sic ! What a pity we lack more detailed information about this latest function of the “community”!): “cutting down the food, increasing the work quota, docking the pay, retaining the workers’ passports, adopting public resolutions prohibiting specific farmers from employing workers, on Dain of a fine, at above a definite rate, etc.” (“Migrant Workers in the Kuban Region” by A. Beloborodov, in Severny Vestnik, February 1896, p. 5.)—Lenin

[6] Let us observe, in passing, that this operation, threshing, is most frequently done by hired labourers. One can judge, therefore how large must be the number employed on threshing all over Russia!—Lenin

[7] Of the six uyezd Zemstvo assemblies in Kherson Gubernia whose views on the question of organising supervision over workers are reported by Mr. Tezyakov, four declared against this system. The local landowners accused the gubernia Zemstvo board of “turning the workers into absolute idlers,” etc.—Lenin

[8] Shakhovskoi, loc. cit., 98 and foll. The author cites even the list of “fees” paid to clerks and village elders for the hire of peasants on advantageous terms. – Tezyakov loc. cit., 65 – Trirogov The Village Community and the Poll Tax; article entitled “Bondage in the National Economy.”—Lenin

[9] Here is another example of the pernicious influence of Narodnik prejudices. Mr. Tezyakov, whose splendid work we have frequently quoted, notes the fact that from Kherson Gubernia many local workers go to that of Taurida, although there is a great shortage of labour in the former gubernia. He calls this “an extremely queer phenomenon”: “it means a loss to the employers and a loss to the workers, who abandon jobs at home and risk finding none in Taurida” (33). We, on the contrary, think that Mr. Tezyakov’s statement is extremely queer. Do the workers really not understand what is to their advantage, and have they not the right to seek the most advantageous conditions of employment they can get? (In Taurida Gubernia the wages of agricultural workers are higher than in Kherson Gubernia.) Are we really to think that it is obligatory for the muzhik to live and work where he is registered and “provided with an allotment”?—Lenin

[10] Zvegintsev Commission – was established in 1894 under the auspices of the Zemstvo Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs to draw up measures for “introducing order into employments outside the village and regulating the movement of agricultural labourers.”

[11] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1958, p. 546.

  IX. Wage-Labour in Agriculture |  

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