Engels 1894: The Peasant Question in France and Germany
In one point our French comrades are absolutely right: No lasting revolutionary transformation is possible in France against the will of the small peasant. Only, it seems to me, they have not got the right leverage if they mean to bring the peasant under their influence.
They are bent, it seems, to win over the small peasant forthwith, possibly even for the next general elections. This they can hope to achieve only by making very risky general assurances in defence of which they are compelled to set forth even much more risky theoretical considerations. Then, upon closer examination, it appears that the general assurances are self-contradictory (promise to maintain a state of affairs which, as one declares oneself, is irretrievably doomed) and that the various measures are either wholly without effect (usury laws), or are general workers' demands or demands which also benefit the big land-owners or finally are such as are of no great importance by any means in promoting the interests of the small peasants. In consequence, the directly practical part of the programme of itself corrects the erroneous initial part and reduces the apparently formidable grandiloquence of the preamble to actually innocent proportions.
Let us say it outright: in view of the prejudices arising out of their entire economic position, their uprising and their isolated mode of life, prejudices nurtured by the bourgeois press and the big land-owners, we can win the mass of the small peasants forthwith only if we can make them a promise which we ourselves know we shall not be able to keep. That is, we must promise them not only to protect their property in any event against all economic forces sweeping upon them, but also to relieve them of the burdens which already now oppress them: to transform the tenant into a free owner and to pay the debts of the owner succumbing to the weight of his mortgage. If we could do this, we should again arrive at the point from which the present situation would necessarily develop anew. We shall not have emancipated the peasant but only given him a reprieve.
But it is not in our interests to win the peasant overnight, only to lose him again on the morrow if we cannot keep our promise. We have no more use for the peasant as a Party member, if he expects us to perpetuate his property in his small holding, than for the small handicraftsman who would fain be perpetuated as a master. These people belong to the anti-Semites. Let them go to the anti-Semites and obtain from the latter the promise to salvage their small enterprises. Once they learn there what these glittering phrases really amount to, and what melodies are fiddled down from the anti-Semitic heavens, they will realize in ever-increasing measure that we who promise less and look for salvation in entirely different quarters are after all more reliable people. If the French had the strident anti-Semitic demagogy we have, they would hardly have committed the Nantes mistake.
What, then, is our attitude towards the small peasantry? How shall we have to deal with it on the day of our accession to power?
To begin with, the French programme is absolutely correct in stating: that we foresee the inevitable doom of the small peasant, but that it is not our mission to hasten it by any interference on our part.
Secondly, it is just as evident that when we are in possession of state power, we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compensation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners. Our task relative to the small peasant consists, in the first place, in effecting a transition of his private enterprise and private possession to cooperative ones, not forcibly but by dint of example and the proffer of social assistance for this purpose. And then, of course, we shall have ample means of showing to the small peasant prospective advantages that must be obvious to him even today.
Almost 20 years ago, the Danish Socialists, who have only one real city in their country — Copenhagen — and therefore have to rely almost exclusively on peasant propaganda outside of it, were already drawing up such plans. The peasants of a village or parish — there are many big individual homesteads in Denmark — were to pool their land to form a single big farm i order to cultivate it for common account and distribute the yield in proportion to the land, money, and labor contributed. In Denmark, small landed property plays only a secondary role. But, if we apply this idea to a region of small holdings, we shall find that if these are pooled and the aggregate area cultivated on a large scale, part of the labor power employed hitherto is rendered superfluous. It is precisely this saving of labor that represents one of the main advantages of large-scale farming. Employment can be found for this labor in two ways. Either additional land taken from big estates in the neighborhood is placed at the disposal of the peasant co-operative, or the peasants in question are provided with the means and the opportunity of engaging in industry as an accessory calling, primarily and as far as possible for their own use. In either case, their economic position is improved and simultaneously the general social directing agency is assured the necessary influence to transform the peasant co-operative to a higher form, and to equalize the rights and duties of the co-operative as a whole as well as of its individual members with those of the other departments of the entire community. How this is to be carried out in practice in each particular case will depend upon the circumstance of the case and the conditions under which we take possession of political power. We may, thus, possibly be in a position of offer these co-operatives yet further advantages: assumption of their entire mortgage indebtedness by the national bank with a simultaneous sharp reduction of the interest rate; advances from public funds for the establishment of large-scale production (to be made not necessarily or primarily in money but in the form of required products: machinery, artificial fertilizer, etc.), and other advantages.
The main point is, and will be, to make the peasants understand that we can save, preserve their houses and fields for them only by transforming them into co-operative property operated co-operatively. It is precisely the individual farming conditioned by individual ownership that drives the peasants to their doom. If they insist on individual operation, they will inevitably be driven from house and home and their antiquated mode of production superseded by capitalist large-scale production. That is how the matter stands. Now, we come along and offer the peasants the opportunity of introducing large-scale production themselves, not for account of the capitalists but for their own, common account. Should it really be impossible to make the peasants understand that this is in their own interest, that it is the sole means of their salvation?
Neither now, nor at any time in the future, can we promise the small-holding peasants to preserve their individual property and individual enterprise against the overwhelming power of capitalist production. We can only promise then that we shall not interfere in their property relations by force, against their will. Moreover, we can advocate that the struggle of the capitalists and big landlords against the small peasants should be waged from now on with a minimum of unfair means and that direct robbery and cheating, which are practiced only too often, be as far as possible prevented. In this we shall succeed only in exceptional cases. Under the developed capitalist mode of production, nobody can tell where honesty ends and cheating begins. But always it will make a considerable difference whether public authority is on the side of the cheater or the cheated. We, of course, are decidedly on the side of the small peasant; we shall do everything at all permissible to make his lot more bearable, to facilitate his transition to the co-operative should he decide to do so, and even to make it possible for him to remain on his small holding for a protracted length of time to think the matter over, should he still be unable to bring himself to this decision. We do this not only because we consider the small peasant living by his own labor as virtually belonging to us, but also in the direct interest of the Party. The greater the number of peasants whom we can save from being actually hurled down into the proletariat, whom we can win to our side while they are still peasants, the more quickly and easily the social transformation will be accomplished. It will serve us nought to wait with this transformation until capitalist production has developed everywhere to its utmost consequences, until the last small handicraftsman and the last small peasant have fallen victim to capitalist large-scale production. The material sacrifice to be made for this purpose in the interest of the peasants and to be defrayed out of public funds can, from the point of view of capitalist economy, be viewed only as money thrown away, but it is nevertheless an excellent investment because it will effect a perhaps tenfold saving in the cost of the social reorganization in general. In this sense, we can, therefore, afford to deal very liberally with the peasants. This is not the place to go into details, to make concrete proposals to that end; here we can deal only with general principles.
Accordingly, we can do no greater disservice to the Party as well as to the small peasants than to make promises that even only create the impression that we intend to preserve the small holdings permanently. It would mean directly to block the way of the peasants to their emancipation and to degrade the Party to the level of rowdy anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it is the duty of our Party to make clear to the peasants again and again that their position is absolutely hopeless as long as capitalism holds sway, that it is absolutely impossible to preserve their small holdings for them as such, that capitalist large-scale production is absolutely sure to run over their impotent antiquated system of small production as a train runs over a pushcart. If we do this, we shall act in conformity with the inevitable trend of economic development, and this development will not fail to bring our words home to the small peasants.
Incidentally, I cannot leave this subject without expressing my conviction that the authors of the Nantes programme are also essentially of my opinion. Their insight is much too great for them not to know that areas now divided into small holdings are also bound to become common property. They themselves admit that small-holding ownership is destined to disappear. The report of the National Council drawn up by Lafargue and delivered at the Congress of Nantes likewise fully corroborates this view. It has been published in German in the Berlin Sozialdemokrat of October 18 of this year. The contradictory nature of the expressions used in the Nantes programme itself betrays the fact what the authors actually say is not what they want to say. If they are not understood and their statements misused, as has already happened, that is of course their own fault. At any rate, they will have to elucidate their programme and the next French congress revise it thoroughly.
We now come to the bigger peasants. Here as a result of the division of inheritance as well as indebtedness and forced sales of land we find a variegated pattern of intermediate stages, from small-holding peasant to big peasant proprietor, who has retained his old patrimony intact or even added to it. Where the middle peasant lives among small-holding peasants, his interests and views will not differ greatly from theirs; he knows, from his own experience, how many of his kind have already sunk to the level of small peasants. But where middle and big peasants predominate and the operation of the farms requires, generally, the help of male and female servants, it is quite a different matter. Of course a workers' party has to fight, in the first place, on behalf of the wage-workers — that is, for the male and female servantry and the day laborers. It is unquestionably forbidden to make any promises to the peasants which include the continuance of the wage slavery of the workers. But, as long as the big and middle peasants continue to exist, as such they cannot manage without wage-workers. If it would, therefore, be downright folly on our part to hold out prospects to the small-holding peasants of continuing permanently to be such, it would border on treason were we to promise the same to the big and middle peasants.
We have here again the parallel case of the handicraftsmen in the cities. True, they are more ruined than the peasants, but there still are some who employ journeymen in addition to apprentices, or for whom apprentices do the work of journeymen. Let those of these master craftsmen who want to perpetuate their existence as such cast in their lot with the anti-Semites until they have convinced themselves that they get no help in that quarter either. The rest, who have realized that their mode of production is inevitably doomed, are coming over to us and, moreover, are ready in future to share the lot that is in store for all other workers. The same applies to the big and middle peasants. It goes without saying that we are more interested in their male and female servants and day laborers than in them themselves. If these peasants want to be guaranteed the continued existence of their enterprises, we are in no position whatever to assure them of that. They must then take their place among the anti-Semites, peasant leaguers, and similar parties who derive pleasure from promising everything and keeping nothing. We are economically certain that the big and middle peasants must likewise inevitably succumb to the competition of capitalist production, and the cheap overseas corn, as is proved by the growing indebtedness and the everywhere evident decay of these peasants as well. We can do nothing against this decay except recommend here too the pooling of farms to form co-operative enterprises, in which the exploitation of wage labor will be eliminated more and more, and their gradual transformation into branches of the great national producers' co-operative with each branch enjoying equal rights and duties can be instituted. If these peasants realize the inevitability of the doom of their present mode of production and draw the necessary conclusions they will come to us and it will be incumbent upon us to facilitate, to the best of our ability, also their transition to the changed mode of production. Otherwise, we shall have to abandon them to their fate and address ourselves to their wage-workers, among whom we shall not fail to find sympathy. Most likely, we shall be able to abstain here as well from resorting to forcible expropriation, and as for the rest to count on future economic developments making also these harder pates amenable to reason.
Only the big landed estates present a perfectly simple case. Here, we are dealing with undisguised capitalist production and no scruples of any sort need restrain us. Here, we are confronted by rural proletarians in masses and our task is clear. As soon as out Party is in possession of political power, it has simply to expropriate the big landed proprietors, just like the manufacturers in industry. Whether this expropriation is to be compensated for or not will, to a great extent, depend not upon us but the circumstances under which we obtain power, and particularly upon the attitude adopted by these gentry, the big landowners, themselves. We by no mens consider compensation as impermissible in any event; Marx told me (and how many times!) that, in his opinion, we would get off cheapest if we could buy out the whole lot of them. But, this does not concern us here. The big estates, thus restored to the community, are to be turned over by us to the rural workers who are already cultivating them and are to be organized into co-operatives. They are to be assigned to them for their use and benefit under the control of the community. Nothing can as yet be stated as to the terms of their tenure. At any rate, the transformation of the capitalist enterprise into a social enterprise is here fully prepared for and can be carried into execution overnight, precisely as in Mr. Krupp's or Mr. von Stumm's factory. And the example of these agricultural co-operatives would convince also the last of the still resistant small-holding peasants, and surely also many big peasants, of the advantages of co-operative, large-scale production.
Thus, we can open up prospects here before the rural proletarians as splendid as those facing the industrial workers, and it can be only a question of time, and of only a very short time, before we win over to our side the rural workers of Prussia east of the Elbe. But once we have the East-Elbe rural workers, a different wind will blow at once all over Germany. The actual semi-servitude of the East-Elbe rural workers is the main basis of the domination of Prussian Junkerdom and thus of Prussia's specific overlordship in Germany. It is the Junkers east of the Elbe who have created and preserved the specifically Prussian character of the bureaucracy as well as of the body of army officers — the Junkers, who are being reduced more and more to ruin by their indebtedness, impoverishment, and parasitism, at state and private cost and for that very reason cling the more desperately to the dominion which they exercise; the Junkers, whose haughtiness, bigotry, and arrogance, have brought the German Reich of the Prussian nation  within the country into such hatred — even when every allowance is made for the fact that at present this Reich is inevitable as the sole form in which national unity can now be attained — and abroad so little respect despite its brilliant victories. The power of these Junkers is grounded on the fact that within the compact territory of the seven old Prussian provinces — that is, approximately one-third of the entire territory of the Reich — they have at their disposal the landed property, which here brings with it both social and political power. And not only the landed property but, through their beet-sugar refineries and liquor distilleries, also the most important industries of this area. Neither the big landowners of the rest of Germany nor the big industrialists are in a similarly favorable positions. Neither of them have a compact kingdom at their disposal. Both are scattered over a wide stretch of territory and complete among themselves and with other social elements and compete among themselves and with other social elements surrounding them for economic and political predominance. But, the economic foundation of this domination of the Prussian Junkers is steadily deteriorating. Here, too, indebtedness and impoverishment are spreading irresistibly, despite all state assistance (and since Frederick II, this item is included in every regular Junker budget). Only the actual semi-serfdom sanctioned by law and custom and the resulting possibility of the unlimited exploitation of the rural workers, still barely keep the drowning Junkers above water. Sow the seed of Social-Democracy among these workers, give them the courage and cohesion to insist upon their rights, and the glory of the Junkers will be put to an end. The great reactionary power, which to Germany represents the same barbarous, predatory element as Russian tsardom does to the whole of Europe, will collapse like a pricked bubble. The "picked regiments" of the Prussian army will become Social-Democratic, which will result in a shift of power that is pregnant with an entire upheaval. But, for this reason, it is of vastly greater importance to win the rural proletariat east of the Elbe than the small peasants of Western Germany, or yet the middle peasants of Southern Germany. It is here, in East-Elbe Prussia, that the decisive battle of our cause will have to be fought and for this very reason both government and Junkerdom will do their utmost to prevent our gaining access here. And should, as we are threatened, new violent measures be resorted to to impede the spread of our Party, their primary purpose will be to protect the East-Elbe rural proletariat from our propaganda. It's all the same to us. We shall win it nevertheless.