Agrarian reform is one of the demands of the programmes of the most diverse political organizations, from bourgeois to Marxist parties and popular movements. Its origin goes back to the French Revolution of 1789, which inaugurated a new era in the history of humankind, that of bourgeois power on the European continent.
By Marcos Margarido – PSTU (Br)
Among Marxist parties, it is common to say that agrarian reform is one of the democratic demands unfulfilled by the bourgeoisie since the European Revolution of 1848, because it was more afraid of the nascent working class and its revolutionary action than of the representatives of the feudal remnants, with whom it could negotiate conservative solutions to the crises. The revolutionary party would therefore be responsible for its implementation when it seized power. But what is agrarian reform and, above all, what does it mean today?
Agrarian Reform in the French Revolution
On the eve of the Revolution, French society was polarized, with the nobility and the clergy on one side, and a class of merchants, who would give rise to the modern bourgeoisie, on the other. There was no consolidated working class yet, peasants constituted about 80% of the population, made up mostly of hereditary tenants (the censiers), who paid a fixed rent in cash, and serfs (the mainmortables), who paid rent in the form of work on the nobles’ lands about three days a week. In addition, they paid various other fees and feudal taxes, from which the nobility and clergy were exempt. The Revolution overthrew the ancien régime and the feudal order and introduced land reform.
The agrarian reform revoked feudal estates, freed all people from serfdom, abolished courts and all feudal privileges, and cancelled all payments not based on real property, including tithes. However, after those laws were passed, the peasants took over the land and refused to pay any rent or redemption fees; in 1792, all payments were finally cancelled. The lands of the nobility became the property of the peasants who worked on them.
In November 1789, the National Constituent Assembly passed legislation declaring all ecclesiastical property to be at the disposal of the nation. From 1790, the lands of the Church and political emigrants (fugitives from the revolution) were confiscated and sold at auction, as well as communal lands. It is estimated that around 10% of French territory was sold at auction, equivalent to more than 1.1 million Church or emigrant properties. The terms of sale, however, often favoured the rich, leading to the emergence of a new class of large landowners, which became a base of support for Napoleon.
“They were indeed in general free, and often landowners. In actual quantity noble estates covered only one-fifth of the land, clerical estates perhaps another 6 per cent with regional variations. Thus in the diocese of Montpellier the peasants already owned 38 to 40 per cent of the land, the bourgeoisie 18 to 19, the nobles 15 to 16, the clergy 3 to 4, while one-fifth was common land. In fact, however, the great majority were landless or with insufficient holdings (Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution).”
The revolution strengthened private and individual property, making it possible for peasants who did not yet have it, including serfs. Small family property has characterised French agriculture ever since.
Politically, it won the unconditional support of small and medium peasant owners, small artisans and shopkeepers. However, “the capitalist transformation of agriculture and small business, the essential condition for rapid economic development, was slowed to a crawl,” and with it the speed of urbanisation, the expansion of the domestic market, the multiplication of the working class and, consequently, the further advance of the proletarian revolution (Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution).
This delay in the economic development of the countryside in France due to the division of land into small parcels (which does not, of course, eliminate the existence of agribusinesses such as Doux, Saint Louis Sucre, Tereos, etc.) persists to this day. French agriculture receives subsidies from the French government and the European Union to remain competitive. It is the biggest EU beneficiary, with subsidies of €9.1 billion a year between 2014 and 2020. In addition, small producers receive tax incentives from the French government, in the form of tax exemptions. In 2016, for example, they were granted around €500 million due to falling dairy and meat prices.
Marx’s politics of agrarian reform
Marx and Engels lived in a period of free competition and expansion of capitalism and were still under the pressure of the achievements of the French Revolution. They took an active part in the last revolutionary act which would close the age of bourgeois revolutions, the 1848 European Revolution.
But they were never captivated by the appeal of the agrarian reform carried out in France, which consisted (though not entirely) in the parcelling out of land and its ownership by peasants. In October 1869, in a letter to Engels, he criticised the weakness and foolishness of “Wilhelm [Liebknetcht] and his consorts” in responding to attacks by representatives of the People’s Party in Germany.
“It has not even occurred to one of these idiots to ask the liberal howlers whether there is not, perhaps, in Germany, side by side with the small peasant property, also the large landholding, which forms the basis of the surviving feudal economy; whether it will not be necessary to do away with this in the course of a revolution, if only to do away with the present state economy; and whether this can be done in the old-fashioned way of 1789?”
By “old-fashioned way of 1789,” Marx refers to the transfer of confiscated (and parcelled out) land from the feudal lords to the peasants.
In fact, the land reform implemented by the French Revolution was never part of Marx and Engels’ revolutionary programme. The programme of the Communist Party in Germany during the 1848 revolution already advocated that “Princely and other feudal estates, together with mines, pits, and so forth, shall become the property of the state. The estates shall be cultivated on a large scale and with the most up-to-date scientific devices in the interests of the whole of society” (Engels, History of the Communist League). And this happened 21 years before Marx criticised the old-fashioned way of land reform of 1789.
In the famous Address of the Central Authority to the [Communist] League, where Marx exposed the treachery and cowardice of the German liberal bourgeoisie against the people for not carrying out their own revolution (of 1848) through to the end, including land reform, and forecast that the next revolution would be led by the democratic petty bourgeoisie, Marx wrote:
“The first point on which the bourgeois democrats will come into conflict with the workers will be the abolition of feudalism. As in the first French Revolution, the petty-bourgeois will give the feudal lands to the peasants as free property, that is to say, try to leave the rural proletariat in existence and form a petty-bourgeois peasant class, which will go through the same cycle of impoverishment and indebtedness which the French peasant is now still caught in. The workers must oppose this plan in the interest of the rural proletariat and in their own interest. They must demand that the confiscated feudal property remain state property and be converted into workers’ colonies cultivated by the associated rural proletariat with all the advantages of large-scale agriculture, through which the principle of common property immediately obtains a firm basis in the midst of the tottering bourgeois property relations. Just as the democrats combine with the peasants so must the workers combine with the rural proletariat.”
Marx’s stance did not remain only in the programmes. We must never forget that Marx and Engels were men of action, though action was always grounded in theory. After the long ebb caused by the defeat of the 1848 European Revolution, Marx participated in the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) in 1864 and soon became its main leader.
In October 1869, the Land and Labour League was founded in London under the direct inspiration of the General Council of the First International, which had more than ten members on the League’s General Council. In the same letter from Marx to Engels quoted above, Marx said that “The creation of the Land and Labour League should be regarded as an outcome of the Basle Congress; here the workers’ party [i.e. the International] makes a clear break with the bourgeoisie, nationalisation of land [being] the starting point” (Marx’s highlight).
The League occupied Marx’s interest for the short time of its existence under revolutionary leadership. From the end of 1870, the influence of bourgeois elements had grown, and the League began to lose contact with the International. As he said in his letter, it represented a clear break with the bourgeoisie and could play an important role in building a workers’ party with class independence in England and Ireland.
Accordingly, a meeting of the Manchester section of the First International was held to discuss the question of the nationalisation of land. In it, Marx drafts his most important programmatic document on this subject: On The Nationalisation of Land, published in The International Herald in June 1872.
He begins by saying that “The property in the soil is the original source of all wealth, and has become the great problem upon the solution of which depends the future of the working class.” And explains that the task of bourgeois ideologues is to disguise the forcible taking of the land as a “natural right” by making it the private property of the few. He concludes: “If private property in land be indeed founded upon such a universal consent, it will evidently become extinct from the moment the majority of a society dissent from warranting it.”
Marx showed that economic development, population growth and concentration, “the very circumstances that compel the capitalist farmer to apply to agriculture collective and organised labour, and to have recourse to machinery and similar contrivances, will more and more render the nationalisation of land a ‘Social Necessity’, against which no amount of talk about the rights of property can be of any avail,” for “the technical means of agriculture we command, such as machinery, etc., can never be successfully applied but by cultivating the land on a large scale.”, and which would give an even greater boost to production if applied on a national scale.
In analysing the land issue in France, he again states that “the division into small plots cultivated by men with small means” leads to “the piecemeal cultivation it necessitates, while excluding all appliances of modern agricultural improvements, converts the tiller himself into the most decided enemy to social progress and, above all, the nationalisation of land.”
“Enchained to the soil upon which he has to spend all his vital energies in order to get a relatively small return, … still he clings with fanatic fondness to his bit of land and his merely nominal proprietorship in the same. In this way, the French peasant has been thrown into a most fatal antagonism to the industrial working class. Peasant proprietorship being then the greatest obstacle to the nationalisation of land, France, in its present state, is certainly not the place where we must look to for a solution to this great problem.”
But neither would nationalisation be helpful if the land were leased out “in order to let it out in small plots to individuals or working men’s societies under a middle-class [which means bourgeois] government.” This would “only engender a reckless competition among themselves and thus result in a progressive increase of “Rent” which, in its turn, would afford new facilities to the appropriators of feeding upon the producers.”
The solution to the problem was the creation of large nationalised estates, under state control, where the most modern techniques could be applied to increase the productivity of land and thus meet the “the ever-growing wants of the people on the one side, [and put an end to] the ever-increasing price of agricultural produce on the other…”
But, not just any state: “The nationalisation of land will work a complete change in the relations between labour and capital, and finally, do away with the capitalist form of production, whether industrial or rural.”
“National centralisation of the means of production will become the national basis of a society composed of associations of free and equal producers, carrying on the social business on a common and rational plan. (Marx’s highlight)”
“Three words” on the agrarian programme of the Bolshevik party
Although it is not the aim of this text, it would be impossible not to touch briefly on the agrarian programme of the Bolshevik party, entirely drawn up by Lenin. The interpretation of this programme, in the form in which it was practised in the Russian Revolution, made differently by the workers’ parties – be they Stalinist, reformist or Marxist – became a model of policy for the land issue.
In December 1907, Lenin put forward a proposal to change the agrarian programme for the RSDLP based on the experience of the 1905 Russian Revolution. In this text, Lenin proposes (as he had already done at the Stockholm Congress) the nationalisation of land, which included the lands of the nobility, the Church and the estates, large and small, of the peasants. His proposal aimed to change the current RSDLP programme, which advocated municipalising the land of the nobility and the Church and maintaining private ownership of peasants’ land. The land administered by the Zemstvos (local administrations) could then be distributed to the peasants.
It should be remembered that Lenin’s argument for the nationalisation of land was not based on political considerations, but on economic ones, starting from Marx, especially Book III of Capital. So, he devotes the first chapter of his book/proposal (The agrarian programme of social democracy in the first Russian revolution, 1905-1907) to the economical basis and essence of the agrarian revolution in Russia. An “essence” that was always of an economic nature. To support his thesis, therefore, he made an extensive economic study of the problem of the countryside in Russia to arrive at the proposal of nationalisation instead of that of municipalisation.
Lenin states that “Consequently, the concept of nationalisation of the land, in terms of economic reality, is a category of commodity and capitalist society… Nationalisation of the land under capitalist relations is neither more nor less than the transfer of rent to the state” (Lenin’s highlight). That is, it was a proposal for a peasant-bourgeois revolution for the capitalist development of the countryside (condensed in Lenin’s famous thesis of Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasants).
Concerning the theoretical foundations for the elaboration of his proposal, Lenin states that a “shortcoming of the debate at the Stockholm Congress, in particular, is that practical considerations prevail over theoretical, and political considerations over economic.” That’s why the third chapter of his book is dedicated to the theoretical basis of nationalisation and municipalisation. But, it must be taken into account “the objective conditions of the peasant agrarian revolution in capitalistically developing Russia… and determine what, on the basis of those real economic changes, is required for the development of the productive forces and for the proletarian class struggle.”
We could say that Lenin joined three fundamental issues to be able to write his proposal for an agrarian programme: the economic foundations, the theoretical basis and the objective conditions of the society under scrutiny, all of them aiming at the development of the proletarian class struggle.
However, the programme of the Bolshevik party was only partially implemented in the 1917 revolution. The agreement made by the Bolsheviks with the left socialist revolutionaries on the question of the land, to get their support for the new Republic of Soviets, is well known. But this agreement did not hurt the principle of the nationalisation of land, but rather the maintenance of possession (but not ownership) of land by the peasants already working on it or the distribution of the land they had occupied during the revolution.
The first Decree on Land, passed by the Second National Congress of Soviets on October 26, 1917, stated:
“1) Landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without any compensation.
2) The landed estates, as also all crown, monastery, and church lands, with all their livestock, implements, buildings and everything pertaining thereto, shall be placed at the disposal of the volost land committees and the uyezd Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies pending the convocation of the Constituent Assembly.”
And, as an addendum to the decree, figured the Peasant Mandate on the Land, based on a survey of 242 local peasant mandates, to be followed by all land committees and peasant soviets. In it, one could read:
“1) Private ownership of land shall be abolished forever; land shall not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated.
All land, whether state, crown, monastery, church, factory, entailed, private, public, peasant, etc., shall be confiscated without compensation and become the property of the whole people, and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it.”
So the decree abolished private ownership of the land and the addendum expropriated all land, without exception, and considered it the property of all the people, that is, of the State.
At the end of 1917, a new decree declared all machines and tools, already manufactured or in the process of being manufactured or imported from abroad a monopoly of the State, to provide the villages with the necessary agricultural implements.
And, in February 1918, the Fundamental Law of LandSocialisation is published, and its first article states:
“Article 1. All private ownership of land, minerals, waters, forests, and natural resources within the boundaries of the Russian Federated Soviet Republic is abolished forever.”
Thus, the abolition of private ownership of the soil and its nationalisation by the Republic of Soviets extended to the subsoil and all natural resources. It guaranteed the right of use to the “toiling masses” who “cultivate it with his own labour,” regardless of “sex, religion, nationality or citizenship.” And it included the right of the organs of the “Soviet government to make use of a portion of the land reserve for…. model farms and experiment stations.” In such cases, hired labour could be employed. Furthermore, it confirms the “monopoly of the trade in agricultural machinery and seeds” and the “grain trade, both foreign and domestic.”
Importantly, there is a note by Lenin after the October 26 decree (it is not clear whether the note was published with the decree) where he alludes to the fact that this was the result of an agreement with the socialist revolutionaries. The note replies to the “raised voices”: “What of it? Does it matter who drew them up? As a democratic government, we cannot ignore the decision of the masses of the people, even though we may disagree with it. In the fire of experience, applying the decree in practice, and carrying it out locally, the peasants will themselves realise where the truth lies.”
It makes us understand that the Bolshevik party did not abandon its programme because of the agreement made and that Lenin was confident that the peasantry, after experiencing the decree, would know who had the correct position. It is a double lesson: stick to the programme (as I said, scientifically based), even when circumstances do not allow it, and have confidence in the masses.
But, perhaps even more critical, Lenin showed how open-minded he was when studying the objective conditions of the revolution and its changes regarding the 1905 “dress rehearsal”. In a postscript for the September 1917 edition of his book on the agrarian programme, he said: “Under these circumstances, the question of the nationalisation of the land must inevitably be presented in a new way in the agrarian programme, namely: nationalisation of the land is not only “the last word” of the bourgeois revolution, but also a step towards socialism” (Lenin’s highlight).