Classical Marxism and the Agrarian Question
Lenin's Junker Road

La Laguna hacienda building.jpg (22825 bytes)Old hacienda buildings, Mexico

Whatever qualifications they made, it seems clear that both Marx and Lenin thought that large-scale wage-labour based capitalist farming would triumph in the long term, as it had done in industry. Lenin, however, revised the rather unilinear formulation of The Development of Capitalism in Russia in later works, and argued that there were TWO possible routes to capitalist agriculture from a ‘feudal’ estate system: the route through peasant differentiation, which he now called the "American Road", and what he termed the "Junker Road", based on what he took to be the dominant tendency in the central European agriculture of his day. The peasant road could only occur where there were no landlords, or the landlord class was broken by revolution.

The "Junker Road" represents an internal transformation of the "traditional landed estate", which in Russia and Germany had been based on a combination of labour services and tenancy: i.e. the tenants provided labour-services on the landlord’s demesne farm and lived on the estate generation after generation. Dependency and world-systems theorists of ‘underdevelopment’ argue that such non-wage labour-based systems of exploitation can be capitalist if the enterprise concerned is selling the bulk of its output on the world market, i.e. is a commercial enterprise dedicated to profit maximization. But as far as Lenin was concerned, landed estates based on the traditional corvee labour system were not truly capitalist, but transitional forms which developed in backward regions like Russia in response to the both the growth of the international grain trade and the internal urban market created by the Tsarist regime’s attempts to promote industrialization. What Lenin envisaged as the "Junker Road" was that the estates would gradually shift to wage-labour by turning their tenants into wage-workers and getting rid of any tenants who became surplus to requirements. He saw the Junker Road as ‘less progressive’ than the road based on peasant differentiation, because the latter would offer more rapid technological development whilst the former might persist with archaic systems of labour exploitation as the basis for profit during an extended transition period.

Evaluating the "Junker Road" model

What actually happened in, for example, parts of pre-revolutionary Mexico or colonial Southeast Asia was rather more complicated. Traditional systems of tenancy were abolished by the landlord class as they strove to rationalize the management of their estates. Previously tenants had been given free access to subsistence plots and to use of other estate resources like pasturage or woods for collecting fire-wood. Now much of this system of customary rights was replaced by a tight contract in which everything was assigned an economic value. Much of this previous ‘free access’ to estate resources was curtailed. Landlords replaced tenant labour-service with paid labour, again with written contracts, but they often continued to give workers a subsistence plot for self-provisioning as well if they had surplus land of no commercial value.  More important still, landlords often persisted with systems of tenancy based on the principle of share-cropping alongside any direct cultivation which was done under landlord management by wage-labour.

The landlord-run part of the enterprise tended to work on the basis of a small permanent work-force complemented by seasonal labour drawn in at peak times: tenants were, as Lenin predicted, expelled from the estates if they were not required as wage-labourers or employed on the new type of share-tenancy basis. In the case of the hacienda that I first studied in Mexico, which is not untypical of the larger commercial estates of its day, sharecropping of basic grains was combined with landlord-run wage-labour based sugar cultivation: the retention of sharecropping enabled the estate to cut costs of supervision and pass most of the risks of these crops to the tenant. Contracts were, however, awarded on an annual basis, and most share-croppers were recruited from the ranks of the permanent workers. The hacienda harvested the sharecroppers’ fields itself with squads of peones.

Here, then, it’s clear that a major internal transformation of the estate had taken place which it’s hard to describe as anything other than a form of capitalism. But it’s not a simple transition from tenancy to wage-labour cultivation, nor is it really a ‘mixture’ of old and new, or a ‘transitional’ form, since the conditions of tenancy were reorganized too.

What it might be better described as is a type of agrarian transition based on the continuing social and political dominance of a landlord class which is responding to changing market conditions. We should also note that this sort of change, in both Latin America and Russia, followed on from major changes in systems of land tenure, which enabled private landlords to take over land which had previously been held communally by village communities and changes in the strategy of the State, which was now willing, indeed, eager to support landlords against the peasants in the interests of agricultural modernization. So it isn’t simply a matter of ‘the spread of market forces’. It doesn’t, however, follow that this type of agrarian capitalism is eventually going to change into a pure wage-labour based system or even survive at all. Share-cropping systems are so characteristic of late 19th early twentieth century landlord agriculture that it makes one wonder whether this doesn’t reflect limits to the profitability of large-scale wage-labour agriculture, at least in certain crops.

Lenin’s theory only recognised the possibility of forms of agrarian capitalism developing which were not of the ‘pure’ wage labour type: he did not recognize the possibility that such forms might be replaced by family farming systems in the longer term because large-scale wage-labour based agrarian capitalism might not be economically viable under all conditions. We need to be careful, however, to avoid explaining the transformation of agrarian structures in purely economic terms that invoke functionalist styles of explanation. It might well be true to argue, for example, that in an ideal world, peasant agriculture might suit industrial capitalism better because it elimates the factor of rent paid to landlords as monopoly controllers of land from agricultural prices, assuming that peasant farmers are reasonably productive. But offering this as an explanation for historical development abstracts from the social and political processes required to get rid of landlords in the real world. In some cases, like those of South Korea and Taiwan, for example, landlords disappear for reasons quite unconnected with the economy: they had supported the Japanese occupation.