Debate about the Existing Redemption Legislation

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 4 August 1848


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 7, p. 327;
First published: in Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 67, August 6, 1848.
Collection(s): Neue Rheinische Zeitung
Keywords : Debate, Law, Germany

Cologne, August 4. The Berlin Assembly from time to time unearths all sorts of old-Prussian dirt and just now when the black-white knighthood becomes daily more insolent, such revelations come in very handy.

The session of July 21st dealt again with the feudal obligations. Following a deputy’s motion, the central section proposed that the pending negotiations or court hearings on redemptions and the division of common property be suspended either by the authorities or on application by one of the interested parties.

Deputy Dierschke examined the mode of redemption existing up to now. He explained, to begin with, how the method of redemption itself already takes advantage of the peasant:

“Compensation for corvée” (compulsory labour), “for instance, has been fixed in a very partial manner. It has not been taken into account that the wages for corvée, which in former centuries were stipulated at 1 or 2 silver groschen, corresponded to the then prevailing prices of natural produce and the conditions of the times, and that they represented, therefore, an appropriate equivalent for work done, so that neither the lords of the manor nor the serfs should have a preponderant advantage. A free labourer, however, must now be paid 5 to 6 instead of 2 silver groschen per day. If now one of the interested partners of a service relationship requests redemption he will have to pay, after first converting corvée days into substitute days, a differential amount of at least 3 silver groschen per day, which will amount to a yearly rent (based upon 50 days) of 4 to 5 talers. The poor peasant cannot afford such payments since he often possesses barely a quarter of a morgen [old German land measure, varying in different localities between 0.25 and 1.23 hectares] of land and cannot find sufficient opportunity for work elsewhere.”

This passage of Herr Dierschke’s speech leads to all sorts of observations about the famous enlightened legislation of 1807-11,[1] none of which made it appear in a very favourable light.

First of all, it is evident from this that the compulsory labour services (especially those in Silesia of which Herr Dierschke is speaking) are certainly not a rent or fee which is paid in kind, they are not a compensation for the use of the land; despite Herr Patow and Herr Gierke they are nothing but an “outcome of seigniory and serfdom” and hence ought to be abolished without compensation according to the very own principles of these great statesmen.

Wherein consisted the obligation of the peasant? In placing himself at the disposal of the lord of the manor during certain days of the year or for certain specified duties. But certainly not gratuitously. He received a wage for this which originally completely equalled the daily wage of free labour. Thus the advantage of the landlord consisted not in the gratuitous or merely cheaper labour of the peasant but in the fact that he had labourers at his disposal for the usual wage whenever he needed them without being obliged to employ them when he did not need them. The advantage to the landlord did not consist in the monetary value of the service in kind but rather in its compulsory nature. It did not consist in the economic disadvantage but rather in the constraint of the peasant. And this obligation is not supposed to be an “outcome of seigniory and serfdom"!

If Patow, Gierke and Co. want to be consistent, there is no doubt that in accordance with their original character, these labour services must be abolished without compensation.

But what is the situation if we take their present nature into account?

For centuries the compulsory services remained the same and so did the wages for these services. But the price of food increased and so did the wages for free labour. The compulsory service, which at the beginning brought equal economic advantage to both parties and often even resulted in well-paid work during the peasant’s idle days, gradually became, to use the language of Herr Gierke, an “actual charge on his land” and a direct monetary gain for the gracious landlord. To the certainty that he will always have a sufficient number of labourers at his disposal, he could now add a hefty cut which he made in the wages of these workers. By means of a consistent, century-old trickery the peasants were cheated of a steadily growing part of their wage so that they finally received only a third or a quarter of it. Let us assume that a farmstead is obliged to supply only one worker for only 50 days a year and that the daily wage has increased on the average by only 2 silver groschen for the past 300 years. Then the gracious landlord will have earned a full 1,000 talers off this one worker. The interest on 500 talers over 300 years at 5 per cent will be 7,500 talers. Altogether he will have made 8,500 talers off one worker, and that according to an estimate which does not take into account half the actual position!

What deduction can be made from all this? A rent ought to be paid not by the peasant to the gracious lord but by the gracious lord to the peasant, that is not by the farmstead to the manor, but by the manor to the farmstead.

The Prussian liberals of 1848, however, do not judge like this. On the contrary, the Prussian judicial conscience declares that it is not the nobleman who must indemnify the peasant but the peasant who must pay compensation to the nobleman for the difference between statute wages and free wages. It is exactly because the peasant has been cheated out of the wage difference for so long by his gracious lord that he has now to indemnify his gracious lord for the cheating. For whosoever bath, to him shall be given; but whosoever bath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. [Matthew 13:12]

The difference in wages is therefore calculated and the annual amount is regarded as rent of land. It flows in this form into the pockets of the gracious lords. If the peasant wants to redeem it, it will be capitalised at 4 per cent.(not even at 5 per cent) and this capital, which is 25 times the amount of the rent, will have to be paid off. It is obvious that the peasant is being dealt with in a thoroughly businesslike fashion. Our foregoing estimate of the aristocracy’s profits was thus entirely justified.

The upshot is that peasants often have to pay from 4 to 5 talers rent for a quarter of a morgen of bad land whereas one morgen of good land free from corvée can be had for three talers rent per annum!

The redemption tan also be achieved by surrendering a piece of land of the same value as the capital sum that is outstanding. Only the more prosperous peasants, of course, can do this. In that case, the lord of the manor gets a piece of land as premium for the skill and persistence with which he and his ancestors have defrauded the peasants.

That is the theory of redemption. It corroborates entirely what has taken place in all other countries where feudalism has gradually been abolished, in particular in England and Scotland: the transformation of feudal into bourgeois property and of seigniory into capital means in every case a new crass defrauding of the bondsman to the advantage of the feudal lord. The bondsman must purchase his freedom every time and he must buy it dearly. The bourgeois state acts according to the principle: only death is gratuitous.

The theory of redemption, however, proves even more.

As Deputy Dane observes, the inevitable result of these enormous demands upon the peasants is that they fall into the hands of usurers. Usury is the inevitable companion of a class of free small peasants as has been demonstrated in France, the Palatinate and the Rhine Province. The Prussian science of redemption managed to let the small peasantry of the old provinces partake of the joys of being squeezed by usurers even before they were freed. The Prussian Government, in general, has always had a knack for subjecting the oppressed classes to the pressure of feudal and of modern bourgeois conditions at the same time, thus making the yoke twice as heavy.

One has to add to this another matter, to which Deputy Dane also calls attention: the tremendous costs which mount in proportion to the negligence and inaptness of the commissioner who is paid by the term.

“The town of Lichtenau in Westphalia paid 17,000 talers for 12,000 morgen and this has not yet covered the costs

Even more telling proof is provided by the practice of redemption.

The land commissioners, continues Herr Dierschke, i.e. the officials who prepare the redemption,

“appear in three capacities. First, they appear as examining officials. In this capacity they interrogate the parties, determine the factual basis of the redemption and calculate the amount of compensation. They often carry out their task in a very one-sided manner and often do not take into account the existing legal conditions for in part they lack legal knowledge. Furthermore, they appear in part as experts and witnesses by themselves autonomically appraising the value of the redeemable objects. In the end they give their testimony which almost amounts to a decision since the general commission must as a rule rely on their opinions which are derived from local conditions.

“Finally there is the fact that the land commissioners do not enjoy the confidence of the rural population because they often put the parties at a disadvantage by letting them wait for hours while they eat with relish at the table of the landlord” (who is himself a party) “whereby they particularly arouse the mistrust of the parties against themselves. When after a waiting period of three hours, the threshing gardeners[2] are finally admitted, the land commissioners often roar at them and brusquely reject their rejoinders. Here I can speak from my own experience because I assisted the interested party of peasants in my capacity as attorney-at-law in cases involving redemptions. The dictatorial power of the land commissioners must therefore be removed. The combination of the threefold capacity as examining magistrate, witness and judge in one and the same person cannot be justified either.”

Deputy Moritz defends the land commissioners. Herr Dierschke answers: I can state that there are very many among them who disregard the interests of the peasants. I myself have even called for the investigation of some of them and I can give proof of this if demanded.

Minister Gierke, of course, appears again as defender of the old-Prussian system and the institutions which have emerged from it. The land commissioners must, of course, also be praised again:

“I must leave it to the judgment of the Assembly, however, to decide whether it is just to use this rostrum to make accusations which lack all proof and are entirely unsubstantiated!”

And Herr Dierschke is offering proofs!

Since, however, his Excellency Gierke seems to be of the opinion that notorious facts can be knocked down by ministerial assertions, we shall shortly submit a few “proofs” which will show that Herr Dierschke, far from exaggerating, has not by a long way condemned. the conduct of the land commissioners sufficiently strongly.

So much for the debate. The amendments submitted were so numerous that the report accompanied by them had to be referred back to the central section. Thus the definitive decision of the Assembly has yet to be made.

Among these amendments, there is one by Herr Moritz which calls attention to a further edifying measure of the old Government. He proposes the cessation of all negotiations concerning mill dues.

For when in the year 1810 it was decided to abolish the feudal prerogatives and banalities,[3] a commission was appointed simultaneously to compensate the millers for the fact that they were now exposed to free competition. This was already a paradoxical decision. Were the guild masters compensated for the abolition of their privileges? But there are special circumstances in this case. The mills paid extraordinary dues for the enjoyment of feudal prerogatives and banalities. Instead of simply abolishing these, they were given a compensation and the dues were continued. The form is paradoxical but there remains at least a semblance of justice in this case.

It so happens, however, that in the provinces added since 1815, the mill dues have been kept, the feudal prerogatives and banalities have been abolished and yet no compensation has been given. This is old-Prussian equality before the law. The industrial law, to be sure, abolishes all business taxes but under the trade regulations of 1845 and the law on compensation all mill dues are in case of doubt to be regarded not as business taxes but as land taxes. Innumerable law cases have resulted from this jumble and these violations of the law. The law-courts have contradicted each other in their sentences and even the Supreme Court has pronounced the most contradictory judgments. Just what was formerly regarded by the ex-legislative power as “land tax” emerges from a case cited by Herr Moritz: a mill in Saxony to which belongs, except for the mill buildings, only the water power but not the land, is burdened with a “land tax” of four wispels [approx. 144 bushels] of grain!

Indeed, say what you like, Prussia has always been the most wisely, most justly and best administered state!

  1. Between 1807 and 181 1, the Ministers Stein and Hardenberg carried out certain agrarian reforms in Prussia. In October 1807, serfdom was abolished but all the ‘feudal obligations of the peasants remained. In September 181 1, the peasants received the right to redeem their obligations on the condition that they surrendered up to half of their land to the landlord or paid a corresponding sum of money. In 1845, the amount of the redemption payment was established at twenty-five times the value of annual feudal dues.
  2. The threshing gardeners (Dreschgärtner) — the name applied in some places ill Germany, particularly in Silesia, to dependent peasants who rented a plot of land with a house from the landowner and, in return, had to work for him (mainly harvesting) for a small payment in cash or in kind
  3. Banalities (the original has Zwangs- und Bannrechte) — feudal lords’ right to impose taxes on peasants for the obligatory use of flour mills, wine presses etc. owned by feudal lords