Captured in this study are the complexity and fascination of one hundred and fifty years of Polish political, cultural, and socioeconmic history. The author traces the course of peasant emancipation in Poland from its beginnings during the Enlightenment to its aftermath in the cultural awakening of the peasantry during the half century prior to World War I and shows how the peasant question played a vital role in the struggle for independence in partitioned Poland.
The book synthesizes, for the first time in any language, the work of leading Polish historians during the present century. It presents a clear analysis of the disintegration of the economic system based on serfdom and compulsory labor prevalent in feudal Poland and traces the emergence of modern capitalist conditions, including wage labor and independent property rights.
Also analyzed is the role of foreign goverments in the emacipation process. The freeing of the serfs took place during a period when all or most of the country was under the rule of Russia, Prussia, or Austria. Although emancipation was due primarily to economic forces withing Poland, it was hastened by peasant resistance and the national struggle for political independence led by Polish patriots who demanded far-reaching social reforms.
This comprehensive study provides valuable information not only to those with a particular interest in Poland but also to scholars concerned with the parallel problems in Russia andother Eastern Eurpean countries, to specialists in agrarian history, and to students of Eastern European history who lack adequate reading materials in English.
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The Emancipation of the Polish Peasantry
By Stefan Kieniewicz
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1969 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT PERIOD
The Rent Reforms
The economic system based on compulsory labor spread throughout Poland during the sixteenth century. It began to show signs of crisis in the seventeenth century, it began to disintegrate in the eighteenth century, and it was eventually suppressed in the nineteenth century. The first visible signs of a crisis consisted in a steady decline of Polish agriculture. Between 1620 and 1720 the population of the Polish state dropped more than 30 percent, and the tilled area at least 20 percent. The output of agriculture sank from five "grains" to three (measured as the ratio of the amount of crops to the sowings). The disastrous wars of 1648–60 contributed to the decline, but its first symptoms were visible even before 1600 and must be attributed to the ruthless exploitation of the peasant masses by the ruling class.
A change for the better could be observed in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Population was growing again, and new areas were brought under the plough. Improvements in agricultural techniques, as well as the necessity for social reforms, began to be discussed. Projects of this kind began to multiply in the second half of the eighteenth century, the so-called Enlightenment period, coinciding with the reign of the last Polish king, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski (1764–95). The numerous important changes occurring at that time in the spheres of politics and culture cannot be treated here. It is enough to say that there was a general trend toward modernization of the state apparatus, so that it could better defend itself against external danger. These efforts were of no avail, and Poland lost its independence in the course of the three partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795. The changes occurring in agrarian conditions were an important part of the whole Enlightenment movement; and although they were not durable, they can be considered a first trial, a preface to the later period of Reform, in the nineteenth century, and should be treated in detail.
The first years of Poniatowski's reign, down to the first partition, were years of political and social commotion, ending in a civil war. But after 1772, a period of stabilization followed, lasting about twenty years, which rendered economic progress possible. The towns were growing; numerous manufactures were set up; the incomes of the middle class were rising; possibilities of investment were at hand — as well as opportunities, for the peasant, of leaving the village. Such circumstances could have resulted in an incitement toward abandoning the natural economy and passing from compulsory labor to more modern methods of farming.
But another element was at work. After 1772, as a result of the first partition, Poland was cut off from its main trade thoroughfare: the Vistula, the port of Gdansk, and the Baltic. The traditional sea route of Polish grain, leading to the markets of London and Amsterdam, was now barred by the Prussian customs. King Frederick II restricted Polish exports; hence a decline of prices of grain on the local markets, a drop in profits for the producer, and a tendency, among some of the gentlemen-farmers, to shift the risk of farming onto someone else — namely, the peasant.
The older historical literature laid particular stress on another stimulus to economic progress, the spirit of the Enlightenment. Patriotic and humanitarian sentiments induced many of the big landowners to advocate various kinds of reform — social, agrarian, economic — in the hope of inciting a rise in the economy and bettering the condition of the serfs. This may well have played a part in getting reforms started, but it was hardly the central element.
The two proposals which were the most important in effecting changes in the conditions of peasant life in the eighteenth century were (1) the rent reforms, and (2) the strengthening of the peasants' rights to the soil.
The rent reforms, generally speaking, consisted in commuting compulsory labor (panszczyzna) into annual (more often quarterly) payments in cash (czynsz). Such reforms were frequent enough in various parts of eighteenth-century Poland, but they were dissimilar in nature as far as their motives, their scope, and their results were concerned. As to the motives, they were chiefly to be found in the self-interest of the landlord.
I stated earlier that the Polish rural economy of the time was based on the folwark system, working with compulsory labor. This is true only to some extent. There were some regions and some categories of estates without any compulsory labor, or with very little of it.
These were the very backward regions, lying so far from the market or growing such poor crops that it was not worthwhile to run manorial farms. Thus in the sub-Carpathian area, as well as in the woodlands of Byelorussia, there were no manorial farms to speak of. The peasants were pledged to only slight charges in cash or kind, and the charges were not easily collected, since the mountaineer or the woodcutter could easily escape his landlord's justice.
On the other hand, there were some other regions of a relatively high level of cultivation where compulsory labor ceased to pay. Among these was the Zulawy district, in the delta of the Vistula — a region of particularly rich slime land, protected from flooding by a system of dikes and drains. For centuries it was a property of the crown, divided into big peasant farms. The peasants' only obligation was the payment of rent. Not far from the lower Vistula was the Warmia district, a vast domain of the bishop, which was similarly leased. Then too, in so-called Royal Prussia — name given to the territory of eastern Pomerania (chief town, Gdansk) after its reincorporation into Poland in 1466 — down the lower Vistula on the fertile riverside soil, numerous manorial farms had long been accustomed to employing hired labor. It was profitable because of the proximity of the seaport of Gdansk.
A third category of villages without compulsory labor consisted of those inhabited by the petty gentry: small farmers of gentry origin who were, as gentlemen, full owners of their land although they tilled it with their own hands. From the economic point of view, they were independent small farmers. These were the so-called zascianki, immortalized in Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz — a phenomenon frequent in northeastern Masovia, Podlasie, southern Lithuania, and western Byelorussia but occurring in other parts of the country, too. There were no serfs in a zascianek and consequently no compulsory labor.
On the contrary, compulsory labor was used not only in peasant environments but also in towns — I mean of course little towns ("rotten boroughs"), which were supported mainly by agriculture and belonged to private estates. These poor burghers, earning little from handicrafts and trade, often leased a piece of land from their landlords in exchange for manual labor on the local folwark. In such instances, there was an obligation to work, though without serfdom.
Summing up, the absence of compulsory labor was due either to very backward or to very advanced conditions; or, in some cases, to the juridical status of the population. Consequently, a generally progressive trend in agriculture could bring about entirely different effects, according to the niveau of individual regions. In an economically developed region, a boom in agriculture could induce the landlord to adopt a system of hired labor, and one of the possible ways of doing this was to commute compulsory labor into rent. But in more backward regions, the same boom in agriculture incited the landlords to set up manorial farms where there had been none previously — and this meant, on the contrary, the commuting of rent into compulsory labor. This happened in many regions of Lithuania, particularly in the crown estates. Toward the end of the preceding century, after a long period of economic depression, most of the farms in those domains were simply suppressed, and rent introduced in place of labor. But under King Poniatowski the tide changed: manorial farms reappeared, and compulsory labor with them. Needless to say, the peasantry protested violently; riots and even armed revolts occurred.
The more important process, however, in eighteenth-century Poland, was the conversion to rent. This operation ought to be considered from two sides: the landlord's and the peasant's. From the landlord's point of view, the decisive argument in favor of the rent reform was that it would be profitable, but this was seldom the case. Even such a progressive author — and friend and protector of peasants — as Stanislaw Staszic (1755–1826) had to admit that Poland could not afford a compulsory rent reform: it had to depend on the enlightened good will and the patriotic intention, and only in particular instances on the interest of the landlord. What circumstances, then, could induce the landlord to eliminate compulsory labor? All or part of it? There were a number of different circumstances: Compulsory labor, at times, was inefficient; or one had too much gratuitous labor to be able to use it; or, on the other hand, it was difficult to get any gratuitous labor at all. Each of these situations could lead to a different kind of rent reform.
Compulsory labor was likely to become inefficient in latifundia which could not be run by their magnate owners; they were either leased by single manorial farms or by tenants belonging to the poorer gentry, or they were administered by estate agents and stewards. In both cases, the go-between function of tenants and administrators deprived the magnate of a good portion of the income wreaked from the peasant serf. At times when corn prices were low (because of Prussian customs) and when there seemed to be a rise in industrial growth, it sometimes appeared profitable to let the peasant sell the corn and to collect rent money directly from the serfs, bypassing the go-between, and being able, thus, to invest part of the income in manufacturing, in banking, and often in politics. This is the main reason why most of the rent reforms were introduced in big latifundia, by magnates, bishops, and also the crown. One should of course also take into account those of the enlightened aristocracy who were in touch with progressive ideas, prone to reforms of any kind, and able to afford the cost of experimentation. But, in fact, these reforms were more advantageous to a magnate than to a gentleman of middle-sized fortune. The owner of a single village could always extort from his peasants enough labor to make a good living for himself.
Some distinct cases should be examined here. In some situations, the landlord was, so to speak, compelled to introduce rent — e.g., for colonists, or new settlers. If a landlord wanted to ameliorate his estate — to bring barren soil under cultivation, to clear backwoods land or drain meadows — he was bound to guarantee the settler the fruit of his labor. The process of colonization was particularly brisk in western and northwestern Poland, on both banks of the Notec River; numerous new settlements arose in the second half of the eighteenth century. The colonists were mostly newcomers from Germany, and they were called Hauländer-clearings (olendrzy). They were granted land exclusively for rent, without compulsory labor. Similarly, on the opposite outskirts of the Commonwealth, in southeast Ukraine, generous steppe lands were brought under cultivation in consequence of the pacification of the Crimean Tartars by Russia. Ukrainian peasants immigrating to the vast Korsun estates of Prince Poniatowski, one of the king's nephews, were granted free use of the soil for the first years; afterward they paid rent. It would have been difficult to compel them to labor, so long as on the Russian side of the frontier similar settlers were under no such compulsion.
Now let us examine another category of commutations to rent not connected with either latifundia or with new settlements. In southern, or Little, Poland, a region of dense population and mostly middle-sized domains, sources tell us of rather frequent commutations of labor into rent; not for entire villages but for individual peasants, and for short, temporary periods. The procedure was called lease instead of labor (najem za panszczyzne); though of course it was not a lease, by any means. The peasant paid his master in advance, for a year or a quarter, an appointed sum and was, in consequence, freed from labor until the end of his term. It was by no means a free compact; the master could always retract his agreement, or refuse to prolong it. As a matter of fact, he designated the individuals who would be thus freed from labor — for a time, and until further notice. For what reason did the landlords introduce such arrangements? They simply did not need as much labor as the estates could supply. As we read in a diary of the time, the landlord simply "bathed in compulsory labor." He commuted a portion of it: sometimes in distant villages, where the peasants lost much time in traveling to work and back; sometimes in parts of the villages, usually for the well-to-do, most productive farmers, who were apt to pay rent promptly. Or, in still another way, he sometimes commuted a certain number of compulsory labor days into payment in cash. Such manifestations of a rent system could hardly be called economic progress. They were partial and susceptible of recall; in some instances they only denoted an arbitrary raise of peasant charges: if the landlord noticed that his serfs were getting some cash from the local market, he accordingly made arrangements to divert this money to his own cash drawer.
This remark leads us to the further statement that the introduction of rent did not always coincide with the interest of the peasants. From the peasant's viewpoint, as a matter of fact, the crucial premise of a rent reform was the necessity of payment. And this depended, in turn, not only, and not so much, on the amount of rent as on the peasant's opportunity to accumulate the money. To pay rent, the peasant had to sell the products of his farming; consequently, a sufficiently capacious local market had to be at hand if the rent system was to work at all. The best results in commutation to rent were attained, therefore, in regions neighboring larger cities or commercial routes. Let us cite two examples. The first is the city of Poznan, which owned some suburban villages which were farmed out to a single tenant and brought little profit. As early as about 1740, a reform was introduced: the manorial farm was suppressed and all the peasants were converted into rent payers. The operation proved profitable for both sides. The welfare of the villagers rose, as well as the income of the city. This was due to the presence of a big city market in Poznan. Another, and later, instance is a big estate on the Niemen River in Lithuania. The Niemen was an important trade route for corn and timber. The owner of Merecz, Father Pawel Brzostowski, a wealthy canon of the Wilno chapter, was an enlightened writer and a friend of peasants. He not only suppressed compulsory labor in his estates but he gradually liquidated all manorial farms. He introduced a kind of village self-government and a local militia, he opened schools and hospitals, and he was unanimously praised as his serfs' father and benefactor. Nevertheless, Father Brzostowski boasted that the income of the Pawlów estate (Merecz was changed into Pawlów) had also considerably risen. There was a great deal of self- advertising in Brzostowski's declarations; but even so it seems that the Pawlów experiment was a successful one. And it would not have been successful at all, had Pawlów not been situated on the big Niemen trade route.
These observations help us to understand the attitude of the peasants toward all these reforms — introduced, one should not forget, of the landlord's own free will. It seems, in many instances that the peasants passively submitted to the new arrangements; but they also quite often petitioned for the introduction of rent, and, not infrequently, they demanded it. They also revolted, when compulsory labor was introduced again after a period of rent paying. Contrary examples, however, can also be cited of peasants protesting against a commutation to rent or begging, after a period of rent paying, to be allowed to return to compulsory labor. The best-known case is that of the Biezun estate of Great Chancellor Andrzej Zamoyski (1716–92) — a philanthropist, an enlightened magnate, and a politician. The peasants repudiated his attempts at reforms — which led some pamphleteers and historians to proclaim that the villagers were not yet mature enough for such benefactions and certainly did not deserve them. There could, of course, have been other reasons for the peasants' negative approach to manorial reforms as in the Biezun case. The rent could have been fixed too high. Or it could even have been moderate, but local conditions might have made it impossible for the peasants to sell their harvest advantageously. There could have been another reason still: The refusal of a rent reform, the demand for a return to compulsory labor, became, for the peasants, a weapon of class war. Let us imagine the situation of a landlord who has just abolished compulsory labor, allotted the manorial grounds to single farmers, and generalized the practice of rent. Now the peasants demand the reintroduction of compulsory labor! It is a horrible nuisance, and an expense, to turn back to the old system, to establish new manorial farms; better to come to terms with the peasants — that is, to lower the rents. The peasants understood this situation perfectly, and they bargained accordingly.
Excerpted from The Emancipation of the Polish Peasantry by Stefan Kieniewicz. Copyright © 1969 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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