George Novack on the second serfdom (continued)

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Sun Nov 26 18:45:31 MST 2000

History exhibits manifold variations even within a single mode of production.
There were not only two editions of feudalism east of the Elbe but, as we have
indicated, pronounced contrasts between the feudal societies of Western and
Eastern Europe. The rich and diversified urban activities of the former gave it
a progressive character that led on to the independent evolution of capitalism.
The retarded urban and industrial development, the stunted growth of the
bourgeoisie, the lack of differentiation among the peasantry, and the generally
adverse political and cultural conditions gave a sluggish and reactionary stamp
to Eastern Europe that facilitated the imposition of the second serfdom upon it.

In the Western Hemisphere the vigor of bourgeois relations in the British
colonies of the North American seacoast gave an impetus to their advancement
along capitalist lines that eventuated in revolutionary consequences, On the
other hand, the weakness of bourgeois forces coupled with the strength of feudal
and semifeudal institutions under the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors stunted
the development of capitalist relations in Latin America and perpetuated its

As A. Casanova and C. Parain note in their introduction, the second edition of
serfdom itself passed through very uneven phases of development from place to
place and from one century to another. This phenomenon, they write, involved "a
lengthy process, extending from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries,
unrolling at paces and in forms and stages that differ for Germany (where the
essential stages are the Peasants War and the Thirty Years War), Poland, Russia,
Hungary or still more Rumania (where the expansion of the system is complicated
and relatively late)." As Rumania demonstrated, even parts of the same nation
were unequally developed.

After the breakup of primitive collectivism it is rare to find a "pure and
simple" social formation without weighty carry-overs from earlier forms of life
and labor. The distinguished French medievalist Marc Bloch observed: ". . .
Feudal Europe was not all feudalized in the same degree or according to the same
rhythm and, above all . . . it was nowhere feudalized completely . . . No doubt
it is the fate of every system of human institutions never to be more than
imperfectly realized."[5]

Every concrete, actually existing, civilized society incorporates more archaic
institutions, customs, and ideas into its own dominant economy and culture. The
blending of past conditions of social production with the new functions of
capital was especially evident throughout the rise of capitalism.

Moreover, no method of production evolves in a harmonious, symmetrical,
all-sided manner. It is constrained by inherited and environing conditions to
follow a more or less erratic and lopsided course. This inescapable irregularity
of development forbids any rigidly schematic interpretation of the historical
process. The analyst has to take into account the deviations from the norm
produced by uneven and combined development. The passage from one stage to
another moves not along a straight line but a complicated curve.

As capitalism expanded, the laws of the market pervaded all countries regardless
of their degree of development and no matter what the distances between them.
However, the consequences of these laws differed considerably, depending upon
the given historical conditions.

The heterogeneity in the socioeconomic development of Central and Eastern Europe
and Western Europe in the infancy of the capitalist system left its imprint upon
the entire subsequent course of European and world history and had fateful
consequences for its peoples. Indeed, the key to the evolution of Eastern Europe
and Russia from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries is to be found in the
role played by the second serfdom.

It saddled an onerous backwardness upon these nations from which they have still
not fully recovered. The corvée remained intact in Russia until the Reform of
1861, and even then this moribund system of economy hung on. In his first major
work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin devoted a chapter to "The
Landowners' Transition from Corvée to Capitalist Economy," which contained the
following pertinent paragraph.

"Thus capitalist economy could not emerge at once, and corvée economy could not
disappear at once. The only possible system of economy was, accordingly, a
transitional one, a system combining the features of both the corvée and the
capitalist systems. And indeed, the post-Reform system of farming practised by
the landlords bears precisely these features. With all the endless variety of
forms characteristic of a transitional epoch, the economic organisation of
contemporary landlord farming amounts to two main systems, in the most varied
combinations --- the labour-service [in a footnote Lenin explains that this is
another term for "corvée." -- G. N.] system and the capitalist system . . . .
The systems mentioned are actually interwoven in the most varied and fantastic
fashion: on a mass of landlord estates there is a combination of the two
systems, which are applied to different farming operations. It is quite natural
that the combination of such dissimilar and even opposite systems of economy
leads in practice to a whole number of most profound and complicated conflicts
and contradictions, and that the pressure of these contradictions results in a
number of farmers going bankrupt, etc. All these are phenomena characteristic of
every transitional period."[6]

The backward condition of Europe east of the Elbe in turn determined its mode of
transition from feudalism to capitalism. In Western Europe and the United States
this changeover took place in a thoroughgoing way by virtue of the successful
bourgeois democratic revolutions. Central and Eastern Europe on the other hand
experienced no such bourgeois-democratic reconstruction and had to crawl toward
capitalism by way of a compromise between the feudal and bourgeois forces.

Lenin pointed out that agriculture could develop along two very different lines
in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It could either continue to rely
on servile labor or go over to small freehold farm production. He wrote: "Either
the old landlord economy, bound as it is by thousands of threads to serfdom, is
retained and turns slowly into purely capitalist, 'Junker' economy. The basis of
the final transition from labour-service to capitalism is the internal
metamorphosis of feudalist landlord economy. The entire agrarian system of the
state becomes capitalist and for a long time retains feudalist features. Or the
old landlord economy is broken up by revolution, which destroys all the relics
of serfdom, and large landownership in the first place."[7]

Lenin designated the first possibility of development as "the Prussian way" and
the second as "the American way" in accord with the patterns set in these two
countries. The former, based on an impoverished and oppressed class of dependent
labourers, was highly conservative; while the latter, based on the emancipation
of the peasants as independent proprietors and producers, was the most
progressive within the framework of bourgeois relations.

The reactionary combination of semifeudal with capitalist relations that
prevailed from eastern Germany to Czarist Russia up to the twentieth century
shaped the peculiar path of development there. History sooner or later demands
payment on its unfulfilled obligations, and however circuitous the route it
takes from one turning point to the next, it cannot be cheated in the end.

The failure of these countries to achieve the objectives of a democratic
revolution in the preceding centuries paved the way for the occurrence of a
novel type of revolution in the twentieth century. This joined a peasant
uprising, characteristic of the beginning of bourgeois development, with the
conquest of power by the proletariat, which sought to realize both the
democratic tasks of the former and the socialist measures of the latter, a
combination that marked the process of permanent revolution.

Thus in historical perspective, the second serfdom in its death agony was a
component of the combined character of the Russian Revolution of 1917, just as
the commercialized slavery in the cotton kingdom led to the Civil War that
consummated the democratic revolution in the United States. It might be further
noted that the survivals of four centuries of Black bondage, combined with the
contemporary miseries of proletarian existence as an oppressed nationality under
monopoly capitalism, is bound to be one of the most explosive factors in the
coming American revolution.

The dialectics of the historical process, expressed in its contradictory phases,
movements, and manifestations, is no invention of the imagination or a Hegelian
sophistication foisted upon scientific socialism. It exists in social reality
and can be verified in concrete cases. The second edition of serfdom, initiated
at the end of the sixteenth century, was preceded by an emancipation of the
serfs under medieval conditions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. And
it was followed in the post-Reform period of Czarist Russia by a transitional
form in which corvée labor was intermingled with hands hired by the year,
season, or day.

Contrary to the mechanical thinkers, a given cause can have very different
effects, depending on the context. The radiation of forces that led to the
formation of slave and feudal tributaries of commercial capitalism in the
Americas simultaneously produced capitalist farming in England and intensified
serfdom east of the Elbe. A spectrum of three complementary variations! The
spread of capitalism that suppressed feudalism in Western Europe re-created and
reinforced it in Eastern Europe.

The specific course, consequences, and outcome of new economic relations depend
upon the given historical context and circumstances in which these forces must
operate. There was, for example, a general tendency of increased economic energy
by the nobility throughout Europe during this epoch. Yet their activities
acquired dissimilar forms in the East and the West. The landlords in England
transformed themselves into a bourgeoisified gentry profiting from capitalist
agricultural enterprise; whereas the landed proprietors in the East became
beneficiaries of the unlimited corvée, ruling their agricultural districts like
absolute monarchs.

The gentry-entrepreneurs constituted a more progressive type of landed
proprietors than the nobility of East Prussia, Poland, and Russia, who clung to
the way of life proper to feudal barons and resisted the subversive introduction
of bourgeois culture. To be sure, at a later stage the Junkers themselves more
and more approximated the category of landlord-entrepreneurs, as did the cotton
planters of the Southern slave states.

The ruling classes of both parts of Europe expropriated their peasantry --- but
with very different results. In the one case, the dispossessed peasants were
degraded into serfs; in England they became landless and propertyless
proletarians, raw material for capitalist exploitation as wage workers in
agriculture or manufacture.

The efficient cause for the strengthening of serfdom as the fundamental form of
labor organization in Central and Eastern Europe came from the influences
exerted by foreign commercial capital. But this economic driving force had to
find the existing social structure susceptible to its penetration. While
natural, geographical, technological, and other factors played a role in the
process, its outcome was determined by the alignment of the class forces engaged
in struggle.

The correlation between the noble landlords and the agrarian population was most
decisive. But their respective strengths were conditioned by the presence or
absence --- and the active intervention --- of other social forces on the arena.
Here the peasants were immensely disadvantaged. The state backed up the
nobility. There was no strong and oppositional urban bourgeoisie or aggressive
petty bourgeoisie to give aid and leadership to the rural rebels, as in the
West. The rich merchants allied themselves by and large with the feudal
reaction. The isolated and scattered peasants could not prevent the lords from
suppressing their defensive efforts and reducing them to abject servitude.

At all stages of its development, capitalism has produced inequalities between
the imperial powers and the less developed peoples they directly or indirectly
subjected. Outside Europe these were incorporated into their colonial systems.
Within Europe the backward peoples of the East on a lower economic level labored
for the benefit of the West. Just as contemporary imperialism blocks and holds
back the economic and cultural progress of the colonial world, so Dutch,
English, and West European capital took the feudalists into tow, upheld their
power, and deformed and checked the development of their countries along
capitalist lines. Not the city and its culture but the village and the manor
acquired supremacy, consolidated themselves, and dictated the further mode of
development. There was a comparable contrast between the slaveholding South and
the free North in the United States.

                               * * *

The phenomenon of the second serfdom in Europe casts light upon the issues
involved in the contemporary debate over the relations between capitalism and
feudalism in Latin America from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Two
positions have been defended in this discussion. One is the liberal,
proimperialist view, shared by the reformists and Stalinists, of a purely feudal
past that has to be overcome by a bourgeois-democratic renovation. The opposite
conception, held by scholars on the left like Andre Gunder Frank, is that
capitalism fully characterized Latin American society as early as the sixteenth
century. Both are one-sided and incorrect. (The two tendencies draw
corresponding sets of political conclusions for the current situation from their
premises. The liberals stand for reforms to be undertaken by the capitalist
regimes, a position grading into the Stalinist revival of the Menshevik theory
of a two-stage revolution --- first a democratic revolution in which the
national bourgeoisie are assigned a progressive role, then in the distant future
a socialist revolution. Those who agree with Andre Gunder Frank exclude any
transitional phases in the development of the socialist revolution. Both
schools, of course, deny the validity of Trotsky's theory of permanent

Just as economic pressures from Western Europe produced the second serfdom in
the East, so similar pressures created a first edition of serfdom in Latin
America. Both of these formations had a combined character resulting from the
adaptation of a primitive culture to the more advanced one. They amalgamated a
precapitalist mode of production based on the forced surplus labor of serfs (or
slaves) for the landlords and planters with the exploitative relations of
merchant capital to which they were economically subordinated.[8]

The further development of a hybrid formation proceeds in a dialectical manner.
Just as the master and the slave are bound together, so the superior system
needs the lower to exploit, while the inferior one becomes even more dependent
upon the more advanced economy for survival and prosperity --- until changing
conditions bring them to a parting of the ways.

Merged within the combined form, the two opposing trends progress at varying
rates and extents, depending upon the totality of circumstances. For an entire
period, the reinstated lower economic formation may be reinforced, retarding the
overall development of the society, while the more advanced productive forces,
assimilated in a debased and disfigured form, maybe relatively subordinated.

But that is not the end of the road. Where a more progressive system is active
at home and abroad in the next phase, the higher forces, however sublimated at
first, feeding on a more advanced technique and culture, grow stronger and will
break through more extensively, corroding the hybrid formation to the detriment
of the old conditions.

This fate befell the second serfdom. It established itself not in the ascending
epoch of feudalism in Europe but in its descending phase. Like slavery in the
New World, it was a historical anomaly that was essentially opposed to the major
forces shaping the bourgeois world. As a mixed offspring of capitalism in its
rise to world supremacy, corvée labor burned brightly before it suffered
extinction. Born in Russia at the end of the sixteenth century, it flourished
for the next two centuries until it was illegalized by Alexander II's reform in
1861. Austria abolished the last corvée in that part of Europe in 1848. This
feudal relic therefore had a run of about three and a half centuries, about the
same as commercialized slavery.

This differential growth of the old forms and the new in backward countries
where precapitalist systems of economy are first implanted and invigorated, and
thereafter devitallized and eliminated, exemplifies the contradictory pattern of
historical progress, the essence of its dialectic. The antagonistic coexistence
of the two systems could be resolved in the long run only by the triumph of the
more efficient one. What was done in the West by the bourgeois-democratic
revolutions had to be carried through in the East by dual popular revolutions in
which the socialist proletariat led the insurgent peasantry demanding possession
of the land.

                        * * *

It is significant that none of the articles in the Recherches Internationales
collection mentions the law of uneven and combined development. Since all the
writers live in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, they may never have heard of
it. They recognize and describe manifestations of uneven development, a
phenomenon that is not only visible on the surface of events but has been
certified by such authorities as Marx, Engels, and Lenin. (Stalin, too, approved

However, the authors do not go beyond this point of empirical observation to a
profounder theoretical insight into the main features of the transition from
feudalism to capitalism that have a combined character. In this respect the
scholars of the Soviet bloc are no better equipped than their counterparts in
the bourgeois universities, who are likewise ignorant of this valuable tool of
analysis generalized and named by Trotsky in the 1930s.

This deficiency demonstrates the degree to which able minds educated under the
restrictions of Stalinism suffer from lack of knowledge of the contributions of
Trotskyism to Marxist theory, not only in contemporary politics, but in the
explanation of social processes and the understanding of historical problems.
Knowledge of the law of uneven and combined development is just as essential in
the study of comparative history today as is knowledge of the periodic law of
the elements in chemical research.

February 6, 1973


5. Feudal Society, University of Chicago Press, 1964, p. 445.
6. Collected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow, 1960, pp. 194-95.
7. Ibid., p. 32.
8. See my article "Hybrid Formations and the Permanent Revolution in Latin
America" in Understanding History, pp. 147-59, in which the implications of this
fact are considered, including the differing political positions of the Andre
Gunder Frank school of thought and the adherents of Stalinism. (The article is
also available in Intercontinental Press, November 16, 1970, pp. 978-83. ).

Richard Fidler
rfidler at

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