The Feudal Contribution
In Britain feudal tenures had been abolished and agrarian producers separated from the land before the government ceased regulating wages and before labor was formally founded upon contract rather than compulsion. In Germany, by contrast, feudal tenures and compulsory labor dues persisted in the countryside while the state created liberty of occupation and the formally free negotiation of wages for the factories and putting-out shops. This conjunction allowed feudal agricultural labor in Germany to supply a vivid template for the appropriation of labor in the factory during the transition to liberal commercialism. Whereas the contribution of the guilds was negative, that of feudal relations of work in agriculture was positive: they offered a model for the employment of labor on which economic agents could draw to define the labor transaction under the emerging capitalist relations of production.
The original feudalism of the Middle Ages had been founded on the coercive extraction of dues in labor. By the eighteenth century, of course, much of the tribute in labor services in Germany had been commuted to rents in kind or to money rents. This process followed separate tempos in localities from eastern to western Germany. Landowners who had converted most of the obligatory labor services to rents prior to 1810 did not as a rule manage estates of their own where they engaged wage labor. In a word, they did not support the rise of an alternative definition of the labor transaction based on commercial agriculture. Although the offering of labor tribute to seignors had a diminished economic significance in many regions of the country by the early nineteenth century, it remained the principal model for the employment of agricultural labor to accumulate surplus. In comparison to development in Britain, in Germany the introduction of freedom of occupation and of formally unconstrained market determination of wages in shops and factories began before—or in a few areas, barely coincided with—the complete abolition of dues in agricultural labor. We must examine the course of agrarian reform in each of Germany's key regions to show that despite enormous variation within Germany, this represented a general cross-national difference.
For historical analyses of the transformation of feudal relations in Germany, the Prussian heartlands have long served as the locus classicus. Until the reforms of the nineteenth century, most agricultural production here, east of the Elbe, was carried out on large estates with serf labor. Even the minority of peasants who were already legally free were required to give a labor tithe to the lord of their land in return for the use of a holding. Only in 1807, on the very eve of the introduction of freedom of trade, were the serfs themselves freed by law. Even then, many peasants did not satisfy the
provisions that in principle would have allowed them to redeem their dues in labor. Indeed, when the German cities experienced the heady days of revolution in 1848, the bulk of the Prussian peasantry still were compelled to deliver a quota of labor tribute. No wonder the entry for Arbeit in the German dictionary published in Berlin in 1860 included a feudal illustration of the term's meaning. This compendium, edited by a member of the Society for the Study of Modern Languages in Berlin, listed "going to do compulsory labor at the estate" as an illustration of the word's typical use. At the start of the industrial age, agricultural workers in the east were still bound in feudal relations of work that emphasized the lord's authority over their labor service.
In Saxony, destined to become one of Germany's most heavily industrialized regions, the seignors prior to the era of reform managed only part of their holdings as personal estates. The remaining land had already come into possession of small peasant cultivators who owed the lords money rents as well as labor services. When the value of the money payments depreciated after 1815, however, the lords succeeded in intensifying their subordinates' labor obligations. Not until 1832 did the Saxony government establish a framework for cultivators to release themselves from labor tribute by indemnifying their lords. The peasants who met the eligibility requirements could redeem their obligations by making payments in installments over a span of twenty-five years. When textile mills had become an accepted sight in the Saxony countryside and the mechanized factory an important matter in economic discussions, most of the peasants had not yet paid off their
feudal obligation to labor. The outposts of factory development were surrounded by a sea of agricultural workers bound by compulsory labor from another era.
As a mechanism for extracting surplus from the agricultural producers, labor dues had less importance in western and southern Germany than in the east. But there were many exceptions to this rule. In some western and central regions, including Paderborn, Hannover, Brunswick, and Magdeburg, feudal rent in the form of labor services absorbed a large portion of the peasantry's workdays. In the districts of Duisburg and Essen, near the centers of industrial expansion, some peasants were still attempting to release themselves from labor dues in the revolution of 1848. In southern Germany the governments of Baden and Württemberg did not earn their liberal reputations for the agricultural reforms they introduced. Only in 1831 did Baden make labor obligations convertible to money payments. In Württemberg small cultivators continued to deliver labor services until the revolution of 1848. The compensation they paid their lords to abolish labor dues was much greater than they paid for release from other fees and rents. Even outside the Prussian heartlands, labor tribute played a role in defining the use of labor in the early nineteenth century
Prior to the French invasion, tithes in labor no doubt had less significance in the Rhineland than in other regions of the country. In this area above all, peasants could not be evicted from their holdings. Most of the services the peasants had once rendered in return for use of the soil had been converted to money rents or to levies on the harvest. The producers came close to enjoying a system of pure land rental.
How, then, could historians conclude that in the Rhineland's system of agriculture prior to the French invasions "medieval survivals certainly still had a wide scope"? One answer is that as a modest supplement to agricultural rents, some days of compulsory labor were still rendered in much of the Rhineland. In rare instances, the obligatory service was rendered in the landowners' small manufactories. Even if the landholders did not rely upon tribute in labor for their economic sustenance, the required services still played an important role in defining farmers' subservience to land-owners, as the seignors' reactions to proposed reforms demonstrated. After the French invasion, landholders in western Germany opposed the elimination of labor dues, because they believed they would suffer a "decline of prestige through the future loss of subordinate persons."
Seignors believed that the procurement of labor through dues served as a model of authority relations. Even after some of them began to fathom the inefficiency that accompanied unpaid, coerced labor, they contended that its disciplinary effect was indispensable. Johann Georg Fleischer had put this relation of domination into words in 1775, when he wrote that the dues were "service or labor for the lord" and were "owed as the obligation of a subordinate." For another reason, too, tribute in labor had a significance apart from the bare number of days of work delivered: it could be demanded during the critical harvest period, when the dependent farmer's time was most valuable to himself as well as to the seignor.
The survival of feudal labor services in German agriculture supports the assumption that the labor transaction was based on the offering of a labor potential rather than on the delivery of a product. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when employers and state administrators first tried to imagine the conversion of dues in labor to a market equivalent, they rejected the view that the dues could be equated with an article of labor. As one adviser, Karl Dietrich Hüllmann, expressed it in 1803, the value of the product delivered could vary, whereas "labor is to be compared only with labor." Hüllmann recommended that landowners replace labor dues with variable money rents indexed by the current price of common day labor. With the funds thereby collected, lords could command the same amount of labor power in the market as they had received by feudal claim. Like others, Hüllmann equated labor dues with the command of living service. Economic theorists put this in a more explicit and commercial form. For example, Fleischer argued in 1775 that the compulsory labor services delivered to the lords represented "active capital," a living potential that could be used in a way that inert capital could not.
The slow reshaping of the social relations of work in German agriculture in accord with a liberal market regime highlighted the difference between the use value of labor and its price. Commentators observed that the lords extracted far less labor in a day from a vassal than from a free worker.
Fleischer, for example, estimated that the use value of day labor obtained from an unfree subordinate was only half that of a common wage earner; but if both were free laborers in the market, he said, their labor time would have the same exchange value. The conversion of feudal to capitalist institutions of work encouraged German thinkers to determine the distinct moment of converting a labor potential into labor.
Feudal relations of work offered a model for capitalist relations in the eyes of the workers themselves. The recollections of Adam Heuss illustrate their reactions during the critical period of transition. Heuss, born in 1780, worked for a small hand smith in Nürnberg who suffered from a decline in business. He published his observations on this matter in 1845, in a text that was autobiographical in tone and not intentionally political:
In our age of mighty advance it has perhaps been supposed that it is advantageous to have these tradable wares manufactured in factories with machines. This case probably would follow closely the example of the Mecklenburger estate lords [Gutsherren ] who released their subject peasants and turned them into day laborers; in this case the necessity of standing up to competition forces the businessman to do this, but truly the people's well-being has gained nothing through this advance.
In Heuss's account, the appearance of wage labor is conjoined with the rise of mechanized factory production, a typical appreciation based on the German path to a market regime. For him, the transition from compulsory labor dues to officially free labor served as a model for the transition from small craft shops to the factory. Heuss's text, focused on private affairs, was not composed for the sake of public dialogue or condemnation. The change from feudalism to capitalism was in his eyes purely formal: it did not alter the substance of employment. He testified to the transfer of feudal models of employment to the factory.
From the early days of factory labor in Germany during the 1830s, popular journals described the unwilling entry of workers into the factory as a
continuation of forced labor under the feudal system. During the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, the workers' newspaper Die Verbrüderung restated this judgment. It declared that there was no essential difference between feudal labor dues and "the labor that is demanded from the manual worker today." In both situations, it explained, the worker is compelled to work for his subsistence. Colloquial language also testified to the comparison of industrial and feudal relations of work: during the 1830s, the term Fröhnerlohn , the subsistence of the forced laborer, was transferred from agriculture to industry.
The comparison of feudal with capitalist employment relations remained a standard theme into the late nineteenth century. At an assembly of factory laborers and cloth makers in Bautzen in 1873, a speaker for the union movement said that "the serf of the Middle Ages was in a better position than the modern free worker, for the free worker has no means for acquiring the tools for work and thus becomes a vassal of the employer [Brotherr ]." Joseph Dietzgen, a tanner and early interpreter of Marx's investigation of the capitalist labor process, used the dependent servant's obligation to deliver labor to the lord of the property as a model for the wage laborer's delivery of labor to the capitalist. "Those who are working must do compulsory labor to create a product for the owners," he wrote in 1873, "which in twenty years equals the full value of the invested capital."
The long survival of feudal relations of work in Germany influenced the development of an understanding of the capitalist employment relation among elite economists as well. Many German economists saw the offering of feudal labor services as a forerunner to the sale of services by means of the wage contract. Ludwig Jakob was among those who expressed in clear form the carryover of feudal assumptions about labor to the wage contract. In a prize essay on free and servile labor, published in 1814, Jakob said that with wage labor, "the master does not have anything to do with forcing serfs into his service; rather, he selects among persons who seek to rent themselves [sich vermieten ]." The formulation that free workers compete to "rent themselves" establishes an analogy, suggesting that as serfs confer their person permanently, so wage laborers offer their person to the employer temporarily. Textile workers adopted the same expression. When they looked for work, they said they wanted to "rent themselves."
German economists may have taken liberal commercialism as the foundation for their codifications of economic thought, but they composed their works with many a backward glance at feudal relations of work. Economists such as Jakob, Rau, and Hermann emphasized that labor could be employed most productively if workers received compensation for extra effort and if they remained "free" to bargain for wages that compensated them for their accomplishments. This looks liberal enough, but the writers were not so inured to capitalist relations as to take the officially free labor contract for granted. For the German economists, to say that workers sold their "labor" did not adequately distinguish between feudal and market relations, because
selling one's "labor," in their eyes, could also mean that one bound one's whole person with a feudal obligation to labor. The concept of "labor power," by contrast, identified clearly the commodity the worker sold as something that inhered in the individual but could be separated analytically from the worker's person. At the same time, it maintained the idea that workers sold their labor as if it were a service and a resource rather than as if it were materialized in finished articles, as in Britain. The German thinkers did not contrast the person of the worker and the delivered product, as their British counterparts did, to distinguish the commitment of the whole person to labor from the sale of labor as a commodity; rather, the Germans made a distinction between the disposition over the whole person of the worker and the temporary command over the individual's labor capacity. It is telling that even people of business in Germany emphasized that the wage was "the equivalent for rented human labor power." Unlike the British, the Germans did not interpose a product between workers and employers but instead established an immediate relation between the two parties by retaining the concept of employment as the offering of a capacity.
Marx called attention in Kapital to the continuity between the concepts that ruled the delivery of labor under feudalism and those that operated, in disguised form, in the capitalist factory. In the Middle Ages, Marx claimed, "Every serf knows that what he expends in the service of his master is a definite quantity of his own personal labor power." In the feudal period, "the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour appear at all events as their own mutual personal relations and are not disguised under the shape of social relations between things, the labor products. " Under the feudal system, the relations of appropriation and domination were fused in experience. When Marx applied feudal common sense
about the delivery of labor to unmask capitalist nonsense, theory recapitulated history. For Marx's acquaintance with feudal relations in Germany gave him the historical vantage point needed to use the notion of labor power in a critique of the view of materialized labor that governed British economic thought. Marx, like his contemporaries, emphasized the unusual coincidence in Germany of capitalist relations in the factory with feudal relations in agriculture. The musty German past thereby divulged underlying truths about the fresh British future.
The distinctive content of the German specification of labor as a commodity drew in several ways upon the procurement of labor in feudal relations of agriculture. As in the delivery of labor tithes, so in the selling of labor power in a market the German definition of the transaction emphasized the delivery of labor as a service potential, the employer's authority over the use of the labor, and the challenge of converting the use value of labor into a result. Adelung's dictionary of 1793 highlighted the offering of the worker's own person as a tool to another in its definition of an Arbeitsmann ("workman") as someone who "in everyday life lets himself be used for manual labor." The feudal emphasis on the transfer of labor as a potential at the disposal of a superior was to echo inside the walls of the mechanized factory: at the beginning of the twentieth century, the employment contract was not yet termed a "labor relation" in the German business code but a "service relation."
Even after the ancient system of extracting dues in labor was put to rest, other components of feudalism in agricultural work refused a timely burial. Their spirit animated labor law in the German countryside until the revolution of 1918. Up to that year, more than three dozen special ordinances, many dating back to the eighteenth century, condemned the agricultural wage laborer to harsh servitude. For violation of contract, these laborers were still liable to gross physical punishment, imprisonment, and forcible transport by the police. The bondage of agricultural workers to regulations outside those of a free mutual contract differs sharply from German
officials' deliberate protection of uncoercive agreements in factories at the dawn of the liberal commercial era. This extreme disjuncture in the pace of liberalization between the factory yard and the landed estate gave German producers an unusual vantage point. They could define the commodity of labor in terms of the underlying similarities between feudal and capitalist work regimes, systems whose principles appeared discordant to countries that had not experienced this coincidence of regimes of labor.