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estate(in preindustrial society) a SOCIAL STRATUM within a system of SOCIAL STRATIFICATION, distinguished by a specific set of legally-defined rights and duties. The estate system is particularly associated with European, and especially French and German, feudal and postfeudal, so-called STÄNDESTAAT societies, although there were broadly similar systems in Russia, Japan and China. Estates might vary from locality to locality, but within their own area they had rigorously ordered boundaries and value systems, and the main divisions are conventionally defined as being between nobility, clergy and commoners. The rise of ‘gentry’, ‘professional’ and other groupings might complicate status divisions on a local basis, but the regulation of rights to offices, titles, property etc, and, less formally, of whom it was appropriate to ‘know’ and how it was appropriate to know them, was a defining feature of estates.
Estates formed ‘communities’ in the sense used by WEBER, whose conception of STATUS GROUP owes a great deal to his understanding of the historical conformation of estates. The elements of exclusiveness and ‘acceptability’, common life chances, and shared culture and experience, are found in different historical situations, but the aspects of legal regulation and relatively fixed boundaries define the estate system (compare CASTE). See also FEUDALISM.
(Russian, soslovie), in precapitalist societies, a social group possessed of hereditary rights and obligations fixed by custom or law. Organization by estates is characterized by a hierarchy of several estates, each unequal in status and privileges.
A society’s division into estates is not unrelated to its class composition (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 2, p. 476; vol. 6, p. 311). However, estates usually outnumbered classes, primarily because of the various forms and methods of extraeconomic constraint. Estates property still bore the stamp of naturally specified forms of the exploiters’ political unification (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, pp. 22–24). Estates came into existence in different ways and over a long period of time—longer in some societies, shorter in others. Estates emerged as property inequalities and military, religious, professional, and other functions in society were consolidated in practice and sanctified by law.
Unlike castes, which may be viewed as organization by estates in which the hereditary principle is absolute, estates involve a less rigid adherence to the hereditary principle. Membership in an estate may be purchased, granted by the sovereign, or obtained in other ways. At the same time, an estate differs from bodies in which membership is a reward for personal merit—for example, service in the military or the passing of an examination, as with the shen-shih in China. In Europe the clergy played a singular role, one that largely undermined the very principle of organization by estates, since membership in the estate of the clergy was not hereditary and since “the church formed its hierarchy out of the best brains in the land, regardless of their estate, birth or fortune” (K. Marx, ibid., vol. 25, part 2, p. 150). The members of an estate usually display the fact of their membership through outward symbols, such as special ornaments, marks of distinction, items of clothing, and hair styles. A sense of morality specific to the estate also arises.
Medieval France is usually considered the classic example of a society organized by estates. By the 14th and 15th centuries, when the rise of the hereditary estates culminated, French society had been divided into the clergy, the nobility, and the third estate, all of which sent delegates to the Estates General, a body made up of representatives of the estates. Each estate had strictly defined rights and privileges. The first two estates were exempt from state taxes, had privileged access to positions in the state bureaucracy, and cultivated a distinctive life-style that set them apart from the “common folk” of the third estate. However, membership in the nonprivileged third estate also entailed inclusion in a system of relations regulated by law. The exclusivity of the estates began to break down in about the mid-16th century, as the “well-born” lost their economic advantages, as the nobility ceased to monopolize military functions, and as the ranks of the nobility were filled by the rich and by state and judicial officials. The estates were abolished by the French Revolution.
In Russia, estates took shape as early as the mid-16th century, as the Russian lands were unified in a single state, the appanage feudal aristocracy fell into decline, and the dvorianstvo (service nobility) and urban elite gained increasing influence. In this period, the zemskie sobory (councils of the land) were convened for the first time, in which representatives of the urban elite and, at the zemskii sobor of 1613, even of the state peasants sat alongside members of the boyar-dvorianstvo estate and upper clergy. The estates of this period were complex and multifarious. The razriadnye spiski (lists of appointments) of the 17th century and the Barkhatnaia Kniga (Velvet Book) of 1687 were the lever by which dvorianstvo was gradually transformed from a corporate service group into a hereditary estate. The hereditary principle of organization by estates was to some extent weakened during the reign of Peter I, when the introduction of the Table of Ranks in 1722 blurred the lines between the estates and when individuals acceded to the privileged estates by dint of service and the tsar’s grants of status. Subsequently, however, the estates rights of the nobility expanded—at the expense of the other estates’ legal status. After the Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility in 1762 and the Charter of the Nobility in 1785, Russian society was consolidated into several estates: nobles, clergy, peasants, merchants, and meshchane (townsmen); these estates persisted until the February Bourgeois Revolution of 1917. Certain estates, the nobility and clergy, were exempt from taxes, while others, the peasants and meshchane, were not.
In Asia various forms of the social order evolved, ranging from the rigid caste system of India to the almost complete absence of a hereditary aristocracy or firm boundaries between estates, as in Burma.
As capitalist relations sprang up and took hold and as hierarchies based on hereditary status thereby gave way to hierarchies of wealth, whose true nature was concealed by formal legal equality for all, estates began to disappear. However, certain vestiges of estates have survived, even in modern bourgeois societies. In Great Britain, for example, aristocratic families have privileged access to higher education and government positions. Even in a country such as the USA, which has never experienced feudalism, graduates of Harvard or Princeton make up a “pseu-doestate,” distinguished by membership in exclusive clubs and by preference received in obtaining employment with the best legal firms, the best banks, the diplomatic corps, and the various branches of the military.
The vestiges of certain countries’ privileged estates can play an extremely reactionary role, as did the Junkers in Prussia and the large landowners and upper clergy in Spain.
Socialist revolution utterly and ruthlessly eliminates the inequality stemming from the existence of estates, since only socialist revolution eradicates the “remnants of feudalism and serfdom,” which, according to V. I. Lenin, form “the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 44, p. 146).
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