Small Holding

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Small Holding


(family farm), the peasant family-operated farm. The small holding arose during the transition to class society in the course of the disintegration of the primitive communal system, the formation of the monogamous family, and the emergence of private property. Its formation as an economic unit was related to growth in productive forces and, above all, to the use of metal implements and draft animals, which made it possible for a single family to operate the farm. With the spread of plow cultivation and fallow crop rotations, the small holding became the chief form of production in most of Europe.

In postprimitive precapitalist societies the small holding was the chief form of agricultural production. Its isolated and self-contained nature resulted from dependence on natural conditions of labor, the predominance of primitive hand implements, and the limited scope for division of labor within the framework of one family. Operating as the elementary economic unit, the small holding is typically a subsistence farm, distinguished by a self-sufficiency that is achieved through an organic combination of farming and cottage industry. “This method of production,” wrote K. Marx, “assumes that land and the other means of production will be divided up into small holdings. It excludes not only concentration of the latter but also cooperation, division of labor within one and the same production process, society’s dominance over and regulation of nature, and the free development of society’s productive forces. It is compatible only with the narrow original boundaries of production and society” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 771). The need for broader labor cooperation and social intercourse made it necessary to organize small holdings into rural territorial communes, an organizational form specific to the small-holding system.

According to Marx, free private control by the worker of the conditions of his labor adequately characterizes the classical form of the small holding (ibid.). In the precapitalist epoch this form developed most extensively during the flourishing of the ancient city-states. Its existence was conditioned and limited by the city-state form of organization. The development of social antagonisms limited the growth of private property held by working individuals. The scattered and isolated nature of the small holdings led to their subordination by the ruling class in the form of state organizations, slaveholders, and feudal lords. The small holding was the principal object of exploitation and source of surplus product. Under feudalism, dependent peasants were merely the holders, not the owners, of their plots of land; they did own their farming equipment, livestock, and movable property. In antiquity and the Middle Ages the rights of the peasant family to dispose of its parcel of land were also limited by the rural commune.

Establishment of the capitalist method of production transformed the peasant smallholders into free farm owners. However, the penetration of capitalist relations into agriculture led to the disintegration of small peasants’ property. As a necessary and historically determined form of production that corresponded to a given level of social division of labor and development of productive forces, the small holding encouraged the initiative and energy of the small producer, thus securing conditions for the later appearance of large-scale production. At a certain level in the development of productive forces, the method of production that is based on the fragmentation of land and other means of production into small holdings creates the material means for its own destruction, for the transformation, as K. Marx put it, “of the minute property of the many into the vast property of the few” (ibid.).

As commodity-money relations developed, the property differentiation and subsequent social differentiation of the peasantry intensified. Under conditions of capitalist competition, the broad use of mortgage credit, increased taxes, and monopoly pricing, the small holding was doomed to gradual fragmentation and extinction. Capitalism has inevitably been accompanied by the breakup of peasant holdings, the ruin and supplanting of small owners, and the creation of a surplus agrarian population. The history of all the developed capitalist countries attests to a progressive erosion of the middle peasant stratum and a decrease in the number of small family farms. However, such features of the small holding as its links with natural productive forces and its system of cooperative family labor have permitted it to coexist with developed capitalist forms in agriculture for a long period. As it takes over the agricultural sphere, capital causes peasants to lose their farms and turns them into hired workers and small tenant farmers. Historically, the displacement of the peasantry as owners of the lands they farm has been a prolonged process, ultimately leading to the disappearance of the peasant farmer. The tenant, who has lost ownership of his land but continues to farm independently, sometimes appears as a transitional figure in the course of this process. At the present stage in the developed capitalist countries, many small farmers are no longer smallholders in the proper sense of the word, because their farms are an integral part of the modern capitalist economic system.

In Russia small holdings emerged in approximately the tenth century. The Peasant Reform of 1861, which was a major step toward the development of capitalist relations in agriculture, did not definitively free the peasant farm from its medieval bonds. Instead of becoming the private holdings of peasant families, land allotments became the property of the commune. The Peasant Reform brought about an increase in the use of exploitative leasing arrangements, the impoverishment of peasant farms, and the pauperization of the rural population. These phenomena were consequences of the preservation of large estates, the burden of land-redemption payments and growing state taxes, and the aggravation of land shortages among the peasantry as a result of the loss of peasant lands that were expropriated by the landlords as part of the terms under which the serfs were freed. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two-thirds of the peasant farms were economically marginal. After the defeat of the Revolution of 1905–07, tsarism attempted to reorganize agrarian relations in the interests of the landowners and the growing rural bourgeoisie through the Stolypin agrarian reforms. The development of capitalism continued against a background of further impoverishment of the countryside and further fragmentation of peasant farms, of which there were 21 million by 1916.

The true liberation of the countryside from domination by the landowners and from related vestiges of feudal servile relations took place as a result of the Great October Socialist Revolution. The middle peasant stratum was bolstered by the redistribution of the land so as to equalize holdings and the transfer to the peasantry of the livestock and property from the estates. The policy of support for the poor and middle strata in the countryside, coupled with restrictions on the growth of the kulak stratum, created favorable conditions for the development of the small holding as a small-scale commodity producer. Even under these conditions, however, the peasant household continued to fragmentize. In 1927 there were 25 million peasant farms. With industrialization of the country, it became necessary in the course of the building of socialism to carry out a fundamental reorganization of agricultural production and to replace the small holdings with large-scale collective farms. The small holding in Russia disappeared in the course of the collectivization of agriculture.

The evolution of the small holding in the developing countries has a number of distinctive features. In these countries the peasants constitute the majority of the population. Agrarian reforms, which have restricted large-scale landownership, have promoted an increase in the number of small landowners and tenant farmers, whose rights to the land are guaranteed by law. In some of the developing countries the stratum of small-scale peasant proprietors has grown as a result of the development of abandoned or previously unused lands. The direct result of the reforms has been to strengthen the small holding, but at the same time a number of state acts and the system of monopoly pricing make the small farm dependent on the state and on capitalist entrepreneurs. Where the agrarian technology is backward and precapitalist forms of exploitation have been preserved, the ruin and supplanting of small owners and tenant farmers through the action of commodity-money relations has become a particularly widespread and destructive process. In countries with a socialist orientation the governments are attempting to check the process of impoverishment and pauperization of the small-scale peasant proprietors by consolidating them into cooperatives.


Marx, K. Kapital, vol.1, chs. 1 and 24. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23.
Marx, K. Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta. Ibid., vol. 8. Marx, K. “Ekonomicheskie rukopisi 1857–1859 godov.” Ibid., vol. 46, part 1, pp. 461–508.
Lenin, V. I. “Agrarnaia programma sotsial-demokratii ν pervoi russkoi revoliutsii 1905–1907 godov.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 16.
Lenin, V. I. “Agrarnyi vopros ν Rossii k kontsu XIX v.” Ibid., vol. 17.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
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So by degrees, as they saved a little money, the waste land began to be broken up; spade husbandry and small holdings increased; so did the value of property on the mountain.
A few moor farmers have small holdings, where they rear sheep and cattle.
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Williams & Goodwin on 01248 751000 5 4 4 This spacious family home incorporates a small holding and is set in approximately 3.5 acres of land with a quarter of a mile of the seaside village.
After all business had been completed, members listened to Fiona Holland who related how she came to write her book together with her background of bringing up her own children and fostering many others at her small holding which she bought after the death of her husband.
The property is very suitable for equestrian or small holding purposes.
The youngsters raised PS162 in aid of the 'Pigs in the Wood' - a small holding of hogs at Scissett woods that lets people feed, care for and interact with the pigs.
Police are unsure whether she was stolen to breed from or whether she was spooked and ran away when intruders entered a small holding.
It's a very small holding of about 85,000 or 90,000 pounds ($151,300), which is indirectly held through about three other holdings, and apparently it is very difficult to get rid of."

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