Acasă Proiecte The land question (1864-1938)

The land question (1864-1938)

de Gazeta de Artă Politică

Short synthesis by Marius-Alexandru Dan, provided in 2020 in the frame of the project Housing, social mobilisations and urban governance in Central and Eastern Europe, financed by The Swedish Research Council FORMAS [Grant 2016-00258], to serve The Common Front for Housing Rights.


The socio-political context on the eve of 1864 land reform

According to the 1859-1860 census, the population of the United Principalities[1] numbered 3.9 million people, with around 90% living in rural settlements and only 10% in cities. By occupation, 71% of them were farmers, 10% were craftsmen and workshops workers, 6.5% merchants, moneylenders and other freelancers, 5% civil servants and clergymen. The rest consisted of servants and other categories. The demographic composition, as well as the geography of the population, were indicative of a traditional peasant agrarian structure, characterized by low levels of work professionalization, reduced trade and a small civil service apparatus. The political and social regime was feudal in nature, with the sovereign (Domnitor) and the nobility (boierime) sharing all the power; the National Assembly and the government were both under the control of these two centres of power. The vast majority of the population didn’t have political rights. The first elements of modern political organization were introduced in Moldova and Wallachia by the Organic Regulation[2] and the Paris Convention[3] of 1858: constitutional monarchy, parliamentarism (national assembly), separation of powers, financial standardization, as well as certain provisions on the freedom of trade, crafts and industry.

In the countryside, the social regime was based on feudal relations, the land being held by the boyars, while the peasants were considered tenants on the feudal estates and subject to the corvee (clacă) system. While undergoing a process of gradual erosion and decline, this system retained its essential features until 1864. The free peasants, called răzeși in Moldova and moșneni in Wallachia, lived in hilly and mountainous areas and were not subject to the corvee regime. They represented 20-25% of the total number of peasant families and they were organized in traditional communities, exploiting their land in common. In the 14th-15th centuries, almost all the peasantry was free and organized into communities (obști); over the following centuries, the boyars and monarchs subjugated most of the peasantry, taking away their most productive lands. On the eve of the agrarian reform of 1864, the country’s arable land was overwhelmingly in feudal possession: the boyars owned 63%, the monasteries[4] 21%, and the rest of 16% consisting mainly of pastures, meadows and forests, belonged to the free peasants.

The feudal lords – the boyars and the monasteries – held conditional ownership of agricultural land, forests and waters, i.e., they were the landlords, but they were required to provide the clăcași[5] with arable land, pastures and access to their forests. Also, the landlords had the right to corvee, to tithe[6] (dijma in Romanian) and other duties imposed on the clăcași, in kind or in money. At the same time, the landlords had a feudal monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages on their estates, as well as on the mills, bakeries, butchers, etc. These were usually leased to merchants and other tenants, providing the landlords with a steady income. The boyars and the church were exempted from taxes.

Clăcași were required by law to work 18-20 days (often up to 30-40 days) on the landlord’s estates, under conditions decided by the latter. The peasants were also required to pay dijma, in kind, or some cases, in money. When paid in kind (cereals, meat, wheat, hay, wine, honey, cheese, wool, fruit, etc.) dijma was partly used for the needs of the manor, but most of it was sold on the domestic and foreign markets. Furthermore, peasants had to pay a personal tax and other forms of contributions to the state. Apart from the house lot, the peasants did not own land, but had the right to demand from the landlord (and he was required to give them) arable land, pasture and wood, all these within the limits of the laws. The status of clăcași passed down from generation to generation, children becoming clăcași on reaching adulthood. At the same time, they were not free to move to another estate except under certain conditions, with the consent of the landowner, but he could expel them from the estate whenever he wished.

Rural life on the eve of the agrarian reform of 1864

The rural population lived in villages and hamlets, most of which were part of the feudal estates. There was no modern organization. Access roads, paths and alleys, especially in the lowlands and hilly areas, were unpaved, without ditches on the edges. Houses were built at the will of the villager, as there was no planning. Until the beginning of the 19th century, especially in the lowlands, the settlements of the clăcași were made up of scattered dwellings without enclosures and plantings – gardens, vineyards, orchards. After 1830, various measures were taken to centralize settlements into compact villages as a first step towards the systematization of rural communities. According to the 1859 census, the houses had an average of 1.5 rooms; most of them were built of wood and clay; the floor was made of glued mud and the roof of straw, reeds or planks. A family (2-8 people) usually lived in one room, which in winter was also the kitchen.

The houses were illuminated with oil lamps, less often with candles. For some of the houses, the fixed windows had no glass, but a dry pig or cow bladder, through which only a weak and diffused light penetrated; glass windows were rare in the countryside. The domestic furniture consisted of a platform which served as a bed, on which the whole family slept, then a table and a few low chairs and a chest in which they kept their festive clothes and other belongings. One or two courses were cooked and eaten two or three times a day; the pots were made of burnt clay and the spoons of wood. Food was mainly made up of flour, maze porridge, beans, potatoes, greens, pickles; more than 3/4 of the households had cows and sheep and consumed milk and cheese; meat consumption was mostly restricted to winter feasts. Fasts, with vegetable food, were rigorously observed and amounted to 140-185 days a year. Obesity was unknown among the peasants, but malnutrition was common. The average peasant household bought few goods, but also sold little, as the peasants did not have much surplus; they would buy: salt, candles, cotton, wool, iron and wooden tools, tobacco, alcohol, wine and matches (after the 1880s, to replace the fire striker). Fewer industrial products were bought, usually from craftsmen, fairs or markets, less often from towns. All clothing, whether for work or for festive occasions, was homemade. In the winter, people wore opanak (traditional peasant shoes worn in Southeastern Europe) and in the summer almost everyone was barefoot. Only on feast days, at the church or at the fair, people appeared better dressed and shod.

The main public institutions were the church and, in a few larger villages, the school, with 1-2 classrooms. The teacher worked with four generations at the same time, in separate groups of pupils, usually in the same room. More than 90% of the peasantry was illiterate; the teacher, the priest and only a few others were literate; sometimes even the mayors were illiterate[7]. Cultural and entertaining activities took place in churches, schools, taverns; at fairs, festivals, carnivals, baptisms, weddings and funerals. On these occasions, various customs, games, religious and secular songs, specific to peasant culture, were performed. Books and newspapers, with few exceptions, did not reach countryside; churches, taverns and fairs were the main mediums of social information.

The 1864 land reform

The end of corvee had been demanded in some of the programmatic documents of the 1848 revolutions. As a preamble to the land reform, the government secularized, in 1863, over 2.5 million hectares of land belonging to the “dedicated monasteries”[8]. This measure facilitated the land reform, with over a third of peasants receiving plots from the state reserve. After years of lengthy and bitter parliamentarian debates, the land reform law was promulgated in August 1864 by an act of political force[9] on the part of prince A. I. Cuza. The law freed peasants from feudal tasks (the corvée, the tithe etc.) and it did away with feudal monopolies in the villages. At the same time, it was specified that compensation would be paid to the owners. Thus, for 15 years, in order to defray the cost of their no longer performing the corvée and the other feudal duties, peasants were required to pay into an indemnity fund that issued bonds redeemable in instalments an annual fee of 53–133 lei, depending on their category and region.

All the clăcași received farmland, either from expropriated private estates – approx. 2/3 – or from the state – 1/3, from the secularization of monastery property. The area of land was allocated according to the working capacity of the household. Thus, the more well-to-do peasants (fruntasi) with four cattle, received, on average, between 5-8 ha; the middle peasants (mijlocasi), with two cattle, received, on average, of 3-6 ha; the poor peasants (palmasi) 2-3 ha. Other categories, such as peasants who were not serfs, widows, orphans and young military men received 0.5 ha for house and garden. In order to prevent the land from being lost by the peasants, the law contained a 30-year ban on the transfer of the land received at the reform; it could, however, be sold to peasants from the same village.

By 1879, under the Rural Law (the official name of the land reform), 512,000 households had received land covering almost 2 million hectares; subsequently, more than 112,000 peasants bought a further 547,000 hectares from the state. In total, peasants became landowners on approx. 2.5 million ha, and together with the land of the free peasants, the peasant smallholdings accounted for approx. 40%, and landlords 60%. The law did not provide pasture land, necessary for feeding cattle, an omission that will have serious consequences for the new agrarian regime.

The 1864 land reform produced important transformations in the life of the peasantry and of society as a whole. Its consequences should not be reduced to the ending of corvee and land redistribution. Some other important characteristics of the land reform were:

  • it was an important moment in the removal of the feudal regime, one of the main obstacles in the process of democratization and modernization of society;
  • it took the form of an agrarian revolution, changing one agrarian social regime – the feudal one – for another (the landowners’ regime)
  • the clăcași, 2/3 of the country’s rural population, became socially and legally free, an important (though not decisive) step in the democratization of the country;
  • this reform began the process of extra-economic transformation, i.e. by state legislative measures, of land ownership into small peasant holdings, a process continued and completed by the land reforms of 1921 and 1945;
  • it laid the foundations for the autonomous organization of the rural population i.e. the establishment of modern local administrative entities.

Land ownership after the 1864 reform – polarization and differentiation

For the peasantry, land was the main source of livelihood. For the landowners, their big estates were the basis of their economic and political power. These estates brought the highest income of all the country’s revenues, forming the most important private wealth. As a consequence, until the new land reform of 1921, the Romanian political life was dominated by the interests of the landowners as well as those of the emerging bourgeoisie. It should be noted that, in historical terminology, landowners until the agrarian reform are usually called boyars; after 1864 they are called landowners (moșieri in Romanian).

Although the 1864 reform distributed a significant part of the country’s land to the peasantry, most of it – arable, pastures and forests – remained in the full possession of the landowners. Over the half-century following the land reform, rural land ownership evolved in several key directions:

  1. The great landed estates, which could reach 20,000-30,000 ha, maintained their priority in agriculture; part of them, however, were transferred from the landowners into the hands of a new land management class, the farmers[10] (arendași in Romanian). These new exploiters were greedier than the old landowners and more ruthless in the exploitation of the peasantry.
  2. The peasant’s small holdings. This type of property has undergone significant transformations as a result of the general process of differentiation:
  • the fragmentation of the estates received through the 1864 land reform due to the sharp increase in the rural population (the rural population doubled during this period);
  • for various reasons, some groups of peasants lost their land, which led to the proletarianization of those peasants;
  • the dissolution of the free peasant communities;
  • the emergence of a prosperous middle-class as a result of land accumulation. With estates between 50-100 ha, this new category of medium-sized owners was represented by innkeepers, merchants, usurers, arendași, and was known in the literature of the time as „the village leeches”. At the same time, this new class will form the main elements of Romanian rural capitalism, which will develop very slowly.

The arable area (arable land, meadows, orchards and vineyards) of Romania at the beginning of the 20th century was estimated at approx. 8 million ha and was distributed, by category of property, as follows:

Category of property Proprieties Area Average area (ha)
% Ha %
Total 965047 100 7826796 100 8.11
up to 10 ha 920939 95.43% 3153645 40.29% 3.42
10-50 ha 36318 3.76%   695953 8.89% 19.16
50-100 ha 2405 0.25%   166847 2.13% 69.38
100-500 ha 3314 0.34%   816385 10.43% 246.34
over 500 ha 2071 0.21% 2993966 38.25% 1445.66

(Arable land ownership by category of property, number of properties and area, in 1905)

If we add to the arable land the forests (approx. 2 million ha), we can see that most of the country’s productive land – 63% – was in the possession of approx. 5,000 landowners, while the peasantry, with almost one million households, owned less than two-fifths. This obvious disproportion, combined with the scantiness of farmland for a majority of the peasants and with the worsening of exploitation led to bitter contradictions, rebellions and, in the end, a new land reform in 1921. At the same time, the peasant property experienced a profound economic differentiation and stratification:

Category of property Proprieties Area Average area (ha)
% Ha %
Landless 300000 25 0 0 0
0,1–2 ha 291771 24 336212 11 1.2
2-3 ha 131630 11 337000 11 2.6
3-5 ha 321163 26 1342997 43 4.2
5-10 ha 176375 14 1137436 36 6.4
Total 1220939 100 3153645 100 2.6

(Peasant land ownership in 1896)

Forty years after the land reform, landless households (about 25%) and those with insufficient land to provide food (about 24%) accounted for almost half of all peasant households. Specialists estimated that in order to ensure a decent living, the minimum size of a peasant household should be 4-5 ha, which corresponded to less than 40% of all households (those between 3-10 ha). About this situation, economist G.D. Creanga stated that „This explains the absolute dependence of the peasants on landlords and tenants; the peasants had to pawn their winter labour for the coming working seasons in order to cover the lack of food; they have to submit to whatever conditions imposed on them in order to lease land, to supplement their food and to satisfy other necessary needs”. The situation, says the author, will not change „as long as the strong are pitted against the weak, the landlord and the peasant who has no means of escape, cannot find any other occupation and sees his existence endangered […] he is forced to accept whatever conditions the landlords and tenants ask of him”.

The differentiation of rural property was, however, one-sided; the mass impoverishment of the peasantry prevailed; there was no development, to the same extent, of wealthy households, capable of accumulation, of investments aimed at modernizing agricultural activity, of supplying agricultural goods. This category accounted for barely 11% of the cultivated area.

Land polarization had reached an advanced stage: on the one hand, millions of peasants with scant land or no land at all; on the other, a few thousand landowners who owned most of the arable land; this generated acute social contradictions. At the beginning of the 20th century, the agrarian problem had once again, as in the mid-19th century, become a major issue of Romanian society and manifested itself in the tragic events of 1907. The agrarian problem of this period was not, as it is sometimes analysed in historical works, reduced only to the lack or insufficiency of land. It encompassed the whole range of rural social relations: property relations, unfair distribution of the products of labour, extortion and abuse, lack of rights, the discretionary behaviour of landowners, arendași and authorities towards the peasantry, their material and cultural backwardness, etc., all of which were either generated or exacerbated by the agrarian regime.

The agrarian regime after 1864

The agrarian regime after 1864 refers to the legislation and the practices promoted in the agricultural labour relations between the landowners and arendași, on the one hand, and the peasants, on the other hand. The social and legal basis of this regime was provided by the contracts concluded between the two parties in the sharecropping system[11].

This new agrarian regime was the product of the economic and social conditions in agriculture before and after the land reform. In size and scope, and in the type of social relations it engenders and their consequences, this regime was rare in 19th century Europe. In Western Europe, the abolition of serfdom coupled with the primitive accumulation of capital led, in 1-2 centuries, to the formation of a classical three-component structure of agrarian relations on the great landed estates: the great landowners – the owners of the land; the tenants – capitalists, agrarians or farmers – who lease the land from the landowners, invest capital in means of labour and wages, and organise the production and the agricultural exploitation, in order to sell goods on the market; the wage-earning agricultural workers who, having no other means of subsistence, choose to work for tenants. At the same time, the small peasant household underwent a gradual transformation: a small part of it organised into modern agricultural farms producing goods for the market; the other part, having lost its land, dissolved, providing a large mass of agricultural wage labourers for larger farms or capitalist plantations.

The post 1864 Romanian context did not provide the conditions for the development of agriculture on a capitalist basis: there were no small capitalists for agricultural investments, nor sufficient wage workers – the peasants had received land and had their own household. Before the 1864 land reform, the agricultural production functioned according to the feudal mechanism. The boyars (landlords) usually had a small inventory of labour and rarely used wage labourers. Instead, they compelled the clăcași, who owned cattle, agricultural equipment and labour, to work on the manorial estate; at the same time, in accordance with feudal system, the clăcași received from the boyars farm land, pasture and meadows, from which they paid the tithe. So, the mechanism of feudal agricultural relations was based on ties of interdependence and „complementarity”, imposed by feudal power, combining the object of labour – the land belonging to the boyars – and the means of labour (cattle, tools, carts, manpower) belonging to the clăcași. It was only by merging these two aspects in a compulsory relation, by extra-economic coercion, that the production process could be put into action.

The 1864 land reform separated land ownership, established free, private property and freed the peasants from feudal obligations. At the same time, it broke the system of feudal ties that ensured the agricultural production. This rupture threatened to disrupt and paralyse large-scale agricultural production. The great landowners were left with 2/3 of the country’s land, but they did not have the capital, the cattle, the agricultural equipment, nor the necessary manpower to cultivate their estates. As for the peasants, some of them were able to run their households independently, because they had sufficient farm land, cattle, agricultural equipment and manpower; another part possessed insufficient land or none at all; and all the peasants, did not own pastures and meadows to feed their cattle.

The solution was to revert to the previous „complementary” system of „cooperation” between peasants and landowners, but in different forms and dictated by the new legal conditions. This solution was implemented on the initiative of the great landowners, who were vitally interested in ensuring that their estates did not remain unexploited. It was elevated to the status of a matter of national interest and promoted by special legislation, above the basic laws of the country.

In 1866, after two years of drought that plunged the peasantry into debt and misery, the Law of Agricultural Relations was adopted as the legal basis for the future agrarian regime (sharecropping system). This law appeared as an exceptional law, qualified by many authors as unconstitutional, since all the disagreements resulting from the contracts did not follow the normal legal path, in the courts, with the application of common law, but were „resolved” by the local administration bodies; the mayor was the first and last authority to decide, and he was, in practice, at the service of the landowner and the arendași. By 1907, other similar laws had been enacted and amended, but the essence remained the same.

What was the sharecropping system? For their need of arable land, of pastures and meadows, of agricultural products in years of famine, of money, credit, etc., the peasants turned to landowners and arendași; they satisfied their demands, but in return required them to work on the estates under conditions dictated by them; the transactions were agreed in lease contracts. These lease contracts were concluded verbally or in writing between great landowners/arendași and groups of peasants or entire villages, for terms of up to 5 years, with extensions. The burden and severity of the contracts consisted in the onerous provisions imposed on the peasants and accepted by them because they had no other choice. The price of workdays was kept low by the landowners; debts and interest on them increased and the peasants remained in debt to the landowners from one year to the next and were forced to do new workdays; contracts were usually renewed for a new period before they expired, thus continuing the employment of indentured labourers for long periods of time in increasingly difficult conditions. The contracts also stipulated that the peasants would first carry out the work on the land of the landowners/arendași; only in the remaining free time could they work their own fields, a delay which was detrimental to peasant agricultural production.

Throughout the five decades of this landowners’ regime, the conditions imposed on the peasants became increasingly disadvantageous: peasant labour was considered cheap, but the rent taken by the landowners and arendași was constantly increasing. Surveys carried out in 1907 show that, over a period of 37 years (1870-1906), the price of a workday increased only from 0.98 lei to 1.33 lei, while the rent paid by peasants to landowners (in labour, products or money) increased, on average, from 18-20 lei/ha to 40-60 lei/ha. The extortion of the peasantry led to impoverishment, loss of land and worsening living conditions. For some categories the situation had become worse than in the old feudal regime.

It has been estimated that, in half a century, 50-60% of all peasant households gradually entered the sharecropping system. The rest of the households, mostly in the hills and mountains, and some more affluent ones in the plains, operated outside of this system; their situation was relatively better and they made some progress.

An aggravating factor in agrarian relations during this era was the speculative attitude of the arendași. Between 50-70% of the great landed estates were leased to arendași, which meant that the peasants were mainly subject to the direct exploitation of this class. Most of them did not make investments, but instead used the same sharecropping system for working the land with peasant labour and inventory. Lease contracts at the beginning of the 20th century show that the arendași rented land from great landowners for 20-30 lei ha per year and sublet it to peasants for 50-60 lei ha, doubling or tripling their income, as well as intensifying the exploitation of the peasantry. At the same time, some arendași formed associations, which gradually became monopolistic, “administrating” dozens of estates in fairly small geographical areas. In this situation, peasants in need could only enter into agreements with the arendași, under much harsher conditions than with the landowners. It should also be said that some wealthy arendași became themselves major landowners, buying up estates.

The restricted political rights of the peasantry (census voting, in which a peasant voter had only 1/50th of the vote of an ordinary voter), mass illiteracy (70-80% of peasants), unawareness of the laws, corruption of local bodies, on the one hand, and the discretionary power of landowners and arendași over villages, on the other, led to unrestrained abuses. These abuses made the working conditions and exploitation of the peasantry even worse, in relation to the provisions of the law: more working days than stipulated in the contracts, false measurements of the leased land, overcharging of debts, along with numerous punishments, confiscation of goods, animals, and beatings of disobedient peasants.

This agrarian regime has been known under various names, such as: landowners’ regime, semi-feudalism, semi-serfdom or simply serfdom, feudal remnant etc. However, in social literature it became known as neoserfdom a notion consecrated by the socialist leader C. Dobrogeanu Gherea (1910) in his ground-breaking work[12] of sociological analysis. Subsequently, historians, sociologists and economists have subscribed to this concept. Although there is no shortage of critical approaches in Romanian culture, as is the case with Gherea, the most severe analyses belonged to foreign historians. Indeed, Daniel Chirot viewed[13] the entire historical development of modern Romania as belonging to a (neo)colonial typology, in which economic, social and political structures were adapted to fulfil the role of periphery for the West. However, Daniel Chirot’s analysis is far too nuanced to support the idea that he attributes full responsibility to the West for the way the social structure of modern Romania has evolved. Stefan Welzk[14] is more radical in this respect: “Romania was a particular case for this region and era (19th century) and at the same time the prototype of a development that many Third World countries went through in the 20th century. A particular combination of feudal and capitalist elements, traditional and modern, triggered the process of impoverishment, often at the same time as feudalism was being abolished, but also prevented productivity advances and a stable growth pattern. With the advent of the export-oriented grain economy, an agrarian structure was formed, which remained as such, in its basic form, until the end of the First World War. The changes it underwent during this period resulted in a clear accentuation of its economically and socially destructive effects”.

However, other authors insist that the central responsibility for the worsening situation of the peasantry lay with internal factors in Romanian society. In fact, it is a common-sense observation that not all countries that were engaged in massive grain exports in the 19th century had such an oppressive and polarized social structure as Romania. Examples include not only the grain exporting countries of the non-European world (United States, Canada, Australia, etc.) or of Western Europe (Denmark), but also the Balkan countries, in which the great property was eliminated in the process of nation and state building, and in which small peasant property prevailed. In fact, most analysts agree that the Romanian social structure, which was particularly favourable to great landowners, is a case which, while not unique (valid comparisons can be made with Hungary, Poland, even Russia), was nevertheless extreme in the pre-WWI world. It is clear that the imbalance of agrarian relations in favour of the great landowners and to the detriment of the peasants had already begun significantly long before the establishment of the modern Romanian state (1859). This consideration should lead us to believe that Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea’s particularly critical assessment is unfounded, as he considered that the authors of the 1864 land reform – mainly, although not expressly named, prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza and prime minister Mihail Kogălniceanu – acted in bad faith in that, instead of opting either to distribute all the land in large lots to the peasants or to give them no land at all, they chose to distribute relatively small lots, insufficient for decent survival, and thus patronised the genesis of the hybrid system of neoserfdom, which led to the overexploitation of the peasants. In fact, the lawmakers of 1864 were convinced that they were protecting the peasants from the rapacity of the great landowners, and in order to overcome the resistance of the boyars they had to force the political system through a coup d’état that established the regime of personal authority of the prince, a step that compromised Alexandru Ioan Cuza’s chances of remaining on the throne for a longer period. Rather, the authors of the 1864 land reform can be accused of an insufficient understanding of the mechanisms of the peasant household and the necessary conditions for a meaningful modernisation of Romanian agriculture. The 1864 land reform not only established legal freedom and redeemed their feudal obligations to the boyars, but also gave the peasants some 2.5 million hectares of land. This measure, in addition to the less extensive allotments that took place in the following decades, did not stop the deterioration of the peasants’ position in relation to the landowners. Firstly, the landowners won politically, by removing Cuza in 1866[15] and by imposing unequal suffrage; they won by passing the sharecropping legislation; then they won because of their ability to control the functioning of the state and the administrative apparatus at local and county level. At the same time, they managed to turn population growth to their advantage. The role of the demographic factor in the degradation of the peasantry in early modern Romania was substantial. Thus, while at first the relative scarcity of labour favoured the peasants in their relations with the great landowners and acted as a brake on the intensification of exploitation, the doubling of the rural population in the half-century between 1864 and the outbreak of the WWI led to a gradual decrease in the average area of land owned by the peasants and a weakening of their position in relation to the landowners and/or tenants. At the sane tine, the demographic increase contributed to the cereal profile of Romanian agriculture, to the decrease in the area of pasture and the number of animals per household, and to the deterioration of the peasants’ capacity to modernise their economic activity in a sustainable way.

The social inequality and the exploitative nature of agrarian relations at the beginning of the 20th century are unquestionable. Their link to economic growth is less clear. It’s true that labour productivity was higher on great landed estates than on peasant plots: in 1912, on the great estates an average of 16.1 hectolitres of wheat and 21.3 hectolitres of grain maize were harvested per hectare, whereas on peasant estates the average output was only 14.3 hectolitres of wheat and 17.1 hectolitres of grain maize per hectare. However, given the mediocrity of these outputs in the wider European context, the assertion of superiority over small peasant holdings is not sufficient to consider the great landed estates as a significant vector of agricultural modernisation in the Old Kingdom[16]. The other economic implications of the prevalence of the great landed estates and of oppressive social relations in the countryside were clearly unfavourable for Romania’s economic development. A key element is the distribution of rural landholders by income group. The taxable land income for 1907 shows that about 1.2 million peasants (95.4% of owners) accounted for 40.6% of the total income, as much as 2,248 large landowners (less than 0.2% of owners). A study published by Nicolae Xenopol in 1909 gives slightly different figures, but a similar overall picture: more than 1.2 million peasants (representing 98.3% of the total number of landholders) had an average income of 95 lei/year, another 15,200 medium-sized owners had an average income of 110 lei/year, 3,100 landowners had an average income of 7,260 lei/year, and about 2,200 great landowners had an average income of 45,400 lei/year. This means that about 0.5% of rural landholders earned 54.3% of the income earned in Romanian agriculture. The appropriation of most of the agricultural income by a few thousand families of great landowners has contributed not only to the social misery of the peasants, but also to the deterioration of their power to invest in the modernisation of economic activity, thus aggravating the crisis in rural areas. At the same time, the very high concentration of income favoured the consumption of luxury goods, mostly imported, and inhibited the demand for consumer goods, which could have had positive effects on the economy. The social structure of the rural world was thus proving to be an economic and social bottleneck. It prevented not only the modernisation of agriculture, but also the development of domestic industry, which explains the liberal plans for a new land reform around the outbreak of WWI.

This agrarian system functioned in two zones or sectors, with different types of agrarian relations:

  1. the area of the peasant agrarian economy, dominated by small holdings, based on private ownership of land and other means of production, on agrarian relations of collaboration within the village community, characterised by natural economy and partly by the production of goods; this area remained outside the specific economic relations of sharecropping system; it extended to almost half of the peasant households;
  2. the are of “cooperation” between the great landed estates and with the small peasant holdings; the latter were forced by necessity to carry out the agricultural production process, both on their own land and on that of the great estates, under the conditions dictated by the landowners and arendași; in this area too, property, both large and small, was of a private nature; relations between the two categories of participating agents – landowners and arendași on the one hand, and the tenant peasantry on the other – were based on reciprocal economic needs and interests, they had the character of economic coercion, of extortion of the latter category by the former.

Most of the agricultural production, especially that of landowners and arendași, became a commodity, sold on the domestic and foreign markets. In these two areas of special agrarian relations, forms of capitalist agricultural exploitation with capital and wage labour, producing commodities for the market, were emerging and will develop in the future. The wealthy peasant farms, the large agricultural holdings of landowners and arendași also practiced intensive cultivation of industrial plants, vineyards, orchards and livestock production; however, their share was small, probably 10-15% of total agricultural production.

The agrarian regime of the period 1864-1921, was, in content and form, the expression of the transition from the feudal agrarian system to the peasant agrarian system; this transition was slow, hampered by insufficient financial conditions and the interests of the great landowners and arendași, the sole beneficiaries of the extraordinary economic advantages of the regime, at the expense of the liberated peasantry. Through its mechanism, sharecropping system provided increasing benefits (rent and other profits) to great landowners and tenants, several times higher (for the same funds used) than their level in Western agriculture, but without major capital investment – agricultural inventory and labour being mostly provided by peasants – and without the risks of capitalist economy. Under this regime, Romania’s agriculture was oriented and pushed towards excessive cerealisation, soil drying and intense exploitation of the peasantry.

1921 land reform

The development of agriculture in the interwar period was decisively influenced by the land and social restructuring of property through the land reform of 1921. Initiated in 1913 by the National Liberal Party and promised[17] by King Ferdinand in 1917, the agrarian reform was legally expressed in the provisional laws of 1918-1920 and the definitive laws of 1921, which were distinct for the Old Kingdom and for Transylvania, Bucovina and Bessarabia[18].

The post-war land reform was imposed as a national necessity, as a possible solution to the most important social problem, that of the peasantry:

  • it was aimed directly at satisfying (with the basic means of production, the land) the needs of the majority of the peasantry to run their agricultural household relatively independently and to alleviate the state of poverty and destitution accumulated after 1864 in the Romanian countryside;
  • it was also intended to increase peasants’ interest in restoring and increasing agricultural production;
  • at the same time, the financial and industrial bourgeoisie, represented by the National Liberal Party (PNL), sought, by dismantling the great landed estates, to reduce the economic power of the conservative landowners, the main opponents in the competition for political power;
  • furthermore, given the revolutionary context of post-war Europe, the land reform was intended to improve and calm the tense political situation of the peasantry.

All these goals have been only partly achieved. For the purposes of the land reform 6.4 million ha of arable land, pastures and meadows belonging to great landowners, representing 2/3 of the area of private estates, and the entirety of the Crown and State domains, were expropriated with payment. Almost 1.6 million peasant households, landless or with up to 5 ha, received land. Priority was given to soldiers who had taken part in the war, war widows, orphans and landless peasants. In total, an area of 3.5 million ha was granted, consisting not only of farm land, as in the 1864 land reform, but also of pasture and meadows, which better met the needs of the peasant household. At the same time some 1.1 million ha of communal pastureland and 800 thousand ha of communal forests were established. The rest of the expropriated land was kept as a reserve, given to state-owned farms or public institutions. For the land they received, the peasants had to pay 20 times the rent calculated at 1913 prices. Altogether, the total amount to be reimbursed was 6.2 billion lei, of which only 3.2 billion lei were paid by 1939. Meanwhile, the former landowners received 9 billion lei in state bonds as compensation.

The land reform, with all the legal and technical operations of measurement and ownership, took 6-7 years; the long process was carried out in a context of actions taken by the great landowners to reduce the area allocated to the peasants and to keep as large areas as possible; it was characterized by corruption, fraud and deception in the measurement of land plots and in the registration of land ownership; hundreds of thousands of lawsuits were brought before the courts, and many politicians were involved in the irregularities of expropriation and land ownership, thus enriching themselves.

The 1921 land reform considerably reduced the role and importance of the great landed estates in agriculture. At the same time, small peasant holdings became dominant. The reform also influenced the political landscape: the abolition of the great landed estates undermined the economic power base of one of the main ruling parties of the time – the Conservative Party – which was also abolished in 1924. Simultaneously, the introduction of universal male suffrage brought the peasantry to the political scene. From now on the main political parties (National Liberal Party and Peasants’ Party) will fight to influence and conquer the peasants’ vote, which constituted 75-80% of the electorate.

It should be said that this land reform served primarily social and political functions, the economic factor being of secondary importance. The post reform Romanian agriculture diminished its productive capacity and its contribution to the national economy, as small-scale peasant farming (predominant in the new agricultural economy) was subjected to a strong process of deterioration by external and internal factors. Following these fundamental restructurings, Romanian agriculture evolved, until WWII, on three levels and following three main trends: the small peasant holding (up to 10-15 ha); the medium-sized agricultural holding (over 10-15 ha); the predominantly capitalist agricultural holding (30-50 ha).

Ownership structure after the 1921 land reform

The redistribution of land together with the process of differentiation and division by inheritance led to a change in the ownership structure. A decade after the land reform the pyramid of ownership groups showed a high degree of land polarisation with profound economic and social implications for the rural life. The 1930 agricultural census recorded 3.3 million holdings with 12 million ha of sown land, with a total area of 19.8 million ha. The distribution by category and by agricultural area was the following:

Category of property Proportion of number of holdings Proportion of area of holdings Average holding area ha
Total 100% 100%
Up to 10 ha 92% 48% 3.1
10-50 ha 7.2% 19.8% 16.6
Over 50 ha 0.8% 32.2% 254.6

Small peasant households numbering approx. 3 million and accounting for 92% of the country’s total agricultural holdings used 48% of the total area; medium-sized, mostly peasant holdings, numbering 235,000, or 7.2% of the total, used 19.8% of the agricultural area; large holdings, numbering only 25,000 units, owned over 6.4 million ha of agricultural land and forests, of which 2.4 million ha were arable. The difference in the average area farmed by each of the three categories of holdings is significant: small peasant holdings 3.1 ha, medium peasant holdings 16.6 ha and the more predominantly capitalist holdings 254.6 ha.

Medium and large holdings show a clear trend towards consolidation and concentration, while small peasant holdings are subject to a process of differentiation – few consolidate, particularly the more affluent ones, but the majority, the small and very small ones, suffer a process of ruin, losing their land and means of work. The polarisation of peasant holdings in these two directions is obvious from the 1930 census data. So, 610,000 households had an average of only 0.5 ha; 1.1 million households had an average of 2 ha; 750,000 had an average of 4 ha, and 560,000, better off, had an average of 7 ha; of the 3.3 million households, more than half, i.e., 1.7 million, had an average of 1.5 ha, which made it impossible for these families to live off agricultural production; another 600,000 landless households were in the same situation. As a result, 2.3 million poor peasant families, representing the majority of the peasantry, did not have their own, complete, basic means of labour necessary to ensure their livelihood; they sold their labour for money or for products to the larger agricultural holdings; some went to the cities and engaged in different types of seasonal work.

In conclusion, the development and structure of Romanian agriculture during the inter-war period was bipolar: on the one hand, the majority of peasant holdings (millions), with scarce resources, mediocre and poor results, without any prospects of further development; on the other, some 260,000 holdings, less than a tenth of the country’s total agricultural holdings, capable of development and accumulation, but totally insufficient to change the general regressive trend of Romanian agriculture. The mechanisation of agriculture has evolved at a slow pace, and it covered mainly the medium and large agricultural holdings[19]. Peasant holdings of up to 10 ha, covering 60% of the arable area, were still using traditional means – plough, harrow, cart, hoe, scythe, sickle etc. – and manual labour. The Romanian agriculture was in a vicious cycle: small holdings lacked resources for equipment because of their low yields and incomes; but an increase of agricultural income could not be achieved without reorganizing farms and equipping them with modern inventory.

At the time, many economists, agronomists, or Romanian politicians proposed various solutions to overcome the stagnation of peasant agriculture. The proposal that received the broadest support was the establishment of state-supported agricultural co-ops.

Co-operation – a possible solution to agrarian problems

Forms of agricultural co-operation also existed in the previous system (1864-1921). Then, the main objectives of the cooperative enterprises were to make it easier for the peasantry to lease the land (from the landowners or arendași) or to buy it. With the 1921 land reform the objectives changed. Now the agricultural co-ops were called to supply the villages with means of production, agricultural equipment and cheap consumer goods; to continue to provide advantageous loans to the peasantry; to achieve, by removing speculative intermediaries, the valorisation of agricultural products, and according to some economists, to modify the entire economic and social system of agriculture.

During the interwar period, there was an interest on the part of the State to expand and develop rural and urban cooperatives (craft cooperatives). The parliament enacted a series of laws to regulate, control and support this process. Immediately after the First World War, two bodies were set up to support the co-ops: The Central House of Co-operation and Peasants’ Allotment (for rural co-ops), and the General Directorate of the Urban Cooperative. By 1923 several laws were passed concerning the extension of Romanian co-operative legislation to all co-operative societies in the provinces united to Romania. The most important legislative measure, however, was the passing of the Co-operative Code in July 1928. This Code was to be changed three times in ten years, in line with the interests of the governing parties. This legislative volatility was largely detrimental to the system.

The principles of co-operation were based on private property with all the economic, cultural and social advantages and disadvantages that follow. Co-operative action was based on the basic idea of solidarity among members. Membership of the cooperative association was voluntary and self-interested. At the same time, the co-operative had to be autonomous from political parties and the state; their interference in co-operative life was considered harmful. However, according to the promoters of this concept, the state was encouraged to use the co-ops for certain interventions designed to help specific groups, especially the peasantry. In the last cooperative legislation of 1938, it was directly stated that „all advantages granted by the State for the improvement of agriculture, such as: distribution of selected seeds, facilitation for the purchase of breeders, facilitation for the purchase of equipment, will be given in preference to the farming cooperatives”.

According to economist Gromoslav Mladenatz, the most important Romanian theorist of the co-operative movement, „the cooperative is a true system of social economy”. Its cell is the “cooperative enterprise which, while adopting to a large extent the rules of organisation and operation of the capitalist enterprise … nevertheless has the fundamental characteristic of being a collective enterprise, in that it is organically linked to the private economies of the associations which form the enterprise”. As a whole, “the economic system of the cooperative is federalist and takes account of the special conditions of life of the various economic categories and regions”; it enables “through the gradual articulation of these organisations by region or by category, an economic plan to be worked out and implemented’ on a rational and unitary basis and ‘does not fall into a uniform collectivist centralism”.

During the interwar period, the evolution of the cooperative followed the upward and downward curves of Romanian economy in general. Immediately after the „Great Union”, the cooperative movement in the Old Kingdom incorporated the cooperatives of the newly acquired provinces (Bessarabia, Bukovina, Transylvania). Those in Transylvania were organised, by Austro-Hungarian tradition, by nationalities: the Romanian branch, the Hungarian branch and the Saxon branch; all were gradually integrated into the national cooperative system. Reflecting the general trend in the Romanian economy, the cooperative sector underwent an upward evolution during the first decade of the post-war era. This was prompted by the peasants’ need for credit after the agrarian reform, by the need of more comprehensive provisioning of the rural holdings, and by the need to distribute the peasants’ products. As a result, the number of cooperatives as well as the financial funds increased. After 1929, the cooperative sector entered into economic crisis; the commercial, banking and agrarian crises had a destructive impact on the consumer, credit and land-leasing co-ops. The negative effects of the crisis (the reducing number of co-ops, members and capital) were exacerbated by the conversion of agricultural debts in 1934, which left credit cooperatives without resources.

Number of members by main categories of cooperatives between 1921 and 1938, in thousands:

Year Total Credit co-ops Consumer& Supply co-ops Forestry co-ops Land leasing co-ops Others
1921 856 705 136 35     – 9
1930 1433 1127 228 34 27 16
1935 1381 1097 208 24 21 32
1938 1453 1115 214 29 26 69
1938 % 100% 76.7% 14.7% 2% 1.8% 4.8%

The above table enables us to determine the structure of the cooperative membership: in 1938, 76.7% of the members were in credit cooperatives; 4.7% in consumer and supply cooperatives, 1.8% in land lease and land purchase cooperatives, and 4.8% in other cooperatives – mostly craft cooperatives.

A characteristic of the Romanian co-operation in the interwar period is its much slower development than at the beginning of the century, both in terms of units/members and in terms of financial resources. But in contrast to the pre-1914 period, two trends are noticeable: the weak development and stagnation of rural cooperation, on the one hand, and the rise of urban cooperation, on the other. Thus, between 1931 and 1937, the number of members of rural cooperatives fell to 85.7% of the total, while that of urban cooperatives rose from 9.2% to 12.4%; the financial resources of urban cooperatives increased even more, reaching 32% of the total funds used.

With about 1.5 million members at the end of the period, the movement represented about 13.8% of the total active population of the country, thus attesting to the significance of cooperation in Romania. However, in comparison with other countries, the cooperative movement was still weak and underdeveloped. In Romania there was one co-operative unit to 2600 inhabitants; in Switzerland there was one co-operative to 482 inhabitants, in Denmark one to 523, in Czechoslovakia one to 1,318. The density of cooperative participation in Romania was several times lower than in countries with a developed movement.

It can be noted that in the inter-war years the co-operative system did not make a spectacular progress, although the transformation of the great landed property into small property would have supposedly encouraged the peasants to use the co-operative model for the development of their farms. An important reason for the low participation of the population in cooperative forms was considered by specialists to be the lack of confidence in the ability of the cooperative to solve material and financial problems. This mistrust was generated, as reported in a whole body of literature, by the numerous abuses and political corruption carried out in cooperatives. Other causes for the low effectiveness of the cooperative were: the dispersion of the cooperative movement into small units without economic power; the weak economic strength of its members; the poor support of the state; the use of the cooperative and its members in political struggles.


[1] The modern Romanian state was created in 1859 with the union between the Principality of Moldavia and Principality of Wallachia. In its early years the new state was officially known as the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.

[2] As a consequence of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Russia occupied the principalities. In 1829 the two powers signed the Treaty of Adrianople, which opened the Black Sea to the ships of all countries and gave Russia the right to occupy and reorganize Wallachia and Moldavia. The Russian reforms were embodied in a document called the Organic Regulation, a quasi-constitutional organic law that partially confirmed the traditional government (including rule by the prince) and set up a common Russian protectorate which lasted until 1854. Conservative in its scope, it also engendered a period of unprecedented reforms which provided a setting for the Westernization of the local society. At the same time, it offered the two Principalities their first common system of government. It remained in force until 1858 when it was replaced by the Paris Convention.

[3] The Paris Convention of 1858 was the constitutional law of Romania between 1858-1864/1866. It was the consequence of the Paris Peace Conference of 1856 that ended the Crimean War, and sought to resolve the “Romanian question”. It was replaced in 1866 by the first Romanian constitution.

[4] In 1863 the Romanian state secularized the monastic estates. This meant the confiscation of the large estates owned by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romania (which was in strict obedience to the Greek Orthodox Church at the time). One of the measures ensuring secularism and the separation of church and state, it was also designed to provide an arable land reserve for land reform, without raising the issue of boyar estates.

[5] Peasants subjected to the corvée

[6] Levy that represented a tenth of the main products, taken by feudal masters from the producers; later a form of feudal landed income which consisted of the cession by the peasant to the landowner of a part of the production obtained from the piece of land received from the latter for cultivation.

[7] Around 1900, 30% of countryside mayors were illiterate.

[8] Probably more than a quarter of Romania’s farmland was controlled by untaxed Eastern Orthodox „Dedicated monasteries”, which supported Greek and other foreign monks in shrines such as Mount Athos and Jerusalem, presenting a substantial drain on state revenues.

[9] The coup of 2 May 1864: facing the opposition of the conservative landowners, Cuza dissolved the Legislative Assembly (parliament) and promulgated a new basic law (in practice a new constitution) which increased the prince’s powers. Cuza’s actions were approved by the citizens in a plebiscite.

[10] These arendași were the most bitterly hated figures in the peasant world. They tended to be landowners themselves, often smaller landowners who could not retire to the cities to enjoy their wealth, or professional speculators and usurers. Until the first decade of the twentieth century, these men were not true estate managers, in the sense of directing the actual production of crops, but rather dues collectors who leased the rights to peasant dues from the landowners. In Moldavia, the first few years of the twentieth century saw the formation of huge „trusts” of such farmers who were on the verge of taking over a major portion of the land, but in Wallachia this tendency never developed. State and monastery lands (the nondedicated, Romanian-owned monasteries had never been expropriated), as well as the lands belonging to various hospitals, to the universities, and to a number of other public institutions, were all run in the same way and were leased out to farmers.

Much has been made of the fact that many of the farmers were „foreign,” Jews in Moldavia and Greeks in Wallachia. Indeed, the foreign farmers were the most hated of all, and their presence (which incidentally was not recent, since foreign merchants had been a prominent feature of trade for several centuries) gave rise to much xenophobic sentiment, both among the peasants and among the wealthy landowners who used these foreigners. But though this group played a crucial role in Moldavia, where Jews constituted a large proportion of the farmers compared to the overall Jewish population, it cannot be said that foreign arendași were equally important in Wallachia, despite the propaganda that cited foreigners as the main cause of discontent and peasant anger. The foreigners were, however, a highly visible and significant minority of the arendași, and the practice of distributing estates to the arendași was a very real focus of peasant grievance. In all but two mountain counties, 50% to 70% of the arable land in holdings of 50 hectares or more was leased out to farmers. But outside of the Bărăgan Steppe, far less than one-third of the leased lands was controlled by foreign farmers. Romanian farmers controlled most of the leased estates of the absentee landowners.

[11]The sharecropping system that developed in the estate areas took on various forms, but the essentials were fairly uniform. The general rule was that peasants worked a lord’s land with their own tools, and in return they were allowed to cultivate some of the lord’s land for their own benefit. The proportion of land cultivated for the lord compared to that cultivated for the peasants varied from area to area, and even from village to village. It ranged from a ratio of 1 hectare for the lord to 3 for the peasants, to a ratio of 1:1. However, the peasants had to fulfill their obligations to the lord before being allowed to work their allotted plots. This meant that whatever the ratio of lands, the peasants were obliged to satisfy the landowner’s demands before they could satisfy their own during the busiest times of the growing season, sowing and harvesting especially, when time was of the essence. There were also standard sharecropping contracts in which the lord simply took a portion of the harvest, instead of having his land worked directly.

[12] C. Dobrogeanu Gherea, Neoiobagia, 1910.

[13] Daniel Chirot, Social Change in Peripheral Society. The creation of a Balkan colony, Academic Press, 1976.

[14] Stefan Welzk, Nationalkapitalismus versus Weltmarktintegration? Rumänien 1830–1944. Ein Beitrag zur Theorie eigenständiger Entwicklung, 1982.

[15] Cuza was forced to abdicate in 1866 by the so-called “monstrous coalition” of Conservatives and Liberals. While it is fairly easy to understand the conservative opposition to Cuza, the liberals’ relation with the prince was more complicated. The liberals had never been particularly pro-peasant, but had merely fought for national unity and independence. By 1865, both aims had been achieved, and Cuza was viewed as a demagogue willing to ruin the national economy by expropriating the boyars and showing a dangerously radical tendency to favor the peasants. The opposition of the liberals was crucial in at least one respect: With their old connections in Paris, they were able to persuade Napoleon III to drop his support of Cuza. Faced by joint boyars— liberal opposition, and stripped of all foreign support, Cuza could rely only on the peasantry. But the reform had not altered the balance of political forces. That could have been done only by arming the peasants, which would, however, have brought immediate foreign intervention. In February 1866 there was a coup against Cuza, and rather than trying to fight back, he went into exile. By the time of his overthrow, Cuza apparently had recognized that the reform of 1864 was insufficient to establish a prosperous and independent peasantry. He had been planning to extend the reform before he was forced to abdicate. He was replaced by a German prince (the future king Carol I).

[16] Colloquial historical term referring to Romania before WWI.

[17] It is important to note that the elites „found” the political will to solve the most important social and political problem of the country only when half of it was under the occupation of foreign armies and when the very privileges they enjoyed were seriously endangered.

[18] As a consequence of WWI, Transylvania, Bucovina and Bessarabia were united with Romania.

[19] According to the economist Lucretiu Patrascanu, in 1927, for an area of approx. 14 million ha of arable land, there were 3,200 tractors in operation. By 1935, i.e. in 8 years, their number had increased by 7%, less than 1% per year.



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