Sunday, March 03, 2013


Working peasants
By Van Gogh

The Twentieth century was the age in which the over 10 thousand year reign of Peasant has the perennial human archetype came to an end.

Despite the fact that the 19th century is characterized as the period of the “Industrial Revolution” it did not in fact mark the period of the decline of the peasantry. It marked merely the beginning of the change.1

In 1900 outside of Europe and the United States and some of the so-called “white” Dominions and Japan the world was not merely largely peasant it was overwhelming peasant. The industrial revolution had not fundamentally changed a lifestyle that had remained strikingly the same for 10,000 years.2

This life style was characterized by the rhythm of sowing, preparing the soil, harvesting and beset by the worries and reality of drought, flood and famine. A Neolithic farmer and a Russian 19th century peasant would have an awful lot in common in terms of how they each lived.3

It was the industrial revolution that shifted for the first time in 10,000 years the focus of wealth creation and the basic source of human sustenance from the soil to manufacturing and capitalist commerce. It was the wealth created by peasant farmers that created the sustenance for the vast majority of human beings and the surpluses that enabled art, culture, the state and organized religion to exist.4

Even in Europe peasant agriculture even in 1900 employed more people than any other type of employment. Even in Western Europe only Britain could be said to have a post peasant society. France, Spain, etc., were still to a large extent peasant societies much like they had been for thousands of years.5

If the labour of the peasantry was the economic backbone of societies the world over for thousands of years. The relationship was not easy. All the features of civilization required surpluses that had to be extracted from the peasantry because frankly there was no place else to get it from. This generated a continual tension between the peasantry and the rest of society that boiled over when the peasants felt too exploited in violent peasant rebellions. In fact the peasant rebellion was a chronic and well established feature of many societies for long periods of time.6

In the 20th century the turning point was reached the peasant way of life went into radical retreat and by the dawn of the 21st century was no longer the dominant form of human activity on Earth. During this time period to the usual perennial complaints of the peasantry, exploitation, land hunger was added a new and threatening change.

That change already experienced in France with the peasant reaction was the development of Capitalism this threatened to not just disadvantage the peasant with the usual threats of expropriation, loss of freedom and economic exploitation. They threatened to end the peasant way of life and replace it with Capitalist industrial development.
In France the pre-revolutionary period had seen significant commercial development in France and the spread of Capitalist and commercial relationships in the country side further it had led to a much greater commercialization of relationships in the countryside. All this threatened the peasant way of life.

In other words the French peasantry felt under threat. The expansion of commercial agriculture, the steady buying up of land by commercial Middle Class investors  and Nobility eager to capitalize on the economic opportunities of commercial agriculture were deemed deeply threatening. Even the “Feudal reaction” in the period just before the revolution was in fact attempts to extract more wealth and spread commercial relationships in the countryside.

All this was deeply distressing to a peasantry under threat, who saw the seizure and redistribution of the lands of the nobility has the only means to create the stability they craved and to secure their economic future.

The result was a large sea of peasant discontent that was in effect to a large extent “conservative” in that it sought to preserve, stabilize its way of life from the threat of commercialization and turning the peasantry into pure wage labour agricultural workers.

The result was that in the French country side the wave of fear, called "The Great Fear", in the summer of 1789 swept away much Noble ownership of the land and was accompanied by the widespread destruction of the contracts and legal obligations of the peasantry freeing them from their legal commercial obligations and setting up a economically stable peasantry that lasted until after the Second World War.7

The chief feature of this wave of peasant dissatisfaction was its conservative nature to preserve a way of life under threat. The threat was in effect Industrial and Commercial Capitalism. And the French Revolution was only to be the first of many Peasant rebellions against the forces of fundamental change.
For has Bertolt Brecht said:
It is not communism that is radical, it is capitalism.8

Thus in 1900 c. 13% of the world’s population lived in cities, i.e., urban areas; by 2005 the figure had increased to over c.49% and is expected to be 60% by 2030. Faced with this accelerating rate of growth of the Capitalist Industrial commercial economy that threatened the peasant way of life a reaction set in.9

Like many aspects of the French revolution many of the revolutions of the 20th century had powerful, basically conservative aims.

Thus Communism which heralded itself has the gravedigger of Capitalism and a force that would supersede and eclipse Capitalism and bring into existence new and more advanced productive forces in the end was most successful in in states in the 20th century with large peasant populations. Especially in those states where the arrival of new modern Capitalist, commercial forces and the changes it brought created economic and social dislocation among the peasantry.

Thus in Russia during the Russian revolution a peasantry profoundly threatened by modern forces of economic development that threatened to destabilize the countryside and in the process of modernization dispossess and subordinate the peasantry to modern systems of economic exploitation. The revolution which appealed to the peasantry by promising to give them the nobility's land and to stabilize the peasantry by minimizing the disruptive forces of Capitalist modernization appealed to the peasantry which wanted stability and prosperity not modernization and economic rationalization.10

Thus to the peasants the intermittent efforts of the Tsarist regime to modernize / rationalize farming were perceived largely has profoundly threatening. What the peasantry wanted was the stabilization of the old system of communal land use and management not the development of laissez-faire Capitalist market agriculture and of course the land owned by the nobility, which overall was by far the most modern agriculture in Russia.11

Thus the Russian Revolution was a peasant war to a large extent against Capitalist modernization of agriculture and thus “conservative”.

Of course the peasantry was basically betrayed when the state under Stalin launched its war against the peasantry in order to bring agriculture firmly under state control by means of collectivization. Although rather ironically collectivization by crushing the peasantry actually helped to insure that Soviet agriculture remained backwards and un-modern. Even today Russian agriculture remains to a large extent detached from fully modern Capitalist, commercial agriculture although there has been a significant rise in its importance. For example as of 2005 land which is individually owned, (c. 20% of agricultural land), produces 59% of the aggregate value of agricultural produce in Russia.12

The pattern repeated itself to a large extent in China, Vietnam, Cuba, various African states that experienced peasant wars of revolution.

By allying themselves with a peasantry under assault from economic forces that threatened to undermine the peasant way of life Communists were able to come to power.

Thus in China the forcible opening up of China to Western economic penetration placed the peasantry under pressure. This pressure steadily undermined the peasant way of life and put it under threat. This pattern was not the same has the pattern in previous phases of Chinese history in which dynastic decline was accompanied by waves of peasant rebellion. In this case the penetration of western commercial practices and exploitation and of course Industrial Capitalism were in many respects a stark threat to the stability of peasant life and of course peasants wanted land, especially the land of those who were able to benefit from the new emerging patterns of commerce and economic development.13

And as in Russia what the peasantry wanted was the stabilization of their way of life along with more land and of course protection from the forces of economic development.

The profoundly conservative nature of these revolutions at least in their initial phases is obvious and the fact that Communism that viewed itself as an advanced form of economic organization was in the end successful mainly in backward peasant societies inhabited by fearful peasantrys.

What is interesting is that Communists viewed and were viewed by many as a method of modernizing their societies and each one did try to modernize via industrialization. The peasants were to the leadership in many ways simply a means to an end. The fact that the peasants so used had basically different aims was eventually ignored.

What is clear is the 20th century was the century in which the transition in the world economy and in the life patterns of the world’s people really took off. It was also the time period when this period of profound social change generated the greatest backlash in the form of peasant wars / revolutions against the modernizing forces of Industrial Capitalism. That this backlash cost tens of millions of people their lives is one of the sad truths of the 20th century.

1. Terraine, John, The Mighty Continent, BBC Pub., London, 1974, pp. pp. 22-25.

2. For the Neolithic Revolution see Harris, David R., Editor, The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia, Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington DC, 1996, Harris, David R.,  & Hillman, G.C., Foraging and Farming, Unwin Hyman, London, 1989.

3. IBID, Blum, Jerome, Lord and Peasant in Russia, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1961, pp. 326-344.

4. Daniel, Glyn, The First Civilizations, Penguin Books, London, 1968, pp. 34-39, 147-157,Trigger Bruce G., Understanding Early Civilizations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 279-337.

5. Footnote 1, Mathias, Peter, The First Industrial Nation, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2001, pp. 308-320.

6. In China and Europe for example. See Rosener, Werner, Peasants in the Middle Ages, University of Illinois Press,  Chicago ILL, 1992, pp. 237-251, Spence, Jonathan D., The Search for Modern China, W.W. Norton and Company, New york, 1990, pp. 7-25.

7. Cobban, Alfred, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999, Bernier, Olivier, Words of Fire Deeds of Blood, Anchor Books, New York, 1989.

8. Wolf, Eric R., Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1969, p. 275, quoting Bertolt Brecht.

9. Urbanization, Wikipedia  Here.

10. See Wolf, pp. 51-99, Figes, Orlando, A People’s Tragedy, Penguin Books, London, 1996, see the chapter 6 – Lost Hopes. (I only have an electronic edition of the book), Pipes, Russia Under the Old Regime, Penguin Books, Second Edition, London, 1995, pp. 141-170.

11. IBID.

12. Agriculture in Russia, Wikipedia Here.

13. See Spence, pp. 300-333, Wolf, pp. 103-155.

Pierre Cloutier

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