And so we come to instalment #9 of 10½ in my history of the world – a rather lengthy one, but the 20th century was a busy old time. As ever, a fully footnoted and referenced version of the essay is here. And just to note, I’ll be completely offline next week as I’m going to a meeting of small-scale farmers from various parts of the world in Nicaragua. I generally try to avoid flying these days, but the prospect of an expenses-paid trip to look at Nicaraguan farms and talk to other small-scale farmers was too much of a temptation, I’m afraid. Normal service here again from 27 November. I’ll try to weight each word I speak during the trip with such a payload of carbon negativity that its associated emissions will be offset by my utterances alone…That’s doable, right? Talking of words, do feel free to debate (constructively) on here in my absence…unless you’ve never posted before, in which case I’m afraid you’ll have to await my return. And on that note, it’s been good to have a few new voices on here recently…so if you’re reading this but haven’t yet commented…go on…


Let me continue with my chronology by saying that the first part of the 20th century saw the contradictions in the previously-described nexus of capitalist, colonial, modernist, alt-modernist, nationalist and imperial orders transformed in the massive shakedowns of global war and revolution. Pre-modern empires such as Habsburg Austria-Hungary – “the prison of nations” according to Balkan nationalists – along with Tsarist Russia, imperial China and the Ottoman empire came crashing down. To simplify just a bit, there were essentially four main political doctrines contesting for power in this period. First, liberal-democratic capitalism, encompassing both more elitist and more social-democratic variants. Second, communism – and specifically the idea that the industrial wage-earning working-class had a privileged world-historical role to play in overcoming capitalism and installing an egalitarian, socialist, non-market society (which was not how communism turned out in practice). Third, agrarian populism – the idea that the state should focus primarily upon supporting small-scale farmer-proprietors, the backbone of many contemporary societies. Fourth, fascism – a weird amalgam of most of the others, encompassing a mixture of egalitarian workerist ideology with private sector capitalism and state dirigisme, a kind of hyper-development of the nationalist identification between the people and the polity in which ‘the people’ were more or less sublimated within the agency of a neo-imperialist state, a vaunting of the peasant and the countryside as nationalist ideals (rarely a vaunting of actual peasants, who weren’t much moved by fascism) and an often racialized treatment of pariah groups traversing the spectrum from discrimination to genocide – all of which drew in some ways upon the alt-modernist tradition and in other ways represented a politics of ressentiment which was its absolute negation.

A further word on agrarian populism, an almost forgotten idea today but one that had powerful traction in many parts of the world around the turn of the 20th century and one that, in my opinion, sorely needs reviving. In the USA, the People’s Party seriously contested for power in the late 19th century, but quickly fizzled out. Historical orthodoxy on what US agrarian populism stood for has been subject to various revisions over time – in the mid-20th century the populists were commonly dismissed as hayseeds who failed to adjust to the invigorating winds of modernity. By the 1960s, when those winds had soured, historians were treating them as prescient anti-capitalist communitarians, who saw what corporate capitalism had in store for the world and wisely rejected it. In more recent scholarship, the US populists have been portrayed as rural progressive-capitalists who were pretty much on-message with the major trends in the emerging contemporary capitalist order, but just had a more agrarian and ruralist vision for it than the course that history actually took. Certainly, it could be argued that an anti-capitalist peasant populism was never deeply rooted in the USA or Canada because of the historical peculiarities of their settler-colonial ‘American path’ to capitalism that I mentioned earlier. But where does that argument lead? Well, we’ll come back to that question soon.

First, though, another example of agrarian populism – the US’s southern neighbour. The Mexican Revolution was the first of six major ‘peasant wars of the twentieth century’ analysed by Eric Wolf in his classic text (the others being Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba). In Wolf’s analysis, what distinguished these 20th century peasant insurrections was that they weren’t simply reactionary attempts to slough off the capitalist state and ‘turn the clock back’ – they were attempts to find new social forms that overcame the depredations worked by the capitalist world economy on peasant producers. In Mexico, this manifested in a rather complex set of alliances between peasant cultivators steeped in indigenous rural-communal traditions (eg. the Morelos peasants under Zapata), the caudillo cowboy capitalists of Villa’s northern army and its military entrepreneurs (perhaps a modern variant of that age-old archetype, the predatory pastoralist) and a disaffected professional-intellectual class of ‘marginal men’, which in the Mexican case was influenced by the anarchism of Ricardo Flores Magón but elsewhere looked to other sources of inspiration such as communism. The category of the disaffected intellectual seems to me an important player in the new anti-establishment politics of modernity, if I say so myself. I think Marshall Berman analyses it beautifully in the case of Russia in his aforementioned book. But in Mexico, although the convention forces represented by Zapata and Villa effectively won the war, they didn’t win the revolutionary peace. The iconic moment was Zapata and Villa meeting in the Palacio Nacional, having taken Mexico City. Villa, sitting in the presidential chair, allegedly said to Zapata that it was “too big for us”. The peasant revolutionaries had no real plan for controlling the country as a whole, and drifted back to their regional strongholds. In Wolf’s words “final victory rewarded an elite which had created a viable army, demonstrated bureaucratic competence, and consolidated its control over the vital export sector of the economy”. Revolutionary hostilities ended in 1920, and the country fell under the strong-arm rule of the PRI, the ‘Institutional Revolution Party’, right through to the 21st century – a party that retained some vestiges of agrarian populist sentiment and a lot of socialist and anti-colonial rhetoric, but essentially followed a private sector-friendly and in some respects quasi-fascist corporate structure.

The logic of Wolf’s analysis, then, is that peasants – even in their contemporary guise as savvy modernist anti-capitalists – don’t quite cut it as revolutionaries. This was Lenin’s view too, which was roughly that if you leave revolution in the hands of peasants all you’ll get is equalisation of land and the removal of taxes. He wasn’t much more complimentary about industrial workers, considering their typical politics to amount to little more than the ‘trade unionism’ of better pay and conditions. So, for him, you needed party cadres to push revolution successfully beyond these ‘capitalist’ limits towards communism.

Lenin and communism: I’ll take that as a cue to bundle up some more 20th century history with a few conceptual issues concerning peasantries. So, one of the numerous embarrassments for 20th century Marxism was that while the master himself had predicted that communist revolution would occur in the most advanced capitalist countries where the arc of history decreed the purest of final battles between capital and labour, in fact all the major communist revolutions of the century were peasant-dominated ones in countries of the semi-periphery. With some, albeit limited, justification, Lenin recuperated the capital-labour clash within the peasantry by defining a stratum of ‘rich’ proto-capitalist peasants, and ‘poor’/landless proto-proletarian peasants in Russia, amongst other places. He also identified the stratum of the middle peasant which, he wrote, “inevitably vacillates” between the capitalist/proletarian interests of the other two. It therefore had to be “neutralised” by the revolutionary proletariat – neutralised, he explained, in the sense of “rendered neutral in the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie”, but without coercion.

With a bit more history at his disposal, Eric Wolf argued on the contrary that in the peasant wars of the 20th century it was precisely the middle peasants who were the most revolutionary class. But, as I’ve mentioned, Lenin wasn’t an enthusiast of peasant revolutions of whatever stripe. His criticism of the left agrarian populists – the narodniki – and their vision of an egalitarian peasant society is instructive,

“The more decisive and complete the success of the peasant revolution, the more speedily will the peasant transform himself into an independent capitalist farmer and wave good-bye to the socialism of the narodniki

As things turned out, the Russian peasantry was ‘neutralised’ more or less in its entirety by Lenin’s successor, and with a great deal of coercion. There are those who argue that this ruthless forced industrialisation enabled Russia to become the powerful modern capitalist country that it is today, which adds a layer of irony to Lenin’s strictures against the narodniki. But it surely wasn’t a surprising development. For all the Cold War duality of the late 20th century between the liberal-capitalist and communist paths, they were both scions of high modernist thought and shared more similarities than differences: an emphasis on disciplined labour, revolutionary breakthroughs, scientific and social progress – including ‘scientific’ leadership of mass society – and large-scale technological solutions. In China, Mao’s (equally ruthless) communism was more grounded in an agrarian productivism of a peasant-dominated countryside – though as Wolf cautions, the Chinese communists weren’t a ‘peasant party’ despite the fact that most of their membership were peasants. Rather, like their Russian counterparts they “were able to harness peasant energies, but for ends never dreamed of by the peasantry”. Though, conversely, Maoist movements have also tended to harness their own energies for dreams of a purified peasantism that were anti-modernist in content but modernist and totalitarian in design. This would apply, for example, to regimes like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. I’d like to think that the ideology of peasantism is capacious enough for me to espouse a version of it without having to expend a lot of energy differentiating my position from the Khmer Rouge, but in case there’s any doubt let me state categorically that I don’t think Democratic Kampuchea is a good model for a peasant republic.

In the event, it was Russian communism that collapsed under the weight of its crypto-capitalist contradictions, whereas Chinese communism after Mao transmogrified into an emerging global capitalist power while retaining its authoritarian regime, which remained nominally committed to communism. Some argue that this was potentiated by the rural-peasant economic focus of Maoism – in which case, do we have to generalise from Lenin’s critique of the narodniki and conclude that all roads ultimately lead to capitalism? I’d argue a qualified ‘yes’ – like a replicating virus, once the capitalist economic machinery is unleashed it ultimately becomes hard for other economic forms to do anything but turn themselves into replicas of it, regardless of the damage it causes to the host. Perhaps the recent capitalist development path of Japan and the so-called ‘Asian tiger’ economies like Taiwan and South Korea, which built industrial societies partly via public sector investment from a platform of support for small-scale farming, further underlines the point.  But the ‘yes’ is qualified – for reasons I’ll examine in a later post.

A relevant contemporary coda to the modernist enthusiasm for technical progress and increasing scale shared by capitalism and communism is the embarrassing fact for them that small-scale farming often out-produces large-scale capitalist enterprises on an acre for acre basis – a finding that, despite the best efforts of Marxist and/or modernist critics to argue otherwise, isn’t completely explicable in terms of peasant self-exploitation in circumstances of economic stress (though it partly is). One of the problems with the ‘inverse productivity relationship’ literature is that ‘productivity’ is measured in different ways – typically farm income or yields of a key staple crop, but rarely human flourishing. Nor are upstream and downstream input costs usually incorporated – fossil energy used, greenhouse gases emitted, nitrate pollution caused. If they were, it’s a fair bet that the inverse productivity relationship would intensify. The truth is that agriculture has been far less amenable to trade-off free efficiency improvements through technological transformation than other economic sectors, and there are good scientific reasons why putting humans at the ecological centre of the small farm pays dividends. It’s still the orthodoxy to decry the ‘inefficiency’ of the small peasant farm relative to the large, mechanised capitalist one, but I’d argue that it’s a less forgivable mistake now than in 1899. Anyway, I suspect small farmers may have the last laugh. I like David Mitrany’s prescient comment from 1951: “Experience would almost suggest that often it is the smallholder and not the capitalist farmer who could best satisfy the Marxist demand for scientific, prolific cultivation”. Unfortunately, contemporary Marxists and capitalists alike still seem a bit too in thrall to Lenin and Kautsky.

Still, I don’t want to discount the benefits of the Marxist tradition in drawing attention to class and other conflicts in the rural or peasant world. Numerous rural populist movements have tended to conceal specific class, gender or ethnic interests. As I’ve previously mentioned, ‘the peasantry’ isn’t a unified category, and it’s important to remain attuned to whose interests are being represented within agrarian populist movements and whose are being sidelined – a point both tirelessly and tiresomely documented by the Marxist analyst and sometime editor of The Journal of Peasant Studies, Tom Brass.

The problem with Brass is that he defines class conflict a priori as effectively the only true basis for human action – so for him any movement or theory that invokes any other motives is by definition a mystification. The mystifications that he especially disdains are anything essential or emotional – love of place, of home, of the rural, of nature, of local culture, or perhaps of what the pioneering anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus called “the mystery of the wheat shaft breaking through the hard crust of earth” – in keeping with the preference for relations over essences or ‘reification’ exhibited by social scientists in general and Marxists in particular, who often seem too busy revelling in the relational dynamics of their grand historical dialectics to revel in the world as it’s experienced. I chose the epigraph from Old Crow Medicine Show at the start of my essay to exemplify this way of thinking – “the land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a hurtin’” and the song from which it comes captures a mode of agrarian thinking that’s critical of its circumstances but fully inhabits the imperfect present in a way that’s alien to Marxism and to most social science. Of course, it’s as well to ask whose interests are being advanced in any particular situation, but reading Brass prompts the question of what kind of life would ultimately satisfy him? My guess is something that would look a lot like the Ecomodernist Manifesto – an egalitarian, urban world of limitless energy, consumer items, scientific marvels, labour-saving devices and mental stimulation, tantalisingly within reach but always just receding from the disappointing present into the achievable perfection of the near future. You’ve got to admire him for spending so much time studying peasants.

Few adopt so dogmatic an anti-populism as Brass, but the same ambience invests a good deal of academic writing about peasantries, particularly in the Journal of Peasant Studies which must surely be one of the few academic periodicals that has been so resolutely dedicated to abolishing the object of its enquiry. Terence Byres, for example, another erstwhile editor of the journal, has written some incisive critiques of contemporary agrarian populism, essentially along the lines that naïve ‘peasant way’ thinking can be insufficiently attuned to the subtleties of class conflict and the insinuation of capitalist economic relations in the countryside. But the problem is that Byres’ subtle understanding of rural class relations is yoked to an unsubtle Marxist teleology in which capitalism seems to be regarded as a necessary and superior, if painful, stage for peasantries to go through before they can exit from its other side, presumably into some kind of socialist utopia of material plenty. So, for example, in critiquing neo-populist calls for rural land reform Byres argues,

“industrial growth….with concomitant shifts of labour from the countryside, has been a crucial means by which rural poverty has been reduced and eradicated historically”

…a statement of orthodox, unilinear pro-capitalism of the kind you’d expect to cross the lips of a Walt Rostow or a Stewart Brand – which just goes to show once again the close affinities between Marxism and capitalism. Still, there’s undoubtedly some truth in the remark – except that it isn’t a radical solution to rural poverty because, as argued earlier, industrialisation conforms to a dynamic of uneven development, turning poverty into a whack-a-mole game of shifting centres and peripheries. Industrial wage labour is certainly one strategy pursued by the rural poor when they can, but it’s not necessarily a straightforward route out of poverty either at the individual or the global level. In a likely future context of slowing economic growth and ecological crisis, neo-populist attempts to understand why poor people stay poor and redress them locally through the structures of agrarian life seem to me well conceived.

So there’s a growth or accumulation fetish in much writing on poverty and development (grow the economy and poverty will ultimately reduce) which is understandable but, I think, increasingly problematic. In this sense, I’d argue that Byres’ critique of agrarian neo-populism for its ahistorical utopianism becomes the epitaph for his own anti-peasant Marxism:

“To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes….one…has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past. They are déjà passé.”

Quite so. The days when it was a good idea to advocate for the capitalist transformation of peasant farming as a route to improved wellbeing and ultimately to socialism, if they ever existed, are now clearly in the past. What’s emerged more strongly since Byres wrote those words is the contemporary food sovereignty movement associated with the international peasant movement La Via Campesina (‘the peasant way’) – perhaps what could be called a ‘neo-neo-populist’ movement, with British offshoots in the form of the Scottish crofters’ federation and my own organisation, the Land Workers’ Alliance. Food sovereignty arguably transcends the old debates between populists and Marxists – a new discourse of “growers and eaters” which is “re-envisioning the conditions necessary to develop sustainable and democratic forms of social reproduction. Still, it remains vulnerable to critique at both its less radical and more radical edges. At the less radical edge, it doubtless runs risks of the kind identified by both Lenin and Byres – a successful local agrarianism that gradually turns itself into a landholder-dominated or ‘yeoman’ capitalism, which abandons its sustainable and democratic founding principles. At the more radical edge, it’s perhaps vulnerable to the kind of criticisms levelled by Henry Bernstein against the food sovereignty movement – the implausibility of local, small-scale, low-tech farming feeding the world’s swelling billions who are increasingly located in urban areas dependent on an industrial and globalised agroecosystem. That surely invites a counter-critique: it’s unlikely that the global-industrial agroecosystem will ultimately prove able to feed the urban billions either, with the rather radical implication that perhaps the time has come for governments to pursue de-urbanisation (though maybe not so radical – they did, after all, pursue urbanisation policies at a time when they seemed a good idea, and could presumably do the opposite in changed circumstances). The usefulness of these critiques is perhaps in encouraging the food sovereignty movement to develop wider political and policy frameworks that are more specifically grounded than its founding utopian visions – and in not assuming that local markets are necessarily any more benevolent in and of themselves than distant ones. That’s something I hope to contribute to in future posts that build on the historical analysis offered here.

For their part, the economic founding fathers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx usually avoided explicit utopian visioning, so the utopianism of neoliberals and Marxists alike tends to remain rather hidden, but not absent, as a result. However, even Marx provided a famous utopian image of an achieved communist society:

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

…which, aside from ‘society regulating the general production’, sounds a lot like your average peasant utopia. That passage is from The German Ideology, published in 1845 when Marx was 27 – a hinge point in his thinking according to Louis Althusser, who argued that Marx achieved an ‘epistemological break’ at this point and put aside such whimsies thereafter for a truly ‘scientific’, anti-humanist and structuralist socialism. Althusser’s work was highly influential in its time and was still being inflicted in the 1980s on bemused undergraduates like me, but it hasn’t aged well. Another and almost opposite recuperation of Marx’s later thinking that I find much more attractive has been set out in a fascinating recent book by Kristin Ross about the influence of the short-lived Paris Commune on radical thought. According to Ross, the events in Paris and the rise of peasant  communisms in Eastern Europe led Marx to retreat from his grand Hegelian narratives concerning the dialectical progress of history from peasant to capitalist society and only thence to communism. Instead, she says, he developed a more contingent sense of the possibilities for radical egalitarian government in specific times and places, such as a peasant communism in Russia grounded in traditional peasant communal institutions like the ‘village council’ – the mir or obshina. Ross traces the same idea in the crossover of anarchist and communist thought represented by such figures as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus. A somewhat ‘backward-looking’ contemporary Russian nationalism is also reinvesting these institutions with political meaning, but Ross stresses that in the hands of radicals like Marx and Kropotkin the point wasn’t to fetishise the communal institutions of the past, but to build from them, in Kropotkin’s words, “an absolutely new fact, emerging in new conditions and leading inevitably to absolutely different consequences”.

The difficulty, I think, is that the conditions in which it’s feasible to build plausible ‘bottom-up’ anarchist-communist societies are unusual, and their chances of longevity are slight – either because they’re annihilated by the stronger forces of the centralised state (as happened with the Paris Commune), or because they succumb to the internal contradictions of their own somewhat hidden power dynamics. Still, Ross’s analysis raises a lot of interesting questions concerning the course that a free, egalitarian peasant society of the future might take.


Teaser photo credit: Iconic image of Villa in the entrance of Ojinaga, a publicity still taken by Mutual Film Corporation photographer John Davidson Wheelan, January 1914