Pertaining to Peasants

December 23, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final post of 2015. And what a year it’s been. We’ve battled with the over-optimism of perennial grain breeders, ecomodernists and perennial polyculture proponents. We’ve been endorsed by George Monbiot, chastised by Tom Merchant, dismissed by the Land Institute, ridiculed by the Breakthrough Institute and publicised by the good folks at We’ve had spinoff articles in The Land, in the august academic journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, at Dark Mountain and at Statistics Views. We’ve even managed to sell some vegetables, raise some livestock, and harvest some wood for the winter. And, despite losing some commenters on this site for our anti-growth pessimism, we end the year optimistic about the growth in the number of comments. We’ve also had our first financial donations to the site (button on the top right, if you’re infused with the Christmas spirit…)

I’d really like to thank everyone who’s visited the site, and even more to those who’ve taken the trouble to comment – especially valued regulars like Clem, Brian, Vera, Ruben, Jahi, David, Andy, John and, um, anyone else I may have forgotten. And that goes for Paul, too, who is with us in spirit. I’ve learned a lot from all of you and I hope you’ll keep visiting. I read every comment on the site, though I’m finding that I don’t always have the time to reply. But I sincerely appreciate the input of everyone who stops by.

Well now, I’ve been cranking out the writing recently and have a few more seasonal offerings for the small farm connoisseur – an article over at called ‘From growth economics to home economics: towards a peasant socialism’ continuing my engagement with Leigh Phillips’ book which, as Brian rightly says, is a gift that keeps on giving. And I think I’ll have a piece next week on the Dark Mountain blog about the COP21 agreement in Paris. I’ll also be at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in, er, Oxford on 6-7 January, talking about peasants among other things. Since peasants are looming rather large in my writing at the moment, and since there are some things that trouble me slightly about the concept, I think I’ll end the year with a few remarks on a peasanty theme.

Earlier in the year, I read the late Daniel Nugent’s book Spent Cartridges of Revolution about the agrarian history of Chihuahua. In it, he made the point that the better off farmers in his study region were happy to embrace the term campesino as a self-identifier, whereas poorer farmers, recoiling from its negative connotations, would never dream of doing so, preferring to call themselves agricultores (farmers). That made me stop to think about my own motivations for identifying with the ‘peasant’ term. Is there an element of pretension involved? Or is it OK for middle-class folks to reappropriate it? Pejorative ethnic and sexual labels have similarly been reappropriated – I’d guess most often by people who for whatever reason don’t feel so hurt by the negative histories of the terms. Still, there’s undoubtedly a class dimension here which shouldn’t be erased. Peasant groups like La Via Campesina and the Landworkers’ Alliance, of which I’m a member, have been criticised on these grounds, and certainly one of the political fault lines in agrarian populism strongly (over?)-emphasised by Marxists is the class tensions between so-called ‘poor’, ‘middle’ and ‘rich’ peasants.

Another problem of course is those negative connotations. It interests me that my fellow speakers at the ORFC from central Europe describe the idea of peasant farming, however remote from contemporary life, as something that provides people with “feelings of existential security, an eternal constant within society”. Whereas in the Anglophone world I’d say the mood is more “thank God we’re not peasants any more – you’re not telling me you seriously want to go back to all that, are you?”, as indeed was the gist of one or two of the comments beneath my recent Resilience piece. So, contrary to the reappropriation position, a counter-argument is that anyone who uses the word ‘peasant’ as part of a vision for the future is immediately hobbling themselves with a whole bunch of unnecessary negative baggage, a point which I can find some sympathy for.

The recent debate between Giorgos Kallis and Kate Raworth on the use of the term ‘degrowth’ covered a lot of similar ground to the preceding point. I can see both sides of the argument, though ultimately I find myself more persuaded by Giorgos. I think there’s a bit too much pussyfooting around trying to find inoffensive terms for ideas that in fact are very radical, and on balance I favour some peasant bluntness in calling a spade a spade while agitating for a small farm future, despite recognising the political risks of doing so.

One problem I have is that I can’t think of another term that’ll do the job. ‘Smallholder farmer’ or small-scale farmer are OK as far as they go, and in fact I’d like to claim the term ‘farmer’ back from the large-scale, mechanised, so-called ‘conventional’ crew for the free use of anyone who so much as grows some pot herbs on an inner-city windowsill. I’d like everybody to ‘farm’ in that sense and assume it a dereliction of civic duty not to do so, much as drink-driving or chucking food in landfill is now sanctioned. ‘Oh, you don’t farm?’ people might say, disapprovingly surveying an empty windowsill in an urban apartment. How I wish. But the problem with the term, especially when it’s applied to existing peasant societies, is the way it smuggles in a commercial premise. A peasant is somebody who first of all produces food and other necessaries for themselves and their family, whereas a ‘smallholder farmer’ is someone who produces cash crops for market, and often rather fancy niche ones. I don’t mind debating the optimum balance between self-provisioning and marketing, but I think it’s critical to hang on to the distinction between the two in order to found more just and sustainable agrarian futures.

So there you have it – a fine Christmas present from you to me would be to furnish me with a serviceable term to replace the P word.

It only remains for me to wish anyone reading this a happy Christmas and new year if such things have meaning for you and – if they don’t – well then, a happy next few weeks until I update this site again probably in mid January with more peerless ponderings on the prospects for promoting peasantries…or whatever other term you may send my way.

"Scythe against hedge" by Richard New Forest – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: #SharingSpring, peasant agriculture, small-scale farming