6 The agrarian question, a century after October 1917

In the North: an efficient capitalist family agriculture

Modern family agriculture, dominant in Western Europe and in the United States, has clearly shown its superiority compared with other forms of agricultural production. Annual production per worker (the equivalent of 1,000 to 2,000 tons of cereal) has no equal and it has enabled a minimum proportion of the active population (about 5 per cent) to supply the whole country abundantly and even produce exportable surpluses. Modern family agriculture has also shown an exceptional capacity for absorbing innovations and much flexibility in adapting to the demand.

This agriculture does not share that specific characteristic of capitalism, its main mode of labour organisation. In the factory, the number of workers enables an advanced division of labour, which is at the origin of the leap in productivity. In the agricultural family business, labour supply is reduced to one or two individuals (the farming couple), sometimes helped by one, two or three associates or permanent labourers, but also, in certain cases, a larger number of seasonal workers (particularly for the harvesting of fruit and vegetables). Generally speaking there is not a definitively fixed division of labour, the tasks being polyvalent and variable. In this sense, family agriculture is not capitalist. However, this modern family agriculture constituted an inseparable part of the capitalist economy into which it is totally integrated.

The efficiency of the agricultural family business is due to its modern equipment. They possess 90 per cent of the tractors and other agricultural equipment in use in the world. These machines are ‘bought’ (often on credit) by the farmers and are therefore their ‘property’. In the logic of capitalism, the farmer is both a worker and a capitalist and his income should correspond to the sum of the wages for his work and the profit from his ownership of the capital being used. But it is not so. The net income of farmers is comparable to the average wage earned in industry in the same country. The State intervention and regulation policies in Europe and in the United States, where this form of agriculture dominates, have as their declared objective the aim of ensuring (through subsidies) the equality of ‘peasant’ and ‘worker’ incomes. The profits from the capital used by farmers are therefore collected by segments of industrial and financial capital further up the food chain. In actual fact, therefore, the agricultural family unit, efficient as it is is only a sub-contractor, caught in the pincers between, upstream agro-business (which imposes selected seeds today, GMOs tomorrow), industry (which supplies the equipment and chemical products), finance (which provides the necessary credits), and downstream in the commercialisation of the supermarkets. The status of the farmer is more like that of the artisan (individual producer) who used to work in the ‘putting out’ system (the weaver dominated by the merchant that supplied him with the thread and sold the material produced).

‘Really existing socialism’ carried out various experiences in ‘industrial’ forms of agricultural production. The ‘Marxism’ underlying this option was that of Karl Kautsky who, at the end of the 19th century, had ‘predicted’, not the modernisation of the agricultural family business (its equipment and its specialisation) but its disappearance altogether in favour of large production units, like factories, believed to benefit from the advantages of a thoroughgoing internal division of labour. This prediction did not materialise in Europe and the United States. But the myth that it transmitted was believed in the Soviet Union.

In the South: poor peasant cultivators as part of a dominated peripheral capitalism

Peasant cultivators in the South constitute almost half of humanity—three billion human beings. The types of agriculture vary, from those that have benefited from the green revolution (fertilisers, pesticides and selected seeds) although they are not very mechanised, but their production has risen to between 100 and 500 quintals per labourer, to those which are the same as before this revolution whose production is only around 10 quintals per labourer. The gap between the average production of a farmer in the North and that of peasant agriculture, which was 10 to 1 before 1940 is now 100 to 1. In other words, the rate of progress in agricultural productivity has largely outstripped that of other activities, bringing about a lowering of the real price from 5 to 1.

This peasant agriculture in the countries of the South is also well and truly integrated into local and world capitalism. However, closer study reveals immediately both the convergences and differences in the two types of ‘family’ economy. There are huge differences: the importance of subsistence food in the peasant economies, the only way of survival for those rural populations; the low efficiency of this agriculture, not equipped with tractors or other materials and often highly parcellised; the poverty of the rural world (three quarters of the victims of under-nourishment are rural); the growing incapacity of these systems to ensure food supplies for their towns; the sheer immensity of the problems as the peasant economy affects nearly half of humanity. In spite of these differences, peasant agriculture is already integrated into the dominant global capitalist system. I therefore qualify these cases not as examples of “capitalist agriculture” but as those of “agriculture in capitalism”.

Is the modernisation of the agriculture of the South by capitalism possible and desirable?

Let us use the hypothesis of a strategy for the development of agriculture that tries to reproduce systematically in the South the course of modern family agriculture in the North. One could easily imagine that some 50 million more modern farms, if given access to the large areas of land which would be necessary (taking it from the peasant economy and of course choosing the best soils) and if they had access to the capital markets enabling them to equip themselves, they could produce the essential of what the creditworthy urban consumers still currently obtain from peasant agriculture. But what would happen to the billions of non-competitive peasant producers? They would be inexorably eliminated in a short period of time, a few decades. What would happen to these billions of human beings, most of them already the poorest of the poor, but who feed themselves, for better and/or for worse—and for a third of them, for worse? Within a time horizon of fifty years, no industrial development, more or less competitive, even in a far-fetched hypothesis of a continual yearly growth of 7 per cent for three-quarters of humanity, could absorb even a third of this labour reserve. Capitalism, by its nature, cannot resolve the peasant question: the only prospects it can offer are a planet full of slums and billions of ‘too many’ human beings.

We have therefore reached the point when, to open up a new field for the expansion of capital (‘the modernisation of agricultural production’), it is necessary to destroy—in human terms—entire societies. Fifty million new efficient producers (200 million human beings with their families) on the one hand, three billion of excluded people on the other. The creative aspect of the operation would be only a drop of water in the ocean of destruction that it requires. I thus conclude that capitalism has entered into its phase of declining senility: the logic of the system is no longer able to ensure the simple survival of humanity. Capitalism is becoming barbaric and leads directly to genocide.

Therefore is capitalist modernisation path as ‘effective’ as the conventional economists claim? Let us imagine that, in this way, we can double production (from an index of 100 to one of 200) but that this is obtained by the elimination of 80 per cent of the surplus rural population (the index of the number of active cultivators falling from 100 to 20). The apparent gain, measured by the growth of production per active producer is considerable: it is multiplied by ten. But, if it is seen in terms of the rural population as a whole, it is only multiplied by two. Therefore it is necessary to distribute freely all this growth in production in order simply to keep alive the peasants who have been eliminated and cannot find alternative work in the towns.

This was what Marx wrote concerning the pauperisation associated with the accumulation of capital.

So, what’s to be done?

It is necessary to accept the maintenance of peasant agriculture for all the visible future of the 21st century. Not for reasons of romantic nostalgia for the past, but quite simply because the solution of the problem is to overtake the logics that drive capitalism and to participate in the long, secular transition to world socialism

Land tenure reform is at the heart of the choices concerning the future of peasant societies

The main issue of the debate on the future of peasant agricultures concerns the question of the rules governing the access to land.

Land tenure systems based on the private ownership of land

In this case the owner disposes of, to use the terms of Roman law, the usus (right to develop), the fructus (ownership of the products of this exploitation) and the abusus (the right to transfer ownership). This right is ‘absolute’ in that the owner can cultivate his land himself, he can rent it out or he can even keep it out of cultivation. Ownership can be given or sold, it is part of a collection of assets deriving from the rights of inheritance.

This land tenure system is modern in the sense that it is the result of the constitution of ‘really existing’ capitalism, starting from Western Europe and from the colonies of European extraction in America. It was set up through the destruction of the ‘customary’ systems of regulating access to the land in Europe itself. The statutes of feudal Europe were founded on the superimposing of rights on the same land: those of the peasant concerned and other members of the village community (serfs or freedmen), those of the feudal lord and those of the king. The assault on these rights took the form of the Enclosures in England, imitated in various ways in all the European countries during the 19th century. Marx very soon denounced this radical transformation that excluded most of the peasants from access to the use of land—and who were destined to become emigrant proletarians in the town or remain where they were as agricultural labourers (or sharecroppers)—and he classified these measures as primitive accumulation, dispossessing the producers of the land and the use of the means of production.

Land tenure systems not based on the private ownership of land

This definition, being negative, cannot apply to a homogenous group. For, in all human societies access to the land is regulated. But this is done either through ‘customary communities’. ‘modern local authorities’ or the State. Or, more precisely, and more often, by a collection of institutions and practices that concern individuals, local authorities and the State.

The ‘customary’ management has almost always excluded private ownership and always guaranteed access to the land to all the families concerned—that is, those who constitute a distinct ‘village community’ and identify themselves as such. But it hardly gave ‘equal’ access to the land. Customary management has almost never been that of ‘independent villages’, which were in fact nearly always integrated into some sort of State, stable or shifting, solid or precarious, but seldom absent. The usage rights of communities and of the families that composed them have always been limited by those of the State that received tribute (which is the reason why I described the vast array of pre-modern production modes as ‘tributary’).

These complex kinds of ‘customary management exist, at best, in extremely degraded forms, having suffered from the attack by the dominating logic of globalised capitalism for at least two centuries (in Asia and Africa) and sometimes five centuries (in Latin America). The example of India is probably the most striking in this regard. Before the British colonisation, access to land was administered by the ‘village communities’ or, more exactly, their governing castes, excluding the inferior castes—the dalits—who were treated as a kind of collective slave class, similar to the helots of Sparta. These communities, in turn, were controlled and exploited by the imperial Mogul State and its vassals (rajahs and other kings), who levied the taxes. The British raised the status of the zamindars (whose responsibility it was to actually collect the taxes) to becoming ‘owners’, so that they constituted a kind of allied large land-owning class, regardless of tradition. On the other hand, they maintained the ‘tradition’ when it suited them, for example excluding the dalits from access to land! Independent India did not challenge this heavy colonial inheritance, which is the cause of the unbelievable destitution of most of the peasantry and thus of its urban population (see ‘India a Great Power?’ in Samir Amin, Beyond US Hegemony—see references below).

As a result, the private ownership of land is now applicable to most agricultural land—particularly the most fertile ones—in all Asia, except for China, Vietnam and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. There remain only the vestiges of para-customary systems, particularly in the poorest areas and those less attractive to prevailing capitalist agriculture. This structure is highly differentiated, juxtaposing large landowners (rural capitalists in my terminology), rich peasants, middle peasants, poor peasants without land. There is no peasant organization or movement that transcends these acute class conflicts.

China and Vietnam provide a unique example of a system for managing access to the land which is neither based on private ownership, nor on ‘custom’, but on a new revolutionary right, unknown elsewhere, which is that of all the peasants (described as the inhabitants of a village) having equal access to land (and I stress the ‘equal’). This is the most beautiful acquisition of the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions. Mao Zedong is the first—and no doubt the only, followed by Chinese and Vietnamese communists—to have prescribed an agrarian revolution strategy based on the mobilization of most of the poor peasants, without land or other assets. The victory of this revolution made it possible to abolish the private ownership of land right from the beginning—which was replaced by that of the State—as well as the organisation of new forms of equal access to land for all peasants. True, this procedure has passed through several successive stages, including the Soviet-inspired model based on production cooperatives. The limits of their achievements led both countries to return to the idea of family peasant units. Are they viable? Can they produce a continual improvement in production without freeing up too much rural labour? On what conditions? What kinds of support are required from the State? What forms of political management can meet this challenge?

Ideally, the model involves the double affirmation of the rights of the State (the only owner) and of the usufructuaries (the peasant family). The State guarantees the equal division of the village lands among all the families and it prohibits all other usage other than family cultivation, for example, the renting of land. It guarantees that the result of investments made by the usufructuaries are given back to them immediately through their right of ownership of all the produce of their land, which are marketed freely, although the State guarantees purchase at a minimum price. On the longer term the children who remain on the land can inherit from the usufructuaries (those who definitively leave the place lose their right to the land, which reverts to the lands for future redistribution). This is the case, of course, for fertile land, but also for the small, even dwarf-sized plots, so that the system is only viable if there is vertical investment (the green revolution without much mechanisation), which proves as effective in increasing production through rural activities as horizontal investment (extension of the holdings, supported by intensified mechanisation).

Not only one formula for peasant alternatives

‘Agrarian reform’ should be understood as the redistribution of private ownership when it is considered to be unequally distributed. It is a land tenure system that is based on the principle of ownership. This reform becomes necessary both to satisfy the demand (perfectly legitimate) from poor and landless peasants and to reduce the political and social power of the large landowners. But where it is implemented, in Asia and Africa after the liberation of old forms of imperialist and colonial domination, it has been carried out by hegemonic non-revolutionary social blocs who were not governed by the dominated and poor majority classes. The exceptions were in China and Vietnam where, also for this reason, there had not been an ‘agrarian reform’ in the strict sense of the term but, as I have said, private ownership of land was suppressed, the principle of State ownership was affirmed and the ‘equal’ access to the use of land by all the peasants was put into operation. Elsewhere, real reforms only dispossessed the large landowners to the profit, finally, of the middle and even rich (long-term) peasants, ignoring the interests of the poor and those without land. That was the case in Egypt and in other Arab countries. The reform under way in Zimbabwe risks ending up in the same way. In other situations, reform is always on the agenda of what should be done: in India, in South-East Asia, in South Africa and in Kenya.

The progress created by agrarian reform, even where it exists as an immediate and essential requirement, is nevertheless ambiguous for its more long-term implications. For it reinforces attachment to ‘small property’ which becomes an obstacle to the questioning of a land tenure system based on private ownership.

Russia’s history illustrates this drama. The developments that followed the abolition of serfdom, which took place in 1861, which were accelerated by the revolution of 1905 because Stolypin’s policies had already produced a ‘claim for ownership’ that was (finally) fulfilled in the radical agrarian reform after the 1917 revolution. And, as we know, the new small owners did not enthusiastically renounce their rights for the benefit of the unfortunate cooperatives, which were dreamt up at the time, in the 1930s. ‘Another path’ to development, based on the peasant family economy of the generalized small owners, would have been possible. But it was not attempted.

Here we find the old debate. Towards the end of the 19th century, Marx, in his correspondence with the Russian Narodniks (Vera Zasulich, among others), dared to say that the absence of private ownership could constitute an advantage for the socialist revolution, enabling a leap forward towards a regime for managing the access to land other than the one governed by private ownership. But he did not specify what forms this new regime should take, the adjective ‘collective’, correct as it was, being insufficient. Twenty years later Lenin believed this possibility no longer existed, eliminated by the penetration of capitalism and the spirit of private ownership that accompanied it. Was this a correct assessment? I cannot say, as I do not know enough about Russia. However, Lenin was hardly able to give decisive importance to this question, having accepted the viewpoint of Kautsky in The Agrarian Question.

The question came up again in the 1960s, when Africa attained its independence. The national liberation movements of the continents, the States and the State-Parties which it had produced received, in different degrees, the support of the peasant majorities of their peoples. Their natural tendency to populism was to imagine a “specific (‘African’) path to socialism”. This could be described as very moderately radical in its relationships both with dominant capitalism and with the local classes associated with its expansion. Nevertheless it posed the question of reconstruction of peasant society in a humanist and universalist spirit. This spirit was often very critical of ‘traditions’ that the foreign masters had in fact been trying to mobilise for their own profit.

What the dominant discourse at the moment means by ‘reform of the land tenure system’ is the exact opposite of what is required for the building of an authentic alternative based on a prosperous peasant economy. What this discourse, conveyed by the propaganda instruments of collective imperialism—the World Bank, many development institutions, but also a number of NGOs that are richly endowed—means by land reform is the acceleration of the privatisation of land, and nothing more. The aim is clear: to create the conditions that would enable some ‘modern’ islands of agrobusiness (foreign and local) to take over the land they require to expand. But the supplementary produce that these ‘islands’ could supply (for export or for local ‘effective demand’) could never meet the needs for building a prosperous society for all, which would involve the development of the peasant family economy as a whole.

Need to define role of the State in land reform

We refer the reader to the writings of Jacques Berthelot on these questions. He is the best and most critical analyst of the projects to integrate agricultural and food production into the ‘world’ markets. We shall just mention the conclusions and most important proposals that we have reached. It is not possible to accept that agricultural and food production, as well as land be treated as ordinary ‘goods’ and thus allow them to be integrated into the project of globalized liberalization promoted by the dominant powers and trans nationalised capital. The WTO agenda must be rejected.

The alternative consists of national policies to construct/reconstruct national funds for stabilization and support for production, completed by the establishment of common international funds for basic products, enabling an effective alternative reorganization of the international markets of agricultural products.

The peasants of Asia and Africa organized themselves during the stage prior to the liberation struggles of their peoples. They found their place in the strong historical blocs which made it possible to win victory over the imperialism of the time. These blocs were sometimes revolutionary (China and Vietnam) and they then had their main rural bases in the majority classes of middle peasants and poor, landless peasants. Or, elsewhere, they were led by the national bourgeoisie or sectors who aspired to become so among the rich and middle peasants, thus isolating the large landowners in some places and the ‘customary’ chieftainries in the pay of the colonisers.

That page of history having been turned, the challenge of the new collective imperialism of the Triad (United States, Europe and Japan) will only be got rid of if historical blocs are constituted in Asia and Africa. But this cannot be a remake of the preceding blocs. The challenge faced by the so-called alternative world movement and its constitutive components of social forums is to identify, in the new conditions, the nature of these blocs, their strategies and immediate and long-term objectives. This is a far more serious challenge than is realized by many of the movements committed to the struggles.

The challenge, which is to base development on renewing peasant societies, has many dimensions. I will just call attention here to the conditions for constructing the necessary and possible political alliances that will enable progress to be made towards solutions (in the interests of the worker peasants, of course) to all the problems that are posed: access to the land and to the means to develop it properly: reasonable wages for peasant work, improvement of wages parallel to the productivity of this work, appropriate regulation of the markets at the national, regional and world levels.

I myself am not so naïve as to think that all the interests that these alliances represent can naturally converge. In all peasant societies there are the rich and the poor (who are often without land). The conditions of access to land result from different historical experiences which, in some, have rooted aspirations to ownership in peoples’ minds while in others, it is to protect the access to land of the greatest number. The relationships of the peasantries to State power are also the result of different political paths, particularly as concerns the national liberation movements of Asia and Africa: populisms, peasant democracies, State anti-peasant autocracies show the diversity of peoples’ heritages. The way in which international markets are run favour some, penalise others. These divergences of interest are sometimes echoed in many of the peasant movements and often in the divergences of the political strategies adopted.


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October 1917 Revolution, a century later Copyright © 2017 by Samir Amin. All Rights Reserved.

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