Issue 2

June 2017


Issue 2: June 2017

The peasantry as a class and its prophesied disappearance

This article introduces a modified definition of the peasantry based on a non-traditional reconfiguration of the concept and on a more flexible and less rigid definition of the category. The reconceptualized definition is the result of an interrogation of the various interpretations of class among scholars and thinkers from various Marxist and other Left traditions with respect to the agrarian sector in general and the peasantry in particular. The suggested new concept covers not just the relationship to the means of production but also taking into account the political, social, and cultural aspects of intra-class and inter-class relationships in agrarian societies. In view of this reconceptualization, views on the eventual disappearance of the peasantry in the context of capitalist development are seen to be premature.

The nature of peasant society

Scholarly work on peasant societies is generally divided into two major traditions: the “essentialists” and the “non-essentialists.” The “essentialist” school is represented by the works of Alexander V. Chayanov who (in 1925) developed “a theory of peasant behaviour at the level of the individual family farm” that gives rise to an economy “with its own growth dynamic and economic system” and driven by subsistence needs rather than by profit (Kerblay 1987:177 and Bryceson 2000:11). His approach was to claim for the peasant economy the characteristics of “a general (and generic) ‘type,’ akin to a mode of production (MOP) …” the core elements of which “produce (or express) a distinctive internal logic or dynamic, whether cultural, sociological, economic, or in some combination” (Bernstein and Byres 2001).

The concept of mode of production (MOP) can be taken in a strict socio-economic sense, i.e., to denote “a particular set of social relations between the direct producers and a class of non-producers who appropriate the surplus product, and the basis on which the surplus is extracted”(Alavi 1987:186) or a more inclusive one, i.e., “all social relations which include political, ideological, as well as economic relations” (Fine and Harris (1979:12-13). This paper adopts the latter more inclusive definition of mode of production.

Non-essentialists deny the concept of a specific peasant mode of production pointing out that peasants actually constitute a class or a fraction of a class that can be found in both pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production (Alavi 1987:186, De Janvry 1981:106). For orthodox Marxists, the peasant economy is “a form of incipient capitalism, represented by petty commodity production” (Kerblay 1987:177).

For the essentialists, peasant society, as a distinct and relatively stable socio-economic system that has persisted throughout human history, consists of the following interdependent and mutually reinforcing facets:

  1. family-based labour; production for basic needs (use value) and not for profit (exchange value); but not entirely isolated because of involvement in markers for goods and labor

  2. simple divisions of labor and low specialization

  3. kinship social organizational patterns (reciprocity);

  4. self-sufficiency and capacity to reproduce itself;

  5. the feeling of community in relation to external forces appropriating the farm surplus product and exercising political hegemony over it; and,

  6. distinct cultural norms, cognitions, practices (world view), and experiences that breed an “us” vs. “them” cultural divide.

To the above characterizations, one can superimpose the MOP concept, but used in an all-inclusive sense. Marx after all often referred to a “peasant mode of production” (Marx 1969:478) but did not give a precise and exclusive definition of the MOP concept using it to refer to either “the manner of material production, to the broad organization of society; as a concrete historical object (or) as an abstract model (De Janvry 1981:96).

For Fine and Harris (1979:12-13) Marx’s use of the MOP in an all-embracing sense, i.e., as the “broad organization of society,” is what is most useful. For this paper, the use of the MOP concept in this manner enables one to (1) partially refute the charge of “economic determinism” that is often levelled at Marx and his followers, (2) bring the notion to bear on a generally essentialist view of the peasantry, and, (3) enable one to ascribe to peasant society a specific and unique mode of production.

Also, this usage is flexible enough to allow the use of non-essentialist alternative approaches for analyzing peasant society, e.g., tendencies to peasant differentiation,” and “linkages of peasant production and wage labour, … and its implications for peasant class formation and location in social divisions of labour” (Bernstein and Byres 2001:8).

The existence of peasants in various social formations throughout human history can be accounted for by the concept of “articulation and coexistence of modes of production” which is defined as the relationship between a capitalist economy on the one hand and productive units organized along pre‑capitalist relations on the other (Wolpe 1980:41). This is particularly relevant in developing societies where the colonial experience superimposed capitalist modes on basically non-capitalist societies but with shifting dominant roles.

Peasantry as a class

A similar all-inclusive standpoint is taken with respect to the concept of the peasantry as a “class.” Contending that “Marx did not see class in the mechanical way that many Marxists do,” Roseberry (1983:74-75) pleads for a broader inclusive notion of class to cover not just production relations but also “the formation of a feeling of community” the latter being considered as “basic to Marx’s definition of class.”

Chayanov contrasted peasants “with proletarians on one hand (and) market-oriented and entrepreneurial ‘farmers’ on the other” (Bernstein and Byres 2001). Relations with external groups such as landlords, large capitalist farms, merchants, the state and urban forces are marked by “subordination and exploitation.” But these relations lie outside the sphere of the essence of peasant society.

For Hobsbawm (1998:198-199), the peasantry, in a historical sense, is not just a class “in itself” but also exhibits the traits of a class “for itself” having formed the greater part of humanity for the greater part of history and who were “aware of their distinction from, and… oppression by, the minorities of non-peasants, whom they did not like or trust.”

“Class” can also be taken in a political sense as when peasants, during crisis situations, are driven to struggle against “capitalist landowners, various groups of capital-related townsmen, and the state” no matter that these are often characterized by “inescapable fragmentation … into small local segments” and “diversity and vagueness of political aims” (Shanin 1987b:357). For Roseberry (1983), a historical analysis would show that multiple roles and various economic activities (other than farmwork) have long characterised peasant societies and that the totality of these functions is what makes for a peasant class.

In our typology of the “peasantry” as a class, the term can now be used to refer to small and medium-sized rural producers who are either share tenants, leaseholders, owner-cultivators, or any other similar type as well as to rural wage workers or rural semi-proletariat who either still maintain their smallholdings or their ties (kinship or otherwise) with small scale rural production units or a rural community in general.

Agrarian change and the “disappearing peasantry”

The classical Marxist notion of rural change derives from the view that the ascendancy of capitalism sweeps aside all previous modes of production and transforms them into the new mode. In agriculture, this may take the form of a two-stage process: (1) the separation of the peasantry from the land and their transformation into a rural or urban proletariat and/or, (2) land concentration by large capitalist farms where production is purely for profit; thus replacing the small household-run farms.

Karl Kautsky, in The Agrarian Question, sees the development of a symbiotic and complementary relationship between family farms and large capitalist holdings with the former providing the latter with a supply of cheap labor which enables the big farms to maximize profit as labor reproduction is borne entirely by the peasant household. Thus the rise of large capitalist farms and their domination over small peasant farms does not cause the dissolution of the latter. (Alavi 1987:192). Lacking enough land to sustain themselves, peasant households are forced to sell their labour but are not dispossessed of the means of production (Hussain and Tribe 1981:107). Despite Kautsky’s faith in the efficiency of large farms, he acknowledged that “there is no tendency for them to replace the small farms.”

Kautsky’s analysis thus departs significantly from classical Marxist notions of agrarian change in that the peasantry may not disappear at all given that in the interactions with external forces, the “various forms of appropriation” are all “external to the inner essence of peasant existence, which can thus not only survive … but subsequently, and consequently, flourish” (Bernstein and Byres 2000:7). In Southeast Asia, persistence of the family farm has been a feature of rural change and this phenomenon is sustained precisely by “the involvement of farm families in non-farm industrial activities” (Rigg 2000:17).

Even in conditions where the majority of rural labour is now wage-earning and landless, many still “retain their quality of peasants” by virtue of their “ties with the peasant form of existence of their rural communities” (Harris 1978:8). The maintenance of these ties enable many rural inhabitants to straddle the line between the self-sufficient smallholder and the rural proletariat. This can be interpreted as a form of “resistance against capitalist penetration” and “being totally dependent upon wage earnings for their subsistence” given the precarious conditions of wage labour - job insecurity, low wages, seasonal labour demand, and the constant threat of unemployment.

In the Philippines, “many of the wage-earning proletariat retain access to land through family ties or through sharecropping and tenant farming” (Banzon-Bautista 1984:174). This is true even of the labour sector that is considered the most “proletarianized” in the country – the migrant sugar workers of Negros province who, between their seasonal work in sugar haciendas or a slump in sugar production, cultivate subsistence plots in marginal lands around the plantation or are subsidized by their farming families back home. Larkin (2001:175-176) describes an entire peasant household in the 1920s “conscripted” to provide labour for a Philippine sugar plantation who have at their disposal “a bit of land” and sometimes farm animals and where division of labour is according to age and gender. Understandably, the ranks of the peasantry have not produced capitalist farmers “despite the development of an agricultural labor market … and of capitalist farmers in some areas” (Banzon-Bautista 1984:178).

Final Notes

Agrarian studies and works on the peasantry have become rare in this age of heightened globalization. The peasantry was considered not merely marginalized, worse, its death was also grandly proclaimed (Hobsbawm 1994:289 and Elson 1997). Such declarations however have proven to be premature as peasants and peasant societies have persisted and in some instances have openly challenged the logic of expanded capitalism, the market economy, and globalization in general as seen in the upsurge of agrarian and peasant unrest in Latin America, China, and Vietnam against market-oriented and modernizing regimes.

However, in a recent global study on farm size, Eastwood, Lipton and Newell (2004) noted that while “in Europe and North America farm sizes have been increasing on average since 1950, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, by contrast, farm sizes seem to have been declining in the late 20th century.” The authors noted that “smallholder individual tenure typifies South and East Asia” and that “over 70 per cent of farms are largely family-cultivated” with most having farm areas “below 1 ha of irrigated land (or 2 ha of rainfed land).”

Governments and other official institutions have often grossly underestimated the importance of family farms. The implication of the findings in this paper therefore is the need for policy makers and other concerned players to rethink their assumptions about the peasantry and the policies and programs they have imposed on rural communities. Over the past decades state-led development strategies have been biased towards urban and industrial development premised on the eventual disappearance of the peasantry and the diminution of agriculture’s share of the national product. It would, however, appear that, for small family-run farms, and by implication for the peasantry in the greater part of such farms, their predicted end is not yet in sight.

This article is excerpted from the author’s PhD Dissertation, “Peasants and Outsiders: Change and Continuity in Three Rural Villages in the Philippines,” National University of Singapore. 2005.


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Editorial Board

Ramani Silva

Sonny Melencio

Ric Reyes

Ed Tadem

Luke Espiritu

Merck Maguddayao

Walden Bello

Kat Leuch

Ellecer 'Budit' Carlos

Aaron Pedrosa

Cover and layout artist

Zeus Agustin


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