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Land Reform

Land Reform







The term land reform refers principally to the redistribution of agricultural land from existing private or public landowners to tenant farmers, agricultural laborers, or collective farmers who work on such land without owning it. The absence of ownership or equivalent secure rights to land carries numerous negative consequences. These include lack of ability, or motivation, to invest in the land; stagnant agricultural productivity; rural poverty and malnutrition; lack of status and power for the landless; pressures to flee rural poverty for ill-equipped cities; land degradation; and a dearth of rural families with assets or savings.

By contrast, successful redistributive land reform can confer broad benefits, including increased crop production and improved nutrition, reduction of rural poverty, greater grassroots empowerment and a lessening of social unrest, reduced pressure for urban migration, better environmental stewardship, and the creation of wealth in the beneficiaries hands.

Widespread positive results from redistributive land reforms have been experienced by well over a billion people since World War II ended in 1945. While land reform is not a panacea against rural poverty, it has been a foundational element for effective economic and social development in many settings. Fully a billion others are potential future beneficiaries.

This entry begins with a brief historical perspective, then looks at major postWorld War II land reforms, followed by some key program-design considerations, a review of where land reform remains relevant today, and the broader economic, social, and political issues likely to influence decisions about undertaking future land-reform programs.


Documented land reforms occurred in ancient Greece in the sixth century BCE and Republican Rome in the second century BCE. Perhaps reminding us how controversial land reform can be if not adequately designed or explained, the brothers Gracchi successive tribunes or leaders of the Republic, were assassinated, largely because of their support for redistributive land reform. There is also an Old Testament reference to the requirement of land redistribution every fiftieth year, in the year of the jubilee (Leviticus 25:23), although scholars are unsure of the extent of actual implementation.

A major land reform was carried out around the beginning of the French Revolution (1789), after which the reasonably satisfied French peasantry largely sat out the (mostly urban) violence and upheaval. About the same time, a democratic and nonviolent land reform began in Denmark.

A variety of land-reform undertakings are found in nineteenth-century Europe. Notable among them was the emancipation of the Russian serfs by Czar Alexander II (18181881) in 1861, accompanied by a major distribution of land (however, heavy repayment obligations were imposed on the land recipients). While President Abraham Lincoln (18091865) emancipated the slaves in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War in the United States, this was unfortunately not followed by redistribution to the freed slaves of the southern plantation lands on which they had worked: Most were left socially and economically disempowered, many working as sharecroppers with insecure tenure and paying high rents on the same lands on which they had worked as slaves.

The twentieth century before World War II saw a number of democratic and nonviolent land reforms, including many in European countries, as well as several violent civil upheavals that were significantly fueled by the grievances of landless or near-landless peasants. The Mexican peasantry supported a revolution (1910) and fought a subsequent civil war, eventually receiving perpetual land rights beginning in the 1930s. The Russian peasantry, still land-hungry, supported the 1917 revolution and received land, but later were forced to turn that land over to collective farms (1930s). A weak republican government in Spain made indecisive efforts to redistribute land in the 1930s, ultimately collapsing before the catalyzing acts of peasants who wanted land and seized it, and large landowners and their allies who feared communism or anarchy, and helped foment a successful military rebellion (the 19361939 Spanish Civil War).


There have been three principal waves of land reform since 1945. The first, during the decade following World War II, occurred largely where the war had catalyzed or helped speed regime change.

Leading examples were land-to-the-tiller programs in Japan, Taiwan, and South Koreawith tenant farmers receiving ownership of the same land on which they had been tenantscarried out under U.S.-supported non-communist regimes. In mainland China, the Communists conducted a similar reform (but accompanied by antilandlord violence) when they took power in 1949, but this was followed by forced collectivization of all farmland in the mid-1950s. This period also included involuntary collectivizations carried out by Eastern European communist regimes that were within the Soviet sphereeven though the great majority of affected farmers had already been individual owners. Poland was a notable holdout, maintaining its system of small owner-operated farms.

A second wave of land-reform efforts occurred as many countries gained independence from colonial powers from the late 1940s onward. But most of these reforms were poorly designed and had little impact. The handful of successesmainly land-to-the-tiller programsincluded a few Indian states (each state legislates its own land-reform rules), notably West Bengal and Kerala in the 1970s and 1980s, and also included South Vietnam, under the threat of a communist insurgency, during the 19701973 period.

Also of importance during this time were programs taking large estates for redistribution to farm laborers, continuing in postwar Mexico, going forward in 1950s Bolivia, and undertaken in 1980s El Salvador, the latter again under the threat of a communist insurgency. The El Salvador reform also included a land-to-the-tiller program for tenant farmers.

There were also many failures during this period. These included other Latin American attempts, chiefly involving large estates, such as occurred in Brazil, Colombia, and (reversed through the 1954 U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the regime) Guatemala. Failures in Asia, mostly attempts to redistribute tenanted land or above-ceiling land, included most Indian states, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among others. In Africa, where land-redistribution efforts have centered on regions of white-owned estate land, many programs have shown slow progress (South Africa) or gone far astray (Zimbabwe, apparently benefiting largely the presidents cronies and militia, while evicting most farm laborers).

One impetus to land reforms that has largely disappeared with the demise of militant Marxist ideology was the threat of communist insurgency built upon the promise of land, which led both to revolutionary land reforms (Russia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam) and to protective, anticommunist land reforms (South Vietnam, El Salvador). But some such insurgent movements persist (the Naxalites in eastern India, the New Peoples Army in the Philippines), and extralegal efforts to occupy large estates, though well short of armed insurgency, are still found in countries like Brazil.

The latest wave of postwar land reform has involved efforts to break up the large collective farms that existed under many communist regimes (decollectivization ) and to give ownership or equivalent secure individual land rights to the former collective-farm workers (privatization ). Progress has varied on these two aspects: China was the first to decollectivize (19791983) but has only partially privatized the resulting individual farms; Vietnam has now done both, as have most (but not all) Eastern European countries; Russia and Ukraine have formally privatized, but the former collectives remain the major operating units, usually renting in from their workers the individual land rights those workers have received. Finally, some countries, such as North Korea and Cuba, have neither broken up the collectives nor given individual land rights. Where physical breakup has occurred, it has generally affected cropland, but left grazing land as commons lands available for joint use.


Accumulated land-reform experience indicates numerous features of program design, subject to deliberate change, which can play an important role in determining success or failure. Three features of continuing importance are discussed below.

First, will full-size farms, or something much smaller, be the goal? If a full-size farm by local standards, say two to three acres, is to be allocated, then multiplying this size farm by the number of households needing land often indicates that 20 to 40 percent of the countrys cropland will have to be taken and redistributed. In most contemporary settings, such a program is politically and financially impractical.

Thus, it is important that recent research in many countries, such as India, now indicates that the benefits curve rises extremely rapidly with the first few thousand square feet of land distributed. In particular, distributing a homestead plot of one-tenth acre or even less, to supplement the familys existing livelihood, not only affords room to erect a small house, but beyond that allows an area for intense cultivation and for keeping one or two animals. This results in substantial increments to that familys nutrition, income, and status. Yet distribution of such homestead plots to nearly all the landless may require only 1 percent or less of the countrys cropland, changing judgments as to political and financial feasibilityas currently in Indiain a dramatically favorable way. The disproportionately large contribution of small plots to agricultural production has also been seen in many collective-farming systems where the workers were permitted to have private plots near their homes for personal cultivation, as well as in the garden plots that many of these countries have allowed urban households to maintain on the peri-urban fringe.

Second, will the land reform be heavily publicized? Chinas program to give former collective (now individual) farmers secure, long-term rights exemplifies the impact of publicity. An earlier, 1998 law was widely publicized, and achieved over 40 percent effective implementation by mid-2001. A later, 2002 law, although providing even stronger rights to the farmers, received little publicity, and by mid-2005 achieved only minimal additional implementation among farmers unaware of their rights.

Finally, will beneficiaries receive support, such as technical advice and farm credit? While wide agreement exists that this is desirable, there remains disagreement as to how vital it may be in particular settings. It would be rare, however, that an otherwise-feasible land redistribution should be delayed because such complementary programs were not yet available.

Still another measure might be noted, one that has stirred considerable recent debate. That is the impact of giving confirmatory land-rights documents (titles) to those already in reasonably uncontested possession of land (by contrast, there is little question that beneficiaries of redistribution of land that had been privately owned by someone else, such as tenants receiving the land of former landlords, or agricultural laborers receiving the land of former plantation owners, should receive confirmatory documentation). The issue as to titling those in already-existing uncontested, but undocumented, possession is more complex than may be immediately evident. Some customary or traditional land rights may exist as distinct elements or layers that may be difficult to separately describe and document; some may be held by groups rather than individuals; and in some settings those who actually hold the rights may be preempted (through corruption or chicanery) by false claimants when a documentation process occurs. The benefits of giving documentation to uncontested existing possessors appear to be situational, emerging most clearly in urban settings.


The two most populous developing countries at the beginning of the twenty-first century, China and India, are also the two most critical arenas for further land reform measures. Both countries have already adopted the essential laws, but both need to move to much wider implementation. In Chinas case, such efforts would involve renewed publicity and expanded formal documentation for farmers long-term land rights. In India, the central government needs to help finance, and the individual states need both to finance and implement, a widespread homestead-plot program.

There are many additional settings where land reform efforts could have a major impact. Homestead-plot programs, for example, hold important potential in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and in a number of other Asian, African, and Latin American countries with significant numbers of landless poor. And, in some settings, unused or underutilized land in large estates may still be sufficient in quantity and cheap enough in price to provide full-size farms to many of the rural poor: for example, in Brazil and further significant parts of Latin America, as well as in some parts of Africa with large-farm colonial legacies.

Also, communist or formerly communist countries that have not yet done so must eventually confront the twin tasks of decollectivizing and privatizing their inefficient and low-productivity collective-farm sectors, among them North Korea and Cuba. Others, like Russia and Ukraine, which have formally privatized, will have to facilitate the actual breakup of the large farms.

Altogether, the remaining potential for land reform is at least as great as what was carried out globally during the six decades after World War II.


Every land reform, no matter how well designed, has to take account of broader economic, social, and political challenges and issues in the particular country.

Economic Issues Land reform neither creates nor destroys land: It simply puts an existing population into a relationship with an existing agricultural land base that is likely to be fairer and more productive than the present one. One consideration is that the accumulated evidence now indicates that small farms are, in terms of total factor productivity (that is, with regard to the value of land, capital, and labor inputs), generally more productive than larger farms in less-developed-country settings. Such countries are typically short on land, short on capital, and long on labor. Hence it makes good economic sense to have many motivated familiesand ownership provides crucial motivationapplying family labor intensively on small farms while using as little capital (machinery, pesticides, etc.) as possible to achieve a given production result.

A related economic point on which there is general agreement is that large farms with a large number of laborers working togethersuch as most plantations or collective farmsare generally inefficient, because of the great difficulty of supervising labor on these far-flung operations with their complex and variable sequences of tasks.

A further economic point: Viable land reform in the transitional (communist or formerly communist) societies entails no land costs, since the land to be redistributed is presently publicly owned. And improved design will greatly reduce total land costs in traditional developing-country settings, wherever policymakers opt for a program based on homestead plots rather than full-size farms.

A final economic point, applicable in both traditional land-reform settings and those of the transitional societies, is whether recipients of individual land rights should be restricted in selling or leasing those rights, and if there are such restrictions, how broad should they be and how long should they last? There is disagreement on these issues: Such restrictions may improvidently prevent the creation of wealth in the hands of land-reform beneficiaries, but they may also forestall hasty sales at a low price or leases having adverse terms. Restrictions that are temporary and narrower (e.g., no land sales to foreigners or no large accumulations of land) may be easier to justify than long-term and broad restrictions, which may also be widely ignored and eventually abandoned (as in Mexico).

Social Issues This entry noted above some of the likely consequences of successful redistributive land reform. There are also broader social consequences that are likely for the newly landowning families, such as reduced infant and child mortality resulting from better nutrition; the affordability of increased school-going, including for girls; and increased participation in community affairs for those with the status of landowner.

Political Issues To communicate the economic and social case for land reform is, in many settings, to move considerably toward achieving the necessary political support. Three additional factors, important to what is sometimes called democratic land reform, are likely to bolster such political support: (1) acquiring any privately held land needed for the land reform on the land market through voluntary sales, or (if the acquisition is involuntary) paying a fair and reasonable price; (2) coupled with this, treating any acquisition of privately held land simply as something needed for a higher social purpose (like land needed for a highway or hospital), not as a judgment that landlords are bad; and (3) giving the beneficiaries a free choice as to how they wish to organize their farming.

SEE ALSO Chiapas; Ladejinsky, Wolf


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Toulmin, Camilla, and Julian Quan, eds. 2000. Evolving Land Rights Policy and Tenure in Africa. London: Department for International Development.

Zhu, Keliang, Roy Prosterman, Ye Jianping, et al. 2006. The Rural Land Question in China: Analysis and Recommendations Based on a Seventeen-Province Survey. New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 38(4): 761839.

Roy L. Prosterman

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Land Reform


Land tenure refers to the relationships, rules, and institutions that define rights of ownership in, and access to, landed property.

Land reform generally denotes government measures designed for a relatively equitable redistribution of agricultural land, but actual reform measures can reflect a range of ideological positions. The political nature of reform is difficult to avoid given the effect of changes in land tenure arrangements on the social relations and hierarchies they embody.

The distribution of property rights is a key indicator of the relationship between state and society, as well as a fundamental determinant of production and distribution. While a wide range of land tenure systems have worked themselves out across the modern Middle East, three phases in the changing relationship between state and society can usefully be highlighted where landed property is concerned. The early phase begins during the nineteenth century when centralizing state structures, colonial rule, and the emergence of global capitalism and market forces often concentrated property rights in relatively few hands. A second phase emerged in the postWorld War II period when governments, often coming to power as anticolonial national independence movements, implemented ambitious programs to develop agriculture, redistribute land to middle-class or smaller farmers, and substitute state-supervised cooperatives and monopolies for private marketing networks. A third phase may be discerned in which states have, since the 1980s, repositioned themselves in the economy and, under local and international pressure, retreated to various degrees from direct intervention in agriculture.

In pursuit of fiscal and administrative goals toward which modern states typically aspire, the Ottoman state and its successors, the European-dominated colonial administrations in the Middle East, were determined to make more legible the complexity of local, often communal, landholding patterns and to pursue the standardization and individualization of title to land. The land register and the cadastral map were the instruments that best reflected the new centralized, unmediated reality officially sought by the state. Utilitarian arguments in favor of private property were commonly put forth. For example, in societies that were overwhelmingly agricultural and where land was the principal factor of production, tax collection could be facilitated by the individualization of rights. Further, it was widely assumed that unless individual users knew they would capture the benefits of investment and conservation, degradation and overuse of resources would ensue. As a wealth-creating institution, the promise of individualized property rights, particularly in the colonial period, was that resources would naturally find their way through the market into the hands of those individuals who value them most. In colonies of settlementAlgeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Palestinea market in land also obviously facilitated the transfer of native property to European immigrants who mainly accumulated large estates. Moreover, by asserting in philosophical terms that private property constituted the basis of civilization, European colonial officials could point to the evidence of communally or tribally held property in a colonized territory as demonstration of the necessity of imperial rule.

Subject to such pressures and interests, a variety of landholding patterns emerged. The critical variables appear to have been the considerable ecological diversity and the will or the capacity of the state to control relations at the local level. For example, in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, in Thrace and those areas of Anatolia close to Istanbul, small-scale farming became the norm. By contrast, in the more remote areas of the empire, such as Eastern Anatolia or Syria, the need to rely on local intermediaries for administration created a highly skewed distribution of land. In some cases, the local governor played a central role: Across the provinces of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, Midhat Paşa initiated a process whereby cultivators of land were granted title deeds that secured virtually complete rights of ownership (although, in tribal areas, cultivators were often turned into tenant farmers when the name of the most powerful individual was placed on the title deed). In Ottoman Palestine large estates came into being once new land laws and modern registration procedures created the opportunity to benefit from the increasing foreign demand for agricultural products by purchasing vast tracts of land on paper.

European colonialism could have a profound impact on land tenure patterns. In Algeria, the best farmland was seized by French colonists, who forced the indigenous population onto marginal land or dispossessed them. This pattern of concentration under colonialism prevailed elsewhere. In Egypt a highly unequal distribution of ownership placed tremendous political and economic power into the hands of those few families who dominated rural areas. During the British mandate over Iraq, the administration came to rely heavily on intermediaries and, rather than seek direct contacts with all landowners, in fact strengthened the position of large landowners vis-à-vis small owners and tenant farmers: By 1932 only 10 percent of government revenues were derived from land taxes (as compared to 25 percent in 1921). In Iraq one of the region's (and the world's) most unequal land distributions was thereby created: By 1953, 1.7 percent of the land-holders had 63 percent of the land; 75 percent of the population was landless. The impact of European imperialism on land tenure relationships varied, however, across the Middle East, the transformation often being dependent on the role played by local power structures and interests. In Transjordan British efforts to settle individual title to land overlapped with patterns on the ground.

Sharecropping was the most common method of farming, though estates in Egypt and the Maghrib relied on more direct management by the landowner or his representative. During the first half of

the twentieth century, rural conditions deteriorated and landlessness was implicated in a number of problems: urbanization, high birth rates, low productivity, and lack of purchasing power. Meanwhile, large landlords enjoyed wide powers under the direct or indirect influence of European powers. In the postWorld War II period, land reformresponding generally to the widespread call, "land to the tiller"was adopted by newly independent governments to tackle socioeconomic inequities. While improvements flowing from land reform have been difficult to measure, the political goal of eliminating the power of large landowners has generally been regarded as successful. Countries experiencing significant land reforms during this phase include Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Iran, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.


The pioneering attempts at land reform here progressively lowered the legal limitation of ownership size from 200 feddans (1.038 acres) in 1952 to 50 in 1969. Those who received land, whether through reform or "distress sales" of the wealthy, were rarely the poorest rural people. Direct beneficiaries were either the year-round workers of the estatesnot the landless seasonal workersor members of the rural middle class who could afford to purchase land made available. The reforms also controlled rents and, by making it nearly impossible to evict tenants, ceded property rights to them. Remarkably, output did not fall: The government created a system of supervised agricultural cooperatives that allowed for economies of scale, took over marketing functions, and facilitated the application of inputs such as improved seed and credit. These cooperatives were also used by government to extract part of the agricultural surplus by manipulating the terms of trade. Egypt was in this way transformed into a country of predominantly small farms. Farms under five feddans covered roughly 66 percent of the land area in 1975, but by the early 1980s the share of small farms had fallen to 52 percent, largely as a result of the consolidation of the very smallest farms.

Syria and Iraq

Both countries attempted to follow the Egyptian model despite the very different conditions prevailing. Much larger areas of land were appropriated than in Egypt, the agroecologies were enormously varied (again, in contrast to Egypt where virtually all land was irrigated), stronger resistance was met, and there were far fewer trained officials. Output fell considerably. Although the Syrian and Iraqi governments found it relatively easy to expropriate land, they found it difficult to redistribute it and to take over the marketing functions. Only in the 1970s were Baʿthist governments able to redistribute land and to create fully functioning cooperatives.


When European colonial farmers hastily abandoned large farms at the time of independence (1962), employees on many estates tried to manage them collectively. So-called autogestion was immediately championed by politicians, but eventually proved economically counterproductive. Pressure grew and in 1972 the government began attempts to expropriate all private farmland that exceeded the area a family could directly exploit. Agrarian reform encountered considerable resistance and evasion. By 1980, about 13 percent of the arable land had moved into the reform sector, but economic growth was disappointing compared to private farm production.


Reform here went through three stages. From 1956 to 1960 holders of usufruct rights (legal rights to use and profit from property owned by another) were transformed into owners. In 1961 the state began to acquire land formerly held by European colonialists, and a "cooperativization" program was launched, aimed at incorporating the surrounding small farms. Local resistance, poor investment policies, the cessation of World Bank funding, social conflict, and uncertainty about property rights all took their toll on agricultural production. By the end of 1969, cooperativization was abandoned, and the private sector was increasingly relied upon.


Beginning in 1962 landlords were required to sell to the government any land in excess of "one village." A second phase gave landlords options, such as forming "corporations" with their former tenants and distributing shares rather than land, leasing land for cash, and so on. The "farm corporation" concept, however, was unpopular with peasants; it often led to small farmers selling out to larger ones. Further, landless agricultural workers were excluded from the reform, and many, perhaps most, of the recipients of land received too little to support a family. The reforms also adversely affected the land and water rights of Islamic charities. During the 1970s the shah's government became increasingly obsessed with promoting large farms and agribusinesses. These were mostly unsuccessful and survived only thanks to massive state subsidies. After the Iranian Revolution (1979), in the early days of the Islamic republic, considerable amounts of land changed hands as Pahlavi officials were expropriated, peasants occupied land, and local religious officials took advantage of opportunities. A long debate in the majles (legislature) has since ensued about the legality and the desirability of further land reform, but Muslim jurists have reached competing conclusions regarding the compatibility of such measures with the basic principles of shari ʿa.

(Former) People's Democratic Republic of Yemen

In 1968 land reform was implemented after independence. Previously, most farmers were tenants; the rulers, merchants, and religious institutions owned most of the land. Land was redistributed to private farmers, some 65 percent of whom were organized into cooperatives. About 23 percent of all cropped land was held as state farms.

Since the 1980s governments have increasingly withdrawn from direct management of agriculture. Expanding reliance on the private sector in both farm production and marketing, as well as on reduced regulation of farm prices, is visible today in many of the countries in the region. In Egypt, for example, landowners are for the first time since 1952 permitted to evict tenants. In large part, such liberalization measures have resulted from unhappiness with the sluggish performance of state farming and from the prevailing conventional wisdom in favor of foreign direct investment and international trade. However, social inequities can be expected to grow, at least in the short run, and free-market reforms will likely require various forms of political repression as increased levels of popular opposition are confronted.


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Gerber, Haim. The Social Origins of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner; London: Mansell, 1987.

Mitchell, Timothy. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Mundy, Martha. "Village Land and Individual Title: Musha and Ottoman Land Registration in the Ajlun District." In Village, Steppe and State: The Social Origins of Modern Jordan, edited by Eugene L. Rogan and Tariq Tell. New York and London: British Academic Press, 1994.

Owen, Roger, and Pamuk, Sevket. A History of Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Warriner, Doreen. Land Reform and Development in the Middle East: A Study of Egypt, Syria and Iraq; Issued Under the Auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2d edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

alan r. richards
updated by martin bunton

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AGRARIANISM. Thomas Jefferson, the patron of American agrarianism, wrote in his Notes on Virginia (1785), "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if He ever had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which He keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth." The origins of this sentiment are traceable to Virgil's Arcadia (first century b.c.) about an idealized pastoral society, and it reappears constantly in both secular and sacred Western literature. Jefferson's conviction placed it at the center of U.S. history.

The Elements of Agrarianism

Agrarianism expresses a number of political and cultural perspectives. The creed can be summed up in four parts. First, farming has a spiritual dimension that generates many virtues, among them self-reliance, moral integrity, and honor, because direct contact with nature leads to a meaningful relationship with God. Accordingly, like God, the cultivator creates order out of chaos. Second, farming is the only occupation offering total self-sufficiency and independence, primarily because it is the only occupation that creates genuine wealth. (This physiocratic assumption has loomed large in American history.) Third, the farmer, through his work, gains a sense of place and identity. The reason for this psychological wholeness is simple: the farmer does not live and work in the city, an artifice of mankind's hubris. He is an alien in the hostile, man-made environment that is the city. Since ancient Rome, the city has been the traditional home of the proletariat,

the landless, property less rabble. Fourth, with its fellowship of cooperation and labor, the agricultural landscape features the model society. These characteristics and values of agrarianism have long been a constant in the nation's history.

As a basis for reform, agrarianism—like many other ideals—contains both a forward-looking element, a brave new world, and a desire to return the country to an earlier condition of individual innocence and social purity. Generally, the "backward" agrarian denounced what he saw as the corrupting influence of the modern world, while the "forward" agrarian saw social justice in the integration of technology into American agriculture. In addition, agrarians oppose monopoly and privilege, and desire the liberation of the individual from dependencies of all kinds and their related corruptions.

The agrarian ideal turns on the cultivation of virtue and abundance. Jefferson and countless other writers linked the two. Recent historical scholarship regarding republicanism in American history illustrates the connection. Land was abundant in Jefferson's America. It provided the means to a virtuous and independent life, the essence of agrarianism. The American environment and westward expansion turned classical republicanism into an expression of democracy. Old World classical republicanism was an ideology of leisure restricted to men of landed property. The frontier, however, created a New World version of republicanism that allowed a material stake in society for every man who transformed the wilderness into his private property, thereby becoming a middle-class citizen. It permitted every man the means for political and economic independence. The classical polis was now the family farmhouse.

Agrarianism in American History

This ideological context, the fate of the agrarian ideal, illustrated the chronology of American history. After the War of Independence in 1776, home rule became the American Revolution—who rules at home. Agrarianism became a part of the cultural and political struggles for a middle-class utopia. The political conflict between Thomas Jefferson and the Democrats against Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists was a dispute between agrarian-minded men and men of commerce. At different times, both sides were nervous about the rise of the city. Hamilton's vision of a national commercial society differed from Jefferson's agrarianism, particularly in its social conservatism and the use of the federal government in the advancement of commerce and industry. Hamilton worried about landless men living in such a place as New York City.

Agriculture, of course, was never free of the need for overseas and domestic markets, and particularly not after the market revolution of Jacksonian America. The emerging commercial order always included the yeoman farmer. In fact, as the United States became an urban, industrial society, the family farmer, a potent political icon, maintained a strong presence in the value system.

Jefferson's use of the federalist approach to the Constitution in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory was neither the first nor the last irony in the history of American agrarianism. The United States experienced the antebellum market revolution in which farmers and workers involved in the transportation of goods looked to the government for help in realizing the agrarian ideal. Up to a point, every one wanted the advancement of the individual; moving west was the means, the central myth, in American history. Unfortunately racism was a part of agrarianism. As Jacksonian Democrats defended the herronvolk doctrine, "it's a white man's country," slavery reached far into agrarianism when the sanctity of private property extended to the ownership of African Americans.

The causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War were complex. In a real sense the split in agrarianism contributed mightily to its origin. As the ideology of "free soil, free men, free land" developed, the notion that freedom was colorblind began its long and painful process through American history. The theme of yeoman agrarianism now was the threat of slavery to the farmer's political and economic freedom. For many Americans, Jefferson's Monticello had become Simon Legree's plantation. Yet slavery, too, appealed to the agrarian ideal as the plantation became the defining image of the rebel South.

During the war the Homestead Act of 1862 indicated the political and cultural strength of agrarianism. The creation of the Department of Agriculture in 1889 also reflected agrarian concerns as the debates over land policy continued. The Department of Agriculture was an institutional recognition of agrarianism's effect on public policy. After the war, Thaddeus Stevens's campaign for the freedman to have "forty acres and a mule" again suggested the agrarian influence, as did the Dawes Act of 1883, which sought to turn the Plains Indians into yeoman farmers.

In the Gilded Age, the agrarian ideal became the suburbs, the country place, and the gentleman-farmer estate as more of the population became city dwellers. Populists believed that the family farmer must be saved from economic ruin and cultural irrelevance. The influx of a new wave of immigrants gave a reactionary twist to turn-of-the-century agrarianism, fueling anti-urbanism, as illustrated by the eugenicists and other advocates of the pastoral life. On the other hand, Liberty Hyde Bailey's Country Life Movement blended agrarianism with an urban existence. Bailey's reform was a genteel claim for the simple, rural life.

By the 1920s the yeoman farmer had a modified image. Agrarian interests were strong in Congress and were heard with increased vigor during the Great Depression. The New Deal objective was the preservation of the family

farmer, but the results were problematic during the remainder of the twentieth century as many moved to the cities. As the squire of Hyde Park, Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood the complex problems of farm life in modern America. The New Deal and its legacies recognized the political power of the agrarian ideal with its emotional appeal for family life.

Ideologically, the twentieth century modified the cultural expressions of agrarianism. As the crabgrass frontier replaced the farming frontier, Americans still enjoyed outdoor recreation, national parks, camping, conservation, and so on. The homestead of previous times became ownership of a freestanding house. Owning a weekend place in the country is an example of Americans' desire to "have it both ways," or to participate in the city life for one's livelihood and hold on to one's agrarian roots. Some reactionary advocates of agrarianism, particularly in the South, rejected twentieth-century America with scorn; others, such as those associated with Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, adopted a left-wing perspective, deriving their ideas from the Distributism of G. K. Chesterton and Hilary Belloc, twentieth-century British advocates of agrarianism who favored a more egalitarian distribution of land.

Symbolically, agrarianism's strength remains strong in the American idiom. After all, James Earl Carter became president as a peanut farmer and George W. Bush moved into his Texas ranch when he became the chief executive. In one form or another, agrarianism endures in American life and thought.


Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. An account of the most successful expression of agrarianism.

Peterson, Merrill D. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. A brilliant treatment of Jefferson as icon of agrarianism and a host of other creeds.

Pickens, Donald K. "The Expanding Economy: An Overview of United States As an Exercise in Middle Class Utopianism." Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas 4 (1973): 30–37.

———. "The Republican Synthesis and Thaddeus Stevens." Civil War History 31 (March 1985): 57–73. The relationship between agrarianism and the agitation for forty acres and a mule.

———. "The Turner Thesis and Republicanism: A Historiographical Commentary." Pacific Historical Review 61 (1992): 319–340. Explores the connections among agrarianism, westward expansion, and political theory.

White, Morton. The Intellectual Versus the City. New York: Mentor Books, 1964. An old but handy summary of why many American thinkers were inclined toward agrarianism.

Donald K.Pickens

See alsoDawes General Allotment Act ; Frontier ; Homestead Movement ; Jeffersonian Democracy ; Land Policy ; Populism ; Slavery ; Suburbanization ; Urbanization .

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agrarian reform

agrarian reform, redistribution of the agricultural resources of a country. Traditionally, agrarian, or land, reform is confined to the redistribution of land; in a broader sense it includes related changes in agricultural institutions, including credit, taxation, rents, and cooperatives. Although agrarian reform can result in lower agricultural productivity, especially if it includes collectivization, it may increase productivity when land is redistributed to the tiller. Pressure for modern land reform is most powerful in the underdeveloped nations. See also collective farm.


Agrarian reform has been a recurrent theme in history. The Greek and Roman eras were filled with violent struggles between landowners and the landless. The land reform issue was a major factor in the Gracchian agrarian laws. During the Middle Ages, demands for land reform triggered peasant rebellions, including the Peasants' Revolt in England led by John Ball and Wat Tyler in 1381 and the German Peasants' War of 1524–26.


In the 20th cent. the Russian Revolution added a new dimension to agrarian reform—the socialization of agriculture (i.e., the collective ownership of all land partly through state farming, but mainly through collective farming under state control) as a prerequisite for attaining communism. Driven in part by the peasant's desire for land, Lenin, shortly after assuming power, decreed (1917) all land as state property. Landed estates were seized by peasants, resulting in approximately 25 million peasant holdings. His government's promotion of voluntary collectivization was ineffective, however, and after 1929 Stalin forced collectivization at an estimated cost of ten million lives. After World War II, the Eastern European nations under Communist rule implemented agrarian reforms following the Soviet model. Since the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe (1989–90) and the disintegration of the Soviet Union (1991) there has been movement, sometimes successful, sometimes fitful, toward privatization of agriculture in the former republics of the USSR.


China's Communist revolution in 1949 led, after the wholesale transfer of land to small peasants, to the amalgation of peasant cooperatives into larger communes (1958). An attempt to establish socialist agriculture prior to mechanization, the communes were much criticized by the Soviet Union. They proved inefficient, causing stagnation in agricultural productivity, and China later abolished them. By 1980 China was rapidly returning land to individual smallholders and promoting market-oriented agriculture with marked success.

In Other Parts of the World

In Asia, especially in such densely populated areas as the Indian subcontinent, agitation has been mainly for redistribution among landless laborers; for security of tenure; and for the elimination of middlemen, oppressive rents, and usurious interest. Agrarian reforms began in Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), when feudal fiefs and stipends were abolished. After World War II, U.S. occupation forces supervised further land reform. As a result, by 1949 over 80% of Japan's tenanted land had been transferred from absentee landlords to tenant cultivators. In India and Pakistan similar programs of agrarian reform were attempted, with less success (see Bhave, Vinoba).

In S Africa, where racial policies resulted in discriminatory land policies in Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, majority rule in the late 20th cent. led to pressure for land redistribution. In Zimbabwe, wholesale land redistribution at the end of the 1900s resulted in near collapse of the country's commercial agriculture when land was transferred from white farmers to blacks who had little farming experience and inadequate equipment. Land reform has proceeded more gradually in Namibia and South Africa, resulting in greater frustration on the part of the landless but less significant decreases in agricultural production.

Latin America and Africa

In South America land reform is a major problem because enormous tracts of land (latifundios) are concentrated in very few hands with laborers no better off than serfs. Although the revolution in Mexico resulted in land reform (1917), the program of redistribution of land is still only partially completed. A land reform law also followed the Bolivian revolution of 1952, but by 1970 only 45% of the peasant families had received titles to land. One of the most complete agrarian reforms in Latin America has taken place in Cuba, where land reform was one of the main platforms of the revolution of 1959. Large holdings were expropriated by the National Institute for Land Reform (INRA), but most is managed by government officials and has not been redistributed. The remaining agricultural land is limited to a ceiling with tenants gaining ownership rights. Nicaragua's agrarian reform under the Sandinistas resulted in expropriation of some large holdings (1979), which after initial collectivization has been progressively redistributed to individual farmers, including returning Contras after 1989. Chile's land reform (1970–73) was reversed when Socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown.

African agrarian reforms have included distribution of excess land (Algeria, 1971); nationalization of all land (Ethiopia, 1974); and abolition of all land titles to be replaced by rights of occupancy (Tanzania, Zambia and Nigeria). Tanzania promoted farming collectives (ujamaa) with limited success.


See D. Ghai and S. Radwan, ed., Agrarian Policies and Rural Poverty in Africa (1983); C. C. Geisler and F. J. Popper, ed., Land Reform, American Style (1984); M. R. Ghonemy, Studies in Agrarian Reform and Rural Poverty (1984); J. D. Montgomery, International Dimensions of Land Reform (1984); J. P. Polwelson, The Story of Land (1987) and The Present Betrayed (1989); J. M. Reidinger, Land Reform and Democratic Development (1987); D. Christodoulou, The Unpromised Land (1989); W. Hinton, The Great Reversal: Privatization of China (1990).

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Agrarian Reforms


The concept of agrarian reform refers to changes implemented in the agricultural economy, changes designed broadly to improve agricultural performance and notably to contribute to the process of economic growth and economic development. The concept of reform implies changes to an existing system or policies, though the interpretation of change and the precise boundaries of the agricultural sector are general and broad. Thus characterized, agrarian reform has been a continuing and important component of the Russian economic experience. Moreover, the nature of agrarian reform has been closely associated with the differing stages of Russian economic development and with the role envisioned for the agrarian economy in the process of industrialization and modernization.

Russia has been an agrarian economy since its beginnings. For this reason, changes in the agrarian economy have been central to any discussion of economic growth and economic development in Russia. Beginning in the era of serfdom and the existence of a premodern agriculture, the focus has been on the nature of agrarian reform necessary to contribute to modernization.

The nature of agrarian reform necessarily depends heavily on the time period considered. In the Russian case, a convenient turning point is 1861, the date of the Emancipation Act, the purpose of which was to eliminate serfdom. Prior to this date, the Russian rural economy was feudal in character, with serfs bound to their landlords, communal landholding, and periodic redistribution of land plots.

Although the Emancipation Act was judicial more than economic in character, it nevertheless introduced a long period of agrarian reform through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. During this period, there was gradual reallocation of land, although preservation of the village (mir) as a communal form of local decision making limited the extent to which the modernization of agriculture could take place. Peasant mobility was limited, a major reason for political instability in the early 1900s and the implementation of the Stolypin reforms, a series of changes designed to break the communal system, to change land usage, and to introduce individual peasant farming.

The agrarian reform, prior to the Bolshevik revolution, has been the subject of controversy. The traditional agrarian crisis view has supported a negative view of the Russian rural economy, while the revisionist view argues that output and structural changes during the late tsarist era were directionally important for the ultimate development of a modern agricultural sector.

It is perhaps ironic that by the 1920s and the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the rural economy would again be at the forefront of attention. Specifically, the focus would be the potential role of agriculture in Soviet economic development. After extensive discussion and experimentation during the NEP, Stalin forcibly changed the institutional arrangements on Soviet agriculture beginning in 1928. The introduction of the collective farms (the kohlkoz), the state farms (the sovkhoz) and the private subsidiary sector fundamentally changed the manner in which agriculture was organized. Markets were replaced by state control.

Although these changes remained in effect through the end of the Soviet era, there were important changes made in the rural economy during the Soviet years. In effect, there was a continuing search for optimal organizational arrangements. This search led to important changes in the mechanization of agriculture (especially the introduction of the Machine Tractor Stations), the nature of land use (amalgamation of farms seeking scale advantages and the conversion of collective to state farms) and the relations between the state and the farm units in terms of deliveries, financing, and the like. Most important, in the latter years of the Soviet era, the focus became agro-industrial integration, an effort to reap the benefits of Western "agri-business" types of arrangements for production and marketing of agricultural products.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the era of socialist agriculture and socialist agricultural policies came to an end. Much less attention was paid to the rural economy; it was not central to the Russian approach to transition, and yet agrarian reform was once again on the agenda. Throughout the 1990s, the emphasis has been the creation of a corporate (share) structure in farms and the conversion of these farms to various forms of private equity arrangements. However, given the very slow emergence of land reform, and specifically the slow development of a land market in Russia, fundamental change in the Russian rural economy continues to be at best very slow.

See also: agriculture; economic growth, soviet; free economic society; new economic policy peasant economy; serfdom


Gregory, Paul R., and Stuart, Robert C. (2001). Russian and Soviet Economic Performance and Structure, 7th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Volin, Lazar. (1970). A Century of Russian Agriculture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Robert C. Stuart

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agrarian laws

agrarian laws, in ancient Rome, the laws regulating the disposition of public lands (ager publicus).

It was the practice of Rome to confiscate part of the land of conquered cities and states, and this was made public land. So long as it remained public land, it was occupied by tenants who paid rent, usually in produce, to the state. From the earliest times the patricians gained the largest part of the public lands, and the holding of public lands tended always in Italy to become the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy. There was also a tendency to consider land long occupied as real property of the occupier.

The agrarian laws resulted from the continued efforts of the poorer classes to gain some share in the public lands. Since these lands were occupied without lease, the strictly legal aspects were not difficult; but inasmuch as most agrarian legislation challenged the lucrative privilege of the powerful of retaining the lands they held, the agrarian laws were often flagrantly disobeyed or calmly ignored. In 486 BC, Spurius Cassius Viscellinus tried to pass a law assigning some new lands in Gaul to the poor of Rome and Latium, but Roman jealousy prevented its passage. The most famous of early agrarian laws were the Licinian Rogations (367 BC) of Caius Licinius Calvus Stolo (see under Licinius), which limited strictly the amount of land any citizen could hold and the number of sheep and cattle he could pasture on public land. These laws fell into disuse. About 233 BC, Caius Flaminius succeeded in assigning some public lands to poor citizens.

The next serious attempt to rectify an increasingly difficult situation was the Sempronian Law of 133 BC devised by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (see Gracchi). This reenacted the provisions of the Licinian Rogations and added to the maximum allowance an extra amount for each son. The occupants were to be reduced to the legal maximum and the surplus given to the poor. The occupants were to receive in compensation full title to the land they retained. A commission was set up to execute the law, but the senate by its obstructionist tactics weakened the commission, thus rendering the law ineffective. In 123 BC, Caius Gracchus revived the Sempronian Law, but this time the senate ruined the reform by allowing the new tenants to sell their new land, which the wealthy bought up.

From time to time newly acquired lands would be assigned to the poor, but as a rule they simply passed into the hands of the wealthy landholders. In the 1st cent. BC there were several assignments of public lands to veterans in Italy as well as on the borders of the empire. The wholesale confiscation and reassignment of private lands by Sulla (82 BC) and Octavian and Antony (43 BC) were called agrarian laws. The first step in the final collapse of the democratic effort that had resulted in the agrarian laws was the edict of Domitian (c.AD 82) assigning the title of public lands in Italy to those who held them. The poorer classes were thus confirmed in a dependency on the powerful that foreshadowed the greater dependency of feudalism.

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Agrarian Revolution

Agrarian Revolution the transformation of British agriculture during the 18th century, characterized by the enclosure of common land and the introduction of technological innovations such as the seed drill and the rotation of crops.

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agrarianism, agrarian societies Agrarian societies are those which combine horticulture and animal husbandry in systems of farming. Agrarianism also refers to the romanticization of the rural farm as the ideal place for family life.

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land reform

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