Land Reform

views updated May 17 2018

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


Deininger, Klaus. 2003. Land Policies for Growth and Poverty Reduction. Washington, DC: World Bank; New York: Oxford University Press.

Field, Erica. 2005. Property Rights and Investment in Urban Slums. Journal of the European Economic Association 3(23): 279290.

Ghimire, Krishna B., ed. 2001. Whose Land? Civil Society Perspectives on Land Reform and Rural Poverty Reduction. Rome: Popular Coalition to Eradicate Hunger and Poverty; Geneva: UN Research Institute for Social Development.

Lerman, Zvi, Csaba Csaki, and Gershon Feder. 2004. Agriculture in Transition: Land Policies and Evolving Farm Structures in Post Soviet Countries. Lanham, MD: Lexington.

Mitchell, Robert, and Tim Hanstad. 2004. Small Homegarden Plots and Sustainable Livelihoods for the Poor. LSP Working Paper 11. Rome: UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Prosterman, Roy, and Jeffrey Riedinger. 1987. Land Reform and Democratic Development. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thiesenhusen, William C. 1995. Broken Promises: Agrarian Reform and the Latin American Campesino. Boulder, CO: Worldview.

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


views updated May 21 2018


The word "agrarianism" comes from the Latin lex agraria, an ancient Roman law that called for the equal division of public lands. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, the word identified any land reform movement that sought to redistribute cultivated lands equally. Such agitation was a response in part to the eighteenth-century English Enclosure Acts, which disrupted traditional agricultural practices. In the twentieth century the word shed this radical reform definition. In the early twenty-first century agrarianism points to a collection of political, philosophical, and literary ideas that together tend to describe farm life in ideal terms.

Agrarianism finds expression in the literary pastoral tradition, which stretches back to ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Theocritus and Virgil. The pastoral envisions the natural world as an escape from the complexities of urban life. In a rural landscape the character is restored by his interaction with nature, which then enables him to return to the city. In many accounts the pastoral also represents the human hope for the return of a golden age, the simple, happy life of long ago.

Borrowing from the French Physiocrats the idea that farming is the only truly productive enterprise, agrarianism claims that agriculture is the foundation of all other professions and is the only source of wealth. Philosophically agrarianism reflects the ideas of John Locke, who declared in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) that those who work land are its rightful owners. His labor theory of value influenced the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, who in turn shaped the way many nineteenth-century American homesteaders understood ownership of their farms.

In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, agrarianism felt the influence of the European Romantic movement. The British Romantic William Wordsworth, for example, chose to describe rural life in his poems because in country living the "essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity" (p. 596). Romantics focused attention on the individual and described nature as a spiritual force. As someone in constant contact with nature, the farmer was positioned to experience moments that transcend the mundane material world.


Central to agrarianism is private property. In Letters from an American Farmer (1782), J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur asks, "What is an American?" His answer is a freeholder, a farmer who owns his own land and enjoys an agrarian utopia. Providing for his family using what he has available to him from nature and from his own abilities, this farmer draws his social and political identity from laboring in the earth. "This formerly rude soil has been converted by my father into a pleasant farm, and in return, it has established all our rights; on it is founded our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens, our importance as inhabitants of such a district" (p. 54). Crèvecoeur's independent freeholder represented an economic and social alternative to Europe's feudal relationships, crowded cities, and emerging factory systems.

Following the American Revolution, the availability of land and a relatively small U.S. population convinced Thomas Jefferson—and many others—that an enduring republic of family farms was a real possibility. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Jefferson defines the yeoman as a self-sufficient man free from "the casualties and caprice of customers" and the machinations of manufacturers and land speculators (p. 217). Jefferson's farmer owns a small piece of land that he and his family work to provide for themselves food, clothing, and shelter. In exchange for manufactured items, he sells any surplus goods to the "mobs of great cities" in Europe (p. 217). A defender of the Republic, this ideal farmer seeks to preserve his family's presence on the land through several generations. He embodies the bedrock virtues of the new nation: frugality, hard work, charity toward others, and love of God. Though Jefferson later modified his agrarian stance ("Letter to Benjamin Austin," p. 549), his original vision was in play in nineteenth-century American politics as a contrast to Alexander Hamilton's plan for a primarily commercial, manufacturing economy.

Agrarianism is woven into the fabric of much U.S. culture and literature in the period 1820–1870. American writers of the time came of age in a predominantly agricultural nation. Roughly 80 percent of people lived on farms in 1820, major cities were mainly confined to the East Coast, and the nation's industrialization had yet to take hold. By 1870, however, just over half of the people lived on farms, cities had sprouted across the West, railroads linked both coasts, and U.S. industrial production was rapidly expanding.

With the Industrial Revolution transforming social and economic relationships, Americans turned nostalgically to representations of simple rural life. For example, the popular songs "Home Sweet Home" (1823) and "The Old Oaken Bucket" (1826) romanticized country living. In the visual arts, the work of Jasper Cropsey and Asher Durand, who played major roles in the Hudson River school, were attracted to pastoral landscapes. The idealized rural scenes of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives dominated the mid-nineteenth-century popular art market. Jerome Thompson's The Haymakers (1859) is typical of idyllic farm scenes painted in the antebellum period. George Inness, perhaps the greatest nineteenth-century landscape painter, depicted in Peace and Plenty (1865) a tranquil harvest scene that offers a sense of healing for a nation wounded by civil war.

Like the farms in these paintings, most antebellum farms appeared to be noncapitalist and to operate on a subsistence basis. Neighborhood work exchanges and homemade goods were common, and farmers who raised their own food had little need to enter a cash market. Farm communities knew few class distinctions, and many men at least had the opportunity to move from farm laborer to farm owner. But as the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America (1840), "Americans carry their businesslike qualities into agriculture, and their trading passions are displayed in that as in their other pursuits" (p. 157). In fact, throughout the period 1820–1870 farmers were evolving into small capitalists. Caught up in regional and national markets, they turned more and more to labor-saving machinery to cut costs, adopting, for example, Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper (1834) and John Deere's steel moldboard plow (1846). As time wore on, farm realities looked less and less like the static world of Jefferson's agrarian ideal.


Agriculture in New England grew increasingly commercial between 1820 and 1840. As internal improvements brought increased competition from western farmers, many New England farmers moved west to new lands or left farming altogether. Those who remained specialized in milk, cheese, fruits, and vegetables for cities such as Boston, which grew rapidly in the 1830s and 1840s due to the Industrial Revolution's demand for wage laborers.

New England's transcendentalists often had mixed feelings about farmers and farming. Advocating self-reliance and understanding nature as symbolic of the spiritual realm, transcendentalists saw the farmer in a unique place to perfect himself. But as much as it is an occupation that offers the individual access to the divine, farming is also a material activity that can lead to a sole focus on financial gain, something Tocqueville notes: "Equality of conditions not only ennobles the notion of labor, but raises the notion of labor as a source of profit" (p. 152).

The arc of Ralph Waldo Emerson's thinking illustrates the transcendentalists' ambivalence. Early in his career Emerson drew on Jeffersonian agrarianism. In his essay Nature (1836), for example, he notes that farm life puts one in constant touch with the natural world and, by extension, spirit: "What is a farm but a mute gospel?" (p. 42). In 1837, in his poem "Concord Hymn," he immortalizes farmers as defenders of the nation:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

(P. 158)

Thomas Jefferson infuses agrarianism with moral and political import in his defense of a national agrarian economy. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Jefferson declares:

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he 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. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phænomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husband-man, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers.

Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, p. 217.

In his 1844 lecture "The Young American," Emerson calls the farmer self-sufficient and notes that the land possesses "tranquillizing, sanative influences" that "repair the errors of a scholastic and traditional education" (p. 366). In this essay he even touches the city-country divide: "Whatever events in progress shall go to disgust men with cities and infuse into them the passion for country life and country pleasures, will render a service to the whole face of this continent" (p. 369). Pointing out that the West is "intruding a new and continental element into the national mind," Emerson asserts, "How much better when the whole land is a garden, and the people have grown up in the bowers of a paradise" (p. 370).

In his 1858 address "Farming," however, Emerson wrestles with an agriculture that he knows is becoming ever more complex. At the outset he praises farmers in the conventional way, describing them as creators who possess "tranquility and innocence" (p. 137), but he soon defines them as akin to factory workers, as minders of a great machine (p. 142). Rather than communing with nature, farmers now manipulate it with advances in science and technology.

In Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau describes his experiment in independence, self-sufficiency, and communion with the natural world. Critiquing commercial progress, Thoreau points to his farmer-neighbors, whose lives seldom embody the agrarian ideal, and asks: "Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?" (p. 5). In his "Bean-Field" chapter, in which he outlines his own agricultural labors, Thoreau condemns farmers for attending only to material wants. He notes that husbandry was once a "sacred art" that is now "pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely" (pp. 182–183). But then again, Thoreau acknowledges that his farmwork is primarily a literary labor, admitting that he "must work in fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day" (p. 179).

Nineteenth-century communitarian experiments such as Brook Farm also felt the influence of the agrarian ideal. Attempting to marry manual labor and intellectual work in an egalitarian setting, Brook Farm's founder, George Ripley, sought to "prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions" (quoted in Delano, p. 47). Emerson and Thoreau, however, distanced themselves from communitarian experiments such as Brook Farm, which sought reform by changing society, and asserted the individual's necessary task of reforming himself. Brook Farm attracted several important New England figures including, for a time, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In his The Blithedale Romance (1852), which alludes to Brook Farm, Hawthorne contrasts Silas Foster, the practical farmer, with the Blithedale idealists, who, in returning to the land, seek to show "mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles on which human society has all along been based" (p. 449). Unfortunately class issues doom the Blithedale idyll before it truly begins. Hawthorne's narrator, Coverdale, reminds readers near the beginning of his narrative that several people participate in the farm's experiment "not by necessity, but choice" (p. 452). He soon realizes that the dream of marrying heavy labor and intellectual activity does not work in practice: "The yeoman and the scholar . . . are two distinct individuals, and can never be melted or welded into one substance" (p. 477). Blithedale's "beautiful scheme of a noble and unselfish life" collapses under the weight of sex and death, a fall into history that ends many gardens of bliss (p. 584).

Agrarianism often holds in high esteem physical labor rather than intellectual work. The virtuous farmer does real work, unlike greedy speculators and factory owners who sport in the city, a site of vice and venality. This tension over definitions of work reflects a political contrast between aristocratic Europe and the democratic United States, where everyone labors for his bread. The dignity of work finds expression in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855) but is often imagined sentimentally, as in John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Huskers":

Swung o'er the heaped-up harvest, from pitchforks in the mow,
Shone dimly down the lanterns on the pleasant scene below;
The growing pile of husks behind, the golden ears before,
And laughing eyes and busy hands and brown cheeks glimmering o'er.

(P. 311)

Arguments over labor and land tend to dominate this period of American history. The political crises surrounding the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850 pitted North and South over the extension of slavery. Should farming based on slavery be allowed in new states and territories? Should all labor be free? The South sought slavery's extension; the North sought its confinement if not end. The resulting compromises maintained a balance of power between the regions, but a final resolution of the conflict was only postponed. As the Civil War approached, slavery became a serious threat to the North's free-labor ideology.

But no matter their location, farmers in the agrarian ideal were always white men. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were excluded. For example, after Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act (1830), Cherokees fought displacement from Georgia using the agrarian ideal. Asserting that they were not hunter-gatherers living on unimproved land, they pointed to their cultivated fields as evidence that they had rights to the land they occupied. Though Cherokee memorials to Congress, as Timothy Sweet notes, "appeal[ed] directly to white culture's idealization of the Jeffersonian middle landscape," their appeals were ineffective (p. 126). In 1838 the U.S. Army removed Cherokees from their homelands and forced them west along the infamous Trail of Tears. White farmers quickly appropriated Cherokee land.


Agrarianism as described above was not universally embraced across the United States. The South's plantation system challenged the Jeffersonian vision of a nation populated by small farmers. Defenders of slavery knew that the yeoman ideal was a menace to the South's economy. For example, the radical proslavery writer George Fitzhugh, in Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters (1857), defended an agriculture based on slavery and rejected capitalism as a destroyer of civilization.

Revising the agrarian ideal, southern writers replaced agrarianism's small family farm with an aristocratic plantation worked by docile slaves overseen by paternalistic masters. From the perspective of John Taylor, a Virginia planter and slaveholder, agriculture "secures health and vigor to both [mind and body]; and by combining a thorough knowledge of the real affairs of life, with a necessity for investigating the areana [sic] of nature, and the strongest invitations to the practice of morality, it becomes the best architect of a complete man" (p. 243). Unlike his neighbor Thomas Jefferson, however, Taylor felt few qualms about slavery. He asserts in his Arator essays (1814) that "liberality to slaves and working animals, is the fountain of [farmers'] profit" (p. 237).

The South's plantation system spawned its own literature, beginning notably with John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832). In The Hireling and the Slave (1854) the poet and politician William John Grayson defends slavery, claiming, for example, that a slave sale is simply "a transfer of labor from one employer to another. . . . The sale of the slave is the form in which the laws secure the slave from this misery of the hireling—secure to him a certainty of employment and a certainty of subsistence" (p. viii). In Woodcraft (1854) the novelist William Gilmore Simms answers Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by depicting harmonious relationships between a master and his slave. For example, near the close of the novel, when his master, Captain Porgy, attempts to free him, the slave, Tom, refuses: "Ef I doesn't b'long to you, you b'long to me. . . . You b'longs to me Tom, jes' as much as me Tom b'long to you; and you nebber guine git you free paper from me long as you lib" (p. 528).

But thousands of antebellum slave narratives challenged these conceptions of southern farm life, reminding readers of the brutality and dehumanization of slavery. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) depicts the slave breaker Covey as a farmer who sees no contradiction between his Sunday churchgoing and his whipping and breeding of slaves. Douglass describes farms not as places of repose and virtue but as sites of violence and moral degeneracy. Similarly the national and international best-selling novel Uncle Tom's Cabin attacks the southern plantation ideal in its portrayal of violence and slave sales.

In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Frederick Douglass refutes the antebellum southern agrarian ideal in describing the farmer Edward Covey:

Mr. Covey was a poor man, a farm-renter. He rented the place upon which he lived, as also the hands with which he tilled it. Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation. Some slaveholders thought it not much loss to allow Mr. Covey to have their slaves one year, for the sake of the training to which they were subjected, without any other compensation. He could hire young help with great ease, in consequence of this reputation. Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation as a "nigger-breaker."

Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pp. 721–722.

After the Civil War, African Americans, like the Cherokees before them, sought inclusion in the agrarian ideal. One step in that direction, the Southern Homestead Act (1866), intended to create farms like those in the North by opening to ex-slaves southern federal public lands. But freedmen's hopes for homesteads went largely unrealized, and African Americans were soon absorbed by the sharecropping system that dominated much of southern farm life for the rest of the nineteenth century.

The Southern Homestead Act was based on the 1862 Homestead Act. Important in settling the West, the Homestead Act offered settlers 160 acres of land in return for five years of residence and improvements plus payment of a $10 registration fee. The act was backed by urban activists such as the New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, author of What I Know of Farming (1870), who followed Locke and Jefferson in believing that anyone who worked a piece of ground ought to have title to it. Greeley hoped that the act would resettle on western homesteads unemployed urban workers. As Henry Nash Smith asserts, advocates of the act "sincerely believed that the yeoman depicted in the myth of the garden was an accurate representation of the common man" (p. 172).

How farmers defined themselves, however, has been a matter of historical debate, though they likely understood that the ideal world described by writers and politicians was just that, an ideal. And though most farmers saw themselves before the Civil War as self-sufficient freeholders, by 1870 at least many described themselves as businessmen rather than Jeffersonian yeomen. The years following the war witnessed an intensification of U.S. industrialization that drew most existing subsistence-farming communities into capital-intensive farming. Soon agriculture became more and more mechanized, and economic disillusion spread in rural areas, giving rise to the late-nineteenth-century Populist movement.

See alsoLabor; Nature; Transcendentalism; Urbanization


Primary Works

Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John. Letters from an AmericanFarmer. 1782. In Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, edited by Albert E. Stone, pp. 35–227. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass, an American Slave. 1845. In The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: The Western Tradition, 7th ed., vol. 2, edited by Sarah Lawall et al., pp. 696–753. New York: Norton, 1999.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Concord Hymn." 1837. In TheComplete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 9, Poems, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, pp. 158–159. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Farming." 1858. In The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 7, Society andSolitude, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, pp. 135–154. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1837. In The CompleteWorks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, Nature: Addresses and Lectures, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, pp. 1–77. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Young American." 1844. In The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, Nature: Addresses and Lectures, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, pp. 361–395. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Fitzhugh, George. Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters. 1857. Edited by C. Vann Woodward. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Grayson, William J. The Hireling and the Slave. Charleston, S.C.: J. Russell, 1854.

Greeley, Horace. What I Know of Farming. 1870. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. In The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Norman Holmes Pearson, pp. 439–585. New York: Modern Library, 1937.

Jefferson, Thomas. "Letter to Benjamin Austin, 9 January 1816." In The Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill D. Peterson, pp. 547–550. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1787. In The Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill D. Peterson, pp. 23–232. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Kennedy, John Pendleton. Swallow Barn; or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion. 1832. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1861.

Locke, John. Of Civil Government: Second Treatise. 1690. Introduction by Russell Kirk, pp. 547–550. South Bend, Ind.: Gateway Editions, 1955.

Simms, William Gilmore. Woodcraft; or, Hawks about theDovecote. 1854. Edited by Charles S. Watson. New Haven, Conn.: New College and University Press, 1983.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. Edited by Ann Douglas. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Taylor, John. Arator: Being a Series of Agricultural Essays, Practical and Political. 1813. Georgetown, Columbia: J. M. Carter, 1814.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. In The Writings ofHenry David Thoreau, vol. 2. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1840. Vol. 2. Edited by Phillips Bradley. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. Edited by Gay Wilson Allen. New York: New American Library, 1980.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. "The Huskers." In The PoeticalWorks of John Greenleaf Whittier, vol. 3, pp. 308–314. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904.

Wordsworth, William. "Preface to Lyrical Ballads." 1802. In Romantic Poetry and Prose, edited by Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, pp. 592–611. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Secondary Works

Burns, Sarah. Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Delano, Sterling F. "Brook Farm." In The AmericanRenaissance in New England, vol. 223 of Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Wesley T. Mott, pp. 46–51. Detroit: Gale, 2000.

Govan, Thomas P. "Agrarian and Agrarianism: A Study in the Use and Abuse of Words." Journal of Southern History 30, no. 1 (1964): 35–47.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Agrarianism in American Literature. New York: Odyssey Press, 1969.

Kulikoff, Allan. The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and thePastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Montmarquet, James A. The Idea of Agrarianism: FromHunter-Gatherer to Agrarian Radical in Western Culture. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1989.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West asSymbol and Myth. 1950. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Sweet, Timothy. American Georgics: Economy and Environment in Early American Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

William Conlogue


views updated May 18 2018


Agrarianism may be defined as the view that the practices of the agricultural life, and the types of technology on which that life has historically been based, are particularly effective in promoting various important personal, social, and political goods. The precise character of these goods—and the respective roles of science, technology, government, society, and individuals in procuring them—varies according to which thinker or stream of agrarian thought one wishes to consider. Two different sources of modern agrarian thinking will be considered here: (1) the agrarianism of the "Old Whig," anti-federalist American founders, itself a self-conscious effort to retrieve the agrarian and republican values of the classical world; and (2) the agrarianism promoted by antimodern thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A third stream of agrarian thought and practice may be found among dissenting religious groups such as the Amish and other Anabaptist sects. However, with the exception of their theologically-grounded suspicion of scientific inquiry, these religious groups' ethical critique of science and technology is more fully articulated by the antimodern agrarians. Indeed, the antimodern agrarians' political-ethical critique of modern science and technology, though not especially well known, is one of the more original to have emerged in the last century and is arguably becoming more influential.

From Old Whig to Antimodern Agrarianism

As every schoolchild knows, Thomas Jefferson contended for an agrarian vision of America. As unsystematic in his approach to this subject as he was to most others, Jefferson scattered his brief observations about the value of the agricultural life throughout his letters and other documents. Most famously, in query XIX of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–1782), Jefferson argued that agriculturalists were especially apt to be virtuous: "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. ... Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example." By virtue, Jefferson and most of the other anti-federalists had foremost in mind a certain spirit of self-reliance that made economic—and therefore genuine political—independence possible. Yeoman farming was the indispensable support of republican government.

Jefferson was a reliable spokesman for republican agrarianism, but its most penetrating theorist was probably John Taylor of Caroline (1753–1824), a leading Virginia planter whose agrarian treatise Arator was first published as a series of newspaper articles in 1803. Much of the book consists of Taylor's practical suggestions, based on his own analysis, observation, and experiments, for improving American agriculture (eight numbers alone are devoted to Taylor's thoughts on the topic of "manuring"), the condition of which he lamented ("Let us boldly face the fact. Our country is nearly ruined").

Taylor's defense of republican agrarianism rests on much the same ground as Jefferson's. Political independence, Taylor agrees with Jefferson, cannot be secured by "bankers and capitalists." But not only does he place more emphasis than does Jefferson on the role of agriculture as "the mother of wealth" as well as "the guardian of liberty," he goes further in articulating the personal benefits afforded by life on the land. Farming, he maintains, brings more pleasure than other modes of employment. It provides continual novelty and challenges to the mind. It meets the physical needs of the body. It promotes the virtue of liberality and rewards almost every other virtue. It is an aid in the quest for eternal life, for it feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and gives drink to the thirsty. And because it is a vocation inevitably more concerned with practical affairs than abstract speculations, it is the "best architect of a complete man." Virtually every claim for the farming life to be made by agrarian thinkers in the following centuries is anticipated here.

As M. E. Bradford points out in his introduction to a 1977 reissue of Arator, Taylor, Jefferson, and their fellow Old Whigs, such as Edmund Ruffin (1794–1865), quite consciously saw themselves as retrieving the classical agrarian tradition represented by figures such as Hesiod (c. 600 b.c.e., in Works and Days), Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 b.c.e., in De Agri Cultura), Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 b.c.e., in Re Rustica), and Virgil (70–19 b.c.e., in Georgics). Such figures were, like the Old Whigs, concerned with the relationship between politics and farming, and they therefore also tended to celebrate the personal and civic virtues associated with farming—economic independence, willingness to engage in hard work, rural sturdiness, hatred of tyranny—that the Old Whig founders saw themselves as protecting through the American Revolution.

The celebration of the farmer's life in America at the time of the founding of the nation was not limited to southern Republicans. One must note, for instance,
J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782). But the approach of someone such as Crèvecoeur (or, in the nineteenth century, writers such as Donald Grant Mitchell [1822–1908]) is that of the pastoral—which is to say, the use of farming principally as a literary device or metaphor for the exploration of other themes. In Crèvecoeur's case, this would include the nature of Nature, with a capital and Rousseauean N. Letters from an American Farmer is thus a literary more than an agrarian classic, and philosophically Crèvecoeur is more nearly a forerunner of later environmentalists than he is of the agrarians, who typically display a more profound awareness than he of the imperfectability of the human and natural world.

Although republican agrarianism would continue to permeate American politics and literature for many years—and indeed, continues to find resonance in contemporary works such as Victor Davis Hanson's influential The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (1995)—by the mid- to late-1800s defenses of agrarian ways had become entangled with populist politics and as such were less explicitly focused on the goods of the farming life per se than on the interests of farmers. But with the closing of the North American frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, and with the concomitant slow decline in the number of Americans living on farms (the U.S. farm population began to decrease as a proportion of the whole after 1917), a new generation of self-consciously agrarian thinkers began to emerge. These included the American economist Ralph Borsodi (1888–1977), the founder of the Country Life movement Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858–1954), and the Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman (1897–1983), all of whom—along with several others—are profiled in Allan Carlson's indispensable history, The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (2000).

As Carlson shows, this group heralds the advent of a new and distinct type of agrarianism. Although its proponents' political affiliations varied widely (some were radical progressives, some liberals, some conservatives, and at least one a self-described reactionary), they all shared a deep dissatisfaction with many aspects of modern economic, political, social, and religious structures. The urbanized, mass consumerism of industrial society had come into focus for them as a characteristic feature of modernity in a way that it could not have for the earlier republican agrarians. Some form of resistance to modernity, some alternative, was therefore needed.

The men and women associated with the so-called Southern Agrarians arguably constituted the most important group of antimodern agrarian thinkers. Their manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, was published in 1930. An oft-overlooked sequel, Who Owns America? (which also featured contributions from prominent English distributists like Hilaire Belloc [1870–1953] and Douglas Jerrold [1803–1857]), appeared six years later. The leaders of the Southern Agrarians—John Crowe Ransom (1888–1974), Donald Davidson (1893–1968), Allen Tate (1899–1979), and Andrew Nelson Lytle (1902–1995)—would continue to develop agrarian themes and arguments for some years, although Ransom bowed out of the struggle earlier than the others. While they shared the republican concerns of their southern forebears Jefferson and Taylor, they also charged modern industrialism with promoting irreligion, extinguishing great art and high culture, degrading the quality of human relations, and, not least, destroying the old rural, aristocratic southern culture they preferred to the industrial culture of the North.

The Southern Agrarians hoped to spark a "national agrarian movement," in Ransom's words. In this they failed spectacularly, but they did leave behind some successors, most notably the University of Chicago rhetoric professor Richard M. Weaver, the literary critic and American founding scholar M. E. Bradford, and the novelist, essayist, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry, unquestionably North America's leading contemporary agrarian writer.

Although Berry belongs to some extent to the Southern Agrarian tradition, his agrarianism has several other sources, as well. He represents the agrarianism associated with radical and progressive movements—the mid-century "Back to the Land" movement, the ecoagrarianism loosely associated with the postwar counterculture (Berry has been active, for instance, in antinuclear efforts), and the movement toward green or organic farming and against agribusiness and genetically modified foods. In Berry the common ground held by all of these sources of modern agrarian discontent becomes clear.

Agrarians, Science, and Technology

Agrarianism, in its republican version, was generally associated with a positive view of the ability of science and technology to aid agriculture in its effort to bring about a wealthier and more comfortable existence. "If this eulogy should succeed in awakening the attention of men of science to a skilful practice of agriculture," wrote Taylor of his Arator, "they will become models for individuals, and guardians for national happiness." Classical in inspiration, even the practical Taylor's republican agrarianism conformed to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Indeed, even the antimodern agrarianism of people such as Borsodi and Bailey, who were more concerned with the urbanization and centralization of modern life than they were with its secularization and the cultural ascendance and authority of science, represented a version of Enlightenment rationalism. But a few agrarians developed rather sophisticated and original critiques of scientific rationality and technological society. Most worthy of mention in this regard are Ransom, Tate, and Berry. For them, mass technological-industrial society was the consequence and analog of the scientific mode of thinking.

Some of Ransom's best work on this subject is included in his first two books, God Without Thunder (1930) and The World's Body (1938), in which he argued that reality does not inhere in the abstract, universal laws proposed by science as a way of "explaining" all phenomena, but rather in concrete, particular objects. These particular objects cannot be known as particulars via scientific reason, because science depends on the method of abstraction, which sees a particular only as an instance of a more universal category. A poetic or aesthetic approach, by contrast, does justice to the world by attempting to create a vision of the whole of reality with all its messy and mysterious particularity. In Ransom's historiography, the world had moved first from the perceptual (or premodern) "moment," thence to the "conceptual/scientific," and finally must now progress to the "aesthetic."

Tate makes a similar argument in "Remarks on the Southern Religion," first published in I'll Take My Stand. Where Ransom posits poetry or the aesthetic mind as conserving the "whole" object (or, in his vocabulary, "the world's body") for consideration, Tate posits a religious approach as the antithesis of abstraction. Modern science, writes Tate, reduces objects to those qualities they share with other objects of the same type, and to what they can do or how they work—"the American religion" to which the southern religion of his title is opposed. For Tate, an obsessively quantitative way of seeing the world had become characteristic of the modern Western mind.

Among agrarians, Berry has articulated the most radical critique of scientific rationality and technological progress. Like Ransom and Tate, he defends the validity of a particularist epistemology and maintains that only a limited portion of the truth of experience can be known by the reductionist methods of science. His ethical critique of modern society rests, like his epistemological critique, on the argument that mass technological industrialism collaborates with science to enshrine a view of human beings and the natural world that treats objects and people as essentially interchangeable. Such arguments can be found throughout Berry's corpus, but they are brought together most systematically in his Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (2000), which attacks the scientism promoted by E. O. Wilson in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). The skepticism displayed by Ransom, Tate, and Berry with regard to the truth claims of science has obvious resonances with postmodern thought while resisting temptations to indulge in relativism.

Agrarianism Outside America

It is difficult to generalize about the relationship between agrarianism and science and technology as that relationship has taken shape outside the North American context. Often, the so-called agrarian social movements of Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe have been allied with, or inspired by, anarchist or Marxist revolutionary ideologies (for example, most repulsively, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge). In the case of Marxist or neo-Marxist agrarians, their accompanying attitudes toward scientific rationality have hardly been similar to those of the antimodern agrarians.

Yet few non-American thinkers or activists commonly associated with agrarianism seem especially worthy of mention. Prince Pyotr Alekseyevich Kropotkin (1842–1921) was beloved by many on the American left in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including radical agrarian-oriented writers such as Dorothy Day (1897–1980), who saw Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy as promoting essentially the same sociopolitical vision espoused by the English distributists. Both groups advocated the decentralization of economic power and associated agrarian ideals of one kind or other. But by and large these Russian and British thinkers did not share deeply in nor anticipate the kind of antimodern critiques of science and technology discussed above. Kropotkin was in fact a scientist, an accomplished geographer whose anarchism was at least in part the consequence of his scientific view that the natural, animal, and social worlds were not inevitably grounded in the law of competition, as the Darwinists (social and otherwise) taught, but cooperation and mutual aid. And neither G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) nor Belloc, though certainly not philosophical "modernists," was as skeptical of the epistemological power of discursive rationality as were antimodern American agrarians such as Ransom or Berry. Frankly, the social philosophies of the English distributists and Russian anarchists were too broad and diffuse to be called properly "agrarian," although they certainly had agrarian components. The same could probably be said of Mohandas Gandhi (whose agrarian views were much inspired by Tolstoy).

In his specifically agricultural writings, there may be no one whom Berry cites more frequently than Sir Albert Howard, the English scientist whose An Agricultural Testament (1940), which was chiefly concerned with the rehabilitation of soil fertility, played an important role in creating the organic farming movement. The new agricultural science—and, hence, agriculture—promoted by Howard and those he influenced, including the American organic gardening/farming pioneer J. I. Rodale (1898–1971) and The Land Institute founder and director Wes Jackson, may possibly be considered as constituting yet another stream of agrarian thought.

But note that this tradition of agricultural thought does not concern itself so much with the larger philosophical question of how agrarian practices and culture contribute to the good life, as with attempting to deepen our understanding of what kind of farming techniques are truly sound, arguing on a scientific basis that, for instance, small, family-owned and -operated organic farms are more practical in the long run. There tends to be a confluence between it and antimodern agrarianism because it tends to reject the scientific specialization characteristic of the modern West, and especially its close relationship to industrialism. Although Berry, for one, has clearly been heavily influenced by this tradition, he is typically much more skeptical of the epistemological sufficiency of science and the social beneficence of technology than are the representatives of scientific agrarianism.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in North America and Europe at least, political radicals and progressives are most usually identified with resistance to the large-scale agriculture embodied by contemporary agribusiness and the technological triumph it symbolizes: think, for instance, of Theodor Shanin's work in peasant studies or José Bové, the southern French farmer and activist famous for his attacks on McDonald's and the globalization of the food market generally. However, the fact that Berry's work has registered appeal across the political spectrum indicates that concern for the fate of the independent farmer and the land of which he is the steward continues to draw on popular agrarian ideals. Thus, to the modern republican agrarian, agribusiness represents the application of commercial and industrial techniques to farming. And to the antimodern agrarian, genetic engineering represents a misplaced faith in the beneficence of technological experimentation. It seems likely that the intellectual future of agrarianism lies in the success with which it is able to put forth a political and ethical philosophy that grounds such arguments convincingly, a task all the more difficult in a profoundly non-agrarian culture.


SEE ALSO Agricultural Ethics;Jefferson, Thomas.


Berry, Wendell. (1977). The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. Without question, the most important agrarian work to be published in America during the last half of the twentieth century.

Berry, Wendell. (2002). The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba. Washington, DC: Counterpoint. A well-selected collection of Berry's most important essays on agricultural themes.

Carlson, Allan. (2000). The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. Essential volume includes profiles of largely forgotten antimodern agrarians such as Father Luigi Ligutti, Frank Owsley, Troy Cauley, and Herbert Agar.

Freyfogle, Eric T., ed. (2001). The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life. Washington, DC: Island Press. Fine collection of essays by contemporary agrarian writers, including Gene Logsdon, Scott Russell Sanders, and David Kline, made all the more valuable by Freyfogle's learned and informative introduction.

Malvasi, Mark G. (1997). The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Best book-length explication of the ideas of these three most important Southern Agrarians.

Shi, David E. (1985). The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press. Highly regarded intellectual history provides a broader context for the consideration of American agrarian thought.

Smith, Kimberly K. (2003). Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Only monograph to date to explore Berry's social and political thought; contains an excellent sketch of the intertwined histories of environmentalism and agrarianism in America.

Taylor, John. (1977). Arator: Being a Series of Agricultural Essays, Practical and Political: In Sixty-Four Numbers, ed.
M. E. Bradford. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund. Taylor, more than Jefferson, is the representative republican agrarian of the post-revolutionary period.

Twelve Southerners. (1930). I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. New York: Harper & Brothers. The antimodern agrarian touchstone, suffused with intelligence, still proves inspiring to agrarians and irritating to critics.

Land Reform

views updated May 29 2018


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.


Fischbach, Michael. State, Society, and Land in Jordan. Boston and Leiden, Neth.: Brill, 2000.

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

Land Reform

views updated May 11 2018



Land reform may be understood here as the transfer of land from one owner or group of owners to another for political, social, or ideological purposes. Throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth it was thought that land reform would solve an array of political and social problems. The range of issues land reform was used to address included strengthening of political power, change of patterns of ethnicity, prevention of emigration from rural areas, economic support of poor people, and settlements for refugees or homecoming soldiers. Land reform always included other measures, such as the establishment of rural settlements and the extension of agricultural land, which generally meant forest clearances or other changes to the landscape. Sometimes the previous owners were compensated, but quite often they were simply dispossessed.


An intense political discussion about land reform issues took place in the first half of the nineteenth century, most prominently in the reform movement of the Chartists in Great Britain. One of their speakers, James O'Brien (1805–1864), called for total socialization of private property. Their main argument was that the unequal distribution of land was the root of many social problems.

These claims became influential within the rising socialist movement in Europe. Authors, politicians, and philosophers such as Karl Marx (1818–1883), Karl Kautsky (1854–1938), and Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932) were critical of private landownership, and many called for the nationalization of land. An important book was Progress and Poverty (1877–1879) by the American economist Henry George (1839–1897), which was translated into a number of European languages. He argued not against the private ownership of land per se but that all landowners should pay taxes on the income they received from rents. In line with his thinking, numerous books and articles appeared in which the authors allowed private property but argued that the land should be seen as a finite resource that must be protected against misuse, speculation, and monopoly. For this purpose many different tax systems were devised. In 1890 the Austrian author Theodor Hertzka (1845–1927) published a utopian novel with the title Freiland, ein soziales Zukunftsbild (Freiland: A Social Anticipation). In this book he formulated the idea that land should be owned by rural cooperatives. The land and cooperatives should be accessible to everyone and serve as an economic foundation for egalitarian settlements. These settlements should be established in the European colonies abroad. This was tried; most attempts failed. In 1894 the German economist Franz Oppenheimer (1864–1943) published Freiland in Deutschland, in which he formulated a close relationship among collective ownership, rural cooperatives, and collective settlements. Oppenheimer's ideas strongly influenced the Zionist movement. Impressed with Oppenheimer's book, the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) published Altneuland (Old new land) in 1902, and in 1911 the Zionist Congress assigned Oppenheimer to plan a settlement cooperative near Nazareth. Oppenheimer was one of the most prominent representatives of a third way between communism and capitalism. (One of his students, Ludwig Erhard, was a leading theorist of a social market economy after World War II and second chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.)

The year 1888 in Germany saw the founding of the Bund für Bodenbesitzreform, a powerful land reform organization that proposed a land reform without the abolition of private property. It was led first by the factory owner Michael Flürscheim (1844–1912) and later by the teacher Adolf Damaschke (1865–1935), who wrote a popular book about land reform entitled Die Bodenreform (Land reform). Published in 1902, it was reprinted many times through the 1920s.


Twentieth-century Europe saw three periods in which the politics of land reform wrought vast changes on the Continent. All of these periods were times of economic crisis and political transformation. The first was the interwar period between World War I and World War II, especially in its early years. The second was the postwar period after World War II. The third was the period after the end of the Cold War, beginning in 1989.

The end of World War I was an era of social and political turmoil and radical change. In Russia, Germany, and the new countries within the territories of the old Austro-Hungarian Monarchy land reforms were a result of revolutions and newly established political systems.

The deepest change in rural society and land property rights took place in Russia and the later Soviet Union after the end of World War I. With land reform under the control of the tsarist prime minister and secretary of interior Peter Stolypin (1862–1911), the mir system, the collective ownership of land by all village inhabitants, was replaced by private landownership in 1905. Thus emerged a new type of farmer, the kulak, a wealthy middle-class farmer who now hired other village inhabitants as wage laborers. With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, however, the new Soviet government in 1918 abolished private land property. The process of dispossessing the kulaks became increasingly radical after 1929 and was one of Joseph Stalin's core issues as he consolidated power as leader of the Soviet Union. The process was not finished until 1940, when more than 96 percent of the land was collectivized and cultivated in the form of huge farms. The result of this campaign was an economic and human catastrophe. Several million people in the rural areas died of hunger, and the level of agrarian production in 1940 was lower than in 1913. But this change enabled the Soviet government to obtain better control over the huge rural areas.

In the new Baltic countries, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, the old, partly German landed elite too was dispossessed; in this case the land was not collectivized but given to private farmers. Land reforms in many other European countries were organized at the same time.

In Germany, the German Reich Settlement Act (Reichssiedlungsgesetz) came into force in 1919. It was aimed at assisting returning war veterans and landless people as well as refugees from the eastern parts of Germany, which became Polish territory. The idea was to buy extensively cultivated land from big estates, to intensify cultivation efforts, and to reclaim wastelands. New settlement agencies, established in all the German territories, were in charge of parceling out the land, laying out new fields, and constructing farm buildings. In the 1930s some authoritarian regimes such as those of Germany, Italy, and Spain organized huge programs for rural reconstruction and reclamation of wastelands, such as the Bonifica Integrale in Italy under Benito Mussolini. But in most of these cases private property was not affected.

The most radical land reforms took place after 1945 in the countries of central and Eastern Europe that came under Soviet rule. At the end of World War II it was a common political opinion among the Allies that land reform needed to be carried out in Germany in order to break the political power of the Junker (a member of the Prussian landed aristocracy). The economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron (1904–1968) argued in his book Bread and Democracy in Germany (1943) that disempowerment of the landed elite was a crucial step in the process of democratization. But as tensions increased between the Western and the Soviet zones of occupation, ideas about land reform became an area of conflict in the emergent Cold War. In 1945 Stalin ordered the German Communist Party to organize land reform in the Soviet zone of occupation. All landowners with property of more than 100 hectares as well as all those who were considered Nazi activists were dispossessed. More than 3.3 million hectares of arable land were redistributed to refugees and small farmers and farmworkers. In this process more than 210,000 new farms were founded. The problem was that most of these new farmers had no machinery, seed, pesticides, or farm buildings and so were unable to produce enough food for the population of the Soviet zone. At the beginning of the 1950s the agricultural crisis became so severe that the Communist Party decided to collectivize all these farms. At the beginningt of the 1960s, in a period that was called the "socialist spring," all private land was in the hands of the Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften (LPG; agricultural production cooperatives). In the Western zones of occupation some early attempts at land reform were soon dropped after witnessing the results in the Soviet zone.

Similar processes took place in the other countries of Eastern Europe. A particularly radical program of land reform took place in Romania. Collectivization began in 1950 and was finished at the beginning of the 1960s. Subsequently Nicolae Ceauşescu, the general secretary of the Communist Party, initiated a "program for the systematization of the villages" (sistematizarea satelor), a plan wherein eight thousand small villages would be destroyed in favor of "agroindustrial centers" that would house the rural population in large tenement blocks with no infrastructure. This program was not yet finished by the time of Ceauşescu's death in 1989.

In Western Europe ideas of land reform essentially vanished in the 1950s and 1960s. With the development of the common market of the European Union, questions of land reform were superseded by issues such as overproduction, migration, and integrated management of rural areas.

After 1989 the land reform programs in all the former Warsaw Pact countries were more or less rescinded. The large state-owned farms and collectivized land were reprivatized. This process caused conflicts among the state, the new owners, and those who had owned the land before 1945. In Germany several organizations of landowners initiated a legal battle against the decision of the federal government not to give the land back to the old owners of the prewar period but instead sell it to new owners. Under this decision the only rights granted to the old owners were preferential terms if they were willing to buy back their estates and farms.

See alsoAgriculture; Collectivization .


Bronstein, Jamie L. Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States, 1800–1862. Stanford, Calif., 1999.

Christodoulou, Demetrios. The Unpromised Land: Agrarian Reform and Conflict Worldwide. London, 1990.

Davies, Robert W. The Socialist Offensive. The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929–1930. London, 1980.

———. The Soviet Collective Farm, 1929–1930. London, 1980.

Dovring, Folke. Land and Labor in Europe in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Survey of Recent Agrarian History. 3rd rev. ed. The Hague, Netherlands, 1965.

Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. London, 1996.

Laurent, John, ed. Henry George's Legacy in Economic Thought. Cheltenham, U.K., 2005.

Naimark, Norman M. The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Naimark, Norman M., ed. The Establishment of Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe. 1944–1949. Boulder, Colo., 1997.

Pallot, Judith. Land Reform in Russia, 1906–1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin's Project of Rural Transformation. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Repp, Kevin. Reformers, Critics, and the Paths of German Modernity: Anti-Politics and the Search for Alternatives, 1890–1914. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, Mass., 1998.

Tuma, Elias H., Twenty-six Centuries of Agrarian Reform: A Comparative Analysis. Berkeley, Calif., 1965.

——. European Economic History: Tenth Century to the Present. New York, 1971.

——. "Agrarian Reform in Historical Perspective Revisited." Comparative Studies in Society and History 21 (January 1979): 3–29.

Turnock, David, ed. Privatization in Rural Eastern Europe: The Process of Restitution and Restructuring. Cheltenham, U.K., 1998.

Wegren, Stephen K., ed. Land Reform in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. London, 1998.

Andreas Dix

Agrarian Reform

views updated May 23 2018

Agrarian Reform

From the Spanish conquests in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the early twenty-first century, both government and private institutions have instituted agrarian reform programs in Latin America. The extent to which calls for agrarian reform have been voiced over the past five hundred years is perhaps the best evidence of the failure, with a few notable exceptions, of most efforts at such reform. While land pressures in Latin America have been no greater than in other regions of the world, the fact that such a large proportion of the population still derives all or part of its subsistence from the land has pushed the issue to the forefront throughout the region. It is for this reason that throughout the history of Latin America, various political movements have called for agrarian reform.


The first efforts at agrarian reform were carried out almost as soon as the Spanish established their empire in the New World. The first land grabs of the Spanish conquistadors in the Caribbean led to the extinction of the indigenous population and the monopolization of land by the conquistadors. This in turn resulted in the emergence of both latifundia (the concentration of large tracts of land in the hands of a few Spanish landlords) and minifundia (the division of the remaining lands among peasants into parcels not large enough to provide subsistence for a peasant family). This land crisis led the Spanish crown to introduce land reform. The New Laws of 1542 abolished the encomienda, recognized the autonomy of the Indian community, and prohibited Spaniards from occupying the Indian lands or living in Indian villages. Encroachments on Indian lands, however, continued throughout the colonial period, and in the eighteenth century the Bourbon Reforms sought once again to enforce limited agrarian reform. In Brazil, the Portuguese crown grants, sesmarias, were extended to a few privileged settlers who dominated the good coastal lands for sugar production. As in Spanish America, colonial Brazil set the pattern of latifundia for the few and minifundia for the many.


After independence from Spain, most Latin American governments embraced classical liberal notions of agrarian reform, which argued that Indians and Latino peasants would be better off if they owned their own individual parcels of land and were free to partition and sell according to the dictates of the free market. Under this formula, lands traditionally controlled by the corporate Indian community were often divided up and sold, which only intensified the earlier trend of land concentration. During the latter half of the nineteenth century land was concentrated in this way throughout Latin America as the region embraced capitalist market relations. In Mexico, for example, both Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz oversaw and approved of the concentration of land by both the Mexican upper class and foreign investors.

To varying degrees this model was followed in other Latin American countries. In Brazil the government ceased granting lands in sesmarias in the mid-nineteenth century and sought instead to sell lands through the General Bureau of Public Lands, established in 1854, which resulted in further concentration of land-ownership. Land concentration resulted in landlessness and rural unemployment for many Latin American peasants, which in turn led to political unrest. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was in part a response to the free-market policies so cherished by Porfirio Díaz and his científicos.


The combination of monopolistic control of huge tracts of land and foreign ownership of the mineral resources of Mexico mobilized millions to demand a nationalist strategy for land distribution. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, agrarian reform was written into the Constitution of 1917. Encompassed in the ejido program, the Mexican government sought to redistribute lands to the small- and medium-size farmers. At its peak, during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), substantial redistribution of land was carried out, so that the proportion of landless peasants went down from 68 percent of the rural population in 1930 to 36 percent in 1940. After 1940, however, landlessness among rural dwellers steadily increased in Mexico at the same time that land became concentrated into the hands of private large landowners. Technological advances only widened the gap between large landowners and ejidatarios, since the former had more capital to purchase advanced machinery, seeds, and fertilizer.

In Brazil, which had no agrarian reform comparable to Mexico's ejido program, pressures on land were released by expansion westward into Brazil's vast interior. Brazilian strongman Getúlio Vargas (1930–1945, 1950–1954) encouraged westward expansion, since only 4 percent of Brazil's land was under cultivation as late as 1945. The opening up of western land helped reduce land concentration somewhat and vastly increased the number of farms.

Other Latin American countries experienced similar opposition to the concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy and landlessness among the rural poor. In Central America, elite control of arable land caused widespread unrest. In Guatemala, for example, the government of Jacobo Arbenz passed the Agrarian Reform Law (Decree 900) in 1952 allowing for the redistribution of over 600,000 hectares of land to over 100,000 Guatemalan families. The law was perceived by the United States to be a plot to expropriate lands owned by the U.S.-based United Fruit Company. Thus the United States planned and carried out the coup of 1954, in which the elected president Arbenz was overthrown and replaced by a Guatemalan leader acceptable to the United States, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas.

In El Salvador, where by the early 1990s virtually all of the prime farmland was controlled by the elites and where over 70 percent of the peasants had no land at all, decades of conflict between peasants and large landowners over land control and distribution continued into the early 2000s. The matanza (slaughter) of the 1930s, in which an estimated thirty thousand Salvadoran peasants were killed, was due largely to struggles between peasants and the elite over the land. In the 1980s further conflicts over land resulted in the estimated deaths of over 70,000, most of them peasants and small farmers. And while a truce was reached in 1992, the pressures on land promised to give rise to even more fighting.

In 1961 Brazilian president João Goulart called for the expropriation of all large and medium landholdings adjacent to highways, rail lines, and public projects as a beginning to agrarian reform. This was perhaps one reason that Brazilian elites and the military backed his overthrow in 1964 to be replaced by a military dictatorship.

Because efforts to legislate agrarian reform have proved unsuccessful in Latin America, agrarian reform has usually been forced through by revolutionary upheavals, as was the case in Mexico. In the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, peasants mobilized and expropriated farmlands while workers seized control of the mines. In both Cuba and Nicaragua, agrarian reform was achieved only after prolonged revolutionary struggles. In Peru, a left-leaning military dictatorship that came to power in 1968 oversaw the breakup of farmland controlled by Peru's traditional landed elites. Yet while agrarian reform in Peru resulted in the diminished power of the traditional landed oligarchies, it did not benefit the majority of the peasant class. Despite promises, Peru's peasants still lack access to arable lands in the twenty-first century. This has had two negative consequences: malnourishment, which plagues over 10 percent of Peru's population (and an even greater part of its peasant population); and landlessness. The lack of serious agrarian reform gave revolutionary organizations such as the Shining Path a base of support among many of Peru's peasants in the 1980s. As a result of government repression (over thirty thousand died in Peru's civil war), the Shining Path was finally defeated, but many of the issues that drove Peruvians to join the Shining Path remain unresolved.

In Brazil, pressures on land led to open conflict in the countryside, and the 1994 Workers Party candidate for president, Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva, called for broad land redistribution. Despite Lula's election in 2004, however, land reform has largely been stalled, and Brazil's landless peasants number over 5 million in 2007. Thus, calls for land redistribution continue to have strong support among Brazil's poor.

In Mexico, efforts to end the ejido program written into the 1917 Constitution were one stated reason for a guerrilla uprising in the southern state of Chiapas on January 1, 1994. As of 2007 Zapatista guerrillas still held isolated positions in Chiapas in hopes of pressuring the government to institute agrarian reform. Despite this rebellion, the Mexican government has repudiated Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution and has ceased all land redistribution to poor Mexican farmers and campesinos.

In two Latin American countries, however, agrarian reform advanced further than elsewhere. In the wake of both the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions, radical land reform was carried out with mixed results. In Cuba the large sugar and tobacco fincas were taken over by the revolutionary Cuban government, while only the smallest landholdings were left in the hands of individual owners. Programs of education, health, and housing transformed the Cuban countryside, and Fidel Castro's regime still enjoyed considerable support among Cuba's rural workers into the twenty-first century. Cuba's state-run agricultural industries, however, have been noted for their waste and inefficiency in both production and distribution. This is especially true of the sugar industry, where between 1990 and 2005 Cuba has seen a steady decline in sugar output. Part of this is due to stated government policies to phase out Cuba's reliance on sugar production.

To stimulate the agricultural sector, the Castro government periodically allows for independent farming and market sales of goods produced by private farmers. In the past this policy has resulted in more efficient production and better distribution of agricultural commodities, but the downside for the Cuban government is that independent farmers and merchants who accumulate land and capital are considered a threat to the Cuban government's state-run economy. With the collapse of Soviet aid beginning in the mid-1980s and the severe economic crisis of the early 1990s, the Cuban government was forced to allow independent small farming and the spread of farmers' markets, both of which could strengthen the small business class in Cuba, which in turn could represent a threat to Castro's rule. More recently, urban gardens have sprouted in the towns and cities of Cuba as a way to alleviate chronic food shortages. Thus, despite the most radical agrarian reform of any Latin American nation, Cuba's agricultural sector has declined considerably since the revolution in 1959.

In Nicaragua, after the revolution of 1979 the Sandinistas expropriated lands owned by the Somoza family and its supporters. These lands were converted into collective farms, as were much of Nicaragua's previously uncultivated lands. This program aroused resentments among Nicaraguan peasants, who supported the revolution in hopes of receiving their own parcels of land. In response to a growing guerrilla movement (the Contras) in the countryside, the Sandinistas enacted one of the most comprehensive land reforms in Latin America. Beginning in the mid-1980s collectivization was deemphasized and peasants were granted individual tracts of land. To prevent latifundization the Sandinista government denied landholders the right to sell or divide up their land, thereby ensuring that land given to peasants would not later be sold off to large landowners. With the defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections, however, efforts were revived to return expropriated lands to their former owners. Despite its political popularity, Sandinista land reform was unable to revive Nicaragua's agricultural sector. A ten-year civil war and a vigorous embargo by the United States ensured that Nicaragua's economy, including its agricultural industry, would stagnate throughout the 1980s. While land redistribution won the support of many peasants, it also angered urban dwellers, who suffered through constant scarcity of basic goods. After the elections of 1990, the conservative-dominated Nicaraguan legislature voted to turn back virtually all of the land reforms enacted by the Sandinistas during their rule.

See alsoAgriculture .


De Janvry, Alain. The Agrarian Question and Reformism in Latin America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Enriquez, Laura. Harvesting Change: Labor and Agrarian Reform in Nicaragua, 1979–1990. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Frank, Andrew G. Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1971.

Furtado, Celso. Economic Development of Latin America: A Survey from Colonial Times to the Cuban Revolution. Translated by Suzette Macedo. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Stavenhagen, Rodolfo. Social Classes in Agrarian Societies. Translated by Judy Adler Hellman. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1975.

                                 Michael Powelson


views updated May 23 2018


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 .

Agrarian Reforms

views updated May 17 2018


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

Land Reform

views updated May 23 2018

Land reform

Land reform is a social and political restructuring of the agricultural systems through redistribution of land. Successful land reform policies take into account the political, social, and economic structure of the area.

In agrarian societies, large landowners typically control the wealth and the distribution of food. Land reform policies in such societies allocate land to small landowners, to farm workers who own no land, to collective farm operations, or to state farm organizations. The exact nature of the allocation depends on the motivation of those initiating the changes. In areas where absentee ownership of farmland is common, land reform has become a popular method for returning the land to local ownership. Land reforms generally favor the family-farm concept, rather than absentee landholding.

Land reform is often undertaken as a means of achieving greater social equality, but it can also increase agricultural productivity and benefit the environment . A tenant farmer may have a more emotional and protective relation to the land he works, and he may be more likely to make agricultural decisions that benefit the ecosystem . Such a farmer might, for instance, opt for natural pest control. An absentee owner often does not have the same interest in land stewardship .

Land reform does have negative connotations and is often associated with the state collective farms under communism. Most proponents of land reform, however, do not consider these collective farms good examples, and they argue that successful land reform balances the factors of production so that the full agricultural capabilities of the land can be realized. Reforms should always be designed to increase the efficiency and economic viability of farming.

Land reform is usually more successful if it is enacted with agrarian reforms, which may include the use of agricultural extension agents, agricultural cooperatives, favorable labor legislation, and increased public services for farmers, such as health care and education. Without these measures land reform usually falls short of redistributing wealth and power, or fails to maintain or increase production.

See also Agricultural pollution; Sustainable agriculture; Sustainable development

[Linda Rehkopf ]



Mengisteab, K. Ethiopia: Failure of Land Reform and Agricultural Crisis. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990.


Perney, L. "Unquiet on the Brazilian Front." Audubon 94 (January-February 1992): 269.


views updated May 18 2018

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.