Peasants and Peasantry

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The words peasants and peasantry are generally associated with a way of life and mind-set that is the opposite of modernization. The terms referred, initially, to small-scale agricultural producers, also known as serfs, who comprised the majority of the populations of Western Europe from the fall of Rome in the fifth century c.e. and during the Middle Ages. Deriving their livelihood mainly, but not exclusively, from agriculture, medieval peasants depended heavily on landlords to whom they had sworn an oath of loyalty and on whose land they lived and farmed. They were expected to provide certain services and to meet specified obligations such as paying rent and taxes, in cash or in kind, and providing free labor as well giving tithes to the church. Lords, on their part, were obligated to protect the peasants under their care. While most peasants lived directly off the land, some earned their living from nonagricultural activities, namely as blacksmiths, tavern owners, or millers. Dependence on small-scale agriculture, lack of ownership of land, and subservience to a dominant class to which they gave their surplus were, thus, early characteristics of peasant societies and influenced the manner in which scholars conceived of them. Hence, Eric Wolf defined peasants as "rural cultivators whose surpluses are transferred to a dominant group of rulers" (1966, pp. 34). Similarly, Douglas Kincaid maintained that peasants were "rural cultivators from whom an economic surplus is extracted, in one form or another, freely or coercively, by non-producing classes" (p. 145).

Defining the Modern Peasantry

Currently concentrated in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the peasantry has been defined differently by various scholars, depending on the degree of emphasis placed on any one of several characteristics. Definitions of the peasantry embrace some of the following characteristics: ownership and use of land, production methods, subordination to other social sectors, and the degree of integration into the market. For some scholars, therefore, peasants are agriculturalists who control most of the land they work, produce for the market, and who have obligations to other social classes, while for others, they are farmers who lack control over the land, labor, and capital they need to produce crops. For yet others, peasants are farmers who control the land they work as tenants or smallholders and who produce for the market and have obligations to other social classes.

Generally, however, with the exception of the more well-to-do peasant classes who own land and exploit the labor of poorer peasants, most peasants are associated with poverty; primitive production methods using little if any modern technology; small-scale production, mostly for subsistence purposes; and economic exploitation by and political and social subservience to a dominant elite class such as landlords or urban elites. They also lack capital and other production resources and, often, do not have control over the land on which they live and work. Where they do own the land, they tend to regard it as family property and not a commodity. In peasant societies, the family tends to be the central economic unit of production, consumption, reproduction, socialization, and welfare, while socially and culturally, peasant communities tend to be isolated from mainstream society and to have a distinctly local culture, as opposed to the dominant wider or higher national culture. They also have a conservative, inward-looking worldview revolving around the household and the kin group and are suspicious of outsiders and new ideas. Peasant communities are sometimes looked down upon by other social sectors who regard them as not only poor, ignorant, and subservient, but also backward, parochial, and closed.

Scholars, however, sometimes make a distinction between closed and open peasant communities; describing closed societies as being highly exclusive, suspicious of outsiders and new ideas, separated from wider society, and determined to protect their way of life by, among other things, discouraging the accumulation and display of wealth. Open societies, on the other hand, are characterized as being plugged into the modern capitalist economy and made up of individuals who own their own land, welcome change, and are largely integrated into the larger society. According to some scholars, therefore, open peasant societies are relatively independent actors who produce for the market and exercise considerable autonomy in deciding what to produce, depending on their analysis of inputs that have to be sourced outside the community and rent and tax requirements.

Clearly, while there are certain characteristics common to most peasant societies, there can be no simple all-embracing definition of peasants and peasantry, as scholars tend to highlight different aspects of what marks peasants as a class. Indeed, while the terms are widely used to describe rural communities all over the world, it is evident that they can no longer be regarded in their classical sense, since the groups that are now referred to as peasants in most countries no longer live exclusively by agriculture, as did most of the serfs in medieval times, but combine various survival strategies that often include wage labor, craft making, trading, and other off-farm activities. They can be part-time farmers, factory workers, small business people, traders, and workers on commercial agricultural establishments or seasonal workers in urban factories, all at the same time. Others maintain links with members of the family unit who are urban workers and who send money to supplement the rural family members' income. This leads to the conclusion that, although large populations who live in rural areas derive most of their livelihood from agriculture and regard themselves as peasants, it no longer really makes sense to identify rural society with the role of the peasant farmer.

Yet other scholars insist that the terms peasant and peasantry can only be appropriately applied to medieval or early modern Europe, as the African, Asian, and Latin American situations are so different as to make any comparisons meaningless. With respect to Africa, specifically, the question of whether small-scale agrarian communities on the continent can be regarded as peasants or not has been contentious, with some scholars arguing that Africa did not have distinct social classes, let alone a class that could be identified as peasants. Consequently, Africa only had primitive, rather than peasant, economies. According to this view, distinguishing features of peasant economies include production for the market by the majority of the people and access to resources such as land, labor, and tools, either for purchase or for rent. African rural dwellers, on the contrary, neither had access to nor produced for the market, being merely subsistence producers.

Thereafter, following a prolonged debate, the existence in Africa of a distinct class that could be called peasants was gradually and begrudgingly acknowledged, and discussion moved on to analyze the experiences and role of this class in recent history. By the 1980s, studies were recording peasants' lived experiences and analyzing peasant social structures, histories, inter-and intrapersonal relations, and relationships with the dominant social and economic structures and systems such as colonialism or the postcolonial state and elites. Peasants had, thus, become fully integrated into African studies.

Phases of Historical Study

Meanwhile, in world history in general, the peasantry long occupied the attention of economists, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists. The first phase of scholarly interest in the peasantry began with classical economists, such as Adam Smith (17231790), who recognized rural workers as a group, but one that was insignificant in the evolving division of labor that he was interested in. Later, Karl Marx also recognized the presence and importance of peasants, but he, too, dismissed them as an economically and politically backward and doomed class, destined to fall into one of the two antagonistic classes of capitalism, namely, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Where Smith and Marx had treated peasants as a homogenous mass, the Russian theorist and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin highlighted the existence of peasant class differentiation, identifying three layers, namely, rich, middle, and poor peasants, according to land area, capital accumulation, and wage or family labor and sought to analyze their role in the twin processes of industrialization and socialist revolution.

The second phase of scholarly attention to the peasantry began in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly due to peasant political activism and insurgence in Africa evident in the anticolonial struggles throughout the continent, and in Asia in the form of the Vietnam War and the Chinese Cultural Revolution following the Chinese Revolution of 1949. This second phase is characterized by revived and growing interest by Western anthropologists in the rituals, social structures, and belief systems of peasant societies and the place of poor agricultural areas at the periphery in the world capitalist system with its center in the developed countries. It was a time of peasant activism in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Revolution in Latin America that led to agrarian reforms that undermined the latifundio agrarian structure in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and other countries. It was also the period characterized by scholarly debates on "articulation of modes of production," of development economists and donor agencies promoting the green revolution and encouraging peasants to participate fully in the world market in the belief that this would modernize "smallholder" agriculture and make rural producers full participants in the world economy.

Meanwhile, the development economists' optimism was countered by some scholars who pointed out that peasants would forever remain exploited because of the problems of declining terms of trade and "unequal exchange." Faced with the failure of the peasantry in the developing world to rise to expectations by raising their food productivity despite the efforts of development specialists to diffuse modern production values to them, Western governments began to blame this on developing country governments' flawed food pricing policies and inefficient marketing structures and to call for economic structural adjustment programs in order to correct these ills. These programs, sponsored by multilateral financial agencies, by ending government subsidies to the agricultural sector, worsened the plight of the peasantry at a time when the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) had exposed peasants to the harsh environment of international market forces.

Historical Precedents

Although marginalized and oppressed by other social sectors, such as landlords and urbanites, and dismissed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as lacking revolutionary consciousness, peasants have periodically asserted themselves politically throughout history either single-handedly as a class or in alliance with other deprived groups such as workers. Among some of the most known peasant political actions was the Peasants' Revolt of June 1381 in England when peasants from the English counties of Kent, East Anglia, Somerset, and Yorkshire rose up in protest at their oppression. They were particularly unhappy with the labor demands placed on them by the church and the poll tax that King Richard II had imposed in 1380. Under the leadership of John Ball and Wat Tyler, they destroyed tax records and registers, and burned down buildings housing government records before capturing the Tower of London and compelling King Richard to negotiate with them at Mile End. By late 1381, however, the movement had fizzled out after its leaders were hanged.

Another important peasant uprising in Europe was the Peasants' War in Germany from 1524, when the peasantry and the lower classes of the towns rose up against their feudal overlords protesting growing economic, religious, and judicial oppression under the nobles and clergy. The peasants' demands included the right to choose their own ministers, the abolition of serfdom, the right to fish and kill wild game, the abolition of many kinds of feudal dues, and the guarantee of fair treatment in courts presided over by the feudal nobles. Peasants also played an important role in the French Revolution and in the Russian Revolution in 1917. In Russia, although nominally emancipated by Tsar Alexander I through the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, which decreed an end to serfdom and permitted former serfs to rent or buy land from the landlords, most Russian peasants, numbering some twenty-three million, were still landless by the turn of the twentieth century, as most land remained in the hands of the rich landlords. Among the grievances that the 1917 Russian revolutionaries were able to exploit, therefore, was the peasants' land hunger. The peasants' reluctance to fully embrace the socialist goals of the Bolshevik Party, particularly under Joseph Stalin, made them targets of Stalin's sustained campaign to destroy them during his collectivization drive of the 1930s, which resulted in the death and exile of thousands of peasants.

In Africa, peasants played a crucial role in resisting colonialism and its prescriptions, as evident in the 1905 Maji Maji uprising in Tanganyika (Tanzania), where German conquest and colonization between 1895 and 1900 provoked a massive uprising when African peasants objected to the taxes, forced labor, and harsh working conditions that came with German colonialism. Although it failed to dislodge German colonialism, the Maji Maji mass uprising forced the German colonial authorities to reform their administration and practices. Another example of armed peasant resistance is the 18961897 Chimurenga/Umvukela uprising in Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) where, following British occupation in 1890, African peasants lost their land and cattle to colonial settlers and were subjected to forced labor and an array of taxes designed to force them into the labor market. Similarly, inNamibia, German colonial rule also provoked armed resistance from the Herero and the Nama between 1904 and 1907. Here, too, colonialism brought with it massive land alienation, loss of sovereignty, loss of cattle to incoming German settlers, numerous taxes, openly racist policies and practices that marginalized Africans, corporal punishment, and other ills associated with European colonialism in Africa. In January 1904, the Herero rose up against German rule. In late 1904, the Nama began a three-year guerrilla campaign against German rule that was only crushed by German forces in 1907.

After the first wave of resistance, peasant protest continued throughout the interwar years and, thereafter, flowered into militant mass nationalism that finally led to the demise of colonialism. In Kenya, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia, peasants participated in the armed struggle that brought about independence in those countries. Their contribution to the struggle for independence notwithstanding, most peasants benefited little from political independence, as postcolonial political and economic systems were dominated by the urban elite who promoted their interests at the expense of the peasant majority. Meanwhile, in Asia, peasants also participated in political movements, the most notable being the struggle of the Red Army organized by the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1920s, which ended with the setting up of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

In attempting to understand why peasants rebel, J. C. Scott contended that peasants tend to rebel when they perceive their traditional moral order or moral economy as being violated. The above examples seem to validate this claim, as they show that peasants have not been merely passive victims of other classes' machinations but have asserted and defended their rights and way of life when they felt that these were threatened.

See also Anticolonialism ; Capitalism ; Colonialism ; Feudalism, European ; Poverty ; Revolution ; Work .


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Alois Mlambo