Notes on the peasant question
In this text we aim to show:
-- that the proletariat must distinguish the various strata of the rural population and seek the support of the farm workers and poor peasants;
-- that the agrarian problem has got worse with the decadence of capitalism, which will leave a very difficult legacy to the proletariat;
-- that all the attempts at ‘agrarian reform' are bourgeois mystifications; and that the worldwide proletarian revolution is the only real solution to the growing misery of the countryside in the third world.
What is the peasantry?
Unlike the sociologists, who talk indiscriminately of the peasantry as a unified social class, Marxists have always demonstrated its heterogeneity. They have shown that in the countryside there exist different and often antagonistic social classes, and within these, strata created by the juridical system of landed property or by the possession of the means of production. It is the study of class divisions in the countryside, and in different geographical regions that allows Marxism to grasp the explosive social contradictions that hold sway there, as well as their connection with the struggle of the industrial proletariat.
It is all the more necessary to define the agrarian social classes in that the bourgeoisie consciously obscures their existence. For the bourgeoisie, the agricultural workers, the unemployed, the landless peasants crammed in the villages, are all one and the same. A capitalist farmer is identical to a farmer in the third world; a capitalist plantation owner is defined as a ‘farmer' in the same way as a small peasant with his little plot.
Secondly, we must be careful to distinguish the rural population (all the social classes living in the countryside) from the agricultural population (all the classes that gain their living from agriculture). It is obvious that a worker who lives and works in the countryside is not a peasant; and conversely a peasant living and working in a town or a large village is not a small businessman or a worker. There is a qualitative difference between the industrialized countryside of the highly-developed nations, and the non-industrialized countryside of many third world countries.
Thirdly, we should point out that the agricultural population does not cover the active population. While in Germany or Japan, fifty per cent of the population is in work, in the under-developed countries this figure often falls to less than thirty per cent. In the latter, it should be emphasized that under- and un- employment affect between 20-40% of the agricultural population.
It is all the more necessary to make these points in that the bourgeoisie uses all the means at its disposal (both ideological and statistical) to hide the existence of classes, and so of class antagonisms, in the countryside under the all-embracing category of the ‘peasantry'.
The peasantry as such does not exist; there is rather, on the one hand a rural proletariat, and on the other hand, various social types of ‘farmer', from the great landed proprietor to the jobless.
The agricultural workers
Agricultural workers are not part of the peasantry, even if they may often share its prejudices and ideology; they are a detachment of the proletariat in the countryside and their class interests are indistinguishable from those of the proletariat as a whole. Their extremely low wages and the instability of their living conditions -- unemployment, repression by the landlords' private armies as in Latin America - make them without doubt the most exploited category of the working class. Their dramatic isolation from the rest of the proletariat is emphasized by their generally weak concentration and their minority position in the countryside, outside the developed nations and regions of plantation farming. In the future, one of the urban proletariat's tasks will be precisely to bring the class struggle to the countryside, with the firm support of the rural proletarians. This will nonetheless be a difficult job given their dispersal and their numerical weakness: it is estimated that they make up no more than 10-20% of the world's agricultural population.
However, the main difficulty facing this union of the urban and rural proletariat lies in the interpenetration of the different layers of rural society; agricultural workers often own a parcel of land which keeps them alive; often, again, we find peasant-workers doing a double day's work. In the third world, vast masses of the work-less only sell their labor power for a part of the year. We will see later how the agrarian reforms, carried out in the eastern bloc and the third world, by giving plots of land to agricultural workers, have blurred the distinction between them and the peasantry, and temporarily diminished the gaps within society.
In third world countries, the existence of enormous under- or un- cultivated properties may in a revolutionary period prompt the agricultural workers to occupy them. As the example of Russia 1917-18 shows, they then cease to be workers. By dividing up the land, they become small farmers, with all the prejudices that implies. The ‘divisionist' ideology (dividing the land amongst everyone) is an obstacle to those workers' class consciousness. It leaves them vulnerable to all the maneuvers of the left wing of the bourgeoisie, which puts itself forward as the spokesman of small property owners.
The position of agricultural workers in the developed countries is quite different. The progressive disappearance of day-work and the concentration of workers into vast food factories (or co-operatives) and in mechanized units, has greatly simplified the situation. For these workers, the associated and truly industrial nature of their labor makes the dividing up of the land the agricultural factories quite meaningless. Unaffected by any backward ‘divisionist' ideology, they will be smoothly integrated into the revolutionary struggle that will shake the developed countries.
By contrast, the weight of the past and the archaic structures of rural society make for a great heterogeneity amongst the peasantry existing alongside the agricultural workers.
The different categories of peasants
These are distinguished by three criteria:
-- the juridical structures; ownership or not of the land; freehold or leasehold property; agricultural co-operatives;
-- the size of the farms: large, medium or small;
-- the level of capitalization and mechanization.
These criteria allow us to distinguish the class divisions in the countryside. It is obvious that capitalism's domination of the countryside has, for this purpose, given the economic criteria a primary importance at the expense of the juridical ones. For capital, juridical property matters less than ownership of the means of production and of the capital that allows the exploitation of the land and of labor power. In the industrial nations moreover, the amount of land cultivated has lost much of its importance: extensive agriculture has given way to intensive agriculture - land-hunger to thirst for capital.
In order to define the rural classes, we must take two essential criteria into account:
-- the ‘peasant's' income;
-- his place in the relations of production: whether or not he is an exploiter of labor-power; his dependence or otherwise on the capitalist or landlord.
Finally, we must consider the geographical differences. The small farmer of the Middle West has nothing in common with the small farmer of the Camerouns.
However, taking all these factors into account, we can distinguish three main classes that confront each other within the peasantry.
The rural bourgeoisie
One of the great mystifications developed by the bourgeoisie is the description of large landed proprietors or capitalist farmers as ... ‘peasants'. No less pernicious is the idea that ‘latifundaries' in Asia or Latin America, the Islamic ‘aghas' or the Indian ‘zamindars' are ... feudal lords, just as in the Middle Ages. To this we can reply:
1. Even if in the feudal epoch, the legendary ‘rich laborers' might be considered as an upper stratum of the peasantry, since the beginning of capitalism's expansion the bourgeoisie's hold over the land and its domination of this stratum have definitively created, even in the most backward countries, an agrarian bourgeoisie organically linked to the rest of that class by the political and economic triumph of the new relations of production. This class is bourgeois, not because of a juridical formalism, nor thanks to its income -- even though these do express a difference between it and the peasantry in the strict sense -- but through its possession of the means of production (land, technical capital), the capitalist exploitation of labor power (wages in kind or money), and finally by its participation in the capitalist market (production for sale).
2. Today, it is not titles of nobility nor the size and feudal origins of the great plantations (‘latifundia'), nor even the almost feudal domination of landlords over peasants still reduced to forced labor and servile status (in the Middle East or the most backward countries of Latin America), which defines the relations of production in the most backward regions -- but the world market. The penetration of capitalism, the capitalist nature of the state under the laws of capital, all tend to transform the one-time feudal lords into bourgeois. Whether they are planters, money-lenders, or tribal chiefs, capitalism has, by integrating them into the market and above all the state, tied them to the rest of the dominant capitalist class. Whether they ride on horses or in cars, whether they wear grass skirts or city suits, they have irreversibly become an integral part of the bourgeoisie. Along with the rest of the bourgeoisie they participate in the appropriation of ground rent, and the profit from agricultural goods sold on the capitalist market.
From our worldwide standpoint, it thus follows that in no way can there exist in the most backward countries, a ‘reactionary feudal class' on one side and a ‘progressive bourgeois class' on the other; in decadent capitalism, these are one and the same reactionary class - the class that dominates the exploited!
3. Clearly, this is not to deny the survival of remnants of previous modes of production. In the twentieth century, we can see, side by side, the most modern plantations and tribes tilling the land with tools from the Stone Age.
This reality, which is indeed the product of the capitalist system's continued senility, does not contradict the worldwide domination of capital. It is essentially in the sphere of circulation (exchange of goods) that capitalism has imposed itself everywhere. Even Asia's great ‘feudal lords' have to sell their products on the world market.
4. The theory which, basing itself on the real existence of remnants of pre-capitalist modes of production, goes on to talk of the continuing possibility of ‘anti-feudal bourgeois revolutions' is strangely reminiscent of that old corruption of ‘uneven development' so dear to the late Josef Stalin, with his idea of the ‘Revolution by Stages'. This kind of theory is not neutral: its starting point is a national and therefore nationalist, vision of the dominant relations of production. It is the ‘revolutionary' fig-leaf for all the bourgeois, third worldist, Trotskyist movements which insist that the enemy of the rural proletariat and poor peasants in the underdeveloped countries is ... the ‘feudal lord'.
The petty bourgeoisie
This category includes the small peasants, small independent proprietors (exploiters of labor power or otherwise), the small farmers and tenant farmers in the developed countries. The heterogeneity of this social layer is the historical product of the interpenetration of pre-capitalist relationships with modern capitalism. Its origin lies in the most diverse juridical, economic and geographical structures. It could even be said that this complex situation creates inevitable ‘sub-classes' within the petty bourgeoisie. All are dependent on the market, but vary in their dependence on capital. Here we can distinguish two main strata:
-- independent farmers, who are in fact artisans, since they possess their own means of production (land, tractors, buildings). Within this category there is a dividing line between those who buy labor power and those whose workforce is drawn from their own family;
-- tenant farmers, who do not own the land they farm. These are divided into two opposing strata: sharecroppers and farmers proper. The latter necessarily own their instruments of labor, while the evolution of capitalism has gradually transformed them into small capitalists, differentiated themselves by the size of their capital. As for the sharecroppers -- a pre-capitalist remnant rapidly disappearing in the developed countries -- they are directly subjected to the arbitrary power of the landlord, and the hazards of the harvest, since their farming techniques are primitive and they are obliged to pay in kind for the rent of their land and tools.
This indicates the whole complexity of the problem and the difficulty the proletariat will have in intervening towards these strata.
In fact, it is the proletariat's unshakable unity that will be able to create splits within the agricultural petty bourgeoisie. In the under-developed countries, a determined proletariat can draw in its wake the layers of the petty bourgeoisie thrown into total pauperization by the crisis. In the developed countries, the proletariat will confront the liveliest hostility from those strata which identify with private property. At best, if the world revolution spreads rapidly, the proletariat will be able to count on the resigned ‘neutrality' of these particularly backward layers.
Poor peasants and landless peasants
In the third world, these constitute a layer of starvation, living in inhuman conditions. All, whether they are sharecroppers in the Islamic countries, small landowners vegetating on a tiny plot of land (microfundia) or landless peasants at the mercy of the moneylender, whether they are vagabonds or are crammed into slum-villages, all live in the same situation of total misery, without any hope of integration into the capitalist society on whose margin they live. Often they are at the same time small landowners and agricultural laborers, sharecroppers and farmers when part of their land is mortgaged. Often their situation is like that of the jobless, since a majority (between 20-40% of the third world agricultural population) only work eighty days in the year. At the mercy of famines and the brutality of the great landlords, they live in a state of profound apathy, interspersed by brutal, hopeless revolts that are ferociously crushed.
This layer -- which constitutes the majority in the most backward rural regions - has absolutely nothing to lose and a world to win from the proletarian revolution.
Nonetheless, their loyalty to the proletarian revolution will depend on the proletariat's own decisiveness. Their vagabond, even lumpen-proletarian position, has made them in the past, and may make them in the present, the tools of the great landlords or of state capitalist (‘national liberation') movements, to be used as mercenaries against the workers.
The revolutionary flame will only touch this hybrid layer whose only unity is its absolute misery, if the proletariat struggles mercilessly for the annihilation of the rural bourgeoisie.
The weight of decadence
1. Marxism and the Peasant Question in the Nineteenth Century
While the peasantry on the eve of the industrial revolution still represented more than ninety per cent of the world's population, the development of capitalism took the form of a brutal, wide-scale proletarianization of peasants thrown into the new industrial jails. Right from its beginnings, the whole history of capitalism is the history of the violent expropriation of the peasant proprietors by agricultural capitalism, of landless peasants reduced to vagabondage and subsequently transformed into proletarians. The process of primitive accumulation in Britain, studied by Marx in Capital, is the cruelest example of this.
The mechanization of agriculture in the nineteenth century, a sign of increasing capitalization of the land, simply hastened this phenomenon by leaving the poor peasants the choice between a slow death by drowning in the competition of capitalist agriculture (this was the case with the Irish peasantry who left a million dead in the great famine of 1847), and becoming industrial proletarians. What capitalism had obtained in its beginnings through physical violence, it got henceforth through the violence of its economic laws; a cheap and abundant workforce, to be mercilessly sucked dry in the new industrial centers.
For capitalism, this expropriation had a second and no less important advantage. By concentrating landholdings, capital was able to produce cheap food in response to a gigantic population explosion, and to put pressure on wage levels by reducing the production costs of the goods necessary for the reproduction of labor power.
On the theoretical level, Marx in his demonstration of the laws governing capitalism, divided society into three main economic classes: the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the great agricultural landlords raking in land-rent. Politically, he distinguished fundamental historic classes: the previous revolutionary class, the bourgeois, and its gravedigger, the proletariat.
However, at the turn of the century, capitalism, although it had achieved worldwide domination, was still a long way from integrating the peasantry into the production process on a world, or even a European scale. Kautsky, in a study limited to European and American agriculture, thought that the general tendency of capitalist development would lead to the disappearance of smallholding property, in favor of large-scale property, and so of industrialized agriculture. He emphasized the proletarianization of the German peasantry, transformed into agricultural workers (see Fabre, Paysans Pauvres et Sans Terre).
This optimistic vision of a fusion of industry and agriculture, of a ‘peaceful' capitalist solution to the peasant and agrarian problem, was founded on a belief in the impossibility of capitalism's decadence and on the reactionary hope (not yet admitted by Kautsky) of an infinite and harmonious growth of the system.
Capitalism's decadence has simply pushed the peasant and agrarian problem to its limit. From the worldwide viewpoint, it is not the development, but the under-development of modern agriculture that has been the result. The peasantry today constitutes a majority of the world population, as it did a century ago.
2. Development and Under-Development in the Third World
These countries represent 69% of the world population, but only 15.4% of the world GNP (see Cazes-Domingo, Les Criteres Du Sous-Developpement, 1976, ed. Breal). They account for only 7% of world industrial production, and their illiteracy rate is around 75%. Their share of world trade has diminished continuously, from 31.2% in 1948 to 17% in 1972 (see Lacoste, Geographie du SousDeveloppement, ed. PUF).
The world agricultural population has not diminished but has increased since World War II. It rose from 700 million in 1950 to 750 million in 1960 and has reached -- by statistical deduction -- about 950 million active members today. When we consider that the active population taken as a whole amounts to 1,700,000,000 we get an idea of the crushing weight of the agricultural population. As for the active part of this population, it has slightly diminished: 60% of the active population in 1950; 57% in 1960; perhaps 55% in 1980 (all these figures consider only the world as a whole).
Evidently, these figures are not entirely trustworthy given the lack of serious statistics not manipulated by bourgeois economists.
In reality, 66% of the world's population would seem to live in the countryside. Outside the industrialized countries, the vast majority are poor peasants, landless or otherwise.
Not only is capitalism unable to integrate the peasants into industry, it grinds them into the most total misery. Of the 60 million deaths in one year, largely in the third world, 20 million are due to hunger or to what the economists coyly call ‘malnutrition'. The immense majority of the population lives to no more than 40, and half the children die in their first year. Officially, 900 million peasants are considered as living on the threshold of absolute poverty, perhaps even more since the unemployed are not counted, and third world peasants often supplement their income with agricultural wage labor (see R. Fabre, Paysans Sans Terre).
This absolute misery, the looming famines as in the Sahel or in Asia, are all the more a condemnation of capitalism in that it is today amply possible to feed the entire world population:
-- only a third of the world's potential agricultural surface is cultivated;
-- the developed countries' agricultural overproduction in relation to the solvent market brings about a vast under-production in relation to real needs: the USA prefers to transform its surplus into alcohol or even reduce the cultivated surface, rather than see prices fall;
-- the constant development of war production, by developing ever greater strategic stocks in preparation for a third world war, brings about a constant reduction in the consumption of foodstuffs.
The threat of hunger is as real today as it was in previous economies; agricultural production per head is below its 1940 level (see R. Fabre, Paysans Sans Terre). A sign of the total anarchy of the capitalist economy: since World War II most of the one-time productive agricultural countries of the third world have become importers. Iran, for example, imports forty per cent of the foodstuffs it consumes. Contrary to the claims of capital's apologists, who still talk straight-faced about ‘developing countries', the cause is not these countries backwardness, but the worldwide penetration of capitalism.
3. Capitalist Penetration
Apart from the primitive tribes of Amazonia or Central Africa -- an anthropologist's delight -- no region of the world today is autarkic and self-sufficient. Through violence and the state's growing stranglehold, capital penetrated every corner of the countryside, subjecting the peasantry to taxation and the exchange economy. Since then, even the most backward peasant producer has sold an ever-growing part of his production on the market.
However, while agricultural products circulate like any other commodity, capitalism has not and will not be able to socialize agriculture, nor to fuse town and countryside.
This is why the vast majority of the rural population still works the land in mediaeval conditions:
-- without tractors, even without ploughs and other tools;
-- without pesticides or fertilizers;
-- cultivating the land according to the rhythm of the seasons, and so below its capacity;
-- using available labor below capacity;
-- subjected to a physical exhaustion and a death-rate that reduces productivity still further.
Through its laws, both economic and juridical, capitalism has gained a formal domination over the countryside, but it has not really been able to integrate it into the capitalist economy.
It might be objected that there has been a real proletarianization of the peasantry during the reconstruction period after World War II, especially in Europe and America. It is true that the active agricultural population in the US and Great Britain is now no more than 3% of the total active population; in France the country of small peasants, no more than 10%; in West Germany 7%; in East Germany 10%; in Czechoslovakia 14%, etc. It is also true that the agricultural production of those countries has been to a great extent modernized thanks to the use of machines and fertilizers. But in no way can we generalize from Europe to the rest of the world. More than two-thirds of the peasantry worldwide still lives in mediaeval conditions and has not profited in the least from the ‘manna' of reconstruction.
The ‘danse macabre' of agricultural over- and under- production
Capitalism's world domination has been accompanied by a real reduction in agriculture's productive forces. They have only developed in the industrialized sectors whose production is destined for the world market. This is why the capitalist crisis is expressed in the food industry by:
-- the impossibility of selling off agricultural stocks on a world market whose saturation is in correlation with the fall in industrial production;
-- the impossibility of developing agricultural production due to a lack of capital in the underdeveloped countries and a surplus in the industrialized countries.
Even were we to imagine, as a hypothesis, an important development of third world agricultural production, this would clash with the laws of capitalism. It would bring with it a collapse in world farm prices, of capitalist profit and in the end, of world food production.
On the other hand, the low productivity of the millions crammed together in these backward countrysides, without any modern techniques, inevitably makes their cultivation less profitable. To give an example: in Asia, more than 100 working days is needed to cultivate a hectare of rice, while a hectare of corn in the US needs only one day for the same output (see J. Klatsmann, Nourrir 10 Milliard d'Hommes?, ed. PUF,1975).
Finally, state capitalism, by creaming off an ever-growing share of farm produce, reduces the share that comes back to the peasant producer. Whence the absurd situation, common to almost all third world agricultural countries, which forces them to import more and more basic foodstuffs to stave off famine. The resulting debt only serves to disintegrate still further this backward agriculture. By the laws of capitalism, it is better for the state to buy a ton of grain produced cheaply in Europe or Australia, than to buy from the landed proprietor or small peasant whose output is at least 100 times less.
All these factors show the course that world capitalism is set on: the dislocation of agriculture, the collapse of food production, the deepening of social antagonisms in the countryside as well as in the towns, which cram together ever-growing numbers of jobless, chased from the land by hunger and misery. But, according to some, the ‘positive results' of the ‘agrarian reforms' carried out in various third world countries is supposed to counter-balance this nameless misery.
The mystification of agrarian reform
When the bourgeois revolution broke out in France in 1789, it dispossessed the feudal lords and dismantled the communal property of the villages. It liberated the peasant from forced labor and feudal exactions, transforming him into a ‘citizen' (ie a small landowner able to sell his produce ‘freely' and exchange it with the town), so breaking juridically the autarkic framework of the stagnating village community. In this way the bourgeoisie gained the possibility of buying land ‘freely', with, as a bonus, a solid social base for its revolution.
However, the development of small landholdings and the subdivision of agricultural exploitation could not be capitalism's natural tendency. The most classic examples of England and the USA show that its aim is fundamentally the concentration and not the dispersal, of the land and agricultural means of production. In response to the needs of nascent industry, it must not only expropriate the peasant and subject him to wage labor, but also increase productivity by the concentration of land and machines. The aim of all capitalist agriculture is, in fact, production for the world market, and not for the national market which remains too restricted, in spite of its large concentrations of population.
All this brings in its wake the consolidation, not the division, of the land, a rural exodus rather than the settlement of a mass of surplus agricultural labor. Directly oriented towards the market, capitalist agriculture inevitably undergoes the crises of overproduction determined by the degree of solvability of the world market as a whole. The crisis, by diminishing solvable demand, has only exacerbated this tendency. Today, the countries of large-scale capitalist agriculture must encourage their farmers to diminish production and the amount of land cultivated, in order to avoid a collapse in the prices of basic agricultural products. Overproduction is followed by underproduction relative to the productive capacities of large-scale mechanized agriculture which according to the bourgeois specialists themselves would be able alone to feed the whole of humanity.
And yet half of humanity lives on the edge of starvation. 100 million Chinese are threatened with death by hunger. In the third world countries, despite the fact that the population has more than doubled in thirty years, food production per head regularly falls. Capitalism stands convicted of pushing humanity to its doom!
Faced with this situation, already present in the nineteenth century but exacerbated by the decadence of capitalism, bourgeois ideologists, agronomists, third worldists and leftists have not missed an occasion to push for ‘collectivization', ‘agrarian reform', ‘green' or ‘white' revolutions according to taste. They have sung the praises of the Chinese ‘people's communes', of Cuba's ‘collectivized agriculture', of the ‘bourgeois revolution' in Algeria where the settlers' land was seized and divided up. There is hardly a country in the third world that has not claimed to have carried out its agrarian ‘reform' or ‘revolution', and that has not found a whole crowd of leftist and ‘progressive' supporters to shout hallelujah.
The causes of ‘agrarian reform' in the third world and in Russian bloc
As we have seen, the key to capitalism's insoluble contradictions lies in the world market and in the competition between the factions of world capital to conquer it and divide it up.
The colonization of what is now the third world by the great industrial countries had a twofold aim: firstly, to find outlets not only for their industrial goods but also for the agricultural surplus that their home market was too limited to absorb; secondly, to prevent, through their economic, political and military control, the development of a national economy capable of competing with metropolitan industry and agriculture. This is why capital in the industrialized countries left the agricultural economy of the colonies to its lethargy, with the sole exception of the great plantations whose production was oriented towards the world market and the metropoles, providing crops that could not be cultivated in Europe for climatic reasons. The perfecting of the international division of labor that divides agricultural from industrial countries completed the colonized countries' physiognomy of backwardness: Ceylon for tea; Malaysia for rubber; Colombia for coffee; Senegal for groundnuts, etc.
This international division was necessarily accompanied by monoculture at the expense of subsistence polyculture. Little by little destroying the natural economy, it progressively integrated a growing fraction of small peasants into the market, forcing them to cultivate obligatory crops, even subjecting them to real forced labor on the colonial plantations. With the concentration and seizure of the land, which forced the small peasant to abandon his lands to the moneylender or the great landlord through open violence or violently imposed taxation, self-subsistent agriculture rapidly collapsed, leaving millions dead of starvation as in China, India, Africa ...
The countless peasant revolts which have broken out from India (Sepoy's Revolt) to China (Taiping) to Zapata's revolt in Mexico demonstrated the explosiveness of the situation that world capitalism created in the backward pre-capitalist zones. For the peasants they have demonstrated both the hopelessness of counting on the ‘progressive or anti-feudal' national bourgeoisie, who always turn out to be allied to the great landed proprietors, as well as the impossibility of improving their condition within a capitalist framework, however ‘liberal' or ‘democratic'. This was shown by the Mexican peasant revolts at the turn of this century, where the peasantry served as the plaything of the different pro-British or pro-American factions of the bourgeoisie.
Faced with this permanent revolt that threatened to shatter social cohesion (though not in a revolutionary sense, as long as the proletarian revolution wasn't on the cards), the bourgeoisie understood that, if it could not suppress the cause, it could at least diminish the effect by concessions. At the risk of reducing agricultural productivity, it made official the division of the land in Mexico, hoping in this way to win the allegiance of the poor and landless peasants who gained a plot of land or enlarged their fields.
But it was above all after World War II that the question was posed in the newly ‘independent' ex-colonies or semi-colonies. Inter-imperialist tensions, the advance of the Russian bloc by means of ‘national liberation struggles' obliged the American bloc to adopt a more ‘realistic' attitude, especially in Latin America, where its policies in Guatemala and above all in Cuba turned out to be disastrous. The sole aim of Kennedy's program worked out in 1961 at Punta del Este and pompously named the ‘Alliance for Progress' was to force the local bourgeoisies of the US bloc to adopt ‘agrarian reform' measures in order to avoid another Cuba. In Peru, 600,000 hectares were redistributed from 1964-69; in Chile, 1,050,000 hectares were seized for redistribution between 1964 and 1967; 8,000,000 between 1967 and 1972 (see Le Goz, Reformes Agraires, ed. PUF). Similar measures were taken in other countries.
In the Maghreb (North Africa), the seizure of settlers' lands by the state made it possible to allot land to the poor and landless peasants, who were forcibly organized into ‘self-managed' cooperatives. These examples could be multiplied throughout the third world.
In the Russian bloc and again for political reasons, the USSR after the war also pushed for the splitting up of the large estates, and redistributed the land formerly owned by German nationals and the great landed proprietors.
All these measures aimed to limit the tension in the countryside and to gain the support of a fraction of the poor, and especially of the middle peasantry, even at the cost of sacrificing the rural bourgeoisie.
Most important, however, was each national capital's economic need to halt the dizzying fall in agricultural production on the vast majority of smallholdings, which existed side by side with vast but scarcely cultivated latifundias. In these conditions agricultural productivity and competitiveness is practically zero. When we add that the world population has risen from 3 billion in 1965 to 4.2 billion in 1980, we get some idea of the appalling situation of the mass of poor peasants, surviving on a few hectares, or even less, alongside 100,000 hectare latifundias for the most part lying fallow. In this situation, the small plots parceled out for farming are more productive, sometimes providing the major part of national agricultural production. This is true despite the lack of fertilizers and machines, since they are more intensively cultivated and use an abundant labor force.
In this way, the various backward capitalist countries that have divided up a part of the great estates, and created peasant ‘co-operatives' dreamed of increasing agricultural production, as much for social as for economic reasons. Each under-industrialized third world country tried to extract an agricultural surplus for export on the world market. And in exchange for this ‘gift' of land, taxes and obligatory crops subjected the small peasant or farmer more than ever to the laws of the market and its fluctuations.
Another method was to buy back the lands seized from the estate owners in order to capitalize them; they were thus farmed in a capitalist manner by the state or by industrial capital and the peasants were transformed into proletarians. Of these, the majority were left with no choice but to flee to the city, piling into monstrous slums containing, as in Mexico for example, as much as a third of the country's population.
From the capitalist point of view, the only positive result of all these ‘agrarian reforms' has been, in a few countries and notably in India, to develop a class of ‘kulaks', middle peasants who have grown rich and form a social buffer in the countryside between the great landlords and the smallholders. Attached in this way to the bourgeoisie, they nonetheless form a very thin stratum, given the backward and rotten nature of the economy.
In reality, the ‘rich' have got richer and the ‘poor' poorer; the contrasts between the classes are sharper. The partition by inheritance of landholdings has continued, despite the few extra hectares handed out; productivity continues to fall. The decline has even accelerated on the now-partitioned great ex-colonial estates, through lack of machines and fertilizers; the Algerian countryside now has a 40 per cent unemployment rate. Where the land has been industrialized and cultivated mechanically, the mass of jobless has swollen extravagantly. Where private property has been transferred to the state, as in the Russian bloc, unemployment has officially disappeared in the countryside, but at the same time productivity has collapsed: an American farm worker produces thirteen times more wheat than a Russian farm worker.
The bourgeoisie, knowing that it could do little from the economic point of view, claimed, through the intermediary of its agronomists, that the ‘green revolution' would, if not raise productivity, at least feed humanity by means of more productive and nutritious plants. In the sixties and seventies, much noise was made about hybrid strains of corn and wheat. The famines in Africa and Asia speak volumes about the result of such promises. In the third world only the rural bourgeoisie, which disposed of capital, machines and fertilizers, was able to profit from them.
In this way, the decadence of capitalism has rendered the peasant question still more difficult. Capitalism's terrible legacy to the proletariat is the destruction of the productive forces in the countryside, and the wretchedness of billions of human beings.
It would be wrong, though, to consider only the negative effects of this misery. It is full of revolutionary potential.
The proletariat will be able to use this potential, if it is capable of acting autnomously, decisively and without abandoning its own program.
This is not a time for ‘bourgeois revolutions'. In the towns, as in the countryside, the only hope for billions of wretched, pauperized human beings lies in the triumph of the worldwide, proletarian revolution.