Marx and Engels on the Peasantry

I want to comment on this question of Marx-Engels on peasants, but please accept my churlish excuse that I don't have time to do more than offer a brief comment.

The first place to look, I think, is in Engels's description of his flight across France after the 1848 revolutions. He bitterly, bitterly, denounces the peasants in the regions he went through for not supporting the revolutionary process. Its in the collected Marx and Engels, one of the early volumes. Generally, I think M & E, after 1848 at least, decided that peasants are just not going to get involved in the socialist revolution. Why? Because, M & E figured, a peasant simply wants to own his/her land: land reform is the final goal of revolutionary motion, and land reform had been effectuated by then in France. This led them to visualize the peasant farm as a small business: the farmer, when he or she owns the land -- hence cannot have his/her income taken away b y landlords and merchants -- tries to accumulate in a small way. I am SURE that Engels, at least, had in mind the fat cat commercialized peasant farms of France.

The irony is this: the French Revolution in essence freed the peasants from peonage, and thereafter a burgeoning economy and growing urban population led to an essentially continuous increase in demand for agricultural products, notably food and wine. Thus the French peasantry was indeed petty bourgeois. The small peasants doubtless had been frozen out and sold their land to the bigger peasants who now were indeed small business men.

In the world as a whole, the vast majority of peasants families do NOT own their land, are held in semi-thralldom, and haven't any chance -- in reality or consciousness -- of accumulating capital as petty bourgeois. They want to survive. As Mao and so many others have shown, peasant consciousness can indeed be raised to revolutionary levels in conditions where peasants are indeed an oppressed group: they can, and in certain circumstances do, understand that socialist revolution is the only way to get rid of their oppressors.

So: the irony is that Marx and Engels knew of peasants mainly in France and western Europe, where, I suspect, the general condition of life in the mid-19th century for family farms was pretty good and accumulation was taking place. (Not everywhere,) They had little or no knowledge of the conditions facing peasants in other part of the world. They generalized from what they knew, and they got it wrong. Who can blame them?

Jim Blaut


Marx also pointed out that a good portion of France's peasantry was in the process of being squeezed out of their farms. Like American small farmers they were forced to borrow money in order to keep their operations going but they were often subject to usurious interest rates. French agriculture experienced a kind of boom-bust cycle, and every time there was a bust more and more peasants would lose their lands. It is true that the French Revolution had liberated the peasants and gave them their own land. However, by the 1840s many of them were in danger of losing it, while a smaller number of well to do peasants were prospering and buying up the lands of their more unfortunate brethren. The bankers who lent them money and the merchants who sold them supplies and who marketed their produce of course prospered. However, despite the fact that much of the French peasantry was being driven under, this did not lead them into becoming revolutionaries for the reasons that Marx outlined in *The 18th Brumaire*. Instead, they tended to place their hopes in the proverbial "man on a white horse," a Louis Napoleon for instance who promised to bail them out.

Marx towards the end of his life came to perceive that conditions were not necessarily the same for peasants in other countries particularly Russia. Whereas, the French peasantry had developed a strong individualist tradition which discouraged collective action, the Russian peasants retained a strong communal tradition that centered around the ancient mir. For this and other reasons, Marx expressed a cautious optimism concerning the revolutionary potential of the Russian peasantry. And as it turned out what was true for the Russian peasantry was even more true for the peasants of China, Vietnam, and other Asian countries.

Jim Farmelant