Prof. Dr. Theodor Bergmann

The peasantry - a forgotten class? - Agrarian movements in the 21st century.

1. Introduction

European Marxists today are mainly concerned with working class movements in the "highly developed", industrialised countries, though the population of the G7 states is 700 million only (11.5% of the world population). Here those living and working in agriculture are a small minority of 5 to 15%. The vast majority, however, lives in developing countries; their economy is still dominantly agrarian, and the majority - about 60% worldwide - lives in villages, tills the land — often under feudal conditions, with hard drudgery. Their income and living standard does not enable them to invest and improve their "farmstead", sometimes is hardly sufficient to allay the family's hunger. The living standard is impaired nationally by landlords and the payments due to them, internationally by capitalist globalisation and by the large international capitalist enterprises, dominating the world market. Landlessness, illiteracy, diseases are rampant in many parts of this farming world, no idyllic life at all.

During decolonisation after World War II the newly emerging politically independent governments in several countries promised agrarian reforms, giving "land to the tiller" by abolishing the prevailing feudal order in the villages, tenancy, share-cropping, dominance of white colonial farmers in the fertile regions etc. In most countries the promise was soon forgotten. European and US advisers argued, that radical reforms would harm food production. Instead they invented the "green revolution"; this would introduce new inputs to every farm and thus benefit even the smallholders on their tiny plot. It was a failure, since the benefit accrued to the "substantial farmers", a small minority only, while the vast majority never enjoyed the progress and did not participate in economic development.

Internal pressures, the minor status and the struggle against double exploitation have led to the emergence of agrarian movements with a strong revolutionary potential. This paper tries to focus on some of these movements and their specific traits distinguishing them from workers movements but at the same time creating the necessity of cooperation with the urban proletariat.

2. Brief review of some agrarian movements

In Nepal the agrarian rebels are dominating and controlling a large part of the countryside. The guerrilla warfare goes on since several years with heavy and large encounters. The guerrillas are close to one current in the CP. They are hardly maoist in the sense of acceptance or knowledge of Mao's ideas; rather that they are ruling in "liberated areas" like the Chinese Red Army during the civil war. They are strongest in large parts of the west, but also in some districts east of the capital Kathmandu, mainly in regions with poor infrastructure. In the liberated areas they have set up schools, people's courts cooperative banks, collective farms (?) and have eliminated or expelled government supporters. Sometimes the attacks of the guerrillas reach the capital. The CPN-ML calls itself Maoist; it is, however, not at all supported by the CP or the government of China. The weapons are home-made or booty from attacks on police stations. The organisation is said to be part of a London-based "Revolutionary Internationalist Committee" and to have links with Peru's sendero luminoso and maoist groups in northern India, where they are taught strategy and tactics. The leaders are Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai.

In its 40 point programme the party demands inter alia equal rights for women, religions, languages, castes, prohibition of alcohol and hazardous games, end of unequal treaties with India, expropriation of the landlords, agrarian reform, end of the monarchy. The guerrilla warfare began in 1996, but gained in strength in the crisis after the mysterious murder of almost the entire family of king Birendra. The guerrillas are estimated at about 10 000 fighters. In the clashes with 45.000 police and army more than 3.000 persons were killed (mid 2002); some sources state 8,000 killed. The government in Kathmandu has asked the US for military assistance. Several attempts have been made to negotiate a compromise between government and guerrillas; these were abortive. After each truce the armed clashes flared up again.

In India the CPI-M has strong support among smallholders and landless labourers in the States Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura- In Kerala the CP has formed the government for several periods and has organised a relatively successful agrarian reform. The same is valid for West Bengal. In the States of Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh an illegal CP, called the Naxalites (after the Bengali town of Naxalbari) is leading a radical armed movement against landlords with frequent clashes with police and private armed forces of the landlords.

During white colonisation of southern Africa the black peasants were expelled form their land and driven into reserves, while the white farmers occupied the best land in the most fertile regions, and often with best rainfall conditions or irrigation. They now claim, that the return of the land to their real owners would threaten agricultural production. It seems, that in this part of Africa decolonisation has not solved the agrarian question. The peaceful path, envisaged by the new black leaders has failed. Agrarian unrest is growing.

In Zimbabwe extended guerrilla warfare finally led to black rule in 1979. But white farmers still own most of the fertile land, while the native black population is confined to the marginal soils or are workers on the white farms. During the negotiations about decolonisation London promised to promote land distribution in an orderly, peaceful way by paying compensation to the European farmers. This, however, never came true. That is the background for the heavy agrarian unrest, the sometimes violent occupation of white farms, armed clashes of landless black workers with white farmers and their attempt to topple Mugabe.

Robert Mugabe has taken up the issue after several years of fruitless bargaining with London, lull and passivity. Landless peasants and veterans of the independence war have begun to occupy farms of white settlers, to distribute and cultivate the land. The activities have mobilised the landless in neighbouring Namibia and in South Africa. In South Africa the situation is similar. Apartheid rule ended in 1991; but even Tom Mbeki, the successor of Nelson Mandela as black president, has not changed the situation in the farming sector. Almost all fertile land is farmed by white commercial farmers, while black peasants continue to cultivate the poorer soils. This has led to renewed unrest. Though black peasants are fighting white farmers, "this is no racial or ethnic, rather a social issue". (Guardian Weekly, 2003).

A "quiet" struggle for land is fought, which slowly becomes more acute and vocal. The black majority owns 12% of the agricultural land. After the end of apartheid Nelson Mandela promised in 1994, that this percentage would rise to 30. Hitherto the growth was 0.4%. White farmers own 35.000 large estates and 60.000 family holdings. From 1995-2002 740 white farmers were executed by landless black people and 347 farms were attacked. The numbers of black people killed in these struggles is unknown. In some provinces landless black tried to occupy white estates. A Landless People's Movement (LPM) was founded in 2001 as an umbrella organisation of landless, non-permanent farm workers and the people living in the homelands (Bantustans) in the "settlements"; the union has a strong attraction.

In Namibia about 4.000 white fanners (often german) own and farm the most favoured regions. Since independence in 1991 Sam Nujoma has spoken about agrarian reform and land distribution. He announced the expropriation of 192 farms of absentee landlords, but hardly any progress was reported. Thus, even here unrest among the landless is growing.

In several Latin American countries there is an awakening of the Indio communities, e.g. in Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina. In the 1960's, many communities were deprived of their land, partly for oil exploration, mining or logging or for the establishment of large commercial farms. The communities were broken, and without land many youngsters were compelled to leave for the towns and cities. Agrarian unrest is widespread, also beyond the Indies. An official US-report (1968) summarised the situation in the countryside:

"There is an ideologically undetermined quasi-insurgency of peasant risings as one aspect of violence, which is a common feature of political life in many Latin American countries. Usually, these movements have sought a solution for a special complaint, or they were the attempts of squatters to protect their demands against the government forces. This borders on rural banditry. Incidents of this type connected with peasants are no uprising, but can develop into it. Illegitimate guerrillas frequently exploit peasant dissatisfaction or recruit bandits into their ranks." (p. 8).

After a civil war, which lasted 36 years, thousands of refugees returned to Guatemala from Mexico and joined a huge trek of landless, who went to the north, settled down in the large nature reserve and began shifting cultivation. In the peace agreement every citizen was promised a land title; since this became not true, the landless took the right in their own hands.

The revolt in Chiapas, led by commandant Marcos, is known. Even here the Indio peasants are the main basis. The struggle for more autonomy probably continues, though more quietly. The sudden flare-up of resistance against the army and the early fading of the armed struggle seem typical for peasant movements.

In Paraguay, 1% of the population owns more than 77% of the land. Sometimes armed clashes and occupation of farms are reported, e.g. in May 2000 a 25,000 acre estate close to the capital Asuncion. The squatters demanded distribution of the land.

In Colombia, civil war rages since 40 years with about 200.000 dead and millions made homeless. In fact, the country faces civil war since the 1920's, a result of poverty, inequality and chronic inability or unwillingness of the state, which permits the landlords to terrorise their labourers. There are two main guerrilla armies, the PARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), led by Manuel Marulanda. and the ELN (Ejercito de Liberation National). The PARC is said to have 17.000 to 20.000 armed fighters, the ELN about 7.000. FARC claims to be marxist, demands fundamental agrarian reform and income distribution and sees this as prerequisite for success in the desirable eradication of production of coca and poppy. These demands, however, are not acceptable to the ruling class in Bogota. FARC holds a territory in the south the size of Switzerland with own administration, schools, health services, courts etc.: the capital is (or was until early 2003) San Vicente de Caguan. Its liberated territory extends close to the capital Bogota from the south.

The ELN has its territory in the northern parts of the country and west of Bogota. Altogether more than 40% of Columbia is not ruled and administered by the government. Its army is now enlarged by the new president Alvaro Uribe, elected in May 2002, and is supported by a semi-private paramilitary force, the AUC of about 9.000 fighters and by US advisers, aircraft etc. The AUC is mainly financed by the big landlords, and Uribe planned to legalise it and to cooperate more closely with it. Washington has promised $1.3 billion (US) to Bogota, of which 900 million were allocated to military assistance; thereof 400 rnlllion were spent for the purchase of US-produced helicopters. Critics in Washington express their fear, Colombia might become another Vietnam for the US military: Colombia's territory (1.14 million. sq km) is 3.5 times the size of Vietnam.

It seems, that the "war against drug trafficking" is a mere pretext for the US involvement; Washington is more afraid of the peasant revolt and of the threat against US oil companies and their pipelines. Coca cultivation is important for the livelihood of peasants in the high Andes, is usually used as stimulant in high altitudes, but also sold by dealers to the US. Also the AUC is said to be involved in the drug business.

The war is still without victory for either side. There have been negotiations about a truce or a limited autonomy for the liberated regions. The FARC was willing to accept the abolition of coca cultivation under the condition, that no chemicals were used in the coca fields. After extended meetings the president Andres Pastrana has stopped the negotiations in January 2002 and then stepped down. The new president Uribe is the candidate of Washington and has immediately upon the election announced full-out war against the guerrillas. 

In Peru, the government (under president Fujimori) in its war against the Sendero Luminoso organised and armed peasant militias in the high Andes. Initially these militias supported the government against the guerrillas, since water, electricity, roads and health centres were promised to them. About 25.000 Indio peasants are now organised in the Rondas Campesinas under Alberto Suarez. They demand fulfilment of the promises and threaten to revolt.

In Chile, the Popular Front government under Salvador Allende tried to correct the displacement of Indio peasants and to restore at least part of the Mapuche indios into their land rights. After the coup of Alberto Pinochet the land was again expropriated. After the end of military dictatorship the new government has purchased "land in conflict" for 1,561 families after 1994. That naturally does not solve the problems for 400,000 Mapuches, who remain on the land, while about 600,000 have migrated to the towns. Thus, even here the peasants problems remained unsolved.

In Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, landlordism and a very particular, extensive system of haciendas is still the main form of land tenure. The poorest 40% of the country's 170 million citizens own 1%, the richest 20% dispose of 90% of the land. In 2003, about 150,000 families lived on and cultivated occupied land. "Brazil has the strongest concentration of land ownership in the world." Agrarian reform has been promised since 1985 by succeeding governments, but very little was realised. Thus, by natural growth of the rural population and by growing unemployment in the industrial sector the army of the landless has increased. They are partly occupying half-neglected or extensively cultivated latifundia, partly have gone north. Armed struggles with police and with private landlord militias are frequent. More than 100 peasant leaders were murdered; police brutality goes unpunished.

In 1984, the Movement of the landless (Movimiento sem terra) was founded, which demands land reform and an upper limit of 500 ha for latifundia and at the same time organises occupation of large estates and their distribution. The demands in 1984 were: land only to the tillers, struggle for a society without exploiters! Expropriation of latifundia and of the multinationals. 4.8 million rural families are looking for land, they are followers of the MST, which calls itself marxist. In the first half of 2003 the MST occupied over 100 latifundia. At several instances, large demonstrations were organised, and thousands of landless marched to the capital to increase the pressure.

Governments mostly wanted to "expropriate" idle land of latifundia against compensation But only a few landless families were settled in that way, partly due to the unwillingness of governments to intrude into property rights, partly due to lack of funds. Thus, the SMT, claiming a membership of more than 1 million, frequently organises occupation and settlement of latifundia, which can result in heavy casualties. When the new president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected, new hope awoke, but at the same time stronger demands by the SMT and slowly even more pressure on Lula.

After meeting a delegation of the landless he promised in July 2003 a "peaceful agrarian reform." He is in a difficult position between the pressure of the World Bank and the resistance of the upper class (latifundistas and industrialists) on the one hand and the expectations of his electorate (workers, unemployed, landless). It remains to be seen, whether his peaceful reformist way will succeed.

After more than one year of official promises and small achievements the unrest rises on both sides. In March 2004, Joao Pedro Stedile, the MST leader, threatened, the peasants would make hell for government and the landlords. In April 135 haciendas were occupied by 30,000 families. On the other hand, the latifundistas are supporting illegal rural militias and hiring private "security firms". These mercenaries are trigger-happy. Thus, during Lula's first year in government 42 landless workers were killed. Lula is pinched between the grindstones of MST on the one, the World Bank and his bourgeoisie on the other hand. The World Bank has offered him a loan of $30 billion US on its usual political conditions, which are prohibitive against any real social progress and reform. The World Bank verbally fights poverty in developing countries, but in reality continues its old strategy against its creditors, which might show the limits of reform under capitalist conditions.

More facts could be given for developing countries; but the above examples might be sufficient. Even in highly industrialised countries .of the northern hemisphere there are several problems of land ownership unsolved. These shall be mentioned briefly only. During capitalist transformation in some of the formerly socialist countries the expropriated former landlords (or their heirs), sometimes of German nationality, are trying to recuperate their estates by expelling the actual Polish or Czech cultivators or by purchasing the land (against the law). This "movement" is growing in force, volume of sound and quantity. In some countries, mainly the former GDR, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the collective farmers try to continue their cooperation, while the governments try to abolish this social phenomenon.

3. The traits of agrarian movements

Marx and Engels have sometimes discussed the problems of the small holders. Marx (1852), in articles about small peasants, saturated after land distribution, writes somewhat disrespectfully about the peasants "like a bag of potatoes", all equally passive, without their own voice. Engels (1850), on the other hand analyses the situations, in which the peasantry develops a revolutionary potential. Generally, historical experience proves both sides of agrarian movements: radicality before, saturation after social revolution and fulfilment of their demands, sometimes even emerging hostility against the new revolutionary government, if it taxes the peasantry too heavily. This dialectical peripety is sometimes ignored or misinterpreted by impatient revolutionaries, who want to maximise the factor contribution of the farming sector to the development of the modem industrial sector and of the technical and cultural infrastructure.

Peasant movements are often limited to a small region and are not persevering, since for their food provision they depend on their holding and do not dispose of stocks of food. During the long march the Chinese peasant army did survive due to good relations with the local farming population (soldiers helping in the fields) and to own crop production by the soldiers in the liberated areas.

Originally solidarity is not very common among smallholders, since in daily life they compete with their peers about every piece of land. Since they often are economically oppressed and illiterate, they are largely unable to produce leaders out of their own ranks- Therefore, their leaders in many large struggles came from the working class or the workers movement. Successful revolutions in agrarian societies had their mass basis in the peasantry, while their leaders were urban workers.

The particular living conditions of the peasantry lead to certain difficulties, when they try to promote social change and to participate in politics. Some of these difficulties can be generalised.

1. The physical weakness of poor peasants and their dependence upon regular food procurement from home.

2. They are spread over a vast area and lack communication; they work alone or in small groups.

3. Lack of nation-wide political and professional organisation.

4. The problem of recruiting leaders from their own ranks.

5. Widespread illiteracy.

6. Caste system or similar systems of social stratification, their intrinsic strength and solidification by religious organisations and institutions, consequently a feeling of inferiority against the economic and cultural "elite" in the village.

7. Peasant class-consciousness is less developed.

8. Peasants rarely create visions of Utopia or far-reaching goals, which can mobilise energy and endurance in a struggle.

9. Agrarian movements are often of short duration; they usually dissolve soon after realisation of their immediate goals.

In later years, agrarian movements have sometimes been international; loose international alliances have been formed the Via Campesina, which claims 50 million members. Peasant representatives have joined some of the anti-globalisation activities.

4. Main issues of agrarian movements

The crucial issue, particularly in developing agrarian societies, is "land to the tiller". This implies expropriation of the landlords and concomitant the liberation of the villagers from their economic, cultural and political dominance, abolition of tenancy and share-cropping. Colonisation was executed in different ways in the 19* century. After the conquest by Great Britain of eastern Africa and India, Germany in its colonies in East and South West Africa, Spain in southern Latin America have created latifundia by large scale, sometimes violent expropriation of the indigenous peasants. After the colonisation the British land taxation system created a stratum of Indian zamindars, who over time became landlords. Plantations were also organised on a large scale by European settlers employing local workers. Portugal in its African colonies, Italy and France have very often settled "normal farmers", not latifundists. Thus, even de-colonisation after WW II was different. Italy, France, Portugal re-transferred most of their settlers to their home countries, thus, avoiding the clashes mentioned above.

Since the landlords and plantations owners were and still largely are Europeans, the African movements are superficially a struggle between white and black; however, in reality between landlords and landless small peasants. Thus agrarian class-struggle superficially might seem to be a racial or ethnic conflict.

Agrarian reform in densely populated countries (or regions) solves the question of inequality and gives the smallholder a tiny plot of land only. An exodus from fanning is necessary; only then the remaining peasants can acquire more land, invest to improve and increase their production and give a share to society. Industrialisation, thus, is a necessary concomitant to agrarian reform, which then only can be macro-economically successful.

It is not accidental, that in most countries of Latin America the promised agrarian reform has failed. The holiness of capitalist private property and the "need" to compensate landlords for expropriated land at market value makes land distribution so expensive, that mostly governments claim that they do not dispose of sufficient funds. Efficient agrarian reform, distributing land to the tiller is - so the historical experience - best feasible after a revolution.

If the beneficiaries of land distribution have to compensate the former landlord, they are unable for a long time to invest in their land; thus their productivity must remain low. Cooperation of the beneficiaries would be useful and could ease the difficulty of lack of capital inputs. This is not disproved by the failure of collective farms in the USSR and peoples communes in communist China. The thorough reorganisation of the social structure and organisation of the peasantry was premature. This was criticised already, when this restructuring was initiated .by Bukharin, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai. L. Trotzki summarised  the arguments: Collectivisation of wooden ploughs is a fake. 

The smallholder is exploited not only by landlord, moneylender and middleman; he also is inferior in marketing his produce. For marketing, purchase of inputs and for irrigation smallholders have to cooperate, if they want to overcome the power of organised market forces.

The demand of the capitalist economies, developing countries should abolish all trade-barriers and open their gates for the food surplus, threatens the existence of many a smallholder, particularly since these surpluses are heavily subsidised all the way from the producers field to the consumers table. Peasant economies have to resist this demand and to protect their farm production, until they become competitive in the capitalist world market. They have to find an alternative to capitalist globalisation and an entirely open world market, which only comforts the highly developed economies and their heavily subsidised commercial agricultural producers.

Another threat to the smallholder are some new production techniques, e. g. terminator seeds, marketed by modem monopoles, which destroy the cultivators independence, make him entirely dependent on the enterprises that distribute the new inputs, whose long-term usefulness and profitability are not proven at all. Here independent assessment of long-term effects of modem technologies should precede widespread utilisation.

Modem inputs have different effects on the social structure. Some can be used in small quantities, e.g. commercial fertiliser; thus even the smallholder can utilise them. Other inputs (tractors, combines) are too large and too expensive for the small cultivator and cannot be utilised individually by him; these inputs "favour" the substantial farmer. If smallholders want to utilise them, they have to co-operate.

Some environmentalists, mostly from European countries with agricultural surplus production, are transmitting their problems to developing countries. that act in a different development stage. In Europe, reduction of farm production (limitation) is desirable, though difficult to achieve in a capitalist profit-maximising society. In most developing countries production should be increased. Thus, some European advisers, consultants and "technical experts" are misleading poor peasants, who fear the effects of globalisation, by generally rejecting modem inputs and by advising to go back to old ways of production. Peasants should rather try to adopt those technologies and inputs, which have been proven, and increase the production, and at the same time try to avoid any negative social effect.

The ultimate producers of food are the most numerous and most exploited layer of the farming population; they are the subject of this paper. In traditional economies they were self-sufficient, producing mainly for home consumption on a low level. They were often dependent on landlord (for land use rights), on moneylender (for credit), on the middleman (for marketing) and on the vagaries of nature. Globalisation produces a new element of pressure. Population growth calls for modernisation and new inputs to increase the production. This compels the smallholder to join the capitalist market nationally and internationally. This "market" is dominated by large, often multinational enterprises both for the modem inputs and for the sale of the products. And the highly industrialised economies are heavily subsidising exportation of their agricultural surpluses, while demanding open borders for these products. This creates a new threat for the cultivators in developing economies.

5. Summary

Modem technologies (in the widest sense) have increased production and productivity of the farming sector, hitherto mainly in the capitalist economies. But capitalism has not solved the structural problems of the agricultural sector for the majority of the world population, living and struggling in the developing economies. Rather the strong capitalist countries and their governments have tried to bar the social changes, that are necessary for increased productivity of farming. Therefore even the productivity in the traditional sector of farming lags behind the standard of our time and the needs and demands of their rapidly growing populations. The oppression of the small peasantry by the upper class in the villages and the economic pressure of the capitalist economies create internal and international contradictions, which have a revolutionary potential. This can be mobilised by cooperation of the small peasantry with the urban working class. Experience has shown, that even the attempt of Lin Biao and Mao Zedong to unify the "third world", the "global village against the global city" was abortive.

However, agrarian movements have a different character from proletarian movements, and no headquarters of the world revolution were able or will be able to synchronise them with movements in the industrial world.

Even in our time of high armament technology and quantitative superiority of modern armies in "regular" war, armed struggles of the oppressed are possible. Against the superiority of modem armies in quantity and quality they have the advantage of knowledge of local conditions and of the fish swimming in his water. Peasant movements are "soft", but of longevity and cannot be crushed easily, if they are able to establish "liberated areas", which secure the basis for livelihood and survival, for their logistics. (In this respect, agrarian movements are similar to the long march of Chinas peasantry and might be called maoist.) 

The early concepts of a world revolution, nurtured by Lenin, Trotsky, Mao Zedong and many of their revolutionary contemporaries, were unrealistic. They had thought, the example of their revolution and victory might be followed by the working class elsewhere or might be transferred by their victorious armies (or by parties subsidised by their governments). Revolutionary movements and revolutions are developing on the spot; they are not brought about "by a handful of agitators", as bourgeois theoreticians of conspiracy might still believe. "Every revolutionary convulsion must be based on a societal necessity, the saturation of which is barred by obsolete institutions." (Engels 1852) Revolutions develop under the conjunction of contradictory factors - oppression and resistance, bourgeois hegemony and class-consciousness. Agrarian movements, thus, are different in their characteristics from proletarian revolutions and cannot be synchronised according to the needs or wishes of movements in other countries with different conditions.


1. Engels, Friedrich (1850): Der deutsche Bauernkrieg, in: MEW 7 (Berlin), pp. 327-413.

2. Engels, Friedrich (1852): Revolution und Konterrevolution in Deutschland, in: MEW 8 (Berlin), pp. 3-108.

3. Marx, Karl (1852): Der 18. Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, in: MEW 8 (Berlin), pp.111-207.

4. Insurgency in Latin America (1968). Committee on Foreign Relations. US Senate, Dokument 86-406,15. Januar (Washington D.C.).

5. South African farm attacks, not racial', in: Guardian Weekly, 2.-8.10.2003.