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Sketches of Rural Exploitation: Capitalist, Feudal or Slave?

Posted by Mike E on August 31, 2010

Peasant farmers in the Andes by Mike Ely In a neighboring thread, Spencer raised an important set of issues when he writes: Also, it so happens that Banajis contribution to the so-called Mode of Production debate in the 1970s is a powerful rebuttal of any kind of qualified, vague, or otherwise halfhearted feudal or semi-feudal thesis. The key essay is Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century, which is reprinted in his new book Theory as History. In the interview, you would do well to notice, Banaji ties the semi-feudal thesis to the Naxalites opportunism. Ultimately, the Stalinist line of socialism in one country lies behind the claim of semi-feudalism. In a followup comment, written with a bit of (uh) opaque language, Spencer elaborates on his views and indicates an article by Banajii we could explore. I am not prepared (yet) to dig directly into the specific arguments Spenser makes. I have not, yet, read Banajiis contribution to the Indian controversies of the 1970s. Flagging a Major Controversy Among Communists Worldwide But I would like to flag (for our readers generally) that this question of semi-feudalism (historically, theoretically, and in the politics of today) is a major matter and is tied to many political and strategic controversies (that emerge on front lines of revolutionary struggle where Banajiis particular, pessimistic Trotskyism is not particularly influential.)

To put it in a nutshell: Mao led a revolution in a country deeply marked by feudalism where capitalism was concentrated in a few cities and mining areas, and where most people only were connected to the world capitalist market by the arrival of commodities in the knapsacks of a few ruined artisan/peddlers. And the communists of the 1930s connected the profound suffering and rebelliousness of Chinese peasants with the world socialist revolution through the strategy of New Democratic revolution and peoples war. And there is a deep strategic debate now of how applicable that particular road is:,

how much semi-feudalism still defines rural life in the post-colonial countries, and how to adapt earlier strategies in countries that are now often majority urban with huge capitalist manufacturing. Are rural agricultural laborers to be seen as peasants, or landless peasants, or rural proletarians. Or more precisely how do we define these categories, and how many rural people fall into each one, and what are their class and political differences)? (This issue recently came up here on Kasama in a discussion of rural uprisings in Puerto Rico, and whether the canecutters there were peasants or rural workers, whether their struggle was potentially for agrarian revolution or something else.)

Peasants are (probably) the largest single class in the world how we understand their conditions, their oppression and their revolutionary potential has a great deal to do with how we see the world and its revolutionary movements. In India (as I said) the communist movement (correctly I believe) saw their country as a semifeudal, semicolonial social formation (in the decades before and after World War 2). But at the same time, India has gone through massive changes not just the independence from colonialism to neo-colonialism, but in the very tissue of social life in many places and the structures of production.

How much of world agriculture is now capitalist?

What is the strategic role of urban areas in a country that was once characterized by its rural life but has now gone through major changes? What is the role (now) of remaining bourgeois democratic tasks within the socialist revolution? What does this means for forms of revolutionary class alliance and power? What does it means for the approaches to seizing power from the powerful central Indian state? What does it mean for distinct (or blended) stages of revolutionary program: national liberation struggles, agrarian revolution, socialist transformation of industry?

The controversies of analysis over capitalism, feudalism and slave society play out (powerfully) in our world today. In general, the Trotskyist analysis is not a particularly significant player especially in the Third World where these issues are most acute (for reasons I dont want to sketch here). Generally (in revolutionary movements in the Philippines, Latin America and India) this has taken a form of a debate between Guevarists and Maoists, or between Maoists and bourgeois modernizers, and among the Maoists themselves (including a major ongoing debate within the CPI(Maoist) over the nature of Indian society). Clearly the scope of semi-feudalism has shrunk and the world capitalist relations have become more and more dominant that is hardly a matter of dispute. The question really remains about degree (degree of semifeudalism in various countries) and inevitably a number of theoretical questions arise over of how to understand and describe the social orders we are analyzing (what is semifeudal, what is rural capitalism, what role does a penetrating world market or foreign capital have in transforming agriculture, etc.) And further, I think there is a particular weakness in the understanding of American communists who live in a highly urban industrialized (even post-industrial) society, and have very little understanding of the complex role of feudal remnants and peasant life in the world revolutionary process. When I wrote that Nepal is very different from the U.S. that is an understatement. For example, when most college students learn that a big part of the revolutionary movement in Nepal involves teenagers fighting for the right to date whoever they want that almost seems quaint, and moderate, and it sometimes seems like they are just fighting for what we already have here. And so a deeper understanding of the modern existance of feudal relations is important for actually grasping how very radical it is, in many places in the world, to fight to carryout bourgeois democratic tasks that had stubbornly been prevented by the most vicious and backward and patriarchal of rural forces. Warning label:

What I would like to do is quickly sketch some of the controversies I am familiar with. I do this quickly (without a lot of preparation) knowing that I may make some hasty mistakes of fact and formulation. But I want to throw out these sketches to give others a chance to dig into this: Add onto what I have written. Dig into some of the controversies. Correct me if that is appropriate. But lets together raise the level among communists of their understanding of this important controversy around the theory of feudalism and the communist practice of New Democratic revolution. (If you know of substantive articles on this, please share links and we will post some of them.)

Farming cocoa in Ghana Here is my sketch of a few of the controversies: 1) Feudalism is (in general) a social order rooted in a particular kind of rural extractive exploitation often based on aristocratic/landlord control of land and the forcible taking of surpluses from peasant harvests. From the beginning, it has become clear that this category covers a very wide array of ownership and extractive forms. In the minds of Europeans, their feudalism is often a classic form with knights, and serfs, and church, and right of the first night etc. But as we study the world and history, the complexity of a whole era and stage of human class society becomes more evident. In some places there has been little landlord ownership (and the feudal extraction often came in the form of urban-based tax collectors, as in Kampuchea, or usurers as in rural Nepal). There was an early assumption (by Marx) that much of Asia had developed an Asiatic mode of production (rooted in irrigation maintained by central despotic governments) that had its own distinctiveness (and supposedly a profound historical stagnation). Those notions did not survive long the rise of revolutionary movements in Asia, and one important early controversy was the struggle (within the Chinese communist movement)

over whether rural areas were feudal (Mao) or dominated by this Asiatic mode of production (which the Maoists generally did not believe existed as a distinctive mode). 2) Another controversy is whether the interaction of rural areas with the world capitalist market means that they are now characterized by capitalism, rather than by pre-capitalist forms. Perhaps the most significant controversy over this within the U.S. involves a long standing debate over slavery: Was the South a capitalist society or a slave society? Was the civil war a collision of two different social systems, with the more revolutionary capitalist north overthrowing the reactionary social order of chattel slavery (or was the U.S. a capitalist society where its ruling class split into regional factions and went to war). Marx and Engels are known for their analysis of the revolutionary role of capitalism in overthrowing Southern slavery. WEB Dubois (and various strains of Black nationalists) have inclined toward the theory that the south was capitalist because cotton was produced for the global world market, and because the slaveowners were entwined with capitalist banking and profit making in many ways (borrowing, investing etc.) Part of the controversy here is whether a social order is <em>mainly</em> defined by its most fundamental relations of production (i.e. where, in slavery, one human literally owns another), or whether it is is <en>mainly</em> defined by the world order it is embedded within (by subsumed by). Clearly, if we are dialectical, both the mode of production itself and its context have powerful impact on the actual social formation. The fact that cotton was produced for a world market (and was feeding the ravenous capitalist textile mills of England and New England) had a huge impact on the intensity of labor in the Southern cotton fields, on the horror of plantation slavery, on the life expectancy of the slaves, on the cost of slaves etc. Here the question is what is the difference between capitalist exploitation and slavery.

cotton farmer in india And it has an impact on how people analyse the U.S., its history and its class structure, and the position of Black people. (Was the U.S. going through a process of moving from slavery plus merchant capital, to the creation of industrial capitalism on the basis of overthrowing slavery, did the deep south move from chattel slavery to sharecropping semifeudalism over the 1800s and bypass a thoroughgoing bourgeois democratic revolution for Black people To what degree has the revolutoinary struggle in the U.S. (especially around the national liberation of Black people) had important bourgeois democratic tasks (in the break up of plantation system, in the fight for the free mobility of Black people against Black codes and Jim crow, in the recognition of generalized legal equality in regard to voting, accomodations, schools, juries, freedom from mob lynching, access to courts etc.) Has that changed since the abolition of semifeudal relations in the Deep South (with the mechanization of agriculture, the Great Migration of Black people, the electification of the TVA etc.) This was, for example, one of the controversies between Maoist currents in the U.S. and the Sojourner Truth Organization which (if I understand correctly) took up the Dubois position. 3) In another side to this question, Eric Wolf (author of the remarkable book Europe and the people without History pwp sketch) argues that the historic distinctions between feudalism and slavery. He argues that we should conceive of an even broader category of

tributary extraction and not try to make so great a distinction between serfdom and slavery, or the forced labor of feudal corvee (which is very common in many rural places from medieval France to U.S. chaingangs to Lamaist Tibet.) 4)There has been a controversy among Maoists over whether there are just two types of countries in the world, and there are therefore two roads to revolution (the October Road and the road of Protracted Peoples War). This has raged pretty sharply in connection with specific innovative strategic turns taken by communists in Peru and Nepal with some forces acting as if the adoption of new approaches (or substages) was inherently capitulation. These matters have been debated many times here on Kasama. And in the threads I will provide links to some of those previous discussions, when I get a chance. 5) Finally, there has long been a major controversy over the degree of feudalism operating on a world scale, and its impact on the revoutionary process of the world. Without simplifying the controversy in an almost cartoonish way: Trotskyist thinkers have often downplayed the role (and even the existance) of feudalism, and portrayed the world as rather generally defined by capitalism in a way that makes semifeudal, antiimperiaist revolution unnecessary and this forms one bases for the theory of permanent revolutoin (and their argument for the universality of a one-stage socialist revolution in all countries, and their argument that the urban industrial working class is both the leading and the main class in that process.) By contrast, Marxist Leninist communists (including especially Maoists) have pointed out that great parts of the world have (for much of the twentieth century) had major semifeudal components to their social formations. And that in many parts of the world, the peasantry is the main oppressed class (numerically) and the revolutionary process faces major tasks that (in Europe) had perviously been part of the bourgeois democratic revolution (including national independence, formation of a coherent national market, overthrow of feudal relations, development of freedom of mobility, liberation of women from servitude, bride sale and infanticide, but especially the agrarian revolution of land to the tiller. In that view, communists have viewed that many countries face a revolution where the main initial programmatic form is an anti-feudal and anti-imperialist revolution (agrarian revolution and national liberation) that then (with communist leadership) immediately takes the road of socialist revolution. The creation of revolutionary China was one example of that New Democratic revolution going over to socialism in 1949, and taking the road toward communism. There are a number of theoretical and political controversies here

a) what is the nature of land relations in third world countries (is their feudalism in the Andes, in the Indian rural areas, in Nepal, in rural china, etc.) b) How much as modern world capitalism eaten up semifeudal relations (clearly there are major parts of the third world like Punjab and Kerala in India where there have been major transformations in the nature of agriculture). and what does that mean for political strategies? c) What is the approach of communists in post-colonial countries where capitalist firms have established large plantations using peasant labor? This has for example been a major controversy between Guevarists and Maoists in regard to places like Peru, Central American and Cuba where the Castro/Guevara tendencies argued for going directly to state ownership of the land and maintaining the plantations, while the Maoists argued for agrarian revolution, land to the tiller, and then the construction of new collective ownership forms voluntarily, over time, through stages of cooperatives and peoples communes.