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University of California Press

Chapter Title: Is the “Peasantry” a Class?

Book Title: Pathways of Power

Book Subtitle: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World
Book Author(s): Eric R. Wolf and Sydel Silverman
Published by: University of California Press. (2001)
Stable URL:

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Is the “Peasantry” a Class?

The original full title of this paper was “Is the ‘Peasantry’ a Class Cat-
egory Separate from ‘Bourgeois’ and ‘Proletarian’?” The question was
not my own; it was asked of me to provoke a discussion in the Seminar
on Group Formation and Group Conflict at the Fernand Braudel Cen-
ter, State University of New York, Binghamton, directed by Immanuel
Wallerstein. I presented my reply to the question on March 2, 1977, in
a working paper that argued against generalized views of peasantry as
a uniform national class and stressed the local and regional variability
of peasant life.

A discussion of the peasantry in terms of class runs an uneasy course

between the advocates of society as an organic unity and the prophets
of conflict, revolution, and class war. A good case can be made that the
science of society developed largely as a political weapon, wielded by
its protagonists to halt the process of social integration and to restore
the social order, riven by the conflicts of the French Revolution and its
reverberations. A convincing genealogy links Louis G. A. Bonald with
Joseph de Maistre, Claude Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Emile
Durkheim. A parallel lineage can be constructed to connect Johann
Fichte, Adam Müller, Friedrich Gentz, Lorenz von Stein, W. Riehl, and
F. Tönnies. The French lineage was more rational, the German one more
mystical, but for both the postulate of the organic unity of society was


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Is the “Peasantry” a Class? 253

the ideal. The aim was the re-creation in thought or action of a moral
unity, and a Gemeinschaft, the concept of the small primary group, was
the main tool in the analysis of social processes. The peasant, for many
of these writers, came to be the quintessential carrier of this moral vision,
supposedly wedded to an organic view of society and morally rooted in
a Gemeinschaft, in primary groups.
Within American anthropology until the early 1960s this sociological
approach was dominant. The emphasis on treating the peasant as a
member of the folk and the emphasis on community and on folk society
were a continuation of the French and German sociological concern with
organic unity and order. These emphases are perhaps best associated
with the name of Robert Redfield.
Conversely, for those who wanted to undo the organic order of the
Middle Ages, who supported new social alignments, departure from ob-
scurantism and illusion, the peasant was a quintessential stumbling
block to change. “The lower middle class—small manufacturers, small
traders, handicraftsmen, peasant proprietors—” wrote Marx and Engels
in the Communist Manifesto, “one and all fight the bourgeoisie in the
hope of safeguarding their existence as sections of the middle class. They
are, therefore, not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more: they are
reactionary, for they are trying to make the wheels of history turn back-
ward.” Peasants were sunk in “rural idiocy,” “the class that represents
barbarism within civilization.” The antagonism is clear. It may be that
Marx used “idiocy” in the Aristotelian sense of the apolitical person and
that the phrase about barbarism was used stylistically to draw a portrait
of Louis Napoleon as the knavish symbol of that class. Nevertheless, in
the Marxist vision the peasant was destined to disappear.
What is more problematic is that both conservatives and revolution-
aries wrote in terms of one society, or of the world conceived as one
society. Marx was quite clear about this: he abstracted from the gamut
of relationships definable for England the key relation between capital-
ists and wage laborers, in order to exhibit the pure workings of the
capitalist system. Judging from how he analyzed the France of Louis
Napoleon, he would have put many classes back into the picture in
“advancing” from the abstract to the concrete. And he understood, also,
that the final subjection of different spheres of production to capitalism
would “encounter much greater obstacles should numerous and weighty
[massenhafte] spheres of production not based capitalistically (e.g., ag-
riculture carried on by small peasants) insert themselves between the
capitalist enterprises and connect themselves to them” (Marx 1967

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254 Peasants

[1894]: 206). He did have a lively sense of the historical relation of his
type case to the rest of the world, as evidenced by his prehistory of
capitalist accumulation and by his remarks about English industry being
based on the blood and sweat of the English slave colonies. He did have
a lively sense of the difference between regions involved in English in-
dustrialization, as shown by his remarks about the differential situations
of Irish and English wage laborers. But he still worked with a homo-
geneous model of the hypothetical society.
This was also true of Lenin: “Classes are large groups of people which
differ from each other by the place they occupy in a historically deter-
mined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed
and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the
social organization of labor, and, consequently, by their dimension and
mode of acquiring the share of social wealth of which they dispose.
Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labor of
another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system
of social economy” (quoted in Stavenhagen 1975: 28). The point of
reference is clearly the total society, though it is a historically changing
society, characterized by a social economy that governs the distribution
of means of production, the allocation of social labor to that production,
and hence the flow of social wealth so generated. The framework is still
the hypothetical totality.
But Lenin carried the idea farther, of course, by locating the hypo-
thetical totality in the relation of imperialism to the imperial colonies.
Rosa Luxemburg, too, may have been wrong in her underconsumption-
ist theories, but she did see quite clearly how capitalism fed on noncap-
italist formations. Leon Trotsky, to name still another stellar figure,
spoke of uneven and combined development. And now we have Im-
manuel Wallerstein’s repartition of the world system into core, semi-
periphery, and periphery (1974). This strikes me as a most useful idea,
though what I like about it are precisely its conception of the world
system as a system of heterogeneous parts and Wallerstein’s treatment
of how the flows of capital, labor, and commodities move through het-
erogeneous channels. Core, semi-periphery, and periphery are perhaps
the major levels or gradients in this system; but there are semi-
peripheries and peripheries also in the core (Ireland, Wales, Brittany,
Normandy, and so forth), as well as sinks and polls in the peripheries.
The reason this seems to me important is that peasantries are always
localized. They inhabit peripheries and semi-peripheries by definition,

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Is the “Peasantry” a Class? 255

and peripheries within peripheries. And this is perhaps why it is difficult

or impossible to speak of the peasantry as a class. If we follow the logic
of Lenin’s remarks, then what is important in defining classes is the
relationship they entertain with reference to each other within a definite
system of social economy. This is echoed by E. P. Thompson when he
says that class is a relationship, and not a thing. But if this is true, then
peasantries are never macroclasses at the level of the total system, always
microclasses at the level of locality and region. It follows from this that
we cannot know much about them unless we understand them histori-
cally, how they developed in that niche, and how that niche developed,
in turn, in relation to forces beyond it. But I would doubt that it does
any good to speak of the peasantry.
Once we abandon the abstract and generalizing approach to peas-
antry, however, two questions emerge. The first is: How homogeneous
or differentiated is a given peasantry? The second is: What kinds of
dimensions and changes underlie the variability of peasantries from
province to province, region to region, country to country? The ho-
mogeneity of the peasantry is really an urban illusion, an optical error
induced when city people look down upon the rural mass beyond the
urban portals. There are some common characteristics of peasantry.
Farm and household tend to coincide; production and consumption are
closely integrated; the division of labor runs along lines of sex and age
within the household. Also, such households exist but rarely in isolation:
surplus labor is transferred from each household to others, whether in
the form of rent, or taxes, or in one form or another of unequal
Beyond this, variability reigns. There was probably always consid-
erable differentiation in peasant villages, between first settlers and late-
comers, between prosperous households and impecunious ones, between
lucky and unlucky people, between the man who can add a new cow to
his stall each year and the man whose barn keeps burning down and
whose cows sicken. With the coming of the market, these differences
widen. Lenin saw an ever-increasing differentiation in Russian villages
before 1917 into rich, middle, and poor peasant households, as well as
the growth of a population of the landless poor. The process of differ-
entiation and its opposite—dedifferentiation—is probably more com-
plex than this. Teodor Shanin has offered a multifactorial model to ex-
plain both directionality and cycling of peasant mobility in Russia
(1972). The centrifugal processes of differentiation in terms of wealth

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256 Peasants

were offset by centripetal processes, such as land redivisions adminis-

tered by the communes and changes in households through partition,
merger, extinction, and emigration of members.
The second set of questions accentuates further possible sources of
variability. Ecological variation is vastly important in a system of pro-
duction and consumption so closely dependent upon direct interchanges
with nature. Variability in political domination, in access and sway of
commodity markets, and in involvement in monetary circuits also acts
to further differentiate peasant households from one another. Are we
dealing with peasantries in core areas or semi-peripheries or peripheries?
Is not the core a multiplicity of cores with varying relationships among
them, and is not the periphery a multiplicity of peripheries with equally
differentiated relationships? Instead of a model of society possessed of
firm boundaries and constituted of homogeneous parts, shall we not do
better with the model of a constellation, built up out of a multiple of
heterogeneous components?
But having said this, it seems to me that there are recurrent problems
at all these different levels, which we could call “peasant problems,”
and hence some recurrent syndromes, which we could call “peasant syn-
dromes.” Borrowing from some earlier terminology, I would identify
one such peasant syndrome as the “paleotechnic syndrome” and another
as the “neotechnic syndrome.”
Let me say first something of the paleotechnic problems and syn-
dromes. If we begin by looking at the peasant as an agent of production,
we are quickly faced with a number of facts that make peasantry a
condition of life different from that of other humans engaged in labor.
First, the raising of crops and livestock requires the establishment, man-
agement, and maintenance of an ecosystem—a small ecosystem, but an
ecosystem nevertheless. This needs emphasis, because the maintenance
of such an ecosystem cannot respond to monetary promptings alone.
The ecosystem sets direction to what can be grown and raised, and it
also sets limits to what may be done with land and stock, if the land
and stock are to yield in successive years. All this is obvious enough, but
it also has consequences. One consequence is that such ecosystems are
peculiarly vulnerable to variation in the constituent variables. Peasants
may try to grow a number of different crops in order to have one crop
to eat or sell when another one fails. But sometimes the variations are
very great, and then the whole system is out of kilter. Or the peasant
adaptation produces long-term effects that cause the system to run down
slowly, through overgrazing or overuse, and then fewer people will be

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Is the “Peasantry” a Class? 257

able to survive where more lived and survived in the past. Some ecosys-
temic variables, such as the incidence and spread of disease, may, more-
over, be uncontrollable. Households will also vary in their ability to
manage their particular microsystemic mix, and some will rise while
others sink as a result of such differentials.
Second, peasant households may be looked upon as economic firms,
but they are firms of a peculiar sort. Because they are, for the most part,
kinship units of some kind, what the kinship unit produces and what it
consumes will be closely intertwined, and the division of tasks by sex
and age will be intertwined as well. On one hand, this introduces par-
ticular rigidities, in that one cannot dissolve and extinguish families the
way one can dissolve and extinguish firms, and this makes peasant
households cautious about changes and their unpredictable conse-
quences. On the other hand, family labor can be greatly intensified when
required, and the family is particularly efficient in combining many dif-
ferent kinds of tasks at short notice. Another way of saying this is that
the family is especially good at exploiting itself. Again, all of this will
vary from household to household, and some households will be un-
usually competent at self-exploitation while others will be spendthrift
and slovenly. Again, some will survive, while others will go under.
Third, the fusion of production and consumption feeds back into the
character of the peasant ecosystem. Peasant households not only raise
crops and livestock, they also gather fuel, stockpile manure, provide
shelter, process and make clothing. They will carry some goods to mar-
ket, to sell or barter for other goods, to acquire yokes for oxen, or
candles for the household altar, or incense for the graves of the dead,
or nails, or machetes from Connecticut. If there have been peasants who
did not produce some goods for exchange and for money, they must
have been rather few in number. Peasant households tend to be oriented
toward use values, but they live with money as a means for acquiring
more use values than they themselves produce.
Their need to produce both use values and exchange values in order
to acquire other commodities puts them into a situation in which they
must balance the gains and costs of production for subsistence and pro-
duction for the market. From the point of view of ensuring their survival,
they may wish to produce the many different things they need themselves
and to reduce their dependence on the market. From the point of view
of obtaining money, they will try a mix of strategies that will yield
money. The women may make pots during the agricultural slack season;
the whole family may make fruit boxes in the wintertime; a son who is

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258 Peasants

especially good at making yokes will be given time off to do so; other
children will be sent to the homes of the rich to become temporary
servants or will spend time away as wage laborers.
I do not think we know enough about what prompts peasants into
money-making ventures; the assumption that all people have an innate
impulse to “truck and barter” does not seem sufficient, because they
sometimes do and sometimes do not. Often it is the need to cover cer-
emonial expenditures that seems significant; at other times it is the im-
position of a tax that has to be met. Finally, there is the wish to get rich,
to have money to buy what money can buy, the realization that if one
grows a cash crop or raises cattle that can be sold, one will have more
to live better. Again, this is not an obvious point.
Every village contains its Grossbauern, its kulaks, its yeomen, its pres-
tamista-caciques; and these positions are most often not just economic
but also political and ceremonial. That is to say, in addition to the dif-
ferentiation of a peasantry according to its variable abilities to manage
its ecosystems and its balance of subsistence and purchasing, there is
also an internal differentiation into strata: the village bourgeoisie, those
who have just enough, and the poor. But these are rarely distinct classes.
Most often they are relatives, domestic groups in various stages of the
domestic cycle, rich who have become poor and poor rising to greater
wealth. Villages are most often characterized by cyclical mobility, or at
least by the upward-spiraling mobility of some and the downward-
spiraling mobility of others. One factor in this is the manner in which
each generation hands on its permanent resources to the next. Inheri-
tance will inevitably divide the peasantry into those who stay and those
who leave, those who have inherited enough and those who have in-
herited too little. Put another way, a peasantry is always giving off mem-
bers to the population of agricultural wage laborers; but it also always
has members who have money, wealth—and who connect it economi-
cally and politically to sources of capital, in town.
The neotechnic syndrome involves a growing and ultimately complete
commitment to crop specialization and, hence, to the movement of crops
and the exchange of commodities in a market. Now, this has been easier
in some places than in others. In worldwide perspective, it seems to me
to have been easier in “frontier” areas than in areas already organized
in terms of a paleotechnic peasantry linked to some kind of tributary
mode of production. I am not speaking here of Canada, the United
States, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa, which, after all, were
part of the expanding core and the recipients of the major capital flows

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Is the “Peasantry” a Class? 259

during the nineteenth century. What I have in mind are such areas as
the rice bowl of Southeast Asia—Lower Burma, Thailand, Cochin China
(Nam Bo); the expansion of rubber growing and tobacco raising among
small producers in the Indonesian islands outside Java and in Malay;
the migration of people in the southeastern part of the Gold Coast who
began to move in the 1890s from the Akwapim ridge to virgin land in
nearby Akim Abuakwa, so well documented by Polly Hill (1963); the
march to the internal margins by cultivators in South America.
In both the paleotechnic and the neotechnic syndromes, therefore, we
can see structurally based sources of variability among peasants. To
analyze that variability within a grasp of recurrent peasant problems
and historical realities seems to me a more productive undertaking than
to assume or seek uniformities that would mark a putative “class cate-

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