- Capitalism and Alternatives -

The Small Peasant

Posted by: Barry Stoller on November 14, 1999 at 14:38:36:

Rereading Engels' major work on winning the small peasant over to socialism struck me as exceedingly cogent and relative to the debate Nikhil and I are having.

In Engels' view, the small peasant is acknowledged as an atavus, a historical casualty of the Industrial Revolution. Also he acknowledged that the small peasant---as an private owner of means of production---is an uncertain comrade. And, finally, the small peasant is seen as a necessary ally in the fight against capital.

Such contradictions are, of course, the stuff of N.E.P. legend.*

All quotes are from The Peasant Question in France and Germany, 1894, and can be found in the link provided above.

[The peasant] is a future proletarian.

Due to capital's ever-rapacious influence upon the small peasant---bank loans, market prices for produce, equipment and seed costs, etc., the peasant soon becomes 'legally' expropriated. America has centralized agriculture without violence but as certainly as Stalin's policies...

[The peasant] ought to lend a ready ear in socialist propaganda. But he is prevented from doing so for the time being by his deep-rooted sense of property. The more difficult it is for him to defend his endangered patch of land, the more desperately he clings to it, the more he regards the Social-Democrats, who speak of transferring landed property to the whole of society, as just as dangerous a foe as the usurer and lawyer.

However, owing to the encroachments of industrialization and the globalization of capital:

Possession of the means of production by the individual producers nowadays no longer grants these producers real freedom.

Engels then makes a CLEAR distinction between his (and Marx’s) socialism---and the socialism of petit-bourgeois parties wooing the peasant with promises of permanent land ownership:

[Socialism's] task is...only to transfer the means of production to the producers as their common possession.

We have no more use for the peasant as a Party member, if he expects us to perpetuate his property in his small holding, than for the small handicraftsman who would fain be perpetuated as a master.

Nevertheless, Engels rejects forcible agricultural collectivization, arguing that the small peasant can be won over to socialism by the abundance and efficiency provided by industrial methods, agricultural improvements that can only be provided by factories, i.e. from the proletariat:

[W]hen we are in possession of state power, we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compensation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners. Our task relative to the small peasant consists, in the first place, in effecting a transition of his private enterprise and private possession to cooperative ones, not forcibly but by dint of example and the proffer of social assistance for this purpose.

The main point is, and will be, to make the peasants understand that we can save, preserve their houses and fields for them only by transforming them into co-operative property operated co-operatively. It is precisely the individual farming conditioned by individual ownership that drives the peasants to their doom. If they insist on individual operation, they will inevitably be driven from house and home and their antiquated mode of production superseded by capitalist large-scale production. That is how the matter stands. Now, we come along and offer the peasants the opportunity of introducing large-scale production themselves, not for account of the capitalists but for their own, common account. Should it really be impossible to make the peasants understand that this is in their own interest, that it is the sole means of their salvation?

Again, Engels is clear on the subject of peaceful and persuasive collectivization:

We, of course, are decidedly on the side of the small peasant; we shall do everything at all permissible to make his lot more bearable, to facilitate his transition to the co-operative should he decide to do so, and even to make it possible for him to remain on his small holding for a protracted length of time to think the matter over, should he still be unable to bring himself to this decision.

However, he is equally clear on the necessity of ending private ownership of the means of production (however small) in the socialist future:

[W]e can do no greater disservice to the Party as well as to the small peasants than to make promises that even only create the impression that we intend to preserve the small holdings permanently.


* For anyone interested in Lenin's pragmatic, noncoercive approach to small peasants---an approach utterly faithful to Engels' words above---I suggest starting with his speech delivered at the 1st Congress of Agricultural Communes and Agricultural Artels, 4 December 1919, as well as section 5 of 'Left-Wing' Communism---an Infantile Disorder.

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