‘Primitive and irrational’ – autopsy of a social dogma

Romanian-British historian Dr. David Mitrany’s 1950 book, Marx Against the Peasant: a Study in Social Dogmatism, is a pleasant surprise in a number of ways. For one thing, it is prescient in ways one wouldn’t normally suspect. In 1950, Europe was struggling in the midst of political division, poverty and wrack. The Marshall Plan for Europe’s reconstruction had only just been implemented two years earlier, and the Soviet Union’s political influence loomed large in the east. The world was caught between two huge superpowers, the one liberal and the other communist, and the intellectual world was likewise polarised between them. As Dr. Mitrany himself puts forth in the book’s preface: ‘Nowadays it is taken for granted that a story which has anything to do with communism or Soviet Russia must be either a panegyric or an attack. I can only hope that this story will not be read in that mood.’ Thankfully, even though the author himself tends toward a kind of liberal idealism at certain junctures, his work stands on its own as a ‘non-aligned’ view.

Secondly, Mitrany’s voice begins to deliberately echo that of Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong, whose contemporary studies of the Chinese peasantry I have reviewed here previously, as well as foreshadowing certain insights of E.F. Schumacher. His central argument, that left to its own devices – and not subjected to political violence or interference from the towns – the economy of the smallholder peasantry is in fact healthy and durable. He suggests that the Marxist (and, by extension also, the liberal-capitalist) view of the peasant as reactionary, backward, poverty-mired, stupid, ‘primitive and irrational’ has been falsified by the interwar history of the nascent peasant politics of eastern Europe. He argues convincingly that democratic-socialist parties throughout eastern Europe wrote their own suicide notes by despising and ignoring the traditional smallholder peasantry; and that the success of Leninist parties, first in Russia and later throughout eastern Europe, demonstrates more aptly the willingness of Leninism to tactically jettison key elements of Marxist theory than it does the strength of Marxist theory itself. And he points rather sorrowfully to the unfulfilled promise of peasant populism in the East, crushed first under fascist and then under communist heels.

This book is fairly narrow in scope; it does not look very far beyond the band of nations sandwiched between Germany, Austria, Italy and the Soviet Union. Also, it is organised thematically rather than chronologically, which makes some of the major historical threads, on occasion, difficult to follow. Additionally, his treatments of the peasant parties’ reactions and resistance against fascism are tantalising, and, if further explored, would go a long way toward dismissing the (sadly still-extant) canard that eastern European populism was amenable to reactionary military dictatorships. But even considering these limitations, the book is an immensely interesting one. Dr. Mitrany explores four themes: the ideological tension between Marxism and populism; the Marxist victory and political programme in Russia; the populist reaction in the neighbouring countries; and the subsequent establishments of fascist and Soviet-satellite dictatorships.

Is big beautiful?

Karl Marx, seeing history deterministically in stages and noting the (in many cases forced) mass migration from country to town that was involved in the capitalist transition, set his face firmly against the peasant masses. Taking as his model the French Revolutionary drive to bring ‘cheap bread’ into the towns, he celebrated the capitalist advances in enclosing the commons and in consolidating free smallholdings into massive monocultural cereal and cash-crop plantations. Furthermore, capitalism, Marx believed, had ‘rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life’. The peasant, isolated and bound by tradition to his own soil, had no propensity for revolutionary change. With the arrival of so many erstwhile smallholders, now robbed of their lands, into the towns, the foundations were laid for the collective class-consciousness of a nascent proletariat. For Marx, in other words, big was beautiful – because under the prevailing conditions in the West, the town was ascendant, and the country was to be valued only for feeding the towns at the lowest possible cost.

A Russian peasant family, 1907
A Russian peasant family, 1907

It should be noted here that both the liberals and the Marxists took this line of argument. Using the experience of Western Europe as an empirical guide, they argued that the peasantry as a class had to be abolished – and replaced with large-scale capitalist farmers. Following Marx, Engels, Liebknecht and Kautsky, the socialists spurned political cooperation with the peasants. Liberal capitalists like Russia’s Ivan Vernadsky and Boris Chicherin, and Romania’s Ștefan Zeletin, saw the peasant as hopelessly backward, reactionary and incapable of self-improvement or self-government; and (in Zeletin’s case) forthrightly advocated the ‘economic theft’ of peasant income to build up a centralised national capital.

So far went the ‘scientific’ analysis. But different conditions prevailed in the East, where serfdom and sharecropping had held out until very late dates, and where the peasant in bondage was beginning to develop a class consciousness independent of the towns. Marxist analysis, when imported onto Russian soil, began to flounder. In a society without a bourgeoisie, without a proletariat, to whom were the Marxist doctrines meant to be relevant? And given the vastly different face of oppression and exploitation, was Marxism any improvement at all on what the peasants already suffered under the large landowners? Dr. Mitrany here makes a very interesting distinction which runs against the grain of many Russia analysts today (myself, on occasion, included): he sees the fundamental ideological fault-line, not as between westernisers and Slavophils, but as between pro-peasant elements and anti-peasant ones. The populists, or narodniki, in Dr. Mitrany’s view, shared the same concerns for the peasantry as the Slavophils did; whilst aligned against them both were the liberal capitalists and the Marxists. In short, populist radicalism sought to create a society of free-and-equal peasants, taking (as did the Slavophils) the traditional Russian small collective farm, the mir or obshchina, as the ideal basis. Russian society, because of the unique and ancient customs of land tenure and family structure examined by von Haxthausen, would not need to suffer an expropriating capitalist transition before a just society would develop.

Dr. Mitrany makes it clear that the impact of the Slavophilism of Aleksey Khomyakov, and the populism of Aleksandr Herzen, did not stop at the border of Russia. The ideological battle on the Left between proletarian Marxism and peasant populism raged across an eastern Europe which in many respects looked similar in social makeup to Russia. But at this stage, when serfdom had but recently been abolished and the large land-holdings had not yet been broken up, these battles were for the most part theoretical. It would be left until the revolution in Russia to determine what the practical face of each movement would look like.

You can’t start the revolution without us

Dr. Mitrany very deftly manages to explode the fiction, popular nowadays in Western Europe and America, that the communists were die-hard intransigents in their Marxism, committed to violent political revolution; whereas the ‘democratic’ socialists and the social-democrats were less doctrinaire in their Marxism, more eager to compromise, more reluctant to resort to political or military force to achieve political ends. The portrait he paints of the Russian communists, rather, starting with Lenin, is that they were politically savvy and ready to jettison bits of Marxist doctrine that were tactically inconvenient when it suited their purposes.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, for example, not only continued Stolypin’s conservative reforms of Russian land tenure, but also introduced, as a means to cajole the peasantry into adhering to the mass line, a New Economic Policy which guaranteed – at least on paper – individual land tenure for the peasants that wanted it, and the freedom to sell their surplus produce on the markets. Lenin repeatedly cautioned against using overt force against the peasantry; instead, the beginnings of farm collectivisation under Lenin were accomplished by a mixture of underhanded political tricks and overt political advertisement of the benefits of mechanical collective farming. Some of the tactical concessions to the peasantry, for example the semi-privatised kolkhoz farm tenure, had the dual benefit of assuaging fears of expropriation (and thus removing a potential political threat) and nudging peasants toward more comprehensive forms of collective tenure.

On the contrary, it was the Mensheviks and Plekhanov – and later Trotsky – who objected in the strongest terms to Lenin’s ‘deviation’ from Marxist doctrine, and accused him of ‘favouring the kulak’ in his economic plans. In the end, the line that Stalin followed with regard to the peasant concurred with Trotsky’s: he reversed the New Economic Policy and instituted a régime of forced collectivisation. Dr. Mitrany is careful to note, however, that Lenin differed from the Mensheviks, Trotsky and Stalin only on the matter of tactics. The end goal was always the same: to retain the support of the peasantry long enough to establish an independent proletarian political presence, then to ‘neutralise’ the peasant as a reactionary force, and finally to institute large-scale mechanised agriculture through the collectives, for the benefit of the proletarian revolution. However, the intransigence of the democratic socialists in defence of a pure ideological Marxism would be a theme that repeated itself over and over in the interwar years, and not only in Russia.

91JqxkNYbXLLenin took the tack that he did, in large part because he understood that in Russia, any revolutionary fervour would come first from the rural peasantry! Only such a ‘deviant’ Marxism would have met with any success in a Russian context in the first place – he truly couldn’t have won the Russian Revolution without peasant support. With the proletarian vanguard as weak as it was, Lenin had little choice but to adopt the tactics of suasion with the rural revolutionaries. The Leninist play-book was first and foremost to co-opt and harness that populist radicalism, but keep it under tight enough control that it would serve proletarian, communist ends. However, once the Bolsheviks had been lifted to the ‘commanding heights’ of the Russian economy, as Dr. Mitrany asserts, on the backs of the toiling former serfs, they had no compunctions against using the brute force of law against those same former serfs to achieve their political and economic ambitions.

The green rising

But the Russian Revolution, in concert with the Great War, had an unintended side-effect. The independent nations all along the Russian border began breaking up the large landed estates and latifundia, and dividing up the land amongst the peasants who had been farming it all along. In part, this was done tactically to stave off a peasant revolt. But it also proved necessary for economic reasons to complete the emancipation of serfs which had begun half a century before. The immediate effects of this redistribution, from a top-down macroeconomic standpoint, looked like stagnation: government funds were drying up, trade was tapering off and capital investment in the towns was grinding to a juddering halt. However, on a microeconomic scale, the reforms were highly beneficial for the mass of the people, who now found themselves more secure, better-fed and with more leisure time to rebuild infrastructure and educate themselves. Though they stood in rags, at least they now stood on their feet.

With more food, better education and a sudden importance in national affairs as the main provider of food to the towns, the smallholding peasant developed a political consciousness in very rapid order, and the doctrine that appealed most to him was that of populism. The thought of Khomyakov, Kireevsky, Herzen and Mikhailovsky, had found ready adherents even as that thought was being attacked in its own homeland. They were equally sceptical of involuntary collectivism and of the self-serving individualism of the towns – they were neither, in short, communist nor capitalist. As their political consciousness began to grow, they began to understand the need for security in their own holdings, over-against both a mercantilist state and a cartel of banking interests. Contra those observers who hold Russian and American forms of populism to be fundamentally dissimilar, Dr. Mitrany notes that the Eastern European populists – much like their American counterparts – sought a distinctive remedy in the ‘co-operative society’: collective bargaining through producers’ co-operatives, as well as collective financing through credit co-operatives. Individual smallholders sought to bolster their position through ‘technical, financial and commercial, and also insurance arrangements … intended to secure to [themselves] the benefits of large-scale farming’, though with the end goal in mind of a basic level of village self-sufficiency, and not a concentration of capital and political power in the town.

Even though the strong attachment to the land meant that political consciousness amongst the peasantry would inevitably mean an equally strong national consciousness, Dr. Mitrany (good international-relations idealist that he is) is very careful to note that, in a ‘paradoxical’ twist, these co-operative arrangements transcended national borders. They linked Bulgarian, Romanian, Yugoslav and Czechoslovak rural labourers together in a proto-internationalist network. A Green International was even established as an information clearing-house for peasant political parties, with the explicit goal of advocating for peace between its constituent nations. But here the practice of populist peasant politics did not arise out of an abstract doctrine, as had Marxism and the Socialist International. As with the People’s Party in 1880’s and 1890’s America, the practice of smallholder farming and the self-tutelage that came through a lived appraisal of their problems came first; political consciousness came afterward, through and because of the co-operatives.

In come the jackboots

The tale of the ‘green rising’, however, was cut short by a dramatic rise in far-right politics that corresponded with the Great Depression in the West. The peasants now found themselves being wooed with the romantic nationalism of the far-right; when that by and large failed to garner support, they were bludgeoned with its political violence. ‘In the East the peasant masses … solidified into a radical movement. Their groups and parties formed the main barrier against the dictatorial trend and, therefore, also its chief butt and victim.’ Right-wing bourgeois and military movements always raised their hue and cry against the Bolsheviks, but as Dr. Mitrany notes, the first victims of fascist political murders in eastern Europe were instead the leaders of the peasant parties, such as Virgil Madgearu in Romania and Aleksandar Stamboliyski in Bulgaria. Throughout the Second World War, the peasant parties in the East were largely forced underground or into a temporary détente with the communists.

Once the smoke had cleared, however, the same ideological battle that had raged in Russia between the populists and the Marxists began again in earnest, and rather than join a popular front against the communists, the democratic socialists once again showed their true colours by joining with the communists – this time driving the peasants under the left boot instead of the right. In Czechoslovakia the socialists took the initiative in banning the populist RSZML outright; in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria several attempts at a popular front were organised, but in the end the socialist parties were all either cajoled or forced into banning populist statesmen from office and populist parties from government.

All this had been done, it should be noted, out of a doctrinaire Marxist belief that the peasant was an intractably reactionary force in public life. This belief was actually slightly more flexible in practice amongst the communists under the tutelage of Lenin, who were willing to (temporarily, and always with the goal of urban industrial-collectivist utopia in mind) use the peasants as political pawns. The socialists, on the other hand, wanted a full embrace of the Western model of capitalist agrarian and industrial development, and set their faces rigidly against the populist parties who proclaimed that model unsuitable for the East.

What now?

With the collapse of the Soviet Union (hardly an eventuality at all foreseen by Dr. Mitrany in 1950), it now seems like the unanswered populist challenge continues to hover over the political realities of many places – in Asia, in Africa and in Latin America as well as in Europe. The agrarian question continues to plague economic thinkers and specialists throughout the developing world, though we are beginning to see some heartening signs of an emerging populist and distributist resistance to the assumption that ‘big is beautiful’. The Russian government, to give just one example, has taken some interesting steps toward rebuilding a smallholder agrarian economy, and recent economic events have gone some way toward encouraging that trend as well.

Dr. Mitrany’s work is still a valuable resource after 65 years, more than anything as a wayfarer’s cairn indicating where eastern Europe has been – and where it has not yet been. Though his main concern with this text is debunking a specific agrarian ‘social dogma’ within Marxism vis-à-vis populism, it is interesting to note that he leaves the populist question wide open. Far from being a failure, the path of smallholder agriculture and co-operation suggested by the ‘green rising’ in its infancy has yet to be truly explored. Though the current reviewer lacks some of Dr. Mitrany’s idealist convictions, this many-faceted work of economic history is particularly refreshing to see, and comes highly recommended.

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