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Excerpt from: Michael Löwy - The politics of combined and uneven development: The theory of permanent revolution (1981) p. 122 - 125


The Peasantry

The crucial role of the peasantry in all the victorious socialist revolutions after 1917 reveals some important common traits: First, the peasants constituted the main social base for the revolutionary process, at least until the seizure of power. They furnished the vast majority of members of both the revolutionary party and the popular army. Second, unlike the experience of Russia in 1917, where peasant unrest was stimulated by the working-class upsurge in the towns, the mobilization of the peasantry in these other cases

was not a result of the mass activity of the urban proletariat. Third, the peasants massively supported and were recruited to parties that proclaimed allegiance to communism and did not hide their socialist revolutionary aims(with the exception of Cuba until 1960). Fourth, the progressive collectivization of agriculture after the seizure of power (with the exception of Yugoslavia where a small peasantry has remained entrenched) was supported by vast sections of the rural poor and did not encounter the massive opposition of the peasantry as had been the case in the Soviet Union.

These facts, while being perfectly compatible with the fundamental postulates of the theory of permanent revolution, do, however, contradict several of Trotsky’s specific assertions about the peasantry, especially with regard to China. (Although, as we have seen, he was ready to revise in 1939 the classical Marxist conception of the peasantry as a ‘non-socialist class’.) Moreover, Trotsky’s views on the peasantry reflected traditional Russian Marxist views, and these attitudes, because of their profound purchase on

modern revolutionary theory, require a thorough re-assessment. The revolutionary role of the peasantry is simply a huge historical fact that occupies a central place in the unfolding dynamic of revolution in the twentieth century. It cannot be pushed aside as an ‘historical accident’ or as an episodic ‘deviation from the norm’. It must be squarely confronted and

scientifically explained.

In our view it is precisely the theory of permanent revolution itself that offers the most consistent and comprehensive explanation of the two most important underlying determinants of the peasantry’s revolutionary inclinations: (1) the unequal and combined development of capitalism in agriculture has produced a deep crisis in the rural life of the colonial and semi-colonial countries. As Eric Wolf has stressed, ‘the spread of the market has torn men up by the roots and shaken them loose from the social relationships into which they were born’. A situation of acute instability has been created where ‘new wealth does not yet have legitimacy, and old power no longer commands respect. Traditional groups have been weakened, but not yet defeated, and new groups are not yet strong enough to wield decisive power.’[1] A similar view has been expressed in a recent

essay by James Petras, who rightly insists on the social consequences of imperialist penetration; ‘The immediate effect of imperial domination has been to accentuate the uprootedness of the rural labour force: the decomposition of the village through force, commercial relations and/or corporate expansion has been a central feature of pre-revolutionary societies. . . . It is the dispossessed former peasant, uprooted by the combined politicomilitary-economic efforts of imperial powers, who has set in motion the movement of peasants toward political action. . . . Indeed this transformation of the peasantry is clearly the reason that rural labour has been so prominent in all successful socialist revolutions to dare;’[2] (2) the failure of the national bourgeoisie to provide radical democratic solutions to the agrarian and national questions has, thus, led the rebellious Peasantry to support and/or join communist movements.

The ‘peasantry’ is, of course, a very broad concept that conflates heterogeneous social strata which have engaged in quite different ways with the revolutionary process. Rich peasants, obviously, have in general been hostile or at least neutral to communist-led revolutionary movements.

Paradoxically, the first section of the peasantry who usually have been mobilized have not been the poorest strata, but rather the middle peasantry, peasant smallholders. In his well-known essay on peasants and revolution, Hamza Alavi exposes as mythical the famous assertion of Mao’s that the struggle in Hunan was waged and led by primarily poor peasants; in fact, it was the middle peasants who were from the first the most militant of the rural masses.[3] Similar trends, as we have seen, characterized the Cuban

revolution; indeed, as Eric Wolf has observed, the central role of the middle peasantry has been common in all the great peasant wars’ of the century (Mexico, Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria). ‘Possession of some land grants the property-owning peasant a measure of independence not possessed by the peasant who depends for his livelihood primarily on his immediate overlord. The property-owning peasant thus has some independent leverage which he can translate into protest more easily than a man who options are severely restricted by a situation of total dependence.[4]

The poor and landless rural population (sharecroppers, tenants, wagelabourers and so on), potentially more radical than the middle peasants and more objectively inclined to the collecrivist aims of the communist movement, generally join the ‘peasant war’ only at a secotd stage when the power of the landlords and local authorities has already been shaken. Comparing the various experiences of peasant insurgency in the Third World,

Wolf concludes that ‘the poor peasant or landless labourer who depends on a landlord for the largest part of his livelihood, or the totality of it, has no tactical power; he is completely within the power domain of his employer, without sufficient resources of his own to serve him as resources in the power struggle. Poor peasants and landless labourers, therefore, are unlikely to pursue the course of rebellion, unless they are able to rely on some external power to challenge the power which controls them.’ As examples

of such external’ forces, he cites the peasant soldiers who returned to the villages, weapons in hand, after the collapse of the Russian army in 1917, and the role of the red army in China’s rural areas.[5] Analyzing the Chinese ‘peasant war’, Alavi criticizes the distorted portrait of the struggle in Mao’s writings: ‘The poor peasant is depicted to be spontaneously and unconditionally playing a revolutionary role; a picture which obscures the crucial role of the Communist Party, a party with a proletarian revolutionary perspective, and the Red Army which broke the existing structure of power in the village, which prevented the Chinese revolution from degenerating into an ineffective peasant uprising.’[6]

In this respect Trotsky was correct in insisting that the peasantry could only play a consistent revolutionary role under proletarian and communist leadership. The rebel peasants required an urban intellectual and working-class revolutionary vanguard in

order to attain socialist consciousness and to become organized on a nation al scale. In the absence of such leadership, the peasant movement either remained local and ineffective, or followed bourgeois or petty-bourgeois leadership, as in Mexico and Algeria. The peasant movement by itself could not seize power or undertake the transformation of society.[7]

Even Wolf, a particularly sympathetic historian of peasant insurgency, recognizes this fact: ‘Marxists have long argued that peasants without outside leadership cannot make a revolution; and our case material would bear them out. Where the peasantry has successfully rebelled against the established order—under its own banner and with its own leaders—it was sometimes able to reshape the social structure of the countryside closer to its heart’s desires; but it did not lay hold of the state, of the cities which

house the centers of control…


[1]               Wolf, pp. 282-3, 295.

[2]               James Petras, ‘Socialist Revolutions and Their Class Components’, New Left Review 111

                (September.Ocjober 1978), pp. 44-5.

[3]               Haniza Alavi, ‘Peasants and Revolution’, Socialist Register 1965, pp. 258-61.

[4]               Wolf, p. 202. According to Wolf, another section of the rural classes with a propensity to

                rebellion are the ‘marginal’, ‘free’ or ‘tactically mobile’ peasants not directly under the control

                of the landowners. (pp. 290-3) Out analysis of the role of the peasantry of the Sierra Maestra in

                the Cuban revolution would tend to confirm this hypothesis.

[5]               lbid., p. 290.

[6]               Alavi, p. 260.

[7]               44This does not mean, however, that Marxists should consider the peasantry merely as an

                instruments; as Alavi justifiably insists, ‘for socialists, the question is not merely that of

                mobilizing peasant support as a means for achieving success in their struggle, The question is

                nor just that of utilizing the forces of the peasantry. The free and active participation of the

                peasantry in transforming their mode of existence and giving shape to the new society, in

                itself, must be an essential part of the socialist goal.’ (ibid., p. 242),


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