'Marx Against the Peasant' by David Mitrany (1951) front cover (resized).
Green rising: the betrayal of Europe's peasant democracy
20th May 2015
100 years ago a new political movement swept across Europe, as a vision of agrarian democracy gripped a newly emancipated peasantry, writes Simon Fairlie. Betrayed by dogmatic socialists and crushed under the Nazi boot, it failed to leave a lasting mark on history. But could its time be coming once again?
What would have happened if the agrarian parties had formed working alliances with the Socialist or Communist parties is one of the great counterfactual questions of modern world history.
For a moment between the two world wars, radical political parties representing peasant interests held power in virtually every country in Eastern Europe.
The 'Green Rising', as it was sometimes called, is a movement that has been bog-brushed out of a version of history which characterises the mid 20th century as a struggle between Fascism, Communism and Capitalism.
The book was written in 1951 by the Romanian born academic and socialist, David Mitrany, in dismay that the collectivist policies which Stalin had applied so disastrously to Russian agriculture in the 1930s were now being rolled out across Eastern Europe.
The power of a democratic peasantry unleashed
The Green Rising began with the rapid dismantling of feudalism in Eastern Europe after World War I when nearly all countries in the region carried out some degree of land reform.
"The abortive Russian revolution of 1905 stirred the embers of peasant restlessness, the fierce Rumanian rising of 1907 followed close upon it and the Revolution of 1917 shook all social foundations throughout central and eastern Europe ...
"The reforms were hurriedly brought forward for the very purpose of staving off revolt ... In most of the eastern countries, it might be said, the ruling landed class hastened to give up the land so as to retain power."
Land redistribution diminished differences between rich and poor peasants and helped to unite the peasantry as a social class. There were about 100 million peasants in Eastern Europe who had acquired the right to vote (as long as parliamentary democracy held sway), and who easily outnumbered both the urban middle class and the industrial proletariat.
They were the backbone of the Peasant parties which formed governments in Bulgaria and Poland in 1920, in Romania in 1928, and which held power in coalition governments in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. There were Peasant parties in Finland and the Baltic States. Only in Hungary where land reform had been negligible and peasants remained disenfranchised was there no influential peasant movement.
Property-owning anti-capitalism - a contradiction in terms?
The philosophy of this movement, says Mitrany, "did not fit neatly into any of the political doctrines, having taken parts and traits from all of them.
"Its attachment to private property was more staunch than any Conservative party; it shared with Liberalism an absolute devotion to democratic government, and also a dislike of excessive state interference with the life of groups and individuals; its social ideals were close to Socialism. Most of the parties advocated a share for workers on the control and profits of industry."
But all these similarities were held with a difference: the Peasant idea of property was very different from that of the Conservatives in western 'acquisitive society', and the dislike of state interference was equally far from a belief in laissez-faire.
In regard to land, especially, the peasants believed empirically in a 'property of use' - ie, land to the tiller. Holding such ideas on property in land they were very unlikely to approve the unrestricted accumulation of other forms of property.
A cardinal point of the Peasant programmes was the need to restrict and gradually eliminate the function and power of capitalist middlemen - bankers, traders etc; but they wanted this done through co-operative action, the axis on which their whole economic thinking revolved, and not the Marxist way through wholesale nationalisation.
'Eclectic, not dogmatic'
If they rejected the Soviet collectivist system, it was above all because by its nature it would be made and controlled centrally from the towns. The Peasant movement, says Mitrany, "was eclectic, not dogmatic" except insofar as it was steadfastly rural:
"The movement naturally had a bias towards a rural society, towards 'an agrarian system based on the peasant's own labour and private ownership, restricted by public interest.' The small family holding was to be its foundation because they looked upon it not merely as a means of living but as a way of life."
In this context farming was carried out initially for subsistence, and only secondarily for the market, and as a result farms tended to shun monoculture and produce a range of products - dairy, vegetables, pork, seeds, fuelwood and so on as well as corn - so as to meet household needs. But the Peasant movement was not inherently anti-industrial:
"Any new industries had to meet two conditions above all: to produce things needed by the mass of the people, and, using native materials in the process, to give employment to as large a number of them as possible. For this reason the Peasant movement wanted industries to be scattered widely in smaller units across the land, to give the peasants additional employment during the slack season."
This was a programme that had been mapped out only a few years before by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, in his book Fields, Factories and Farming.
Victims of their own ideals
Although they were successful at gaining power, the Peasant parties were not very good at holding onto it. Only in Czechoslovakia did the Republican Party of Farmers and Small Peasants remain the dominant partner in a coalition government until 1939 when the country was invaded by Hitler.
In most of the other nations the peasant parties were ousted by dictatorships and often continued only as parties in exile. Mitrany identifies a number of reasons for this failure. First of all they were politically naive:
"Socialism had been a movement in the West long before it could organise in parties; the eastern peasantries found themselves called upon to act as parties before they had been educated politically and philosophically as a movement."
This naivety was compounded by a lack of political ruthlessness:
"The Peasant parties were determined to remain loyal to democratic principles - the Croat movement under the guidance of Stjepan Radic was actually committed to the principle of non-violence - and this very devotion left them helpless victims of their own ideals when attacked by vengeful opponents."
So it was that in Bulgaria the peasant government was deposed, and its leader Stamboliski assassinated by a conservative / military coup d'état that has a more recent parallel in the ousting of President Allende by General Pinochet in Chile.
The progressive government in Poland was similarly toppled by Pilsudski's coup in 1926. The Croat Peasant party, though in control of the entire province, was repeatedly subject to the imprisonment and murder of its leaders.
Another factor that helped to weaken the position of the Peasant parties was lack of support from Western governments, even though (being in the majority) the peasants were standard bearers for parliamentary democracy.
"No economic help came to them from the West even when in power, though their programmes were progressive. The frequent violence brought into action against them provoked no single protest from Western governments, though it was clear that no other party or movement could, by offering a basis for democratic process, provide a check alike both to Bolshevism and Fascism.
"Nor did the western governments show any reluctance to work actively with the dictatorial regimes in eastern Europe throughout the same inter-war period."
Socialist betrayal - peasants insufficiently 'proletarian'
However the deeper theme of Mitrany's book is the failure of the Socialist and Communist parties to co-operate with the Peasant parties in what could and should have been a united front against Fascism and capitalism.
Much of Mitrany's book, (written in 1951 when Communism was still a powerful force on the world stage and the main inspiration to opponents of capitalism) is devoted to analysing the Marxist failure to engage and co-operate with radical Peasant movements.
The roots of this failure he traces back to the postulate by Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto and other writings, that a Socialist state can only emerge after society has undergone a historical process culminating in a period of capitalist concentration from which an industrial proletariat will emerge and rise victorious.
The agricultural worker had to become proletarian before he could be revolutionary, and hence large industrial farms were to be encouraged and small independent farms eliminated. But as Mitrany pointed out in 1951, and it remains true today, revolution has never happened like this:
Communism has only come to power where by all Marxist tenets it might have been least expected that it could. In every instance from 1917 in Russia to 1949 in China, communism has ridden to victory on the back of discontented peasantries - a proletarian revolution without a proletariat.
Mitrany's account of how Russian communism attempted to come to terms with this fundamental contradiction may not tell us much that we are not now well aware of: the free rein given to the peasantry during Lenin's New Economic Policy, the disastrous attempt at collectivisation in the 1930s and the concessions Stalin was eventually forced to make to the peasantry to prevent outright revolt.
The peasant-worker alliance that only once happened
The more revealing point that Mitrany makes is that in Eastern Europe the Socialist parties refused for ideological reasons to support the demands of the peasantry:
"The Bulgarian Socialists joined the reactionary government which had brought about by violence the end of Stamboliski and his government; the Hungarian Socialists after 1920 abstained from all activities amongst landless labourers in virtue of a pact with Count Bethlen, which in return assured them a measure of parliamentary representation; the Yugoslav Party often worked with the regime against the Peasant opposition."
Neither the Peasant parties nor the Socialists were able to prevent the rise of national dictatorships and subsequently Fascism, and in Mitrany's view, "their joint failure was largely due to their separate action".
Only in Czechoslovakia did the Peasants and the Socialists co-operate, and only in that country did a Peasant-dominated coalition stay in power until 1939. As Andrew Coulson observes:
"What would have happened if the agrarian parties had formed working alliances with the Socialist or Communist parties is one of the great counterfactual questions of modern world history.
"Mitrany surmises that they would have controlled the parliaments elected in these countries and delivered policies that would have brought about industrialisation, at the same time promoting small-scale agriculture, with popular support and without compulsion."
But instead Mitrany is obliged to conclude: "Marxist theory and practice have dug a deeper gulf between town and country in peasant countries than any other social current before or after it. Nothing has cramped the Socialist ideal of the unity of all workers more than the Marxist creed of proletarian supremacy."
Sixty years later, Mitrany's book helps explain how and why the Eastern bloc countries, even under the yoke of the Communist Party, managed to maintain a healthy subculture of peasant and subsistence farming; why today almost half the food in Russia is produced by small farms; why small farmers in Poland are rallying to resist the monopolising forces of the EU; and why Romania's farming practices are idealised by latterday peasants, nature conservationists and the Prince of Wales.
Mitrany does end his book with a note of optimism: "There is nothing ultimate about a collectivised farm. A factory cannot be taken apart and its machines turned back into hand-tools. But a Socialist estate is as easily broken up as a 'feudal' estate, and a 'brigaded' farm labourer can easily carry on as a peasant again."
We must not forget that capitalist mega-farms can be broken up as well.
Simon Fairlie edits The Land Magazine, where this review was first published (Issue 17, Winter 2014 / 2015).
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The book: 'Marx Against the Peasant: A Study in Social Dogmatism', by David Mitrany, University of North Carolina Press, 1951. Copies available on Amazon.
See also Andrew Coulson, 'The Agrarian Question: the Scholarship of David Mitrany Revisited', Journal of Peasant Studies 41:3 2014.
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