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International Socialism, December 1969/January 1970


Malcolm Caldwell

The Revolutionary Role of the Peasants


From International Socialism (1st series), No.41, December 1969/January 1970, pp.24-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



The correct characterisation and interpretation of the role of the peasantry in social revolution is clearly central to socialist thinking in our generation. Peasants still account for more than half the world’s population, and at least three-quarters, of the population of the so-called under-developed countries. In this paper I discuss relevant theoretical and historical considerations.

I start by posing the question of whether, in Marx’s own formulations, he regarded the revolutionary potential of the industrial proletariat as immanent or merely contingent: that is, whether he thought that in every circumstance it is the proletariat that must shoulder the obligation of conducting social revolution as a necessary consequence of its place in the production process, its life-style, etc.; or whether, on the contrary, he believed the revolutionary role of the proletariat to have been the product of specific historical circumstances.

Powerful arguments for accepting the latter have lately been marshalled by Professor Paul Sweezy. [1] Sweezy points out that Marx’s attribution of revolutionary agency to the proletariat did not spring from ‘an emotional attachment to, or blind faith in, the working class as such’, but from an analysis of the objective processes whereby it was becoming the class with both the ability and will to overthrow the bourgeois order – an ability derived from numbers, a will springing from its ‘being deprived not only of material possessions but of its essential and ultimately irrepressible humanity’ as well. Sweezy then quotes Marx at length in substantiation, and I can do no better than reproduce the relevant passage (from The Holy Family):

‘When socialist writers ascribe this world-historical role to the proletariat, this is not all ... because they take the proletarians for gods. Quite the contrary. Because the abstraction of all humanity, even the appearance of humanity, is practically complete in the fully developed proletariat, because the living conditions of the proletariat represent the focal point of all inhuman conditions in contemporary society, because the human being is lost in the proletariat but has won a theoretical consciousness of loss and is compelled by unavoidable and absolutely compulsory need (the practical expression of necessity) to revolt against this inhumanity – all these are the reasons why the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. However, it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions which give it life, and it cannot abolish these conditions without abolishing all those inhuman conditions of social life which are summed up in its own situation. It does not go through the hard and hardening school of labour fruitlessly. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the proletariat as a whole, may imagine for the moment to be the aim. It is a question of what the proletariat actually is and what it will be compelled to do historically as the result of this being. The aim and the historical action of the proletariat are laid down in advance, irrevocably and obviously, in its own situation in life and in the whole organisation of contemporary bourgeois society.’

Sweezy proceeds, with these words of Marx in mind, to draw an important distinction, quoting Engels, between ‘the period of manufacture proper, based on the division of manual labour, and the period of modern industry, based on machinery’. In the former period, technology is conservative and the proletariat, as skilled craftsmen, non-revolutionary. It is with the ‘industrial revolution’, the inauguration of the latter period, that the condition of the proletariat increasingly assimilates to the inhuman circumstances adumbrated in the quotation from The Holy Family. Machinery progressively abolishes the crafts, and skills, and renders possible the widespread employment at low wages of women and children; at the same tune technological advance (now built-in and ‘revolutionary’) slows down the rate of increase in the demand for labour power. Wages fall to, or even below, subsistence level, hours are pushed up scandalously, the machine sets an increasingly intense work-tempo. The consequence is far greater economic hardship and exploitation than had been the fate of the proletariat in the period of manufacture proper. But, at the same time, the proletariat begins to realise its political potential:

‘Old craft and geographical divisions and jealousies are eliminated or minimised. The nature of work in the modern factory requires the organisation and disciplining of the workers, thereby preparing them for organised and disciplined action in other fields. The extreme exploitation to which they are subjected deprives them of any interest in the existing social order, forces them to live in conditions in which morality is meaningless and family life impossible, and ends by totally alienating them from their work, their products, their society, and even themselves. Unlike the skilled craftsmen of the period of manufacture, these workers form a proletariat which is both capable of, and has every interest in, revolutionary action to overthrow the existing social order.’

What, however, happens if a revolutionary situation, favouring fulfilment of the revolutionary potential of the industrial proletariat, is long delayed, asks Sweezy. Would the proletariat tend to become more or less revolutionary? Sweezy’s answer is clear:

‘The revolutionary technology of modern industry, correctly described and analysed by Marx, has had the effect of multiplying by many times the productivity of basic production workers. This in turn has resulted in a sharp reduction in their relative importance in the labour force, in the proliferation of new job categories, and in a gradually rising standard of living for employed workers. In short, the first effects of the introduction of machinery – expansion and homogenisation of the labour force and reduction in the costs of production (value) of labour power – have been largely reversed. Once again, as in the period of manufacture, the proletariat is highly differentiated; and once again occupational and status consciousness has tended to submerge class consciousness.’

However, as Marx himself was aware, and subsequent Marxist writers made more systematically articulate, the relatively few rich industrialised countries cannot realistically be treated in isolation from their relatively numerous colonies and satellites. For as economic development progressed in one part of the world, that imperialism that helped impel it was simultaneously impoverishing and transforming the territories exposed to economic subjection. It is an interesting point in this connection that the impoverishing process precisely ‘de-diversifies’ the occupational structure of these countries, abolishing crafts that can no longer compete with manufactured imports, eliminating their merchant fleets in the interests of the European fleets, replacing indigenous by alien traders, etc. In the words of Furnivall, dealing specifically with Java during the Dutch period, ‘The Javanese became a people of cultivators, and the economic content of their social life was stunted’. [2] It is not hard to show, moreover, that the standard of living of the inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago fell during the Dutch period [3], and that they were subjected to the greatest humiliation and indignity by their Dutch ‘masters’. [4]

Sweezy does not, on this occasion, develop this point, but contents himself with pointing out that the description of the conditions that make the proletariat revolutionary, as given by Marx in The Holy Family, certainly cannot accurately be applied to the working class of the West today, but it does most forcefully apply to the peasant masses of the populous countries subjected to global capitalist imperialism and neo-colonialism. Moreover, the experience of the postwar period underlines this conclusion most effectively (China, Vietnam, Cuba, etc), a point to which I recur below.

‘The masses,’ concludes Sweezy, ‘in these exploited dependencies constitute a force in the global capitalist system which is revolutionary in the same sense and for the same reasons that Marx considered the proletariat of the early period of modern industry to be revolutionary.’

It should be noted, too, that while the basic productive proletariat declines in both absolute and relative numbers in the advanced countries, the peasantry is actually increasing very rapidly in the dependent territories. A further point which Sweezy might have made and elaborated is that, in interesting parallel with the transformation of craft workers to factory ‘hands’ at an earlier period, the tendency throughout the tricontinent is for more and more small-holders to be transformed into tenants (this might readily be documented for Indonesia, the Philippines and other South-East Asian countries).

Having considered Professor Sweezy’s contentions at some length, I would like now to add some further theoretical considerations. First, the question has to be posed whether Marx himself envisaged his theory of economic development as a ‘stages’ theory – that is, whether he postulated a progressive series of economic ‘stages’, each with its specific characteristics, each inexorably succeeding the previous stage. If, in fact, Marx held to a ‘stages’ theory, then it would follow that each part of the world would naturally follow, with some time lag, the experience of the developed industrial powers. However, the evidence is clear that he did not have such a view, and that he refused to be categorical about what might happen in Asia, for example, simply on the basis of what he knew and wrote about Europe. Marx, defending himself from the charge of holding to a stages theory, with inevitable progression from one to the next (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, etc), writes that ‘The chapter on primitive accumulation (i.e. in KapitalMC) does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy’ (emphasis added). In the same letter, he specifically argues that Russia, for example, has an opportunity to avoid ‘all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime’. [5] Marx goes on to argue that his critic quite wrongly metamorphoses ‘my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the general path every people is fated to tread, whatever the historical circumstances in which it finds itself ...’ and he specifically repudiates the use of a ‘general historico-philosophic theory’ as a ‘master key’.

Indeed, even from his contemplation of Europe, Marx had already come to the conclusion that the revolutionary path need not – would not – be invariable. Thus, we have the discussion of the differences between England and France on the one hand, and Imperial Germany and Tsarist Russia on the other, Marx anticipating that in the case of belated bourgeois revolutions the proletarian revolution might follow immediately on the heels of the bourgeois revolution, so that there would be in effect an uninterrupted development of the capitalist ‘stage’ towards its socialist completion. [6] Actually, this follows from Sweezy’s analysis discussed above, and Horowitz points out that while the prediction was invalidated in the case of Germany, it was vindicated in the case of Russia: ‘In the social sciences, a theory rarely receives a more striking confirmation’ (Sweezy). However, Marx in his writings made clear that the demands of the proletariat should include the capture of state power ‘in all the dominant countries of the world’ – meaning, obviously, all those that had already succeeded in becoming industrial and in profiting from imperialism.

All this is enough to dispose of the idea that Marx was enamoured of a ‘stages’ theory of history. But Engels, in a letter to Kautsky (12/9/82) makes this more explicit. In the first place, he points out – giving strong support to Sweezy’s contention that the proletariat is likely to become less revolutionary once it has survived the worst period of industrialisation – that the English workers succumb to the bribery of imperialism:

‘... You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, you see, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.’ [7]

But, more importantly, he goes on to say, in discussing the prospects of the countries outside Europe and North America, that

‘... what social and political phases these countries will ... have to pass through before they ... arrive at socialist organisation, I think we today can advance only rather idle hypotheses. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat (i.e. in the ‘dominant’ countries of the world, see above – MC) can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing.’ (emphasis added)

All this follows from the guidelines already made clear by Marx. But it makes quite explicit the rejection of a ‘stages’ concept, and adds that even the (hypothetical) victorious proletariat of the industrialised nations cannot advance the revolution in the so-called ‘underdeveloped’ countries.

Now this is an extraordinarily interesting point, and leads me to my next theoretical consideration. Rejection of a ‘stages’ formulation of history ultimately rests upon the historical insight that the period of capitalistic imperialism radically transformed both the exploiters and the exploited, so that as a consequence the ‘initial conditions’ that face the poor countries today are absolutely different from those that faced the presently rich countries when they were on the threshold of industrialisation. [8] Once this insight is coherently articulated it is self-evident. But its implications are of the very greatest importance for any discussion of the role of the peasantry in the revolution, so that it is well worth dwelling upon the point for a few moments.

The unreflective, and therefore rather conventional, view of the so-called third world countries is that they are ‘backward’, ‘underdeveloped’, lagging behind those that have succeeded in developing. It is implicit in this view that while the industrialised powers have moved ahead, the poor countries of the world have stood still, stagnated. Therefore it follows further that what is required is that the backward countries, with a time lag that can be shortened by the grant of economic ‘aid’ from the richer to the poorer, should now follow the path to economic development previously pioneered by the industrial countries. It is thinking like this that lies behind a variety of theories of economic development – including such well-known ones as Walt W. Rostow’s. [9] It is, however, fatally flawed.

For the countries that became the colonies and semi-colonies of the developing industrial powers did not remain unchanged by this experience. Nor was their transformation during the imperialist era limited to the creation of plantation and mining enclaves which left virtually unchanged the vast hinterlands. On the contrary, it has been demonstrated for all parts of the third world that ‘... the entire social fabric of the underdeveloped countries has long since been penetrated and transformed by, and integrated into, the world embracing system of which it is an integral part. [10]

If this is accepted, the implications are manifold. It follows at once, for example, that the so-called ‘backward’ countries are not pristine societies, ‘traditional societies’ in Rostow’s term, equivalent to societies in the West before they were revolutionised by industrialisation. On the contrary, the ‘traditional societies’ that the Western explorers first encountered in the earliest contacts between the two progressively disappeared under the impact of imperialist penetration. As the industrial nations waxed on imperialism and industrial capitalism, the colonies and semi-colonies by the same token languished and waned. Their economies, which demonstrably had begun to develop by occupational specialisation and diversification, by international trading, by technological innovation in sectors such as the metallurgical – were thrust ruthlessly backwards. Their social structures were as violently transformed as their economies, to suit the requirements of the imperialist powers. Old classes disappeared, new ones were created. But one thing is clear: these societies were not just ‘lagging behind’ the industrialising countries, ‘stagnating’, remaining ‘traditional’. They were moving in the opposite direction from the industrial powers, and in the process undergoing a unique historical process that has resulted in quite unique social and economic structures, and quite unprecedented social and economic problems.

If this is the case, one must respect Marx’s precedent and not fall into the error of generalising the special experience of Europe to the rest of the world. Europe’s experience must remain a unique one – unless the poor countries of today’s world themselves also succeed in grabbing colonies, exporting millions of their people to empty territories, establishing global industrial hegemony, etc! Such paths are, of course, no longer realistically open. Furthermore, precisely because of their historical experience, these poor countries lack the social classes that Europe developed on the basis of industrialisation. While an industrial proletariat was appearing in the West, for example, the proto-proletariat that had begun to arise in many of the tricontinental countries (in the form of those workers who were employed full-time in specialised crafts) was simultaneously disappearing under the impact of unequal competition from the industrial – and increasingly colonial – powers. Nor could a true bourgeoisie evolve in the colonies and semi-colonies, for it was certainly no part of the design of the colonialist powers that competitive industry should arise in their colonial possessions – far from it! They did require, however, a variety of local agents, who formed a parasitical and hopelessly dependent middle class. Even with independence, as we have seen in the post-Second World War period, true national economic development has proved impossible in those countries that have remained in the sphere of the ‘free’ (that is, of course, capitalist) world empire.

Nor should this surprise us. The problems that face the poor countries in today’s world are incomparably greater than those that faced the industrial countries when they embarked upon economic development, whether one looks at the size of their populations, the rate of growth of their populations, the density of their populations, their real resources (partly plundered in the past to facilitate the earlier industrial revolutions), their per capita incomes, or their comparative competitive position in a world already dominated by giant industrial powers. A glance at history confirms that each country in turn that has succeeded in industrialising has had greater and greater difficulty in following the pioneers. Even America and Germany, with all their advantages and precedence, required initially to protect their infant industries from British competition, while latterly countries such as Japan and Russia had to embark upon thorough ‘statism’. It should be noted that even in the British case – that of the first industrial nation – the crucial early steps were taken under mercantalism, with a significant element of state intervention, and only later, when Britain’s international industrial lead was assured, was free trade and free enterprise the order of the day.

Now, the position of neo-colonialism in which all the poor countries of the ‘free’ world empire find themselves specifically prevents them from undertaking the very steps necessary to initiate a process of national autonomous economic growth. Nor do the ruling elites display either the will or the ability to press ahead with national autonomous economic development. More advantage for them is to be gained from co-operation with the great industrial powers than from thwarting and damaging the interests of these powers – by, for example, nationalising local resources, excluding foreign investment, imposing exclusionist tariff barriers, etc. [11]

This being the case, it is impossible for a true industrial proletariat to appear before the social revolution that alone can tear such countries violently free of the neo-colonial empire which keeps them impoverished and in economic subjection. Small numbers of local workers will, of course, find employment in factories and industrial or semi-industrial processes, where such are required for the servicing of the local elites or for the convenience of the foreign importers, extractors, investors, etc. But their total numbers remain insignificant, and their position tends, typically, to be rather a privileged one – in comparison, that is, with the unemployed and semi-employed in the cities (largely a politically volatile lumpen proletariat) and with the poor rural masses. Therefore this tiny proletariat, whose numbers 1 have argued cannot significantly increase until after the social revolution that alone can liberate these countries from the ‘free’ world empire, fails to meet Marx’s desiderata, as given in the lengthy quotation above from The Holy Family, on the two important counts: swelling numbers that give the ability to conduct revolution, and inhuman conditions that provide the will.

Attentive readers will see the dilemma of those who would deny to the peasantry the key role in social revolution in today’s world, harking back to a mechanical interpretation of Marx’s theories. I shall, however, spell the dilemma out at this point. The countries of the tricontinents cannot industrialise until they succeed in winning economic autonomy from the giant industrial powers that presently dominate and subject them economically. They cannot win that autonomy, however, without waging national social revolution against the armed power of their own elites backed by the armed might of the great industrial nations. But if the revolution must be made by the proletariat, and revolution cannot be exported but must be indigenous [12], all this means that the tricontinental countries will never experience the necessary revolution, and are condemned to languish for ever in their present inferior role in the international economy!

Such a conclusion, which is the logic of those who cling to the ‘leading role of the proletariat’ interpretation of Marxism, is of course nonsense. It is nonsense theoretically, and it is nonsense in practice, as we will shortly see. Before turning to a brief historical consideration of the role of the peasantry in revolution in this century, however, I would like to make two further analytical points. The first concerns the question of ‘Socialist Man’. It would not be necessary to raise this here, were it not for the fact that 1 have frequently encountered him triumphantly brandished to confound those of us who have sought to explain the role of the peasantry in the revolution in our epoch. Isaac Deutscher quite explicitly held that men would only act unselfishly when there was no longer any material reason to be selfish – when, in other words, socialism had produced a materially rich, classless society. I personally find such a contention not only ludicrous, but also faintly repellant. However, its principal purpose was to destroy the Chinese claim to be building socialism and creating ‘Socialist Man’ in China. I find myself on this point in agreement with William Hinton, who comments:

‘This is a form of mechanical materialism akin to Liu Shao-ch’i’s “theory of the productive forces”. It says that, given a certain base, a certain superstructure will follow; that given a certain economic reform a certain political and ideological reform will follow. In reality neither Marxism nor historical development is so simple. In the ceaseless change that human society undergoes, sometimes the base is the decisive factor, sometimes the superstructure. Interaction between the two is complex and continuous. But one thing stands out as a lesson both from the Chinese Revolution as reported in Fanshen and from the Cultural Revolution of today – it takes advanced and selfless men and women to transform the world. It can be said that in the conditions of semi-feudal, semi-colonial China, only socialist men and women could carry through the anti-imperialist, anti-feudal revolution, only socialist men and women could transform this revolution into a socialist one, and only socialist men and women could carry this socialist stage to completion in the Cultural Revolution and beyond. By socialist men and women I mean men and women motivated by the working-class principle of one for all and all for one, men and women who put public interest above private interest.’ [13]

I certainly reject the contention that human selfishness is with us until – and only until, mark you – material abundance has been achieved via socialism. This is actually manifestly untrue, as countless examples of both personal, and if you like institutional, selflessness are to be found historically and contemporaneously. It is in fact a commonplace that poor people are often more generous than the rich or better-off, and both mutual self-help and social solidarity are to be found more markedly in poor communities than in rich ones. In fact, I find Deutscher’s contention quite naive and at variance with human experience and the infinite sinfulness and paradoxical goodness of all human beings. Moreover, there is a much more Idling point in repudiation of this thesis. Material abundance is not achievable on a world-wide scale, since there are important objective limitations in the way of real resources. [14] Early socialists – and even a surprising number of contemporary socialists – overlook these, and tend to imagine that, somehow, high living standards in material terms can gradually be extended from the rich classes in the rich countries to all peoples in all countries! Such is not the case. On the contrary, sooner or later living standards in the rich countries must fall. According to Deutscher this would mean that ‘Socialist Man’ would never be achieved. However, true abundance can, in my view, only be universally attained by reducing human wants, not only by multiplying material commodities. In view of this, the historical transfer of the revolutionary role from the industrial proletariat to the peasantry is of peculiar significance and interest in view of marked differences, often commented upon, between rural and urban values. [15]

Finally, I would like to draw attention to relevant observations made by Professors Wertheim and Romein. Jan Romein, in his theory of the ‘retarding lead’, or the ‘dialectics of progress’, has argued that progress achieved in the past by one society does not give it an advantage in the achievement of further progress – on the contrary, he argues that success in the past contributes towards both complacent inertia and vested interests which stand in the way of change and progress. Therefore, a further step in social evolution is more likely to come from a backward society, where built-in resistance to social change is weaker. Romein’s thesis has obviously very great implications for socialist theory, and indeed specifically for the question of the revolutionary roles of the peasantry and proletariat respectively in our era. It is obvious, for example, that the Western proletariat has indeed developed both complacency and vested interests while the tricontinental peasantry has not.

Professor Wertheim has an interesting and relevant observation to make in this respect. Clifford Geertz, in his valuable contributions to Indonesian history and sociology, drew attention to developments in indigenous entrepreneurship. [16]Arguing from an interpretation of how economic growth originated in the West, Geertz places great importance upon these potential starting-points for capitalistic development. I have argued above against this kind of mechanical transfer of models. Wertheim makes this comment, with which I largely agree:

‘... an ideology conducive to modern industrial growth in Java is much more likely to be developed, in the long run, among the modern representatives of the aristocratic priyayi class, which is more or less comparable with the regent class in the Dutch Republic and with the Japanese Samurai, and among leaders emerging from the Javanese common people, the so-called abangan, whose general attitude towards life Geertz apparently considers incompatible with economic growth because of their collectivism rooted in Javanese rural traditions. In my opinion, this tolerant and syncretistic abangan collectivism, combined with the administrative qualities fostered among a modern ised priyayi class, might well provide a basis for the creation of a bureaucratic apparatus and of modern organisational forms, such as co-operatives and unions, institutions which are, in the contemporary setting, much more conducive to industrial growth than old-style capitalism based on individual profit-making.’ [17]

Would-be local entrepreneurs may take advantage of some local opportunities, but the huge international conglomerates, with their immense economic power, experience and organisation, backed up by the governments of the great imperialist powers – and in particular by the government of the United States of America – must effectively block every avenue forward from these inevitably small-scale local economic opportunities to anything more substantial. This frustration of the local bourgeoisie is ipso facto a barrier to the development of a local proletariat.

It is time to turn now to some discussion of the meaning of ‘recent revolutionary experience. Which social class has, in practice, borne the brunt of the social revolution in recent years? In an essay of outstanding originality and relevance, Hamza Alavi [18] subjected the experience of three major countries – Russia, China and India – to analysis in an attempt to answer his self-set questions: under what circumstances do the peasantry become revolutionary? what roles do different sections of the peasantry play in revolutionary situations? In the case of China, there is no need here to present elaborate documentation for the simple factual assertion that the peasantry played the decisive role in the revolution. The pre-revolutionary Chinese peasantry did indeed fulfil every qualification required of a revolutionary social class according to Karl Marx: ‘the abstraction of all humanity, even the appearance of humanity’ was ‘practically complete’; their living conditions represented ‘the focal point of all inhuman conditions in contemporary society’. In the warlord and Kuomintang recruitment systems – a veritable trade in human souls and human flesh – the ultimate in dehumanisation may be observed, while widespread starvation, the selling of female children into prostitution, etc, complete a pattern uncannily true to that portrayed in The Holy Family.

Mao himself started work among the urban proletariat, but his own experience led him to perceive more and more clearly that the revolutionary force in China was the peasantry. This he may have had to obscure, for tactical reasons, in some of his writings, but it was abundantly clear in his practice, and, increasingly as he established his undisputed leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, in its practice as well. The central question to which we must briefly address ourselves is this: is it or is it not correct to assert, as do some mechanical Marxists, that nevertheless the relatively tiny Chinese proletariat played the crucial leadership or self-styled ‘vanguard’ role? It should be noted in the first place that those who attempt to disparage and detract from the role of the peasantry in the Chinese revolution – by attributing to ‘outside’ (urban worker, intelligentsia) groups the key leadership role – nevertheless do not concede that the undoubted and unmistakable role of the intelligentsia in the ‘vanguard’ party during the Russian revolution (Lenin and Trotsky themselves were hardly horny-handed sons of the soil and toil!) derogates from the role of the proletariat in that case! However, the whole mythology of a ‘vanguard’ elite in revolution has recently been dealt a telling body-blow in an analysis of European and Russian experience and practice [19], while in the Chinese case instances of the peasantry surging ahead of the Party are not hard to seek. [20] More time and information are required in this context before we can assess the relevance of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, though one interpretation is already suggestive. [21] Stuart Schram, in the latest edition of his book The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung quotes the Peking Review‘s remarkable interview with a ‘veteran railway worker’, who is reported as saying:

‘We of the working class follow Chairman Mao’s teachings faithfully ... encouraging ... our own children to settle in the countryside to be re-educated by the poor and lower-middle peasants so that they can temper themselves into reliable successors to the revolutionary cause of the proletariat.’ Schram comments: ‘The suggestion (is) that not merely the pampered children of the bourgeoisie, but the sons of the working class, can best learn from the peasant masses how to be ... revolutionaries.’ [22]

Mao, himself, of course, frequently commented upon ‘learning from the people’, and observed that ‘the masses and the masses alone can make history’.

Hamza Alavi, in his careful analysis of the Chinese revolution, comes to two important conclusions. One, that much of the initiative in the first instance came from the middle peasantry (independent small-holders – the poorer section of which Mao included among the poor peasantry), who were at. the same time to some extent less dependent upon the rich and the landlords but by the same token more exposed to oppressive external force (eg war-lords) since they were outside the scope of the landlord’s paternalism; and, two, that the poor peasantry (share-croppers, farm labourers, those whose plots were too small for subsistence, etc) were emboldened to act by proof of the efficacy of the Red Army in smashing irrevocably the power of the landlords, the war-lords and the rich and powerful in general. With the rising of the poorest peasants, potentially the most revolutionary, numerically the most significant, what Mao had predicted came about:

‘... several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into then-graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade, will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide.’ [23] (emphasis added)

It is only necessary to add to these conclusions of Hamza Alavi that the Red Army was essentially a peasant army [24], and that there was constant interaction between Army and peasantry (’The existence of militant mass movements prior to the arrival of the Red Army assured our success ...’ [25]) to underline conclusively the overwhelmingly predominant role of the peasantry in the world’s greatest revolution to date. That, on this basis, the Chinese people have proceeded to build socialism is hardly contestable!

It would be interesting to subject other revolutions, revolutionary situations, and failures of self-styled ‘revolutionary parties’ in Asia to detailed analysis in the light of the conclusions come to in the preceding pages. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Burma and Pakistan would all be of intense interest and relevance in this respect. However, it is clear that limitations of space preclude such an examination on this occasion. I therefore conclude with consideration of only one more historical case-study: that of Laos. This is, as it happens, however, a peculiarly relevant and significant one from the point of view of the arguments advanced in this article, since it may be said quite categorically and without fear of the slightest contradiction that here at least is a country without a single proletarian! The social structure may be characterised as: princes, parasites, and peasants. Yet Laotians are energetically and successfully undertaking fundamental social revolution and the building of socialism in the liberated areas that now embrace two-thirds of the area and half the population.

Dramatic evidence and corroboration of this was recently forthcoming in articles in Le Monde by their correspondent Jacques Decornoy, who had himself penetrated the liberated areas. [26] It is interesting that this active construction of socialism goes on while Western proponents of the ‘vanguard’ role of the (Western) proletariat write unheedingly of the peasant peoples of the tricontinents being sunk in ‘disillusionment and apathy’, their only hope ‘change and revolution in the industrial world’! [27]

After describing the incessant bombing to which Laos is subjected by America, Decornoy goes on to support the amazing achievements of the Laotian people in the liberated areas. Here, agricultural improvements, including the extension of irrigation facilities and the introduction of double-cropping, have resulted in a marked increase in the production of rice, fruit and poultry. Schools have sprung up where none existed before, teaching children by day, adults at night. A hospital, clinic and nursing service has been created where before prayers and charms along prevailed. In simple establishments the Laos have even begun manufacturing some of their own pharmaceuticals. Iron works operate on ore imported from North Vietnam and on the tons and tons of metal deposited on the surface of Laos by American planes in the form of bombs and rockets. ‘It is at the spinning mill and the weaving factory,’ writes Decornoy,

‘that a visitor finds the greatest cause for astonishment. Here the enterprise is not hidden in a cave at the foot of a mountain, but much higher up, in a place very difficult to get to which can only be reached by scaling sheer rock cut into rough steps, marked out with bamboo. Another mountain fronts this cave directly. No bomb, no rocket can possibly reach these workshops from which come both materials for dresses and for military uniforms. For about eighty metres one passes from Chinese machines, silent because they are electric, to the most ancient spinning wheels. On the left, in a small rocky enclave, girl bookkeepers balance their books. Everything has been brought there, installed, built by the textile workers, men and women. There was nothing previously here in this wild ravine, in this countryside of thickets, huge trees, and interlaced with bamboo.’

The French journalist goes on to describe the village that has also been constructed to house the textile workers, its educational system, its own agriculture. Later in his series of articles he contrasts the corruption and dissipation of the American-held cities with the earnest and purposeful nationalism of the Pathet Lao liberated areas. In sum, Laos shows

‘... what peoples dubbed “backward” by imperialism are capable of achieving, once they have succeeded in shaking off the yoke of foreign domination and breaking .the chains of oppression by internal forces: the improvement of material life, the flowering of the finest national virtues, the accession for all to human dignity and the building of a society based on justice and love.’ [28]

Finally, one must say something of revolutionary prospects. Surveying the world today, it seems to me very clear that Lin Paio’s perspective conforms more closely to reality than that of traditional Trotskyism or mechanical Europocentric pseudo-Marxism. In his well known work Long Live the Victory of People’s War! Lin Paio envisages a global repetition of the drama of the Chinese revolution – that is, the isolation of the ‘urban’ (i.e. industrialised) areas of the world in a sea of rural revolution as a prelude to the collapse of the former. Now of course this must be interpreted more generously than literally. More and more, politics hi the West will be the politics of reaction to events and initiatives elsewhere – in the tricontinents. This is already apparent, in marked contrast to the decades when Western initiatives shaped the entire world. [29] The crises of the imperialist powers may provoke reactive internal dissension and even civil disturbance, but the causes will ultimately have to be sought in the seething world of the peasant poor. Certainly this bears more relation to reality than the idea, noted above, of an apathetic peasant poor awaiting salvation from revolutionary (and, note, white) industrial workers! Much comfort was taken by mechanistic Marxists from the abortive French ‘revolution’ of 1968. In fact, this was the graveyard of their ideas, since the workers were readily bought off by application of blatant labourism.

I argued earlier that during the process of Western industrialisation, while development at all levels was transforming Western society, simultaneously the colonial and semi-colonial societies were driven back, retrogressing, in several significant particulars. Now, as the pendulum of history swings away from the West, we may witness a comparable process. Perhaps the true significance of France and Czechoslovakia 1968, and of the collapse of the one-time vigorous and hopeful anti-Vietnam war movements in the West, is that the peoples of Europe will be driven back to defence of the only significant long-term gains of the Western revolution – ‘bourgeois’ liberties, civil rights!

At least we may be sure that the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America themselves alone can transform their own lives. Since the vast majority of these peoples are peasants, the future must lie in their hands, whether it accords with one’s preconceived theories or not. It is not the monopoly of revolutionary theory to assert that ultimately people are responsible for their own destiny. In the world of today the poor, the dissatisfied and the unprivileged are peasants: therefore ‘the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain’. [30]

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1. P.M. Sweezy, The Proletariat in Today’s World, Tricontinental 9, 1968, pp.22-33,

2. J.S. Furnivall, Netherlands India, Cambridge 1944, p.44.

3. See for example M. Caldwell, Indonesia, London 1968.

4. See for example the famous Dutch novel Max Havelaar, first published in Holland in 1860.

5. See To the Editors of Otechestvenniye Zapiski, November 1877, in Shlomo Avineri (ed.) Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, New York 1968, pp.442-445.

6. See the discussion of this point in D. Horowitz, Imperialism and Revolution, London 1969, pp.32-40.

7. Engels: Engels to Kautsky, in Shlomo Avineri (ed.), op. cit., pp.447-448.

8. For an interesting discussion of this see, for example, A.G. Frank, Sociology of Development and Underdevelopment of Sociology, Stockholm 1969; G, Myrdal, Asian Dream, London

1968, chapter 14, vol.1; M. Caldwell, Political, Social and Economic Problems in South-East Asia, London Bulletin, 1969.

9. W.W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth, Cambridge 1960.

10. A.G. Frank, op. cit. In this reprint, the pages are unfortunately not numbered, which hinders citation.

11. A considerable literature has appeared in recent years in this field. I cite merely a few: P. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, New York 1957; P. Baran and P.M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, New York 1966; A.G. Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, New York 1967; M. Caldwell and J.D. Henderson, The Chainless Mind, London 1968, pp.97-223.

12. Self-reliance is, of course, a major theme in Lin Piao, Long Live the Victory of People’s War, Peking 1967, and has become accepted as a necessary feature even by orthodox commentators – see, for example, J.L.S. Girling, People’s War, 1969.

13. William Hinton, China’s Continuing Revolution, London 1969. Here again the pages are unnumbered.

14. I refer readers to the important work of Professor Hugh Nicol, The Limits of Man, London 1967.

15. Readers unfamiliar with the works of Pitirim Sorokin will find that he has many suggestive and original comments to make upon this aspect.

16. See, for example, C. Geertz, The Social History of an Indonesian Town, Cambridge, Mass. 1965; and, Peddlers and Princes, London 1963.

17. W.F. Wertheim, East-West Parallels, The Hague 1964, pp.161-162.

18. Hamza Alavi, Peasants and Revolution, The Socialist Register 1965, London 1965, pp.241-277.

19. G. and D. Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism – the Left-Wing Alternative, London 1969, passim but especially pp.202 et seq.

20. See W. Hinton, Fanshen, New York 1966, passim; J.F. Melby, The Mandate of Heaven, London 1969, p.206.

21. Joan Robinson, The Cultural Revolution in China, London 1969.

22. S.R. Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, London 1969, p.137.

23. Mao Tse-tung, Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, Selected Works, Peking 1965, Vol.1, pp.23-24.

24. See, for example, E. Snow, Red Star over China, London 1968, passim; S.B. Griffith, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, London 1968, passim.

25. Mao Tse-tung, quoted in E. Snow, op. cit., p.170.

26. Le Monde, Paris, July 3 to July 7, 1968; English translation in Peace Press, Vol.V, Nos.6 and 7, London, June and July 1969.

27. The quotations are from Paul Foot, The Politics of Harold Wilson, London 1968, p.346. See my article The Role of the Peasantry in South-East Asia, in Afrasian, London 1969, for a further discussion of this thesis.

28. Van Son et al., In the Liberated Zone of Laos, Hanoi 1968, pp.7-8.

29. For an interesting and original comment see H. Gollwitzer, Europe in the Age of Imperialism 1880-1914, London 1969.

30. F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, London 1965, p.48.

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