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Nigel Harris

The Revolutionary Role of the Peasants

(December 1969)

From Debate, International Socialism (1st series), No.41,December 1969/January 1970, pp.18-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The sheer diversity and immensity of the rural population in the world’s backward countries makes general discussion of ‘the peasantry’ very difficult. However, certain important generalisations can be made, but it must be borne in mind that such generalisations may have different implications for groups as different as owner-occupier peasants, subsistence tenants, share croppers, landless labourers – for the serfs of Latin American haciendas, for the depressed small tenants of South Asia, or for the tribal farming groups of sub-Saharan Africa.

But, on the other hand, the sheer size of the peasantry in the world suggests something of its possible political importance. What that political importance is, however, is the subject of considerable disagreement. In particular, this article is concerned with the debate between those socialists who identify the industrial proletariat as the sole agency for the achievement of socialism (the Marxists), and those who identify other groups or classes – including the peasantry – as capable of achieving socialism. The debate is an old one. Its themes are an important element in Marx’s disagreements with Bakunin and the anarchists, in the critique by the Russian Marxists (in particular, Plekhanov and Lenin) both of the Narodniks (Russian Populists) and the Social Revolutionaries. And they recur again in the debates within the Comintern in its early years. The themes are certainly important today – even if in a distorted way – in the Sino-Soviet dispute, in the repressed disagreements between Moscow and Havana; and, much more generally, between the ‘Third World’ socialists and others.

However, in the past the Marxist position has been reasonably clear. Supporters of ‘peasant socialism’ have, quite rightly, seen the Marxists as critics, and, in some circumstances, as opponents. Today, so great is the muddle about Marxism after its systematic perversion in the Soviet Union and China, that Marx (and Lenin) has been called in as supporter both for peasant socialism and against it. It is ironic that the Maoists and their sympathisers call themselves ‘Marxist-Leninist’, with so little knowledge of how sharply Marx – and even more so, Lenin – condemned some of the most favoured positions held by the Great Helmsman. Thus, it is important to restate – even if crudely – what the Marxist view of the peasantry has been [1], and why the proletariat – that is, the industrial working class – was identified as the sole agency for the achievement of socialism.

1. Marx on the peasants

In analysing the perspective for socialists in France and Germany, Marx noted that in countries where the peasantry constituted a majority of the population, the peasants held the power to decide whether or not the proletariat could win and keep power. Where the peasants were solidly conservative, then the proletariat would not be able to hold power indefinitely. But in Germany, the peasants were fighting the feudal aristocracy on their own account, to establish freehold land rights and rid agriculture of feudal restrictions. Thus, the peasantry were waging the bourgeois revolution. The proletariat accordingly must win the support of the peasantry in the proletarian struggle against capitalism by supporting the peasant struggle against feudalism. The two battles must be synchronised for either ally to win its aims.

But clearly a common struggle would include contradictory elements, and socialism could not be won unless the proletariat was clearly the leader of the struggle. The leadership of the proletariat was essential because the nature of the peasantry made it impossible for it to lead, and in any case, the peasants were aiming at ends not necessarily consistent with the achievement of proletarian aims. What was this ‘nature of the peasantry’? Perhaps Marx’s best known outline of an answer to this question – in relation to the small French peasantry – occurs in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and it is worth quoting at some length:

‘The small peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by France’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small-holding, admits of no division of labour in its cultivation, no application of science, and, therefore, no multiplicity of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient; it itself directly produces the major part of its consumption and thus acquires its means of life more through exchange with nature than its intercourse with society ... Insofar as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile contrast to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no unity, no national union, and no political organisation, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own names, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.’ [2]

It is true that we cannot jump directly from this description of the small French peasantry in the middle of the 19th century – a peasantry with half a century’s experience of relatively unfettered private ownership of land – to the rest of the world’s rural population at all times and places. But certain key aspects of the conditions of material existence of virtually all peasants are outlined in this quotation, and it is these aspects which underlie the Marxist position.

2. The nature of peasant life

Thus, the peasants are isolated from the national society, isolated physically in villages which have little consistent need for continuous communications both with each other and with the cities. At most, the peasant is likely to be aware of his district, within which members of his own family meet or secure marriage partners, and of the local district town, perhaps the source of the merchants who buy his crop, the market place, the site of the police station and so on. Second, the peasant is dependent almost entirely upon himself and his family for his way of life. He is not part of – or at least, is not aware of – a complex interdependent national division of labour. Since there is little division of labour outside the family, there is little specialisation, and as a result, production is primitive, the peasant is poor, the cultural and technical resources of the village are most backward.

The peasant’s important relationships are not to a wider economy of which he sees himself as a constituent part, but rather to nature, to the rhythms, to the arbitrariness of soil, weather and season. The production unit is the family, and personal relationships are thus also production relationships. Family relationships, rather than competence and technical specialisation, determine the primitive division of labour within the family (the relationship between man and wife, between man and his eldest son, his youngest son, his aged father, and so on), and the production relationships exaggerate and intensify the family relationships. The desperate family feuds within the village exhibit the intensity generated within what is simultaneously the basic personal, production and property unit. The rural family embodies all the exploitative relationships of the wider society, and it is the peasant household father who is of necessity the agent for the worst forms of exploitation of the members of his own family; the agent which sustains all that is worst in pre-capitalist society in terms of personal relationships. The violence locked up in the family is matched by the violence between families, the violence intrinsic in the gross subordination of the peasantry as a whole.

Thus, if achieving a socialist revolution were merely a function of the savagery of exploitation, then undoubtedly the peasantry would always have pre-eminently qualified for the role of agency of the revolution. But revolution requires also collective organisation, a mass division of labour, a concentration of advanced technical and political abilities. And it is these which the peasantry – by the nature of its way of life – cannot produce. It cannot, as a class, produce the abilities required to operate a society with a collective division of labour. It can only duplicate the ideal of its own members, the small peasant holding. The aim of peasant rebels thus becomes, not the advance of society as a whole, but no more than a just sharing of a common poverty. This is certainly egalitarianism, but it is the egalitarianism of communalists, of independent identical participants, not the egalitarianism of collectivists, of interdependent people organised in a social division of labour. The peasantry cannot, as a class, constitute itself the ruling class in order to realise the full economic potentialities of society. On the contrary, it can, on its own, only drag society backwards into the poverty of the past.

3. Peasant opposition

It is for these reasons that the revolt of the peasant is so often a purely localised occurrence, restricted to the district he knows. His enemy is the local landlord or landowner, the local money-lender, policeman or merchant, not a national ruling class of which he is inevitably only very dimly aware. But without destroying the national ruling class, the local peasant’s cause is lost. The destruction of only the local minions of the ruling class will invoke massive reprisals on a scale with which the local peasant cannot cope. Indeed, so muddled may be the peasant’s view of the world outside his district, he may completely exonerate the ruling class for responsibility for the crimes of its local officials. In Tsarist Russia, the peasants often certainly hated their local noblemen, but they worshipped the Tsar as the ‘Little Father’, explaining that the Tsar did not know the crimes committed in his name by his noblemen. For them, there was no ‘system’ within which Tsar and noblemen fitted as complementary elements within a common exploitative class. Thus when the Narodniks assassinated Tsar Alexander in 1881 with the expectation that this would precipitate a peasant revolt against the regime, the peasants were appalled, and blamed yet again the evil nobles for depriving them of their only defender. Lewin suggests that Stalin was similarly exonerated by the Russian peasantry for the Communist rape of the countryside during collectivisation. [3]

Thus, historically, the peasant is a figure of the utmost tragedy. He is grotesquely exploited, forced into self-subjection, forced into preserving all that is most backward and reactionary. And yet he makes his own strait jacket. He cannot, by his way of life, conceive of a real alternative. He cannot emancipate himself, and self-emancipation is one of the pre-conditions for socialism. His opposition to his own exploitation, when he is solely dependent upon his own resources, is thus either purely negative, or marginal to the system – that is, the opposition does not challenge the existence of the system so much as check certain practices within it. The most common form of this opposition – and the least effective in revolutionary terms – is social banditry. Small bands of armed men prey on the forces of authority, acting as Robin Hoods to take from the rich and give, at least in principle, to the poor. The small size of such groups, their great mobility, and the willingness of the dispersed peasant families to protect and supply the rebels as a sort of ‘counter police’ force, make them almost invulnerable to counter-attack by the authorities. Hobsbawm has described the features of such forces in parts of southern Europe [4], and perhaps these features are shared with the Indian dacoits and similar bands which operated in China. Hobsbawm also notes the similarities between social banditry and guerilla warfare, and how the second sometimes absorbs the first (thus, no one should be shocked to find that the guerilla forces of the Chinese Communist Party incorporated erstwhile bandits [5]). Banditry is the most primitive form of taking sanctions against the system, where self-interested criminality is scarcely distinguishable from socially conscious rebellion, and where the sanction is no more than a marginal irritant to the system.

The sporadic riot in densely populated agricultural areas has more possibilities. Here, rural Luddites directly attack the symbols of immediate oppression – the merchant hoarding grain, the big farmer cutting his labour force or the wages he pays, the State reducing the price it regulates for wine. If such riots are a response to a general condition on the land, the riot may spread. And if it coincides with movements in the towns, it may provide a contributory element in a movement for radical change. But it is only one tributary to the river. Alone it can do little. When Wat Tyler’s rebels took London, as when Zapata’s warriors reached Mexico City, they did not know what to do with it. Finally they could only retire back to the world they knew, to the village and the dispersed land holding. They left the real power of the ruling class, chastened perhaps, but not destroyed. Of course, if the status quo is already under threat from other sources, the possibility may exist for a temporary enclave of peasant power. Makhno and the Green armies in Russia relied on the Civil War raging around them to defend their islands of power. And in China, the decay of the Manchu dynasty under the corrosive forces of imperialism, permitted the Taiping rebels similarly to establish their own domain along the Yangtze. But once the wider issue is settled or moderated, the national ruling class can react with a force capable of destroying the enclave.

More effectively and more characteristically, the peasantry can in certain conditions control much more massive sanctions of a purely negative kind. They can refuse to obey the law, and if this spreads far enough, the ruling class has insufficient power to garrison the whole countryside. But the organisation capable of co-ordinating such a strike usually can only be found in the cities. The intellectual formulation of this tactic is clearest in the doctrine of passive disobedience as advanced by Tolstoy in Russia and Gandhi in India. [6] But what is to be done when the countryside is paralysed? It is at this point that again the strategy breaks down, for the peasants have no positive alternative to present. The same applies to a similar tactic: withholding the food on which the survival of the cities depends. This is unlikely to occur normally, since the peasants also depend on the cities for certain goods, and many need to sell their crop quickly to meet their debts. But in Russia between 1927 and 1929 when the cities could not supply the goods the peasants wanted, there was something of a strike which produced a major crisis in the society as a whole. The strike was not an organised act, one of collective solidarity and depending on political consciousness. It was a simultaneous reaction to a market situation. And the peasants had no defence when Stalin launched his counter-attack and set about destroying the Russian peasantry once and for all.

4. Rural strata

What is lacking in all of these examples is the role of a national class for itself. In the citation from Marx, he makes this point explicitly. The peasantry as a class of men certainly exists. But by the nature of its way of life, it cannot become aware of itself as a class, a body of men sharing a common class interest which extends throughout society. In the sense of recognising a common interest, peasants are normally only a class in one district. And the peasants of one district may regard those of another with as much hostility as representatives of the ruling class. In some cases, the hostility is greater, for at least they know their own rulers in the district, and the known generates fewer fears than the unknown.

Some Marxists have tried to apply a class analysis to the countryside to overcome some of these problems. They have identified poor, middle and rich peasant strata (with other, more complex, patterns as well), landlords and landowners, and argued on the basis of the conflict of interest between these strata, for identification with the poor peasantry. In a feudal land distribution system, socialist identification with the peasantry as a whole against the large landowners is reasonably straightforward. Again, in certain circumstances, and in some localities, a proletarian alliance with the poorer peasantry may embody a real class struggle. Indeed, on some occasions, the poor peasantry has attacked its rich brethren, as seems to have been the case in the Telengana revolt in India in 1947 (to the horror of the Maoist sympathisers in the Indian Communist Party who wanted an alliance of all peasant strata). But these cases are not necessarily the standard ones, particularly where the land distribution system is a complex one. For some peasants may also be landlords, and the social mobility (up and down) of peasant families may be high. Thus, a rich peasant father with many sons may divide his land among them all, making all his descendants poor peasants. There may be constant interchange between strata – the landless move into and out of cultivation; the small peasants into labouring, or, if their families are small for a couple of generations and there are no outside crises, into the ranks of the middle or richer peasantry. And one peasant family may fit into several strata – it farms some land, it rents another small piece, it works as labourer on someone else’s land, at different times of the year. With such complexity, it makes little political sense to identify the ‘natural allies’ of the proletariat in general.

The peasant situation itself can also make nonsense of such identifications. The poor peasants, like the landless labourers, are the most depressed group – less analogous with the proletariat than with the lumpenproletariat. And the poor peasant’s natural sense of identification is more usually upwards, to the richer peasant strata the poor peasant aspires to join, rather than outwards to poor peasants in other – unknown – districts. The rural society is bounded by the district boundaries, and it is within these boundaries that the strata can be identified most accurately. Outside the district one usually has only statistics, not a political strategy. The instability of the lower strata has prompted socialists and Communists more frequently to rely on the middle and richer peasants for radical organisation, for they are the village leaders and, as such, most likely to be more aware of the outside society. In times of relative peace, a ‘poor peasant movement’ is likely to be a myth of urban politics. For identical reasons, radical attempts to set up all-India alliances of the lowest castes have always proved abortive. The natural identification of village Untouchables is, sadly, with the dominant peasant castes of the village (even when they murder some of them) rather than with the millions of Untouchables in other districts. To know of the existence of those other Untouchables, to recognise a common interest, is already to be part of another – urban, and so national – world.

Thus, the peasant revolt needs the intervention of parts of other – national – classes to take it beyond its prescribed role. It is not accidental that the peasantry has always been more oppressed than any other class, has a history of revolt, and yet has so few successes. Success comes when other ambitions are allied to peasant grievances. In classical China, peasant revolt was successful when members of the nobility came to lead it, came to use it in order to establish a new dynasty. On rare occasions, peasants themselves became members of the new ruling order, but only on terms which negated any real revolutionary transformation of Chinese society. In the bourgeois revolution, the struggle of the bourgeoisie to establish its own political power borrows heavily from the peasant struggle to destroy the great feudal estates, and is the precondition for the success of the peasants.

5. The crude materialist case

Socialists who have seen the peasantry as an agency for the achievement of socialism – leaving aside what could be meant by ‘socialism’ in this context – have usually been impressed by the violence of peasant struggle [7], by the complete alienation of the peasant from the forms of urban (or ‘bourgeois’) life. But the violence is a function of the backwardness of the peasantry and its relative weakness, the lack of political means to change other than violence, rather than revolutionary fervour or vision.

Such socialists also often utilise a particularly crude materialistic explanation of political militancy. This materialism does not, however, rule out a simultaneous romantic idealism about the possibilities of human action whatever the material circumstances. The case runs something like this: revolution is a function of exploitation; so that those who are most exploited will be the most revolutionary; those who are the most exploited are the poorest; thus, the poorest peasantry, the most backward tribal groups (in some countries), the lumpenproletariat, are all candidates for the agency of revolution.

There are obvious surface similarities to a Marxist case, but a major difference lies in the obscure word ‘exploitation’. In this case, ‘exploitation’ means impoverishment. In the Marxist case, ‘exploitation’ means ‘the degree to which surplus value is produced’. Thus, for the Marxist, sheer poverty is not a necessary index of ‘exploitation’, nor is it a guide as to the agency of revolution. If Marx had believed that poverty of itself was the source of revolution, then it is a signal failure on his part not to have identified the 19th century peasantry (or the lumpenproletariat) as the agency of socialist revolution: the peasants were undoubtedly poorer than the proletariat. Again, within the proletariat, the poorest strata would obviously be more revolutionary than the richer, the unskilled more than the skilled. In fact, for Marx as well as historically, revolutionary political consciousness tended to develop in exactly the reverse order. More to the point, Marx actually allowed for an increase in the real consumption of the working class, a decline in its absolute poverty, without this affecting his case. He writes, for example:

‘If, therefore, the income of the worker increases with the rapid growth of capital, the social gulf that separates the worker from the capitalist, increases at the same time, the power of capital over labour, the dependence of labour on capital, increases at the same time ... Even the most favourable situation for the working class, the most rapid possible growth of capital, however much it may improve the material existence of the worker, does not remove the antagonism between his interests and the bourgeois interests, those of the capitalist.’ (Marx’s emphasis) [8]

The dimension missing in the crude materialist case is power. Skilled labour is not only more ‘exploited’ than unskilled, the proletariat than the peasantry, but it is clearer to skilled labour how much capitalism depends upon it, just as it is clearer to the proletariat how much the whole of society is sustained by its efforts. There is thus a real, daily, contradiction between the economic power of the proletariat, and its political impotence – the proletariat is the economy, but it does not run the economy. Thus, it is exploitation in the Marxist sense, not in the sense of ‘impoverishment’, and the contradiction of power and impotence rather than depressed consumption, which are the driving forces for the revolutionary mission of the proletariat in the Marxist scheme.

6. The proletariat

One can take the case further than this. For on all the criteria mentioned earlier in relationship to the peasantry, the proletariat is contrasted. It is heavily concentrated in great cities, and within those cities, in particular districts; not dispersed over an enormous area, and isolated in small units. Daily, the workers operate the most advanced sectors of the economy, where innovation and change are constant dynamic elements destroying the inherited customs of the past. They have forced upon them, as part of their very daily existence, a mass division of labour which includes high specialisation, including the most advanced technical knowledge, and elaborate interdependence. Of necessity, the workers are a collective, covering the whole of the most important parts of the economy, not a community of independent producers. By their daily work and daily struggle, they are aware, that society as a whole is the arena, not one district, nor even just one factory. The employer is part of an employing class, standing in a certain relationship to the State and its agencies.

Of course, in practice, many different levels of perception exist among workers and make for many variations from this rather abstract pattern. However, the difference between the proletariat and the peasantry is that, in principle, workers can comprehend society as a whole, and given the Marxist perspective for the development of capitalism, will be driven to do so. The peasantry, in principle, cannot comprehend society as a whole, and are not driven to do so by the nature of their way of life. On the contrary, the peasant who acquires a knowledge of society as a whole is an anomaly, someone who has to fight against the intrinsic conditions of his way of life rather than being led necessarily by those conditions in that direction.

Where the proletariat is a majority, its own emancipation is within its own power, and its self-emancipation is the emancipation of society as a whole, including the peasantry. Thus, the role of the proletariat is not an optional element in Marxism. Without it, Marxism becomes nonsense, and we have to start from scratch all over again. Whatever form of ‘socialism’ could be formulated on different grounds could not, validly, borrow from Marxism except by changing the essential meaning of the words involved (as we have seen is the case with the term ‘exploitation’).

7. The Worker-Peasant Alliance

In countries where peasants are a majority of the population, Marxists have had to formulate what should be the relationship between the proletarian struggle and the peasantry. Marx himself always supported the small peasant struggle against large feudal owners – a constituent element of the bourgeois revolution – but he opposed the struggle of small property owners against large capitalist concerns – a counter-revolution. [9] Large-scale capitalist enterprise had to be preserved for collective ownership, for it was the source from which the wealth of socialist society would come. When the proletariat begins its battle against capitalism, making socialism for the first time possible, large-scale production was not to be broken up among the producers. In the 1850 programme for the Communist League in Germany, Marx proposed that the Royal and large feudal estates should not be distributed to the peasants, but preserved under State ownership. [10] Similarly the Bolshevik programme in Tsarist Russia demanded the nationalisation of commercially important landed estates, not their redistribution among the peasants. In this, the Bolsheviks went flatly against the demand both of the peasants and their main political champions, the Social Revolutionaries.

In the event, the Bolshevik programme was irrelevant, since the peasants just seized the land, and the Bolsheviks could do little about it except ratify the seizure. But in seizing the land, the peasantry created a new class of owners of private property. It was an albatross around the neck of the Soviet regime. The regime only freed itself by Stalin’s Final Solution of the peasant question, the complete destruction of the peasantry in collectivisation.

Implicit in both Marx and Lenin’s writings is a stress upon the inconsistent aims of peasant and proletarian, their different targets. Many Populist socialists have refused to accept this sharp distinction, even though the distinction is a crucial line between libertarian socialism and the autocratic State socialisms which occur when outsiders ride the back of the ‘People’ into power. Since the peasants are not a national class for themselves, they cannot control their own leaders, they must be represented (cf. the quotation from Marx above). When these leaders are intent on ends other than those of the peasants – ends such as industrialisation, national unity, and so on – the populists can be the worst dictators of all.

Thus, the distinction between peasant and proletarian is not a pedantic aside, a piece of irrelevant sectarianism. It defines different roads to different things. Lenin was particularly emphatic in stressing the difference, in refusing to muddle all the issues in the ‘People’. He constantly criticised the Social Revolutionaries for doing just this. For example, in 1909, he wrote of the Social Revolutionary programme:

‘The fundamental idea of their programme is not at all that “an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry is necessary”, but that there is no class abyss between the former and the latter, and that there is no need to draw a line of class demarcation between them, and that the (Marxist) idea of the petty-bourgeois nature of the peasantry that distinguishes it from the proletariat is fundamentally false.’

The peasant movement was indeed fighting, but not capitalist relationships so much as pre-capitalist relationships. The complete victory of the peasant movement ‘will not abolish capitalism: on the contrary, it will create a broader foundation for its development’. [11]

This does not mean that peasants will not play an important role in the battle for socialism, but that role is only possible under leadership from the proletariat. Without that leadership, the peasant struggle leads to other things. Of course, like Lenin, we must ‘support the peasant movement to the end, but we must remember that it is a movement of another class, not the one that can or will accomplish socialism’. [12]

8. China and the peasantry

If the foregoing case is broadly true, then it becomes important to explain a number of modern revolutions which have been claimed as ‘peasant revolutions’. What follows mainly concerns China, although elements of the analysis could also be applied to other countries, for example, Cuba. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party was drawn in the main from urban classes, particularly from the urban intelligentsia. It utilised different segments of the population in its advance to power, but undoubtedly the bulk of its support was drawn from the peasantry. The struggle for power was, for various reasons which cannot be cited here, not a class struggle in the Marxist sense. It was not primarily a struggle taking place between elements of the contending classes within the same production unit. Rather was the struggle a military-territorial battle, while the social struggle – which certainly occurred – was no more than a supporting element for the military operation. Of course, the final phases of any revolutionary movement may be a military-territorial struggle – the Civil War in Russia was just such a struggle. But in China, the essence of the movement was military-territorial, and the direct class struggle marginal from 1928 through to 1948.

The Party used different demands in different localities to build up its support, demands designed to build not a class force so much as a national force, drawing on different sections of the population. Nationally, the Party restricted itself to demands for relatively mild reforms in order to carry the whole coalition against the main target. Thus, the Party opposed the demand for land reform up to 1945 in order not to frighten the larger land holders, and its only concession to its poor peasant supporters was the reduction of rent and interest to be paid to landlords. Even after 1945, it appears now that it was the discredited Liu Shao-chi who championed land reform in the face of the opposition of Mao Tse-tung who resisted such ‘sectional’ demands in the interest of national unity. All that Mao would concede was that ‘excess land’ should be compulsorily purchased.

Thus, the Chinese Communist Party cannot be seen as the agent of the Chinese peasantry, and indeed, cannot be seen as the agent of any class. It sought to operate outside the peasant social structure, drawing support from all rural strata. It was not responsible to any particular segment of the population, nor yet to the peasantry as a whole. No section of the peasantry controlled the Party. Rather did the Party and the People’s Liberation Army control sections of the peasantry.

If the Party had not operated outside the peasant social structure, it would have been infiltrated by the richer peasants and subordinated to their interests, a change which would have led to the disintegration of the Party between different districts. At times the Party was threatened with this. For example, Mao complained in 1933 that 80 per cent of the central district of the Hunan-Kiangsi Soviet was controlled by the landlords and rich peasants. [13] Again, in the early fifties, when peasant Communists returned from military service to their homes, the rural Party threatened once more to become no more than a rich peasant organisation. The peasant cadres expected to be rewarded for their services, and to be left alone to till their new land after the sacrifices of War. The rural Party was used to make cadres rich peasants, and rich peasants became cadres as a means of advancing their position. Kao Kang in 1952 castigated cadres who had become exploiters, lending money and hiring labour:

‘If no active steps are taken,’ he argued, ‘to lead the peasants towards the path of co-operative economy rather than to the rich peasant economy, then rural village government is sure to deteriorate into a rich peasant regime. If the Communist Party members all hire labour and give loans at usurious rates, then the Party will become a rich peasant party.’ [14]

The same phenomenon occurred in the Soviet Union during the New Economic Policy, rendering the rural Party useless as an agency for change. [15] It is a striking demonstration that the Chinese Communist Party is not a peasant party – that it did not degenerate in the way Kao Kang feared. It was possible for the Party to purge its rural organisation and to whip errant cadres into line simply because it was not a peasant party.

Thus, the Chinese Communist Party was not a ‘peasant party’ in the sense in which we might speak of a ‘proletarian party’, or, indeed, a ‘bourgeois party’. Certainly people of peasant origin provided the bulk of the Party rank and file, but even then, such recruits had usually long since left the land to become professional cadres or soldiers. The Party’s ability to transform China depended upon it being independent of peasant interests, and in this respect, it was largely successful. Rather was it the case that a section of the urban intelligentsia organised peasant discontent. And even then, success depended heavily upon the occurrence of the Japanese invasion and the Japanese policy of ransacking and burning villages in the wake of their advance. By and large, peasants do not seem susceptible to nationalist demands – unlike the urban middle class, and for fairly obvious material reasons – unless such demands are closely linked to demands of immediate concern for peasants, demands over land, or, in this case, sheer survival. It is open to doubt whether the sections of the Chinese peasantry which did respond to Communist appeals would have done so if the Party had not provided the only real opposition to the Japanese whose actions directly affected the existence of some of the peasants. In India, certainly, tying the demand for independence to the demand that those who supported the British, the landowners, should be expropriated and their land redistributed among the peasants, was a vital factor in eliciting peasant support. And in Vietnam, without the Vietminh and National Liberation Front’s land reform programme, it is unlikely the war against the American army could have been waged.

Because the leadership of the Communist Party in China was not securely tied to the interests of any class, it was able to act as an elitist force, and its politics have striking similarities with the elitist flavour of much populism (and, including in this, some brands of anarchism). Populism can be roughly defined as a passionate belief in the spontaneous energies of the ‘People’, and a powerful elitist belief in one’s own necessary role in bringing enlightenment to the ‘People’. [16] But rejecting identification with any particular class is rejecting responsibility to any class. It leaves the leadership free to pursue whatever ends suit its tactics. In Maoism, populism includes a powerful nationalist element, a belief that anything and everything is possible within one’s own national boundaries, that nationalism encompasses socialism. Everything is possible because there is no given objective society – if hearts and minds can be changed. Thus the target becomes souls rather than a definite ruling class, and no objective laws of capitalism or anything else can, it is said, defeat this infinite voluntarism. There are certainly aspects of Marxism which lend themselves, in isolation, to a populist revision [17], even though such a revision also directly contradicts Marxism.

9. Backwardness and Socialism

None of this bears directly on the kind of problems which face Marxists in backward countries. Thus: is the thesis of permanent revolution, and in particular, the role of the proletariat, still relevant in backward countries today? if it is not, then what should be the role of Marxists in backward countries? These are major questions which demand separate answers at length, and cannot properly be discussed here. [18] Suffice it to say that, even if the proletariat can no longer be seen as the agency of revolution in backward countries today, this does not change the validity of the points made here. It means only that proletarian socialism cannot be achieved in the backward countries on their own today. But then it never could. Socialism is not possible in one country or one region, particularly when these are the most backward. Certainly, imperialism can be defeated at various points in backward countries – but not destroyed in the world as a whole. Certainly, important and progressive changes can be made in backward countries – but these changes do not constitute socialism. No amount of rhetorical elan can convert poverty into wealth, can give men in a backward society the basic conditions of life already secured in an advanced one. Indeed, the rhetoric alone should make us suspicious. Where objective conditions permit little rapid improvement of material circumstances, Governments have often seen the next best thing to real progress as trying to persuade people that there is really progress anyway, that the things of the spirit are so much more important than the next bowl of rice.

What one must not do is to bend one’s estimate of objective reality to accommodate short-term tactical considerations. Thus, the progressiveness of the revolution in China leads on to arguing that the Chinese ‘model’ is the sole means to achieve socialism, and all things Chinese are, by definition, progressive. The Left intellectuals of the 1930s played the same game with the Soviet Union, and ended being taken for a ride. Moscow came to equal socialism, and all criteria for judging Moscow on a socialist basis thus disappeared. The sympathisers ended as apologists for the Russian State (of course, it is also true that the Chinese revolution has not played nearly so important a role in the political awareness of non-Chinese socialists as did the Russian revolution, nor has Mao achieved anything like the international significance of Stalin).

Progressive steps are important, even if they are not the final step. But in present conditions, whatever happens in China – or anywhere else – is continuously threatened by the continued existence of the imperialist powers. In Vietnam, the American forces may be defeated, but this will not end the existence of Washington. The existence of the advanced capitalist powers, private and State, makes the prospects for any sustained economic development in the backward countries grim. Thus, the future of the backward countries, like the future of the peasantry, depends, not upon one defeat of one element of imperialism, but its global destruction. And it cannot be destroyed globally in Vietnam, nor can it be destroyed by the world’s peasantry. It can only be destroyed in the advanced countries themselves, and only by the proletariat. Thus the issue – peasant or proletarian – is not about who can achieve ‘socialism’ in one country, but about the emancipation of mankind as a whole.


1. This is dealt with in detail by Tony Cliff, Marxism and the Collectivisation of Agriculture, IS 19, Winter 1964-65, pp.4-16.

2. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Selected Works, 2, n.d., p 414.

3. M. Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, A Study of Collectivisation, London 1968, p.452.

4. E.J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels, Manchester 1959.

5. Some cadres also moved into banditry, cf. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (2nd Edition), 1961, pp.328-9 and 348.

6. This point is made by Teodor Shanin, along with much else of interest, in The Peasantry as a Political Factor, Sociological Review, V/XIV/1, 1966, pp.5-27.

7. Consider, for example, Frantz Fanon’s comment:

‘In colonial countries, the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him, there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms ...’ Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, London 1965, p.48.

8. Karl Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital, op. cit., 1, p.273.

9. For further discussion of this, cf. Cliff, op cit.

10. Karl Marx, Address of the Central Council to the Communist League, 1850, p.166, in Selected Works I, op. cit.

11. Useful comparisons can be drawn between current socialist attitudes to the struggle in the backward countries, and, for example, views expressed by Marx on Bolivar in the struggle for the freedom of Latin America, and by Lenin on Sun Yat-sen in China. For Marx on Bolivar, cf. Hal Draper, Marx and Bolivar: A Note on Authoritarian Leadership in a National-Liberation Movement, New Politics VII/I, Winter 1968, pp.64-77. Lenin on Sun Yat-sen is contained in Democracy and Narodism in China, July 1912, Selected Works 4, p.305. Lenin writes:

‘They (viz. the Chinese nationalists) are subjectively socialists because they are opposed to the oppression and exploitation of the masses. But the objective conditions of China, of a backward, agricultural, semi-feudal country, place on the order of the day, in the lives of a nation numbering nearly half a billion, only one definite historically peculiar form of this oppression and exploitation, namely feudalism.’ (p.308)

12. V.I. Lenin, Petty bourgeois and proletarian socialism, Nov. 1905, Selected Works 3, p.150. Compare Marx, p.160, Address of the Central Council to the Communist League, op. cit.:

‘The relation of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democracy* is this: it marches together with it against the section which it aims at overthrowing, it opposes the petty-bourgeoisie in everything by which they desire to establish themselves.’

* This ‘comprises not only the great majority of the bourgeois inhabitants of the towns, the small industrial businessmen and guild masters, it numbers among its following the peasants and the rural proletariat’.

13. Isaacs, op. cit., p.344, writes:

‘Mao Tse-tung, president of the “Soviet Republic” wrote: “Many landlords and rich peasants put on a revolutionary colouration. They say they are for the revolution and for the division of land ... They are very active and rely on their historical advantages – ‘they can speak well and write well’ – and consequently in the first period they steal the fruits of the agrarian revolution. Facts from innumerable places prove that they have usurped the provisional power, filtered into the armed forces, controlled the revolutionary organisations, and received more and better land than the poor peasants.”

‘Mao estimated that this was the case in “80 per cent of the area of the central district, affecting a population of more than 2,000,000”. (From Mao, Re-examination of Land Distribution in the Soviet Districts is the Central Task, Red Flag, August 31, 1933)’

14. Kao Kang, Overcome the Corrosion of Bourgeois Ideology: Oppose the Rightist Trend in the Party, People’s Daily, January 24, 1952, cited Current Background 163, March 5, 1952.

15. Lewin, op. cit., p.121 passim.

16. This definition is taken from Meisner’s biography of an important Chinese populist, Li Ta-chao, one of the two founders of the Chinese Communist Party. Cf. M. Meisner, Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism, Cambridge, Mass. 1967, p.251.

17. On this, cf. the extended discussion in my Beliefs in Society, London 1968, chapter VI, pp.185-227.

18. For an attempt at this, cf. Tony Cliff, Permanent Revolution, IS 12, Spring 1963. An American author has also attempted some comparisons – cf. Ernst Halperin, Proletarian Class Parties in Europe and Latin America, Cambridge, Mass. 1967.

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