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The Limits of Agronomic Determinism: A Critique of Paige's Agrarian Revolution

  • Margaret R. Somers (a1) and Walter L. Goldfrank (a1)

Extract

Social scientists left and right have long engaged in the project of identifying the conditions under which revolutionary, class-conscious social movements emerge. This project aims at prediction, in the hope of either promoting social revolutions or preventing them. Until quite recently both Marxist and liberal social scientists have focussed on “modern” urban social classes as the generators of revolution: the bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, the industrial proletarlat. But paradoxically, though Marx summarily dismissed the peasantry as so many “potatoes in a sack,” and despite the generality of working-class social movements, the major revolutions of our time have been made largely by country people, to the extent that they were made by social movements at all. Thus two major issues take shape in the study of revolutions. One, how and why do peasants—allegedly “premodern” and conservative—defy the laws of social science and becomerevolutionary agents? What is it about rural social conditions that enabled them to dynamite the old order? Two, what is the relationship between revolutionary social movements on the one hand, and revolutionary outcomes on the other? A movement entails the collective action of a class whose ideology may be described as more or less radical; a revolution entails the overhauling of a social structure. In this context, no matter how ideologically “revolutionary” a social movement may be, it is but one of the causal elements that converge to produce social revolution.

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Copyright

References

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David Karen, Lauri Perman, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, and Mark Traugott made helpful suggestions, but are not accountable for the outcome.

1 “Peasant” is of course a slippery term: many so-called peasants were and are artisanal and/or wage workers. "Rural workers" would be a more inclusive, perhaps less misleading notation. But it is not accidental that two of the most important macrosociological treatments of the modern trajectory in the last fifteen years make explicit reference to the countryside in their subtitles: Moore, Barrington Jr, Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), and Wallerstein, Immanuel, The Modern World-System: Agricultural Capitalism and the Emergence of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974).

2 New York: Free Press, 1975. Agrarian Revolution shared the 1976 Sorokin Award for the best book in sociology.

3 Steward, Julian H. et al. , The People of Puerto Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956);Stinchcombe, Arthur L., “Agricultural Enterprise and Rural Class Relations,” American Journal of Sociology 67 (09 1961), 165–76;Wolf, Eric R., Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).

4 Paige makes it clear that these dichotomies represent to some degree points on a continuum of commercialized agriculture, yet yield in combination rather stable types (p. 336).

5 Paige here draws upon Marx's classic analysis of small-holder dependence on brokers and bankers.

6 The other two hypotheses regarding the noncultivators: (1) If they draw income from land they are economically weak, hence must rely on political restrictions on property, and hence focus conflict on control of property; if they draw income from capital they are strong enough to focus conflict on income rather than property distribution. (2) If they draw income from land they usually rely on servile labor, hence cannot permit the extension of political rights, hence politicizing labor conflicts; if they draw income from capital, they depend on free labor, hence can tolerate cultivator rights and thus confine labor conflicts to the economic realm. The hypotheses for the cultivators are: (1) The greater the importance of land as an income source, the more they avoid risk and resist revolutionary politics; the greater the importance of wages in cash or in kind, the more they will take risks and the more open they are to revolutionary ideas. (2) The greater the importance of land, the stronger the economic incentives to compete and the weaker the incentives to organize; the greater the importance of wages, economic competition is less and political organization more likely. (3) The greater the importance of land, the greater the structural isolation or dependence on elites and hence the weaker the pressures for political solidarity; the greater the importance of wages, the greater the cultivators' structural interdependence and hence the pressures for political solidarity. Paige, pp. 18–35.

7 Smelser, Neil, Theory of Collective Behavior (New York: Free Press, 1962);Milgram, Stanley and Toch, Hans, “Collective Behavior: Crowds and Social Movements,” in Gardner, L. and Aronson, E., eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. IV (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969).

8 Skocpol, Theda, “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 18: 2 (04 1976), 175210.

9 For case studies attempting this, see Goldfrank, Walter L., “World System, State Structure and the Onset of the Mexican Revolution,” Politics and Society V, 4 (Fall 1975), pp. 417–39, and Skocpol, Theda R., States and Social Revolution: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

10 Cf. Paige's repeated references to the Peruvian haciendas as “feuda.”

11 Race, Jeffrey, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 144.

12 Cf. Wallerstein's comparison of sixteenth-century Russia (external) and Poland (peripheral) in Modern World-System, Ch. 6; and Paul Lubeck's comparison of nineteenth-century Nigeria's Northern (external) and Southern (peripheral) regions, “Islam and Resistance in Northern Nigeria,” in Goldfrank, Walter L., ed., The World-System of Capitalism: Past and Present (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979).

13 One such mechanism is that proposed by James Scott in his discussion of rice cultivators in Southeast Asia, their subsistence ethic and “safety first” mentality: The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976). Oddly enough for a materialist, Paige never considers the possibility that the production of basic food grains differs in important ways from that of other commericial crops.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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