Reserve the Land for Family Farming

On the Use of Farmland and the Future of Peasantry in China1

Dong Zhenghua


The argument of this paper is based on the simple historical fact that the trinity of peasantry, farmland, and the family farming system has long existed in history, no matter what forms of peasantry there have been: peasant proprietor, half-tenant, or tenant peasants. The fate of the peasants is also the fate of the family farming system. If one day the peasants have to leave their farmland and the family farming system is defeated, peasantry, as a specific social stratum, will inevitably become extinct. This breakup of the trinity may lead to the real “end of peasantry,” as Henri Mendras described it in the 1960s.

Early in the nineteenth century, there was a series of discussions on whether the end of peasantry would come. Both Adam Smith and David Ricardo excluded the peasant from their blueprints of modern economy. Karl Marx also argued that both the “mode of production of peasantry” and the peasants themselves would disappear inevitably. Nonetheless, history has its own logic, which was sometimes unexpected. By the end of the nineteenth century, large-scale industry had already dominated the production system in Europe, yet the family farming system did not disappear. So, what is wrong with the theories of modern capitalism? The social democrats in the late years of the nineteenth century put great effort toward solving this puzzle, among the outcomes of which were the discussions between Karl Kautsky and Werner Sombart in Germany, as well as the argument between Lenin and the populists in Russia.

In the twentieth century, the small-scale family farming system continued to dominate the world. In some regions, there was the combination of, and conflicts between, the majority of small family farms and a small number of capitalist farms, which owned a huge amount of acreage and hired a good many farm laborers. In the Soviet Union and China, there were the socialist experiments in agriculture, that is, mandatory or semimandatory collectivization of farming and farmland that eliminated the family farming mode. During the campaign of the People’s Commune, Chinese peasants were labeled as “members of the Commune,” although there was no real change in their social and economic statuses.

Many scholars have maintained to admit the born nature of agriculture and the peasant as a unity of modern economy and have opposed driving peasants off the land, no matter if it is via mandatory collectivization, the setup of wage-labor farms, or concentration of land at the hand of superior landlords. At the 1979 United Nations International Conference of Rural Reforms and Developments, delegates from about 150 countries and national liberation movements agreed on the notion that “the equal distribution and efficient utilization of land are the prerequisites for rural developments and for improving productivity in the elimination of poverty.”2

Theodore Schultz also promotes the family farming system that combines peasants’ property rights and their right to operate the land.3 However, in his theory, the peasant in the medieval era was formulated as a rational agent. Such a rational-choice and utilitarianism-based theory is renounced by the Chayanovian School and some others. However, some points in their criticisms are not fair to Schultz. For example, Schultz is criticized for neglecting the relations of production in his analysis. Quite on the contrary, Schultz argues for the elimination of the landlord-tenant peasant system and supports rural reform, which aims to give land to the tillers, and advocates for ownership based on residence. Another point for which Schultz has been attacked is his opposition to “the nationalization of land.” Among the developing countries and regions, as represented by east Asia in the postwar era, “he who farms shall have his own land” and “farmland should be used by farmers” are the two principles of land reform. Specific regulations under these principles prohibit tenant farming or the conversion of farmland into land for other uses. These policies can be regarded as state control over peasants’ possessing or distributing land and as alternatives for nationalization of the land. In my opinion, Schultz seems to have underestimated the importance of state power and its functional roles in multiple aspects of land and agriculture, such as strengthening the bargaining power of farmers in international trade and protecting farmers from the negative impact of the international market. It seems that all these functions of the state should be eradicated, given the current logic of liberalism that defends private ownership and international free trade. However, if this were true, namely, if there were no such state interventions, perhaps agriculture in east Asia and many other areas in the world would not be able to sustain itself.

Chayanov inherited Marx’s viewpoint, which holds that in order to survive, some peasants of small-scale family farming would sell their products at the production price.4 He tries to explain the surviving mechanism of peasants and their family farming by making distinctions between the labor model of family-based corporate and the model of wage-labor corporate. However, Chayanov’s account looks unconvincing. In addition, his theory only addresses regions with limited land, excessive labor force, and little chance to migrate for employment. This makes his theory especially irrelevant to areas such as the United States, Australia, and Canada, where land resource is abundant and labor resource is comparatively scarce.

To explain the surviving advantage of peasants and family farming, a better theory should be based on the nature of agriculture per se. Yujiro Hayami and Vernon W. Ruttan’s arguments make more sense here.5 They argue that the mechanization process in the industrial sector has standardized the working process and hence made it easier to control, but such upgrading does not apply to the agriculture sector, because there are many more uncontrollable ecological and biological variables in the process of agricultural production. It is very important for the human actor in this process to supervise the producing process. In consequence, the quality of work in such a producing process becomes very hard to control or to supervise. Also, widespread, scattered working fields make supervision even more challenging.

There have always been disputes on the issues of self-sustained farming and family farming among Chinese scholars. Many consider the small-scale farming system as the major contributor to ancient China’s backwardness and emblematize the peasant as the symbol of poverty and backwardness of China. In their discussions, peasants of ancient China are clearly distinguished from modern peasants who enjoy personal freedom and the legitimate right to utilize and operate their farmland. In ancient China, the emperors could enslave the peasants, tax them, and make them migrate, or restrict them to certain areas. As long as a peasant was documented in the register, he would have to live for, produce for, and offer human labor to the emperor; and to not register was to directly violate the Law of the Empire. Hence, although there had been more than one time of “equal distribution of land” (jun tian) during the dynasties, and several scholars in the late Ming and early Qing period had already raised the notion that “he who farms shall have his own land,” and maintained that “he who owns the land should farm by himself, so that only peasants can own the land,”6 peasants under such policies were still registered labor without practical or personal freedom.

Yifu Lin proposes a similar argument to Hayami and Ruttan: The most crucial factor that contributed to the failure of the People’s Commune was the difficulty to supervise the Commune members, who were usually passive in working.7 On the contrary, the superiority of the family farming system lies in the fact that the peasants who work are producing for their own interests, so they are usually more active in production. Note that Lin’s argument differs from Hayami and Ruttan in that, whereas Lin describes supervision in the process of agricultural production, Hayami and Ruttan talk about the supervision of the quality of work. It is widely known among people who have rural experiences in China in the 1960s and 1970s that the intensity of laboring in the People’s Commune was by no means low. Pushed by the class-struggle notion, the Commune members had to work for the collective from early morning until evening, especially in the busy seasons. But this was not enough. They were continuously forced to “cut off the tail of capitalism.” The real crux here was not the lack of human effort, but the ineffectiveness of the labor, substantial waste of labor force, and production without returns, which gave birth to the “poor production team with ironically high ‘productivity.’” In his investigation of agricultural history in the Yangzi Delta, Philip Huang8 shows that the irrigation projects and the increase of multiple crop indexes during the People’s Commune period had greatly raised the yield of per unit area, and yet such projects also led to problems such as extreme labor force intensification and growth without development.

At any rate, the history of the People’s Commune in China demonstrates that the biological and ecological factors in agricultural production and the comparatively scattered nodes in the process of production could not match an organization system that is extremely concentrated and uniform.

As described above, contrary to the wish of the social democrats, who expected large-scale production to replace the small-scale family system and then to finally wash over the rural areas, the late nineteenth century saw a surprisingly increased number of small-scale family producers in western Europe. Such phenomenon was termed “an astonishing and mysterious force.” Today, many people are still confused, possibly even more confused, by the survival of peasantry economy. Some who do not have or cannot be bothered to gain comprehensive knowledge about agriculture and the peasant both in history and in the real world still share the beliefs of social democrats, as K. Kautsky has mentioned. They believe that “peasants are mysterious, unthinkable, and sometimes calamitous.”9 In mainland China, the launch of the Rural Household Contracted Responsibility System actually restored the tradition of family farming. This restoration was welcomed by peasants and also benefited the state. However, during the thirty years of this reform, the peasants’ rights to lease and use the land were threatened from time to time. Also disagreements arose on the contract responsibility system per se. For example, some people argue that the household contract system is no longer a mercy to the peasants but has become the shackle on millions of peasants. This argument is a deadlock: If peasantry was not eliminated, the “three-nong” problem (referring to agriculture, village, and peasant) would not be solved. So, is the household contract system a necessary condition for the development of agriculture, or is it just a step back to nowhere? How can we ensure the peasants’ rights on their land so that it will not be seized or deprived? And through what kind of institutions could we make sure that land is used by the peasants (or farmers, as in the economic professional category today) and for farming purposes only? These are all urgent questions with regard to the current situation of agriculture and peasants in China, and are, of course, the major issues to be addressed in this paper.

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