Commentary Magazine

Marx Against the Peasant, by David Mitrany

Communism and the Land
Marx Against the Peasant. A Study in Social Dogmatism.
by David Mitrany.
University of North Carolina Press. 301 pp. $4.50.


This book, written by a British scholar of Rumanian origin, is an important contribution to the exploration of the contemporary scene. Its center is the story of the peasant organizations and peasant parties which sprang up and came to power in the countries of Eastern Europe after the First World War, were submerged and silenced by the nationalist dictators of the interwar period—Pilsudski, Horthy, Carol, etc.—emerged again in the Second World War, and have now been broken by the maneuvers of the local Communist parties under the pressure of the liberating or occupying Soviet armies.

Nothing quite like these autonomous peasant movements of the Slav countries has ever been known in the urbanized, liberalized, intellectualized countries of Western and Central Europe, where social thinking is dominated by the categories of capital and labor, and conventional methods and assumptions give social science no access to facts outside a narrow range of problems considered “rational,” meaning an exclusive preoccupation with short-run technical efficiency and financial returns. From this point of view peasant movements appear “irrational” by definition, doomed either to be swept away automatically by man’s inherent drive to a reason-guided life, or to be deliberately done away with in order to make room for such a higher form of life. But if it is true that man lives on the goods he makes, it is no less true that he lives in making them.

The setting of Mitrany’s story is, geographically, the area between the West, including Germany, and the Russian East; ideologically, between Marxist theory and Russian populism (the Narodniki, the Social Revolutionaries, and others). His theme includes the ideological struggle between Russian populism and Marxism before 1917 as well as the continuance of the struggle, with political and economic weapons, after that date. Russian populism, strictly opposed to Marxist collectivism, had developed an autonomous idea of agrarian socialism based on the traditional village cooperative and its far-reaching method of work-pooling. (A study of the influence of populism on the kibbutzim in Israel should also prove highly rewarding.) The careful and loving analysis of this stream of thought and its use and abuse by the Communists is among the great merits of the book and forms a natural background for the related story of the movements farther to the West. The literatures of all the countries concerned, including the Hungarian and Rumanian enclaves in the Slav ocean of Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, are used as material for the story. The book is very rich in detail and documentation, particularly in sixty pages of notes in small print, and an elaborate index facilitates its use. The title is well chosen if it is understood that neither the plan nor the execution of the work have anything to do with the methods of current propaganda. The author has for more than thirty years made the Eastern European peasant revolts the cause not only of his studies but also of his heart, but throughout he upholds the standards of scholarly integrity, which in this case include a sympathetic understanding of the motives and actions of the peasants’ Communist adversaries and conquerors. Indeed, Mitrany is a frank admirer of Lenin for the unique combination of his singleness of purpose with an unfailing sense of rapidly changing circumstances and an imaginative resourcefulness in meeting them. Since Lenin believed in the supreme right of proletarian rationality as the remedy for all ills, Mr. Mitrany seems to grant he had to act approximately the way he did, making short-run concessions to the peasants and helping them wherever he could in order to win their confidence and gradually get them to accept a goal which was his, not theirs. Lenin understood that it would have been fatal, both politically and morally, simply to violate the bulk of the working people. This is the heritage he left to all his successors, both in his own country and the Russian satellite countries, from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific. And this is the ultimate and decisive reason why the Communists could outdistance their Social Democratic rivals in the race for revolutionary leadership in all the Eastern peasant countries. The Social Democrats, like their more powerful fellows in the urbanized and industrialized Western countries, contented themselves with declarations of concern for the peasants’ welfare and occasional assurances of sympathy for individual property in family farms, but never sought any real understanding of peasant life, and remained locked up in their time-honored formulas.



Mitrany’s book is not without minor shortcomings. On the formal side, for all its vividness, it is hard going because of a strange lack of organization, a constant jumping back and forth in subject and time which must bewilder every reader not familiar with the historical material. We read on page 95: “In [Russian] agriculture, after 1930 the system of the cooperative artel was accepted as the most suitable form of collectivization. . . . The peasants were more satisfied, agricultural administration was improved and simplified, while the control of the state was as effective as on state farms”; then on page 96 an account of a controversy in the Communist party about the unorthodox form of the kolkhoz; on pages 98 and 99 a discussion of Lenin’s varying use of rural cooperatives (he had died in 1924), culminating in the sentence “He made practical use of those [cooperatives] he found in Russia, putting them under control or loosening the reins, whichever served his immediate needs, until the time came when they were suppressed altogether in 1936”; then on page 100 Stalin’s admission that collectivization had been “a second revolution”; and finally on page 101, in the course of a polemic against John Strachey, the sentence “Soviet Marxism on political grounds exterminated several million peasants in the process of imposing by force . . . the scheme of things assumed by Marx and Engels to be right.”

Mitrany is not as familiar with Western developments as with those in the Eastern belt of Europe, which, after all, are his main topic. His presentation of the agrarian problem of Western Marxism is therefore somewhat spotty. More serious is the fact that his knowledge of general rural developments in the West is restricted. There is hardly any mention of Scandinavia and Holland, no mention at all of the role the peasants have been playing in the economic life of these countries and their democracy, no word on the cooperative development there. The statement that in all Western countries the peasants turned conservative (page 144) after a brief flirtation with the left is not quite wrong, if taken literally, but must be put to the test of the question: why in the world should these prosperous cooperators in their stable democracies and their coalition governments with reformed labor parties have turned to radicalism? Nor does our author make use of the opposite example: the disaster of Weimar Germany, where the Social Democrats drove the peasants into the arms of fascism by insisting, for example, along with the big business parties, on the foreclosures of farms (in the great depression), leading the peasants to rally under the black banner against the bailiffs.

It should be clear by now, one hundred years after Bishop Grundvig founded in the Danish villages his winter schools for citizenship and farming, that the merits of small-scale enterprise in agriculture cannot be sensibly discussed unless it is organized to the best of its potentialities; this, however, requires the technical and organizational schooling of peasants, and as part of that schooling, the establishment of cooperatives for marketing, purchases, the use of machines, etc. As for Marxism, if the goal of collectivization was relentlessly pursued by Lenin throughout all the perplexing detours of his strategy, this ultimately was not because Marx and Engels thought collective farming to be the most productive form; Mr. Mitrany, like almost everybody else, ignores the official Soviet publication of 1931 where statistical evidence is to the contrary (Obolensky-Ossinsky, Ronin, Gayster, and Kraval, Social Economic Planning in the USSR, 1931). Lenin’s motive was different. History, he believed, has produced in the industrial proletarian the perfectly rational man, who, deprived of personal life and spontaneity, merges in the collective pursuit of collective welfare and thus makes possible the rationalized, conflictless society, which Marx proclaims as the goal and salvation of mankind; and where history had failed to produce this type of man, it must be forced to produce him: the “backwardness” of the peasants had to be “liquidated.” This is the logic of Lenin and Stalin as it must have been that of Marx. The study of Marxism must begin with the understanding that it is not at all a system of positivism, bowing to facts and experience; it is a dogmatic Messianic system in scientific garb.



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