Interview: Agriculture, class and capitalism

Issue: 138

Henry Bernstein

Henry Bernstein, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, has for decades been at the forefront of research into the class structure and political economy of agriculture. He spoke to Joseph Choonara about his work.

Can you start by telling me a little about your background and the formative experiences that shaped your approach to the study of agrarian questions?

I think the most important factor was the new development of agrarian political economy in the 1970s, which was spearheaded by Terry Byres at SOAS. There was a quite extraordinary Peasants Seminar, convened by Terry at the University of London, which ran from 1972 to 1989. All the top Marxists of the day spoke at it, along with many younger people—it was really cross-generational. It was also part of an international intellectual effort of the left.

This helped to rediscover and reinvent a political economy that could be applied to agrarian change. It was stimulated in part by developments in countries in Asia and Africa, partly too by what were regarded as peasant wars in Vietnam and some parts of Africa. It considered both the changes taking place in these societies and the relationship of peasants to revolutionary politics.

There was also great curiosity about China, because many on the European left looked to the communes in China as an alternative to both capitalist development in the countryside and Soviet-style Stalinist
collectivisation.1 Well, of course, that disappeared in time, but it was very much of the moment.

I think that for Marxists the single most important component in the revival of agrarian political economy was the rediscovery of Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia.2 Marx’s own writings were important, but Marx’s comments on agricultural issues are fairly scattered. In addition, in the 1970s and 1980s we had the first full English translation of Karl Kautsky on The Agrarian Question—earlier Jairus Banaji had done a translation of extracts.3 Another important work was the English translation of a book by Alexander Chayanov, the great Russian agricultural economist, and there was a lot of stuff from the heroic period of the Russian Revolution.4 All of that fed into the new developments in agrarian political economy.

And that led to the birth of the Journal of Peasant Studies?

It did. The journal came out of the seminars that Byres and others organised. In terms of my own biography, I came back from four years in Tanzania in 1978, during which time I had been working on agrarian questions. So I already knew Terry Byres and I connected very much with what he was doing.

Subsequently there was another journal, the Journal of Agrarian Change, which you have also been associated with. Is it fair to say that this journal carried on the tradition?

Absolutely. For various reasons, we continued and updated the mission of the Journal of Peasant Studies. Relations between the two journals are comradely. I would say that Agrarian Change is today more centred on political economy and Peasant Studies is more focused on political sociology, rural politics and so on.

One of your arguments is that the whole concept of apeasantrycan be misleading. It can encourage us to think of them in the way we would think of feudal peasants. You talk instead about smallscale commodity producers who are integrated into the circuits of capitalism.

That is one of the key questions. I think it is misleading to talk about peasants in today’s world because our historical image of peasants was formed in the principal grain-growing areas of pre-capitalist civilisations, especially in Europe and Russia, but also in India, China and elsewhere. The term “peasant” is usually used today in association with populist positions.

Agrarian populism declares the virtues of peasant or family farmers and identifies with their struggles against those who threaten their reproduction and wellbeing, from merchants and banks, capitalist landed property, agrarian capital and agribusiness, to projects of state-led “national development” centered on industrialisation, in all their capitalist, nationalist and socialist variants, of which the Soviet collectivisation of agriculture in the 1930s was the most potent landmark. Modern versions of populism draw on the legacy of Chayanov, himself a victim of Stalin’s purges, whose vision of a future “peasant utopia” combined household farming with cooperation to achieve economies of scale. Agrarian populism today champions small farmers, including their ostensible ecological virtues, against large-scale mechanised capitalist agriculture and global agribusiness. Perhaps the best-known agrarian populist movement today is Via Campesina, which means “the peasant way”.

The agricultural petty commodity producer within capitalism is a social category that was formed first in transitions to capitalism in Europe and North America, then under colonialism, followed by independence in Asia and Africa, which obviously came earlier in Latin America. My own position is that small farmers today have to be seen and studied as petty commodity producers.

However, the rural masses in many countries, not least India, where they are estimated to be over 60 percent of the population, are not in fact reproducing themselves primarily through their own farming, because they are unable to do so. They are members of classes of labour; they reproduce themselves primarily through wage labour, with an element of subsistence coming from their own farming. So they are not petty commodity producers in the full sense.

Petty commodity producers in the Global South, allowing for all the differences in farming environments and social conditions, are not so different a category from so-called family farmers in the North. They are all in effect small capitalist enterprises, except that those in the North tend to have higher levels of investment and higher labour productivity.

Marx talks about the petty bourgeois under capitalism, for instance the small shopkeeper, being cut into two people: one a capitalist and the other a worker. Effectively they exploit themselves, and sometimes their family unit too. Those living on the land are in a similar position, with the added complication that they can sometimes be divided into three people, a landlord as well as a capitalist and worker if they own their own land. So this social category is obviously quite a complex one.

Indeed, in my little book Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change I use Lenin’s classic schema for the differentiation of the peasantry.5 In Capital Marx clearly had an enclosure model based on what had happened in England when he discusses primitive accumulation. One of the interesting things about Lenin, whose writings didn’t so much contradict as complement Marx’s, was that he argued that class differentiation of the peasantry could be another model through which capitalist agriculture could form, rather than enclosure of land by aristocratic landowners, who then, according to Marx, rented it out to capitalist farmers.

In Lenin’s scheme, rich peasants are those who accumulate enough land that they have to start employing wage labour beyond their household and they become capitalist farmers. The middle peasantry are those who don’t achieve this but who succeed more or less in simple reproduction as petty commodity producers. And the poor peasantry are those who become classes of labour. They become proletarianised in effect, even if not completely.

Marx is sometimes said to have predicted the disappearance of the peasantry, who are supposed to be squeezed out by capital and labour. It’s a bit of a myth. Nonetheless many people would expect the peasantry to be eliminated by capitalist development.

There’s the famous passage from Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia where he expresses scepticism about the stereotype that capitalism always requires the free landless labourer. That is confirmed by what we find across large areas of the Global South today.

There has been a big debate within Marxism about why capitalist development has not eliminated small-scale farming, and various reasons have been given. One is that, all else being equal, it can be more difficult for capital to reap the same rate of profit, and to continue to do so through expanded reproduction, in farming compared to industry. In industry you can introduce technologies that raise the productivity of labour virtually indefinitely; it’s much more difficult in farming.

It is true of periods in the past and it is certainly true today with globalisation that big capital in agriculture is not primarily found in farming but in seed companies, chemical companies, machinery companies, and so on, upstream of farming; and also downstream of farming in corporate food processing, distribution and retail.

Another reason, connected to the first one, was put forward by Susan Mann and James Dickinson in the 1970s, in a famous article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, about the obstacles to capital in farming.6 One obstacle is that you have to allow for the natural material processes involved in the maturation of crops and livestock. Capital during that time is tied up, and capital can only appropriate surplus value from labour during the production process. In agriculture a gap, that may be bigger or smaller, opens up between labour time and production time, while crops are ripening or livestock is maturing.

One of the things that modern capitalist technology is trying to do in relation to this is to develop crops that mature ever quicker and livestock pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones. So capitalism aims to reduce the duration and uncertainty of natural processes.

A third argument, which becomes clear if you abolish the term peasant as anachronistic and accept that we still have many petty commodity producers in farming, is that, some political economists would say, these producers can produce commodities more cheaply. That is because they do not have to pay the various costs associated with the capitalist control and supervision of the labour process. If it is household labour that is used, they have other means of disciplining the workforce.

One more populist argument is that peasants persist because they resist the encroachment of capitalism and the market; they strive for autonomy. I think that’s a rather romantic argument. Nonetheless, sometimes there are political struggles against the establishment of large-scale capitalist production, for instance in parts of India where there are densely populated farming areas. Here there might be political barriers to dispossessing people on the land as happened historically in England before and during the time of the Enclosure Acts and even more dramatically in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

This is beginning to be a big issue in relation to China. China and India still have the largest preponderance of small farmers, and, while it is possible they are being hammered in other ways, they are not generally being dispossessed en masse. When they are displaced it is usually to make the way for infrastructure projects, industry or mining, not to replace them with large-scale farmers.

So you have the resilience of smallscale producers, but most of them are linked to heavily commoditised markets in inputs and outputs.

Yes, because it is more profitable for capital to concentrate upstream or downstream from farming, and that’s where some of the new profit frontiers of capital are: genetically modified organisms (GMOs), biofuels, and so on. That’s another thing that’s common to the Global North and the South.

One of the factors in the generally poor performance of African agriculture since structural adjustment is that fertiliser use has gone right down.7 Previously it was subsidised by government rural development programmes; now it’s left to the market.

I want to come back to the contemporary developments in agriculture. But when people hear about agrarian change they often think about the rise in productivity during what’s called the Green Revolution roughly from the 1960s.

First, it is important not to confuse rising labour productivity with rising productivity of land or rising yields. One of the classic populist arguments is that yields are generally higher in small-scale agriculture, at the cost, Marxists point out, of massive drudgery and excessive hard work because labour productivity is much lower.

One reason it was called the Green Revolution was that it was seen as an alternative to “red revolution”, which was very much on the minds of the Americans because of Vietnam. But I think the Green Revolution was in some ways quite impressive, for example, allowing India to become self-sufficient in basic food grain production.

The idea was that it was scale neutral. If you have miracle seeds and fertiliser, plus water, then the idea was that it would have the same impact (growth potential) on a small farm as a big one, but there’s a lot of evidence that in India it was bigger farmers who benefited the most.

It has since been heavily criticised, and it seems that the rate of yield increases cannot be sustained in the long term using those technologies. That is perhaps why there has been a shift towards GMOs, because biochemically they are different entities. The Green Revolution revolved around high yielding varieties that were bred as hybrids; GMOs are genetically modified in laboratories.

To what extent did the Green Revolution extend beyond India?

You really need to distinguish it by grains. There are the big three global food grains: wheat, rice and maize. There were varying levels of success among the three grains in particular parts of India. In some regions like the Punjab, where you have good irrigation, both wheat and rice did very well, but that wasn’t necessarily true in other areas. There was success with rice in the Philippines and maize in Latin America. In this period maize became internationalised following the US pattern where it is grown mainly as an animal feed crop.

In fact, the original Green Revolution was in the US. There’s a wonderful Marxist account by Jack Kloppenburg of how big seed corporations appropriated the results of public research into improved seeds in the US, which led directly to the developments in the Global South, driven largely by the Rockefeller Foundation.8 There is again a connection between the North and South.

There have been other success stories. Africa has largely been left out, with the partial exception of South Africa and big farms in Zimbabwe, which were of course big settler farms comparable to those in North America or Argentina. According to recent figures I’ve seen, commercial farming in South Africa, which is still in everything but name white farming, has the highest rate of take-up of GM seeds in the world. There they have retained quite high levels of yields.

But Africa generally presented real material obstacles to the Green Revolution, because you have such a wide variety of microenvironments in sub-Saharan Africa, and very vulnerable farming ecologies in terms of rain and soils. The hopes that were invested at the time of the Green Revolution have not materialised. And of course, the social conditions of many farmers in Africa are completely screwed up by the impact of structural adjustment programmes.

Since the Green Revolution there have been further big changes in agriculture. One obvious change is the level of trade in agricultural products. Farming has been increasingly tightly bound up with global capitalism. One consequence seems to have been to make food security in regions of the Global South extremely fragile.

There are a number of different stories. Some of these loom large in agitprop literature, the positions of the green non-governmental organisations, and so on, so each of them has to be looked at more carefully.

But there is undoubtedly growing corporate concentration and power in agricultural inputs and technologies, and in processing, the supermarkets, the fast food industry and so on. Something that is very topical is the effort being made by the big supermarket chains to break into India. There is quite a lot of resistance for various reasons from Indian capital.

Some of the best land in some African countries has been given over to contract farming for Northern supermarkets, which use air freighting of so-called exotic fruit and vegetables so you can buy them all year round in North America and Europe, which can involve diverting resources from food production for domestic markets.

There is another aspect to the land-grab issue, which involves big agribusiness companies working with sovereign wealth funds, for instance from the oil producing countries of the Middle East and from China, acquiring large tracts of land. This takes place especially in Africa, but in other continents too. They set up large-scale production of biofuels, and basic food grains destined for the Gulf States and China, which are designed to help their food security. But it is not a simple story. I recently heard from a Ugandan woman who works for an NGO. She argued that in the area of Uganda where she works, which is a densely populated farming area, the worst land grabs are due to class and gender differentiation at a local level, rather than the work of some large global corporation.

Another important issue is the development of biofuels. Massive profits are being made out of these, partly with the help of subsidies provided by the US government, the EU and so on. Again it’s difficult to generalise but there is certainly a danger that land is being diverted from food production.

In addition, with the spike in food prices that took place around the time of the financial crisis of 2007-8, and another spike that seems to be happening now, there’s certainly a well-founded argument from the left that as hedge funds and other big financial institutions face problems in the pure money markets they start speculating on agricultural commodity futures. That has been a big part of the food price spikes, which affects people in the South a great deal.

Another interesting story is how countries such as Argentina and Brazil have become major players in agricultural exports on a global scale. China now imports most of its soya from these two countries. Historically, Brazil exported cocoa, coffee and so on, and now you have this really massive scale grain production for export, a lot of it to do with animal feeds or biofuels, with Brazil pioneering the production of sugar to make ethanol as a car fuel. Brazilian corporations are hand in glove with US corporations on this—there is a lot of global cooperation between multinationals.

An interesting point concerns the role of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Before the WTO was established, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which preceded it, generally ignored agricultural trade because the Americans did not want to include it. Since the late 19th century the US has been the biggest agricultural exporter, but we have seen the rise of competitors, such as the Cairns Group of big agricultural exporters: Australia, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa. They are constantly pushing against US and EU subsidies for agriculture. So there is a lot of uncertainty about how far the WTO has got in achieving its objective of free trade in agricultural commodities. Much agricultural trade still tends to take place within particular regional trading blocs such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Those are just some of the changes that have taken place recently.

You talk about a series of different factors leading to food insecurity, but you stress how complicated a picture it is. It seems that there is still a very strong regional dynamic and lots of diversity.

Regional differences must not be overlooked. One of the clear exceptions to the idea of globalisation creating similar societies the world over is that the two most populous countries, India and China, are still by and large self-sufficient in food production. And this is either on the basis of incredibly small-scale farming as in China or relatively small-scale farming in India. You might be a relatively strong capitalist farmer in India with five or ten hectares of land in an irrigated area. That is very different from Argentina or Brazil where you are talking about grain farms of tens of thousands of hectares.

So there is a lot of variation. Whether India and China can maintain their broad self-sufficiency in food production for over a third of the world’s population is an interesting question. For instance, in China people are eating more meat, so the soy it imports is increasingly destined to go into animal feed.

There are political factors that governments have to consider, even with the rapid pace of capitalist development in India and China generally. India was, for example, one of the first countries to put a ban on food exports when there was the big food price spike.

In your book Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change you give a picture of some of the varieties of struggle in agrarian areas. What are the main flashpoints for struggles today?

Again it is a complicated question. To take farm workers, they have generally been regarded by the left as harder to organise and therefore more quiescent than other workers. But even here, I’ve heard that there have been some eruptions of farm workers’ struggles in South Africa in the wake of the Marikana miners’ struggle.

Your question is important because the major struggles against corporate, industrialised agriculture today, with its high environmental and energy costs, are coming from movements with a strong populist flavour to them. The best known is the Via Campesina movement, which started in Central America and has spread far beyond that. Some of my Marxist colleagues would dismiss these populist movements out of hand, but I think it is more complex. In certain conditions populist movements can have progressive elements. The issue is that they are cross-class alliances centred on ideologies of an inclusive “people of the land”. These movements are an important reality of contemporary politics. They are often in the vanguard of struggles against land grabs and corporate agribusiness, so we have to engage with them, albeit critically.

They are not simply a rerun of peasant movements of a previous period, as people such as James Petras have pointed out in the case of Latin America. If they are successful in achieving alliances in the countryside and beyond against corporate capital, how should we position ourselves in relation to them? That is a problem for the left parties in India, for example, where you have very strong rural social movements.

My own feeling is that the politics are highly contradictory. One can identify more progressive tendencies that we can encourage. Some of the more progressive elements are collectivist ideas, in that they argue that there are forms of collectives and cooperatives that are part of the way forward. And then there are some really retrograde tendencies, which look to a myth of a golden past and romanticise the small autonomous producer, harmonious with nature.

One of the issues at stake concerns levels of production and productivity. The size of the world population today, compared to the time in world history when most production was by peasants, is massively expanded. More than 50 percent of the world’s population is now urban, so the notion that reconstituted small farmers are the future is one I find difficult to believe, especially if it is the romantic notion that they should use only the most simple tools and avoid modern technologies.

I have no problem with relatively small-scale farming as part of the future, but it would have to use advanced technologies, with high labour productivity, and it would have to be integrated in certain kinds of social arrangements and not simply take place as individualised petty production.

The kind of thing I am advocating would include trying to appropriate technologies developed by capitalism. I am not against GMOs in principle; the problem is that they are mostly developed and controlled by the big chemical corporations.

There are ways of developing the forces of production in agriculture on different scales, in a manner that is not destructive in the way that capitalist farming is today.

To go back to Lenin, part of his point in his identification of the different elements within the peasantry was to try to work out which of them the urban proletariat could ally itself with in revolutionary struggle. What are the prospects for urbanrural alliances? In many contexts, people have one foot in the countryside and one foot in the city.

I agree that one of the most important aspects of the reproduction of labour in the countryside is that it is combined with elements of wage labour and of migration, with strong urban-rural links developing. How you then move beyond that, as a given of existence, towards some kind of programmatic position, which could form the basis for organisation, is rather difficult. There are few recent powerful examples to draw on. All we can say is that almost everyone who is a worker, or part of the reserve army of labour or an informal labourer, does share a common interest. Even in the countryside many people are net buyers of food produced by others.

There are problems though. Organised urban workers will always push for lower food prices, which would probably be against the interest of small farmers and petty commodity producers who are producing food for the market.

People point to possible examples of unity between the classes of labour. Some would say that the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, the Landless Labourers’ Movement) in Brazil was an example because it has a lot of support from the Workers’ Party and the radical wing of the Catholic church, which was involved in founding the MST. But we have to ask difficult questions. What would be the aims or demands of that kind of alliance? People have suggested things such as workers running urban food cooperatives, of the kind that existed under Salvador Allende in Chile in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which there are direct links of supply between smaller farmers and urban working class consumers. It stimulates the imagination but it’s hard to think what it would look like scaled up to a society such as Brazil with a population of almost 200 million.

In India you have the Karnataka farmers’ movement, which the best informed sources tell me is really a rich farmers’ movement, yet it has a big international reputation on the left because they have opposed GM seeds, so they are seen as being the good guys. But one of their major campaigning issues is for bigger subsidies for fertilisers and I’m told some of their leading supporters are among the most vicious in how they treat their farm workers.

Lots of people think that the class differentiation in the countryside is less important than the fact that these populist movements are challenging globalisation and industrialisation. That position is problematic for Marxists who have to investigate and assess class formations and forces in the countryside, which includes their linkages with urban and industrial social dynamics.

For those interested in finding out more, can you recommend some reading on the themes you’ve discussed?

In general the Journal of Peasant Studies and Journal of Agrarian Change, and the other works we’ve discussed, are a useful starting point. A recent issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change contained a piece by Jason Moore, entitled “The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010”.9 Some recent collections on agrarian issues include Peasants and Globalisation, and Transnational Agrarian Movements Confronting Globalisations.10 There are also Weis’s The Global Food Economy and a collection that I helped edit entitled The Food Question.11


1: Agricultural communes, consisting of thousands of households, were formed in China at Mao Zedong’s initiative. They were envisaged as a part of Mao’s Great Leap Forward that began in 1958, which was supposed to lead to rapid industrialisation, allowing Chinese output to overtake that of Western countries such as Britain. The “leap” in fact ended in disaster, with millions dying in the resulting famines.

2: This book, published in 1899, helped establish Lenin’s reputation as a Marxist theoretician. It can be found on the Marxist Internet Archive and is available in various English translations, such as Lenin, 1987.

3: This work by Kautsky, then the leading German Marxist theoretician, was also originally published in 1899. The first full English translation, in two volumes, was by Zwan publications in 1987-Kautsky, 1987.

4: Chayanov was a Russian economist, executed under Stalin in 1937. His major work, Theory of Peasant Economy, was first published in German in 1923 and Russian in 1925. The earliest English translation was in 1966. It has been reprinted by Oxford University Press-Chayanov, 1987.

5: Bernstein, 2010. This short book forms an excellent introduction to Bernstein’s work.

6: Mann and Dickinson, 1978.

7: Structural adjustment refers to the policies imposed on the Global South by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. They involved sweeping privatisation, the removal of state subsidies and the liberalisation of trade and capital flows.

8: Kloppenburg, 2004.

9: Moore, 2010.

10: Akram-Lodhi, Haroom and Kay, 2009; Borras, Edelman and Kay, 2008.

11: Weis, 2007; Bernstein, Crow, Mackintosh and Martin, 1990.


Akram-Lodhi, A Haroom and Cristóbal Kay (eds), 2009, Peasants and Globalisation, Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question (Routledge).

Bernstein, Henry, 2010, Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change (Kumarian Press).

Bernstein, Henry, Ben Crow, Maureen Mackintosh and Charlotte Martin (eds), 1990, The Food Question: Profits Versus People? (Monthly Review Press).

Borras, Saturnino M, Marc Edelman and Cristóbal Kay (eds), 2008, Transnational Agrarian Movements Confronting Globalisation (Wiley-Blackwell).

Chayanov, Alexander, 1987 [1923], Theory of Peasant Economy (Oxford University).

Kautsky, Karl, 1987 [1899], The Agrarian Question, in two volumes (Zwan).

Kloppenburg, Jack, 2004, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (University of Wisconsin).

Lenin, VI, 1987 [1899], The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in Collected Works, volume 3, (Lawrence and Wishart),

Mann, Susan, and James Dickinson, 1978, “Obstacles to the Development of a Capitalist Agriculture”, Journal of Peasant Studies, volume 5, number 4.

Moore, Jason W, 2010, “The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010”, Journal of Agrarian Change, volume 10, number 3.

Weis, Anthony, 2007, The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming (Zed).