Теодор Шанин принял участие в XIV всемирном конгрессе "Социология села"

800 ученых собрались в университете Райерсон в Торонто на Всемирном Конгрессе по социологии села. Конгресс открылся 8 августа панельной дискуссией пяти ведущих исследователей крестьянства, которые представили пять различных точек зрения на историческую роль и судьбу крестьян.


Peasants have flagrantly defied the laws of history over a dozen times to become leading actors in socialist and anti-colonial revolutions around the world.

As with marijuana laws, when any law is defied so often and so brazenly, there comes a time to repeal the law and the theory behind it.

That's what happened this past week, when some 800 academics gathered at Ryerson University in Toronto for the World Congress of Rural Sociology. A panel of five leading interpreters of the peasant experience opened the conference on August 8 in a pleasant exchange that presented five differing viewpoints on the debate over the historic role and destiny of peasants.

The debate is not just about interpreting the past.

The keynote speakers carried on the next day with a 90-minute informal discussion that opened up the issue of re-peasantization -- the tendency among youthful food artisans, wannabe farmers and members of the global precariat to define themselves by their peasant-like mode of production and consumption.


Many of these youth are drawn to Via Campesina, the international organization resisting global trade deals on behalf of the world's two billion peasants, who provide food for about half the world.

There's nothing like a rising generation of unruly peasants to keep the peasant question relevant, even if some of the conference presenters have been around for the 50 years of scholarly debates on the peasantry that the World Congress was celebrating.

"We are older than the Rolling Stones," panel chair Ben White lamented.

Like the Stones, the keynoters blossomed during the rebellious 1960s, when peasant revolutionaries in Cuba and Vietnam were overcoming the mightiest industrial power in history. Two classic studies were published in 1966 -- Eric Wolf's Peasants, and the English translation of The Theory of Peasant Economy by A.Y. Chayanov, executed by Stalin in 1937 for supporting peasant co-ops rather than forced collectivization of agriculture.


Panelist Theodor Shannin has lived the peasant debate for most of his 86 years, having spent his tween and teen years in a Siberian gulag for his father's political positions. He escaped to Israel after the Second World War, then moved during the 1950s to England, where he sparked the 50-year debate among scholars and radicals by translating and updating Chayanov's work.

Shannin stood almost alone during the 1960s, at odds with mainstream liberals, conservatives and socialists. The almost universal assumption was that peasants were backward and ignorant medieval relics, doomed to obsolescence by the forces of historical progress and the drive to "develop" Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

Peasants, the awkward class

There are three possible positions to hold on the peasant question, Shannin argued in his opening remarks for the keynote panel.

The first position is that they do not and will not exist, because they are obsolete and disappearing. The second position acknowledges that peasants do exist in the flesh, but can be shoehorned into an existing political or academic theory -- like when Marxists lump them in with the petit bourgeoisie.

The third position says they exist, and may well persist, though they do not fit neatly into any theory yet devised -- the position he identified in his book on peasants as "the awkward class." But there is enduring value in peasants, he argues, because they live and work simply but efficiently and healthfully in cohesive communities on small parcels of land with minimal amounts of debt, heavy equipment and pollution.

Jan Douwe van der Ploege is a prominent Dutch academic, best known as author of Peasants and the Art of Farming, which he calls a Chayanovian manifesto.

His life is something of a reminder that today's food movement is not without a history, though few recognize or acknowledge it.

Van der Ploege came to peasant studies in 1971, when he witnessed 100,000 European peasants who staged a violent protest in Brussels against the still-new European Union, which was driving an agenda of farm modernization to compete with the large and mechanized farms of North America. The 1971 demonstration was followed in 1974 by a wave of peasant protests that led to roadblocks and other forms of public confrontation. Across Europe, peasants were part of the radical left, he said.


Peasants are still on a "journey of discovery," and can still meet objectives that corporate agriculture and small-farm entrepreneurs can't, he argued. Van der Ploege coined the term "new peasantries" to describe contemporary youth who yearn for the autonomy, self-employment, personal independence, authenticity and honest work of the peasant ideal.

Henry Bernstein, based in London, is a leading author and journal editor in the field of peasant and agrarian studies. He identifies readily as belonging to Shannin's second position -- he says peasants fit within the Marxist view of petty commodity production.

Many things have happened in the 50 years since the peasant debate was re-opened, Bernstein said. There are no recent peasant revolutions. There are no more state experiments to create collective farms. The rise of feminism makes it unlikely the isolation of peasant household labor will ever be re-established. The universality of trade for everyday products makes it almost impossible to return to anything like the subsistence economy practiced by peasants. Very few peasants today rely solely on their land for the means of survival. Many peasants are leaving their peasant villages behind for many reasons.

Neotechnics vs. paleotechnics

Toronto's Harriet Friedmann, arguably the best-known Canadian academic in the field of food studies, closed the keynote panel with her memories of being a student of Eric Wolf, who got the whole ball rolling with his 1966 book on peasant revolutions.

The "neotechnic" way of agriculture, relying on polluting fossil fuels, has burned itself out, Friedmann argues, and the paleotechnic way of relying on animal human labor and intelligence has a second lease on life. So some form of re-peasantization is possible. The Internet makes possible a “sharing economy” that can raise the living standards of cash-poor independent producers to a high level, despite the peasant mode of production, she argues.

This may not be far off the mark. According to research by Philip McMichael, writing in theThird World Quarterly in 2013, there are some 500,000 peasant households, home for two billion people, around the world today. They occupy 80 per cent of the planet's arable land, and produce half the world’s food, with barely a dime from the tens of billions of government subsidies that are the mainstay of North American and European agriculture.

When the keynote ended and the conference broke for lunch, I headed to the farmers market held every Wednesday at Ryerson.

What a peasant surprise to see a stand where a producer, disguised as a typical Torontonian, offered free samples of a range of delightfully colorful drinks he called "shrub."

It's a typical peasant invention, a low tech and no-cost way of preserving fruit juice for winter or smuggling or both. A forerunner of today's punch, shrub relies on the simple trick of using vinegar, a homemade product, to preserve berries and fruit.

It went out of style when toxic plastic containers and energy-intensive refrigerators made such homemade preserving methods obsolete.

Today’s new peasants, always on the lookout for ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, add soda water to shrub and sell it as a cocktail mix.

A sign that the future may be hiding behind a bush?

A delicious way to pause during a sweltering hot day after a sweltering hot debate over whether peasants have a future.