Peasant & Farmer Resistance to Imperialism Changed Marx’s Thinking (23.3.2019)

Prof. Luo Gong (罗岗) – East China Normal University

Original Chinese Language Article: 河阳论坛·特写|罗岗:小农户·小农经济·现代农业:在新语境下重新理解“小农”

(Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)

On the 23.3.2019, Prof. Luo Gong (of the East China Normal University) addressed the 5th Heyang Forum with a lecture entitled ‘Small Farmers, Small Farming Economy and Modern Agriculture’, within which he defined small farming and gave an overview of this subject in contemporary terms, before initiating a thorough re-examination of the situation and suggesting different ways of approaching interpretation and definition. Dr Zhao Yuezhi [赵月枝] (and others) representing the 5th Heyang Forum, took notes, asked questioned and devised this report for interesting readers. 

Professor Luo Gang first introduced the background of the subject and explained the  changing conditions surrounding the issue. He thinks it is very important that this subject is treated with respect and that its discussion stimulates the imagination of the peasants and small farmers. However, in the modernized framework formed in the 1980s, small farmers were interpreted in a traditional manner and viewed as a backward representation of the feudal system, the destiny of which was to be one day absorbed, or even eliminated by the modernization process. This issue has recently been  re-investigated and re-defined by various Government Departments.

He specifically mentioned that in February of this year, the Central Office and the General Office of the State Council issued a special notice on the promotion of small farmers’ organic integration with modern agricultural development. After this directive was issued, there was a lot of controversy. He believes that the general idea of this opinion is to use modern agriculture to absorb all the small farmers at some point in the future. This is a prediction of the future, and also objectively clarifies the fact that for China, the existence of small farmers is A long-term process. However, this opinion actually ignores a more important institutional condition. Apart from those natural conditions and natural factors, the key point is that up to now, the rural land system in China is still the so-called production-to-household system, with farming production being the responsibility of each household. The main body of over-all (and integrated) farming production, which makes the existence of small farmers and this land system interdependent, is impossible to change in the short term. Since the Government has acknowledged that the small-scale peasant economy (or small-scale farmers) are a long-term process, then we need to re-understand the small-scale or small-scale peasant economy. Professor Luo Gang provided two ideas:


1) Re-emphasising the importance of small farmers or small farmers’ economy.

Professor Luo Gang believes that the small-scale or small-scale peasant economy is not the same as the ‘one cow and a few acres of land; the wife, children and white picket fence’ in the usual sense, but a socio-economic concept with broader significance. He cited the small-scale peasant economic form of the Jiangnan region in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and the ideal life style of the peasants in the Jiangnan region described by Wang Zengqi’s (汪曾祺) novel ‘The Ordination’. He also mentioned the research in the field of socio-economic history, such as the California School in the United States and the socio-economic history research influenced by the California School. Both emphasize the developed form of the small-scale peasant economy in China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties. It can be called the municipal economy of the urban and rural areas. Combined economy, or even the economy of urban and rural continuums and so on.


2) Ecological civilization or ecological Socialism.

Professor Luo Gang shared his feelings after listening to Teacher Wen Tiejun’s (温铁军)  recent speech at the Fudan University in Shanghai entitled ‘Hundreds of Farmers Saving China’. Teacher Wen believes that the three epochs of farmers ‘Saved by China’ after the founding of New China was the first land reform in the 1950s, the second was the household annual contract responsibility system in the 1980s, and the third time is today. However, Professor Luo Gang pointed out that the so-called third rescue of small-scale farming by Communist Party reforms in China may be termed ‘saving’ or ‘will be saved’, but it is not known whether it can be saved. The previous two reforms were successful, but will the third be a success? This third time involves the issue of ecological civilization. Ecological civilization is not limited to how to understand the small-scale peasant economy, but questions what role the small-scale peasant economy will play in China’s future development.

Professor Luo Gang mentioned some changes in Marx’s thinking and understanding of the small-scale peasant economy. For example, several economic forms are mentioned in the manuscript of Das Kapital (Volume One) as a pre-capitalist mode of production, especially mentioning Asian production methods. One of the main characteristics is the community of small farmers. In the early years, Marx’s judgment on the small-scale peasant economy and the social structure of the Asian production mode and the small-scale peasant community was negative. He believed that capitalism was the general trend and all economic forms would be swept into it. However, Marx was simultaneously shocked by China’s Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Movement and India’s anti-colonial uprising. He found out why these small farmers can unite and face the invasion of imperialism and strongly resist the oppression of colonialism. To some extent all this extra data changed his view of small farmers.

Marx’s cognition of this issue has undergone certain changes. Professor Luo Gang believes that this change is reflected in the manuscript of Das Kapital (Volume III). Marx discovered in the process of writing the manuscript of Das Kapital (Volume III), capitalist production. It will bring about the possibility of breaking the material metabolism between human and nature. Therefore, when Marx made a critique of capitalism, he not only considered the issue of reunification of the labour subject and the objective conditions of labour, he also set an ecological question, namely how to restore the material metabolism between man and nature. And this is a basic starting point for all issues of ecological socialism and ecological Marxism. Professor Luo Gang said that Marx himself did not create ecological Socialism. He only left such a problem, and his discussion of this issue pointed out that small-scale land ownership is contradictory to modern rational agriculture. Marx is increasingly concerned about the problem of material metabolism between humans and nature brought about by capitalist agriculture that is largely industrialized. In contrast, the importance of small-scale production methods is shown. Because the small-scale production mode is that workers use land and other means of production as their own, it is a production method cultivated by the free personality and self-reliance of labourers for centuries. In this sense, the countryside is a ‘reservoir’ for each common volume to store the power of historical civilization.

Professor Luo Gang believes that from this perspective, the small-scale peasant economy is not only an economic way, but more importantly, a way of life and culture. Historically, the economy of small farmers and peasants, in a sense, includes cultural diversity and ecological diversity, and plays an important role in protecting both. Therefore, from the prospect of ‘100 million farmers saved by China’, that is, the Chinese road is in the sense of ecological civilization, we need to rethink the role of the small-scale peasant economy, and how the small peasant economy can exert its more positive value in the process of modernization. Not only is it the object protecting small-scale farming, but also relieving the farmers from the immense economic and historical pressures they face.

(This article was compiled by Du Xuezhi (杜学志), reviewed by Prof. Luo Gang)


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