The Agrarian Question

Kautsky, Karl. 1988. The Agrarian Question, Vol I. London: Zwan Publications.

Karl Kautsky’s classic The Agrarian Question explores the impact of capitalism on agrarian society, role of agriculture in the course of capitalist development, and the political role (or lack thereof, in Kautsky’s view) of the peasantry in radical social change. Though the book follows along a pretty much standard, orthodox, teleological conception of capitalist development, Kautsky does upset some of the standard narratives and analyses that the classical Marxism of his day professed about agriculture and the peasantry. Throughout the book, as the introducers of the volume note, Kautsky comes to terms, somewhat uncomfortably, with his empirical findings.

Most importantly, Kautsky finds that small-scale agriculture is not an aberration within capitalist agricultural development or something destined to die; peasant agriculture is, in fact, functional to the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. Like Lenin, Kautsky notes the increasing polarization of classes in agrarian society and the attendant concentration of rural property, and they are both careful about showing the differentiation of the peasantry.

The concentration of property begins to dig its own grave by sapping commercial agriculture of a workforce as peasants are displaced from the land, so Kautsky finds a process of concentration and fragmentation that keeps capitalist agriculture viable via the production of a rural peasant-proletariat. But while Lenin assumes that peasant agriculture is destined to die, Kautsky sees its functionality as a means for the social reproduction of a reserve army of agricultural wage-workers.

Describing the process, he notes, “The vast majority of the agricultural population no longer appear on the market for commodities as sellers of foodstuffs, but as sellers of labour-power, and buyers of foodstuffs. The small farm ceases to compete with large farms; in fact… it fosters and supports them by providing wage-labourers and a market for their produce” (173). As he puts it, small farms and big farms end up being crutches for each other (181). “Once things have reached this state, large and small-scale farming are not mutually exclusive. In fact, like capitalist and proletarian, they require each other, with the small farm increasingly assuming the latter role” (167)

Kautsky also shows why agricultural production is qualitatively different from industrial production. For one thing, land is not reproducible or movable (like a machine could be); second, the reproduction of peasant labor-power is not valorized in the market (though the same could be said about social reproduction in the household). And along with what’s already been stated, concentration and centralization are only conducive to accumulation in agriculture up to a certain point.

Throughout the book, Kautsky is still totally dismissive of peasants political consciousness and agency. In this, he’s still not far off from Marx’s dismissal of the agrarian underclass as a “sack of potatoes”—though Kautsky’s vision of differentiation is much more nuanced than Marx’s. He follows some pretty standard misconceptions about how spatial dispersal is not conducive to organized political action and that peasants are an irredeemably conservative and ignorant group that can see beyond its own individual defense of their meager plot of land. For instance, in a chapter on evaluating the potential of cooperatives, Kautsky wonders: “Why don’t peasants try to organize their central activities on a cooperative basis? Why do they stay at the stage of mere palliatives? One suggested reason is that by its nature agriculture is nota social activity, and is not therefore amenable to social organization” (126).

Not to say peasant livelihoods should be romanticized, but Kautsky is brutal in describing the self-exploitation enacted by peasants that makes them so useful for greasing up the gears of capitalist accumulation. “We have to confess that as far as we are concerned the sub-human diet of the small peasant is no more an advantage than its superhuman industriousness. Both testify to economic backwardness” (116). Of course, he’s careful to note that the self-exploitation is a product of increased competition brought on by market relations. But it seems the idea that peasants actually want to be peasants is beyond the pale for Kautsky.


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10 Responses to The Agrarian Question

  1. Teo Ballvé Jester says:

    Also, I forgot to mention Kautsky’s (mostly) blind faith in large-scale agriculture. The power of the discourse regarding the necessity of large-scale agriculture is still very much hegemonic. But there are many analyses that question this assumption that only large-scale agriculture can feed the world. Recent stuff coming out that takes a critical view of “land grabs” comes up time and again against this erroneous notion. As has been repeatedly pointed out, small-scale agriculture is actually much more efficient and productive (if given the requisite support).

  2. Pingback: Perelman's The Invention of Capitalism | Territorial Masquerades

  3. bobby says:

    anyone know where one can find a free copy of this? It has to be out of copyright, but I can’t locate it and have looked through and

    • Teo Ballvé Teo Ballvé says:

      Bobby, I’ll email you the link. If anyone else needs this, let me know. Hopefully, the PDF will find its way to one of the existing archives.

  4. Saphuwala says:

    I too would appreciate a link to the text in pdf, seems to be hard to find elsewhere.

  5. Patricio Vaca says:

    Could you help me with a link to the Pdf? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it in other archives, even in 2016…

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