What Makes Peasants Revolutionary?

Skocpol, Theda. 1982. “What Makes Peasants Revolutionary?” Comparative Politics 14(3): 351-375.

In this review essay, Theda Skocpol basically argues that studies of peasant-based revolutions have focused too narrowly on the peasants themselves. She argues for a more holistic approach that takes into account relations between peasants and elites, peasant relations and differentiation, and most importantly the politico-institutional relations of states and relations between states. The discussion is framed by the contributions made by Eric Wolf, Jeffrey Paige, Joel Migdal, and James Scott along with a few references to Barrington Moore. Works by all these authors have been or soon will be featured in this blog.

All the books she surveys seek to answer the question famously floated by Moore: What social and historical conditions produce and/or inhibit peasant-based revolutions? The question was partly motivated by the dramatic events of Vietnam creating a generation of scholarship on the issue, beginning with Wolf. In her analysis of this scholarship, Skocpol asks: “(1) Which peasants are most prone to revolution, and why? (2) What roles do political and military organizations play in peasant-based revolutions? (3) Does capitalist imperialism create conditions for peasant-based revolutions-and, if so, how?” The books present contradictory answers for which her “holistic” approach mentioned above aims to correct.

In response to the first question, Skocpol shows that Scott and Wolf both expect the middling peasant landowners to be the most prone to revolution (if for different reasons). Paige takes an opposite view by pointing the finger at landless, rural wage earners. For Scott, it’s because the socio-cultural organization of this class allows them to defuse elite hegemony. Wolf, on the other hand, emphasizes small-holders relative isolation from elite mechanisms of control and repression. Paige takes a more relational analysis by considering in more detail the position of both peasant sectors and elites while also parsing cultivators and non-cultivators.

For Paige, if both peasants and elites are earning income from land, then the normal outcome is quiescence and stalemate. The opposite outcome is a landless peasantry and elites that earn income from land. However, Skocpol finds Paige’s account inconsistent and at times contrary to empirical study. She also critiques his account for being overly class reductionist and setting an impossibly high bar for want counts as “revolutionary”—namely, the successful seizure of state-power. She’s also highly critical of Paige’s account of peasant’s relations to politico-military organizations; Paige asserts his revolutionary peasants create these organizations on their own (from within).

In closing her survey of this first question (which peasants?), Skocpol claims “the kind of analytic approach necessary to improve upon Paige: a social-structural approach that looks closely at institutionalized economic and political relations between landed upper classes and agrarian lower classes, on the one hand, and institutionalized relations among the peasants themselves, on the other” (360).

Wolf comes closest to such an approach, she says, but fails to build a coherent explanatory model due to an excess of vagueness and complexity. Scott is too romantic and is too monolithic in his view of “the peasantry” (clearly, something he tried to correct in Weapons of the Weak).

For question two on the role of politico-military organizations, which is a main focus of Migdal, who claims that the necessary role of “outside” organizations is one aspect that differentiates twentieth century peasant revolutions from earlier ones (362). His main focus is also on the role of imperialism in inciting revolution—another difference of the old vs. new. But Skocpol argues that the difference is not between those and these; indeed she notes that the old ones were also highly organized.

The main difference, she notes, is that “the pattern of these revolutions has been one of the breakdown of the old-regime state, followed by widespread local peasant revolts that undercut landed upper classes and conservative political forces. Organized revolutionaries have then consolidated new state organizations, not by politically mobilizing the peasantry, but rather by more or less coercively imposing administrative and military controls on the country-side” (363). The important point is that sometimes peasants are predominantly organized before or after “the collapse of effective state power in the preexisting regime.”

At what point this organizing takes place matters hugely in terms of which peasant sectors are targeted by the organizing drives. This is also really important in terms of the interactions between organizations and peasants and the sorts of collective incentives and benefits that revolutionary involvement implies. In both cases, the state itself—both under the incumbent regime or the revolutionary one—is a determinant factor.

Our second question—What roles do political and military organizations play in peasant-based revolutions?—has brought us far from the immediate circumstances of the peasantry. State power, it turns out, plays a decisive role in limiting the possibilities for emergence and success of such revolutions. Moreover, organized (political and military) revolutionary movements play crucial roles in peasant-based revolutions, but in alternative possible ways. Either they consolidate revolutionary new regimes separately from, and in necessary tension with, the peasantry. Or they directly mobilize peasant support to defeat counterrevolutionaries and consolidate the new regime. (366-367)

All the authors consider the development of capitalism as definitive. They all see capitalism as being imposed from the outside. And though they all consider this as a spark for revolutionary activity, they do so for different reasons: Paige, because it creates a new class of pissed off, exploited wage-earning peasants, while Wolf and Migdal because of the defensive impulse against the drastic transformations of rural society (including the weakening of key local elites). But Skocpol uses the Chinese example to note that this isn’t always or necessarily the case. She argues that more fruitful emphasis should be on how capitalism impinges on organized politics and states, and inter-sate competition: “it obviously stands to reason that imperialism may have helped to promote peasant-based revolutions not simply because of its economic effects on peasants, but also because of its effects on states and organized politics” (371).

In short, Skocpol argues that an understanding of peasant-based revolutions must approach peasants within a much broader and relational social environment, including relations across and within classes, politics within and across states, and the same for political organizations, and political-economic forces at various scales.

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