Understanding the Chinese Revolution

source: Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, frontispiece

The Chinese Revolution is one of the world-historical events that has set the stage for the modern world. And, unlike the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it is sufficiently contemporary that there are very substantial sources of data and informants about its occurrence. Several generations of China historians have sought to provide explanations and elaborations on the occurrence of the Chinese Revolution (link, link). The Revolution set the course for a population of over 1.1 billion people, it affected the economic and international development of the rest of the world, and it established a government that continues to rule the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, vast amounts of scholarship have been written in attempting to describe and explain the course of the Revolution.

So we might imagine that the story has been written, and that we know everything we need to know about the causes, events, and main directions of the Revolution. However, this would be a mistake. As earlier posts have shown, there continue to be new questions, renewed debates over old questions, and deep uncertainties about the best ways of understanding the occurrence and development of this momentous series of events.

It is interesting, therefore, to return to one of the earlier efforts at historical explanation of the Chinese Revolution, the widely read book by Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949. The book first appeared French in 1967, and therefore much of what we now understand to be the development of modern China was yet to occur. The Great Leap Forward and attendant famine had occurred in 1958-1959, the Cultural Revolution was just getting underway, and of course the major reorientation of the Chinese state in the direction market reform was decades in the future. In a meaningful sense, Bianco was writing the history of a revolution that was still underway.

The title of the book captures Bianco’s central goal in his treatment of the Revolution: to identify the large factors that explained the occurrence and characteristics of the success of the CCP’s struggle for mobilization and power. Ideology and doctrine play an important role; Bianco spends a lot of attention on the question of whether Chinese communism was heterodox or orthodox in relation to classical Marxist theory. Another key question in Bianco’s treatment is the role of the peasantry in Mao’s strategy for creating revolution. The ideological frameworks brought forward by Nationalist and Communist leaders play a large role in Bianco’s account.

Bianco organizes his analysis around the role of Marxist ideology and theory, the role of the Comintern in attempting to “manage” Communist activism in China, the role of the Japanese war of aggression against China, and the economic and social circumstances governing the agrarian world that brought Chinese peasants into a state of latent revolutionary activism, just needing the mobilization efforts of the CCP to ignite a social conflagration. And he takes up the nationalism thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson in Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 just a few years earlier (1962; link), treating Johnson’s work respectfully but critically. In other words, he raises the central explanatory ideas that observers of the time thought potentially important: ideology, exploitation, war, nationalism, and military competition between the Guomindang dictatorship and the Communist Party.

Three large factors emerge as being the most important sources of revolution in Bianco’s account: the tactical effectiveness of the CCP in mobilizing the peasantry, the crushing exploitation and poverty of the countryside, and the military realities created by the three-sided conflict between the GMD, the CCP, and the Japanese army. Of these, the poverty of agrarian China was the most pervasive:

The source of the revolution, the real strength of the CCP, must be sought in the living conditions that prevailed from one end of rural China to the other, where poverty, abuse, and early death were the only prospect for nearly half a billion people. (87)

Bianco’s greatest contributions to Chinese history are focused on pre-revolution peasant politics. These writings are exemplified in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China, “Peasants and Revolution: The Case of China” (link), and “Peasant Movements” in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13: Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Here is a summary offered in Origins:

To the extent that the non-Communist peasant movements I have studied can be characterized in general terms, they seem to me diffuse, sporadic, and lacking in coordination and firm leadership. Above all they seem defensive: peasants may arouse themselves to protest an assault on the status quo, but they almost never attack the deeper causes of their exploitation and misery. (107)

Bianco incorporates his own study of earlier peasant rebellions into his account of the politics of mobilization, and he highlights the non-revolutionary character of those earlier movements (107). As he had argued in his research on China’s peasantry, it was the organizing and mobilizing role of the CCP that turned peasant discontent from local unrest to sustained revolutionary action.

One thing I find interesting in rereading the book today is the fairly general level at which it is written. Bianco essentially summarizes his perceptions of the main elements of the complicated economic, political, and military events that transpired in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in China. He was a highly expert observer, and was intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the Comintern, the Guomindang, and the CCP. But the work is offered at a very high level of discourse, not really intending to provide new historical understanding of the politics of nationalism and the social program of the party.

This contrasts with the level of historical detail and richness of Bianco’s own primary research on peasant movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in China. Here his work is archival and detailed, and offers genuine new insights into the particulars of the phenomena. And it contrasts as well with the level of detail and precision of the treatments of various parts of the revolution in China that were written in the following thirty years.

Origins was influential and widely read. That said, it should be understood as a work of historical synthesis rather than a contribution of original discovery. It remained for the next generation of historians — people like Mark Selden, Yung Fa Chen, and Odoric Wou — to push the historical inquiry more deeply into the mechanisms and variations of these processes of revolution. In his forward to English edition in 1976, Mark Selden attempts to summarize the key issues for future research posed by the book: the need to give a more fine grained taxonomy of the peasantry (rich, middle, poor), the effects of the rapid commercialization that were underway in the twenties and thirties, and the relative importance of domestic and foreign factors in the occurrence of the Revolution. Selden himself takes up some of these issues in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). And historians like Chen and Wou have given substantially greater detail about the specifics of mobilization, strategy, and military tactices in the base areas than was possible in 1967 when Bianco wrote his book.

Change in peasant China

Image: Shanxi countryside

In 1978 China’s government initiated a major change in the agricultural economy. It began a rapid transition from communal agriculture to the household responsibility system, which returned the responsibilities and incentives associated with farming to the farmer rather than the commune. This was the beginning of the market-friendly reforms that led to the transformation of agriculture, industry, and transport in a remarkably short time.

These market-oriented reforms have also stimulated a continuing economic revolution in China, with growth rates exceeding 10% in many years and an intensive period of infrastructure build-out (roads, high speed rail, telecommunications).

Much has transpired in the Chinese countryside since 1978. Rural incomes have risen; significant numbers of rural people have transitioned from farming into better-paying market and logistical activities; and many millions of young people have exited the countryside in search of work in manufacturing and construction. On balance, how has this tumultuous 35 years affected the quality of life for China’s rural population?

In 1990 William Hinton offered his own predictions about the effects of the rural reforms in The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989. Hinton believed the future was dire for China’s peasants, as they would be squeezed by market forces into even lower-productivity farming techniques and the wealth of the countryside would be extracted by urban elites. Hinton was a continuing supporter of collective agriculture because he believed it permitted economies of scale and more reliable support for the welfare of the people in the countryside. It seems that no one in China continues to advocate this view.

Deng Xiaoping took a different perspective. He believed that all of China would benefit from the accumulation of wealth created by market incentives. His famous words — “To get rich is glorious” — legitimated the workings of the market in creating inequalities. And he evidently believed that these processes of economic growth and market incentives would be good for the rural sector as well as the urban sector.

So how has it worked out? How has China’s agricultural economy performed in the past three decades? Is China food-self-sufficient? Have rural people gained income? Is rural poverty falling significantly? What is the trend in the quality of life of China’s rural populations? And what happened to the range of income inequalities in the countryside?

Here are a few important data points.

First, it appears to be true that China has made rapid progress in reducing poverty in its population. According to Li Xiaoyun’s tables below, just under 13% of China’s population lives in extreme poverty at incomes lower than $1.25 per day in 2011. (The next three slides are taken from an extensive presentation on China’s poverty strategies by  Professor Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University; link.) This is a dramatic reduction from an estimate in excess of 80% at this level in the late 1970s. This means that rural incomes have risen substantially since 1978.


Moreover, there have been nationally coordinated programs of poverty alleviation that have been supported by meaningful levels of central and provincial resources.

 
The central government has attempted to target its poverty alleviation efforts towards the most backward regions in the country. 
 
 

Here is a very interesting poverty map for Yunnan Province in the southeast part of the country (link):

 

Second, it is also true that China’s income inequalities have increased sharply during the same period. The share of income flowing to the poorest 40% has fallen from 20% to 14% from 1990 to 2009. Studies indicate that the Gini coefficient for income inequality has risen sharply during that time. It seems likely that wealth inequalities have increased even more. Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The following figure documents the overall rise in urban/rural income inequalities in China since 1997 extending the data represented in Fig. 2.2 above through 2010 (Liu M., link). Interestingly, this graph suggests that urban/rural inequalities leveled off in about 2003.
 
 

Third, food security has improved. China is a net exporter of rice (link) and has substantially increasing its production of pigs and poultry, and it has not suffered famine or extensive malnutrition since the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959. Nutritional levels throughout poor areas have improved in the past twenty years, although there are still significant levels of underweight or stunted children under 5 (fig. 3.14, CHDR 2005).

What has been less visible to the western public is the dynamics of life quality that these changes have created in the countryside. What is needed is disaggregated studies of quality-of-life indicators like education, health, nutrition, and longevity. World Bank reports and China’s own major statistical reports do not highlight these kinds of data. However, the UNDP has prepared six triennial reports on China’s performance with respect to the Human Development Index (link), and it turns out that Chinese researchers are in fact doing careful work on the task of measuring these characteristics in rural areas. Three leading Chinese scholars focused on poverty alleviation (Wu Guobao, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Liu Minquan, Peking Univerisity; Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University) provide a good snapshot into a world of policy research currently underway in China.

How are the government’s pronouncements about poverty alleviation viewed by the Chinese public? I had a very interesting conversation with a man in his thirties in Taiyuan, Shanxi on this question. He is employed in a semi-professional job. His view was very skeptical. He believes the government says it is working toward helping the poor and reducing inequalities, but he doesn’t think these efforts are very broad. His view is that anti-poverty programs are directed towards just a few locations and a relatively small part of the rural population. And he thinks it is very unfair that the inequalities between rich and poor are increasing so rapidly. When I asked him what he thought the greatest problems were that China faces, he listed these: a one-party state that gives ordinary people no voice in the issues they care about; a lack of freedom of expression; and the unfairness of increasing inequalities between rich and poor. This was a very frank assessment by one person which perhaps sheds some light on how many young people are thinking in China today.

(Here is a 2003 volume on poverty alleviation in China published by the Development Studies Network in Australia, including a number of valuable research articles on the subject; link. The China Health and Nutrition Survey conducted by the Carolina Population Center and the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is also a valuable data source; link.)

 

China’s rural transition

Roughly half of China’s population is still rural, living in villages and towns and dependent primarily on farming. In 1985 that percentage was about 76%, so there has already been a massive transformation of China’s economy and society towards greater urbanization. (Albert Nyberg and Scott Rozelle treated this process in an important World Bank publication, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation.)

There are two basic processes through which urbanization can occur. Rural people can migrate to cities, or cities can grow up around rural people. Both processes have been underway for thirty years in China. Estimates vary, but approximately 210 million migrants work in Chinese manufacturing and construction industries, and the vast majority of these men and women are from rural origins. The percentage of migrant workers in urban industries is staggering; W. K. Chan reports in Wuhan, for example, that 43% of manufacturing workers and 56% of construction workers are non-Hukou migrants (link).  But almost all of China’s cities have also sprawled out into their peripheries, into what was previously farm land and villages. This is true in Shanghai and Suzhou, Wuhan, and hundreds of other major cities. 

The “urban development” part of the story has forced displacement of farming villages from their land, as farm land is absorbed into factories, power plants, development zones, and other urban uses. This is one of the most potent sources of protest in China today. Some portion of that population finds employment in the industries that follow this development — in the vast assembly plants of Foxconn, for example in at least nine cities in China. (Foxconn was actively recruiting thousands of workers in Chengdu during a recent visit there.)  Another portion is subsidized for some period of time by the government in compensation for the loss of their farm land and occupations.

In the medium term, Chinese agriculture is shedding workers, and the rest of the economy needs to grow enough to employ this part of the population. This is part of the urgency that policy makers feel for sustaining very high rates of economic growth.

One portion of the population that is least likely to make a smooth landing in the new economic conditions is the elderly. China faces a major social issue in a growing population of aging farmers, and the circumstances of this group are predictable: in need of health care, short on pensions, and often separated from their children who have migrated to better conditions in cities. (Here is a World Bank report on this subject; link.)

So my question here is a simple one: what is the theory of rural-to-urban transition under which the Chinese leadership is operating? There are a range of possible theories:

  • Help employment in industrial and construction activities grow as fast as workers and farmers are expelled from the rural economy, so their standard of living rises overall.
  • Grow rural industry and high-value specialized agriculture so rural people can remain in place.
  • Plan for an extended time during which a much more extensive social safety net will be provided in the form of income supplements, subsidized healthcare, and retirement income until “surplus rural population” can be absorbed by the urban economy.
  • Hope for the best and trust to market-based adjustments.

There is a rural development strategy that would actually make the problem more acute: 

  • Stimulate rapid improvement in the productivity of agriculture. As a unit of rice is produced more productively, it requires fewer units of labor. So the net result of productivity improvements in agriculture is a drop in rural farm-based employment even as it increases income to the individual farmer.

Here is one answer to the question of theory of rural transition that is based on Chinese government policy thinking in the late 1990s. The following analysis is contained in the Nyberg-Rozelle 1999 World Bank report, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation, based on close cooperation with the Institute of Rural Development in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This close collaboration suggests that it intends to express then-current ideas about strategy and policy within the Chinese government.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the leaders of China have been preoccupied with one overarching goal; the modernization of the nation. Our [Chinese] vision for the early part of the 21st century perceives the rural economy as an integral part of this modernization effort, with equitable increases in income, and the elimination of poverty, achieved in large part by transferring rural labor to the urban−industrial economy—all accomplished in an environmentally sustainable manner. We envision an enormous government effort in transforming its role into an investor for public services and goods and fostering a market environment—enabling individual farm and nonfarm producers, consumers, and traders to make more efficient decisions and improve their welfare. 

In pursuit of this vision, two issues remain central to the government’s rural development objectives: food security and poverty alleviation. China has made remarkable progress in meeting these goals; the economy, including the rural sector, has grown at phenomenal rates during the reform period. The growth of food supplies has exceeded the growth of domestic demand and China exports horticultural, livestock, other agricultural, and aquacultural products. The growth of rural industry has been an important element of recent growth as the rural economy continues to diversify. Increased productivity and income growth have reduced the massive pre-reform poverty problem, improved the standard of living of most residents, and launched the structural transformation of China from a traditional rural to a modern society.

This summary involves some of almost all the options mentioned above — improvement of farm productivity, growth of urban jobs, growth of rural industry, and establishment of a more extensive safety net. In practice, however, it seems that the government has given the greatest emphasis in its economic policies to the growth of urban jobs and out-migration from the rural sector.

In their 2003 report “Scenario Analysis on Urbanization and Rural-Urban Migration in China”, Shenghe Liu, Li, and Zhan (researchers at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences) summarize Chinese policy thinking on the rural question in these terms:

It has becomes a common consensus that the most headachy “agriculture, farmers and rural areas” (three nong) problems in China are unable to be solved by farmers themselves, inside the agriculture sector and rural areas. Promotion of the urbanization process is needed to help more rural surplus labor forces seek employment in non-agricultural activities and in cities and towns, serving the purpose of reducing the agricultural population, improving agricultural productivity and increasing the farmers’ income. In summary, reducing rural population through active promotion of urbanization is considered to be the only best way to make farmers rich. Thus, the prospects and scenarios of China’s urbanization and rural-urban migration are bound to have tremendous impacts on its agricultural development and policy making.  (link)

Or in other words, Liu, Li and Zhan reiterate the idea that rural-to-urban migration is a key part of Chinese policy for improvement of income and wellbeing in the rural areas.

Here is a short clip summarizing a study by the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University, finding that the Gini coefficient in the countryside has increased significantly. It also makes the point that a very large component in the growth of rural incomes is remittances from migrants who have found higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and construction.

Here are some resources available on the web on the subject of rural transformation in China.  A very useful treatment of the issue is Francis Tuan, Somwaru and Diao’s working paper for the International Food Policy Research Institute (link). Scott Rozelle et al have a very useful paper, “The Evolution of China’s Rural Labor Markets during the Reforms,” that focuses on the opportunity and challenge of increasing non-farm labor in rural areas (link). A useful resource on urban-to-rural migration is a slide presentation by Kam Wing Chan from 2008, “Internal Labor Migration in China: Trends, Geographical Distribution and Policies” (link). Chan is also the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China.

Chinese authors are writing about the human side of these transformations — rural poverty, migrant insecurity, the difficulties of urban life for poor people. Here is a book by Xin Zhang, whose title is loosely translated by a friend as An Analysis of Social Classes in China. I wish I was able to read it.

Rural studies in China

I spent a rewarding afternoon at the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University in Wuhan this week (link). The Institute is the leading center for research on China’s rural population, and it has conducted research projects for decades on villages throughout China. It is an important resource for government officials as they design policies for rural transformation in China’s rapidly changing countryside. And it has the capacity to provide reasonably detailed answers to questions about how peasants are doing in the new China. (Here is a publication that provides a description of some of the functions of the Institute.)

From a human welfare point of view, the status of rural society represents the largest set of problems that China is facing today and for the coming several decades. China’s rural population is still vast, in spite of the rapid urbanization of the past two decades. As of 2011 just under half of China’s population lived in rural locations — over 650 million people (link).  And it is a population whose welfare has improved the least through China’s rapid economic growth since 1980.

What are the kinds of questions we would like to have answers to when it comes to a large rural population dispersed over a wide range of ecological settings?

Demography. We would like to have some fine-grained data about the demography and demographic behavior of peasants in various regions. What is the size of the rural population in Shaanxi? How many villages and towns are there? What are the fertility and morbidity statistics for this people? What are the patterns of emigration and return that are observed in these regions?

Welfare. We certainly want to know some basic things about the standard of living of various rural populations. What are the longevity statistics? What diseases are prevalent? How much access do families have to health clinics, doctors, and hospitals? What is the status of HIV in the population? What is the educational level of the child, youth, and adult populations? What is the literacy rate?

Gender. What are the characteristic of gender and family relations? Do girls attend school at the same rates and as long as boys? What role do women play in household decision-making? Are there differentials across gender in health outcomes? What is the situation of gay people in rural society?

Economy. How do peasants earn their incomes? What is the distribution of income in various rural regions? What is the average income of peasant households in various regions? How much inequality is there? How has income improved in the past two decades?

Infrastructure and environment. How well served is the rural population by roads, trains, electricity, and clean water and sanitation? What are the environmental threats that are found in rural society? How far do families need to travel for marketing?

Culture. What are the religious and cultural values of the rural people of the region? Are there significant ethnic minorities in the region? Are there enclaves of peasant groups who have different cultural attachments from the Han majority? Is Buddhism making a comeback among rural people? What about Maoism?

Politics. A constant theme in peasant studies in the past forty years has been the question of collective action and resistance. What kinds of protests are occurring in various rural areas? How widespread and effective are they? What are the chief causes for protest — rents, taxes, corruption, environmental problems, land seizures?

Governmental. How does the local population interact with the authorities — government officials, army, police? How frequent is police presence in the village? How are the relations between locals and government officials?

Change processes. What are the major sources of change at the village level? Are new property arrangements emerging that have effects on peasant wellbeing? Is emigration a major source of change? What about technological change — more mechanized tools, more chemical fertilizers and pesticides?How much influence does the availability of mass media make on the attitudes and behavior of rural people?

These are some important categories of questions we would like to answer. What methods of research might we want to employ to find some answers?

Certainly many of these questions require quantitative research. Surveys of public health, education, income, and opinions and values are all amenable to quantitative research designs. Opinion surveys need to be conducted; household surveys of consumption and income, health and literacy can be conducted. National surveys like the census and other government statistics can often be broken out by rural status and these findings need to be assimilated.

Other questions seem to be most amenable to the methods of qualitative research. Focus groups and interviews can shed light on attitudes and behavior. The qualitative researcher can get a picture of the mentality of the group and the variations that exist. Are youth increasingly disaffected in the countryside? Are villagers becoming disillusioned with the government? These questions can be investigated in several ways, but interviews and focus groups are an important avenue.

Then there is the problem of theory and conceptualization. How should we think about the processes of change we observe? What kinds of explanations seem plausible? For that matter, how should we think about the peasant him or herself?

There is also the question of comparison. How do the results found in China compare to the situation in India or Egypt? How do scholars of peasant societies and politics characterize their focus in other settings around the world? For example, agrarian studies in India seem to have a rather different focus (link).

Finally, what might some of the research products look like? How can we best convey the information we discover about the heterogeneous world of the peasant population?

Interactive statistical maps are one important tool. We can organize large data sets by seeing how they play out against geography. This means that data elements need to be geocoded so they can be aggregated and displayed spatially.

Extensive analytical reports summarizing and analyzing the findings on rural society are worthwhile, along the lines of the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All.

Narratives are an important way of telling the story of a large data set. The narrative of a region might introduce the main factors forcing change that were present in 1950 or 1980 and then draw out summaries of the impact these forces had.

Archives of interviews and other qualitative data are important to permit later researchers to gain some new insights into the concrete social processes that were observed through the extended research efforts of the field. Collections of databases summarizing past research projects — the raw data of prior research — are essential to provide reproducibility and research materials for other scholars (along the lines of the Institute of Politics at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research).

Collections of artifacts are also worthwhile, and it is significant that the Institute at Huazhong Normal University will soon be opening a museum of rural society in its building in Wuhan.

There is a point to this catalogue of questions and possible topics.  It suggests that it is very important to think carefully through the kinds of questions that need answering, as we undertake large research topics like the state of rural China.  The analytical thinking that goes into reports like the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for AllWorld Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development or the annual UNEP 2011 Annual Report: 1972-2012, Serving People and the Planet is very important to the quality and usefulness of the results.

CPM in West Bengal

One thing that is interesting about Indian politics is the fact that states have a great deal of autonomy, and there are parties based in various states that are distinct from both Congress and BJP. One of those parties is the Communist Party of India, which has evolved into a pro-poor, anti-capitalist electoral party that has renounced violent revolution, following a split in CPI in the 1960s. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM or CPI(M)) emerged in the 1960s as a serious electoral party, and it has governed directly or through left coalitions in West Bengal and Kerala since the late 1970s. CPM gains between 5% and 6% of the national vote, and currently there are 46 CPM MPs in Parliament (out of 790). (The Wikipedia entry on CPI(M) provides a detailed timeline of the party’s role in India since the 1960s. Here is a link to the People’s Daily, one of CPM’s key publications.)

Here is a table of seats won in elections between 1952 and 1987 in West Bengal:

(source: Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent, p. 274)

Many progressive Bengalis looked at the party as a pro-poor, progressive force in West Bengal during the 1980s. But substantial and rising criticism has developed in the past five years. So where is CPM today?

First, consider the positive view. Distinguished American political scientist Atul Kohli treated West Bengal in detail in his The State and Poverty in India (1989), and he credits CPM for much of the improvement of the status of the poor over a 20-year period in West Bengal.

It is argued that the capacity of the CPM to initiate a systematic attack on rural poverty stems from its political and class characteristics. The type of leadership, ideology, and organization the CPM regime brings to bear on the operation of political power enables it to perform two essential tasks: first, penetration of the countryside without being captured byt he landed classes; and second, controlled mobilization and incorporation of the lower classes to buttress state power as a tool of social reform. … To gain an understanding of the CPM regime in West Bengal, one must begin by analyzing the nature of its leadership, ideology, and organization. The important thing to note about the leadership is that is neither concentrated in the hands of an individual nor, as one might expect, in the party alone. While the party wields great influence, leadership is shared by the three “wings” of the CPM, namely, the party organization proper, the Kisan Sabha (the peasant wing) and the parliamentary wing. (96-97)

Kohli gives an overview of CPM in West Bengal in his 1991 Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability:

The Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM), has repeatedly been elected to office in West Bengal since 1977. The party is communist in name only and is essentially social-democratic in its ideology, social program, and policies. The party’s disciplined, effective organization has minimized the debilitating elite factionalism and the related elite-led mobilization and countermobilization so common in some other states. The CPM has also consolidated a coalition of the middle and lower strata by implementing some modest redistributive programs. That systematic incorporation of the poor has reduced the attractiveness of populism and its emphasis on deinstitutionalization. And finally, the CPM has adopted a nonthreatening approach toward property-owning groups, whose roles in production and economic growth remain essential for the long-term welfare of the state. (267)

Here is Kohli’s summary assessment in 1991:

After having been one of India’s most chaotic states in the late 1960s, West Bengal has emerged in the 1980s as one of India’s better-governed states. Surely there are lessons in this turnaround for any study of India’s growing crisis of governability. For purposes of this concluding discussion, these lessons can be broadly divided into prescriptive and analytical.

The prescriptive lessons are limited. What has worked in West Bengal may not work in other states in India — and is even less likely to provide an all-India model. The emergence of the CPM as a disciplined ruling party in West Bengal is a product of an unusual sociopolitical configuration — its long regional traditions of elite radicalism and centralized organization, the weakness of caste as a principle for political organization, and the historical weakness of the Congress party….

In spite of the limited utility of the West Bengal case for generating any direct prescriptions, the analytical implications … are very important. The West Bengal case highlights the significance of a well-organized reformist party for generating political order. The roots of the political chaos between 1967 and 1977, though complex, were mainly two related political conditions: the fragmentation of the state itself, and virulent elite-led mobilization.

The emergence of the CPM as a ruling party tamed many of the conflicts within West Bengal. As a well-organized party with a clear electoral majority, the CPM was able to create a cohesive government and fill the existing power vacuum. Organizational discipline also enabled the CPM to limit elite factionalism and the debilitating elite-initiated political conflicts that often follow. Thus, organizational cohesion at the heart of the state was crucial for taming political chaos.

The CPM’s reformist orientation has enabled it to pursue some redistributive programs without fundamentally alienating property-owning productive groups. The CPM’s performance in West Bengal has by no means been spectacular; it has left quite a few problems unresolved, and it has created some new problems. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that a reform-oriented, disciplined party has generated moderately effective government in West Bengal. (295-96)

So Kohli’s assessment of CPM is quite favorable, at least through the early 1990s. Land reform and policies favorable to landless workers had a significant impact on poverty in West Bengal.  Now move forward to the early 2000’s up to the present. Indian journalism suggests a high degree of discontent with CPM today. There are three large areas of criticism: cronyism and corruption; the use of political violence to silence opponents; and an economic development strategy that is too friendly to international business. And, for the first time in decades, the party is losing electoral support in West Bengal. Here is a fairly representative current critique of CPM in West Bengal (link). Here are a few key criticisms by Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

The governance failures of West Bengal, on virtually every indicator that matters — roads, health, education, nutrition, poverty, infant mortality — have recently been well documented in searing report by my colleague Bibek Debroy and his co-author Laveesh Bhandari. Even the much touted success in growth in agricultural productivity and decline in rural poverty has been tapering off for years. There is no question that West Bengal is ripe for a paradigm shift in its development model.

There is also no question that the local CPM has become a huge obstacle to the progress of the state. No matter how much Bengali intellectuals, out of a sense of misplaced nationalism, sanitise the issue, the CPM’s implication in violence, intimidation and coercion is extensive. It is now deeply implicated in the political economy of petty corruption in the state. It has virtually destroyed intellectual life in main institutions of the state.

One particular point of controversy has to do with the attempt to establish Special Economic Zones in West Bengal (link).  Here is a searing criticism of CPM’s use of political violence against peasants from Mainstream in an effort to push forward with its plans to create a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram, involving largescale land confiscations:

The irony is that even though the CPI-M has become pro-capitalist, it has little respect for democratic norms or rule of law. So, even before the State Government machinery, centred in Kolkata, actually made any formal requests to peasants for taking over of their lands, a local party bigwig and a Member of Parliament from adjoining Haldia (it is a port town and is apparently booming) deemed fit to send out a circular stating that lands of villagers in quite a few villages will be taken over for the purpose of creating an SEZ. That created a furore among the villagers and a resistance started; they vowed that they will not part with their land which they have tilled for generations. The State Police tried to break the peaceful resistance of the villagers on March 14, and the deaths of innocent peasants led to a plethora of protests from the Opposition political parties and groups and also from independent intellectuals of Kolkata and beyond. Even Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and the present Governor of West Bengal, found the killings to be a horrific incident and himself tried to visit the place where the deaths happened but was stopped mid-way by the CPI-M cadres.

The criticism is two-fold: that CPM’s current economic policies are too favorable to international businesses; and that the government has been reckless in its use of force against peasants and critics.

Here is a rebuttal to these criticisms from LeftVoice. The document is interesting because it provides a defense of CPM’s current policies and actions (link).

The primary political and developmental strategy of the Left Front had two inter-related components – land reform and decentralisation of political power from the state bureaucracy to institutions of local government (i.e. to panchayats and municipalities in rural and urban areas respectively). Right from the start, it was the contention of the Left Front, that refoming the way land was owned in the rural areas, where the bulk of the poor lived, was crucial to tackling the problems of poverty and under-development in the state. In this article we shall see what kind of property relations existed in the state before the Left Front came to power in 1977, how these relations created conditions of massive rural poverty, how the Left Front attempted to undertake land reforms to alter these property relations, how it realised that decentralisation of political power to local government institutions was the best way to undertake such reforms and how this whole strategy reduced rural poverty and also politically empowered the poor in the state to a degree not seen in other states of India.

So the hard question today is this: has CPM maintained the political commitments and integrity it evidently possessed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that it remains a positive force for social reform in West Bengal?  Or has it devolved into “party politics”, leading to behaviors that have more to do with personal gain and party electoral success than social progress?

 

Marx on Russia

In 1881 Marx wrote a letter to Vera Zasulich, an important Russian follower, that addresses the question of theory and prediction when it comes to thinking about the future course of history.  In particular, he denies that his theories have determinate predictive implications for the development of capitalism or socialism in Russia.  Here is a link to the letter, and below are a few paragraphs.

The issue is an important one: did Marx think of his body of knowledge as constituting a general predictive theory?  And the letter clearly implies that he did not.

The letter is interesting in several respects. First, it explicitly rejects the notion that Marx’s economic and historical theories are suited to the task of identifying the necessary or inevitable course of historical development. It summarily dismisses the idea of a necessary sequence of modes of production. Instead, Marx shows himself to recognize the contingency that exists in historical development, as well as the degree to which history creates new conditions in its course that influence future developments.

The other important feature of the letter is its substantive analysis of the material characteristics of the Russian peasant commune, and the potential that this social form has for constituting the material core of an alternative route to socialism in Russia.  As the letter makes clear, Marx thinks that the social relations associated with the peasant commune provide a possible social foundation for a modern socialist economy; and this would be an economy that was not “post-capitalist” but nonetheless technologically and socially advanced.

In a way Marx’s argument anticipates the theory of “late developers” — for example, Gerschenkron’s Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective.  Marx argues that a socialism in Russia was possible through an alternative pathway.  A version of socialism in Russia based on the “archaic” commune can take advantage of the developments in technology and social organization created by advanced capitalism.  It is not necessary for Russian society to go throughout the several-centuries long process of agricultural and technological modernization that England underwent; rather, Russia can simply adopt the modern technologies now available.

The interest of this letter is not to be found in the historical predictions it makes, but rather in the example it offers of the way that Marx’s mind worked.  The reasoning here represents a good example of Marx’s materialist approach to history.  He wants to arrive at a fairly detailed level of understanding of the social and economic relations — the property relations — that constituted a historical form of the rural commune.  And he then seeks to provide an analysis of the way in which those relations might be expected to develop under a specific set of historical circumstances.  And key within this analysis is the workings of the specific form of property that corresponded to this social system — the social relations of production.

I suppose the letter illustrates something else as well: Marx’s interest at the end of his life in finding an alternative pathway to socialism.  The revolutions of 1848 were long in the past, and a proletarian revolution had not ensued.  The Paris Commune had been decisively and violently repressed in 1871.  Working-class militancy was not propitious in the advanced capitalist countries — France, Germany, or Britain.  So the prospects of revolution in the advanced capitalist world were not encouraging to Marx.  And so finding some hope for an alternative process of social development through which the ends of socialism might be achieved was an appealing prospect for Marx.

Here are the first few paragraphs of the letter, which is worth reading in full:

1) In dealing with the genesis of capitalist production I stated that it is founded on “the complete separation of the producer from the means of production” (p. 315, column 1, French edition of Capital) and that “the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the agricultural producer. To date this has not been accomplished in a radical fashion anywhere except in England… But all the other countries of Western Europe are undergoing the same process” (1.c., column II).

I thus expressly limited the “historical inevitability” of this process to the countries of Western Europe. And why? Be so kind as to compare Chapter XXXII, where it says:

The “process of elimination transforming individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated means of production, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, this painful and fearful expropriation of the working people, forms the origin, the genesis of capital… Private property, based on personal labour … will be supplanted by capitalist private property, based on the exploitation of the labour of others, on wage labour” (p. 341, column II).

Thus, in the final analysis, it is a question of the transformation of one form of private property into another form of private property. Since the land in the hands of the Russian peasants has never been their private property, how could this development be applicable?

2) From the historical point of view the only serious argument put forward in favour of the fatal dissolution of the Russian peasants’ commune is this: By going back a long way communal property of a more or less archaic type may be found throughout Western Europe; everywhere it has disappeared with increasing social progress. Why should it be able to escape the same fate in Russia alone? I reply: because in Russia, thanks to a unique combination of circumstances, the rural commune, still established on a nationwide scale, may gradually detach itself from its primitive features and develop directly as an element of collective production on a nationwide scale. It is precisely thanks to its contemporaneity with capitalist production that it may appropriate the latter’s positive acquisitions without experiencing all its frightful misfortunes. Russia does not live in isolation from the modern world; neither is it the prey of a foreign invader like the East Indies.

And here is an important summary statement:

Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.

There is a major irony in rereading Marx’s analysis of the emancipatory possibilities inherent in the social form of the “peasant commune” in Russia.  Most striking is the experience of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the 1920s and Stalin’s war on the kulaks.  Rather than representing a bright new future for the peasants, collectivization represented a cruel war by starvation against rural society (Lynne Viola, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, Volume one (Annals of Communism Series) (v. 1)).

It is also also interesting to recall that one of the disputes among the Bolsheviks within Soviet leadership in the 1920s and 1930s was the issue of cooperatives in agriculture.  A. V. Chayanov advocated for a more democratic route to Soviet socialism, through the mechanism of locally established rural cooperatives (link).  His reasoning had quite a bit in common with Marx’s analysis in this letter to Vera Zasulich; and, of course, it led to his persecution and execution in 1937.

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative — his ideas of the “moral economy of the peasant” and “weapons of the weak” are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I’ve treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott’s work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena — peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between “material circumstances” and “culture”; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro — he examines the ways that states think; and more micro — he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls “high modernism” — essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:

It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)

Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state’s agenda of “sedentarianization” — reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into “legible” formations.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level….  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century … He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)

The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott’s view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of “scientific management” to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China’s Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)

A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science — social and natural — and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment — what he calls “metis”.  “Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability” (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott’s discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott’s perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories — whether of forests, bees, or cities — has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott’s most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott’s contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

Alleviating rural poverty

What theories and values ought to underlie our best thinking about global economic development?  Along with Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), I believe that the best answer to the ethical question involves giving top priority to the goal of increasing the realization of human capabilities across the whole of society (The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development). We need to put the poor first.  However, I also believe that our ability to achieve this goal is highly sensitive to the distributive structures and property systems that exist in poor countries.  The property institutions of developing countries have enormous impact on the full human development of the poor.  As a result, ethically desirable human development goals are difficult to attain within any social system in which the antecedent property relations are highly stratified and in which political power is largely in the hands of the existing elites.

The fundamental question of poverty is this: how do people earn their livings? The economic institutions of the given society (property relations and market institutions, for example) determine the answer to this question. An economy represents a set of social positions for the men and women who make it up. These persons have a set of human needs—nutrition, education, health care, housing, clothing, etc. And they need access to the opportunities that exist in society—opportunities for employment and education, for example. The various positions that exist within the economy in turn define the entitlements that persons have—wages, profits, access to food subsidies, rights of participation, etc. The material well-being of a person—the “standard of living”—is chiefly determined by the degree to which his or her “entitlements” through these various sources of income provide the basis for acquiring more than enough goods in all the crucial categories to permit the individual to flourish (Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). If wages are low, then the consumption bundle that this income will afford is very limited. If crop prices are low, then peasants will have low incomes. If business taxes are low, then business owners may retain more business income in the form of profits, which will support larger consumption bundles and larger savings. There is thus a degree of conflict of interest among the agents within the economic system; the institutions of distribution may favor workers, lenders, farmers, business owners, or the state, depending on their design. And it is very possible for economic development to proceed in a way that gives the greatest benefit to the upper levels of society without leading to much change at the bottom.

Here I want to review an important empirical example of economic development without commensurate gain for the poor of the region: the effects of the Green Revolution in the rice-growing regions of Malaysia. James Scott provides a careful survey of the development process in Malaysia in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985). The chief innovations were these: a government-financed irrigation project making double-cropping possible; the advent of modern-variety rice strains; and the introduction of machine harvesting, replacing hired labor. Scott considers as relevant factors the distribution of landholdings, the forms of land tenure in use, the availability of credit, the political parties on the scene, and the state’s interests in development.

Scott’s chief finding is that double cropping and irrigation substantially increased revenues in the Muda region, and that these increases were very unequally distributed. Much of the increase flowed to the small circle of managerial farmers, credit institutions, and outside capitalists who provided equipment, fertilizers, and transport. Finally, Scott finds that the lowest stratum—perhaps 40%—has been substantially marginalized in the village economy. Landlessness has increased sharply, as managerial farms absorb peasant plots; a substantial part of the rural population is now altogether cut off from access to land. And mechanized harvesting substantially decreases the demand for wage labor. This group is dependent on wage labor, either on the managerial farms or through migration to the cities. The income flowing to this group is more unstable than the subsistence generated by peasant farming; and with fluctuating consumption goods prices, it may or may not suffice to purchase the levels of food and other necessities this group produced for itself before development. And these circumstances have immediate consequences for the ability of poor households to achieve the development of their human capabilities. Their nutritional status, their health, their literacy, and their mobility are all directly impaired by the fact of low and unstable household income. Finally, the state and the urban sector benefits substantially: the increased revenues created by high-yield rice cultivation generate profits and tax revenues that can be directed towards urban development.

Scott draws this conclusion:

The gulf separating the large, capitalist farmers who market most of the region’s rice and the mass of small peasants is now nearly an abyss, with the added (and related) humiliation that the former need seldom even hire the latter to help grow their crops. Taking 1966 as a point of comparison, it is still the case that a majority of Muda’s households are more prosperous than before. It is also the case that the distribution of income has worsened appreciably and that a substantial minority—per­haps 35‑40 percent—have been left behind with very low incomes which, if they are not worse than a decade ago, are not appreciably better. Given the limited absorptive capacity of the wider economy, given the loss of wages to machines, and given the small plots cultivated by the poor strata, there is little likelihood that anything short of land reform could reverse their fortunes. (Scott 1985:81)

This example well illustrates the problems of distribution and equity that are unavoidable in the process of rural development. The process described here is one route to “modernization of agriculture,” in that it involves substitution of new seed varieties for old, new technologies for traditional technologies, integration into the global economy, and leads to a sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture. Malaysia was in effect one of the great successes of the Green Revolution. At the same time it created a sharp division between winners and losers: peasants and the rural poor largely lose income, security, and autonomy; while rural elites, urban elites, and the state gained through the increased revenues generated by the modern farming sector.

Gillian Hart, Andrew Turton, and Benjamin White’s Agrarian Transformations: Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia (1989) provides detailed case studies of these sorts of processes of property and power in development in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Analyzing peasant consciousness

painting: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857)

painting: Edward H. Corbould, Hetty and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs. Poyser’s Dairy

James Scott is a scholar who has shed more light on the mentality and agency of rural people than almost any other since the reinvigoration of peasant studies in the 1970s. Scott’s book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (1976) tried to understand peasant political behavior in southeast Asia through the lens of the norms of justice that were embodied in traditional village societies. His Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1987) further advanced his theorizing about the subjective side of class relations—the experience of subordination and the cultural vocabulary in terms of which subordination is lived in particular social circumstances. Here I’d like to reflect on one of his books that is less empirical but no less insightful into the consciousness of the subordinates — Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1992). This is a book about the experience of domination and indignity that power relations impose upon the powerless. As such it is an important step forward in James Scott’s efforts to provide a language in terms of which to understand underclass politics. Scott takes a big step forward here in helping us find a vocabulary and a more of representation for understanding the mentality of peasants, serfs, and other subalterns. How do they understand their social world? Scott offers a strikingly different interpretation of the social knowledge of the subordinate.

Scott’s central innovation in this work is his distinction between public transcripts (“the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate;” p. 2) and hidden transcripts (“discourse that takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders;” p. 4). Scott observes that there is a sharp divide between the behavior, language, and customs that dominated groups assume in public, and the language, jokes, and criticisms that structure their lives within the back streets, slave quarters, or rice paddies of their within-group experience.

Both public transcripts and hidden transcripts have effects on the everyday politics of power. The public transcript is a conventional pattern of speech for the dominated, a stylized public performance through which they adopt the forms of deference and respect for the powerful that are needed to avoid conflict with the powerful. But Scott maintains that this performance is only skin-deep. The dominated are by no means taken in by their own affirmations of the justice and good manners of their masters, and behind the scenes we may expect to hear much raucous laughing, merciless lampooning, and bitter criticism.

Offstage, where subordinates may gather outside the intimidating gaze of power, a sharply dissonant political culture is possible. Slaves in the relative safety of their quarters can speak the words of anger, revenge, self‑ assertion that they must normally choke back when in the presence of the masters and mistresses. (p. 18)

Scott aims to shed light on this hidden transcript, with the idea that an understanding of this level of consciousness of the dominated is much closer to the reality of their lived experience and provides a better basis for understanding their political behavior.

In addition to a varied set of empirical and historical sources, Scott also makes genuinely innovative use of literary works to better understand the hidden transcript. Scott has identified dozens of texts—works by George Eliot, George Orwell, Euripedes, Brer Rabbit, Milan Kundera, Jean Genet, Emile Zola, and many others—in which the divide between the public and hidden transcripts is directly at issue in the novel. These sources have evidentiary value; for example, Scott writes of George Eliot, “Such were Eliot’s powers of observation and insight into her rural society that many of the key issues of domination and resistance can be teased from her story of Mrs. Poyser’s encounter with the squire” (p. 7). But more important is their interpretive value. They permit Scott to communicate to the reader a vivid understanding of the way the hidden transcript works.

Scott’s contention that the hidden transcript is an open-eyed appraisal of existing relations of domination inevitably comes into conflict with theories of ideology and hegemony. Classical Marxist or Gramscian ideas about ideology suggest that dominated groups come to share the values and perceptions of the dominant group. Scott argues that what is taken as hegemony of dominant-group ideas is in fact often only an uncritical observation of the performance of the public transcript. Rather, he suggests that the dominated are perfectly capable of formulat­ing their own criticisms of the social relations in which they find themselves. “A combination of adaptive strategic behavior and the dialogue implicit in most power relations ensures that public action will provide a constant stream of evidence that appears to support an interpretation of ideological hegemony” (p. 70). This interpretation gives a much greater degree of agency and knowledge to the dominated.

Scott is one of the relatively few social scientists of the past forty years who have consistently offered us new concepts and frameworks in terms of which to understand the social reality we confront. “Moral economy,” “weapons of the weak,” and “hidden transcripts” are all conceptual innovations that have significantly altered the ways we have for understanding and analyzing the social realities associated with domination and resistance. And this is a very important contribution to the intellectual challenge of describing and explaining these complex social realities.

(Scott’s most recent book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999), is also a tour-de-force; more on that in a subsequent posting.)

Economic history analyzed


The history of a region or people encompasses a multitude of aspects of social life: culture, religion, political institutions, social movements, environmental change, technology, population—and the circumstances and processes of economic change that the region undergoes. One does not need to be a reductionist in order to observe that the economic circumstances a society experiences, and the processes of change that these circumstances undergo, have a profound influence on other aspects of social and cultural change. Improved agricultural productivity can support population growth; it can enhance the coercive power of state institutions; and it can make possible the flourishing of intricate institutions of religion and education. Likewise, the constraints created by slow or negative economic productivity growth in a region can stifle the development of other important social processes. So economic history, as a discipline within history more broadly, is a crucially important field of historical inquiry.

Yet the foundations of the discipline of economic history are controversial. Economic historians do not yet agree on the role of mathematical economic theory within their discipline, or the relationships that should obtain between quantitative and qualitative data, or the role of social theories of causal factors in explaining economic change, or the connections that should be established between economic historical research and other fields of social or cultural history.

What is the intellectual task of an “economic history” of a region or country? To start, we might say that it is to provide an evidence-based description of the main economic characteristics of the country or region over a defined period of time: the kinds and levels of agricultural and manufacturing products that are produced, the technologies and institutions through which production and distribution occurs, the size of the population, and the level of material well-being that is experienced by the population. And, second, the task of economic history is to arrive at causal hypotheses that may serve as explanations of some of the patterns of economic change that are discovered.

Consider the variety of questions that need to be addressed by an economic history of a region or country:

  • Demography. What was the absolute population size and distribution at various time points during the period? What were the trends of population growth during the peri¬od? How much urbanization occurred during the period?
  • Inputs and technology. How much land was under cultivation? What crops and products were in production? What fertilizer technologies were in use? How much irrigation was available, and what was the trend of extension of land and irrigation?
  • Property relations and control of labor. What forms of tenancy and land ownership were in place? How were these arrangements changing during the time period? What forms of labor control were in use? Was there a tendency of change in the conditions and extent of wage labor?
  • Productivity. What was the absolute size of the production of central commodities—rice, wheat, cotton? What were the factor productivities for land, labor, capital, or animal power? What trends existed in these quantities?
  • Prices and market conditions. How much agricultural activity took place within functioning markets for crops, grain, textiles, and handicraft goods? What were the prices of these goods over time? How sensitive were farmers to changing market conditions?
  • Human welfare. What were the income levels and food security of various groups: landless workers, smallholding peasants, tenants and other groups? How extensive were income inequalities within the economy? Where were economic surpluses going? What was the trend of real welfare and inequalities?
  • Causal factors. What are the causal relationships that obtain between various large factors: technology, social relations, property systems, state, demographic regimes, and international relations?

Explanation requires a theory of underlying causal mechanisms. What theoretical resources are available to the economic historian to explain patterns and singularities of economic change? It is evident that economic outcomes are the result of human behavior within the context of environmental circumstances and institutional settings. Human behavior, however, is not rigidly segregated into “economic,” “cultural,” and “social” behavior; rather, behavioral outcomes are influenced by all these kinds of factors. So economic history cannot be restricted to the theories associated with neoclassical economics. Rather, the economic historian needs to examine the economic phenomena under study within the broader social and environmental context in which this behavior takes place. And that means that the economic historian must be as much a social historian, a sociologist, or an ethnographer as he is an economist; he needs to pay as much attention to the social and political context of economic trends as he does to the mathematics of equilibrium or the idealized workings of a market.

Marc Bloch’s history of medieval French agriculture (1931) offers a good illustration of the value of a broadly contextualized approach to a region’s economic history (French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics). Bloch surveys the main social institutions and technologies that were in use, and attempts to explain some of the large patterns that became evident (for example, field shape and the geographical diffusion of the wheeled plough). Bloch’s explanation invokes such varied factors as the nature of the soils across France, the availability and timing of technical innovations in the design of the plough, and the nature of village communities in different parts of France. And he makes ingenious use of a wide range of historical sources to permit him to come to assessments of various economic and institutional facts.

Well-developed social theories give us a basis for demonstrating how various factors could be causally relevant. It is then the task of empirical, historical, and theoretical research to arrive at justified conclusions about causation. But theories don’t provide scripts for “necessary” processes of economic development. In fact, it is entirely possible that different combinations of causal factors are of primary importance in different historical settings. Historical change is conjunctural and contingent. The general point is that institutions and circumstances matter, and that institutional arrangements in different times and places may impose limits or opportunities that discourage or favor some pathways of development over others. Instead of expecting one grand course of development, we ought to expect a shifting fabric of contingent, fluctuating path-dependent processes.

Two current economic historians whose work I particularly admire are Bozhong Li, whose careful and deep empirical studies of the economic history of the lower Yangzi delta provide a foundation for a much more finegrained economic history of China (Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850, link); and Robert Allen, whose careful studies of the English farm economy and the standard of living in the early modern period are a paradigm of excellent empirical and analytical work in economic history (link, link).

(There is more on this topic on my research webpage, including Epistemological Issues in Economic History and Eurasian Historical Comparisons.)

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