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Peasants and Peasantry

Historical Precedents

Although marginalized and oppressed by other social sectors, such as landlords and urbanites, and dismissed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as lacking revolutionary consciousness, peasants have periodically asserted themselves politically throughout history either single-handedly as a class or in alliance with other deprived groups such as workers. Among some of the most known peasant political actions was the Peasants' Revolt of June 1381 in England when peasants from the English counties of Kent, East Anglia, Somerset, and Yorkshire rose up in protest at their oppression. They were particularly unhappy with the labor demands placed on them by the church and the poll tax that King Richard II had imposed in 1380. Under the leadership of John Ball and Wat Tyler, they destroyed tax records and registers, and burned down buildings housing government records before capturing the Tower of London and compelling King Richard to negotiate with them at Mile End. By late 1381, however, the movement had fizzled out after its leaders were hanged.

Another important peasant uprising in Europe was the Peasants' War in Germany from 1524, when the peasantry and the lower classes of the towns rose up against their feudal overlords protesting growing economic, religious, and judicial oppression under the nobles and clergy. The peasants' demands included the right to choose their own ministers, the abolition of serfdom, the right to fish and kill wild game, the abolition of many kinds of feudal dues, and the guarantee of fair treatment in courts presided over by the feudal nobles. Peasants also played an important role in the French Revolution and in the Russian Revolution in 1917. In Russia, although nominally emancipated by Tsar Alexander I through the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, which decreed an end to serfdom and permitted former serfs to rent or buy land from the landlords, most Russian peasants, numbering some twenty-three million, were still landless by the turn of the twentieth century, as most land remained in the hands of the rich landlords. Among the grievances that the 1917 Russian revolutionaries were able to exploit, therefore, was the peasants' land hunger. The peasants' reluctance to fully embrace the socialist goals of the Bolshevik Party, particularly under Joseph Stalin, made them targets of Stalin's sustained campaign to destroy them during his collectivization drive of the 1930s, which resulted in the death and exile of thousands of peasants.

In Africa, peasants played a crucial role in resisting colonialism and its prescriptions, as evident in the 1905 Maji Maji uprising in Tanganyika (Tanzania), where German conquest and colonization between 1895 and 1900 provoked a massive uprising when African peasants objected to the taxes, forced labor, and harsh working conditions that came with German colonialism. Although it failed to dislodge German colonialism, the Maji Maji mass uprising forced the German colonial authorities to reform their administration and practices. Another example of armed peasant resistance is the 1896–1897 Chimurenga/Umvukela uprising in Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) where, following British occupation in 1890, African peasants lost their land and cattle to colonial settlers and were subjected to forced labor and an array of taxes designed to force them into the labor market. Similarly, in Namibia, German colonial rule also provoked armed resistance from the Herero and the Nama between 1904 and 1907. Here, too, colonialism brought with it massive land alienation, loss of sovereignty, loss of cattle to incoming German settlers, numerous taxes, openly racist policies and practices that marginalized Africans, corporal punishment, and other ills associated with European colonialism in Africa. In January 1904, the Herero rose up against German rule. In late 1904, the Nama began a three-year guerrilla campaign against German rule that was only crushed by German forces in 1907.

After the first wave of resistance, peasant protest continued throughout the interwar years and, thereafter, flowered into militant mass nationalism that finally led to the demise of colonialism. In Kenya, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia, peasants participated in the armed struggle that brought about independence in those countries. Their contribution to the struggle for independence notwithstanding, most peasants benefited little from political independence, as postcolonial political and economic systems were dominated by the urban elite who promoted their interests at the expense of the peasant majority. Meanwhile, in Asia, peasants also participated in political movements, the most notable being the struggle of the Red Army organized by the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1920s, which ended with the setting up of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

In attempting to understand why peasants rebel, J. C. Scott contended that peasants tend to rebel when they perceive their traditional moral order or moral economy as being violated. The above examples seem to validate this claim, as they show that peasants have not been merely passive victims of other classes' machinations but have asserted and defended their rights and way of life when they felt that these were threatened.


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Alois Mlambo

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Overdamped to PeatPeasants and Peasantry - Defining The Modern Peasantry, Phases Of Historical Study, Historical Precedents, Bibliography