A Review of Henry Bernstein’s “Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change”

Bhumika Chauhan

Henry Bernstein, Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change, Fernwood Press & Kumarian Press, 2010

This book, written by Henry Bernstein, is the first in the Agrarian Change and Peasant Studies series published by ‘Initiatives in Critical Agrarian Studies’ (based at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands). Considering the size of the task it takes on in barely 125 pages – of providing an introduction to, an overview of, and a perspective on agrarian formations and transformations under capitalism – it would not have been possible, perhaps, for anybody else but Henry Bernstein to undertake it. His intimate and longstanding involvement in setting the agenda for the debates on the agrarian question allows him to paint the “big picture” of agrarian change in capitalism through generalisation and periodisation, yet remaining extremely sensitive to the specificities of its realisation in diverse spatial-temporal locations.

Marx derived the logic of capital and capitalist transformation by studying the industrial capitalism of northwest Europe – his account of agrarian change was also delimited by this concern. This leaves much space to be filled, as is one of Bernstein’s aims in this book, with an understanding of capitalism and agriculture before and since modern industrialisation. This is furthermore required in order to grasp the richness of Marx’s critique of political economy, and for its internal nurturing by exposing its conceptual and analytical tools to diverse empirical realities. As Bernstein himself states, the initial concerns of the book are “how capitalism developed in primarily agrarian societies before industrialization”, and “how agrarian change has been shaped by industrial capitalism once it was established and spread” (p.9). Of course, many have already made significant contributions in this direction. The importance of this slim volume lies in its attempt to consolidate them into a fairly coherent account of the complexity of agrarian change.

In attempts at understanding the development of capitalism, Bernstein distinguishes between two dominant approaches. The first focuses on understanding diverse national paths to agrarian capitalism. The classic case in this regard is of course the English path which Marx analysed – the crisis of feudalism in the 14th and 15th centuries leading to a change in class structure and the rise of the capitalist tenant farmer. In Prussia the feudal lords themselves became capitalist commodity producers and converted the peasants into wage labourers. In America, engagement in commodity relations led to the emergence of capitalist farming out of the independent small holding farmer, while in Japan and South Korea, the transition was a result of primitive accumulation for industrialisation through taxation of peasantry, without the development of agrarian capitalism (pp. 27-32).

The second perspective traces the “long march of commercial capitalism” since the 12th century towards agrarian capitalism. Bernstein finds elements of this perspective in the works of Giovanni Arrighi, Jairus Banaji and Jason Moore. They argue that if one were to look at international patterns of trade and finance it would be clear that capitalism was world-historic since its birth. In this line of thought, the English transition to agrarian capitalism occurred in the larger context of Dutch hegemony over world-capitalism, while England became hegemonic only after pioneering the Industrial Revolution. Rather disappointingly, this assertion which is apparently central to the theorisation of the development of capitalism is not sufficiently explained or substantiated.

However, despite lacking sufficient elaboration as far as the larger picture of the ‘long march’ is concerned, Bernstein’s exposition of the dynamics of labour and capital within commercial capitalism is nuanced and complex. The key classes in commercial capitalism, he writes, included aristocratic and colonial landlords who organised specialised commodity production, merchants who advanced credit and material to handicraftsmen and other producers of manufactured goods, capitalists in extractive sectors of mining and forestry, and financiers who funded this development. All of them were true capitalists according to Bernstein: they exploited labour for profit, invested to expand production, even through increased productivity, funded new sites for commodity production, and developed new markets for those commodities (p.33). Bernstein lays great stress on the fact that even before the emergence of industrial capital, and outside of the agrarian capital that developed in England, commercial capital in agriculture was already capitalist.

Commercial capitalism also utilised more flexible forms of labour than the ones Marx observed to be predominant in industrial capitalism. Bernstein endorses Banaji’s argument that capital is capable of exploiting labour in a variety of social arrangements and in varied historical circumstances, like in the form of slavery in specialised commodity production in plantations. The labourer may not be entirely dispossessed but loses the ability to reproduce himself outside commodity production. Here, Bernstein uses Robert Brenner’s concept of commodification of subsistence, which is shown to be central to the early trajectory of capitalism, along with the persistence of small farms, especially in the South.

Bernstein goes on to discuss the incorporation of the remaining world peasantry into the capitalist world through colonialism. The colonial state brought new agrarian production structures into the colonies: slave plantations in southern North America, haciendas in Latin America, zamindari and ryotwari in India, trade economies, labour reserves and concessionary companies in Africa. These did not only serve the budgets of the administration and the colonial state, but also led to “forced commercialization”. The peasants of the colonies were now the producers of cash crops for export, food crops for the domestic market as well as for export, and of labour power (workers, who also migrated from farms to plantations, railways construction etc.). The specialised industrial plantations of the nineteenth century experienced the classic type of capitalist commodity production although the majority of agricultural production in colonies witnessed petty commodity production. Undoubtedly, commodity production and commodification of subsistence had set in colonial peasantry in various forms and at various levels.

In this exploration of the relation between capitalism and colonialism, we encounter many debates surrounding colonialism, especially ones that centre on this question, and the connected one of how colonialism contributed to an incomplete capitalist transition in colonies. These discussions invariably keep coming to the issue of capitalist and pre-capitalist organisation of labour. Not all of the varied forms of labour regimes that colonialism instituted in the colonies – forced, semi-proletarian, family labour/petty commodity production and proletarianisation (p.54) – fit the classical model of capitalist production. Most of them were hybrids of ‘forced/unfree’ and ‘free’ wage labour. Those who understand the English path of transition to capitalism as the paradigm for this transition, think of all forms of labour except the ‘fully free’ one, to be ‘pre-capitalist’. Bernstein affirms Banaji’s contention that ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ labours are fluid and ambiguous in social reality, and like others who argue for the “long history of commercial capitalism”, identifies social relations characterising all regimes of labour, established in the South by European colonialism, as capitalist.

Bernstein’s account of agrarian change since the 1870s highlights the role played by upstream and downstream activities in agriculture; it is through such activities that capitalism has penetrated to the most independent of farms. Upstream activities concern the conditions of production such as the supply of inputs and instruments of labour. Downstream activities include marketing, distribution and processing of farm produce. The book shows how with industrialisation, these activities have risen to such great importance that even so-called self-sufficient farmers have come to depend on powerful agents like agri-input and agri-food capital. This dependence has made them ever more dependent on money income for the purchase of means of subsistence: what we have called commodification of subsistence.

With the rise of neoliberal globalisation in agriculture there is a further deepening of commodification. With substantial withdrawal of the State from agriculture (more in the South than the North), transnational agribusinesses have become major agents in organising and regulating conditions of production and consumption within the global food economy (p.81). Along with the commodification of subsistence, Bernstein notes, there has been a new wave of depeasantisation. Much like in other domains, neoliberalism in agriculture is propped upon “accumulation by dispossession,” or to put it in a more orthodox manner, primitive accumulation, which entails the divorcing of the farmer from the means to farm.

That capitalism is still dispossessing the peasantry forces us to take note of an interesting fact: that the dispossession of the peasantry has been a very slow process, that capitalism has for a very long time, allowed a large portion of the population some means of production (in this case, land). This persistence of peasants or the continuing survival of non-capitalist farms is of particular interest to Bernstein as are those movements that strive for their preservation and restoration, movements that neoliberalism has re-invigorated. The issue of the persistence of peasantry, significant for epistemological-methodological as well as political reasons, comes up frequently in the book but receives a detailed treatment in the last three chapters that deal directly with class dynamics in agriculture. It is a methodological issue insofar as the simplistic way of understanding small farmers that grasps class as a sociologically fixed category and makes use of crude binaries, prevalent in even Marxist circles, is undialectical, and is often guilty of shying away from engaging with concrete facts; it is political because only an accurate analysis of class dynamics makes visible the struggle that lies inside the apparently homogenous class of peasants.

Bernstein presents three sets of explanations for the slow pace of depeasantisation. One, peasants themselves have, in various ways and to varying degrees, resisted commodification, dispossession and proletarianisation. But Bernstein finds this explanation to be inadequate because it does not take into account the interests and power of capital; he points out that often indigenous peasants, of their own initiative, turn to commodity production, and eventually capitalist farming (p.97). Peasant response to commodification has not been one of simple acceptance or rejection. It is marked by a complicated process of negotiation. The second set of explanations is that farming consists of certain technical and social aspects that obstruct capitalist investment. Because of this, capital is more comfortable letting the farmer take all risks and burdens involved, preferring upstream to downstream businesses. This second explanation is closely related to the third.

The third set of explanations for peasants’ persistence is that they work to the benefit of capital. Bernstein argues that family farms are not merely to be seen as competing with or independent of capitalist corporations. Many of them are dependent on upstream or downstream corporations and banks via contracts or other arrangements. Following Kautsky, he explains that the peasantry persists, or rather, is allowed to exist by capital, only so long as it helps lower the cost of labour-power (p.94). That is to say, family-worked farms could produce cheaper food commodities and lower the cost of labour power, and hence wage. Furthermore, peasants and small farmers who sell a portion of their labour-power can make do with low wages, because a part of their reproduction is provided for by their farms.

In all such explanations, there is some notion that small farmers are exploited by capital. According to Bernstein there are several notions of exploitation by capital as far as family labour is concerned: “as labour force working with other people’s means of production or as self-exploiting in ways that represent indirect exploitation by capital or at least in ways that benefit capital” (p.101). For some, the agrarian populists particularly, the small-scale farm is to be treated as one class in relation to capital which exploits it. Such notions are further fuelled by the recent spree of peasant dispossession. However, Bernstein argues that the small-scale, family farms are themselves differentiating into classes with the increasing penetration of capital, and not all of them are at the losing end.

To explain this assertion, Bernstein explores the class dynamics of family farming. This requires us to first understand the process of commodification in family farming. He asserts that the tendency of capital towards generalised commodity production does not imply that “all elements of social existence are necessarily and comprehensively commodified. Rather it signifies the commodification of subsistence: that reproduction cannot take place outside commodity relations and the discipline they impose” (p.102; emphasis original). And as has been demonstrated already, commodification of subsistence is characteristic of small farmers. Small farmers are also (before further differentiation) petty commodity producers, and petty commodity production in capitalism combines the class “places” of capital, in the form of land, tools, seeds, fertilizers etc., and labour, in the form of families/households. There is then, in petty commodity production, a contradiction between these two class places, that is between the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of labour; money, on the one hand, has to be allocated for rent and replacement of other means of production, and on the other, for consumption.

This contradiction, Bernstein asserts, is the source of differentiation among small, ‘non-capitalist’ farmers. Rich peasants or emergent capitalist farmers expand themselves as capital and tend to employ wage labour. Those struggling to reproduce themselves as capital as well as labour are the poor farmers. The contradiction of the two class places in petty commodity production is most apparent in the poor farmers when they try to push down the scale of consumption of the family, the labour, in order to keep ownership of land, the capital. The middle farmers are those who can reproduce themselves as capital on the same scale of production, and as labour on the same scale of consumption. These relatively stable petty commodity producers are at the heart of agrarian populism and its notion of self-sufficient farmers. They are of special interest to Bernstein since even these seemingly self-sufficient farmers usually exploit wage labour.

After explaining the class position of small farmers, Bernstein goes on to explain how these farmers are integrated into capitalism even outside the farm. The emergent capitalist farmer invests in upstream and downstream businesses like crop trading and processing, rural retail trade, transport, advancing credit etc. Poor farmers, it has been seen, cannot survive without selling their labour power wherever possible. Even medium farmers engage in off-farm activities including labour migration. Such off-farm activity is necessary for many medium-farmer households if they are to avoid proletarianisation. The facts are that there are no self-sufficient family farms that neither hire nor sell wage labour, and that all three classes of farmers are engaged in the wider capitalist market. And these facts clearly go against the assertions of those who claim that (1) there are ‘non-capitalist’, self-sufficient ‘small family farm’, and (2) they need to be guarded against capitalist penetration. Bernstein effectively demonstrates that there is no self-sufficiency in family farms, and capital has already penetrated to the roots.

So, if one places the agricultural sector, as one should, within the larger context in which it is truly situated, that is, if one takes into account the determinations beyond farming and agriculture, then the diversity of class formations in the countryside of the global South (the very many in-betweens we encounter: semi-proletarians etc.) begins to become comprehensible. As such, Bernstein speaks of classes of labour: “[t]he social locations and identities the working poor inhabit, combine and move between make for ever more fluid boundaries and defy inherited assumptions of fixed and uniform notions of ‘worker,’ ‘famers,’ ‘petty trader,’ ‘urban,’ ‘rural,’ ’employed,’ and ‘self-employed'” (p.111). He also distinguishes between different “classes of capital” on the basis of different “interests and strategies of capital in particular activities and sectors like industry, finance or agriculture and on scales from local to regional, national and international” (p.112). By this logic, the corporate agribusinesses and the “rich peasants” are different, yet part of the same capitalist class.

In the final chapter, Bernstein arrives at the political aspects of class struggle. Class exploitation, he writes, is not experienced in any pure form, but is mediated through specific identities like “urban/rural dwellers, industrial workers/agricultural labourers, urban craftsmen and women peasants, men/women, mental/manual labour, young/old, black/white, regional, national and ethnic differences and so on” (Gibbon and Neocosmos 1985 cited on p.117). Differentiating between “struggle over class” and “struggle between classes” (p.117), Bernstein concludes that the former is a condition of the latter, that is, the struggles over class of the working poor are inflected and restricted by social divisions such as religion, caste, colour and gender. The struggle between classes can only be successful subsequent to the working class resolving the social divisions within. He asks us to appreciate the complexity of the experience of the circumstance of oppression.

Bernstein’s thrust in the book is on uncovering the class reality of the small-farmers, refuting positions that assert that a homogenous class of independent farmers exists, and exposing farmers’ movements that claim to represent all farmers but actually serve the interest of the rich peasants. While these are very relevant theoretical and political issues that need to be addressed, a greater attention could have been given to the task of providing a more thorough perspective on agriculture in general and its overall class structure. The book also lacks adequate empirical support for assertions regarding the contribution of off-farm activities to the household income of family-farmers. Furthermore, despite being so concerned with the South, there is not much said on the various positions articulated within the mode of production debate on Indian agriculture (excepting Banaji’s); another oversight for a book aiming to make new students of agrarian relations familiar with important works and debates. Additionally, a small issue with the style of the book is that its simplicity at times ends up giving a very simplistic sense of very complex processes and experiences to the unfamiliar reader.

However, for the not so unfamiliar reader, and for the activist, for people, that is, who are aware of the numerous compounded issues that the agrarian working class, and the working class in general, faces, Bernstein’s book provides a ‘big picture’. Instead of focusing on one or a few problems of the agrarian population, like so many works on agrarian change have already done, Bernstein attempts to create a broader perspective about capitalist transformation in agriculture.

Politically, the book makes several significant contributions, not perhaps in saying something very new, but certainly in reiterating some very important things. In focusing on the fact that capital may exploit labour in many ways, including, without completely divorcing it from the means of production, the book tells us, like a few have tried to in the past as well, that the working-class may be found in many locations. Bernstein understands class as a process, intersecting with other determinations like gender, age, caste, ethnicity etc. In recognising the fluid nature of identities in this world of complex experiences, denying the exclusivity of class and yet insisting on its universality, such an analysis can only bolster our understanding of working-class unity, and ways of its construction.


  1. Info: Indonesian version of his have been published by INSISTPress, which was released in May 2015. >>http://blog.insist.or.id/insistpress/?p=13337&lang=id

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