'The Peasantry' in Global Capitalism: Who, Where and Why?

Henry Bernstein


In his Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm declared that 'For 80 percent of humanity, the Middle Ages ended suddenly in the 1950s...'. He was referring to peasants: 'the most dramatic change of the second half of this century, and the one which cuts us forever from the world of the past, is the death of the peasantry' ('which had formed the majority of the human race throughout recorded history'). Did Marx predict this? And if so, what did he mean by 'the peasantry'? Questions of what and who 'peasants' are, where they are, and indeed why they are, in the world of global capitalism in the early twenty-first century, remain as difficult, elusive and contentious as they have been throughout the history of industrial capitalism, perhaps even more so. And not least because notions of 'the peasantry' are so encrusted with ideas, images and prejudices, ideologically both negative and positive, that attach to our core ideas of modernity. There is little doubt that for Marx (and successive generations of 'classic' Marxists, and Hobsbawm today) 'peasants' have indeed been emblematic of 'the world of the past', specifically as represented by the feudal (and 'Asiatic') agrarian formations of Europe and Asia and their classes of essentially parasitic (aristocratic and/or bureaucratic) landed property and of peasant labour exploited through rent and/or tax.

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