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Agrarianism has two common meanings. The first meaning refers to a social philosophy or political philosophy which values rural society as superior to urban society, the independent farmer as superior to the paid worker, and sees farming as a way of life that can shape the ideal social values. It stresses the superiority of a simpler rural life as opposed to the complexity of city life, with its banks and factories.
The philosophical roots of agrarianism include European and Chinese philosophers. The Chinese School of Agrarianism was a philosophy that advocated peasant utopian communalism and egalitarianism. This influenced European intellectuals like François Quesnay, an avid Confucianist and advocate of China's agrarian policies, forming the French agrarian philosophy of Physiocracy. The Physiocrats, along with the ideas of John Locke and the Romantic Era, formed the basis of modern European and American agrarianism.
Secondly, the term "agrarianism" means political proposals for land redistribution, specifically the distribution of land from the rich to the poor or landless. This terminology is common in many countries, and originated from the "Lex Sempronia Agraria" or "agrarian laws" of Rome in 133 BC, imposed by Tiberius Gracchus, that seized public land (ager publicus) used by the rich and distributed it to the poor. This definition of agrarianism is commonly known as “agrarian reform.”
In societies influenced by Confucianism, the farmer was considered an esteemed productive member of society, whereas merchants who made money were looked down upon. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, the word identified any land reform movement that sought to redistribute cultivated lands equally. Today, the word has largely shed this radical political meaning. Instead, agrarianism points to a collection of political, philosophical, and literary ideas that together tend to describe farm life in ideal terms.
In Greece, Hesiod, Aristotle, and Xenophon promoted agrarian ideas. Even more influential were such Roman thinkers as Cato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil. They all praised the virtues of a life devoted to the tilling of the soil.
Agriculturalism (農家/农家; Nongjia) was an early agrarian social and political philosophy in ancient China that advocated peasant utopian communalism and egalitarianism. The philosophy is founded on the notion that human society originates with the development of agriculture, and societies are based upon "people's natural propensity to farm."
The Agriculturalists believed that the ideal government, modeled after the semi-mythical governance of Shennong, is led by a benevolent king, one who works alongside the people in tilling the fields. The Agriculturalist king is not paid by the government through its treasuries; his livelihood is derived from the profits he earns working in the fields, not his leadership. Unlike the Confucians, the Agriculturalists did not believe in the division of labour, arguing instead that the economic policies of a country need to be based upon an egalitarian self sufficiency. The Agriculturalists supported the fixing of prices, in which all similar goods, regardless of differences in quality and demand, are set at exactly the same, unchanging price.
They encouraged farming and agriculture and taught farming and cultivation techniques, as they believed that agricultural development was the key to a stable and prosperous society. The philosopher Mencius once criticized its chief proponent Xu Xing (許行) for advocating that rulers should work in the fields with their subjects. One of Xu's students is quoted as having criticized the duke of Teng in a conversation with Mencius by saying: ‘A worthy ruler feeds himself by ploughing side by side with the people, and rules while cooking his own meals. Now Teng on the contrary possesses granaries and treasuries, so the ruler is supporting himself by oppressing the people’.
Physiocracy was a French agrarianist philosophy that originated in the 18th century. The movement was particularly dominated by François Quesnay (1694–1774) and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781). The Physiocrats were partially influenced by Chinese agrarianism; leading physiocrats like François Quesnay were avid Confucianists that advocated China's agrarian policies.
Borrowing from the French Physiocrats the idea that all wealth originates with the land, making farming the only truly productive enterprise, agrarianism claims that agriculture is the foundation of all other professions. Philosophically, European agrarianism reflects the ideas of John Locke, who declared in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) that those who work the land are its rightful owners. His labor theory of value influenced the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, who in turn shaped the way many nineteenth-century American homesteaders understood ownership of their farms. Jefferson wrote in 1785 in a letter to John Jay that
Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.".
Richard Hofstadter has traced the sentimental attachment to the rural way of life, which he describes as "a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins." Hofstadter notes that to call this a "myth" is not to imply that the idea is simply false. Rather the myth so effectively informs an agrarian ethos that it profoundly influences people's ways of perceiving values and hence their behavior. He emphasizes the importance of the agrarian myth in American politics and life even after industrialization had revolutionized the American economy and life. He stresses the significance of the writings of Jefferson and his followers in the South, such as John Taylor of Caroline in the development of agricultural fundamentalism.
In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, agrarianism felt the influence of the European Romanticism movement. Romantics focused attention on the individual and described nature as a spiritual force. At a time when pristine wilderness was becoming scarce in many parts of Europe, what constitutes “nature” was confused with the last remnants of wilderness—cultivated fields, managed woodlands, and cultivated livestock and crops. As someone in constant contact with (this watered-down version of) “nature”, the farmer was positioned to experience moments that transcend the mundane material world. In doing so, these thinkers managed to redefine nature in the human image, accommodating enclosure with a new “domesticated” version of nature.
In the 1910s and 1920s, agrarianism garnered significant popular attention, but was eclipsed in the postwar period. It has been revived somewhat in conjunction with the environmental movement, and has been drawing an increasing number of adherents.
Eastern European theorists include Pyotr Stolypin (1862–1911) and Alexander Chayanov (1888–1939) in Russia; Adolph Wagner (1835–1917), and Karl Oldenberg in Germany, and Bolesław Limanowski (1835–1935) in Poland.
In Russia the intellectuals of the "Populists" (Narodnaya Volya ) and, later, the Socialist-Revolutionary Party developed a theoretical basis for a peasant movement, building a rich, well-developed humanistic ideology which influenced eastern Europe, especially the Balkans. It never attained the international visibility among peasants that socialism did among the urban workers.
In Poland Bolesław Limanowski thought deeply about Agrarianism and worked out an eclectic program that fit Polish conditions. His practical experience as a farm manager combined with socialist, "single-tax," and Slavic communal ideas shaped his world view. He proposed a form of agrarian socialism with large state farms to counteract the inefficiency of very small holdings. In independent Poland he advocated expropriation of gentry estates. His observation of peasant individualism convinced him that Poland should combine voluntary collectivism and individual possession of the leased land. His pragmatism left room even for private peasant ownership, despite his Marxism.
The most important Canadian theorist was an American immigrant, Henry Wise Wood, president of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) during that movement's time as the governing party of the province (1921–1935). He, as did many Canadian farmers of the era, conceived of farmers as a distinct social class in the midst of a class struggle against capitalists who owned the banks, railways, and grain trading companies which profited from the efforts of farmers. His solution was a kind of corporatism called "group government". In this scheme, people would be represented in government by a party or organization that defended the interests of their particular occupation or industry, not a particular ideology. On the basis of this philosophy the UFA, as the representative of the farmers as a class, ran candidates only in rural area and not in the cities. Instead they urged their urban sympathizers to vote for Labour candidates, as the representatives of the urban working class. This type of farmer-labour co-operation became common throughout Western Canada, leading to the creation of the short-lived Progressive Party of Canada in the 1920s, and the more durable Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (Farmer-Labour-Socialist) in Calgary, Alberta, in 1935, precursor to Canada's modern-day social democratic party, the New Democratic Party. Demeritt (1995) argues that in British Columbia (and Canada generally), there were three overlapping agrarian viewpoints. Arcadianism was based on nostalgic memories of rural England, and led to the widespread creation of orchards and gardens. Agrarianism claimed agriculture was the source of all wealth and called for the wide distribution of land as the foundation of democracy and freedom. The Country Life Movement was a loose grouping of social reformers, church leaders, and urban progressives; they sought solutions for rural economic decline, social stagnation, and the depopulation of the countryside.
In American history important spokesmen included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur (1735–1813), and John Taylor of Caroline (1753–1824) in the early national period. In the mid-19th century important leaders included Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). After 1890 came philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916), botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858–1954), the Southern Agrarians of the 1920s and 1930s, novelist John Steinbeck (1902–1968), historian A. Whitney Griswold (1906–1963), environmentalist Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), Ralph Borsodi (1886–1977), and present-day authors Wendell Berry (b. 1934), Gene Logsdon (b. 1932), Paul Thompson, and Allan C. Carlson (b. 1949).
In 1930 in the U.S. the Southern Agrarians wrote in the "Introduction: A Statement of Principles" to their book I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition that
All the articles bear in the same sense upon the book's title-subject: all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial. ... Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian, which does not stand in particular need of definition. An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use at all for industries, for professional vocations, for scholars and artists, and for the life of cities. Technically, perhaps, an agrarian society is one in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige-a form of labor that is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and that becomes the model to which the other forms approach as well as they may. But an agrarian regime will be secured readily enough where the superfluous industries are not allowed to rise against it. The theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.
Recent agrarian thinkers are sometimes referred to as neo-Agrarian and include the likes of Wendell Berry, Paul B. Thompson, and Gene Logsdon. They are characterized by seeing the world through an agricultural lens. Although much of Inge's principles, above, still apply to the New Agrarianism, the affiliation with a particular religion and patriarchal tendency have subsided to some degree.
Aldo Leopold Leopold was born in 1887 and educated at Yale University. He developed the field of game management and introduced an ecological ethic that replaced an earlier wilderness ethic where human dominance is stressed. In addition, he included the farm as a place of conservation and is considered an agrarian scholar. Leopold believed that harm was frequently done to natural systems out of a sense of ownership and this idea eclipsed community. He expanded the idea of community to include the environment and the farm. Leopold is the author of several essays and is perhaps best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1953).
Wendell Berry Wendell Berry is an author of several books, essays, and poems whose writing often illustrates his values which center around sustainable agriculture, healthy rural communities, and a connection to place. He is a prominent defender of agrarian values and has an appreciation for traditional farming. Rod Dreher writes the following: “[Berry's] unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land."
J. Baird Callicott Callicott is, perhaps, best known for his research which explores an Aldo Leopold ethic as a response to global climate change. Callicott supports a holistic, non-anthropocentric environmental ethic which is in accordance with Leopold's view that "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" He holds the view that an adequate environmental ethic — one that addresses actual environmental concerns — must be intrinsically holistic.
Paul B. Thompson Paul Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. He has published extensively on the social and environmental significance of agriculture and a number of volumes and papers on the philosophical significance of farming, notably The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics (1995) and The Agrarian Roots of Pragmatism (2000). His most recient publication called The Agrarian Vision focuses on sustainability and what agrarian philosophy can offer when we conceptualize what sustainability actually means.
Peasant parties first appeared across Eastern Europe between 1860 and 1910, when commercialized agriculture and world market forces disrupted traditional rural society, and the railway and growing literacy facilitated the work of roving organizers. Agrarian parties advocated land reforms to redistribute land on large estates among those who work it. They also wanted village cooperatives to keep the profit from crop sales in local hands, and credit institutions to underwrite needed improvements. Many peasant parties were also nationalist parties, because peasants often worked their land for the benefit of landlords of different ethnicity.
Peasant parties rarely had any power before World War I, but some became influential in the interwar era, especially in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. For a while in the 1920s and 1930s there was a Green International (International Agrarian Bureau) based on the peasant parties in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Serbia. It functioned primarily as an information center that spread the ideas of agrarianism and combating socialism on the left and landlords on the right, and never launched any significant activities.
In Bulgaria, Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BZNS) was organized in 1899 to resist taxes and build cooperatives. BZNS came to power in 1919 and introduces many economic, social, and legal reforms. However conservative forces crushed BZNS in a 1923 coup and assassinated its leader, Aleksandar Stamboliyski (1879–1923). BZNS was made into a Communist puppet group until 1989, when it reorganized as a genuine party.
In Czechoslovakia the Republican Party of Agricultural and Smallholder People often shared power in parliament as a partner in the five-party pětka coalition. The party's leader Antonin Svehla (1873–1933) was prime minister several times. The party was banned.
In Romania, in 1919 older parties from Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia merged to become the National Peasants' Party. Iuliu Maniu (1873–1953) was prime minister with an agrarian cabinet from 1928 to 1930, but the Great Depression made proposed reforms impossible. The Communists dissolved the party in 1947, but it reformed in 1989 after Communism collapsed.
In Serbia Nikola Pašić (1845–1926) and his Radical Party dominated Serbian politics after 1903; they also monopolized power in Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1929; during the dictatorship of the 1930s, it furnished the prime minister.
In Australia, the Country Party from the 1920s to the 1970s, promulgated its version of agrarianism, which it called "Countrymindedness". The goal was to enhance the status of the graziers (operators of big sheep ranches) and small farmers, and justified subsidies for them.
The New Zealand Liberal Party aggressively promoted agrarianism in its heyday, 1891-1912. The landed gentry and aristocracy ruled Britain at this time. New Zealand never had an aristocracy but it did have wealthy landowners who largely controlled politics before 1891. The Liberal Party set out to change that by a policy it called "populism." Richard Seddon had proclaimed the goal as early as 1884: "It is the rich and the poor; it is the wealthy and the landowners against the middle and labouring classes. That, Sir, shows the real political position of New Zealand." The Liberal strategy was to create a large class of small land-owning farmers who supported Liberal ideals. The First Liberal government also established the basis of the later welfare state, with old age pensions, developed a system for settling industrial disputes, which was accepted by both employers and trade unions. In 1893 it extended voting rights to women, making New Zealand the first country in the world to enact universal female suffrage.
To obtain land for farmers the Liberal government from 1891 to 1911 purchased 3,100,000 acres (1,300,000 ha) of Maori land. The government also purchased 1,300,000 acres (530,000 ha) from large estate holders for subdivision and closer settlement by small farmers. The Advances to Settlers Act (1894) provided low-interest motgages, while the Agriculture Department disseminated information on the best farming methods. The Liberals proclaimed success in forging an egalitarian, antimonopoly land policy. The policy built up support for the Liberal party in rural North Island electorates. By 1903 the Liberals were so dominant that there was no longer an organized opposition in Parliament.
Agrarianism is similar but not identical with the back-to-the-land movement. Agrarianism concentrates on the fundamental goods of the earth, communities of more limited economic and political scale than in modern society, and on simple living—even when this shift involves questioning the "progressive" character of some recent social and economic developments. Thus agrarianism is not industrial farming, with its specialization on products and industrial scale.