Abstract :
In the 1920s, within the framework of marxism-leninism and its theory of the stages in history,
peasants were doomed to extinction in the face of progress and industrialization. A ” primitive
accumulation ” uprooting the very structure of peasant household economy was deemed necessary
in order to pave the way for socialism. Nevertheless, at the same time, agrarian economist A.V.
Chayanov (1888-1937) could demonstrate, through statistical and democraphical surveys, that the
secular peasant farm organization was still resilient and could offer a totally different option in
order to build a socialist society. The aim of this talk is to sharpen the differences between what has
been called collectivization and the cooperative web of farms put forward by Chayanov. Some key
topics may rise from this opposition : the possible disconnection of economy from wages, the very
meaning of work and search for profit, the need to rethink the fittest scale for this or that kind of
production, the cultural values that have been erased by the Bolsheviks fascination with industrial
progress. If we assume that Chayanov died because he was right, rediscover his thought may be a
useful tool in order to understand what socialists ideals have lost with the crushing of peasant
socialism, which was the first expression of the contemporary capitalistic global war on subsistence.

 

A. V. Chayanov’s theory of peasant economy as a forsaken way towards socialism

In this talk, I would like to argue that agrarian economist A. V. Chayanov’s execution by the
NKVD, although a minor event in the course of Soviet Union development, has a major
significance for the critical history of industrial capitalism and Development : it embodies at best
the logic of contemporary global war on subsistence and marks a moment of historical bifurcation,
when a possible emancipatory path towards an agrarian socialism was forsaken.
Member of the Organization and Production school of economics, Chayanov was a brilliant
scholar, acknowledeged as such, who soon tackled the agrarian question : how to modernize the
traditional peasant economy without disrupting its very structural principles, which many
economists still ignored back in the day ? Its major works on that topic, displayed in the 1920s,
were those of a ” non party Muscovite intellectual (…) erudite, hardworking, broadminded and
deeply committed to humanitarian causes, scholarship and aesthetics “, as Teodor Shanin reminds
us. (New Introduction to Chayanov’s Theory of Peasant Economy, University of Wisconsin Press).
Not a bolshevik at all, though not an outright critic of the new regime (and of the New Economic
Policy), Chayanov earned credit for his academic brilliance. In the beginning of the 1920’s, it is said
that Lenin ordered to let Chanayov be, ” because we need wise heads, we are left with too few of
them “. Yet, the sentence can be construed otherwise : Chayanov had to be left alone, but good
reasons already existed, for Bolsheviks authorities, not to do so.
Actually, drawing on statistical datas, Chayanov had surveyed the peasant farm organization in
its most widespread form in Russia, the familial (self) exploitation. It led him to display the
fundamental elements of a non-capitalist economic system, the nonwage family unit, quite resilient
alongside capitalist development. This was enough to turn him into an enemy for the forthcoming
” primitive socialist accumulation ” process in Russia, e.g what has been called ” collectivization “,
under Stalin’s guidance.
Firstly, I’ll sum up the main features of Chayanov’s economic model ; secondly, I’ll expose the
reasons why the leninist productivist and industrial legacy couldn’t accept the persistence of such an
” archaic ” type of production. Thirdly, this striking opposition will invite us to ponder upon a
forsaken way for socialism, because Chayanov’s works also convey a heartening spirit which may
infuse contemporary struggles against industrial capitalism.

 

Principles of peasant farm economy

Among other things, one interesting feature of Chayanov’s work is that it contains great political,
social and cultural implications, whereas Chayanov himself led his research without any outright
militant leaning. His conclusions became highly embarrassing for Bolsheviks authorities, by the
sake of their mere objectivity. While studying the daily functioning of the peasant farm based on
family unit, Chayanov discovers a first striking feature : generally speaking, the family-based rural
exploitation doesn’t resort to wages. This is a pivotal point. It shifts the economic standard
approach, which links wage earning and profit making as the aim of any sound enterprise. ” Homo
economicus “ceases to be the classical chairman and is now embodied by the one who organizes the
production of the family. Dropping wages, this autonomous mode of production ” would have the
same relation to present-day theoretical economics as Lobachevski’s geometry has to that of
Euclid”, Chayanov says.
Consequently, since the family-based unit is not profit-oriented, it doesn’t seek to increase its
outlets. Instead, its activity can be defined as a ” self-exploitation “. For many observers, such a
definition could equate to working till exhaustion on a stingy land, constantly on the brink of
starvation. Even if the living conditions of the Russian peasant family described by Chayanov are
far from easy, ” self-exploitation ” doesn’t mean such a harsh condition. It rather relates to the fact
that the global volume of economic activity is detemined by the size of the family, namely its
members able to work. This is the reason why the differentiation between farms relies on
demographic causes rather than strictly economic causes.
Thus, each family organizes an annual production planning, based on the awareness of its selfexploitation
capacity. Here comes the second major discovery of Chayanov : the productivity of the
family unit is linked to a labor-consumer balance, e.g the ” economic equilibrium between drudgery
of labor and the farm familiy’s demand satisfaction “. This production rule has been acclaimed by
many observers and social critics : M. Sahlins imported it in order to analyze the ” domestic mode
of production ” in his classic Stone Age Economics, M. Rahnema studies it when, in a illichian
fashion, he comes to differentiate poverty from misery. Generally speaking it offers a sharp
counterpoint to standard economic theory as well as orthodox marxism, in that they both place labor
(indeed, what Marx called ” abstract labor “, a pure expenditure of energy quantified in homogenous
time units) at the core of social relations. Here, labor – and the technologies that seek to increase its
output – is not the organizing force, it gets embedded in social relations within the household, i.e a
collectively debated assessment of the drudgery of the work compared to the extent of needs
satisfaction.

What the contemporary reader also learns here, is that it is fundamentally absurd to search in
every way for what is “big”, for the larger productivity (a choice totally at odds with the overall
outlook of soviet marxism). Indeed, when thinking about an organization of peasant economy,
Chayanov held the household for the basic cell of a whole production system, on a national scale,
that would weave together many cooperatives. This methodic approach “from below”, based on the
study of the production plan made by the peasants themselves, was to form a ” realistic precritique
of Stalin’s type of collectivization ” (Shanin). Nevertheless, Chayanov was not endorsing the “small
is beautiful” motto in response to big-scale industrialism heavily supported by the followers of
Lenin’s Development of capitalism in Russia. A lesson to be learned by today supporters of “degrowth”
movements. In his Theory of Peasant Cooperatives, he puts forward a model of “vertical
cooperation”, where each productive unit and sub-branche structures itself on the appropriate scale.
Thus, a flourishing peasant economy must organize itself by combination of scales in order to seek
an optimum of production (given the unavoidable variety of productions and technical processes)
rather than a maximum.

What orthodox marxism couldn’t understand

After a kind of truce ordered by Lenin himself, at the beginning of the 1920s, Chayanov
unfortunately received the punishment that seems to be, in retrospect, the only way Stalin’s agents
could have met his works. Indeed, Chayanov depicted a peasant world leaning towards selfsufficiency
(Chayanov liked to quote the Provers 16 : 26 : A worker’s appetite works for him; his
mouth urges him on) and resilient enough to delay the introduction of capitalists methods of
production in the countryside. What he said was clearly becoming a hindrance to the industrial takeoff
endorsed by economists like Preobrajenski, who wanted to accelerate the spreading of capitalist
relations in the country, prepared as soon as the last twenty years of the nineteenth century (endemic
over exploitation, high taxes, subjugation of families to land owners).
Under what we could call the Preobrajenski law, the proletarization of peasants amounted to a
scientific fact, because of a process of “primitive accumulation” : the more backwards a country in a
transition phase towards socialism is, the more it needs to stock surplus from pre-industrial
economic spheres, since it cannot rely on a strictly industrial accumulation. Since before the First
World War workers only amounted to 3 % of the overall russian population, we can consider how
disastrous this industrial take-off has been. While Chayanov was writing his Theory of peasant
economy, the theoretical frame designed by ideologists like Lenin or Preobrajenski was about to be
implemented, gathering proletarized peasants into gigantic food factories (kolkhoze) while their
living conditions and overall culture were crushed by the mechanized hydra.

Actually, collectivization was only the logical sequel of the war on peasants culture claimed by
Lenin in 1921 at the third Congress of the Communist International. Beyond tactical alliances, the
main focus of Lenin was to wage a decisive war on the traditional values and practices of the
peasantry, arguing that the only conceivable path for socialism – and for the revival of peasantry
itself – was to foster the development of capitalism, of course « controlled and regulated by the
proletarian state ». Hence the need to uproot the last resisting forces in the country. As he said
eloquently in Better fewer, but better (1923), the revolutionaries had to change horse, passing from
the ” muzhik horse of poverty, from the horse of an economy designed for a ruined peasant country,
to the horse which the proletariat is seeking and must seek — the horse of large-scale machine
industry, of electrification, of the Volkhov power station ».
The economy of peasant household represented all the limitations the Bolsheviks had to
undermine in order to lift national economy up and pave the way for a socialism equated with largescale
machinery. This is no surprise that, as the autonomous peasants he depicted, Chayanov
himself (and his theories too) were doomed to disappear in the face of what we could call a gigantic
internal colonization. To proceed, I’d like to insist on the fact that this tragic event concentrated
many elements that were to reappear during the twentieth and the beginning of twenty-first century,
alongside the disastrous course of so-called Development and industrial capitalism. Hence the
timely relevance of Chayanov.

 

Remembering Chayanov’s message

Studying an author from the past, it’s always thorny to tell how we could draw upon his works in
order to face contemporary issues. Nevertheless, this is a game worth being played as regards
Chayanov. First of all, his proper inquiry on peasant farm organization, the way he linked it to a
subtle form of cooperativist socialism, clearly shows what socialists currents have lost with his
execution : the making of a kind of « conservative socialism », based on the vernacular values of
self-sufficiency, autonomy and community (a « proudhonian» synthesis of such implemented values
is exposed in the Journey of my Brother Alexeï to the Land of Peasant Utopia, a nice little utopia
fancied in 1920 by Chayanov. It is far from summing up Chayanov’s insights, but it is worth
reading in that it offers glimpses of a desirable socialist future). Put otherwise, in the words of Marx
himself reflecting on the traditional commune, a socialism in which « individuals behave not as
labourers, but as owners – as members of a community which also labours.» Throughout the
twentieth century, from Green Revolution to contemporary rare metals extraction, by way of
structural adjustment programs, the same crushing of peasant values have occurred again and again,
amouting to a gigantic cultural uprooting. Actually, industrial capitalism has fully implemented, on
the largest possible scale, what collectivization had done in a single country, during what seems in
retrospect only a rehearsal of such atrocities. No doubt that, in the face of the blind logic of progress
and growth, it’s a crucial reminder to know that peasantry has lived and continue to live according
to different principles than those of contemporary farmers imbued with the discourse of agrobusiness.
Each time peasants (be they expelled from their land, submitted to bureaucratic
normalization of their labor, squeezed by big business and supermarkets, be they northern or
southern farmers) organize themselves and get support for their struggles against destructive
modernization, they revive the message of Chayanov studies, standing for a totally different culture,
related in a completely different way to nature itself.
Obviously, the cooperative web of farms described by Chayanov as the better organizational
device to maintain optimal productivity without undermining peasants autonomy stays weak when
confronted to giant corporations and supermarkets. The better it can do is survive in an unstable
position at the periphery of agro-business. Peasant economy cannot be studied anymore as an
economic form alongside other modes of production, simply studied “from below”. It is necessary
to take into account external forces (those of the encompassing growth economy) which
unavoidably reshape its very structure. This is why a “marxian” (but not “marxist”, as Marx himself,
discovering russian populism in his last ten years, discarded his supposed “evolutionist” disciples,
fascinated by the theory of stages in history) criticism of capital growth, commodity fetishism and
the logic of value is still decisive in order to undestand what lies at the core of the modernisation
process.
Such a criticism keeps setting the goal : trying to dismantle the “grow or die” economy by
renewing our very perspective upon what is needed to live a good life. Having understood that the
reality to which the peasants are confronted cannot be described according to standard economic
theory patterns, Chayanov introduces us to an economic life equally distant from state and market.
This is what Teodor Shanin calls ex-polar economy. But it seems to me that notions such as
“subsistence perspective”, coined by ecofeminist writer Maria Mies, or “moral economy”, coined by
E.P Thompson and rephrased by anarchist and social ecologist Murray Bookchin ( “Market
economy or moral economy “, The Modern Crisis, 1986), also capture the core of the topic. In the
words of Mies (The Subsistence Perspective, Zeb Books, 2000), the word ” subsistence ” catches in
the fulliest way what we expect from a social alternative : freedom, happiness, self-determination
within the limits set by necessity (…) perseverance, strength, grassroot perspective and also an
entire new way of life based on a whole cultural shift. Is it not what Chayanov had in mind, from
his peasant utopia to his explanation of the logic of cooperativist socialism ?

 

To conclude

I hope that this talk will be an incentive for people committed in criticism of industrial capitalism
to read Chayanov again. From the specific prism of ” de-growth ” theory (décroissance), what
Chayanov’s studies help understanding is the following statement, both simple and vast : without
subsistence production, there is no commodities production ; but without commodities production,
there surely is a subsistence production. This is a definite call for a reappropriation, an appeal to all
those who can’t stand anymore to live in a world turned upside down by the ideology of progress.
Getting things right side up may begin by restoring the sense of autonomy so common among
people who still represent three billions of human beings. Such a long-range task finds in Chayanov
an inspiring precursor.