Reviews Turning peasants into citizens. The cult of small holdings

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 60-61, Vol II:III-IV, 2009
Published on on februari 19, 2010

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Some decades ago, historical sociologist Barrington Moore Jr. astonished his readers with the claim that peasants were integral in the making of the modern world.1 This shattering of the old stereotypes of rural populations — that they by their very nature are always traditional, religious, and conservative — created new questions for research, and peasant studies started to flourish. If peasants or farmers — or people in the countryside in general — were not by their nature unvarying (and uninteresting), then their behavior and ideas could change in different historical situations in important ways.

In “Agrarian Change and Ideological Formation — Farmer’s Cooperation and Citizenship in the Baltic Area 1880—1939”, a project at Södertörn University led by professor Anu-Mai Kõll, these questions about peasants in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Poland (Galicia) are investigated by paying special attention to the role of cooperative movements in the countryside. These countries in Northern and Eastern Europe are different in interesting ways from the core regions of Europe — and also from one another — with respect to political culture, ethnic composition, and agricultural organization. Furthermore, in the Baltic Area, we need new work on original materials existing in the archives and libraries; the history of this region clearly cannot be investigated using secondary literature, an approach taken by Barrington Moore.

The volume edited by Piotr Wawrzeniuk is produced with the cooperation of researchers interested in similar questions and is based on a symposium held in 2007 in Haapsalu, Estonia. Some of the key concepts of the essays included in the volume are citizenship, peasant ideology, ethnicity, and gender. Special attention is given to the cooperative movement and its role in introducing modern ideas into rural life. The cooperative movement spread knowledge based on scientific research into new forms of crop production and animal husbandry, helped raise the level of hygiene in milk handling, introduced new forms of enterprise, and provided possibilities of participation regardless of social standing. The cooperative movement and its publications were also a good platform for agrarian ideology and politics (agrarian populism).

The agrarian concept of citizenship was usually based on participation in the use of natural resources and, later on, landownership. In local communities, the right to participate was usually thought to depend on a contribution to the common good — for instance paying taxes to the community. This was not necessarily very democratic and could exclude important segments of the rural population from political participation. In the cooperative movement, participation was usually quite broad socially, and the right to participate in decision making could vary depending on the amount of shares bought in the cooperative or on the extent of contribution to the production of a particular cooperative enterprise. There clearly existed an economic incentive to widen the sphere of participation in the cooperative organization of production (for instance dairies). In some fields, cooperatives were also highly competitive, both in the economic and ideological field, with other forms of private enterprise.

Ideas about the special nature of peasant agriculture based on family farming and the cult of the small holding as a more productive and socially useful way to organize agricultural production are already well-known aspects of the agrarian ideology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By presenting material about notions of citizenship existing among the peasantry, however, this project at Södertörn University is starting to produce interesting results and comparisons concerning the deep cultural and ideological meaning of this period in European history. Many agrarian political parties in Northern and Eastern Europe supported authoritarian regimes in the 1930s, but, nevertheless, usually survived World War II and were important political movements even in the period after the war.


  1. Barrington Moore Jr.’s work Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World was published in 1966. — The “cases” he investigated were England, France, the United States, Japan, and India.

+ Piotr Wawrzeniuk (ed.) Societal Change and Ideological Formation among the Rural Population of the Baltic Area 1880—1939 Studia Baltica II:2, Södertörn University, Stockholm 2008, 206 pages.