Illustration Katrin Stenmark

Reviews Furrows in the agrarian field. Leaving deep traces

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 42-43, BW vol III:3
Published on on September 22, 2010

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Agrarian society is not always given the attention it deserves in historical research. For much of the 20th century, the farmer was relatively invisible in Swedish historical research: themes touching on agricultural history were dealt with mainly in other disciplines. The situation was different in other Nordic countries. Agricultural history was studied in the early 20th century in Finland and Norway in an attempt to write the history of the common people — peasant society had to stand in for the longstanding nation-state that did not exist. In both countries, the scholars who set the tone were influenced by historical materialism and Lamprechtian cultural history. Light was to be shed on the collective, and not the individuals. The farmers became important in the representation of national — and political — development.

The turning towards social history in the 1970s and 1980s brought the agrarian element into Swedish historical research, whose breadth and scope are borne out in a volume in honor of Janken Myrdal, professor of agricultural history at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. Some thirty scholars, Swedish and foreign, have written articles for the book. Their contributions clearly show the multifaceted nature of current Swedish agricultural history research. Reflecting the honoree’s research interests, much attention is devoted to the Middle Ages. In line with the deep-rooted traditions of agricultural history, the scholars take new and intriguing approaches to technology, implements, objects, and economic questions.

Inspired by climate history, Carl-Johan Gadd revisits an old question in ethnology, the prevalence of plowing implements and distribution of the plow. Gadd believes that the ard, usually understood as more ancient, was used on lands where evaporation could exceed precipitation. Human geographer Mats Widgren also points to connections between climate history and agricultural history and stresses the need for global perspectives.

The editors have allowed space for methodological questions, from the emphasis of micro-history on individual texts to readings of the landscape as sources, from the image of the farmer in the newspapers to gendered advertising for milking machines. One sees here that the “cultural turn” has left deep traces. The anthology is diverse, yet the reluctance of agricultural historians to stray into political history is apparent. Rolf Adamson is an exception: he shows how grain supply and grain prices can help explain political unrest.

Social scientific research is given wide scope in another book in honor of Finnish sociologist Leo Granberg. Pirjo Siiskonen describes the roots and formation of Finnish rural research in the 1970s. Disciplines such as ethnology and folklorism (the subjects are separated in Finland) were built up around peasant society, but many early social scientific studies, now considered classics, were also concerned with rural communities and their problems.

Several contributions to the anthology may be regarded as village studies, with focus on a specific local community — an important tradition within Finnish agrarian sociology. One article shows that local identification has increased in recent decades. Agrarian sociological research in the former Eastern Bloc — Hungary, Russia, and Poland — is presented in other articles. The interpretation of the increasing commercialization of agriculture in the late 19th century is the subject of one article. Agricultural cooperation and collective labor in Finland at various points in the 20th century are also illuminated.

Matti Peltonen, whose 1992 doctoral dissertation dealt with the subject of Finnish crofters, analyzes the effects on rural society of the global economic depression of the 1930s — a question that has remained largely unexplored. The depression had a severe impact on provinces like Ostrobothnia (Österbotten), where the extreme right-wing and authoritarian Lappo movement took shape. Agriculture functioned in a world market through the many cooperative dairies, which were a source of regular income, even as the farms were small and partly rooted in subsistence farming. All aspects of farm finances — crop farming and animal husbandry, forestry and income earned on the side — were hit hard by the economic downturn. While the rural population in other peripheral parts of the country was drawn to the political left, the farming population here — like other more affluent areas in southwestern Finland — was drawn to the Lappo movement. In northern and eastern Finland, according to Peltonen, the threatening scenario created during the depression was clearer. Forestry was the most severely affected, and consequently the forestry companies appeared in a negative light. In Ostrobothnia, the cruelest blows came from the institutions the farmers had themselves created, mainly the collective dairies.

Anders Björnsson discusses the same period in his book. From the perspective of intellectual history, focus is directed at race thinking. The author’s subject, the Swedish Farmers’ League, the former incarnation of the Center Party, has been unfairly treated in the research. The party kept a greater distance from authoritarian ideologies and movements than, for example, its Finnish fraternal party. And yet, in the 1930s, the decade when the organization grew in strength, the party had a “race paragraph” in its platform. The author historicizes attitudes and positions, but without glossing over ideas that seem, to say the least, malignant.

One thesis put forth is that it was primarily the intellectuals of the party, and not the farmer membership, who stoked the fires of race thinking.

In contrast to agrarian parties in other countries, the Farmers’ League developed extensive cooperation with the workers’ movement. Nor did it drift into any marked populism — here as well there are comparisons to similar parties in Central and Eastern Europe. The discussion of how the party related to progressive ideas, with a mixture of agrarianism and conservative etatism that made room for the welfare state, is particularly noteworthy.

Ideologically, Swedish farmers, depicted as querulous and miserly, navigated between liberalism and socialism. The author falls back on a division of early agrarian parties into producer parties and land reform parties. The Swedish Farmers’ League can be described as conservative, and although he describes it as a producer party, Björnsson also notes elements of agrarianism and reformist ideas. Here in particular the author makes an important observation when he emphasizes the difficulty of fitting agricultural politics into simple descriptions. Disparate political ideas and strategies were also proposed within farming parties and in the name of agricultural policy. In this well-written book, Björnsson gives adroit and insightful descriptions of the stuff of thought and movements that seem difficult to label from a current perspective.

Where Anders Björnsson brings racism and xenophobia to the fore, Ann-Katrin Hatje looks at destitution, poverty, and supportive measures. Agrarian history is not central, but is examined in a thought-provoking way in many of the articles that deal with the interwar period and early postwar era. The building of Nordic welfare systems has seldom been interpreted against an agrarian backdrop, even though several researchers have shown the connections between agricultural policy and social policy.

Agriculture went from being a primary industry to the recipient of supportive measures. Defense needs were often used as an argument — Hatje calls attention to the understanding of total defense that still prevailed in the period after the World War II. Agriculture would guarantee self-sufficiency and settlement even in the northern reaches of the country. As Hatje points out, agricultural policy decisions were often shaped corporatively, and she presents as distinctive to the Swedish model a large-scale structural transformation that concerned in particular agriculture, industrial rationalization, and a large public sector.
The author notes a connection between corporatism and gender-formation. There was a strong element of peasant patriarchalism: women found it difficult to advance in the agrarian party. She follows a woman politician — Märta Leijon — over several decades. While Leijon chose to identify herself with the male smallholder in the 1920s, she was primarily interested in women’s situation in the 1930s — the decade when many women chose to leave the countryside.

Hatje’s and Björnsson’s books are both rich in ideas. Where essayist Björnsson offers a wealth of associations, Hatje sheds light on several important themes and perspectives. Both bring to the fore a number of aspects at the intersection of political history and agricultural history. This opens a field that several researchers at Södertörn University have embarked upon by using the Baltic Sea as a bridge between disparate agrarian and political systems. ≈

Britt Liljewall et al. (eds.) Agrarhistoria på många sätt 28 studier om människan och jorden, Festskrift till Janken Myrdal på hans 60-årsdag [Diverse approaches to the history of agriculture: 28 studies of humanity and the earth: Essays in honor of Janken Myrdal on his 60th birthday] Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry 2009, 552 pages + Jouko Nikula (ed.) Maaseutuaiheita — Rural Motifs, Essays in Honor of Professor Leo Granberg, Helsinki, Aleksanteri Series 5:2009, 237 pages

+ Anders Björnsson, Skuggor av ett förflutet Bondeförbundet och trettiotalet, En idéhistorisk essä [Shadows of the past: The Swedish Farmers’ League and the nineteen-thirties: An essay in intellectual history] Lund: Sekel 2009, 213 pages

+ Ann-Katrin Hatje, Svensk välfärd, genus och social rationalism under 1900-talet, [Swedish welfare, gender, and social rationalism in the 20th century] Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Umeå University 2009. 227 pages