Peasant agrarianism, some say, was Central Europe’s “missed opportunity” for independent political development in this century. Such arguments have been heard particularly since 1947, as the refugees from Marxist Europe organized their International Peasant Union and met every other year tu talk about what might have been. The case is compelling, to a degree. For while Europe’s agrarian movement has been criticized for being both too diffuse as an ideology and too general as a political program to be effective, neither criticism really holds.
Without doubt, political agrarianism held a unique appeal for the rural masses of Central Europe. In part, the peasants were simply flattered by the unusual praise which the politician-philosophers showered on them. Rudolf Herceg of the Croatian Republican Peasant Party saw European farmers as the chosen people, the one natural social-economic entity that would bring an end to centuries of class conflict and the usurpation of power by minorities. Only the peasants, he said, could produce a society of true social justice, since they alone were a class without an interest in exploiting the labor of others. He even argued that the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the creation of the workers’ state, was merely prelude to the final rebellion by the peasantry and the creation of a rural Utopia.
There was, of course, a strong mystical aspect to the movement. The peasant’s virtues, writers said, derived from his bond to the soil, the fertile mother of human behavior and community.
The theme-setting 1923 essay in Mezinarodin Agrarni Bureau, Bulletin, the new journal of the international peasant movement, emphasized agrarianism’s “desire to renew and preserve humanity on the basis of the natural law which reigns between man and the soil.” The farmer and his family were seen as the creative elements in the state, asking only for peace and the exercise of rights necessary to the task of righteous living. In exchange, the Bulletin stated, the farmer “gives society bread,” “continuously creates values,” and fills his life “with all the attainments of human progress, of science, of art, and . . . of civilization.” The article concluded with an emphasis on world peace: “We are convinced that the victory of agrarianism will be the victory of humanitarianism, of justice, of peace. Humanity, desiring peace, should place its future in the hands of those for whom peace is the first condition of life, that is to say, in the hands of the farmer.”
True, this peasant ideology also had its dark side, expressed most completely in the theorizing of Alexander Stamboliiski, chief of the Bulgarian Agrarian Union. Using near apocalyptic terminology, foreshadowing both Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot, Stamboliiski saw the city as dominated by a predatory spirit: Run by parasites such as bankers and lawyers, the city lived by sucking the blood of honest country folk and an almost enslaved urban proletariat. The true struggle in the modern world, Stamboliiski claimed, was between rural and urban cultures, which were incapable of coexistence. Only the peasant political movement, motivated by the communal spirit, could, in his view, restore society to a decent wholeness; through violence and coercion, if necessary. The least attractive side of agrarian populism links it with the development of fascism, particularly in its emphasis on a “mystical bond” between man and soil, its perception of the Jew as the middleman, and its attempt to mobilize the peasants into a violent, anti-Marxist movement.
In its calmer mood, the peasant movement offered a fairly consistent policy program. Its central feature was a strong endorsement of private property, tied to land reform that would redistribute to bona fide peasants the hectares still held in great estates. The movement also wanted governments to lower tariffs, support cooperatives that would eliminate the notorious middlemen, provide social insurance, subsidize agricultural research, and establish agronomy stations in the countryside that would disseminate new technical knowledge. In practical terms, the parties looked to Switzerland and Denmark as examples of modern societies with significant, viable communities of small farmers.
If we confine our attention to the Bulgarian experience, the agrarian movement made some gains. In 1919, following the debacle and antipeasant terror of Bela Kun’s Hungary, Stamboliiski’s Agrarian Union used both the Communist issue and rhetoric about “urban parasites” to win the largest proportion of seats in the Subranie. Over the next four years, the Party’s paramilitary Orange Guard was loosed on political opponents, with beatings and the disruption of antipeasant meetings common. Through a rigged election law, the Agrarian Union won 212 of 245 parliamentary seats in April 1923 and was on the verge of establishing a revolutionary peasant dictatorship. However, a military coup occurred in June, and Macedonian nationalist opponents captured Stamboliiski (an internationalist and friend of Dragoljub Jovanovic, head of Serbian Agrarians) and cut off his head.
In its early years the International Agrarian Bureau in Prague—the center of the emerging “Green International”—had a Pan-Slavic “racial” emphasis. Some leaders also emphasized the peasant parties’ place as a “third force,” the alternative to both decadent bourgeois liberalism and Bolshevism, a claim with distinct fascist echoes. That, however, did not prevent many of them (Stjepan Radic, of the Croatian Peasants’ Party, or Serb Dragoljub Jovanovic) from contacting Moscow, in search of cooperative action.
After 1925, though, the Green International abandoned specific ethnic identity and antidemocratic sentiments and gave emphasis to the regenerative power of peasant democracy. While the Bureau’s central authority remained weak, its appeal broadened and a new array of peasant parties entered the fold. By 1929, member parties were from Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia, France, Lithuania, Poland, and Austria. Representing a movement stretching “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, from the Arctic Ocean to the Aegean,” the Green International laid claim to being “a new force . . . in the field of social reform, an enormous but powerful force, desiring only the peaceful development of peoples, strengthening the foundations of society—the agricultural population.”
If anything, the movement probably suffered from an excess of democracy. (Stjepan Radic, the charismatic Croat, so filibustered the Yugoslav parliament that he was shot in 1928 by an opponent, thus forcing King Alexander to introduce a military dictatorship.) Like their cousin agrarians in America, the European “Greens” believed that peasants were “natural democrats,” whose simple wisdom would be best projected through the most democratic of processes. For this reason, the Greens regularly endorsed the extensive use of the plebiscite, the recall, and the referendum.
Despite this popular strength, consistent policy program, and democratic orientation, some still doubt that the European agrarians could have sustained large communities of family farms filled with good, virtuous people, neither liberal nor Red. George Jackson Jr., the foremost American historian of the peasant movement, notes that while the Greens did hold a number of ministries in coalition governments during the 1920’s, their only experience in one-party rule—Bulgaria—proved disastrous. He lays blame, in part, on the personal weaknesses of the agrarian leaders, their inexperience, their thirst for the trappings of power, and their frequent lack of vision. Jackson also cites the complete failure of the Greens to survive their first economic and political crisis. As the Eastern European democracies withered after 1929, the parties generally proved unable to rally the peasantry for any political action other than voting. Unlike the Comintern in Moscow which controlled Communist parties in other lands, the Green International in Prague had no real power and proved unable to coordinate a response to new challenges.
More broadly, the peasant parties never confronted their real dilemma: how to be both modern and peasant. In the interwar period. Central and Eastern European farms were “overpopulated,” even by fairly rustic technological standards. In some countries, a near majority of the farms were too small to sustain a family. “Green” plans for the rural economy included subsidized research and the introduction of modern farming techniques, actions that could only aggravate the demographic situation and result in still greater migration from farm to city. It is clear that extensive “rationalization” of these rural economies was inevitable, if they were to compete with capital-intensive farms on the international market. It would have taken a combination of high agricultural tariffs, heavy governmental subsidy, strict laws discouraging land sales and farm consolidation, and direct or indirect constraints on power equipment and other new technologies to keep the European flatlands predominantly peasant. These proposals were not on the Green agenda in 1929 and probably would not have commanded much popular support. By 1933, in any case, it was too late.
If the peasant parties had survived in democracies, it may have been on the less inspirational model of Sweden’s bondeforbundet, or Farmer’s Party. Officially aloof from the Green movement in the 1920’s, the party avoided most aspects of peasant mysticism and instead acted as an interest group. It was always available as a coalition partner for the right deal: price supports for farm products. In this guise, the Farmer’s Party joined as a junior partner with the Social Democrats in the 1930’s and again in the 1950’s, helping the SD gain power and achieving many of the goals sought by continental European agrarians.
Ironically, it was the Red Army which created conditions that allowed some aspects of the European peasant mentality to survive into our time: an antimodernity engendered by political protest and by the inefficiency of the central planners and the technological incompetence of socialism. From Estonia to Albania, peasants still till the soil in primitive ways and sustain a degraded folk culture amidst “scientific socialism.”
In the West, we see a new “Green International,” the partisans of which talk about nature and farms but embrace instead a new sort of radical politics: part feminist, part anarchist, and wholly destructive of authentic tradition. It is a poor legacy for a once honorable, if unfulfilled, political label that sought to preserve man’s relationship to God, country, soil, and soul.