Agrarian Radicalism in South India

Agrarian Radicalism in South India

by Marshall M. Bouton


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The author finds that agrarian radicalism develops most readily in a way analogous to industrial class struggle: through the economic clash of homogeneous and polarized groups within the agrarian sector.

Originally published in 1985.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691612010
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #428
Pages: 350
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Agrarian Radicalism in South India

By Marshall M. Bouton


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07686-7



During the 1970s, agriculture and agrarian society became increasingly central to explanations of political development in the Third World. Until late in the 1960s, however, political development theory rested heavily on the assumption that industrialization and urbanization were the principal engines of political change in the Third World, as they had been in the West. Economic development theorists concentrated on the urban-industrial processes or stages through which economic growth would take place. Political development theorists focused on the political requisites for and processes through which rapid industrial growth and orderly urban growth could take place. "Modernization" was defined as the transformation of a primarily agricultural and rural society into a primarily industrial and urban society, and political development was generally conceptualized as the political response to modernization. This response had two related components: the capacity of the political system to meet the demands placed upon it by the processes of industrialization and urbanization, and the effect of these interrelated socio-economic changes on the nature of politics in these societies. Some writers concluded that democracy was the inevitable political consequence of socio-economic change and the hallmark of political development.

Beginning in the late 1960s, events forced a gradual reorientation of political development theory. The emphasis on industrialization, urbanization, and democratic politics were increasingly in conflict with Third World realities. The Vietnam War and a growing awareness of China's political development focused attention on the role of the peasantry in Asian political change. The emergence of the so-called "Green Revolution" suggested that agricultural development rather than industrialization might be the main source of economic growth in Asia. Later, concern over the distributional consequences of the Green Revolution added emphasis to the importance of the rural agrarian sector in socio-political change. Finally, the poor survival rate of democratic regimes in the Third World suggested that whatever the locus of economic growth or the nature of modernization, competitive democracy was not the inevitable outcome.

In response to these challenges, development theory began to pay greater attention to the role of agriculture in economic development, to agrarian socio-economic change, and to the significance of peasant-based revolution in political development, especially in Asia. Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, published in 1966, was the first major comparative work to provide this focus on the role of peasant revolution in modern political development.

This new concern with agrarian society and with its relationship to political change gave rise to a considerable body of literature that attempts to explain the "origins" or "sources" of peasant or agrarian radicalism. Two central questions are addressed in this literature. First, what kinds of agrarian social structure, or what changes in that structure, are conducive to radical political mobilization? Second, what forces produce such types of or changes in agrarian structure?

The first question may be broken down into several components. Is it certain positions or relations within a given social structure, or structural changes within the agrarian sector, that open the way to radical political mobilization? If it is a certain type of structure, it may then be asked which positions or strata (middle peasant, poor peasant, landless laborer) or which type of relations (patron-client, "class-type") are conducive to radical mobilization? If change is the key, then the question is what kind of change leads to agrarian radicalism (if primarily economic, for instance, is it negative or positive, relative or absolute)?

With respect to the second central question — what factors account for a particular structure or change in structure — factors must be identified that are responsible either for the existence of a given structure or for changes in that structure. For instance, "ecological explanations" usually refer to existing agrarian systems and explain radicalism as a response to one or another of them, while "technological explanations" usually explain radicalism as a response to marked change in agrarian relations.

The present study addresses these several questions by examining the sources of agrarian radicalism in an area of south India, Thanjavur District in Tamil Nadu State, with particular reference to the period 1960 to 1972. Through careful analysis of this significant case I intend to contribute to the critical evaluation of the new literature on agrarian radicalism — Has it posed the right questions in the right way? — and to add to our understanding of why and how under a variety of circumstances agrarian radicalism does or does not emerge.

I have chosen India and Thanjavur District as the focus of this study for several reasons. First, I hope to shed some light on the question of why in India agrarian radicalism has not been expressed in revolution, attempted revolution, or revolt that threatened the state. Most of the literature on agrarian radicalism is concerned with its more extreme consequences — rebellion, revolt, revolution, or war — and little attention has been given to explaining what Barrington Moore terms "Indian exceptionalism." Moore himself suggests several possible explanations, including the survival of India's peasant economy and society into the modern period. My study provided an opportunity to examine the factors identified by Moore and to extend the analysis of the relationship between agrarian radicalism and wider political forces in the Indian situation.

Thanjavur District was selected for this study because it is one of few areas of rural India with a lengthy history of agrarian unrest and related political mobilization. This history goes back to Communist efforts just before World War II to organize Thanjavur sharecroppers and farm laborers. These efforts led to agrarian disturbances in 1948 that Kathleen Gough has identified as one of seventy-seven peasant revolts in modern India. Parts of Thanjavur remained a relative stronghold for India's Communist parties through the 1950s and 1960s, and in the late 1960s there were renewed outbreaks of Communist-led agrarian unrest in the district. While I cannot agree fully with Gough's classification of Thanjavur as an area of peasant revolt, the record clearly warrants selecting the area for a study of agrarian radicalism.

In Thanjavur District agrarian radicalism has been less sustained and intense than comparable movements and events in rural areas of West Bengal and Kerala states. The 1967 peasant rebellion in Naxalbari, West Bengal, was certainly a more significant incident and Communist mobilization of tenants and agricultural laborers in Kerala has been more widespread and effective. In both the West Bengal and Kerala cases, however, the local development of agrarian radicalism has been very heavily influenced by, indeed almost inseparable from, Communist predominance in state-level politics. In Thanjavur, on the other hand, although the development of agrarian radicalism has been shaped in part by Communist fortunes at the state level, the Communist parties have never dominated politics in Tamil Nadu (formerly Madras) State. Thus, the Thanjavur case tends to focus attention on the local sources of agrarian radicalism that this study seeks to highlight.

A second consideration in the selection of Thanjavur District relates to Barrington Moore's explanation of Indian exceptionalism. The most important factor in Moore's explanation was that "modernization has but barely begun in the (Indian) countryside." Yet by the time this study was launched (1971), many observers believed that as a result of the Green Revolution, agricultural modernization was well under way and already having a "radicalizing" effect on rural society. Thanjavur has been closely identified with the Green Revolution and earlier intensive agricultural development efforts. It was thus frequently cited as a prime example of the alleged relationship between agricultural modernization and agrarian radicalism and so offers a meaningful test of this hypothesis.

Finally, while Thanjavur District is only one of about three hundred fifty districts in a country known for its great economic, social, and cultural diversity, it has two characteristics that will enable me to relate the findings of this study to other areas of India. First, as will be fully detailed in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, Thanjavur is significantly heterogeneous in terms of physical and agro-economic conditions. Analysis of covariation between these characteristics and agrarian radicalism will help to identify factors that may facilitate or impede the development of agrarian radicalism in other areas. Second, because large parts of the district are ecologically and socio-structurally similar to other areas of India in which agrarian radicalism has emerged, there will be opportunities for specific comparison and generalization.

The concept of "radicalism" is central to this study and requires further definition. By radicalism I mean an orientation of action that is "extreme" with respect to either means or ends. In defining radicalism as an "orientation of action" I am drawing on Weber's formulation of the linkages between the objective and subjective dimensions of human behavior. That is, I wish to recognize that radicalism is an orientation that arises out of the interaction of objective circumstances and subjective values and attitudes. Take the very relevant example of "class action," usually so closely associated with radicalism. I share Weber's view that class action (in Weber's terms, "communal action by members of a class") results from the combination of objective conditions (individuals sharing a "market-situation" and thus economic interests) and the subjective recognition that the "class situation" affects "life chances." In other words, class action is "linked to the transparency [Weber's emphasis] of the connections between the causes and consequences of the 'class situation'" Or shifting to Marxist terms, "consciousness" of the salience of class interests is a prerequisite to class action.

My study will analyze both the objective and subjective sources of agrarian radicalism. Because systematic data on geographic, agro-climatic, demographic, and agro-economic conditions were more widely and readily available, I have been able to analyze these objective factors in greater depth than the subjective factors. However, survey data collected from over four hundred cultivators and three hundred agricultural laborers in Thanjavur District, which are analyzed in Chapter 8, allow me both to examine the attitudinal dimensions of agrarian radicalism and to compare aggregate correlates of radicalism with individual evidence. In addition, I have probed the role of class consciousness by focusing special attention on the objective conditions most likely to affect it. For instance, I have examined closely those aspects of the agro-economic structure most likely to affect the "transparency of the connections between the causes and the consequences of the class situation." Thus, to the extent we find that economic interests are divergent and sharply defined, we can conclude that a basis for communal action, or class consciousness, is likely to develop.

Turning to the second part of my definition of radicalism, I have stated that an orientation of action is radical if it is "extreme" with respect to means or ends. Extreme means are those extralegal actions, such as strikes, agitations, or "land-grabs," that are violent or pose a direct threat of violence. Extreme ends are those that would fundamentally alter the agrarian economic and political structure, especially the control over the use of land and its products. Radicalism oriented to extreme means only may (but does not necessarily) result in revolt or rebellion. Revolt and rebellion express and seek redress of grievances but do not seek system change or state power. Rather they express the desire that the existing system work up to established norms. Radicalism oriented to extreme ends only seeks transformation of the economic and political system through orderly and peaceful means. This orientation has been espoused by different segments of Indian communism at different points in time. Radicalism oriented to extreme means and ends is, of course, revolutionary. There are, however, many intervening variables between revolutionary radicalism and revolution. For instance, there is much historical evidence — Russia, Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam — that war is a crucial precipitant of revolution. In other words, radicalism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for revolution.

By defining radicalism in terms of positions along two axes, orientations to extreme means and orientations to extreme ends, I have adopted a concept that encompasses a range of phenomena; a narrower definition would not reflect the complexity and variability of the reality. The orientations to means and ends are continuous, not dichotomous, variables, and the mix of the two is changeable. As this study will demonstrate, radicalism is manifested in different ways at any given time and over time.

To measure radicalism, therefore, I have used an indicator through much of this study that in the context of the Indian situation reflects an underlying propensity to radicalism rather than an unchanging commitment to particular means or ends. Specifically, I have operationalized radicalism in terms of Communist electoral strength at the local level. While not the most precise, this measure is powerful because it is the lowest common denominator of radicalism across considerable space and time. The several reasons and precedents for my choice of this measure are described in detail in Chapter 3.

The variability of agrarian radicalism reflect its close dependence on local conditions. For this reason the primary mode of explanation in this study, which I shall later describe as "comparative micro-ecology," emphasizes local geographical, technological, and agro-economic factors. At the same time a full explanation of agrarian radicalism requires consideration of the relationship of the agrarian system to the larger society or to its own past. Thus, throughout the study I shall describe how history has shaped the sources of agrarian radicalism in Thanjavur District and, in Chapter 10 particularly, how external economic and political forces have affected its evolution.

Finally, a word about terminology is in order. In much of the literature the term "agrarian" is used interchangeably with the term "peasant." I intend hereafter to drop "peasant" as a general term in order to avoid its misuse in describing a much more general and complex reality. According to Andre Beteille, the term peasant is best used to describe a "more or less homogenous and undifferentiated community of families characterized by small holdings operated mainly by family labor." Because in India village communities are very often highly differentiated in terms of the ownership, control, and use of the land and the disposal of its products, it is misleading to use the term peasant in a general sense with respect to its rural society. Whether radicalism in India is associated with peasant or other types of agrarian structure is an empirical question I intend to examine. For these reasons I prefer the term agrarian, which refers more generally to the main structural principle of rural agricultural society and thus encompasses the range of variation that may exist in the actual structure.


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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • List of Figures, pg. ix
  • List of Tables, pg. xi
  • Preface, pg. xvii
  • List of Abbreviations, pg. xx
  • CHAPTER 1. Introduction, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER 2 The Sources of Agrarian Radicalism: Theoretical Considerations, pg. 12
  • CHAPTER 3. Approaches to the Study of Agrarian Radicalism, pg. 47
  • CHAPTER 4. Thanjavur District, pg. 71
  • CHAPTER 5. Agrarian Variability in Thanjavur: The Agro-Economic Zones, pg. 102
  • CHAPTER 6. Agrarian Structure and Agrarian Radicalism, pg. 136
  • CHAPTER 7. Agricultural Labor and Agrarian Radicalism, pg. 158
  • CHAPTER 8. Tenancy and Agrarian Radicalism, pg. 182
  • CHAPTER 9. Technological Change and Agrarian Radicalism, pg. 219
  • CHAPTER 10. The Mobilization of Agrarian Radicalism, pg. 251
  • CHAPTER 11. Conclusion: Modernization and Agrarian Society, pg. 297
  • Appendix, pg. 311
  • Selected Bibliography, pg. 314
  • Index, pg. 325

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