In the domain of rural sociology, even slight acquaintance with the facts destroys commonly held opinion.3
In terms of time, agriculture came before industry; in terms of space, even today, an ocean of agricultural production surrounds some continents and some small islands of urban life and industrial production. Hence we imagine, in general, that rural life and agricultural structure is simpler than the “modern” life of cities and factories.
But, in fact, rural sociology has to deal with extremely complicated realities; especially as it is shaken by contradictory movements. Not only does the rural sociologist find themselves confronting structures originating from different historical epochs (for instance, structures historically linked to the Middle Ages), but they confront structures that are disintegrating, mixed with new forms and structures.
There is not much in common between a village in north-eastern France (with a strong communal structure, although extensively reorganised through major [grande] modern agriculture) and a hamlet [village individualiste], although stagnant or declining, from the south. There is not much in common between a typical French village and a village from the south of Italy or Spain, real agricultural towns, from where (every day or at the beginning of every week) thousands of agricultural workers go to work on “latifundia”, often very far away from their home [domicile].
Today, amongst the branches of sociology, rural sociology is probably more than others connected to life, to practical action, to efficacy [à l’efficacité].4 The agrarian reforms being considered in much of the world cannot be implemented without sociologists, because they pose serious sociological problems. For instance, during attempts (as yet uncompleted, as yet unsatisfactory) to transform the agricultural structure of southern Italy, it was necessary to ask sociologists to study how agricultural workers in large villages could become small-scale farmers with their own individual plots [exploitation individuelle]. Another example: in Hungary, on the plain, peasants traditionally spent the winter in agrarian villages (Szeged, etc), then in the spring they would return to their far-flung farms (“tanyas”). How to put an end to this tradition of semi-nomadism fixed to the soil and regroup in modernised villages of “tanyas”?5 Here we refer only to structures close to us. If we considered Asia (India, China, etc) it would be much more complicated.
Rural sociology describes complex phenomena. It tries to understand [pénétrer] them in depth. But soon it discovers sedimentations, so to speak, which have nothing to do with description, but belong to another domain, especially to history. The sociologist who wants to understand and know, has to double as a historian. How can one understand the agrarian structure of southern Italy without history?
But these historical facts themselves need analysis and explanation. Where can we find them? Or at least in which direction?
The following thesis is held here: rural sociology, by understanding [en pénétrant] sociological and historical facts in depth, finds itself confronted with economic facts and laws, and eventually with a theory of political economy: the theory of ground rent [rente foncière], the only theory that can explain historical and social facts, namely the structure observed and described above.
Development of a Theory
The theory of ground rent was born in England. Marx and Engels considered it to be a very important contribution by “classical” English economists to science because “it was only in England that there existed a mode of production under which ground rent had in fact been separated from profit and interest”.6
Marx took up [repris] and developed the theory of ground rent elaborated by James Anderson, Adam Smith and, most importantly, Ricardo. He modified it profoundly, first of all by criticising the well-known [fameuse] law of decreasing productivity [loi de la productivite decroissante] of land (technical progress in modern agriculture confirmed this refutation). Marx showed that the notion of differential rent [rentes differentielle] introduced by Ricardo must itself be differentiated, in the sense that there are multiple differential rents (rent A comes from natural differences in soils, unequal fertility, diverse situations in relation to markets and communication routes; rent B develops from differences of productivity from successive capital investments in the same soil).
After Marx, then, to differential rent must be added the notion of absolute rent [rente absolute], taken by the owner of the land, even if the land remains fallow (unproductive). This absolute rent does not relate to the price of agricultural products, nor to the profit of the capitalist farmer who invests in the land.
Marx confirmed Ricardo’s important viewpoint: the landowner (historically of feudal origin, although in many parts of the world [globe] the bourgeoisie displaced and replaced the feudal “latifundium”) tends to take all the rent, leaving the exploited with only a minimal part: the average profit for his capital, wage labour for the work accomplished. In this way, Marx answered in a new and thoroughly scientific manner the large problem posed by Ricardo: How do we distribute “revenue” according to the classes of the population?
Curious fact: contemporary economists often ignore the theory of ground rent. Nevertheless, it played a significant role in the formation of “marginalism”. But marginalists are content to emphasise the role played by “marginal” enterprises (smallholdings [petites agriculture]) in establishing agricultural prices. They leave aside the essential: the source of the “revenues” and their distribution.7
Furthermore, the very notion of ground rent becomes obscured. In Italy, where agrarian research institutes are especially active and well equipped, it is officially only a matter of “ground revenue” [revenu foncière], and they study its total revenue per land hectare, so that we know neither its origin nor its distribution (what goes to the landlord and what goes to the different categories of farmers [exploitants]).
Recently, in France, the study of ground rent has experienced a new revival. Why? Precisely because the problems of the peasantry are raised with increasing acuity. The Sociéte francaise d’économie rurale has published two reports: Rente foncière et revenu agricole [“Ground Rent and Agricultural Revenue”] and Le problème de la rente du sol [“The Problem of Land Rent”].8 They are rather confused reports referring to Ricardo without considering the Marxist critique. The authors of these studies point out the importance of the problem, but they face a simple fact: strictly speaking, ground rent in France today represents only two percent of national revenue. How then can it exercise any influence on the agrarian structure? How does it connect to those problems that trouble the French peasantry?
Meanwhile, the theory of ground rent is investigated and developed, although in more distant countries, especially in China (where the economist and sociologist Chen Po-Ta has just published a remarkable work on this question).9
The Contribution of Lenin
As we find it in Ricardo and then in Marx, the theory of ground rent is indeed incomplete and unusable. The indispensable complement to this theory and its modern scientific form—that makes it applicable to immense regions [immenses régions]—is to be found in Lenin’s work.
Marx describes and analyses how free market capitalism [capitalisme de la libre concurrence] was introduced into agriculture. Today, capitalism has changed its structure: it is transformed into monopoly capitalism. Marx, on the other hand, considered (like Ricardo) the agrarian class of feudal origins to be the dominant, but mainly parasitic, class alongside the capitalists. Since then, although it has not completely disappeared in numerous countries (Italy, Spain, Muslim countries, India, etc), this class of landlords has partially blended into capitalists. Finally, in some places the industrialisation of agriculture has become increasingly predominant, even though this has not suppressed some traces of the past such as the “latifundista” type of property, or smallholdings. Nevertheless, increasingly, we have to distinguish here and there but particularly in France (in the Parisian region and in the north) a new social type: the large capitalist farmer, sometimes owners of land, and sometimes not, but directing industrial businesses and taking land rent from a large number of small- and medium-sized farmers who have abandoned agriculture.10
In his work on the agrarian question
In the agrarian structure of capitalist countries or countries subjected to capitalism, we find the co-existence of different forms belonging to all eras of history, to all successive moments of social development.13 Among these formations are counted: rural or archaic communities, more or less disintegrating; the different feudal structures in Western, Muslim, and Asian countries; smallholdings, often dating back to the pre-capitalist era and sometimes connected to capitalism, for instance in France where the Revolution of 1789 gave part of the land to peasants; and the widespread exploitation of large capitalist estates.
Today, we have to add different forms of cooperation (capitalist, semi-capitalist, semi-socialist, socialist) to this list. In capitalist countries, whatever the levels of uneven development [inégalités de développement], property and exploitation of the capitalist type tends to subordinate all other forms of exploitation and property ownership [propriété]. Lenin considered this position as having the value and scope of an objective law.
The introduction of capitalism into agriculture expresses a double monopoly (this word meaning the predominance of a group, or class, not of a single individual). The original feudal monopoly is added to the capitalist monopoly. These two monopolies may fight, combine, or ally themselves, depending on the countries and regions. But despite the variety of combinations, they are almost everywhere and they exercise powerful pressure on the other forms of exploitation and property.
The double monopoly (in its various combinations) simultaneously reorganises the agrarian structure and the distribution of the “revenue” [revenu], or in other words, ground rent.
The large capitalist farmer [agriculteur], owner [propriétaire], or profiteer [exploitant], does not simply take an average profit of the invested capital, but a considerable part and sometimes all the rent. Moreover, they take the permanent superprofits [surprofits] obtained through the low salaries of the agricultural workers, the low cost of production within highly [puissamment] mechanised businesses, the manipulation of prices in the market, the application of quotas and custom duties, the credit conditions, etc.
The Situation in France
This theory satisfactorily explains numerous facts observed by economists and sociologists.
It explains why ground rent in the strict sense (rent by the non-capitalist property owner) has fallen in France to 2% of the national revenue, while the revenue of those who enjoy the rent in the sense defined above (including therefore the capitalist profiteers) is much higher. We do not have precise figures, because statistics only show the global revenue of the profiteers of all categories. But we can appreciate the efforts of economists who, faced with the facts, fashion new notions, which are very confused and are, in their mind, meant to replace the classic notion of “ground rent”14 (for instance, the notion of “technical rent” [rente technique] for the industrialised capitalist farm [l’exploitation], which hides the real nature of the revenue, its source and its distribution, and the actual agrarian structure of the country).
For us, a developed Marxist theory applies and is validated across the board. We will be content to mention some facts related to the agrarian structure of France.
First, in certain regions, such as Brittany, the original feudal monopoly remains powerful and sometimes predominant (although over the last few years it has been challenged by the growth of large capitalist agriculture). In such regions, the agrarian “nobles” and the bourgeois landholders buying feudal estates [domaines] still occupy strong positions. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the clustering of small-scale landholders and tenant farmers around large estates. The effect of demographic pressure, when aided by ground rent in the strict sense due to the landowner, is strong [forte]. Villages are highly populated and dominated by the “castle”. An archaic character is preserved, with the strong influence of the Catholic clergy, the excess population emigrates, permanently or not (as sailors and as seasonal workers). Nevertheless, new movements caused by the tendencies of mechanised agriculture and by some level of industrialisation fight traditionalism.
Second, in the northern and the eastern part of the Parisian region, the capitalist monopoly dominates. It is here that we can study this new social type previously mentioned: the powerful capitalist profiteer [exploitant], owner of a “wheat and beetroot factory”, often associated with industrial and financial capitalism (fabrication of sugar, alcohol, etc). Sometimes he is the landlord, sometimes not; but generally he is the leaseholder [locataire] of fields owned by several small- and medium-scale landlords. Curious fact: the landlords are then only minor figures [petites gens] compared to their tenant [locataire]. In this region, the proportion of the exploitation becomes huge and far exceeds the proportion of the property. The multiple farms [exploitations] incorporate [englobent] the whole village’s territory or even spread beyond it. Villages depopulate. Agricultural workers (lodging in or outside the farm) have replaced the older population of peasants and artisans. These workers are often foreigners, badly paid, living in deplorable conditions. Nonetheless, a new “elite” is forming: mechanical technicians and tractor drivers, specialists, technicians of scientific farming, etc.
Third, the whole of the south of France is, increasingly, an underdeveloped area, whose agrarian structure is disintegrating. A detailed examination shows, within a general backwardness [dans le retard général], great diversity. In certain sectors, the feudal monopoly remains powerful; tenant farming (an outdated and semi-feudal mode of cultivation) still persists, for instance in the south-west. In other sectors, inclusive of part of the wine-growing sector, small- and medium-scale property [proprieté] still exists, although in a lamentable state. Lastly, in sectors of specialised cultivation (vines, fruits, vegetables and early crops [primeurs], flowers) large capitalist farming [exploitation] becomes established, although in reduced areas [surface]. It is clear that 10 hectares of early crops [primeurs] or flowers represent a big farm requiring large capital investment (in the statistics, these landholdings are lumped together with the smallholdings of familial [familiale] polyculture, which significantly interferes with interpreting the figures).
In any case, the sectors where smallholdings prevail, small property, the familial polyculture is completely declining. Statistics show a decrease of global revenue in the regions considered, as much as 7% in 20 years in the south-west.
Villages get depopulated, for many reasons (low birth rate, migration, definite emigration). In this region, which is generally becoming impoverished, wealth gets concentrated in the towns inhabited by landlords owning properties that are held for sharecropping [métayage], or in the most important modernised farms [exploitations]. These towns are also markets (Toulouse, Perpignan, Montpellier, etc) and administrative centres. What happens then is a complex and contradictory process that only the theory of ground rent can explain.
The theoretical considerations and the concrete facts noted above therefore seem to scientifically confirm the position indicated at the beginning of this study.
The rural sociologist is confronted with extremely varied phenomena, which they must try to attempt to organise. Beginning with description but soon confronted with problems that exceed simple descriptions, what is required is another tool of investigation distinct from empiricism. By delving deeply into the problems of rural sociology in order to grasp its laws, the process is confronted as simultaneously historical, economical, and social. In order to know the objective process, a theory is needed. In the area of rural sociology, this theory exists: it is the theory of ground rent, developed from classical economics by Marxists.15