Thursday, January 13, 2011

Karl Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1

Karl Kautsky 1854 - 1938
Karl Kautsky was the foremost intellectual leader of the Marxist movement internationally at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th. His betrayal of the workers movement with his support for the First World War is an important story, rooted in his flawed  understanding of the process of social change. That particular tale is out of the remit of this review.

However Kautsky did have an excellent knowledge of Marxist economics, he was a popular and extensive writer though, according to the biographical sketch at the start of this volume, he wasn't a particularly good public speaker and didn't enjoy taking a political lead.

This extensive inquest into the history and politics of agriculture was certainly one of the first of its kind. Kautsky wrote it to get to grips with the politics of the peasantry and farmers at a time when most of the countries of Europe still had significant rural populations. The book arises out of an attempt by the German Social Democratic Party to get to grips with the subject as they developed their program.

It was hugely influential. Lenin, who went on to write a number of works on the question agrarian question as well as the peasantry was enthusiastic, it was the "most important event in present-day economic literature since the third volume of [Marx's] Capital" he said. The role of the peasantry and the rural masses was significant during the Russian Revolution. The policy of the Bolsheviks towards them, was in no small way influenced by some of the ideas at the heart of Kautsky's book.

So what are the ideas? There are many, and again, they can't all be covered in this review. But I think the key question is that of large and small farms. Kautsky challenged the idea that there would be a tendency towards larger and larger farms. Marxists have shown how under capitalism, there is a tendency towards monopolies - larger and larger blocks of capital, as firms swallow up competitors etc. That this was inevitable in agriculture too, was directly challenged by Kautsky's systematic work. The evidence he piles up, shows that this is not the case.

This has important ramifications for revolutionaries - if the farms become larger, there is an increasing tendency towards proletarianisation amongst the peasants and it makes question of collectivism flows then from the actual experience of the farmers (See Tony Cliff article at end of this review for more on this discussion).

Kautsky's detail of the particular situation and changing circumstances of agricultural workers in various countries is fascinating. He shows how farming practices are slow to change - using a US report that showed French peasants still using the Roman plough in the 19th century. He also expands in detail on the value of individual farms versus their larger competitors. The later are more efficient and better at utilising technology, though often suffer from being run by wage labourers rather than individuals with a personal interest in the farm's well being.

The question of the life of the peasant is important to Kautsky - he details their suffering, their hard work, pointing out that their dependency on the market is a weight around their neck - a good harvest, once a blessing under earlier economic systems, becomes a curses under capitalism if the price of corn collapses.

Kautsky also looks at important technical questions - the role of synthetic fertilisers, the separation of town and country, the size of fields and so on. This is an investigation of great depth and thought.

The second volume deals with the more political questions of the role of the peasantry, though Kautsky argues that "Agriculture's political significance is in inverse proportion to its economic significance". This is plainly wrong for many countries even today, and had Lenin followed this line, the outcome of the Russian Revolution would not have been such an initial success for the Bolsheviks.

He also displays a particularly mechanical method in his application of the Marxist method. At one point, he argues that "the effects of climate, topography and other natural circumstances represent a vanishing term when set against the specific impact of the mode of production". While this might be strictly true in some circumstances, I am not sure that in an period of environmental crisis such as the one we now live in, this is a helpful counterposing of ideas.

Finally, Kautsky is particularly good at clarifying the question of the Marxist theory of Ground Rent, which is far too much to go into here, but students reading this in the hope of cribbing for an essay are well advised too look into the explanation in Kautsky's book.

I will return to the second volume of the Agrarian Question later.

Related Information

In 1964, the Marxist Tony Cliff took a look at the question of agriculture and built on some of the ideas of Kautsky and Lenin, developing and critiquing some aspects of what they said. This short article is well worth a read for the student of Agrarian issues. It can be read online here.


Anonymous said...

I had no idea this was availiable in english

Resolute Reader said...

Hi Anonymous,

It certainly is available, though expensive. Both volumes will set you back around £50. The link to the first one (at Bookmarks) is

from that you should be able to get the second too!



Anonymous said...

once it was available in gigapedia.but now it appears taht it is removed but i have a soft copy of this which i have downloadede from gigapedia. if any body is interested to read i can send a soft copy. definitely it is an excellent work and now i am reading this book.

joe (first anonymous) said...

I would be interested in an electronic copy, and i guess the marxist internet archive might too as its not in their kautsky archive


Miguelacho said...

Me, please! Im interested in a soft copy! Im writing my MA thesis on agrarian transformations and I have been searching for a copy of this book! My email is miguelacho(at)gmail(dot)com. I will be very grateful. Cheers!