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Communities of Grain: Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective.

Communities of Grain: Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective. By Victor V. Magagna (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991. xii plus 277 pp. $42.50).

This ambitious book seeks to reinterpret the basis of political action in traditional rural societies from the perspective of community institutions rather than class interests. Writing as a political sociologist, the author criticizes the Marxist historians for neglecting conflicts of authority between peasant communities and aristocratic elites in favor of class-based theories about the relationship between agrarian capitalism and peasant revolts. He also criticizes historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly and Theda Skocpol for exaggerating the fiscal dimension of conflicts between absolutist states and rural communities. For Magagna, authority itself constitutes the underlying issue at stake in rural rebellions. Historically, "communities of grain," which he defines as localized "forms of political order" that regulate the conditions of access to agricultural resources, have struggled to preserve their autonomy from the arbitrary power of aristocratic elites and the coercive demands of bureaucratic states. One method of struggle has involved "representative violence," whereby popular groups use collective violence to represent their demands for changes in elite preferences and behavior. According to Magagna, this concept of violence as symbolic representation helps explain not only the prevalence of rural rebellions in aristocratic and absolutist political systems, but the disappearance of such rebellions in modern states that have developed electoral institutions and representative assemblies for the expression of local interests. Rebellions, like electoral campaigns, are political practices that need to be interpreted as contests for authority.

As an extended essay on an important theme of comparative history, this is an impressive book. Magagna synthesizes a vast literature on rural rebellions in a variety of historical settings, and he formulates new concepts and hypotheses that can be applied in future research. For example, he distinguishes between "coercive commercialization" and "voluntary commercialization," depending on whether production for the market is imposed by landlords or tax-collectors, on the one hand, or emerges horizontally within rural society itself. Here more attention to the development of towns would have strengthened his argument that rural populations did not always resist commercialization, although the downside of market transactions in land, such as the cycle of mortgage debt and expropriation, involved coercive legal practices that Magagna overlooks. Also useful is the distinction that he makes in the concluding chapter between different types of rural communities, depending on the extent to which local institutions controlled access to property. At one extreme stands the Russian mir, whose authority to redistribute property among all the households of the village illustrates the concept of a "redistributive community." At the other extreme are "residual communities" that consist of households whose property is subject only to taxation and the right of eminent domain. In between these two extremes are "regulative communities," such as the classic three-field villages of medieval and early modern Europe that enforced communal rights over plots of land that were owned by individual households. Less persuasive is Magagna's argument that the strength of community institutions varied in accordance with the threat of external coercion. While it is true that some premodern states imposed taxes on entire communities instead of individual households, and that landlords often tried to exact labor services or payments in cash or kind from all the households of a manor, it does not follow that redistributive land practices or communal regulations over land usage were caused by such external pressures. Factors such as agricultural technology and kinship organization may have favored distinctive types of community organization independently of aristocratic elites. Magagna is on firm ground, however, in linking high levels of representative violence to extreme degrees of elite authoritarianism. He also makes an important distinction between movements of "secession" and movements of "reconstitution." The former are more likely to occur in societies where market networks are built "from above" through coercive means and subsistence-oriented peasants stand to benefit from expelling market-oriented landlords and farmers. The latter are more characteristic of societies where commercial networks are built "from below" through specialized production for urban markets and where community members have an interest in maintaining supralocal institutions.

In the six central chapters of the book, Magagna reinterprets the secondary literature on rural rebellions in late medieval Europe, early modern England, France between 1500-1900, Spain between 1800-1939, Russia between 1800-1930, and Japan between 1600-1868. Here he presents much historical evidence to support his general theory of the relationship between communities of grain, the arbitrary authority of aristocratic elites and absolutist states, and representative violence. Although these well-documented case studies offer valuable insights about many rural uprisings, they reveal, through selection and omission, several problematical aspects of Magagna's theoretical perspective. To begin with, the role of towns and urban markets in shaping the socio-economic development of rural societies is rarely discussed, and relationships of political conflict or co-operation between towns and villages are almost completely overlooked. Magagna's concept of communities of grain places too much emphasis on economic self-sufficiency and cultural localism to make sense of rebellions that involved towns as well as rural communities. As a result, he neglects the regional dimension of large-scale peasant movements such as the German peasant war of 1525, the French peasant revolts of 1789 and 1851, and the Russian revolution of 1905.

Second, Magagna leaves the misleading impression that historians sympathetic to Marxist analysis of economic conflicts between lords and peasants in early modern Europe have not emphasized the solidarity of rural communities in these struggles. In his chapter on France, for example, he dismisses George Lefebvre's concept of a peasant revolution without acknowledging the importance of Lefebvre's argument that socially differentiated rural communities closed ranks at the beginning of the Revolution in order to demand the abolition of aristocratic privilege. His discussion of the Spanish case also borrows heavily from Marxist historians who have emphasized the importance of community solidarity in the anarchist uprisings of Andlusia. Yet Magagna proceeds to argue that the agricultural laborers who predominated in these communities did not also have any class consciousness. No sophisticated Marxist historian would deny the importance of community solidarity in modern labor movements, but must they conclude from this fact that strikes had nothing to do with class conflict? Generally speaking, Magagna is unwilling to grant any validity to class-based interpretations of revolts in the countryside. In the case of England, where Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude have made a powerful case for such an analysis of the agricultural laborers' uprising of 1831, Magagna simply ignores this event altogether.

Third, Magagna skirts the theoretical issue of the relationship between rulers and aristocratic elites in early modern Europe and Japan. Should absolutist states be construed as the redeployment of feudalism at a higher level, or did royal office-holders and bureaucratic agents serve the social interests of townspeople as well as nobles? How did urban lawcourts and lawyers influence state-building in western Europe, as compared with Russia and Japan? What were the implications of urban-based legal institutions for peasant communities? Here Magagna's theoretical concepts of redistributive, regulative, and residual communities, which are based on different customary ideas about the property rights of peasant households, need to be grounded more firmly in the historical development of states. In criticizing the idea that state-building can be construed simply as a coercive process of extracting material resources and manpower from local communities, Magagna might have emphasized the role of the English and French monarchies in guaranteeing the property rights of rural households as well a townspeople and nobles. Although he does refer to the right of rural communities to sue their lords in French and English courts of law, he does not place enough emphasis on litigation in these societies as a means of resolving disputes among rural households themselves. This issue is linked in turn to the role of kinship relations and family structures in rural communities. Here more attention to the implications of stem-family and joint-family households, as compared with nuclear families, would have sharpened the contrast between rural communities in the lowlands and highlands of western Europe, and between the open-field villages of western Europe and Russia.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Magagna's book has the great merit of developing a consistent interpretation of peasant movements across a broad sweep of time and space. It also integrates cultural analysis into economic and political aspects of rural communities. Magagna's concept of the "folklore of place", which he couples with rituals of community solidarity, has important implications for the study of small towns as well as villages in the pre-industrial era. Finally, he is careful to avoid romanticizing rural communities in the past. In a concluding section of the book, he presents a sobering critique of attempts to ground modern conceptions of an egalitarian civic order on the historical experience of traditional rural communities. The harsh and unequal conditions of life in such communities provide no support for advocates of communitarian ideals in the contemporary nation-state. By highlighting the irreducible particularities of rural communities in the past, Magagna has written a book deeply informed by historical consciousness as well as contemporary social theory.

Ted W. Margadant University of California, Davis
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Author:Margadant, Ted W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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