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Peasantry and Society in France since 1789.

The great problem of the vanishing peasantry is that it has taken so long to vanish - longer indeed than the vanished "working class" that was once supposed to replace it. So a few old ideologues are going to sigh with relief and others may shed a tear when they learn from Annie Moulin, in this brief survey of French rural history over the last couple of centuries, that "peasants there still are, but the peasantry has gone."

She does, admittedly, qualify this rather stark final phrase by telling us, one page earlier: "It is that nineteenth-century peasantry, one which persisted through to the 1950's, that has now vanished forever." And it is tempting, after reading her book, to add a further qualification that it is particularly the historians' nineteenth century French peasantry which is looking the worse for wear today.

These old histories do not change. It was once rural France which was said to have an histoire immobile; today the only immobility seems to be in history itself, for it could be argued with some force that if Peasantry and Society in France since 1789 had been published twenty years ago it would have been substantially the same book - the footnotes included. As far as French rural history is concerned we are still essentially in the age of Lefebvre, Soboul and Labrousse; we still find "the peasantry" subservient to the "rural elite," we still get awkward calculations of how much land was owned by the "aristocrats" and how much by the "bourgeoisie." Yes, "capitalist" agriculture makes inroads in the Beauce and nineteenth-century peasants are still defending the "communal lands." When peasants vote for the left they are described as "democratic" and when they go for the right they are "hierarchical" (because in the latter zones "large landowners were instrumental in controlling the votes of |their' peasants"). Now is this an echo of Pierre Barral in the 1960's? the voice of Agulhon in the 70's? or an even more distant whisper from the grand Andre Siegfried back in 1913?

In tracing her history Annie Moulin clearly prefers what we might call the "social and political explanation" for rural developments to demographic and economic models. She begins with a survey of the peasantry under the ancien regime. It is a "dominated and dependent peasantry" which owns about half the land (in point of fact, the richest half) and loses between a quarter and a half of its revenues in seigneurial rights and taxes (a difficult figure to establish in what was essentially a subsistence economy). There is a "seigneurial reaction" after about 1760 (in other words landowners were becoming slightly more business- minded) and the peasants are forced to seek complementary sources of "income" (peasant "income" in the 1780's?). So for Moulin it is the seigneurial exploitation of peasants rather than the unprecedented increase in the peasantry's own number which leads to some rather ugly cases of chateau-burning in 1788-89. Peasants (actually it was scribes, copying, copying, copying) recorded their problems in the cahiers de doleances, "a sad and moving catalogue of hurts which move the reader to pity."

The Revolution apparently widened "the gap between those who wielded economic power and those who were dependent on it," even though the author claims that the property market "opened up." Moulin does not waste much time on the massacre of a quarter of a million peasants in the west of France, nor the destruction of about one-fifth of their property. "It is hardly surprising that an event of such magnitude has been interpreted differently by various historians," she drily comments and then gives us three long paragraphs on the said historians' interpretations. (Of course, the memory of these republican massacres might explain why the votes in the west were, for over a century, "hierarchical" rather than "democratic.")

Thus one enters the long nineteenth century, a period of some 150 years "in which the small family farm, based on subsistence production and the intensive use of family labor, dominated the economic and social regime of the countryside." But the key to Moulin's nineteenth-century peasantry is not in the operation of these small family farms, it is more a social explanation again. The peasantry lived in a "condition of subservience," first to the local squire and administration, then, under the Second Empire, to "a widely recognized system of clientelism and official candidates" and, under the Third Republic, to outside interests. Moulin notes that the agricultural syndicates themselves were dominated by non-farmers and emphasizes that even the Federation Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA) was, until well into the 1950's, run by an "ageing elite" defending "the traditional canons of syndical activity."

It is this gap separating the rural population from national, urban political and economic power which most characterizes Moulin's peasantry. She does not think, like many historians, that the gap was closed by the events of 1848 and their aftermath. Universal manhood suffrage, she argues, was "granted to, rather than won by," the peasants and did not lead to their "emancipation" or even a greater political consciousness.

All the same, Moulin devotes a fair amount of space to the failure of socialists, and later communists, to penetrate peasant organizations, most particularly the syndicates. Given the historiography of the last twenty-five years - Agulhon, Vigier and a host of American quarante-huitards - she is of course obliged to do this, but my own feeling is that it is a largely irrelevant question: national disputes were enlisted into the service of local causes, not the other way round; the peasant's choice of right or left was more a matter of historical accident than any deeper cause. Thus the "democratic" red zone in the south of France might have voted progressively for radicals, radical-socialists, socialists and communists; today it votes for the National Front. There is no ideology in this, simply a constant opposition to Paris. Between the 1890's and the 1930's peasants joined the syndicates because they provided for the bulk purchase of fertilizers and vines, not out of any commitment to social catholicism or corporatism. And if a few did march along with Dorgere's green shirts, there were those among them who had no trouble in voting for the Popular Front at the same time.

All this would suggest that peasant "subservience" to administrators, politicians, national commentators - the "elite" in short - was only skin deep. At any rate it is a fact that, for decades now, peasants have shown an uncanny ability of getting out of this "elite" what they want. Moulin analyses the relationship of the peasantry to the state in terms that do honor to Professor C. E. Labrousse: price and production. A complicated system of price supports and quotas has led to the situation today where three-quarters of French farm income come from Paris and Brussels. "Farmers regard the state almost as their employer," says Moulin. Well yes, you can understand such a remark, but it is not the entire story because, like in the past, peasant attitudes regarding the state are shot through with ambiguities.

As is their whole approach to the market. Conventional market theory, based on supply and demand, on pricing, costing and economic profit is surely an unreliable guide to peasant behavior because the principal motive for production here is not a calculated economic profit but simple, subjective human survival. Again and again you get the impression from Moulin, and from the historians she likes to repeat, that the relationship of production, marketing and price to the way these rural populations actually perform has not been fully thought through. There are factors other than price and production to consider.

If, for example, the nineteenth-century French peasantry was, as Moulin says, built out of "the small family farm, based on subsistence production and the intensive use of family labor" then why not have a look at the small family farm and the intensive use of family labor? It would require a little demography - Moulin's remarks on the peasant populations is confined to crude birth rates and death rates, and to totals. And it would require relating demography to property structures - Moulin's comments on property are limited to "average farm size," an almost meaningless statistic given the skewed distribution of landed properties. No attempt is made to define changes in ownership over the life cycle and there is not a hint at the mechanisms by which land was exchanged; did it involve kith and kin? did it imply a neighbor? or an outsider? The cadastre - that extraordinary French property survey, a product of Napoleon's laws - contains a record of every fragment of property exchanged in every commune of France since the July Monarchy. Yet poor Moulin has to admit "these cadastral account books have still to be fully exploited by historians." Well, a few brave souls have tried, but their work is generally ignored. A decent national survey of evolving property structures would expose the heart of the peasant economy; and, with the help of computers and rigorous statistical sampling techniques, it is perfectly feasible. But today our ignorance remains almost total.

So again we fall back on social explanations. For Moulin the end of the peasantry came when the gap finally closed between peasants and the rest of the population. The unprecedented rise in agricultural productivity since the 1950's (at a rate higher than industry) led to an equally startling growth in revenues, until the oil crisis of 1973 put an end to the party. Television antennae now rise above every household, there's a tractor parked by the barn and two cars in every garage. The poorest and the most inefficient cultivators left the land so that by 1983 a farmer provided food for forty people as against seven in 1960. But it is not only the inefficient who are leaving today. Furthermore, over the last couple of decades, the departing horde has been countered by an arriving horde - what the French sociologists call the agents of rurbanisation (our awkward translators call it "rur-urbanization"). Managers, employees, shop-keepers, garagists, restaurant- owners, the "bed-and-breakfast" brigade, holiday tinkerers, the retired and the British are now so numerous in the countryside that there remain less than a dozen cantons in the whole of France where farmers and their families are in the majority.

End of the peasantry, end of history: we've heard the slogans. Yet even Moulin admits that French farmers today possess a certain "individuality." Moreover, is not that highly varied rural population something the peasantry had already met under the ancien regime, the July Monarchy and the Second Empire? The log-sawyers, the knife-grinders, the flax-combers, the Norman mole-catchers and the Burgundian hawkers of holy relics have all gone, but have we lost the peasantry?

My image of the "last man" is neither of a consumer nor a bureaucrat, it is not of a worker, or a manager, or a politician, a writer, a scholar or a teacher; it is of a peasant staring out across the abandoned fallow field. And - wait a minute - was that a slight twinkle I caught in his eye?
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Author:Dallas, Gregor
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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