The Silent Majority

The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia

by James C. Scott
Yale University Press, 246 pp., $4.45 (paper)

The “modernization” of peasant societies is one of the great themes of contemporary history. No longer as acute an issue in Europe as it once was, it is more urgent than ever in Asia and Africa and Latin America. “Peasants”—i.e., self-supporting land laborers and cultivators living in small village communities—make up most of the population in the world’s poorest countries. How they are affected by economic and political changes remains inadequately understood, notwithstanding the outpouring of scholarly studies of peasant cultures for the benefit of those who plan “development” and make policy. Peasants have frequently and often violently resisted attempts to change their lives. Most of the Western ideas designed to advance modernization of peasant societies have been sharply criticized by prominent third world and radical intellectuals speaking on behalf of the peasantry.

But they are spokesmen for a largely silent class. What do peasants themselves believe and value or deplore, and what reasons lie behind their reactions to economic and political change? Why have rural development programs for improved farming, small industry, and health services failed so often? The answers to these questions are much disputed. All that is certain is that peasants have throughout history been a potent political force for both progress and reaction. Their actions have not always met with the approval of either liberal reformers or the revolutionaries who have led them into battle, whether in the sixteenth-century German peasant wars, in the Vendée during the French Revolution, or during the more recent revolutions in Russia and China, Mexico and Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam.

James Scott and Samuel Popkin are both Southeast Asia scholars who look to the past in order to support views about what peasants are like, and what they want. They wish to speak to current problems of peasant politics and rural development. Both of them deal with Vietnam—not directly with the recent war there but with the effects on the Vietnamese peasants of the centralized bureaucracy and capitalist economy introduced early in the century by the French colonial regime. This experience caused a historical transformation, they would both claim, that contained the seeds of the revolution of 1945 and the ensuing war of “national liberation.”

Their common enterprise is a doubly risky one: the peasants of a half-century ago may not be very similar to those in our own era of “transitional societies” straddling the old and the new. Views about what “peasants” are like are usually based on evidence from the distant past and may overlook the teeming variety and constantly evolving character of peasant societies and puzzling “borderline” cases like the nomads of Africa, the production brigades of China, and the farmers of Japan who are equipped with tractors, washing machines, and refrigerators. More than this, the available information on the particular aspects of precolonial Vietnam with which they are both most concerned is spare and unreliable, so that the reader is not sure how, or on what basis, their views are to be …

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