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 appraised.

James Scott’s book is a particularly sophisticated statement of a perspective on peasant institutions that has become something of an orthodoxy. A political scientist and a Quaker, Scott has done field research on peasant politics in Malaysia and Burma; he read widely in the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia in order to write this book. He recently said that the aim of his work on peasants is “to do justice to a class which seldom speaks for itself, and to its culture and values which are treated with no small degree of arrogance by Marxist and bourgeois scholars alike.” His work is marked by a powerful capacity for understanding what he calls the “moral universes” of others.

“Woven into the tissue of peasant behavior,” he writes, “whether in normal local routines or in the violence of an uprising, is the structure of a moral universe.” The peasant “as a political actor is more than a statistical abstract of available calories and outgoing rent and tax charges.” Scott is preoccupied above all with describing what this universe is like to those who live inside it. Clifford Geertz, perhaps the most distinguished contemporary specialist in this kind of research, has written that Scott’s work is “extraordinarily original and valuable” and that he believes its “central thesis is correct and compelling.”

Scott’s thesis is that peasant politics is shaped by the predicament most peasants share—the problem of subsistence, of getting enough just to live—and by the distinctive moral outlook that arises among them in response to this predicament. This argument is illustrated in great detail in his study of Vietnam under the French.

Before colonialism, he claims, peasants lived in “closed villages,” semi-autonomous agricultural communities where social life revolved about the dinh, the village meeting house where the effigy of the guardian spirit of the village was kept. This was a kind of New Deal society, in which an ideology of the survival of the weakest prevailed. A council of elders selected for their age and wisdom periodically leased out communal lands to the more unfortunate peasants who needed them—those whose crops had failed, the helpless and the ill, the aged and the widowed. Tax charges assessed on the village by the local authorities were distributed by the council so as to put the burden on those who were better off; the council members also would give elaborate feasts to spread their wealth among the less fortunate. Peasant landlords would adjust their claims on their tenants according to the yield of the harvest. In bad times, they would provide tenants with loans, food, medicine, assistance with birth and burial ceremonies. In prosperous times they would demand much more, but this did not strike the peasants as exploitative: they valued stability and security above risk.


How did this mutual assistance network arise? Scott believes the answer lies partly in the unstable agricultural and climatic environment in which the peasants lived. The southern part of Vietnam has a more benign climate than the north, where there are periodic droughts and floods; but the position of the Vietnamese peasant in both regions was for the most part, in the words of one author cited by Scott, “like that of a man standing permanently up to his neck in water, so that even a ripple might drown him.” Peasants were pre-occupied with subsistence and so it was reasonable for them to value safety and security above all; they were averse to taking chances and hostile to any changes which interfered with their ways of assuring themselves an adequate living. They had little room for the bourgeois calculus of profit—they wanted to be insulated from risk. A common morality arose among them—the “subsistence ethic,” as Scott calls it—that legitimized this desire and affirmed the right of every villager to a bare livelihood; and this served to bring into existence a “moral economy” in which the weakest were protected from ruin.

French colonialism brought improved communications, transport, disease control, education, and roman script. But it also introduced new legal and administrative systems, commercialized agriculture, and cash crops. The peasant provinces, Scott argues, were forcibly transformed into “capillaries of a network of financial arteries leading to the banks of London and Paris,” and peasants were brusquely exposed to the flukes and instabilities of markets. The harmonious balance that had existed in the precolonial village was rudely upset: the communal lands and “free” forests and fisheries were nationalized and sold off. The guarantees for the poor—the village’s welfare and insurance schemes and the system of feasts—were gradually stripped away. The colons introduced a vast bureaucracy and obstructive regulations, together with a host of census takers, surveyors, registrars, road overseers, vaccinators, irrigation experts, forest rangers, subinspectors of excise, veterinary assistants. The French levied head taxes, land taxes, salt taxes, alcohol taxes, tea and drug taxes, fishing taxes, bird taxes, oxen taxes—all on the ground that they represented, as one French official put it, “the manifest benefits of living in an ‘organized society’ from which all profited.”

Not surprisingly, this judgment about public finance seemed wholly capricious from the standpoint of the “subsistence ethic.” For in reality the profits of society were not trickling down to the peasant. In the countryside, the richer and more powerful villagers acquired new habits. Instead of honoring flexible and informal agreements and displaying traditional paternalism, they started using the new French courts to enforce what the peasants dreaded most: contracts specifying both rigid terms of tenancy and fixed rents, without regard to the cycles of good and bad harvests. Overnight, large numbers of small-holders fell into the class of the dispossessed as a result of the deed juggling and corruption of landowners and village elders, and huge inequalities in landholdings followed.

With the double calamity of the worldwide depression and the famines of 1930, during which peasants were forced to eat waterbugs, crickets, ant eggs, and bees, and landowners would sprinkle cinders into the edible fertilizer to prevent starving day laborers from surreptitiously eating it,1 agrarian relations—the balance of exchange between landlords and tenants—fell apart. The landlords installed grilles on their windows, collected rents through agents, and surrounded themselves with toughs paid with alcohol and opium. The peasants in turn finally exploded in rage, as in the Nghe-Tinh uprisings of 1930, when bands of peasants carrying only sticks and amulets stormed mandarin residences and were in turn bombarded by the French planes.

Scott believes that the particular local causes of such insurrections are complicated, but a main cause is a moral one: the peasants rebelled because their standards of justice and legitimacy were violated by the new economic and political order, and they acted to restore a moral agrarian regime. To do so was not self-deceptive or a matter of “false consciousness,” as some Marxists say. The peasants lived, as they had for centuries, in a different world of meaning from that of their conquerors—different but genuine all the same, intelligible, rational, based not on some incapacity to see clearly, but on different values.


In Scott’s view, those concerned with development in the third world today must take pains to grasp the peasant’s “moral universe”; they must attend to experiences quite different from those that economists usually look for. They must see that the life of the peasant takes place within a distinctive moral pattern marking out a territory of conduct over which its dictates have jurisdiction. For planners to provide “incentives” for personal gain or higher incomes may be beside the point. We will not get far, Scott concludes, by “treating the peasant purely as a kind of marketplace individualist who amorally ransacks his environment so as to reach his personal goal.”

Samuel Popkin, a political scientist who studied the Vietnamese peasantry at first hand while doing research on “pacification programs” for the Simulmatics Corporation and for this book from 1966 to 1970, follows the very approach repudiated by Scott, while attacking Scott’s findings. Peasants in his view are not very different from small business people in Western countries. Like other “economic actors,” they “maximize expected value.” Popkin believes the categories of economics can be helpful in explaining human action outside the market as well as within it. His view of peasant society emphasizes the “political economy” and contains many references to “political capital,” “selective incentives,” “family firms,” the “start-up costs” of religions. For Popkin, the more enterprising peasants are “marketplace individualists,” and such people do far more to shape peasant institutions than do the moral norms of the group.

How, he asks, does a “moral economist” like Scott know what “ethic” peasants espouse? How could absolute moral standards overcome the everyday economic struggle for resources and ensure them a minimum income? He argues, moreover, that the precolonial Vietnamese villages were not the harmonious communities that Scott describes. The peasants did indeed have subsistence problems and suffered extreme uncertainty—but the result was neither the emergence of a policy of “safety first” nor such mutual assistance schemes as communal insurance and welfare. Instead the peasants distrusted one another and relied on “private investments” such as breeding children—a form of old-age insurance—and animals. He suggests that it is farfetched to suppose that the same peasants who meticulously calculated the costs and benefits of their decisions about agriculture would blithely surrender their hard-earned surplus products to possibly untrustworthy village elders who might take them for themselves rather than distribute them to the needy. And is it not just as unlikely that the rich and powerful, the notables themselves, would give away their wealth to other peasants, who might just be freeloaders?

Of course, Popkin continues, the problem of the destitute was ever-present, but one common procedure for dealing with those in trouble was to denominate them “nonvillagers” and throw them out. It is true that the rich patrons in peasant villages were sometimes “paternalistic”—but this was part of a “divide and conquer” strategy designed to keep the poor down, to prevent “collective bargaining.” The old men on the councils of notables may have been wise, but they used their power and the communal lands to enrich themselves. If the peaceful “collective solidarity” of the moral economists existed at all in the villages, it was imposed from above. The unstable village peace of deadlocked conflict and oligarchic control merely disguised the Hobbesian struggle beneath the surface. And when colonialism arrived, it was not the commercializing of agriculture or the expansion of markets or new laws and bureaucratic regulations that “eroded” or “penetrated” a united, resistant, antimarket “peasant” ideology or “little tradition.” On the contrary, the cleverer peasants themselves initiated alliances with the bureaucrats and manipulated the colonial institutions to their own advantage.

An arresting chapter of Popkin’s book tries to explain peasant rebellions such as the “Red Terror” of 1930 by “peasant investment logic.” This applies, he claims, not just to agriculture and the village but to “political and religious transformations of society” through collective action. Peasants did not rebel to restore a golden past: they were challenging the political and economic control exercised by elites in order to create new rural institutions which would raise their standard of living. What was needed was someone to organize them. Popkin shows that by the end of the Thirties there was no scarcity of what he calls “political entrepreneurs” who would satisfy this demand by delivering improved institutions in exchange for peasant support.

He gives a fascinating account of some of the groups that competed with one another—and apparently still do, notwithstanding the domination of the Hanoi government2—for control of the peasantry. There was, for example, the Catholic Church, whose priests he calls “quintessential” political entrepreneurs who succeeded in converting many among the countryside “not only because of the appeal of the religion itself, but because of tangible, material benefits—science, cannon, European education—that the priest could offer as proof of the religion’s validity.” There was also the Cao Dai, a syncretic sect with hundreds of thousands of adherents, many of whom were administrative employees of the French. The Cao Dai were organized on the model of the Catholic Church—they had a pope and a Holy See, a hierarchy of over eleven thousand offices, an armed forces, a welfare branch, together with a pantheon of saints with a “common radical-political streak,” including Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Charlie Chaplin. The Cao Dai, as Popkin sees them, sought to revive indigenous pride and political influence in order to have a larger share in Vietnam’s wealth.

So did the Hoa Hao, an anticolonial and millenarian religious movement based upon the teachings of the “mad bonze,” Huynh Phu So, a charismatic monk who “differed from other prophets because he knew how to ‘mass merchandise’ his message” of simplicity, prayer, family obligation, authenticity, and liberation. Huynh Phu So was assassinated at the age of twenty-eight by jealous communists who subsequently hacked his corpse into three pieces and buried them in separate graves to ensure against his return to life.

Lastly, of course, there was the Communist Party, which alone was sufficiently expert, according to Popkin, in the sophisticated techniques of leadership and organization to provide a blend of “selective incentives” that could unify the diverse religious, ethnic, ideological, and political groups within the country.

Popkin, however, does not express an unqualified judgment on the success of the Communist Party. He notes that up to the mid-1950s and the renewal of the French presence after the Second World War, the party enjoyed considerable success in mobilizing peasants to cooperate and get what they wanted, namely raised levels of production and an improved standard of life. This was especially so, he says, in the North, where the communists could win political control over the tightly integrated villages more easily than in the South, which was prosperous and where the social structure of the peasant communities was looser and less responsive to efforts to reorganize their economy and influence them ideologically. Even in the South, “given the obstacles, the Communists succeeded to an impressive extent.” But Popkin also notes that there was frequently serious tension between the Viet Minh and peasants who sought to enter the market on their own by resuming trade with the French and who bitterly resented efforts by the communists to curtail their market activities for political purposes. Moreover, he does not deal with the acute problems of political control and economic stability that were encountered by the communists before and after the war with the US.3

All of the movements Popkin describes attracted peasants and increased their resources by using “political skills and bureaucratic connections to give the peasants access to (and leverage against) the institutions that had previously kept them at a disadvantage.” In no case, Popkin writes, did they seek to restore “traditional” patterns of life. The moral economist errs in thinking that the uprisings were “defensive” or “reactionary”: to suppose so is to suppose that there actually was a golden past before the French arrived. Anyone who believes this has been bamboozled, in Popkin’s view, by the less than candid reminiscences of landlords, or by the reconstructions of the French anthropologist Paul Mus and his students,4 whose sentimental vision of Vietnamese life has thrown dust in our eyes by smoothing over the fierce conflicts that must have been endemic in precolonial villages.

Popkin thinks that peasants are “not hostile to innovations from which they expect personal gain.” Many attempts to “modernize” the villages “fail (or are not adopted) not because of a positive regard for tradition or aversion to risk, but because low-quality leadership and mutual distrust preclude the requisite cost-sharing or coordination among peasants.” Contemporary planners must help to build rural institutions that will encourage peasants to cooperate and believe that “they, rather than someone else, will enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

The charge that peasants have been idealized is not a new one. Indeed, it seems fair to say that no class or group in society has ever received such strikingly mixed notices from anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. Romantic German scholars held, as did Rousseau, that the ancient peasant villages were centers of primitive communism, where, in contrast to the wicked ways of the town, the fruits of the social product went to all, and where liberty, fraternity, equality were truly exemplified—perhaps for the last time. Many other writers have since depicted the “peasant mind” as “childlike,” “uncontaminated,” “nonlinear,” “pre-Socratic.” Peasants have been said to be disdainful of buying and selling, acquisition, ambition; the social structure of peasant societies has been described as solidly grounded in the bonds of blood relations, in immemorial and “natural” patterns of marriage and family obligations.

Many Russian populists and Slavophiles—as well as the famous Baron Haxthausen—saw the Russian village, the mir, as a self-sustaining economic unit that would be the salvation of the country. Recalling that Marx and others had taught that there are inevitable stages of economic change in society, some of them said that owing to the already existing communistic mir, a direct transition to sophisticated communism, without an intermediate stage of industrialization, was possible; the grasping individualism and “atomization” of bourgeois society could never arise in the mir.

Nineteenth-century travelers to the great British and Dutch colonies—or to the Indian societies of the United States—claimed to observe communities in which a man could always help himself to his neighbor’s resources when needy. Georges Sorel wrote that “to the village, not to the town, we must turn for the elucidation of the notion of association in the sense of the Socialist program.” A modern writer who quotes Sorel says that “craft and wile alone” could not have brought about the remarkable result that “Marxism sold its first ticket to a peasant, not to an industrial, society.”5 More recently, the University of Chicago anthropologist Robert Redfield described the Mexican peasant society of Tepoztlán as a “smoothly functioning and well-integrated society made up of a contented and well-adjusted people.” Clifford Geertz has found peasants who, despite severe economic hardships, cannot be restrained from discussing the philosophical problems of the self and freedom of the will.

On the other side stand all those who have found such images unrealistic. Marx and Engels spoke bluntly of rural “idiocy”; in their own time, they said, the peasantry as a class was suffering from the “hallucinations of its death struggle”; peasants were relies, bound to disappear with the growth of capitalism, and they did not mourn the loss. Lenin and Plekhanov attacked the narodniki with similar violence for believing in myths about the mir. Maxim Gorky asked himself, “but where is the good-natured, thoughtful Russian peasant, indefatigable searcher after truth and justice, who was so convincingly and beautifully depicted in the world of nineteenth-century Russian literature?” He answered that he could not, after much inquiry, find such a man, discovering instead a man “half-savage, stupid, heavy,…lazily, carelessly, incapably slumped” across the land. He added that “those who took on themselves the bitter Herculean work of cleaning the Augean stables of Russian life I cannot consider ‘tormentors of the people’; from my point of view they are rather victims.” Oscar Lewis, Edward Banfield, and other social scientists have challenged many of the assumptions of Redfield and his followers. They came away from peasant communities with impressions of peasants as often fatalistic and supine, ignorant, dishonest, malicious, rancorous, sunk in apathy and meanness.

The clash between Scott and Popkin is narrower and less extreme than some of these earlier skirmishes. Popkin sees peasants not as savages but as tough-minded competitors. But what exactly does the controversy amount to in the case of Vietnam? As a purely historical debate about the Vietnamese peasantry, the evidence seems decisive for neither view—and perhaps it could not be. Both authors rely to a considerable degree on the same sources, such as the work of the French cultural geographer Pierre Gourou. Popkin cites him extensively in support of his bleak picture of the precolonial village, whereas Scott finds Gourou to be one of the Southeast Asian scholars who remarked on the “informal social controls which act to provide for the minimal needs of the village poor.” Both views advanced seem partial, persuasive in different settings. As the main ethnographic sources mustered by them suggest, there were striking dissimilarities between the behavior of peasants and the social structure of peasant villages in North and South Vietnam.6 Popkin is certainly right on methodological grounds to ask precisely how Scott has discovered what peasants find moral and immoral and to criticize him for his vague claim that economic circumstances “give rise” to a precise “ethic” which in turn “shapes” peasant institutions. He is also right to raise the possibility that conflicts within the village may have overwhelmed the influence of such an ethic if it existed.

But much of his attack on the moral economy view overlooks the subtlety of Scott’s position: a careful reader will note that Scott never says that the villages of Vietnam were egalitarian idylls. The issue for him is not whether a “leveling” of wealth took place, but whether a place was provided for the worst off. When Scott writes about the “subsistence ethic,” he seems as often as not to be describing peasant ideals, and he does not claim that these preferences were always incarnated in actual institutions. As he writes, “The social strength of this ethic, its protective power for the village poor, varied from village to village, from region to region.”

As for the disagreement whether peasant rebellions in Vietnam or elsewhere are “defensive” or “progressive,” Scott is mainly concerned with the perspective of the peasant participants: he believes they saw their actions as protecting specific kinds of rights, duties, institutions. This view is not inconsistent with the claim that these same rebellions might have resulted in the extension of peasant rights and privileges or that they were organized by radical elites who thought of the uprisings as designed to achieve this outcome.7

Indeed, Popkin’s own work would have been stronger had he made some use of the moral-economy perspective. He describes peasants so suspicious and distrustful of one another that they could not even agree to create collective irrigation facilities; yet why were they still able to join together to take up the unworldly “incentives” of religious sects like the Hoa Hao? Popkin’s repeated appeal to such factors as the “mass merchandising” and “sociopolitical competence” of the sects to explain such behavior needs amplification; but when he provides it, he often refers to precisely the same factors—“reasons of duty,” “ethic,” “moral codes”—stressed by the moral economists.

To take another example, if peasants were indeed eager to sell in the market when they saw the opportunity for personal gain, and were not appreciably constrained by moral beliefs, why then did they—as Scott documents—sometimes hand back to the notables and mandarins the portion of seized resources that was left over after they subtracted what they needed for their own subsistence? After one prunes excesses and misinterpretations in this way—and recalls the lack of decisive historical evidence for the central claims at issue—the sides of the “debate” seem far less sharply defined.

Perhaps what animates and sustains the controversy is, finally, a philosophical conflict between the different models or pictures of human nature that are presupposed by the “political economy” and “moral economy” approaches. This is a conflict about which factors—personal gain or moral obligation, economic conditions or cultural traditions—are “more important” in analyzing and explaining human behavior, whether we discuss the agricultural decisions of a peasant or the conduct of a statesman. On this abstract plane, if Scott at times goes too far in emphasizing the peasant’s “moral universe,” Popkin makes a comparable error: his peasant “economic actors” are too skeletal and predictable. His theory is that since peasants everywhere are latent profit maximizers, some tidy social computation by development planners will bring about a proper organization of self-interest and unleash hitherto subterranean psychological forces. But this is too simple and leaves too much unsaid.

Perhaps “personal gain” lies at the base of all decisions made by “rational economic actors”; but to say so comes close to being a tautology. Popkin provides much useful information when he argues that organizations offering opportunities for self-advancement can be critical factors in economic development. But the Guatemalan cultivator or the Indian untouchable who resists vitamins, vaccinations, or contraceptives, or who does not “cooperate” with other peasants in promoting a green revolution, might not be a rational actor. Even if we stipulate that he is, he has a definite set of opinions on what are “gains” and “losses,” opinions which are bound up in complicated ways with the rest of his attitudes—say, those concerning worldly ambition, or the value of contemplation, or the afterlife—and these might clash irrevocably with the opinions of other members of his community, let alone with the aims of development planners. Popkin’s view is very clear but unconvincing: it does not really provide an explanation of “peasant goals and attitudes”; what he does is spell out the categories and concepts in which an explanation might be couched. The concept of the moral economy, for all its methodological pitfalls and lack of clarity, still offers a more convincing approach to understanding peasant societies.

Social change itself will not stand still for the debate between these views to be settled; and for many contemporary problems it may not even be necessary to attempt to resolve them at all. But every strategy for development presupposes certain assumptions about the motives and characters of those who are affected by it. What remains to be done in the case of “peasants,” perhaps, is more detailed work designed to bring to light and support such assumptions as they figure in specific cases of contemporary “rural development” and “modernization.” Understanding the acutely important problems, moral and economic alike, addressed by our authors might be advanced in this way as surely as by the more ambitious and systematic schemes they have constructed.

This Issue

October 22, 1981