Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Poor Old Peasants

I am well enough versed in controversy to know that it is quite unlikely that one can mention peasants in a favourable manner without provoking the accusation that one has romanticised them, a reaction which itself speaks loudly for the contempt in which they are held, where it is as if the concept of the peasantry could not possibly sit alongside a favourable mention without adverse mental reaction. Nonetheless, I shall mention a few words in favour of the peasantry as a historical phenomenon, at the prompting of my blogging-fellow Mr Tom Paine:
I am very much with my revered namesake on the subject of monarchs and it makes me laugh that the ‘right on’ New Labourites are so desperate for votes that they are appealing to the inner peasant in every Brit. [1]
One may well wonder what it is about peasants that unites almost everyone — from capitalist to communist — in such contempt. If you are partial to the abstractions of liberty and progress, as is likely if you have lived in the last two hundred years, then the answer might strike you as obvious from the pejorative connotation of the word itself: peasants are ignorant and dumb creatures obstinately wedded to the bonds of authority and tradition, and therefore a bar to progress; or, as G.B. Shaw succinctly put it: “Peasants will not do”. [2] Since the fairy-land of universal liberty cannot be reached by such earthly creatures, we might wish to leave the story there, go off and enjoy a celebratory latte, and leave the peasants to toil in the mud on the wrong side of history; or, then again, we might find it interesting to look at the other side of the pejorative coin.
.....The peasantry’s more traditional and personal bonds to authority have meant that it has typically been very much less susceptible to pie-in-the-sky political ideals than most other social groups; and, time and again, it has proven itself ill-disposed to those who would “drive the people to paradise with a stick”. [3] When in the 1870s, the Russian radicals went out to the peasants to spread the word, to set them free from their bonds, the peasants were hardly impressed, and were more inclined to call the authorities — something that the radicals neither forgot nor forgave. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century, from Germany to Russia, the peasantry proved to be a disappointment to every kind of progressive scheme; and much the same was true throughout the twentieth. Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen noted how the peasantry of the villages and farms of Bavaria were among the least impressed with Nazi officialdom.
[T]he farmers remain wedded to their old, unchangeable patterns of thinking and living, shrug their shoulders over the triumphs, and cannot be brought to ‘participate’. [4]
In short: peasants do not make good mass-men. No, in that regard, if we must talk in terms of class, then let us spare the peasants and even the proletarians for a moment, and speak of that class whence comes the majority of zealous participants in, and proselytisers for, the latest moral fads, mass-political fashions, and hopeful idiocies: the bourgeoisie. If therein was found some little trace of the inner peasant, even in the pejorative sense, I should think it a blessing not a curse; for against participation, bloody-mindedness is the next best thing to nobility. And if that does not immediately strike you favourably, then imagine this: pitch-forks and fiery-brands outside the townhall next time its occupants propose an ethnic-awareness day at the tax-payer’s expense.
[1] Tom Paine, “‘Britishness’ day and oaths to the Queen urged”, The Last Ditch (weblog), 11th March 2008. (I mean no undue attack on Mr Paine, and I hope he does not take my criticism amiss; the connotations of the word “peasant” are such nowadays that it serves as an effective rhetorical device to which most of us are tempted at one time or another.)
[2] George Bernard Shaw, Preface to On the Rocks: A Political Comedy (1933), republished online by Project Gutenberg.
[3] A phrase that has many variants, here used as a characterisation of the intentions of Petr Tkachev and Sergey Nechayev by G.G. Vodolazov, Ot Chernyshevskogo k Plekhanov (Moscow: University of Moscow, 1969), p.79, quoted by Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in 19th Century Russia, tr., F. Haskell (London: Phoenix Press, 2001), p. lxxxviii.
[4] Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, October 1940, Diary of a Man in Despair, tr. P. Rubens (London: Duck Editions, 2000), p. 117. He declares them “a sociological anchor to windward in any epoch, who have not let themselves be fooled, no matter what the propaganda”, and tells the story of how in 1941 he saw one of them standing at the side of the road watching the tanks roll by on their way to crush Serbia. “Each time a tank rumbled by, the old man spat forcefully.” Ibid., June 1941, p.131.


Anonymous said...

I am only miffed to find myself at odds, albeit slightly, with a comrade-at-arms I highly respect.

There is little doubt, I am afraid, that "peasant" has acquired a pejorative meaning. When I want to laud one of the people of whom you write, I say "yeoman," which has all the "right" connotations - including devotion to principle/bloody-mindedness (delete as inapplicable).

This confession probably supports your case, but I fear - even with such support - it is a lost one. The meaning of words moves on and the yapping of the dogs behind this one's caravan can no longer be heard.

Anonymous said...

A touch of Edmund Burke by way of GK Chesterton. Great men both, and a great post.

Anonymous said...

I dislike causing unintended pain. But I did so once by hailing a compatriot with "We Galwegian peasants....". He winced.

Deogolwulf said...

Fair points, Mr Paine, and I like the cut of your jib. As for being at political odds, well, we do differ on some fundaments: I’m more of an authoritarian than a libertarian, i.e., something of an old Tory, though the words on their own do not say much. My shorter political treatise comprises only three words: "I hate politics." My slightly longer political treatise adds the words " . . . though it makes for a notable spectacle." My complete political treatise is yet to be written, principally for the reason laid out in my shorter political treatise. Anyway, I think we can share a merry hatred of New Labourites and other totalitarians.

Recusant, thanks very much. Yes, I rather like Burke and Chesterton.

Dearieme, yes, it is a shame the word has such connotations.

Anonymous said...

hobsbawm himself pointed to the obstacle peasantry posed. they indeed are very skeptical about their salvation.
nice post, never thought of it.

James Higham said...

How does one romanticize peasants?

Anonymous said...

How does one romanticize peasants? Tolstoy did a fine job with the Russian peasantry in War and Peace.

Anonymous said...

Very pleased to see my home page on your blogroll - this is a first for me!

Does your slogan imply a keen-ness on Tolkien?


Deogolwulf said...

The slogan is from The Battle of Maldon. I do like Tolkien, however.