Dutch and Belgian protestors burning pallets last week. (ROB ENGELAAR/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

February 13, 2024   5 mins

Farmers hurl eggs at the European Parliament. They dump manure wherever they go. In Spain, they burn tyres. In Occitania, office buildings. Their tractors have cursed the capital of Germany with terrible traffic. As in the Holy Roman Empire circa 1524, so in the Europe of 2024: we must beware the peasant.

In parliaments and the press, the latest peasant revolt has been met with raised eyebrows, hostility even. “This class has been spoilt by decades of copious public support,” declared La Stampa, Italy’s soi-disant “progressive” newspaper. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s premier conservative paper, was blunter: “Pampered farmers,” read its headline. Below, the protests were quaintly described as an “impertinence”. Europe’s politicians are likewise exasperated. Germany’s home secretary, Nancy Faeser, has pinned the blame on far-Right coup-makers, accusing them of seducing the unsuspecting subalterns.

In short, peasants appear to be not only obtuse but also obsolete in our modern world of slacktivism and semiconductors. So, this is an appropriate week for the publication of the 78-year-old social historian Patrick Joyce’s deeply sympathetic swansong to the world of his parents, Remembering Peasants.

Not that the thinking classes have ever taken peasants seriously. Even Marx thought they were morons: there’s an off-hand aside about “the idiocy of rural life” in The Communist Manifesto. Factory workers were supposed to be at the vanguard of revolution. Farmhands, by contrast, stood “outside history”; not for them the whiggish march of Progress. Generally speaking, the Left has been instinctively hostile to peasant populism, with its reactionary affection for faith and family.

And yet, conservatives haven’t tended to champion them either: their general view is that peasants’ suffering is entirely self-inflicted. This perspective was summed up by the anthropologist — and later advisor to Nixon and Reagan — Edward Banfield, who in 1958 laid into the “amoral familism” of the peasants of Basilicata. Too absorbed by the complacent parochialism of family life, they were simply incapable of thinking of their salvation — which, of course, lay in the free market. Peasants, so the argument ran, weren’t good capitalist citizens.

As landowners, peasants are unmistakably conservatives. But they are not a rich people. As smallholders, they can be classed neither as oppressors nor as the oppressed. The peasant’s politics is a quaint admixture of Left and Right, then: the state, they feel, should be kept at arm’s length, but so, too, should the free market. Change of any kind is to be resisted — and it is here that the radicalism of the peasant comes in. “The peasant is a conservative, not a progressive,” writes Joyce. “Slow to move, but once roused, unstoppable, as in the peasant revolt, the jacquerie.”

Indeed, the history of the peasantry is a history of protest. Western Sicilians, for instance, used to greet one another with cries of “cuntrastuma”: we are resisting. But this isn’t a history that is widely known. This is a world, for the better part, shunned by trade paperbacks and Beeb documentaries. How many of us have much of an inkling about, say, the German Peasants’ War of 1524, Europe’s largest uprising before the French Revolution? And it isn’t often that we commemorate the killing of 11,000 peasants by the army and police in what Joyce calls “the last great European peasant uprising”: the 1907 Romanian rebellion. Nor, for that matter, do we recall that one of the earliest and biggest challenges to Russia’s October Revolution was the Tambov Rebellion of 1920, in which peasants launched a guerrilla war against the Red Army. Put down by the Soviets, the conflict resulted in a quarter of a million deaths.

Much of Europe scarcely remembers the peasant revolts of the 20th century, perhaps because the peasants themselves are a vanishing people. As recently as 1960, 40% lived in the countryside; that figure has now almost halved. In the EU, scarcely 4% work in agriculture. What’s more, those who do aren’t stricto sensu farmers, but rather “five o’clock farmers”, who double as miners, cleaners or factory workers. Before the turn of the century, Pierre Bourdieu lamented that you’re more likely to find peasants in theme parks than villages.

Even the farm has fallen out of the hands of the farmer. Agribusinesses have trumped subsistence smallholders, with some 90% of the global grain trade controlled by five corporations. Today’s revolting peasants also complain of crippling taxation, environmental legislation, foreign competition. Ukraine, for instance, exempt from EU standards on account of the war, is dumping cheap grain across Europe, while a proposed Free Trade Agreement with South America threatens to steal a march on indigenous European meat and produce.

The result is that peasants now only properly belong to the world’s poorest societies: Somalia, Moldova, and India, that “greatest peasant nation on Earth”, as Joyce calls it in his introduction — though he has the chutzpah to then completely omit the country — and its 600 million farmers — from the rest of his book.

The English are perhaps more guilty of ignoring the peasant than other Europeans. After all, ours is the land that pioneered capitalism. In early modern England, serfdom was superseded by a tenurial system in which land was concentrated in a few hands. By 1500 or so, serfdom was nearly extinct in Britain. Russia would only get there in 1861, the US in 1863, Brazil in 1888. So it was that, in Elizabethan and Stuart England, the countryside divided into tenants and landlords, with the more astute farmers becoming large landowners and the rest their paid labourers. By 1861, Joyce writes: “almost three-quarters of the British Isles was in the hands of less than 5,000 people”. Peasants, which is to say subsistence smallholders, never had a fighting chance in such an unforgiving world.

“The English are perhaps more guilty of ignoring the peasant than other Europeans.”

It was only in the diminutive enclaves bordering England that the peasant — that great anti-capitalist subject — survived. It is no coincidence that there was no English equivalent to the Scottish Crofters’ War, Welsh Tithe War, and Irish Land War in the late-19th century. And it is not surprising that the farmers’ protests now troubling Europe have not crossed the Channel.

Peasants elsewhere did their best to resist their overlords. In South Italy, peasants rose time and again against the tyranny of their absentee landlords and the proto-Mafia, as in the Fasci Siciliani of 1893. Across the continent, landlords were punished for cupidity in acts of “expiatory violence”. So it was that Lord Leitrim, a “notorious evicting landlord” in Counties Galway and Mayo, met his just deserts in 1878. After his assassination, peasants showed up at his Dublin funeral to desecrate his corpse.

Time was when historians did not look kindly on such acts of violence. But over the years many have been rebranded. The so-called Galician Slaughter of 1846, for instance, has now been rechristened the Galician Peasant Uprising. Its moving spirit, the revolutionary Jakub Szela, is no longer seen as a fevered rabble-rouser, but rather a critic of serfdom and corvĂ©e labour. Far-right Poles may continue to vilify him, blaming Szela’s peasants for crushing the Krakow Uprising, in which Polish nationalists tried to oust Austrian overlords. But the prevailing narrative now is that the serfs saw not the Austrians but the “liberal” nationalists — most of them of noble and gentry stock — as their oppressors.

Accordingly, 5,000 nobles and landlords were “scythed, flailed, pitchforked, and sickled to death”, and 500 country manors sacked and destroyed. Szela smashed the tombstones at the Siedliska cemetery, shouting “there must be equality in this”. The peasants turned up at the Burzyn church “asking for absolution for the murders they were about to commit”. Their violence was not senseless, then. Here, the peasants appear as a sober and hard-nosed people, alert to the reality of class and admirably clear-headed about the cold comforts of nationalism.

And yet our disdain for peasants lives on, linguistically. Most of us in the West have a wide lexicon of disparagement at hand. French pejoratives include cul-terreux (earthy arse) and plouc (plebeian). The truly dense North Italian finds no lazier slur to malign his southern compatriot than terrone (literally, land person). English readers are no doubt familiar with louts, boors, yokels, dolts and clodhoppers. When defeated by argument, online trolls typically fall back on the unimaginative putdown, “shut up, peasant”.

We really ought to show more gratitude. None of those jacqueries was in vain. Without the unruly peasant of yesterday, the ordinary worker of today would have considerably less autonomy and dignity. In 2024, we might find peasants surplus to requirements, and sure enough, the current round of protests may well be their last hurrah. But it is, all the same, an instructive episode. In our quiescent age of worker passivity, the unrelenting, uncompromising peasant could show us the way forward.

Pratinav Anil is the author of two bleak assessments of 20th-century Indian history. He teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.