A Methodological Contribution to the Marxian Class Analysis of Peasant Differentiation



In the face of the growing hegemony of neo-populist positions in agrarian studies, Marxian analysis needs to remain alert to the concrete dynamics of agrarian capitalism and differentiation. As Byres argued, one cannot understand the roots, causes and dynamics of capital accumulation without a treatment of class, i.e. without careful examination of class structure, class relations and class conflict. Our recent article in the Journal of Agrarian Change titled ‘How to differentiate peasant classes in capital-intensive agriculture?’ makes a methodological contribution to this discussion by constructing a new index – the Modified Labour Exploitation Index (MEI) – to differentiate peasant classes and understand the internal dynamics of accumulation in agrarian societies. We argue that the MEI can be an effective tool for understanding changing class dynamics, the shifting modes of livelihoods of the poor peasantry and the largely hidden accumulation processes in agrarian societies.

Methodological discussions around Marxian class analysis of peasant differentiation in agriculture adopt different approaches. One way of analysing the agrarian class structure is by descriptively defining class in terms of production relations. This relatively more qualitative approach builds a descriptive overview of class dynamics in the countryside. Other approaches are relatively quantitative and generally entail the construction of an empirical scale or index to identify the agrarian class structure. One of the most concentrated treatments of this topic is credited to Utsa Patnaik. In her analysis of the agrarian class structure in India, published in 1976, she uses the Marxist theory of class differentiation within the peasantry as a basis for providing rigorous analytical tools to demarcate economic classes quantitatively. Patnaik’s work methodologically operationalises both Lenin’s ‘Preliminary draft theses on the agrarian question’ and Mao’s ‘How to differentiate the classes in rural areas’. Patnaik proposed the E-index, which calculates the degree of labour exploitation through hired-in labour and rent relative to self-employment.

We argue that Patnaik’s E-index methodology for assessing class differentiation is best suited for societies where the shift from feudal or pre-capitalist agricultural systems to capitalist ones is still in progress. However, this approach proves less effective in differentiating peasant classes in modern capital-intensive agriculture. This limitation arises from its failure to account for the significant influence of mechanisation, which now plays a central role in the production processes across various regions in developing Asian countries where the Green Revolution has rapidly expanded. Production techniques in capitalist agriculture are dominated by the use of machinery, leasing in and leasing out of land for commercial agriculture, and hiring-in of seasonal and casual labour. This makes the inclusion of machinery in the process of class identification and differentiation within the peasantry not only desirable but also indispensable.

Further, we argue that contemporary non-farm labour-hiring practices in the countryside also need to be taken into account in the methodology of class differentiation, since agricultural mechanisation has reduced opportunities for poor and small peasants to hire out their labour to middle and rich peasants. Lastly, we argue that it is essential to devise a method that measures exploitation through rent and labour hiring simultaneously. In other words, there is a need to reformulate the rental term of Patnaik’s E-index in a way that it becomes empirically testable.

In view of these shortcomings, we propose a new index by incorporating the role of means of production (mechanisation), non-agricultural hiring out of labour, and a testable rent term. To develop this new index, we reformulate Patnaik’s E-index in three fundamental ways:

  1. Hired-out labour is regulated to account for the exploitation that arises out of off-farm employment, bearing in mind that exploitative relations are not confined to the agricultural production process;
  2. The rental term is reformulated in a way that calculates the net labour days appropriated/given in the form of rent for land leased out/in such that it becomes empirically testable;
  3. A mechanisation term is added to account for the means of production (machinery) owned and labour appropriated/given in the form of rent for machines leased out/in.

Like the E-index, our formulation presupposes that labour days, output and value are convertible into each other. Therefore, any of the three can be used to measure the extent of exploitation. We choose labour days as the unit of measurement for its operational simplicity.

Overall, the MEI is composed of three components, namely, labour hiring, land leasing and mechanisation, to calculate the labour days appropriated. We then set limits to categorise the peasantry into mutually exclusive economic classes. As the index is formulated as a ratio, it ranges from plus infinity to minus infinity depending on whether the household is a net appropriator of the labour of others or is itself subjected to exploitation.

We then empirically tested this new index using primary data collected from rural Haryana, India, and compared it to the E-index. We found that the E-index understated the economic polarisation prevalent in the countryside compared to the results obtained from the MEI. This brings us to our main argument—mechanisation is an indispensable criterion for studying economic class differentiation in conditions where agrarian capitalism has consolidated. Even as class-based analysis of the agrarian question appears to be superseded by a wider—that is, not class-specific—struggle for a unified peasantry against the challenges posed by neoliberal globalization, the MEI serves to remind and demonstrate that the class dynamics of peasant differentiation is ongoing and deserves further investigation.

Paramjit Singh is an Assistant Professor and Mukesh Kumar is a Research Scholar at the Department of Economics, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India.

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