Again on agrarian reforms

It may seem that this blog is particularly focused on the late 19th century. But that would be a superficial impression. Actually, the main point of interest is the period between the Great Depression of the 1870s and the Economic Miracle of the 1950s (or the Green Revolution of the 1960s). What holds this period together is the dominance of a specific view of agriculture as a family business. The last decade of this period saw this paradigm triumph in connection with development policies within and outside Europe and the emphasis put on “agrarian reforms.”

The Gracchi, unlucky proponents of an agrarian reform before development became a concern. Were they too early?

When looking backward at the literature on the prerequisites for development that flourished in the 1950s, the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron noted – not without a hint of skepticism – the importance attributed to the “agrarian reform” as a pre-requisite for development. This is the full quote, that I transcribe here not to forget it.

A good example of what is meant [by prerequisites or “necessary conditions for development” as Rostow – who is mentioned one line above – would call them] are agrarian reforms. They are regarded as a necessary prerequisite of industrialization. Without such reorms, it is said, an industrialization in Europe could not begin at all. Only if the peasants were freed from the trammels of an institutional framework which limited their mobility could industry receive the labour it needed. Only a flourishing peasant agriculture emerging from a properly conceived and correctly administered agrarian reform could constitute a large and growing market for industrial goods and sustain the demand for them. Only a so reformed agriculture could supply the growing industry with foodstuffs and, in less develped countries also, engage in exprts of agricultural produce and thereby insert a rather fixed item into the balance of payments, so as to provide foreign exchange for imports of machinery amd for the service of industrialization loans. All these relationships appear so logical, so compelling that one is indeed tempted to regard them in the light of historical necessity and to draw the conclusion that in cases where these prerequisites were lacking no industrialization could take place. The only difficulty is that these beautiful excercises in logic have been defeated by history.

(Europe in the Russian mirror: Four lectures in economic history, Cambrigde: 1970, p. 100-1

Gerschenkron did not believed that there existed a single path to the “tam grande secretum” of development, so that there were no pre-determinate pre-requisites, let alone the agrarian reform. And yet he seemed to believe that there was a some sort of a well-defined state, in every historical period, that could be identified as “developed.”


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