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New International, March–April 1950


Jack Brad

Key to Asia


From New International, Vol. XVI No. 2, March–April 1950, pp. 125–127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Agrarian Unrest In Southeast Asia
by Erich N. Jacoby
Columbia University Press. $4.00.

To the growing post-war literature on Asia Dr. Jacoby has added this penetrating study of the effects of imperialism on agriculture among the 160 million people of Southeast Asia. Dr. Jacoby does not pretend to a pioneer work, making due acknowledgment to those scholars who have paved the way. Yet. his synthesis is new. No other work, to this reviewer’s knowledge, brings together the best results of these studies for the entire area. And the book represents a basic reorientation on the critical position of land and the peasant as the key to the area’s nationalism.

The opening general survey is a dissection of the character of colonial economy – the consequences of dependency status. It is not only that local surpluses are drained off by the metropolitan powers – thus restricting local development – hut that even what is returned to the area by means of capital investment, engineering works and machinery has no organic relation to a colony’s development but serves to strengthen the alienated sector of economy. This is a wider sense of the meaning of imperialism. It gives a broader meaning to national independence which can use very little of the structure bequeathed by the foreign masters regardless of the fact that this is the modernized sector. Such a view gives us a measure of the difficulties of the new nationalisms and the key to their present impasse. Unfortunately. Jacoby does not draw out these implications, being satisfied to present only the current data.

Penetration of money economy destroyed the village handicraftsmen and “the old village economy was brought to a slow death” as its self-sufficiency came to an end. Agriculture was reorganized as auxiliary to European industry. Large-scale agriculture in commercial crops replaced subsistence production of food in important areas. Peasants were increasingly restricted to tiny patches and reduced to chronic undernourishment. This is the reason for the “laziness” or low productivity of native labor. Since the new economy depended on cheap labor rather than mechanization but did not utilize the full labor of the people the result is the general phenomenon of under-employment.

The Southeast Asian colonies became mono-crop producers of oil, rubber, tin, copra, sugar; for here imperialism was able to carry to an extreme what it managed only partially in India and China. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaya, Burma, Indo-China and Siam were brought under the world markets, suffering all the effects of price fluctuations and the business cycle without any power to control these effects. In this manner capitalism was able to pass off some of the costs of its own distress on the colonial peoples who served as a kind of depressed fourth class to the metropolitan capitalist economy as a whole.

Diversion of all the major factors of production to the needs of alien economy is the basic reason for the failure of local capitalism to emerge. It has never been a matter of legal fiat alone which prevented potent manufactures. Fundamentally, it is a matter of alienation of sovereignty, political and economic. Jacoby states the case adequately: “There is no example in colonial history of a dependent system with a well-rounded economy of its own and a normal social stratification.”

In a short section Jacoby disposes easily of liberal theorists of “pluralistic societies” such as J.S. Furnivall. The idea of “indirect rule” became “a kind of mandate on behalf of humanity and of the peoples under Europe’s generous tutelage,” a sophisticated version of the white man’s burden, while the indirect rulers became puppets for a price, sharing as landlords, usurers and bureaucrats. “The political cooperation of landlord? who became safely established in the ranks of administration, government or council, is the last and most adjusted form of indirect rule – it deepens the political crisis within the colonial system as the bulk of the population begins to identify colonial rule with landlord rule.” In this way the agrarian problem became the key to the entire colonial question. It created a booby-trap for bourgeois nationalism. For, so long as the latter fails to destroy the landlord system the national revolution is in jeopardy. This is happening in India right now where the Congress Party is preoccupied with removing the social content of independence.

But in the southeastern countries the rule of imperialism was able to restrict the development of capitalist classes so that today the nationalist leaderships suffer from a spinal weakness in not having any substantial social base. That is why the nationalism of Southeast Asia is so much weaker and more compromised; its own destiny is none too clear, given its lack of independent capitalist development.

While Jacoby fails to give imperialism an historic development related to changes in the nature of capitalism he does appreciate differences in forms of colonial rule as projections of the different characters of the various powers. Thus powerful Britain was able to establish direct rule over large areas, and maintain it for long periods, the colonial state serving as the lever for capitalist penetration. Holland, by contrast a relatively weaker power, could never afford the luxury of direct rule with its enormous armies and bureaucracies and relatively free capitalist development. From the earliest times it established a type of indirect rule; or as Jacoby puts it, Holland “lack[s] the material resources for an energetic colonial government which, like England, can employ a repressive system which consists in intervening only after it is too late, but intervening then with a vengeance. The Netherlands must necessarily practice a preventative policy” which was more intolerant and restrictive on the colonials but operated through maintenance of much of the traditional native structures bent now to new purposes.

One serious flaw is that Jacoby has insufficiently studied the work of native scholars and political leaders. He makes no reference to the increasing studies of the Indian and Chinese schools of agrarian economy, and only casual reference to the programmatic proposals of various colonial political leaders, all of whom have some attitude toward agrarian problems. Only in discussing the Philippines, where Jacoby spent some time with the Hukbalahops, does the living, social breath of rebellion come alive; yet the same is true for the entire area. Actually the book is mistitled since it is an examination of the forces producing unrest rather than a description of its movements. But to return to the initial point, it is no longer “objective” to write about these colonial countries without studying the works of national scholars. It is true that in the countries concerned in this study the intellectuals are rather pitiful and their production is both scarce and poor. But the works of the Chinese agrarian school are basic to the whole region. And even the poor works are important for their place in politics; also they are barometers of the intellectual climate in which the agrarian reform movements are working.

Which brings us to the special thesis offered by Jacoby. His proposition is “that the national idea became a permanent force in Southeast Asia at the moment when the peasants were forced to give up subsistence farming for the cultivation of cash crops or when (as in highly colonized Java) subsistence farming ceased to yield a subsistence” (p.246). Elsewhere he is more emphatic:

“The industrial revolution so essential in the case of Europe, was not the deciding factor for the development of national movements in Southeast Asia.”

At this point it might be thought Jacoby is separating this area from the dynamics at work in other colonial countries to describe special local relations, but no!

“Only if we abandon the belief that industrial development and nationalism are naturally coordinated can we evaluate rightly the importance of the peasantry as the bearer of the national idea in Asia. The role of the industrialized areas is highly overestimated though in a number of cases [sic!] these areas have supplied the leaders of the national movements.”

That this point of view can be stated so strongly by a serious scholar is indicative of the new feature of the postwar national movements. Everywhere in Asia, social objectives have become blended with political aims, as in the wake of the war the masses of people have taken the field of action. Current revolutions have seen the peasants of Viet-Nam, the Hukbalahops, the Chinese agrarian revolts, the Javanese peasants – altering the center of political focus. This Jacoby expresses very well.

Agarian relations contain the nub of the social question in colonial society. The intervention of the peasantry into the post-war movements of nationalism and unrest is the indication of the new social soil of Asiatic nationalism out of which have come for the first time large Social-Democratic, radical democratic and Stalinist parties.

But that is not the same as equating nationalism with the peasant. Without the land question nationalism is sterile, reactionary as in China; but nationalism is a response of all the colonial classes for liberation which antedates the recent social movements of the rural masses.

Nor has it been demonstrated that this village-centered class can rise to the national stage, create great and durable parties of its own, under its own leadership. The Huks of the Philippines perhaps came closest to this, but they arc essentially still local and have yet to meet decisive tests. The far more redundant pattern is represented by China, where Stalinism used the peasant revolts as a ladder on which to climb to power; or Indonesia, where the nascent republican bourgeosie has done the same, though its perch is more precarious.

Contrary to Jacoby, in Asia as in Europe, it is urban culture, politics, leaders and economy that lead the modern movements. Even Stalinism is not an exception to this. In China, it has already acknowledged its shift in base. This is not due to the inferiority of the peasant or the superiority of the workers or bourgeoisie but because the solution to the very agrarian distress lies in modern technological development and the relations of the classes produced by this industrial revolution. The countryside cannot modernize itself. Barring such a transformation the greatest of peasant movements will be reduced to a doomed Jacquerie. Is it an accident that not one social theory has come out of the countryside for the alteration of society? Whereever fundamental change has been projected in the direction of a modern solution it has come from the modern classes, of which the usurping Stalinist bureaucracy must be counted as one. The peasantry in revolt is an archaic depressed group rising out of the stagnant Asiatic rut of two millennia. No observer could fail to be impressed with the enormous potential implicit in this historic awakening.

One other crucial point needs to be made. In his pursuit of the destructive effects of imperialism, Jacoby, like many another, has overlooked the fact that with commercial transformation of agriculture by imperialism “the essential elements of industrialism already have found entrance in the dependencies – not through a busy building of factories and foundries, but through the industrialization of agriculture itself,” as another leading observer, Bruno Lasker, has put it. Lasker has pointed out that “tropical agriculture has already become too highly industrialized to permit of a return to production in small units.”

The movements for national emancipation stand on two legs; the beginnings of modern urban society, and the commercial large-scale and partially mechanized agriculture closely related to industry and the world market. This has developed in spite of the overall policy of imperialism to suppress modernization in the colonies. Capitalism has brought the colonies into the modern age in spite of itself. This is the meaning of the postwar revolt of Asia.

However, while the choices before the colonial peoples, whether socialism, capitalism or totalitarian bureaucratism, are all urban and industrially based, to a very large extent, the replies they give to the land question will determine which road is taken. That is what makes Jacoby’s book so valuable. He has put his finger on the most urgent post-war problem to come to the. fore in the colonial world.

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