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17. Teodor Shanin and the sociology of peasants


shutterstock_146388917logsTeodor Shanin, born 1930, grew up in Vilnius, now Lithuania. When the country came under Nazi occupation during the War he fled first to Russia and then to  France before making his way to Palestine from where, increasingly disillusioned by Israel, he came to Britain in 1963 and spent time at Birmingham and Sheffield universities before becoming, in 1974, professor of Sociology at Manchester.

His intellectual interest in the peasantry was framed by the observation that this was a social group that did not easily fit with the role anticipated by most sociological theorisations and political projections. For this reason first book had been entitled, The Awkward Class (1972). Capitalist development with a tendency towards the formation of larger and more capital intensive production units  was supposed to herald the demise of the mass of the peasantry through proletarianisation. The peasantry, however, had not read the script. Not only did it survive in one form or another, in significant numbers, but it did not act out the universally conservative role that had been ascribed to them in the 19th century by much of the socialist oriented working class parties and trade unions. In the main radical social transformations of the 20th century, those of Mexico, Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba, the peasantry played an important and arguably decisive part. Shanin was to note that precisely those characteristics which had been held to account for the conservatism of peasant communities, their dispersal, the self-sufficiency of individual households and their lack of infrastructure, had enabled them to sustain social movements in prolonged struggles against autocratic states.

In his two-volume work, Russia as a Developing Society (1985, 1986) written during his time in Manchester, Shanin links his previous argument that the peasant household in Russia, based on family labour and family production units, had its own particular dynamic, with the idea that the rural economy had also had to be analysed in its interaction with the state and the working of the capitalist economy on the national and international levels. Attempts to grasp the interaction of these complex elements within a single social formation had led to a proliferation of terms such as semi-feudal or semi-capitalist, none of which were entirely satisfactory. The hybrid system of Russia’s pre-1917 political economy contained the characteristics, he argued,  that have come to be seen, subsequently,  as defining developing societies.

Further reading

T.Shanin (1972)The awkward class : political sociology of peasantry in a developing society, Russia 1910-1925


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