Agrarianism has two common meanings. The first meaning refers to a social philosophy or political philosophy which values rural society as superior to urban society, the independent farmer as superior to the paid worker, and sees farming as a way of life that can shape the ideal social values. It stresses the superiority of a simpler rural life as opposed to the complexity of city life, with its banks and factories.
Secondly, the term "agrarianism" means political proposals for land redistribution, specifically the distribution of land from the rich to the poor or landless. This terminology is common in many countries, and originated from the "Lex Sempronia Agraria" or "agrarian laws" of Rome in 133 BC, imposed by Tiberius Gracchus, that seized public land (ager publicus) used by the rich and distributed it to the poor. This definition of agrarianism is commonly known as “agrarian reform.” In 18th- and 19th-century England and Ireland, the word identified any land reform movement that sought to redistribute farm lands more equally, especially to landless Irish families.
- Farming is the sole occupation which offers total independence and self-sufficiency.
- Urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy independence and dignity while fostering vice and weakness.
- The agricultural community, with its fellowship of labor and cooperation is the model society.
- The farmer has a solid, stable position in the world order. He "has a sense of identity, a sense of historical and religious tradition, a feeling of belonging to a concrete family, place, and region, which are psychologically and culturally beneficial." The harmony of his life checks the encroachments of a fragmented, alienated modern society.
- Cultivation of the soil "has within it a positive spiritual good" and from it the cultivator acquires the virtues of "honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality." These result from a direct contact with nature, and through nature a closer relationship to God. The agrarian is blessed in that he follows the example of God in creating order out of chaos.
The philosophical roots of agrarianism include European and Chinese philosophers. The Chinese School of Agrarianism was a philosophy that advocated peasant utopian communalism and egalitarianism. In societies influenced by Confucianism, the farmer was considered an esteemed productive member of society, whereas merchants who made money were looked down upon. This influenced European intellectuals like François Quesnay, an avid Confucianist and advocate of China's agrarian policies, forming the French agrarian philosophy of Physiocracy. The Physiocrats, along with the ideas of John Locke and the Romantic Era, formed the basis of modern European and American agrarianism.
Former United States president (1801-1809) Thomas Jefferson was a representative agrarian who built Jeffersonian Democracy around the notion that farmers are “the most valuable citizens” and the truest republicans.
Peasant parties first appeared across Eastern Europe between 1860 and 1910, when commercialized agriculture and world market forces disrupted traditional rural society, and the railway and growing literacy facilitated the work of roving organizers. Agrarian parties advocated land reforms to redistribute land on large estates among those who work it. They also wanted village cooperatives to keep the profit from crop sales in local hands, and credit institutions to underwrite needed improvements. Many peasant parties were also nationalist parties, because peasants often worked their land for the benefit of landlords of different ethnicity.
Peasant parties rarely had any power before World War I, but some became influential in the interwar era, especially in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. For a while in the 1920s and 1930s there was a Green International (International Agrarian Bureau) based on the peasant parties in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Serbia. It functioned primarily as an information center that spread the ideas of agrarianism and combating socialism on the left and landlords on the right, and never launched any significant activities.
In Bulgaria, Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BZNS) was organized in 1899 to resist taxes and build cooperatives. BZNS came to power in 1919 and introduces many economic, social, and legal reforms. However conservative forces crushed BZNS in a 1923 coup and assassinated its leader, Aleksandar Stamboliyski (1879–1923). BZNS was made into a Communist puppet group until 1989, when it reorganized as a genuine party.
In Czechoslovakia the Republican Party of Agricultural and Smallholder People often shared power in parliament as a partner in the five-party pětka coalition. The party's leader Antonin Svehla (1873–1933) was prime minister several times. It was consistently the strongest party, forming and dominating coalitions. It moved beyond its original agrarian base to reach middle-class voters. The party was banned after the Second World War.
In Romania, in 1919 older parties from Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia merged to become the National Peasants' Party. Iuliu Maniu (1873–1953) was prime minister with an agrarian cabinet from 1928 to 1930, but the Great Depression made proposed reforms impossible. The Communists dissolved the party in 1947, but it reformed in 1989 after Communism collapsed.
In Serbia Nikola Pašić (1845–1926) and his People's Radical Party dominated Serbian politics after 1903; they also monopolized power in Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1929; during the dictatorship of the 1930s, it furnished the prime minister.
In Australia, the Country Party from the 1920s to the 1970s, promulgated its version of agrarianism, which it called "Countrymindedness". The goal was to enhance the status of the graziers (operators of big sheep ranches) and small farmers, and justified subsidies for them.
The New Zealand Liberal Party aggressively promoted agrarianism in its heyday, 1891–1912. The landed gentry and aristocracy ruled Britain at this time. New Zealand never had an aristocracy but it did have wealthy landowners who largely controlled politics before 1891. The Liberal Party set out to change that by a policy it called "populism." Richard Seddon had proclaimed the goal as early as 1884: "It is the rich and the poor; it is the wealthy and the landowners against the middle and labouring classes. That, Sir, shows the real political position of New Zealand." The Liberal strategy was to create a large class of small land-owning farmers who supported Liberal ideals. The Liberal government also established the basis of the later welfare state, with old age pensions, developed a system for settling industrial disputes, which was accepted by both employers and trade unions. In 1893 it extended voting rights to women, making New Zealand the first country in the world to enact universal female suffrage.
To obtain land for farmers the Liberal government from 1891 to 1911 purchased 3,100,000 acres (1,300,000 ha) of Maori land. The government also purchased 1,300,000 acres (530,000 ha) from large estate holders for subdivision and closer settlement by small farmers. The Advances to Settlers Act (1894) provided low-interest mortgages, while the Agriculture Department disseminated information on the best farming methods. The Liberals proclaimed success in forging an egalitarian, anti-monopoly land policy. The policy built up support for the Liberal party in rural North Island electorates. By 1903 the Liberals were so dominant that there was no longer an organized opposition in Parliament.
Agrarianism is similar but not identical with the back-to-the-land movement. Agrarianism concentrates on the fundamental goods of the earth, communities of more limited economic and political scale than in modern society, and on simple living—even when this shift involves questioning the "progressive" character of some recent social and economic developments. Thus agrarianism is not industrial farming, with its specialization on products and industrial scale.
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