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Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962

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Peasants under Siege

Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962
by Gail Kligman and Katherine Verdery

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)
520 pp
US $39.50

The book is an ambitious attempt to map the process of collectivization in Romania and its implications for parties involved in it: the Romanian Communist Party as its driving force and the village organizational structures which constituted its object. Drawing on a foucauldian perspective, the book aims to contribute to a historical ethnography of state formation, by trying to understand how property regimes are made and how their making connects notions of personhood with the kind of state that is taking shape. By considering property as involving not just rights, but cultural, social and political relationships as well, the book approaches collectivization as a process through which the Romanian Party-state was constituted, at the level of Party domination, subjectivities and state-subject relations.

The result is a rich, 520 pages long description of the collectivization process marshalling a variety of sources (archival but also oral) as well as perspectives (of Party activists but also of peasants). The book is divided in three parts: Laying the groundwork; Pedagogies of power: Technologies of Rural Transformation; and Outcomes. The first part details the “Soviet blueprint” that established the technology of collectivization followed by Eastern European leaders, but also how in many important ways Romanian communist leaders departed from it. This is followed by a description of the “traditional” Romanian village as based on kinship and status hierarchies, and an outline of the collectivization process and its interaction with village hierarchies. The story of Romania’s collectivization becomes here the story of how the Romanian Communist Party managed, through a dialectic of centralization and de-centralization, to gain near-total control over the food supply and place it in the service of industrial development. This control came, however, with a political cost, as the central Party apparatus proved incapable of controlling lower echelon cadres. Having, in the process of collectivization, to develop networks of social relations with villagers, cadres turned the Party into a personalistic bureaucracy. This was accompanied by a particular relation between state and subjects, the hallmarks of which were both permanent surveillance of cadres by Romania’s secret services (the Securitate) and resistance to becoming obedient subjects on the part of both cadres and villagers. Socialism was thus hollowed out from within, as cadres joined the Party to promote or protect themselves rather than from conviction, and the Party-state apparatus rested on no more than joint enjoyment of the power to rule.

The second part of the book is dedicated to an exploration of “pedagogies of power,” defined as a set of representational and participatory instruments that communicated the Party’s vision while simultaneously educating and disciplining villagers. These pedagogies involved the use of a specific language and vocabulary (such as the term of “chiabur” designating rich villagers), new forms of writing (such as petitions to various Party fora) and generally recourse to a plethora of propaganda tools (slogans, wall gazettes, socialist competitions etc.) as well as other, less benign pedagogical means (such as denunciations and unmaskings, but also direct coercion, and, most importantly, the fomenting of class war against the chiaburi). These techniques compelled peasants to enter a relationship with the Party and adopt its terms even when contesting them, but also permitted cadres to seek not so much a change in villagers’ convictions as their mere performance of consent. In doing this, both cadres and villagers manipulated rural conceptions of community membership, kinship, gender and spatial-temporal relations. Class war sought to break apart the village social structure, by bringing poor peasants under the patronage of the Party, fighting the chiaburi, and upsetting any alliance between the first and the second. Teachings about exploitation on the part of chiaburi were met, however, with many of them contesting their labeling, and with other villagers displaying sympathy with their plight. The result of the class war and of food shortages in the village was, nevertheless, an attenuation of social relationships.

The last part of the book is dedicated to the “organizational breakthrough” which reconfigured village organization by replacing the tightly bounded and territorially structured household-based communities arrayed in status hierarchies with formal organizations. The latter, namely state and collective farms, were both informed by a particular ideology of class equality and structured around a hierarchy of formal positions. The resultant bureaucratization of village organization had nevertheless to accommodate the community’s own organizing principles, thus compromising the intended formal organizational result. Contrary to the old totalitarian model, where Romanian collectivization is understood as a mere copy of the Soviet blueprint, the book shows that, given ethnic, religious, economic and political level differences among villages, the texture of experience for individuals, households and communities varied widely in terms of the patterns and pace of collectivizing. All in all collectivization resulted both in the re-stratification, bureaucratization and politicization of village life, and in the insidious flourishing of personal relations. Thus, villagers’ adaptations to the new system populated it with the kind of relationships inimical to its formal bureaucratic design. In the process, peasants were transformed into bureaucrats that enjoyed geographical as well as upward social mobility, the patriarchal household was replaced with the paternal party, relations between generations inside the family were turned upside down, family and kinship were colonized by Party policy, relationships were personalized, status hierarchies were reversed, and persons defined by control of land, work and wealth in people gave way to bureaucratic state subjects oriented to getting by.

While the book offers a dynamic micro-level view of the collectivization process, its description of its central analytic backgrounds, pre-socialist Romanian villages and socialism, seems by comparison rather static, monolithic and bounded both in space and in time. The reader is thus left in the end with the view of a “bounded,” integrated pre-socialist village community that seems, before socialism, to be minimally influenced by its larger political-economic context and, during socialism, to draw its coherence from it being the negative antithesis of the Party. In a similar vein, socialism is viewed in a half-baked historical perspective as a regime characterized by the singular logic of domination set in place during collectivization, with little attention to how the regime changed even after collectivization both internally and as a response to the larger geo-political context.

Much of the contradictions apparent in the picture of collectivization painted by the book comes from the fact that the book privileges what appear in the end to be rather essentialized state-subject relations, techniques, pedagogies and discipline, to the detriment (although not the exclusion) of actually lived social relations, and most notably the struggle for the appropriation of various material and symbolic resources at the village, national and international level. Despite acknowledging the “harsh and brutal” realities of pre-socialist village inequalities, landlords and rich peasants are constructed as benevolent patrons; poor peasants are rather condescendingly seen as prone to either pre-socialist fascist allegiances or the Party’s manipulation during socialism, and as imbued by purely instrumental rationality in their relation with the communist regime; while socialist subjects are seen as lacking independent initiative and having a disposition towards dependency. The book thus unfortunately and rather uncritically reproduces the dominant view actively promoted by Romanian post-socialist elites. This view constructs socialism as a traumatic event in the life courses of respectable Romanians (equated by default with pre-war village and urban elites and their inheritors), while relegating positive evaluations of the period to the dustbin of emotional, irrational “nostalgia.” Of course, this rhetoric is far from being specific to Romania: in continuation with the Cold War rhetoric, it matches rather neatly current neo-liberal and neo-conservative constructions of the (western) welfare state as a “nanny state” breeding dependency, of the poor as needing to be grateful for the benevolent patronage of capitalist employers, and of any contestation of current property relations as being against human nature and personhood.

Maybe a more attentive consideration of the fate of Romanian peasants before, during and after socialism through the lenses of labor history and collective action would help us to draw a more balanced picture of Romanian collectivization and Romanian socialism. This may mean bringing to the centre of the picture poor peasants and their individual and collective agency, the possible intersection of their convictions with those promoted by the communist regime beyond and apart from their instrumental approach to it, as well as a more encompassing contextual frame that goes beyond the “Soviet blueprint” to include the world capitalist system encompassing Eastern European countries even during socialism.

Posted in: Common Core
Sabina Stan

About the Author:

Sabina Stan is a Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at Dublin City University, Ireland. Her doctoral research centered on the post-socialist transformation of the Romanian countryside and her post-doctoral research dealt with healthcare reform, particularly privatization and the use of information technologies. Her work has evolved towards the link between migration, healthcare and citizenship. She co-edited Life in Post-Communist Eastern Europe after EU Membership (2012), wrote L’agriculture roumaine en mutation (2005) and has contributed chapters for books such as Iarna vrajbei noastre: Protestele din Romania ianuarie, februarie 2012 [The Winter of Our Discontent: The Romanian Protests of January-February 2012] (2012) and Romania in the European Union: Challenges, Pathways and Prospects (2012). Her articles have appeared in Labor History, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Irish Journal of Anthropology, Material Culture History, Anthropologica, and Dialectical Anthropology. Dr. Stan is a member of the 3U Research Circle on Critical Global Studies, Joint Institute of Global Health, Anthropological Association of Ireland and the DCU Migration Discussion Group. Dr. Stan was educated at Université Paris Descartes (M.A.) and Université de Montréal (Ph.D.).

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