PEASANTS WITHOUT LAND: FUSE FOR REVOLUTION?
Consider this fact: In nine key countries that experienced 20th-century revolutions -- most of them Marxist -- the number of landless peasants had reached 30 percent or more of the countries' total populations.Skip to next paragraph
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This was true of Mexico in 1911 (62 percent of the people were landless), Russia in 1917 (32 to 47 percent landless), Spain in 1936 (about 40 percent), China in 1941 (35 to 45 percent in the rice-growing region), Bolivia in 1952 (60 percent), Cuba in 1959 (39 percent), South Vietnam in 1961 (42 to 58 percent), Ethiopia in 1975 (38 percent), and Nicaragua in 1979 (40 percent).
There are only five major countries left with over 30 percent landlessness: India (41 percent), Pakistan (38 percent), Bangladesh (54 percent), the Philippines (36 percent), and Indonesia (44 percent of Java, where two-thirds of the Indonesians live).
Does this mean these countries face the threat of Marxist revolution?
The leading American authority on land reform predicts it does. Roy L. Prosterman, a University of Washington law professor, has helped draft land-redistribution legislation in 16 countries, including South Vietnam, the Philippines, and El Salvador.
In an interview, Dr. Prosterman, warned, "Unless the landless in India, Pakistan, Bandladesh, the Philippines, and Java are given more of a stake in technological revolution, there will be massive revolutionary violence in these five countries."
This can be avoided, he says, through the distribution of what he calls "microplots," or quarter-acres of irrigated land. Dr. Prosterman feels biological science will soon make it possible for a five- to six-member family to feed itself by multiple-cropping such a plot.
Meanwhile China, in its dash for scientific and economic freedom, is putting more and more cropland into private plots. Russia, where collective farming was invented 64 years ago, has been encouraging its farmers to expand their private food and livestock production.
The shaky economies of Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Vietnam are prime examples of how badly state-owned, state-run systems ago with agricultural and industrial modernization.
As the world's post-1800 technological revolution continues to work its way through every country, even the communists are coming to recognize the importance of private ownership.
US President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. have seized on this as evidence that communism is disintegrating.
But this would hold true only if there were sufficiently equitable ownership of private property in all the noncommunist countries. If too few people own the means of production -- which in the third world means a plot of land -- technical advance can dangerously widen the gap between rich and poor.
What gives weight to Dr. Prosterman's view is that he helped design South Vietnam's belated land redistribution program in 1970-74. Until then almost nothing had been done, although the Vietnamese communists had made "land to the tillers" their prime propaganda slogan of the war. From 1957 to 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem gave land to about 10 percent of South Vietnam's 1 million landless families. His successors in the next seven years did nothing. (Nguyen Cao Ky claimed in Guam in 1977 that he had redistributed 2 million acres. This was an outright, but widely reported, lie; Ky never transferred a single acre.)
In the 1970-74 redistribution, more than 50 percent of South Vietnam's 8.6 million acres of cultivated land were given out to about 900,000 tenant families , or close to 6 million people -- a majority of the country's rural population.
South Vietnam's range of landlessness fell from between 42 and 50 percent to between 7 and 18 percent. Viet Cong recruitment in the Mekong Delta dropped from an average of 7,000 per week to fewer than 1,000, and rice production rose 30 percent.
Had land been redistributed 10 years earlier, it is possible that Hanoi would have been defeated. As it was, it came too late -- by then American domestic political support for the war effort had almost completely eroded. But the result leaves Dr. Prosterman with the firm conviction -- which this writer shares -- that land reform is the best answer to Marx-ist revolution and probably the only one.
Take El Salvador. A country the size of Massachusetts, inhabited by only 4.8 million people. El Salvador had the lowest per capita gross national product -- (Only in northeastern Brazil, where there is low population density, is there a higher degree of landlessness.)
El Salvador's density was 581 per square mile, higher than India's 550. Its population was 60 percent rural. About 420,000 families cultivated 1.6 million acres, or about 3.8 acres each, 20 percent more than in India.