The Chayanovian Alternative

The Family Labour Farm

Rafel & Rogelio Sandoval.jpg (46724 bytes)Chayanov wanted to challenge the Bolshevik argument that Russian peasants were unreliable allies of the Revolution because some of them were embryonic capitalists. He argued that capitalism was not developing in the Russian countryside, despite the fact that some peasant families were richer than others and might employ other peasants as wage-labourers. Chayanov argued that peasant economy had a logic of its own which was nothing to do with capitalism. So it would be possible to develop a socialist society on the basis of individual peasant family farms and cooperative institutions of various kinds. Anthropologists have usually learned something about Chayanov's ideas by reading Marshall Sahlins's essay "The Domestic Mode of Production" in Stone Age Economics. But Sahlins only borrows one part of Chayanov's analysis, the theory of consumption-labour balance. In doing so, he distorts it somewhat by taking it out of its original context.

Chayanov assumes that peasant family farms are units of both production and consumption. His model of peasant economic behaviour begins by assuming that the primary objective of production in peasant society is to provide a minimum standard of livelihood for the family. It is important to understand, however, that Chayanov was talking about peasants who were involved with the market in various ways. He assumes private land tenure and market exchange relations. The presence of market exchange can, however, be compatible with production for livelihood. It does not imply that production has to be ‘maximising’ in Sahlins's sense, or to be profit-orientated in the modern capitalist sense.

Peasants, Chayanov argues, are primarily interested in use value. Not all peasant households are self-sufficient in everything they need to consume: but many peasant market exchanges are simply exchanges of use values. Peasant A exchanges corn he does not need for his family to buy a cooking pot produced by a craftsman who lacks the land to produce food for his own family. Even if the exchange involves money — the peasant sells his corn for money, and later buys a pot from someone else for money — this kind of exchange system is about meeting needs, not making money as an end in itself.

This is important because even in Chayanov’s Russia, many peasants could not survive by farming alone: some combined farming with craft production of some sort, or worked for wages part of the year on a seasonal basis. But however they earned their livelihood, their primary preoccupation can still be with use-value. Now we can go back to the consumption-labour balance principle.

Chayanov argued that because peasant production was orientated towards use value, work would only be intensified until the gains from any further increases in work input would be outweighed by its drudgery. In other words, once a peasant household had done enough work to ensure an acceptable standard of consumption for the family as a whole, it would not work any harder. Thus the amount of work done by the individual working members of a household will be inversely related to the number of dependent consumers they have to support. The higher the ratio of non-working children to workers there is in a household, the harder the productive members will have to work.

Once the consumer-worker ratio improves, these people can ease off. This isn't the real gist of Chayanov's model, however, because it doesn't pay any attention to the way peasant behaviour is linked to the conditions under which peasants produce — in the case of Russia, peasants were faced with particular problems of land scarcity, and most of them lacked alternative possibilities of employment (though this was not true, for example, of the regions around the new industrial cities). When these conditions don’t hold, Chayanov’s model doesn’t work, and Chayanov himself was well aware of the special conditions he assumed  in formulating it. Given those conditions, he thought it was appropriate to assume that peasant households' economic behaviour is determined, in the first instance, by the need to achieve some minimum standard of consumption or income, and that peasants would respond to problems in achieving the minimum by working harder on the farm.