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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > A > Agrarianism


The Latin word agrarius was applied historically to laws or their partisans, favoring the division of Roman public lands among the poorer citizens. So the English words, agrarianism, and agrarian generally, imply theories and movements intended to benefit the poorer classes of society by dealing in some way with the ownership of land or the legal obligations of the cultivators. In modern German, indeed, the prefix Agrar is used to mean rural or agricultural, and a German political party, roughly corresponding to the former "country party" or "landed interest" in England, is called die Agrarpartei, often translated as the Agrarians, though unlike the stricter use of agrarianism given above. Keeping to that stricter use of the word, we can distinguish two social movements running through history, one being agrarian reform, the other agrarian revolution. The border line is indeed obscure, but the difference, as of night and day, fundamental.

Let us look first at the movements of agrarian reform. Conspicuous is the case of the Hebrew Prophets. How far the land organization of the Mosaic Law was ever in full working order is disputed, probably unascertainable. What can be ascertained is the growth, pari passu with the growth of wealth and commerce under the kings, of ill-treatment of the Hebrew peasantry, mainly by over-taxation to pay for a luxurious court, by corn-jobbery and monopoly, and by usurious loans, which made the peasant a debtor-slave or totally dispossessed him. And we see lawless dispossession: witness the frequent complaints of the oppression of widows and orphans, and the case of Naboth's vineyard. Against this oppression the Prophets protested so vigorously that by some moderns they have been taken to be Socialists. But they were eminently social reformers, not revolutionists. They incited to no act of human vengeance upon evil-doers, nor to revolt against authority, even when it was misused; but they denounced immorality in home life, fraud in commerce, harshness to debtors, injustice to the poor; and as, under the technical conditions of production in antiquity, the main social problem was the preservation of a free peasantry, and the social question primarily an agrarian question, the Prophets appeared as agrarian reformers, with the not impracticable aim that each man should dwell in security under his own vine and his own fig-tree, on his father's inheritance. Their exhortations, in fact, kept before the Israelites a high social ideal; and by recalling the ancient law that bond-servants should be freed every seventh year, and that loans in kind and money should be gratuitous, the growth of the slave-cultivation of Punic, Greek, and Roman civilization was restrained, and Palestine preserved as a land of Jewish peasant proprietors.

In secular history two conspicuous examples of agrarian reform are those of Solon in Attica and of the Gracchi in Italy. The release of debtor-slaves and the removal of unlawful enclosures seem the main features of Solon's economic legislation, of which indeed full trustworthy details are wanting. The character of the Gracchan reform is more accurately known, being mainly to promote the colonization of the public lands by small farmers in accordance with old laws which had been disregarded. The Gracchan land laws were akin to those of modern Australasia. They were partly successful in re-establishing and protecting the free peasantry, but were ultimately frustrated, chiefly through the fatal permission to mortgage and sell, allowing the small holdings to be absorbed by latifundia cultivated by slaves. After the advent of Christianity, the two great processes of agrarian reform were: first, the transformation of rural slaves (often working in chains and sleeping in ergastula), into serfs (coloni), attached to the soil; and secondly, in feudal times, the mitigation of the burdens of serfdom, and the transformation of serfs into a free peasantry, from that of England, in the fifteenth century, to that of Russia, in the nineteenth, a gradual movement from restraint to freedom, from feudal immobility to free trade in land, and to unrestricted agricultural improvements. But then also, as a parallel movement, the checks to usury were withdrawn, as well as those to over-indebtedness, exhaustive cultivation, whole-sale evictions of the peasantry, appropriation of vast tracts by individuals or companies, and the opposite evil of subdividing small farms into fragments; so that the seeming freedom of the rural classes was leading to poverty and oppression, while reckless competition was leading to the waste of national resources. Hence agrarian reform, suited to the new conditions, social and technical, of rural life, became a necessity, and is in process of being carried out.

The following are some examples:

Parallel to such legislation, and its essential auxiliary, has arisen the modern agricultural co-operative movement, resulting in associations like those of the Patrons of Husbandry, the Farmers' Alliance, and others, in the United States or the Raiffeisen popular banks among German and Italian peasants, or the peasants league (Boerenbond) of Belgium, or the agricultural co-operative societies of Ireland, And just as the new agrarian legislation is the expression in modern form of the fundamental needs of rural life, protected at other times by feudal immobility, so the new co-operative movement is the expression of the need of mutual help, protected at other times by the patriarchal family and the village community.

Let us turn from the movements of reform, seen in rural history, to the movements of agrarian revolution. These were conspicuous in the declining days of classical Greece. Hereon Roscher said well: "In the Greek world all that we call tradition, and the feeling of national honor, national destiny, and national justice, had in fact been supplanted by rationalistic argumentation, and the argumentation directed with terrible exclusiveness to the opposition between rich and poor" (Nationalökonomie, § 204). This opposition, in conformity with the technical and legal conditions of the time, took the form, not of any system of land-nationalization, but simply of canceling debts and re-dividing lands, revolution alternating with counter-revolution. In time, the agrarian struggles became mixed up with the national movement for Greek independence against Roman dominion, the Romans everywhere taking the side of the rich against the poor (Livy, XXXV, xxxiv). These social revolutions are of importance to us as showing some Significant analogies with our own times. It is otherwise with the peasant risings of later times such as the French Jacquerie in the fourteenth century; the English insurrection under Jack Cade in the fifteenth; the German Peasants War in the sixteenth, and the burning of the chateaux of the French Revolution: all being efforts to remove by violence the legal obligations attached to land or its tillers, and, therefore, being revolutionary agrarianism; but all remote from the agrarian problems of the modern Western World, and very different even from those of the modern Russian Empire.

Rather, it will be more profitable before dealing with the Single-Tax Theory, to glance at the precursors of Henry George.

Then the American Henry George (1839-97) set forth most attractively in his "Progress and Poverty" (1879), the theory that not merely all future, but all actual unearned increment should be intercepted, the method being the total appropriation of rent by taxation, a single tax on land values replacing all other taxes. This "simple yet sovereign remedy" would raise wages and profits, abolish poverty, lessen crime, elevate morals, and purify government. Indeed this single-tax theory appeared to its author so self-evident that he reproached the Pope for not having, in his Labor Encyclical (Rerum Novarum, 1891), accepted its reasoning (Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII, New York, 1891). "Progress and Poverty" was translated into eleven languages; a Land-Nationalization Society still existent (1906), was founded, in England, under Dr. A. Russel Wallace (author of "Land Nationalisation", London, 1882), who indeed allowed to actual landlords what George calls "the impudent plea" of compensation; the single-tax was advocated by Flürscheim in Germany, and, under the persistent misnomer of "land-reform", still has a German Society to support it (Adolf Damaschke, "Die Bodenreform", Berlin, 1902).

Henry George has been criticized from the economic, the juridical, and the socialist standpoint on the following grounds:

But though there is discord between revolutionary agrarianism and collectivism, they are alike in opposition to the uniform teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church on the lawfulness of private ownership of income-yielding property, whether it be named "land" or "capital." And they are alike in opposition to the ideal of all great statesmen from Solon to Leo XIII, namely, flourishing populations of small farmers or peasants. Thus George attach any wide distribution of landed property, asserts the productivity of large farms to be the greatest, the tendency of small farms to disappear, the misery of their holders, the pity of multiplying them (Progress and Poverty, VI, i.). Equally hostile is the brilliant socialist Karl Kautsky, "Die Agrarfrage" (Stuttgart, 1899), asserting the technical inferiority and social misery of the small farmer; and, instead of his "sham independence" promising him "redemption from the hell wherein his private property keeps him chained." Neither George nor Kautsky are true to facts, but both are good witnesses to the importance of agrarian reform as fatal to agrarian socialism. The misuse of the rights of property, such as the misdeeds of Scotch and Irish landlordism, and of the tenement-owners of Europe and America, are the food that feeds agrarian socialism. To make such misdeeds impossible is the task of social reform under a wise government. Nor is it accidental that the Encyclicals of Leo XIII form a manual of social politics. For as grace rests on nature, the religion that is alone truly Divine, must also ipso facto be truly human. But the instinct of private property is truly human; and the proper unfolding of human liberty and personality is historically bound up with it, and cannot develop where each person is only a sharer in a compulsory partnership, or, on the other hand, where property is confined to a privileged few. Suitably, therefore, the same Pope who had defended the true dignity and true liberty of man urged the diffusion of property as the mean between Socialism and Individualism, and that where possible each citizen should dwell secure in a homestead which, however humble, was his own.


FRANZ WALTER, Die Propheten in ihrem sozialen Beruf (Freiburg, 1900), and the bibliography therein; GREENIDGE, History of Rome (London, 1904); ROSCHER, Ackerbau (13th ed., Stuttgart, 1903); FUSTEL DE COULANGES, Origin of Property in Land (London, 1891); JANSSEN, The Social Revolution of 1524-6, being IV of the tr., History of the German People, (London, 1900), but II of the German original; BADEN POWELL, Land Revenue in British India (Oxford, 1894); BUCHENBERGER, Agrarwesen und Agrarpolitik (Leipzig, 1892); CATHREIN, The Champions of Agrarian Socialism (tr. Heinzle, Buffalo, N.Y., 1889). This excerpt from CATHREIN'S Moral-philosophie can be found amended in the fourth German edition (Freiburg, 1904), II, 247,285, and is the classic against Henry George. CAPART, La Propriété individuelle et le collectivisme (Brussels, 1897); MENGER, Right to the whole Produce of Labor (London, 1899; third German ed., Stuttgart, 1905); RIVIERE, Le bien de famille (Paris, 1906); and many of the 93 preceding tracts published by L'Action Populaire; WOLFF, People's Banks. (London, 1896); VERMEERSCH, Legislation et oeuvres en Belgique (Louvain, 1904).

About this page

APA citation. Devas, C.S. (1907). Agrarianism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Devas, Charles Stanton. "Agrarianism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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