Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea
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Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea

Gi-Wook Shin

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Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea

Gi-Wook Shin

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The period from 1876 to 1946 in Korea marked a turbulent time when the country opened its market to foreign powers, became subject to Japanese colonialism, and was swept into agricultural commercialization, industrialization, and eventually postcolonial revolutionary movements. Gi-Wook Shin examines how peasants responded to these events, and to their own economic and political circumstances, with protests that shaped the course of postwar revolution in the north and reform in the south. Utilizing interviews, documentary research, and statistical analysis, Shin analyzes variation in peasant activism and its historical, political, and socioeconomic roots, and offers a major revisionist interpretation. The study contributes to an understanding of Korea's rural political economy during the colonial era, Japanese agricultual policy, and the historical legacy of colonialism for post war social and political change in Korea.

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Explaining Peasant Protest

An Integrated View
In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx identified the social basis of the monarch's dictatorship of nineteenth-century France as “smallholder peasants.” He did not regard peasants as historical agents of social change, but as a conservative mass, like “potatoes in a sack.” Marx wrote that peasants “cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” ([1852] 1981, p. 124). As capitalism developed, they would disappear as a class. Workers must and would lead the social revolution.
Contrary to Marx's prediction, major revolutions in the twentieth century did not occur in advanced countries, led by the working class, but in backward countries such as Russia, China, and Vietnam, where the majority of the population were “peasants” (Wolf 1969). In Skocpol's words, “revolutions have occurred in agrarian countries caught behind foreign competitors, not in the most advanced capitalist industrial nations” (1979, p. 292). Lenin was the first Marxist to see the importance of the peasantry in social change. As early as 1903, in “To the Rural Poor,” he recognized the revolutionary potential of the peasant class and urged contemporary Marxists to mobilize them for revolution (Kingstone-Mann 1985). (His position was dubious, however, in holding that peasants were petty bourgeoisie in outlook and thus ready to ally themselves with the proletariat, but would never become the leading class.) Bukharin, another important Russian Marxist, agreed that revolution could succeed only through a combination of “a peasant war against the landlord and a proletarian revolution” (Cohen 1980, p. 166).
Mao Zedong (1967) went one step further, arguing that in an agrarian society such as China the peasantry was not simply an ally in a proletarian revolution, but the revolutionary force. His analysis of classes in prerevolutionary China asserted that the semiproletariat of poor peasants should be the carrier of revolution. Frantz Fanon, an influential Algerian revolutionary leader, agreed that “in colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary” (1963, p. 48). Such claims that the peasantry is the revolutionary force in the Third World seemed supported by the North Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican, as well as Chinese revolutions (Wolf 1969).
Social scientists have also recognized the importance of the peasantry in social change. Early anthropological studies of peasant society describe conservative and backward-looking attitudes and behavior. Robert Redfield's “little tradition” and George Foster's “image of the limited good” provide typical examples of this view that peasants would or could not change their situation because they lacked a sense of progress (Redfield 1960), or because of mutual distrust or competition with each other (Foster 1965). These arguments accord with modernization theory, which characterizes Third World countries as backward because they are tradition-bound and thus reluctant to change their environment.
Critics of modernization theory, however, question the conservative nature of the peasantry and emphasize their importance in social change. Barrington Moore, Jr. (1966) convincingly shows how important the agrarian class structure is in understanding modern societies. According to Moore, the various routes to the modern world (i.e., democratic capitalism, fascism, and communism) result from differences in rural class structure. Also, Eric Wolf (1969) describes social revolutions in the Third World, as well as the Russian and Chinese revolutions, as peasant revolutions.
Scholarly concern with the peasantry as a main agent of social change accelerated with U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s. Whether they were intrigued or perplexed by the strong resistance of Vietnamese peasants, the anthropologists, political scientists, and historians, as well as sociologists, tried to explain the nature of peasant society and the source of power in peasant protest. The moral economy versus political economy debate, as represented in the work of James Scott (1976) and Samuel Popkin (1979), highlights the significance of the peasantry in social and historical change. Along with other scholars, Scott and Popkin ask whether poor landless tenants or middle peasants are more prone to revolution and why; whether it is moral outrage, class consciousness, or pursuit of individual interests that foments peasant revolution; and how capitalist imperialism relates to peasant protest. Korean scholars, in their efforts to explain Korean peasant activism during the colonial period, also discuss these issues.
The following section explores three major dichotomies, two theoretical and one methodological, concerning peasant protest: (1) landless tenants versus middle peasants; (2) moral peasants versus rational peasants; and (3) structural forces versus individual action. An integrated view emerges to guide this book's subsequent analysis of Korean peasant activism in the first half of the twentieth century.
Landless Tenants or Middle Peasants?
One issue confronting revolutionary leaders has been which rural class stratum to mobilize for revolution. Both Mao and Fanon sensed the revolutionary potential of poor, landless peasants or tenants, whose weak ties to the land leave “nothing to lose and everything to gain.” For Fanon, “the starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For them there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms” (1963, p. 48). This pauperization-revolution thesis is also the dominant approach to the study of Korean peasant protest during Japanese colonialism. Cho Tonggŏl (1979), who represents South Korean nationalist scholarship, attributes the rise of tenancy disputes in the 1920s to the exploitation and impoverishment of starving peasants; and Hŏ Changman (1963), a North Korean scholar, and Asada Kyoji (1973), who is Japanese, similarly interpret Korean peasant movements during the colonial period. All three characterize tenant protests of the twenties and thirties as a major form of nationalist or national-liberation movement by poverty-ridden Korean peasants.
Stinchcombe (1961) and Paige (1975) rigorously theorize concerning the revolutionary potential of landless tenants and the conduciveness of the tenancy system to revolution. Envisioning rural conflict in terms of class relations, Stinchcombe identifies five modes of organizing commercial agriculture that engender corresponding interclass responses: the hacienda system, family-sized tenancy, family smallholding, plantation agriculture, and the ranch (capitalist agriculture with wage labor). Among them, he argues, family-sized tenancy is most likely to produce intense rural conflict: tenant-landlord friction over how the crop is shared, the immense social distance separating the two groups, peasant technical knowledge, and the leadership of wealthier tenants combine to foster political and class conflict.
A more sophisticated explanation of class conflict, in Paige's Agrarian Revolution, also posits diverse forms of peasant protest as primarily functions of different rural class relations. However, “income source” is the fundamental variable that differentiates forms of class relations in commercialized enclaves of developing countries. The rural elite depend on either land or capital return for their income. Cultivators receive either land rights or wages. Combining these two dichotomies yields four types of relations between elite and cultivators, each with a characteristic political outcome. Typically a landed upper class combines with wage laborers or sharecroppers to engender class conflict that fuels a revolutionary movement, while a commercialized elite seldom provokes such radical behavior (see Paige 1975, p. 11, fig. 1.1). According to Paige, in terms of class conflict the sharecropper possesses characteristics similar to those of the working class: weak ties to the land, occupational homogeneity, and work-group interdependence (1975, p. 60). Thus, Paige echoes Stinchcombe: a tenancy or sharecropping system is more likely to provoke radical or revolutionary peasant protest than are relations with a commercializing elite.
Zagoria's (1974) study of peasant radicalism in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines supports such arguments for the revolutionary potential of the tenancy system. Tenancy was in fact widespread in many parts of Asia, including Korea, Japan, and China; and some evidence implicates that system in rural conflict (Cho Tonggŏl 1979; Smethurst 1986; Waswo 1977; Wiens 1980; see also Chapters 4 and 7), though whether such conflict was revolutionary or reformist remains debatable.
In contrast, others view middle, rather than landless, peasants as revolutionary. Hamza Alavi's (1965) discussion of the Russian, Chinese, and Indian revolutions depicts such a role. Speaking of Russia, he writes (pp. 246–47):
[I]n the case of the poor peasant, the sharecropper, his livelihood depended on his being able to get the land, from the landlord, for cultivation. Although he was exploited he was too dependent on the landlord to be able to oppose him as the middle peasant could…. When the great upheaval began in 1905 it was the middle peasant who provided its main force [and]…inaugurated the revolution of 1905.
Eric Wolf (1969) agrees with Alavi regarding six “peasant wars” of the twentieth century (pp. 290–91):
The poor peasant or the landless laborer who depends on a landlord for the largest part of his livelihood, or the totality of it, has no tactical power: he is completely within the power domain of his employer, without sufficient resources of his own to serve him as resources in the power struggle…. [He is] unlikely to pursue the course of rebellion…. The only component of the peasantry which does have some internal leverage is either landowning “middle peasantry” or a peasantry located in a peripheral area outside the domains of landlord control.
For Wolf, the key to revolution is not found in mere exploitation or poverty but in the realm of social power structures and human ecology. Barrington Moore, Jr., also usefully separates “conservative solidarity,” in which rich peasants or landlords control village resources and organizations and dominate smallholders, tenants, and laborers, from “radical solidarity,” in which the peasants themselves share in resources and run a village organization that can oppose landlords or the state (1966, pp. 475–76). Middle peasants then are those likely to develop the “radical solidarity” needed for political action.
Some historical evidence supports this middle peasant thesis. Roy Hofheinz (1977) finds an inverse correlation between rates of tenancy and communist strength in the 1920s and 1930s in South China. This is, he explains, because a powerful gentry usually accompanied high tenancy rates. Mitchell (1968) writing about Vietnam and Cumings (1981b) about liberated (post-1945) Korea also detect a negative correlation between tenancy rates and peasant radicalism. Also, as Chapters 5 and 6 portray, most radical peasant movements (i.e., red peasant union movements) in colonial Korea occurred in areas with low tenancy and a high owner-cultivator (middle peasant) ratio.
Why these seemingly contradictory findings on the relation between land tenure systems and peasant radicalism? Do they suggest incompatible models or can additional factors integrate them? This issue similarly dogs two general theories of peasant protest motives—moral versus rational.1
Moral or Rational Peasants?
James Scott's The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976) enhances the development of theory in the study of peasant protest movements.2 Drawing largely on A. V. Chayanov's theory of subsistence economy, Karl Polanyi's (1944) idea of the devastating effect of the market on society, and E. P. Thompson's (1971) concept of the moral economy that guided the actions of English crowds in eighteenth-century food riots, Scott develops a general theory of peasant economy and peasant protest: at the center of peasant politics is the peasant's overriding concern with obtaining a secure subsistence for his family. This concern stems from his precarious position, the product of a shortage of land, capital, and outside employment opportunities. Constrained by “the vagaries of weather and the claims of outsiders” (Scott 1976, p. 4), the peasant is conscious that he lives near the margin of hunger and that a bad harvest can mean starvation. Fear of such a subsistence crisis produces a highly risk-averse peasantry; what dominates is a safety-first strategy, to minimize the probability of disaster, rather than a maximum average return approach. A “subsistence ethic” involving “reciprocity” between “patron and client” of the same moral community reinforces this strategy. Colonial domination and penetration by market forces directly erode not only already precarious peasant security and welfare, but the buffering moral economy. A peasant protest movement, then, is basically defensive and restorative against threats to subsistence and intrusions by the colonial state and impersonal capitalist market forces.
Scott's characterization of peasant protest as antimarket and defensive receives some empirical support. Ann Waswo's analysis of Japanese tenancy disputes (particularly of the depression years of the late 1920s and early 1930s) attributes their increase to landlords’ abandoning their traditional benevolent role, becoming “distant figures, unfamiliar with local customs or with the personal ties of the people who farmed their land” (1977, p. 92). Stephen Vlastos's study of peasant protests and uprisings during the Tokugawa period of Japanese history (1600–1867) maintains that peasants protested “in the name of the right to subsistence,” although he disagrees with Scott in that such protest did “not necessarily imply a desire to return to earlier modes of production” (1986, p. 157). The dominant line of Korean scholarship interprets Korean peasant protest during the colonial period similarly: the Japanese destroyed traditional tenant rights (e.g., tojigwŏn) through the land survey, aggravating rural poverty (Cho Tonggŏl 1979; Sin Yongha 1979). This in turn fueled the rise of tenancy disputes in the 1920s and 1930s (see Chapters 3 and 4).
Samuel Popkin, in The Rational Peasant (1979), directly challenges this moral economist view of peasant protest. For Popkin, contrary to Scott, a peasant economy is not always subsistence oriented, but often produces for the market. Rather than avoiding risk, peasants are willing to invest and gamble whenever possible to further their own interests. Popkin criticizes as utopian the moral economist's description of precapitalist peasant villages, arguing that traditional villages did not provide insurance or welfare for poor peasants and that frequent conflicts and substantial stratification occurred. He contends that the modern central state and capitalism did not introduce new subsistence crises, but rather new political openings that might allow peasants to turn the terms of trade in their favor through collective action. Peasant protests, far from being backward-looking and defensive, are forward-looking endeavors to exploit the new opportunities transformation creates.
This rational peasant view is also empirically supported. Richard Smethurst's (1986) analysis of tenancy disputes in Japan of the 1920s and 1930s criticizes Waswo's interpretation. According to Smethurst, early twentieth-century Japanese tenants were no longer subsistence peasants but entrepreneur-farmers, actively engaged in the market. In addition, the relative scarcity of labor increased the bargaining power of tenants and better education raised their consciousness, all of which helped them pursue their interests through collective action such as disputes. James White's (1988) study of popular protest in Tokugawa Japan similarly views peasant protest as progressive and rational. However, no study of peasant protest in colonial Korea adopts this perspective, a fact challenged in Chapters 4 and 7.
As with the landless versus middle peasant debate, the moral versus rational peasant question remains inconclusive, again posing the quandary whether inconclusive and often conflicting findings are irreconcilable or can be integrated. But first, a final, methodological issue must be discussed.
Structural Forces or Individual Action?
Of methodological concern to scholars of peasant studies is the relative importance of structural forces versus individual peasant action in accounting for collective peasant protest.3 Skocpol (1979) and Paige (1975) offer structuralist views of peasant protest, whereas Scott and Popkin represent voluntarist explanation. Structuralists trace peasant protest to forces such as class relations or state power, while voluntarists stress motivational aspects of protest participation given such structural conditions.
In States and Social Revolutions (1979), Skocpol rejects any voluntarist or individualist explanation of peasant collective action, and attributes structural outcomes such as revolutions strictly to structural causes. For her the social revolutions of 1789 in France, 1917 in Russia, and 1911 and especially 1949 in China are to be explained in terms of the relations of each of these states to other states as well as to its own social classes. Similarly, the origins of revolutionary movements in Third World countries after World War II should be sought in the destruction or weakening of colonial power. For Skocpol, neither individual behavior, nor attitudes, nor interests can explain revolutions, because “revolutions are not made; they come” (1979, p. 17).
Paige's analysis of peasant rebellions and revolutions, as discussed above, is another important structuralist work. Linking rural class structure to political outcomes—rebellions and revolutions—he introduces intervening variables such as the economic power of the elite, the socioeconomic characteristics of the labor supply, structural features of reward systems, and the social structure of the cultivating class. However, he incorporates no individual motivational or behavioral variables and little variation in patterns of political behavior of a certain class (e.g., the tenant class). The political behavior of the peasant class is seen as a direct function of local economic structural characteristics.
Most Korean scholarship on peasant protest during the colonial period seems to follow this structuralist perspective, though no study offers a clear methodological articulation. The apparent assumption is that while colonialism and capitalism brought subsistence crises to rural Korea and polarized its class structure, creating the potential for revolution, strong colonial state repressive power prevented it from occurring. No logic of protest other than Marx's renowned “nothing to lose but chains” seems to explain peasant protest. Similarly, the Japanese defeat in World War II created ...

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