Agrarian Reforms

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Agrarian Reforms


transformations in the system of landownership and land tenure.

In a number of West European countries, agrarian reforms were carried out during the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. They were a serious blow to feudal relations; in certain countries—England and France, for instance—feudal vestiges were completely eliminated, and thus the path to capitalist development of agriculture was cleared. But in many countries the revolutions did not completely liquidate these vestiges, and it became necessary to carry out agrarian reforms in the course of capitalist development. In many East and Central European countries the reforms were carried out “from above,” in the interests of the ruling classes—for example, the reforms of 1807–11 in Prussia, the peasant reform of 1861 and the Stolypin agrarian reforms of 1906–16 in Russia, and the reform of 1864 in Rumania.

The necessity for agrarian reforms is dictated by the demands of the economic and political development of the country and by the peasants’ powerful movement for land. The degree of radicalism of the reforms is determined by a combination of social and economic conditions in the given country, the correlation of class forces, and the nature of the regime.

V. I. Lenin emphasized the direct connection between agrarian revolution and the struggle for political power: “Agrarian revolution is an empty phrase, if its victory does not presuppose the conquest of power by the revolutionary people. Without this last condition, it would not be an agrarian revolution but rather a peasant rebellion or a Cadet agrarian reform” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 12, p. 366).

Agrarian reforms were carried out in tsarist Russia under the pressure of the peasants’ revolutionary actions. The reforms in Central and Southeast Europe after World War I—in Rumania (1919–21), Czechoslovakia (1919), Yugo-slavia(1919), Hungary (1922–24), after the fall of the Soviet republic, Poland (1920), and Bulgaria (1921)—were halfway measures and brought no fundamental changes to the agrarian systems of these states. Landlord estates were limited somewhat, and the lands alienated for a high redemption fee became concentrated in kulak farms. The bulk of the peasantry could not obtain land because of its high price.

The Stolypin agrarian reform in Russia aided the development of agricultural capitalism. The legislative measures adopted in this period were intended to liquidate communal peasant landownership and to strengthen the kulak sector as a social support for the autocracy, while preserving the gentry’s latifundia. The Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia resolved the agrarian question in the fullest and most consistent manner. By the Decree on Land adopted by the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets, Oct. 26 (Nov. 8), 1917, landlord land was liquidated without any redemption, and the land was declared the property of the whole nation. The system of land tenure was established by the decree of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Feb. 9, 1918, “On the Socialization of the Land.”

The victory of people’s democratic revolutions in a number of countries of Europe and Asia after World War II was the most important prerequisite for the implementation of agrarian transformations in the interest of the toiling peasants. Agrarian reforms were carried out in socialist countries in the period of people’s democratic revolutions and had the character of agrarian revolutions. They responded to the fundamental interests of the toiling peasants and laid a firm economic base for the alliance of the working class and the peasantry. The determining condition for the resolution of the agrarian question in the countries which now form the world socialist system was the establishment of the power of the people, led by the working class.

The overwhelming majority of foreign socialist countries in Eastern Europe had been agrarian or agrarian-industrial with a large peasant population. The question of whom the peasantry would follow essentially determined the fate of the revolutionary movement. In Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, large landed property of the feudal and bourgeois landlord type dominated. Only in Bulgaria were agrarian relations characterized by a predominance of peasant landownership. In Cuba and in Asian countries—Korea and the DRV—there was a high proportion of colonial landed property. In the latter two countries, feudal landlord estates constituted the dominant structure. In the People’s Republic of China, the bulk of land was held by feudal landlords and the upper strata of the peasantry; feudal, commercial, and usurious methods were also widely used to exploit the peasants.

In foreign socialist countries, agrarian reforms were carried out by different methods and over different periods due to the socioeconomic and historical peculiarities of each country. Basic reforms included the abolition of large-scale landlord estates and the transfer of landlord lands to those who worked them. Agrarian reforms led to fundamental changes in the class and socioeconomic structure of the countryside. Landlord property, and thus the economic conditions for the existence of landlords as a class, was liquidated. The proportion of middle-sized peasant farms increased as did the average size of the land allotments of poor peasants and small peasant holdings. At the same time, agrarian reforms did not affect the bulk of kulak farms.

The methods of agrarian reform in China were original because class membership—that is, landlord, kulak, middle peasant, or poor peasant—was determined not only by the size of landholdings but directly in the course of the reforms by the decision of general assemblies of the residents of each village.

In Hungary before World War II, peasant farms of up to 20 holds (1 hold = .57 ha), making up 94.4 percent of all farms, held only 40.5 percent of the arable land. In 1947, after the agrarian reforms decreed in March 1945, 70.7 percent of all the country’s arable land belonged to peasant farms, whose proportion had increased by an insignificant amount to 95.9 percent of the total.

As a result of agrarian reform in Poland—decreed in September 1944 and for reunited lands in September 1946—the middle peasant became the basic figure of the countryside. In 1931 peasant farms with land strips from 5 to 10 ha constituted 18.9 percent of the total number of farms; in 1950 the figure was 26.8 percent.

In Czechoslovakia, as a result of the legislative measures of June 1945, June 1947, and March 1948, the number of farms with land allotments of from 5 to 20 ha increased, and the number of farms with allotments of up to 5. ha decreased.

The implementation of agrarian reform in China, decreed in June 1950, improved the economic situation of approximately 300 million peasants, or 60–70 percent of the rural population of the country. In European countries lands, regardless of the size of the holding, as well as buildings, equipment, livestock, and inanimate inventory, belonging to German subjects, war criminals, enemies of the people, individuals who collaborated with German fascist invaders, and so on, were subjected to confiscation in the first order of business. In Asian socialist countries, the DRV and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, an immediate measure in the implementation of agrarian reform was the confiscation of landed property belonging to French and Japanese colonialists. Another category of landholding subject to alienation—in certain countries, with redemption—were farms which exceeded the land maximum established by the agrarian reform laws. In Bulgaria the maximum was 20 ha for the country as a whole and 30 ha for Southern Dobruja; in Hungary, 57 ha; in East Germany and Poland, 100 ha; in Rumania and Czechoslovakia, 50 ha; in Yugoslavia, 25–35 ha (from 1953, 10 ha); and in Cuba, 67 ha (5 caballerias).

With the exception of the Mongolian People’s Republic, agrarian reforms in socialist countries have not provided for the nationalization of all land. As a rule, an insignificant portion of the cultivated land passes to the state, which organizes farms on it; the major portion of state land comprises woods, mineral deposits, water, and the land on which are located industries, enterprises, cities and settlements, transportation arteries, and so on. Only in Cuba has agrarian reform resulted in the state sector holding approximately 70 percent of the country’s cultivated area.

In most socialist countries, the overwhelming portion of agricultural land becomes part of the supply for apportionment among the peasants; the lands are given over to them as private property, since in these countries the development of private peasant landownership—and hence the attachment of the peasants to the land—proceeded significantly further than in Russia. This has been reflected in the conditions of distribution of land to the peasants. The agrarian laws of these socialist countries have provided for payment for land received. This redemption was insignificant in size; usually it was equal to the value of one or two harvests from the strip of land received. The overwhelming mass of land apportioned to the peasants has been free from payment. Different forms of debt dependency have been written off for the peasants, and they have received the land free of debts and other financial obligations to the previous owners. To all intents and purposes, the distribution of land to the peasants has proceeded without compensation. Agrarian reforms have established a certain minimum land plot which has been the basis for land allotment to peasants. For example, in Bulgaria the average for private working farms was set at 8 ha for Southern Dobruja and 5 ha for the country as a whole; for East Germany, 5 ha and where the land is of poor quality, 10 ha; in Poland, 5 ha and for gardens and truck farms, 2 ha; and in Hungary, 8.5 ha and 1.7 ha for gardens and vineyards.

The implementation of agrarian reform in socialist countries proceeded amid bitter class struggle. Supporting the revolutionary resolution of the agrarian question, the working class urged the peasants to decisively seize and distribute landlord lands. The direct participation, activity, and independence of peasant masses is characteristic of the implementation of revolutionary agrarian reforms in socialist countries. As agrarian revolution unfolded, the working class based itself on the poorest strata of the countryside. As a rule, the middle peasant was an ally of the working class. Kulak farms, with the exception of those which belonged to people who collaborated with foreign invaders, were not subject to expropriation.

As a result of the redistribution of land property in all socialist countries, new peasant farms arose and a certain portion of households increased their land allotment. In Bulgaria, 128,000 landless and land-short peasants received 140,000 ha of land; in Hungary 1.9 million ha of arable land were distributed among 642,300 agricultural workers and landless and land-short peasants; in Poland approximately 7.3 million ha of land passed into the hands of farm laborers and poor peasants; in Czechoslovakia over 1.7 million ha of land were distributed among 400,000 landless peasant families; in Rumania peasants received 1.6 million ha of land, 400,000 new farms were created, and over 500,000 farms increased their land plots; in Yugoslavia 316,400 peasant families received land; in the People’s Republic of China approximately 47 million ha of land were distributed among the poorest strata of the countryside; and in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea over 1 million chô (1 chô = .992 ha) of arable land were given to the farms of 17,000 farm laborers, 443,000 landless peasants, 270,500 land-short peasants, and 4,000 others. The poor peasants’ newly established farms also received agricultural inventory and draft animals confiscated from the landlords along with the land. During and following the period of agrarian reform other measures in defense of the interests of the toiling peasants—for instance, credit and taxation policy, pricing, and so forth—were carried out in socialist countries, and the cooperative movement in the country was encouraged. The transformation of relations of land property on the basis of agrarian reforms, in essence broadly popular, opened the path for the further progressive development of these countries on the path to socialism. The next step in the revolutionary resolution of the agrarian question was the construction of socialist production relations in the countryside based on the creation of state agricultural enterprises and peasant production cooperatives.

In developed capitalist countries After World War II, agrarian reforms were carried out in a number of economically developed capitalist countries and in most countries that had attained national independence. Agrarian reforms are particularly important in developing countries, where they are inseparably tied to the national liberation movement. Agrarian reform is the essential condition in overcoming economic backwardness and ensuring these countries’ political and economic independence.

Agrarian reform was extremely radical in postwar Japan, where the landlord class occupied an important place in the social and political structure of society, including the command positions in the army. To a large extent the radical character of agrarian reform was determined by the military and political defeat of Japanese militarism during World War II. It also resulted from the powerful upsurge of the peasant movement for land and the political maturity and fighting ability of the working class and other progressive forces. The necessity for agrarian reform was dictated by the backwardness of agriculture and the striving of monopoly capital to broaden the internal market. American imperialists occupying the country viewed reform as a means of strengthening the capitalist regime. An agrarian reform law, adopted in 1946, was essentially completed in March 1949. Its basis was the redemption of land from the landlords and its subsequent sale to land-short peasants, granted to them on a 30–year installment plan at 3.2 percent per year. Agrarian reform provided for the complete liquidation of the landlord holdings system. Having liquidated feudal relations in the countryside, the agrarian reform cleared the way for the development of capitalism in agriculture, where the concentration of production and of landed property takes place on a capitalistic basis. Agrarian reform did not save the Japanese peasants from ruin nor from intensified oppression by capitalist monopolies.

Laws on agrarian reform were adopted in Italy in 1950 (the first, the Legge-sila, in May and the second, the Legge-stralcio, in October). In December a law on agrarian reform in Sicily was adopted. To implement these laws, committees were created—in southern Italy, the state monopolistic organization, Cassa del Mezzogiorno. Agrarian reform was based on redemption—the government paid the landlords the value of the land alienated from them and then resold the lands to the peasants, who were to pay for them over a period of 30 years. The reform struck a serious blow against large-scale landed property in latifundia, but it preserved large-scale capitalist land property. During the period 1950–62, a total of 113,000 peasant families received approximately 1.2 million ha of land. The problem of apportioning the land to the Italian peasants was not, however, fully resolved. The agrarian reform was implemented basically in the interests of state monopolistic and large-scale agrarian capital.

After World War II, attempts to limit large-scale land-holdings in favor of the peasantry were undertaken in several West European countries. In West Germany the agrarian reform envisioned by the Potsdam agreements was in effect frustrated. The ruling circles of West Germany carried out agrarian reforms aimed at curtailing the number of small farms with the subsequent transition of their lands to large landed proprietors.

The ruling circles of Greece were also obliged to carry out agrarian reforms. A law on agrarian reform was published in 1952, but it was limited in nature. Holdings of over 50 ha of arable land were subjected to expropriation with redemption.

Agrarian reforms were not carried out in the other countries of Western Europe or in the USA. But the ruling circles of Spain, France, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, and other European capitalist countries have carried out individual measures aimed mainly at the “modernization of the agrarian structure” by concentrating landholdings and creating profitable farms. Since, on the whole, feudal vestiges occupy a small place in the agrarian structures of the countries of Western Europe, the goal of these measures is to accelerate the development of agricultural capitalism at the expense of the small-scale peasant sector.

In developing countries By the time independence was won in these countries, there were three basic forms of agricultural property, whose survival was an obstacle to the development of agricultural capitalism. They were (1) feudal relations, (2) patriarchal tribal relations, and (3) colonial land property, belonging to the state, the planters, and the capitalist farmers. These structures played varying roles in the economies of different countries. Feudal and semifeudal relations were most widespread in Asia and Latin America, while patriarchal tribal relations were characteristic of the countries of tropical Africa. The different correlation of these economic forms in the agrarian structures of different countries has influenced the forms and methods of agrarian reform. But in the final analysis, despite some differences, the reforms pursue the same end: to clear the way for the establishment of a bourgeois order in agriculture.

Under pressure from the peasant movement for land and constant social and political ferment, the ruling circles of a number of Latin American countries—including Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Colombia—were forced to have recourse to agrarian reforms. All of them are bourgeois landlord in nature; their goal is the alleviation of the onerous consequences of the latifundia system and the amelioration of the sharp social contradictions in the countryside. With the exception of Mexico, where agrarian reform has a long history, the reforms began in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

A law on agrarian reform in Mexico was published in 1915, when a revolutionary situation existed in the country. Under this law, latifundia were liquidated and their lands were distributed among the landless and land-short peasants. Land expropriated from the landlords was transferred to peasant communes (ejidos). Gradually, agrarian reform came to be implemented increasingly in the interests of large landowners. As early as 1921, a decree provided for an increase in the sizes of landholdings. Agrarian reform was implemented slowly by stages. The greatest results were achieved in the period 1935–40, when the number of large farms of a thousand ha or more decreased from 15.5 thousand to 9.7 thousand and their land area decreased from 108.9 million ha to 79.9 million ha. Agrarian reform did not liquidate large-scale landownership; as before, its position was strong. Large landowners, with holdings exceeding 1,000 ha, have concentrated 75 percent of all the land in their hands.

In Bolivia a decree on agrarian reform was published in August 1953; its execution began in 1955. The goal of the reforms was to liquidate both latifundia and the most backward forms of leasing relations—that is, working off the obligation, and so on. By July 1964, 5.6 million ha of land had been distributed with redemption among 158,000 peasant families. A large part of the land—28.5 million ha—and the better quality land was retained by the landlords.

An agrarian reform law was adopted in Colombia in December 1961. It has been implemented in an atmosphere of tyranny and of peasants’ free seizure of land, the so-called violencia. The ruling classes—the latifundists and the national bourgeoisie—have been forced to recognize the rights of the peasants to the lands they have occupied.

An agrarian reform law was adopted in Guatemala in June 1952 amid the upsurge of the national liberation and democratic movements; it was relatively radical in nature. The military intervention of the USA in June 1954 and the subsequent state coup suspended the execution of this agrarian reform and produced a “counterreform”—the agrarian decree of February 1956.

Agrarian reform in Chile and other Latin American countries in the 1950’s and 1960’s confirmed the “colonization” of the land, or the distribution of fallow and unworkable land from the state pool—the so-called nobody’s lands—among landless and land-short peasants. For the most part, these were the worst lands.

A comparatively democratic law on land reform was adopted in Venezuela in March 1960. It provided for the distribution of land to the peasants without compensation, and it banned feudal forms of leasing. Reactionary forces managed to direct reform toward land colonization and not toward liquidation of large landed property in latifundia. Large landowners obtained high compensation payments for the alienation of their poor lands. In the countries of Latin America agrarian reform only limited feudal vestiges slightly; it did not eliminate the high degree of concentration of lands in latifundia.

Agrarian reform has been relatively more radical in the developing countries of Asia and North Africa. With the exception of Turkey and the Philippines, feudal landlord landownership has been significantly limited in these countries. As a result of the redistribution of land, the small-scale system based on peasant property has come to be of major importance in the agrarian structure. Feudal and patriarchal tribal relations no longer are dominant in these countries.

In the Eastern countries where agrarian reform has not essentially been carried out, except for partial measures, precapitalist and transitional relations predominate as before in the agrarian structure; these countries include Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, the “outer provinces” of Indonesia, and the autonomous Burmese states.

In Morocco, Ceylon, and Malaysia, where the systems of land tenure were not changed, a large-scale capitalist agricultural sector, including plantations run by foreign and national capital, has formed, and it plays a guiding role in the agriculture of these countries. The multifaceted agrarian economies of Sudan and Lebanon are similar in nature.

Despite the differences resulting from economic and sociopolitical factors, agrarian reform in all these countries has aimed at the gradual transformation of the feudal agrarian structure into a bourgeois structure. Its essence is the slow transformation of semifeudal landlords and the upper elements of the peasantry into capitalist agricultural entrepreneurs, while the majority of the peasantry is gradually proletarianized. The distinctive aspect of this type of agrarian revolution in the developing countries of Asia and North Africa is that while the landlords are preserved as a class, most former landlord lands are alienated, usually for redemption, and the mass of former feudally dependent lease holders are turned into small property owners. A small-scale structure is formed—the point of departure for the changes proceeding in the countryside of Eastern countries. As a result of the agrarian reforms already carried out, feudal leasing has ceased to be the main form of peasant land tenure in most of these countries, and bourgeois elements in their agriculture have grown stronger.

Agrarian reforms in the United Arab Republic have been democratic in nature. The first law on agrarian reform was adopted in 1952 and the second in 1961, when a decree liquidating foreign landholdings was also promulgated. In March 1964 a new law was adopted, providing for the expropriation of landlord holdings without compensation, the reduction by three-fourths of redemption payments for land distributed to peasants on the basis of the agrarian reform law of 1952, and the release of peasants from interest payments. The agrarian policy of the UAR government aimed at the complete liquidation of feudal land tenure. Much attention was given to peasant cooperation.

Agrarian reform laws were published in India in 1950–51. They were executed in the period 1952–61; during 1952–58 agrarian reforms were carried out in the area of land tenure and leasing, and during 1959–61 measures limited feudal landlord property through the establishment of “maximum sizes” for individual holdings. The most important aspect of agrarian reform in India was the legislation liquidating the zamindar system, which gave special rights to zamindar landlords. As a result of agrarian reform, lands belonging to zamindars and leased out by them passed to the state; redemption was provided. Material damage was thus inflicted only on the upper elements of the zamindars. Agrarian reform with respect to leasing was still more limited in nature. Thus, agrarian reform in India has not resolved the agrarian question either; it has struck a blow only against the large zamindars, while the small and middle zamindars have strengthened their positions. Agrarian reform has strengthened the capitalist sector in agriculture.

Agrarian reform was carried out separately in East and West Pakistan. In East Pakistan it was implemented during 1950–58. The law of 1950 established a maximum for land-holdings: 100 bigas (13.5 ha) of land per family. An enormous indemnity was established for alienated lands. In April 1956 the government was forced to adopt a supplementary decree accelerating the implementation of land reform. In West Pakistan a law on agrarian reform was adopted in January 1959. Redemption was to be provided for the alienated land. Agrarian reform affected only the upper elements of the landlord class, the large absenteeists.

The first law on agrarian reform in the Philippines was promulgated in September 1955. “Surpluses” of land above the established maximum—300 ha for individual holdings and 600 ha for corporations—were redeemed from the landlords. In August 1963 the government published a more radical agrarian reform law which was to be carried out over some 30 to 40 years. The maximum land holding was considerably decreased to 75 ha. Provision was made for the distribution of land to about one million peasants. The redemption of land was to be carried out by stages.

The agrarian reform law in Indonesia was preceded by a series of laws whose purpose was to increase agricultural production in the country and resolve the land problem by resettling families from densely populated areas on the island of Java to thinly settled areas. In September 1960 the “Fundamental Agrarian Law” was adopted. It recognized two forms of land property, state and private. The right of private property was declared to be a fundamental institution of land law. A special enactment in 1960 abolished mortgaging of land; when the seventh mortgage period expired, land was to return to the cultivator without redemption. In January 1961 the dimensions for landholdings were set at 15 ha of irrigated rice fields and 20 ha of unirrigated land. It was projected that land reform would be finished by 1966. After the state coup of Sept. 30, 1965, the execution of agrarian reform was halted.

A law providing for the nationalization of the land and the creation of small peasant property was promulgated in Burma in 1948, but it was purely nominal in nature. The lands of the landlords were subjected to alienation with redemption. A maximum for landholdings was established.

The law of 1953 provided for the curtailment of agrarian reform. The quantity of land subject to alienation was decreased from 10 million to 6.2 million acres (1 acre = .4 ha). In March 1962 a new stage of agrarian transformation began, determined by the country’s entry into a non-capitalist path of development. In March 1963 the “law on the protection of the rights of peasant leaseholders” and the law “on the leasing of land” were issued in the interest of toiling leaseholders. The decree of Apr. 5, 1965, abolishing rental payments for land and striking a serious blow against feudal landed property, was significant. In effect, 2.8 million ha of land passed into the hands of lessees. Much attention was devoted to cooperation in agriculture, mechanization, irrigation, and the democratization of agricultural credit procedure.

The document, “The tasks of the struggle against imperialism during the present stage and unity of action of communist and workers’ parties and all anti-imperialist forces,” adopted by the International Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties in June 1969, emphasized the great importance of agrarian reform in developing countries. “In the majority of the independent states of Asia and Africa, along with the task of strengthening and defending political independence and sovereignty, to overcome economic backwardness, to establish an independent national economy including native industry, and to improve the people’s standard of living have become the central problems of social development. The resolution of these problems presupposes profound socioeconomic transformations, the implementation of democratic agrarian reforms in the interests of the toiling peasantry and, with its participation, the abolition of obsolete feudal and prefeudal relations, the abolition of the dominance of foreign monopolies, the radical democratization of social and political life and the state apparatus, the revitalization of the national culture and the development of its progressive traditions, and the strengthening of revolutionary parties and the creation of such parties where they do not exist. The pressing problems of social development in these states are now the objects not only of sharp struggle between the peoples of those states and the neocolonialists but also of internal social conflicts. The establishment of friendly relations and of active collaboration with the socialist countries is important for the independent states of Asia and Africa” (International Conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties, 1969, p. 312).


Agrarnye reformy v razvivaiushchikhsia stranakh i stranakh vy-sokorazvitogo kapitalizma. Moscow, 1965.
Osnovnye zakonodatel’nye akty po agrarnym preobrazovaniiamν zarubezhnykh sotsialisticheskikh stranakh, issues 1–5. Moscow, 1957–60.
Petrushov, A. Sotsialisticheskoe stroitel’stvo v sel’skom khoziaistve evropeiskikh stran narodnoi demokratii. Moscow, 1951. (Section on agrarian reforms.)
Nedorezov, A. I. Agrarnye preobrazovaniia v narodno-demokraticheskoi Chekhoslovakii. Moscow, 1954.
Kotov, G. G. Agrarnye otnosheniia i zemel’naia reforma v Germanii. Moscow, 1956.
Sotsialno-ekonomicheskie posledstviia agrarnykh reform i sotsial’naia struktura derevni v razvivaiushchikhsia stranakh Azii i Severnoi Afriki. Moscow, 1966.
Mezhdunarodnoe soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii: Dokumenty i materialy, Moskva, 5–17 iiunia 1969 g. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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