One of the lives claimed in the Gulag of
the 1930’s was that of Alexander Chayanov. An agricultural economist of unusual
insight, Chayanov did most of his work here in Moscow and was well on his way
to constructing a compelling theory of what he called the “natural family
economy.” Alas, his intellectual project was cut short by imprisonment and
eventual death. All the same, he left behind a body of work that—I argue—still
illuminates the nature of a true family-centered economy. Moreover, I contend
that family reconstruction and demographic renewal depend on recovering some
aspects of Chayanov’s idea of the natural family economy.
Alexander Chayanov studied a Russian
agrarian order which, as late as 1914, still counted about 85 percent of the
population on peasant or family farms. Where Communist and Liberal Capitalist
theorists of the era agreed that such small-scale agriculture was surely and
properly doomed in the modern industrial era, Chayanov dissented. He insisted
that history was not necessarily moving toward pure capitalism or total communism,
that the peasantry need not disappear, and that “the peasant family labor farm”
could “remain the same, always changing in particular features and adapting to
the circumstances surrounding the national economy.” (1)
Chayanov made the compelling argument that
the true nature of the family farm economy could not even be understood by
using the categories of either Marxist or Manchester Liberal analysis. Peasant
farms, for example, rarely applied the category of wages to their operation,
and had little use as well for conventional understandings of profit, capital
accumulation, interest, or land rent. These facts alone led Chayanov and his
colleagues in Moscow’s “Organization and Production School” to develop a new
system of accounting, one suited to peasant farm inputs and outputs.
More broadly, Chayanov’s theories
provide—in historian Teodor Shanin’s words—a “conceptual rearmament” of the
micro-economy of the family farm. (2)
Among his key
propositions, Chayanov stresses that human biology, not “class conflict” or
“marginal utility,” drives the peasant economy. Economic development, in his
words, rests on “demographic differentiation which depends [in turn] on
biological family growth.” By family, Chayanov means “the purely biological
concept of the married couple, living together with their [children] and aged
representation of the older generation.” (3) His emphasis
on a farm’s sexual division of labor also “turns marriage into a necessary
condition of fully-fledged peasantship.” (4) Moreover,
Chayanov’s “natural family economy” assumes a robust fertility. Indeed, his
whole theory rests on what economist Daniel Thorner calls “the natural history”
of a family, as rural couples marry, bear an average of nine children, settle
those children on land, and then retire. (5) As economic
historian Mark Harrison summarizes:
Peasant economy reproduces itself through
the family. The family is the progenitor of the family life-cycle and of
population growth. It is the owner of property. As such, it expresses the fact
that the aim of production is household consumption, not feudal rent or
bourgeois profit. (6)
Chayanov also emphasizes that the family
itself is a “work unit,” with family members fundamentally bonded to each
other: husband and wife need each other to survive and prosper; and they, in
turn, need children to prosper and survive. As Chayanov puts it, “peasant farms
are structured to conform to the optimal degree [which mobilizes] the family
labor force.” (7) His central
point is simple: shared labor in a common enterprise binds the family together.
All this, though, took place a century ago.
An agriculture built on family-farming appears to be gone. The Russian and
Ukrainian peasantries were decimated by the collectivization and
“de-kulakization” drives of the early 1930’s. Curiously, the American
family-farming sector was also decimated, albeit later—after 1940—and without
physical violence. All the same, a shift in government policy was involved, and
the end result was identical: industrialized agriculture and the near-disappearance
of the small family farm. (8)
And yet, there are broader lessons in
family- and population-policy to be found within the theory of Alexander
Chayanov. Most importantly, even in our day, strong families and large
families—those with many children—are usually families that still claim a real
home economy: not just one of consumption, but one of production as well. A
living American writer very much in
sympathy with the spirit of Alexander Chayanov is Wendell Berry. Like Professor
Anatoly Antonov a poet—as well as a novelist and essayist—Wendell Berry insists
that any hope for rebuilding a nation’s life on the principles of freedom and
family depends on bringing functions—real functions—back into the family home.
Berry writes: “We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and
responsibility” that have been turned over to governments and corporations
during the 20th Century and “put those fragments back together again in our own
minds and in our families and households and neighborhoods.” (9)
The great Russian-American sociologist
Pitirim Sorokin himself had lamented the “loss of function” as both a central
cause and symptom of family decline. As he wrote in The Crisis of Our Age: “In
the past the family was the foremost educational agency for the young. Some
hundred years ago it was well-nigh the sole educator for a vast proportion of
the younger generation. At the present time its educational functions have
shrunk enormously…. In these respects the family has forfeited the greater part
of its former prerogatives.” Sorokin pointed as well to the loss of religious,
recreational, and subsistence functions. He concluded: “Now families are small,
and their members are soon scattered…. The result is that the family home turns
into a mere ‘overnight parking place.’” (10)
The diagnoses of familial decay offered by
Alexander Chayanov, Wendell Berry, and Pitirim Sorokin are quite similar. Do
they point to a common response? The answer, I believe, is yes: Simply put,
societies need to recover and renew the natural family economy; societies need
to chart a return of certain economic functions—broadly understood—to the home.
What might this mean? In the spirit particularly of Chayanov, allow me to offer
specifics, ranging from the simple and easily forgotten to the, perhaps,
First and most simply: new mothers should
breastfeed their babies. Wendell Berry calls this the “last form of home
production,” and one that women have wisely refused to surrender. (11)Breastfeeding
also is in harmony with natural maternal hormones and instincts and encourages
Second, all families should aim at some
level of symbolic, home-based agriculture. A family vegetable garden; simple
animal husbandry; even vegetables grown on an apartment balcony: these become
centers of shared family work, symbolize a family commitment to provisioning,
and so contribute to family solidarity and autonomy.
Third, governments should protect
small-scale, communitarian agriculture. In his new book, Shall the Religious
Inherit the Earth?, British political scientist Eric Kaufmann answers “yes.” He
points to religiously-grounded farm communities such as the Old Order Amish and
Hutterites in North America and the Laestadian Lutherans of Finland as “the
future of the [human] race.” With Total Fertility Rates of 5.0 to 9.0, these
groups are growing at near-explosive rates. The Amish in America, for example,
counted only 5000 members in 1900; in 2011, this number approaches 300,000.
Almost all this gain has come from natural growth, and it continues into the 21st
Century, while the rest of the developed world shrinks. (12)
Compounded over another four generations, the change becomes revolutionary.
Governments cannot order up such behavior; but they can welcome, favor, and
protect such groups.
Fourth, governments should protect and
encourage home schools. The most unexpected and remarkable populist movement in
America during the last three decades has been the rapid growth of home
schools: counting less than 50,000 students in 1980, the number approaches 3
million today. Viewed historically, these post-modern families have—in
effect—responded to Sorokin’s lament and have brought the critical education
function back home. Home-schooled children in America, on balance, exceed their
public- and private-school counterparts in terms of achievement and creativity.
Relative to family life, virtually all home-schooled students are in married
couple homes. And there is a strong, positive fertility effect: 62 percent of
these families have three or more children, compared to only 20 percent
nationwide; and over a third have four or more children, compared to a mere 6
percent of all households.(13)
Fifth, governments should favor
family-owned micro-enterprises. The most socially disruptive effect of the
industrial revolution was the way it severed the place where adults work from
the place where adults live. Most of our current family questions—from loud
disputes over gender roles to child care to low fertility—derive from this
great disruption. Remarkably, the 21st Century has been blessed by technologies
that can help to restore the bond between workplace and home: notably the home
computer and the internet. Accordingly, tax systems should favor new,
home-based, family micro-enterprises. Financial bodies should mobilize capital,
at favorable rates, for these family entities. State regulations should protect
these family businesses from the depredations and intrigues of the big
Sixth, government policy should
encourage land and home ownership among young married couples with children,
achieved through land grants and favorable mortgage terms.
And seventh, tax policy should favor the
mother-at-home and families with many children. The mother in the home is a
necessary component of a full “natural family economy.” “Income splitting” by
married couples within a progressive income tax structure should be the rule.
Full-time mothers should also receive generous credits toward public pension
plans, with their benefits raised according to number of children. Couples with
dependent children should receive substantial income tax deductions and/or
credits according to family size. At middle income levels, those with three or
more children should pay no income tax at all. The American record suggests
that such policies predictably have a strong pro-natalist effect.(14)
Overall, the key correlations are clear: functional
families are strong and large; strong and large families are function-rich.
Concerned governments… take notice!
Allan C. Carlson is President
of The Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, and Founder
and General Secretary of the World Congress of Families. This paper was prepared for “The Moscow Demographic Summit: Family and the Future of Humankind” 29-30 June 2011, Russian State Social University, Moscow, Russia.
(1) A.V. Chayanov, Peasant Farm Organization (Moscow:
The Cooperative Publishing House, 1925): 42.
(2) Teodor Shanin, The Awkward Class: Political Sociology of
Peasantry in a Developing Society: Russia 1910-1925 (Oxford: At the
Clarendon Press, 1972): 101.
(3) Chayanov, Peasant Farm Organization, 257, 54.
(4) Noted in: Teodor Shanin, “The Nature and Logic of the Peasant
Economy 1: A Generalization,” Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (Oct.1973): 68.
(5) Daniel Thorner, “Chayanov’s Concept of Peasant Economy,” in A.V.
Chayanov, The Theory of Peasant Economy (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986): xvii.
(6) Mark Harrison, “The Peasant Mode of Production in the Work of A.V. Chayanov,” Journal of Peasant Studies 4 (July 1977): 330.
(7) Chayanov, Peasant Farm Organization, 5-7, 92.
(8) Only recently has the small-farm sector begun to revive in the
United States. See: Allan Carlson, “Agrarianism Reborn: On the Curious Return
of the Small Family Farm,” Intercollegiate Review 42 (Spring
(9) Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays, Cultural and
Agricultural (San Diego, CA and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1972, 1970): 79, 82.
(10) Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age (New York:
E.P. Dutton, 1941).
(11) Wendell Berry: The Unsettling of America: Culture and
Agriculture (New York: Avon, 1977): 115.
(12) Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?
Demography and Politics in the Twenty-first Century (London: Profile
Books, 2010): 35-39.
(13) Lawrence M. Rudner, “Scholastic Achievement and Demographic
Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998,” Education Policy Analysis
Archives 7 (23 March 1999): 7-8, 12.
(14) Leslie Wittington, “Taxes and the Family: The Impact of the Tax
Exemption for Dependents on Marital Fertility,” Demography 29 (May 1992):
220-21; and L.A. Wittington, J. Alan, and H.E. Peters, “Fertility and the
Personal Exemption: Implicit Pronatalist Policy in the United States,” The
American Economic Review 80 (June 1990): 545-56.