World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Christopher Isett and Stephen Miller, The Social History of Agriculture: From the Origins to the Current Crisis. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Pp. xiv + 389. Bibliography, References and Index. $45.00 (paper).


     This past summer, ahead of Britain's National Countryside Week, The Telegraph reported results from a survey of British 18–24 year-olds.

Item: "one in eight have never seen a cow in real life."

Item: "more than half… did not know strawberries are a summer fruit."

Item: "nine in ten do not know turnips are best grown in the winter" (note: the author of this review did not know that either).1

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that "seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows."2 It may be that seven percent of Americans enjoy pulling a pollster's chain. Then again, maybe not.

     If basic farm facts are terra incognita for most students (and, in truth, for most city-bound educators), then agricultural history may as well be an alien planet.  World history texts and surveys do engage agricultural issues, offering students glimpses into the diversity of property tenures and labor regimes (slavery, tenantry, sharecropping, indenture, freehold, and free peasant cultivation) as well as key agricultural innovations (Europe's moldboard plow, for instance, or China's promotion of Champa rice).

     Taken together, all this can give students a basic grounding. However, it's not usually taken together. Instead, agricultural history ends up being fragmented among many eras and contexts, rather than treated as a thematic whole. As a result, students, especially those who have no experience working the land, are liable to misread rural life. For instance, many students associate the word "peasant" with slow wits, stubborn opposition to change, and fatalism in the face of exploitation. Such misunderstandings make much of world history difficult to comprehend.

     Christopher Isett (University of Minnesota) and Stephen Miller (University of Alabama) are out to restore agriculture to a central place in world history. Motivating their work is a commitment to a neo-Marxist historiography, announced at the outset with a swipe at standard narratives of agricultural history, narratives which, in their telling, have advanced little since Adam Smith and David Ricardo:

We might say that current thinking about political economy and rural history offer little more than a return to nineteenth-century liberalism. The comfortable and rather self-satisfied bourgeoisie of the 1850s…had concluded that the free market was the best cure for "feudal" privilege and religious obscurantism….

[Contemporary] mainstream accounts of the origins of the modern world search for indications that people of the past were as inclined to exploit market opportunities for personal advancement as we are today.

…[W]e contend that the social conditions for capitalism arose in the first instance from large-scale political conflicts between those who toiled and those who took a surplus (3–4).

Their aim is to stress the agency of those directly engaged in agriculture in order to account for historical behaviors ostensibly at odds with the self-interest expected of rational actors seeking to maximize their gains:

It is worth noting that even where markets existed, as they certainly did in the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds, choosing to plant all or most of one's land in a cash crop was neither always rational or possible…….Before the modern era, crop failures were frequent. Growers of cash crops found themselves caught in a "price scissors" whenever grains failed to mature: as food prices moved rapidly upward, the price of their inedible crops tumbled.…[I]t cannot be assumed that in the presence of markets individuals will freely choose to specialize (2–3).

As these passages suggest, any student reading Isett and Miller in whole or in part will need more than the average familiarity with vocabularies of both mainstream and Marxist economics. (In this passage, for instance, why would markets lead to "specialization"? What's a "price scissors"?) Students unfamiliar with ongoing debates about capitalism's origins and development are going to miss the point of some arguments. More broadly, students will not on their own, realize that plenty of economic historians and agricultural economists would vigorously dissent from the Marxist-inflected arguments Isett and Miller bring to the table. Students assigned The Social History of Agriculture will need considerable scaffolding.

     That said, The Social Origins of Agriculture has many strengths which will enrich world history courses. This is an expansive narrative, extending from the late Neolithic to the present, and offering a rare overview of the entire sweep of agricultural history.3 Within this narrative, Isett and Miller situate finely-grained cross-regional comparisons. These include:

  • Rome and Han China, to illustrate relationships among "community, state, and empire" in the ancient world;
  • Inca, pre-colonial West Africa, and feudal Europe, reflecting relationships in post-classical regional economies;
  • England and Tokugawa Japan, to examine "divergence in Eurasia" as capitalism emerged during the Early Modern period;
  • Ancien régime France and late Qing China, in a chapter focused on 17th–18th century Malthusian pressures;
  • 17th–18th c. Caribbean and Brazilian plantation systems, to dissect the Atlantic plantation complex;
  • 18th–19th century U.S. agriculture, to consider its often exceptional features;
  • French and British Africa, British India, and Japanese Taiwan, to survey of imperialism's 19th century impacts on global markets and local agricultural practice;
  • The USSR, the PRC, and Cuba, to compare collectivization in the Communist world;
  • France and Taiwan, to illustrate "state-led agrarian change after World War II;"
  • Brazil and the United States, to advance discussion of late 20th century corporate agriculture.

Each of these chapters is like a small chocolate brownie, rich and dense. A passage from Islett and Miller's discussion of postwar French and Taiwanese agricultural policies points to the book's value:

…it is especially important to note that in both [Taiwan and France] agricultural development proceeded by way of rural indebtedness, much as was the case in the United States. However, unlike the debt undertaken by the peasants of classical Italy, early modern China and France, and pre-revolutionary Russia, which was unproductively extractive, the upshot of peasant desperation, and kept peasants in thrall of landed classes, the debt of postwar French and Taiwanese farmers was both manageable and put to productive use. Farmers were consequently not only obliged to meet the financial burdens of servicing loans, but at the end of the day were left with sufficient means to sustain improvements year on end. In short, Taiwanese and French farmers, after committing their lands to production for the market rather than local consumption, had to compete with other farmers who had also made this leap. They had no choice but to reduce the costs of their labor by reorganizing their farmers and mechanizing as many tasks as they could. In both countries today, this relentless pressure to augment yield and output, and obtain the income to keep farms afloat, has led to mounting surpluses, excessive harvests, and difficulties in making a living (280).

Notable here are two of the book's strengths. The first is its commitment to develop expansive comparisons across time. They contrast the contemporary French and Taiwanese experience against that of the 20th century United States, pre-revolutionary Russia, Qing China, and ancient Rome, sending an attentive reader back to earlier chapters. They can do so because they return to the same regions at several historical periods. Chapters drill into agricultural developments in the United States, Brazil, Taiwan, France and West Africa twice and into those in China three times.

     The book's second strength is its emphasis on farmers themselves. This approach contrasts with the popular commodity-centric studies published over the last few years, as well as with accounts focused on intellectual history, technological innovation, and cultures of inventiveness. (Again, students who have some familiarity with these approaches will find it easier to make sense of Isett and Miller).

     Sympathy for the difficult choices faced by peasant farmers and agricultural laborers make Isett and Miller nearly as critical of 20th century Communist agrarian policies as much more conservative scholars. The revolutionaries who collectivized agriculture in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba were:

…intoxicated by popular support. All three countries launched breakneck plans to augment output, all of which ended in disaster. Collectivization in the Soviet Union killed millions of people and created a climate of falsity and callousness. The Great Leap Forward led to famine in China, and the campaign to harvest ten million tons of cane in Cuba excessively specialized agriculture and disorganized production.

The underlying problem stemmed from the population's lack of control over production, incentive to work, and motivation to experiment (254).

     Still, Isett and Miller do not treat the three disasters as equally, well, disastrous:

The Soviet leadership, especially in the 1930s created a sullen, demoralized rural population incapable of taking much pride in farming or showing much ingenuity….The Chinese Revolution of 1949, by contrast, emerged out of the countryside and benefitted from the enthusiastic support of the rural population. The rulers have been able to draw on this dynamism even after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward (254).

As for Cuba, Isett and Miller argue that "the economy, standard of living, health, and [education] improved during the 1970s and 1980s" as a consequence of Cuba's preferential place in the socialist economic bloc. When that bloc collapsed, ringing in Cuba's desperate "special period," Cuban agriculture demonstrated

…resilience in developing imaginative solutions through organic agriculture and state support for independent and cooperative farms. Yet the country has been a victim of its own success. With the US blockade and the end of Soviet subsidies, the experiments in sustainable agriculture are deprived of the latest inputs and instead must rely on the efforts of the population. Cubans, however, have become urban and educated, and shun farming. For these reasons, the country's experiments in organic agriculture consistently fall short of goals (255).

This focus on rural agency is not new. James Scott is probably the best recent example of a scholar who has done the same, deftly explaining the persistence of peasantry and its resistance both to market integration and to top-down state-centered agricultural policy.4 But Scott and many other developmental economists start the story relatively recently. Isett and Miller extend their analysis back to the beginning, making for a provocative and useful study.

     It has only been a decade since the world's rural population fell under 50%.5 In our classes, narratives focused on urbanization, individualism and industrialization eclipse those focused on rural landscapes, village life, and agrarian production. Reading Isett and Miller can suggest opportunities to rethink that balance.

Tom Laichas is senior editor of World History Connected and teacher emeritus at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California.



1 "One in Eight Young People Have Never Seen a Cow in Real Life," The Telegraph (London), July 31, 2017 online at

2 Caitlin Dewey, "The Surprising Number of American Adults Who Think Chocolate Milk Comes from Brown Cows," Washington Post, June 15, 2017 online at

3 Two other comprehensive histories of global agriculture are now on the market as well, but are not reviewed here. They are: Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart, A History of World Agriculture: From the Neolithic to the Present Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006) and Mark B. Tauger, Agriculture and World History (Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 2010).

4 James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), particularly ch. 6–8, comparing agricultural collectivization in Joseph Stalin's USSR and in Julius Nyerere's Tanzania.

5 World Bank, "Rural Population (% of total population" at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use