Academic journal article African Studies Review

Agrarian Populism in Colonial and Postcolonial Malawi

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Agrarian Populism in Colonial and Postcolonial Malawi

Article excerpt


This article analyses continuity and change of the agrarian doctrine in colonial and postcolonial Malawi. It engages in a classic debate about images and polices concerning African farming. The article argues that the agrarian doctrine must be related to the broader notion of agrarian populism, more specifically to Chayanov's notion of the logic of the peasant family farm. Employing this broader approach allows a striking continuity of the agrarian doctrine to be revealed. Calls for changes of local institutions did not signify attempts to promote rural transformation, but contained strategies to increase the economic independence of the precapitalist family farm.

Résumé: Cet article analyse les phénomènes de continuité et de changement dans la doctrine agraire au Malawi colonial et postcolonial. Cet article engage également un débat classique sur les images et réglementations liées à l'agriculture en Afrique, et soutient la thèse que la doctrine agraire doit être reliée à la notion plus large de populisme agraire, plus spécifiquement à la logique de Chayanov concernant la ferme familiale paysanne. L'emploi de cette approche plus générale permet de découvrir d'une continuité remarquable dans la doctrine agraire. Les appels aux changements des institutions locales n'indiquaient pas des tentatives de promotion d'une transformation rurale, mais elles contenaient des stratégies pour augmenter l'indépendance économique de la ferme familiale pré-capitaliste.

The continuity and change of colonial agrarian policies in British Africa have been debated for decades. Several historians identify a break in the 1940s as the colonial state began to increasingly intervene and regulate die economy in order to facilitate agricultural growth. In nonsetder economies, the changes were embedded in an agrarian doctrine of enhancing the growth of African peasant production. Social conservative ideas of preserving the past were replaced with a more liberal ideology of promoting change. Investments in development schemes increased considerably, and discussions on the relative efficiency of local rural institutions were intensified. Atmore and Oliver argue that the new sources "revolutionised the activities of colonial governments during the post-war period" (1999:197). Peasant farmers were praised for their potential efficiency, and many of them initiated programs aimed at enhancing both technological and institutional change on the African countryside. The district officer was replaced by agricultural officers "as the embodiment of colonial authoritarianism" (Cooper 1981:127), and the colonial policies moved from extractive measures to attempts to modernize the African countryside.

At the same time, historians have found it difficult to conceptualize the postwar doctrine, although both Cowen and Shenton (1996) and KeIeman (2007) link it to the rise of Fabian socialism in Britain. The paradox, it seems, is that while the colonial authorities acknowledged the efficiency of peasant farming, their perception of "African social realities" (Berry 1993:47) was not fundamentally changed. In that sense, one can detect both continuity and change in the colonial agrarian doctrine which, as further argued by Berry, "promoted contradictory images of Africans as social beings" (2002:647).

This article uses Malawi as a case to suggest that the local authorities' policies and images were not at all contradictory and that the interaction between continuity and change makes sense if it is related to the broader notion of agrarian populism. The period under investigation stretched from the early colonial period to the first decade of independence. The end of colonialism is not identified as a historical break, simply because that is not supported by the long-term "rhythms of change" in terms of agricultural growth (Cooper 2002:91ff). The Malawi case reveals an agrarian doctrine that was not static, but was reviewed and altered to meet perceived changes on the ground. …

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