Marxism, the Land, and the Global Working Class

Solving our global ecological crises today requires understanding how capitalism has transformed humanity’s relationship to the land. Karl Marx’s thought gives us the tools to do just that.

Harvesting apricots in the village of al-Amar in Qalyubia Governorate, Egypt, on May 21, 2024. (Doaa Adel / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When it comes to contemporary ecological and anti-colonial politics, there is perhaps no more central factor than land. The world’s most oppressed people continue to be pushed off the land, and likewise social movements have long attempted to expropriate land controlled by powerful capitalists and states. The history of twentieth-century revolution and anti-colonial movements largely hinged on land and land reform.

It is therefore vital for socialists to understand the specific relationship between capitalism and the land. For starters, capitalism emerged historically by violently tearing the vast majority of humanity from a direct reliance upon the land for survival. Like no other economic system in history, this is what capitalism does. And for most of humanity, this is a relatively recent development. Since World War II, the exodus of masses of people from rural agricultural livelihoods — what scholars call “depeasantization” — has been nothing short of astonishing. As Eric Hobsbawm described:

The most dramatic and far-reaching change of the second half of [the twentieth] century, and the one which cuts us off forever from the world of the past, is the death of the peasantry. For since the Neolithic era most human beings had lived off the land and its livestock or harvested the sea as fishers. With the exception of Britain, peasants and farmers remained a massive part of the occupied population even in industrialized countries well into the twentieth century.

In industrialized countries like the United States, this process is nearly complete: at the ratification of the US Constitution, roughly 90 percent of the population worked in agriculture; by 1910 it was 35 percent; today it is a mere 1 percent. But globally, the process has accelerated over the neoliberal period as farmers worldwide were subject to international competition due to “free-trade” regimes and structural adjustment policies. According to World Bank data, as recently as 1991, 43 percent of the global workforce still worked in agriculture, but in 2022 that number had fallen to 26 percent.

Basically every country on earth has seen a plummeting percentage of labor involved in agriculture. Only 9 percent of Brazilians worked on farms in 2022. In the most stunning transformation — the site of what some call the largest mass human migration in world history — China went from 60 percent working in agriculture in 1991 to 23 percent in 2022. Bolivia has gone from 43 to 27 percent. The only place on the planet where the record of depeasantization is uneven is sub-Saharan Africa: Angola has seen its agricultural workforce increase from 40 to 56 percent. In other countries like Burkina Faso, the peasantry has declined but still remains the large majority of the workforce, having fallen from 89 to 74 percent. Kenya has seen a modest decline from 48 to 33 percent.

What should we make of this global transformation? And what does it tell us about the prospects for ecological politics today?

Proletarians Are Landless

Marxists have a concept to describe this process: proletarianization. This is a process of expropriating the direct producers from the land and any other “means of production” so that they have to sell their labor power on the market for a wage to survive. As I argue in Climate Change as Class War, this is a profoundly “ecological” process of trading a mode of life where people depend directly on land for survival to one in which they must rely on the uncertain whims of the market. It is no surprise that peasants the world over have resisted this process as a threat to their material security rooted in the land.

For capital, proletarianization creates a massive working class to exploit — wage labor was the key source of profits, according to Karl Marx. Beyond the working class and capitalist class, this process also entrenches a “third class” of private landlords who control land and extract “rent” from workers and capitalists alike who need access to it. Many left-wing movements for secure housing come up against the landlord class as the main barrier to achieving their political goals, and environmental struggles have seen landlords on both sides of the fight.

As violent and traumatizing as land dispossession is, Marxists have historically believed it had the liberatory upshot of creating “capitalism’s gravediggers” in the working class. Friedrich Engels, in particular, argued that severing workers from the land transformed their local or parochial outlook into that of a universal class poised to achieve human emancipation: “In order to create the modern revolutionary class of the proletariat it was absolutely necessary to cut the umbilical cord which still bound the worker of the past to the land.” By bringing huge numbers of workers together in cities and factories, capitalism was creating a large mass of people with a sense of shared interests and an ability to organize to take collective action against employers and the system as a whole.

Traditionally Marxism did not advocate for the mere preservation of small-scale peasant land regimes, nor for the creation of agrarian socialist communes (Marx and Engels famously called such experiments “utopian”). Despite some efforts to claim that Marx’s late-in-life study of Russian peasant communes meant he had become a “degrowth communist,” in the first draft of his letter to the Russian populist Vera Zasulich, Marx was clear: “The commune may gradually replace fragmented agriculture with large-scale, machine assisted agriculture particularly suited to the physical configuration of Russia.”

Marxists instead proposed the proletarianized majority would seize the “means of production” in total, including the land. Vladimir Lenin, for example, criticized the Russian populist “Narodniks” who argued socialism would be founded on small-scale peasant control over land. In contrast, he argued the land must be nationalized — or, better, socialized, so workers themselves control the land rather than only the state — in a way that rationalizes agriculture, employing the modern efficient methods developed under capitalism.

The problem, of course, is that the Russian Revolution took place in a heavily rural peasant country where depeasantization had hardly commenced, and the assistance with economic development that Lenin and the Bolsheviks originally hoped would come from revolutions in the rich capitalist world never came. The question of how to industrialize and what to do with the peasantry haunted the Bolshevik leadership throughout the 1920s until Joseph Stalin chose a particularly coercive path of forced collectivization. We can hope, but only speculate, that a less violent and destructive path to industrialization might have been pursued (call it a “just transition” for the peasantry).

Marx and Engels famously predicted the gradual proletarianization of the entire global peasantry as well as small artisanal producers. For a long time, commentators could plausibly argue they were wrong as the peasantry persisted deep into the twentieth century, but no longer: we live on a nearly fully proletarianized planet. This also means that the vast majority of humanity — the working class — is profoundly alienated from the ecological conditions of our collective existence.

Land Politics and Global Ecological Crisis

This alienation often leads to eco-left political projects of reunification with the land in the form of localist experiments with alternative agriculture or community energy cooperatives. The Left has also been attached to a “livelihood environmentalism,” where ecological politics means aligning with peasant or indigenous movements defending existing land regimes from dispossession. Such movements call for food or energy “sovereignty” on different terms from capital, where local communities control their own land and resources for more localized provisioning.

These efforts to defend people’s traditional lands and livelihoods are righteous and must be supported. Yet this orientation is not particularly Marxist (if anything, contemporary ecosocialism has much more in common with the program of the Narodniks). It has never been clear how such localist or land sovereignty movements can speak to the interests of the proletarianized majority, whose survival now hinges on access to money and commodities rather than land. Under capitalism, commodity dependence means the working class relies on global networks of socialized labor: every commodity we consume is the product of thousands of workers around the world cooperating to make it possible. What socialism has meant to Marxists is abolishing private ownership and fully socializing control over an already socialized production system.

As Lenin maintained (except when delivering land to the peasants became a political necessity amid the emergency conditions after the Russian Revolution), the point of land politics was not simply to maintain localist or unalienated relations with the land, but rather to socialize the land in a way that collectively plans what society as a whole needs. This kind of socialist planning of land use would not focus only on the interests of the local communities living on the land, but also take account of the needs of the larger society for food, energy, minerals, forest products, and more. Therefore, the labor productivity or efficiency of agriculture is of crucial significance, because labor-intensive, smallholder agriculture is no basis for societal emancipation.

Of course, unlike capitalism, which subjects land to destructive capitalist profit-maximizing imperatives and the anarchy of the market, socialist planning of land use would have to remain carefully attuned to ecological constraints and the requirements of sustainability. And those living on or near lands designated for social use should have more democratic weight in collective decisions. Indigenous and peasant communities could retain control over their own land and resources and set the terms of engagement and trade with larger-scale global production systems.

The implications of this perspective for the ecological crisis are profound. What Marxism posits is a global class — the global proletariat — that has the power to wrestle an already global and socialized production system from capital and repurpose it toward the needs of all of humanity. Isn’t this actually what the ecological crisis requires? We need a species or planetary scale of social control over production so that we can both serve human needs and maintain a habitable planet.

The typical localist leftist politics of land has little capacity to solve these species-scale problems. It is easy to see how small local militant groups could seize the land and local means of subsistence around the world in little pockets, while the capitalist organization of global production remains largely intact. (Small bubbles of food sovereignty, for example, while the planet burns.) We need a planetary theory of power — and Marxism gives us one.

“Not Owners of the Earth”

Deep in Volume 3 of Capital, Marx made one of his rare remarks on what a “higher” society (i.e. socialism) would look like:

From the standpoint of a higher socioeconomic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man over other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as [good heads of household].

Socialism requires overcoming private property in land — either in capitalist form or that of the smallholder family — to build a truly socialized relationship with land. Capitalism creates a class — the working class — with the capacity not only to liberate humanity from exploitation and needless deprivation, but also to manage our collective earthbound relationship with nature on a planetary scale. The ecological left today is in dire need of this kind of internationalist vision based in global ecological stewardship.