An Interview with Max Ajl on Agrarian Change in Tunisia
Agrarian South
By Selim Nadi

You work mainly on agrarian political economy and your PhD is on Tunisian state agriculture development policy in the post-1980s period. But let’s go back to the Tunisian independence period: to what extent was the issue of agriculture a key issue in the debates within the Tunisian national movement in the mid-1950s? How did Bourguiba and Ben Youssef differ on the issue of land?

From the 1930s to the 1950s, agriculture was central to the discourse of the national movement. Publications, communiques, speeches, and other documents were salted with references to how colonialism drained the wealth of the land, and most especially how colonialism as a specific set of institutional mechanisms pushed small landholders into debt and hastened their transformation into a rural proletariat or a semi-proletariat. During the 1950s, the Neo-Destour was aware that independence was breaking over the horizon and began to speak more and more of the Neo-Destour’s holding within it all the classes within the Tunisian nation. His major priority was to maintain the integrity of the cross-class national front. That front enfolded large farmers, many of whom who were quietly funding the Neo-Destour or in its leadership, small farmers, the landless, slum-dwellers in the bidonvilles, and the massive UGTT – the nationalist, Western-aligned trade union. In many ways, the UGTT was the primary articulator of social issues during the 1950s, more so than the Neo-Destour which focused on the colonial-national contradiction. The notion that colonialism was a social machine which was damaging every class in Tunisian society was broadly shared, but it was left to the UGTT to articulate more specific grievances and programmatic solutions. The UGTT put a sharper and redder redistributionist edge on its nationalism, suggesting that agrarian reform was needed, but also frequently softened such calls by avoiding explicit mention of the liquidation of the large Tunisian estates. This was in part due to its own subservient incorporation into the nationalist front, which its own leader, Ahmed Ben Salah, thought would allow for a union-party fusion and thereby allow for the UGTT to push a harder economically redistributive line after independence – an ambition which shipwrecked on the shoals of Bourguiba’s late 1956 move to sharply subordinate the UGTT, remove Ben Salah from its leadership, and ensure that its economic ambitions could only take shape within parameters with the Neo-Destour delimited.

Photo: Usaid Abbasi 

The question of land is most visible as refracted through the prism of nation and decolonization, and this was Bourguiba and Ben Youssef’s major line-of-difference. Before discussing that, it may be worth quickly noting in brackets that the peasant, herder, and semi-proletariat movements which propelled decolonization did not necessarily take political cues directly from Ben Youssef or Bourguiba at any stage, and the nationalist movement was a quite fissiparous entity, since leadership was frequently in prison, scattered across several continents, and the struggle was carried out under conditions of severe colonial repression.

That said, Ben Youssef and Bourguiba’s major distinction was that one called for full decolonization, and one did not. Ben Youssef’s call for full decolonization was not drawn from the well of Cabral-style clarions demanding to liberate the land and place the productive forces under the control of the land’s people. The difference was more sub rosa: since the June 1955 autonomy accords allowed for the French to retain control of tariffs, to maintain full Tunisian-French economic integration, and to keep their 800,000 or so hectares, much of it the most fecund soils in Tunisia, alongside the many mines and railways pocking and striating Tunisia, Ben Youssef’s opposition to that program and call for full independence was a call for the sovereign control of the country’s economic resources – but more by default than explicitly so. Ben Youssef was much more explicit about policies like tariffs and how they would prevent sovereign control of the country’s development path. In assessing Ben Youssef, we also have to keep in mind that he was in the gravity well of the radicalizing Bandung conference only late in his political career, in 1955, and left a comparatively scanty written political record. He left behind a much smaller paper trail than did Bourguiba.

You argue that while the peasantry made revolution in Tunisia, this revolution was robbed from them. Could you come back to this?

While working through the timelines of the dominant historiography of Tunisian decolonization, there were odd starts and stops which did not make sense to me, and certainly factors which seemed relatively de-emphasized. There is a tendency to counterpose Tunisia’s pacific decolonization to the violent decolonization which unrolled to Tunisia’s west, in Algeria, and it seemed to me this comparison was drawn too sharply. Furthermore, as I arrived to Tunisia, colleagues told me that the question of the Youssefites – the partisans or followers of Ben Youssef – was emerging more clearly as an object of political and historiographical contention in post-revolutionary Tunisia, both in political culture and through the Instance Verité et Dignité – Tunisia’s truth commission. The first half of my dissertation has been an attempt to make sense of these gaps. What I found was that, first, it was crystal-clear that the armed fellaga insurrection, in its first stage – from 1952 to late 1954 – drove the French to the negotiating table in the first place. The fellaga were armed brigades, created in some coordination with the Neo-Destour and the UGTT, and who came primarily from mixed herder-farmers of the South, at least at first. They spread elsewhere – to date-tree owners elsewhere in the oases of the South, people tending rain-harvested plots, those nearly landless due to the one-two of land alienation due to the settler-capitalist regime and successive shrinkage of plots due to inheritance, and also to those entirely ejected from rural production. Part of why they demobilized in November-December 1954 was Neo-Destour success in using them as leverage to force autonomy, and fear that Neo-Destour control of the fellaga was slipping, as the Algerian revolution had started to rage to the west, and Nasserism was increasingly compelling.

One of the fellaga, Lazhar Chraiti, refused to surrender his arms and was part of organizing an attempted cross-Maghrebi armed insurgency, drawing materiel from recently decolonized Egypt under the Free Officer’s government and some say, even Maoist China. By early 1955, he was creating plans for a new army, and the conflict burst out sometime after Ben Youssef split from Bourguiba – in a low-intensity manner from November 1955 to January 1956, and the really pitched battles afterwards. This army fought for full independence, sometimes mentioning land issues, sometimes not, but aiming to expel the French from Tunisian lands, and certainly influenced by the Arab nationalist vision of unity, anti-imperialism, and sovereignty beaming out over radio waves from Cairo. In fact, this armed insurgency was 50 percent bigger than the first, with a clearer line of demarcation: they fought for full decolonization against the June 1955 internal autonomy accords. Once again, it was the people of the South – then and now the poorest region of the country – at the core of the fighting forces, and they were herders, smallholders, and others who made a poor living from agriculture. They forced the French to allow what was mis-named a “full” independence in March 20, 1956, and then Bourguiba’s proto-national army and even more the colonial French forces inflicted several military defeats upon them, some of which were actually massacres of surrounded, surrendering, or wounded Tunisian guerrillas. Still, under the pressure they exerted, the government agreed to a 15 million old Franc a year allotment for developing the Center and South – a massive sum, which would have been close to a revolutionary redistribution of income if it had been implemented. Of course, it was not, and in this sense, the poor of the Center and South were thrice-robbed of their revolution: first, although they forced what there was of independence in 1956, it was the Bourguibist wing of the Neo-Destour which harvested the fruit of the military victory which the Youssefites had achieved by force of arms and martyrdom. Second, because the state was soon a neo-colonial state, and thus in material terms their victory was robbed from them, as the development project brought them only poverty. And thrice-over, as their lives and even their deaths were erased from history books and not allowed to be taught in schools, reducing the historiography of the nationalist movement into a hagiography of the Great Man Bourguiba, thereby robbing them of their claim to the state as the commonwealth of its people, and justifying the Bourguibist anti-peasant developmentalist project.

Some scholars have written that the transfer of power from elite to elite was central to the decolonisation process, and national liberation did little to disrupt Western dominance of the global economic order: How was this “Western dominance of the global economic order” expressed and how did it evolve, especially regarding the issue of peasantry and agriculture during the post-Independence era of Tunisia?

I would first say that this is reductive. Colonization lasted a very long time – in Algeria from 1830, for example, in India from even earlier. Pace formalist models of the origins of capitalism, capitalist development, and the Great Divergence, it is clear that the wealth France and the British looted from their colonial possessions was not the result of their dominance of the global economy, but in fact helped constitute that dominance, and it did not happen with a snap of the fingers – it took time. Since to build Western dominance took time, to unbuild it will take time, and while such statements are true in word, they are false in framing – it’s quite early to say that national liberation did little to break the Western supremacy in the global order. It also collapses national liberation into the formal and juridical process of decolonization. But these were not the same thing. Take, again, Cabral’s position, which saw national liberation as a complete shattering of Western control over the domestic productive forces, including as such control occurred through the neo-colonial state and accompanying sectors of social power. National liberation was an aspirational horizon. It was about the self-directed development of the productive forces. Political decolonization, as it was in Tunisia, was often a mechanism to short-circuit a more encompassing national liberation.

Furthermore, what has happened in China would bely even this formal statement. Even with the anti-Maoist counter-revolution, China has a massive economic weight in the world-system and poses a tremendous threat to Western dominance of the global economic order. This is explicit in Pentagon planning documents, for example. It is not clear what people are expecting vis-à-vis national liberation’s threat and horizons – colonialism took hundreds of years of stolen labour and its fruits and slowly transmuted that stolen labour into Western dominance of the global economic order. Why would anyone expect this to change immediately, or even within a period of one, two, three decades? It relativizes away the very real achievements of national liberation, which played a massive role in putting a stop in many places to colonial genocides and famines across Africa and Asia, and stopped the flow of drain, as Utsa Patnaik has shown in detail with respect to India. These processes were only stalled – and emphasis on stalled – amidst a massive militarized counter-revolution against every experiment in national development. So, when people say that the process of decolonization did not (yet) level out world economic hierarchies, they ought also say that the prospects for doing so were leveled by precisely those hierarchies. And still, the future is open.

Regarding Tunisia, this goes back to my earlier point about neo-colonialism. The post-colonial government under Habib Bourguiba was the major pendant of the US political architecture in the Western Arab world, and the West considered Tunisia a possible model for nominally non-aligned – in fact, entirely Western aligned – developmentalism. It poured in one of the world’s highest per capita rates of foreign aid in order to protect the Neo-Destourian government. Even then, across the government, elites and dirigiste planners were petrified of the prospects of a “demagogic” – their word – agrarian reform unfolding in Tunisia, as was happening in Algeria, Egypt, or China, a frequent bugbear. The framework of planning was to put in place an agricultural revolution in order to avoid an agrarian revolution – that is, to apply the faith of modernization theory and development-through-technological-diffusion to peasant agricultures and try to modernize them. This occurred through a cooperative experiment, which took place at first on the lands the state slowly nationalized in the late 1950s and early 1960s, then on another larger tranche of colonial lands the state nationalized in 1964, alongside lots of picayune minifundia clustered around these larger plots.

Now, what was central was that modernization took place within two parameters, both reflecting the Bourguibist outlook and Western imperatives: massive infusions of capital into farming and accordingly top-down attempted reworking and takeover of peasant life by the state; and until the late 1960s, respect for the large private property in Tunisian hands. The replacement of animal traction with imported tractors and other forms of mechanization, and also imported fuel, pesticides, and fertilizers to compensate for the broken nitrogen cycle, was massively expensive. It also ensured that the technological path these cooperatives took ensured a massive under-utilization of labor, and thus made them all the more difficult to economically sustain, while alienating and spurning peasant knowledge, and erasing peasants as both political and social subjects, turning them into the objects of planning. Alongside this project, the state put footloose labor to work in “work-groups” which were basically sustained by US aid. They were designed to absorb social pressure building on the neo-colonial state and allowed the state to avoid an agrarian reform.

By the late 1960s, two tracks were in motion. One was the first rumblings of a Green Revolution, sponsored by the US, which would further empty out the Tunisian countryside, increase rural differentiation, and decrease nutritional quality, as high quality durum wheats and barley, far preferred by the population, partially gave way to Green Revolution soft wheat and durum wheat hybrids. The second aspect, which was a partial challenge to the Western economic order, was a move by Ben Salah, by then the Planning Minister, to spread the cooperatives country-wide under the social use of land justification. This really accelerated from 1967-1969, while Bourguiba was quite sick. But in 1969, as large farmers made their qualms known to Bourguiba and amidst pressure from the World Bank, he terminated the cooperative program and switched to a state-supported medium-to-large-farmer commodity-production capitalist rural order. This was enabled by US-supported cereal breeding programs and massive input subsidies to assist the larger farmers – the only ones who could afford such capital-intensive imported inputs, even if we put a parenthesis around the long-term ecological effects of pouring such poisons into the soil and the water table. Thus, it is far less accurate to that that “national liberation” did not do much to shift Western dominance, but rather that national liberation was bridled if not broken in order to ensure that it would not disrupt, and would in fact buttress, Western economic dominance.

What was the position of what you call the “Tunisian school” regarding the question of food sovereignty? How did they regard the question of self-management? To what extent was there a Latin-American influence on Tunisian economists and agronomists concerning food sovereignty?

The “Tunisian school” was a loose cluster of economists, agronomists, and other researchers in alternative technology and dependency theory which developed in the mid-1970s to the early-to-mid 1980s in reaction to the tremendous social and ecological costs of capitalist modernization in Tunisia, and who put out a small book in 1983, Tunisie: Quelles Technologies? Quel Développement? I would say they were very much advocates of food sovereignty avant la lettre. The dominant lexicon in Tunisia was food security, but as with many such discourses under the developmentalist dictatorship of Bourguiba, so long as one adhered to the letter of the dominant framework, once could break from it in spirit. Thus, they used the discussion of “food security” to call for a return to the peasant vis-à-vis agricultural technology. That meant using native landraces, or the seeds of the region, to use native animal breeds in agriculture. That also meant a massive advocacy for native water-harvesting technics, made of earth and stone, in place of the massively expensive dam technology which cost so much while shattering one after another watershed’s water cycle, and delivering so little vis-à-vis irrigated land per dollar invested. These dams also incurred large loans and relied on foreign expertise to build – another mechanism of neo-colonialism. They wished to do all of this while reducing agriculture-related imports, reducing the use of hydrocarbons in farming, eliminating to the extent possible unneeded food imports, and setting in motion native programs to research camels, dates, barley – all the arid-land crops which neo-colonial technics had spurned. To be clear, none of this work deployed the words agro-ecology or food sovereignty, but the entire project looked, technically speaking, quite like what now goes by the name of food sovereignty within Via Campesina.

Essentially, this seemed to have occurred in parallel rather than by way of diffusion from Latin America – the “return to the peasant” was at that time occurring in much of the Third World in reaction to the wrenching dislocations of modernizing agriculture. I am doing some collaborative work with my colleague Divya Sharma bringing India and Tunisia into comparative perspective, and many countries in Latin America have their own genealogies of agro-ecology, which developed out of work to understand the ecology of traditional peasant farming systems.

The project of the “Tunisian school” was based on valorizing the technical capacity of Tunisian artisans, builders, and peasants. Their concerns went beyond food and agriculture – they drew on broader critical currents, from French and US technology criticism, to the appropriate technology movement which was blooming across the First World and also the Third, and also had a heavy influence from radical French agronomy, especially Rene Dumont, who extensively studied Tunisia and made many trips there. In this sense, they did not directly call for cooperatives or economic democracy, and only sometimes and guardedly called for agrarian reforms – recall that most of them could not so easily speak their minds given that they worked for a state which was in close alliance with big landholders. But the state was still purportedly the commonwealth of its people, and they could certainly call for redirecting state budgetary spending and research priorities towards the peasants, and even decentralizing planning itself so that it would follow instead of lead the peasants. Self-management was certainly an ambition vis-à-vis peasants and smallholders having a full and autonomous control of their own production cycle, and a similar process taking place at the national scale. But they did not call, for example, for co-gestion of the large farms, or the large factories – it seems to me such a call would have been enormously politically dangerous, even under the relatively more permissive Bourguiba regime. Under Ben Ali, of course, social scientific inquiry was asphyxiated.

Who was Slaheddine el-Amami and what was new in his thought regarding agriculture in Tunisia? How did he change the relations between agrarian technological advances and the Tunisian peasantry?

El-Amami was a Tunisian agronomist, who came out of the radical left student movement in the late 1950s, then began working his way through the Tunisian government research institutions. By the mid-1970s he ran the influential Centre de Recherche en Genie Rurale. In my reading, he essentially was the first to apply the methodology of dependency theory – that is, a theory which sought to understand the adjustment and damage done to peripheral and semi-peripheral economies as they were reworked by internal and external class forces to suit the needs of the core – to the agricultural sector. He also entirely infused that approach with state-of-the-art knowledge of ecology and agronomy. Essentially, he was the vanguard, and as far as I can see the pioneer, of the “return to the peasant” in the Tunisian context. From his perch at the CRGR, he carried out dozens of field investigations into indigenous water-harvesting systems, to evaluate how much salt content the indigenous land-races could tolerate, and other experiments, including looking at the uses of windbreaks – vital in the warding off the desert sirocco. The core novelty was that he looked askance on the merits of modernization in the agricultural sector and thought instead that what was needed was not an antediluvian traditionalism, but an alternative modernity based on building out from the existing strengths and technical knowledges of peasant farmers. This was revolutionary.

He sought to do several things technologically speaking. First, he wanted to put the national research institutions at the direct service of peasants and their landraces and technologies. That is, rather than evangelizing new technology, they would co-develop existing technologies – water-harvesting, seeds, and so forth, bearing in that, as Braudel pointed out, that agriculture is a technology – into more sophisticated forms, to make them more efficient, and more productive, without damaging human or ecology. Second, he sought to find ways to bring the insights of appropriate technologies to the Tunisian countryside – e.g. he was an advocate of solar power, and in one of his experiments sought to combine solar powered pumps with supplementary irrigation, as when the sun shone more intensely, water would flow for the suddenly thirstier plants. But this was an approach to technology which totally rejected the dominant model of technology transfer, which Amami knew had constituted Tunisia and the Third World as dependent entities. He refused to wall off technology from social relations, ecology from import dependence, but knew that the right agriculture, which is to say the right farming technics, based on valorizing peasant skills, could actually best serve Tunisia and provide the framework for a sovereign development model.

A famine is currently occurring in Yemen. To what extent is the food crisis in Yemen due to external factors? How is this crisis linked to the war?

In 1970, Yemen was essentially food-independent. In 2015, as the US war, under Saudi and Emirati branding, scoured Yemen, much of Yemen relied on imported food as a means for day-to-day survival. The shift from a country which could feed itself to a country which could not do so is at the root of the current crisis. Much of the previously subsistence production shifted to water-intensive and less calorically-dense crops, especially fruits and vegetables, and furthermore shifted to irrigated-based crops, which rely on expensive pumps to get at reservoirs. There is also a great amount of land devoted to qat, which relieves hunger and is also a commodity crop. These shifts are inseparable from the monetization of the Yemeni rural sector, wherein wages increased post-1973 as Saudi Arabia drew on its neighbor to supply the Kingdom’s proletariat. US food aid and Green Revolution technologies undercut local cereal production, both making cereals relatively cheaper, and replacing labor with capital. At the same time, since wage costs increased to match those in Saudi Arabia, people switched to more profitable rural crops, or left the countryside. Several consequences ensued. First, terraces collapsed without people being able to helm them. Second, national development itself became impossible as much of the skilled workforce, literally reared on the use-values of Yemen, went to Saudi Arabia. Both countryside and city became highly dependent on remittances and markets for food. When Saudi expelled those workers for Yemen’s decision not to toe the Saudi/US line vis-à-vis Iraq and the US presence in the region, Yemen’s remittances ran dry and there was suddenly ever-more-rural labor available. Rather than turning to the rural sector, Yemen’s government enjoyed a small oil boom, and used those monies to subsidize imported cereal consumption – a Yemeni decision, but also a US/European once, since excess cereals on the global markets is not due to that phantasm of fossil capitalism, “productivity” but because large producers of cereals receive massive subsidies, and they export their ecological costs for monocrop cereal production onto the rest of humanity, and onto the future.

Until the outbreak of protests in 2011, this process continued and even accelerated, as more and more land and water went to fruit and vegetable production for the protected internal market, even while less and less land went to cereal production. Imports made up the difference. This created two interlocked vulnerabilities. One, instead of the poor relying on their own production for survival, they relied on the market. And instead of that market being internal, it was tied to international commodity prices. Thus, when the 2015 war began in an attempt to destroy the anti-Zionist Houthi movement and to re-install a US-Saudi client, several dynamics interlaced to produce the famine. One was the direct targeting of agriculture, as meticulously documented by Martha Mundy. Second was the overall targeting of the economy, increasing poverty and thereby reducing families’ capacity to secure goods on the market on the demand side. Finally, blockades and destruction of import capacity has meant increased prices for purchasers. Here it is worth stating that famine even in this kind extreme case of extreme imperially-induced food dependence, is not due to lack of food to feed people inside geographical Yemen, but decades of stunted dependent capitalist development and imperialist development which has so immiserated people that they can no longer get the food which exists in the country. As for responsibility, that of the US is massive.

According to the Belgian specialist of China, Roland Lew, the peasantry is a “classe en trop” for Marxists – a class that they often prefer to forget about but that they cannot ignore. How would you characterize the current state of Marxist research regarding the relevance of the peasantry and of agricultural issues?

I might slightly redirect the question. In reviews like Journal of Peasant Studies, Agrarian South, Economic and Political Weekly, and in a slightly more popular but still extremely rigorous way, Monthly Review, inquiry into peasant and agricultural issues is not merely alive and well. It is flourishing – indeed, having a dazzling renaissance after a period of dormancy. The quality of the literature in these journals concerning peasant and agrarian issues is extremely high, ranging from revitalized inquiries into semi-proletarianization, food sovereignty, agro-ecology, the politics of peasant movements, the many agrarian questions of our day, matters of food, finance, and imperialism, work on the intersection of agricultural trade and imperialism, seed questions, and peasant matters across Latin America, South Asia, to a slightly lesser extent Africa, and to a far lesser extent the Middle East – North Africa region. It would be fair to say that not all of this literature is cast in the classic framework of Marxist analysis – much of it, for example, in JPS finds itself in the more catholic categorization of critical agrarian studies or political ecology – but it certainly applies a materialist method to the study of contemporary social reality in the world’s countrysides. I would worry less about the state of this literature (although certainly I would like to see broader conversations occurring between this field and Marxist approaches to economic development, and more openness to the national question and anti-imperialism in some places) and much more I am apprehensive that this literature is often not known by many in other Marxist traditions, where as you stated, they often “prefer to forget” about the campesinos. It would be gratuitous to name names, but clearly the problem is generalized, although with the caveats I mentioned.

Why is this the case? For one thing, most people in the Global North are not peasants or farmers, and these concerns may seem very distant from their lives – few academics have experience in factory labor, or in prisons, but at least those problems are closer at hand. Furthermore, few academic departments study peasants, even though the rural sector is absolutely central to development issues in North and South alike. There has also been a broader turn away from issues of development within Marxism, and that has brought with it a turn away from issues of rural development. I think also that there are residual or not-so-residual investments amongst many Marxists in the myths of modernity – the idea that what capitalism has produced is somehow progressive, and thus the agrarian question is an antediluvian remnant. One can see sentiments like this sprouting in many Marxist circles, open mockery of the role of peasants or smallholder production in a sustainable modernity, and even where it is not explicit, there is a comfortable turning-away from the kind of production which is central to the livelihoods of much of the planet, even though it is the most concrete of the many determinations which produce our contemporary world-system. In fact, it is remarkably underknown that smallholder farming produces at least half the planet’s food. On an energetic basis – that is, energy returned on energy invested – smallholder traditional farming systems are far more efficient than the industrial agriculture, dollar-cheap but entropy-heavy, which underpins contemporary urbanization and suburbanization. Smallholder production, however, is made invisible, because that labor is exploited to produce the semi-proletarianized labor reserves upon which capitalism rests. It seems to me that there is far more interest, for example, in logistics workers than massive vibrant social movements like the Landless Workers Movement, fighting for their survival and their future in Brazil, or other peasant-based revolutionary movements which are in fact criminalized by the US state. Some of this also has to do with the anti-peasant bias of Western ideology, which very often Marxists inherit.

Still, there are glimmers of changes – I think Marxism is having a return to ecological issues amidst global warming’s civilizational threat, and from ecology there is a very possible although far from inevitable turn to agriculture and agro-ecology. I would also hope that amidst recent turns to urban farming and forms of agro-ecological production in Europe and the US, alongside what seems to me to be the unarguable fact that the agrarian question is the question for the Global South’s escape from poverty for this century, the current situation could change, and we could see a renewed engagement with these questions amongst the Marxist journals.

This interview was conducted by Selim Nadi and originally appeared in Contretemps in French.

Original Contents by Agrarian South