Jo Guidi, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

The period from 1878 to about 1882 is usually known as “The Land War” in Irish history.  Under the guidance of the recently released Fenian prisoner, Michael Davitt, Irish tenant farmers took on their landlords.  For the more moderate, the goal was to secure the “Three Fs” – Fair Rent, Free Sale and Fixity of Tenure.  At its most radical, those fighting the Land War aimed at a wholesale restructuring of land ownership throughout the island, whether a nationalist reclaiming of the soil of Ireland or a quasi-socialist eradication of private property.  Davitt spoke vaguely, but threateningly, about nationalizing the entirety of Irish agricultural land.

Westminster’s response moved between a coercive crackdown on rural “disturbances” as well as something subtler and more paternalist; in a serious of Land Acts passed in the years after the Land War, the British Government essentially bought out the holdings of Irish landlords and resold the farms to former tenants on relatively generous mortgage terms.  From the perspective of the status quo, it was a win-win result; landlords could sell off their estates, which were generally unprofitable, at above market rates, while previously troublesome tenants could now hopefully be pacified into economically responsible owner-occupiers.  It probably worked.  By the start of the twentieth century, the west of Ireland had become a far quieter place.  The fighting of the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) was mainly confined to Munster, in the south, and the greater Dublin area on the east coast.  Places like Galway and Mayo, the epicenter of the Land War, did not really feature.

Both the agrarian radicalism of the Land War, as well as the framing of Anglo-Irish landlords as cruel villains, have since become key planks in the canon of Irish nationalism.  But there is more here than meets the eye.  As historians like Anne Kane have shown, the Land War was never really a revolt of the poorest peasants against their cruel overlords; those at the heart of the “War” were more likely to be slightly further up the social scale, more aspirant in their status and in their politico-economic goals.  The British plan to convert the island into a nation of pliant, small-scale rural capitalists would find many Irish supporters.  As Friedrich Engels predicted in 1869, after visiting Ireland, “The worst about the Irish is that they become corruptible as soon as they stop being peasants and turn bourgeois. True, this is the case with most peasant nations. But in Ireland it is particularly bad.”  By 1888, he was telling the New Yorker Volkszeitung “A purely socialist movement cannot be expected in Ireland for a considerable time” because “People there want first of all to become peasants owning a plot of land, and after they have achieved that mortgages will appear on the scene and they will be ruined once more.”  The story of the Irish Land War and its aftermath is defined by these tensions and contradictions, with seemingly radical movements transmogrifying into conservative status quos.

Jo Guldi’s The Long Land War, as its title telegraphs, takes this specific Irish case study as a starting point for a much larger and more global story about agrarian disturbances, top-down reforms and the intellectual and conceptual history of private property, from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards.  But quickly moving away from Ireland, Guldi’s main focus is on the sprawling work of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).  She traces the intellectual history of the FAO, its roots in earlier thinking about Third World peasants, in Ireland and elsewhere, and the FAO’s various endeavors in the 1950s and ‘60s, from education and information distribution, to huge map-making efforts and the writing of incredibly detailed bibliographies.

Guldi’s range is vast and undeniably impressive.  And she writes with both a sympathy for the work of the FAO as well as a kind of mournfulness that their more visionary and far-reaching projects failed to be implemented. It is this latter perspective that perhaps lead’s Guldi’s analysis to sometimes slip into too much of a willingness to accept her interlocutors at face value, to accept that their seemingly radical goal of creating a world of owner-occupiers was indeed as radical as it simply seemed.   

The FAO’s goal was to make every farm laborer an entrepreneur, or at least give them the opportunity to transform themselves thusly. It remained an essentially capitalist project.  It was also an anti-Soviet project, large-scale land redistribution being pegged as a mass antidote to communism.  The Soviet Union is oddly absent from the book.  China prior to 1949 is discussed extensively, as a source of global thinking about peasants and land reform.   That Mao had much to say and do about such topics, less so.  These are odd omissions for a book about the politics of peasants and land redistribution in the twentieth century.

Early in the book, Guldi says that the post-1878 Irish-style land reforms, “coordinated, legalized, typified by compensation”, set out a course of action “that no one could disagree with.”  But of course, many people in Ireland continuously disagreed.  One apposite example is Peadar O’Donnell, a brilliant agitator who moonlighted as a journalist and novelist. O’Donnell fomented a major campaign against the land reform status quo in Ireland in the later 1920s, focusing, as a socialist, on those landless people who had been left behind, and as a nationalist on the incongruity that Irish farmers should repay mortgages to the British government for the use of their own land.  His campaign picked at all the issues of legal ownership, co-ordinated state action and compensation to previous landlords that Guldi says had been settled.  Into the 1930s, O’Donnell’s campaign was a serious headache for the first de Valera government.

The Long Land War, in one sense, is a history of failures: the FAO produced a massive informational infrastructure to allow its staff understand global patterns of land-ownership, but desires to put this knowledge into practice crashed against multiple Cold War-era beachheads.  Just as the Land War of 1878 provided a model for how to calmly redistribute land, people like Peadar O’Donnell can provide a parallel history of peaceful land redistribution’s ideological blindspots, of how even “successful” land reform programs left some people behind and those people continued to (mostly failingly) resist.  And what Guldi says of the Mexican Revolution’s agrarian policies is true of top-down agrarian movements in many parts of the world; “not a war to overturn property rights, but rather a war to uphold property rights in the name of the peasant.”  The global project of creating entire nations of owner-occupiers was always defined by those ideological twists and turns.

Aidan Beatty teaches at the Frederick Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh. His new book, Private Property and the Fear of Social Chaos, is out now with Manchester University Press.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Zillah Eisenstein: Newest Misogyny/Ies

By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

By Rev. Matthew V. Johnson, Jr: A Letter Of Concern To Black Clergy Regarding “Cop City”

By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

By Philip Green: On Liberalism

By Benjamin Shepard: On Cities Of Friends And Riots: Between Conflict, Solidarity, And Struggles For Recognition

By Sabby Sagal: REVIEW ESSAY: Dostoevsky as Political Agitator: Alex Chistofi, Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2022)

By Mario Kessler: Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke. New York: Polity Press, 2023

By Warren Leming: Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon & Schuster 2022)

By Kurt Jacobsen: John Nichols, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer (Albuquerque: High Road Books, 2022)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Jo Guidi, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

By Sarah Kamal: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021.