Seminar series on Critical Agrarian Studies 2023, Seminar 02- “Is the Agrarian Question Dead? Theory, Tendencies and Praxis”, a talk by Dr. Kalpa Rajapaksha

“Is the Agrarian Question Dead? Theory, Tendencies and Praxis”

The Critical Agrarian Studies seminar series of the Social Scientists’ Association held its second meeting titled “Is the Agrarian Question Dead? Theory, Tendencies and Praxis”. The seminar series focuses on the contemporary agrarian political economy of Sri Lanka, aiming to map an agenda for critical agrarian studies in the 21st century.  The talk was led by Dr. Kalpa Rajapaksha,  Department of Economics and Statistics, Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

Dr. Kalpa Rajapaksha opened by noting that the Agrarian Question is not an old, archaic one as seen by many, but a modern question to grapple with.  Citing Issa G Shivji’s in his contribution to the Agrarian Question in the Neo Liberal Era, Dr. Rajapaksa quoted that from the “…perspective of human history, the capitalist system itself is primitive”. In so far as capitalism, from the perspective and scale of the human civilization and human history is eternal, neither is the capitalist mode of agriculture and capitalism in agriculture. Therefore, he argued that it is possible to change the mode of production that we are having right now and seek alternative paths of developments in agriculture.

His talk was centred around two main questions/objectives and one broad objective:

What is the new agrarian question? A Reconceptualization
What is the peasant path of development?
What has happened to the agrarian debate in Sri Lanka?


His key arguments and observations were that the capitalist system has clearly showed its historical limitations in production in general and in agricultural production specifically. However, it has its own ways of converting crises into opportunities wherein capital even uses disaster and destruction for the benefit of its own life and survival. Thirdly, there is a new wave of land dispossession/ Trans National Capital (TNC) where capital finds its own territory, its own breeding ground, in terms of land as well, not only finance. Finance capital finds land as a very profitable, sustainable means to invest in the current context of local capitalism.  In order to respond to these challenges, the peasant path of development stands as an alternative. An alternative narration for the future requires understanding of the historical process, and the progress, limits, and challenges of the praxis of struggle.

Touching on the myths of the Classical Agrarian Question, he noted that there are five key elements to it: (1) False division: Agrarian Question of Capital and Labour; (2) Agrarian Question of Capital is resolved/ fulfilled; (3) Industrialization as an end to itself: Backwardness- industrialization (Industrialization obsession); (4) Unemployment is a transitional issue; and (5) Universal Growth Path.

Today’s agrarian question, according to him, is evolving and is characterised in three dimensions; first, the Agrarian Question remains wide open, both in the South and the North; second, the capital and ecological limitations of civilization where it has become difficult for capital to surpass ecological barriers. Therefore, there is the need for capitalism to realistically confront this barrier. Thirdly, the Peasant Path of Development: Praxis or the peasant struggle. Praxis or the path forward under the new agrarian question should reconsider the transitional nature of the agrarian question. Therefore, any attempt to defend the conquests of the past and the project of the future, must involve an appreciation of the long duration of agrarian transition. At the same time, the new dynamics of land alienation and resistance and the role of small producers in national development should be taken seriously into account. As such the path forward for the agrarian question should be all-dimensional including gender, ecology, and regional integration.

He concluded that the Agrarian Question today is alive and evolving. Global struggles that emerged in the form of peasant struggles emphasise their connection to the limitation of capital of our time and human existence, and peasant path of development has emerged as an alternative, with sound theoretical, empirical, and political foundations. He also concluded that the time has come to examine the debate on peasantry and agriculture in Sri Lanka, its past and the current status.

Dr. Kalpa Rajapaksha currently teaches Marxist political economy at the Department of Economics and Statistics, Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He received his PhD from the New School for Social Research, USA. His research interests are Marx’s Capital, Agrarian Question and Class politics in Sri Lanka. He is actively engaged in people’s struggle in Sri Lanka and galvanizing class analysis for socialism in the 21st century.

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