Karen Pfeifer, Agrarian Reform Under State Capitalism in Algeria (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985).

The analysis of contemporary Algerian politics is a matter of considerable controversy. [1] Karen Pfeifer’s excellent study will certainly not put an end to argument; indeed it contributes to the debate. She provides useful and hitherto not accessible empirical evidence concerning agrarian change in Algeria during the 1970s in constructing a more general analysis of the dynamics of “state capitalism.”

Pfeifer argues that an examination of “the achievements and limitations of changes in agriculture provides some insight into the nature of Algeria’s social formation today, and into a developmental process common to many Third World countries.” A brief introductory chapter considers the role of Algerian agriculture in national economic development before turning to the agrarian reform itself in more detail. Pfeifer then describes the structure and organization of the reform program and explores the impact of the agrarian reform on local communities in five zones — coastal plains, foothills, high plains, high mountains and desert oases. These two chapters, based on detailed field studies carried out for the most part under the auspices of the Centre de Recherche en Economie Appliquee (CREA) in Algiers, account for the greater part of the book. The final chapter interprets state policy towards agriculture since 1974 and assesses the direction of Algerian economic and social development.

Pfeifer develops a clear line of argument that Algeria after independence can be characterized neither as “capitalist” nor as “socialist.” Rather, the term “state capitalism” is appropriate, implying a combination of state control and direction of the economy with private property and private enterprise. While the Algerian leadership (at least up until the end of the 1970s) believed that “state capitalism” established the path to Algerian socialism, the historical experience suggests to Pfeifer that “state capitalism” has provided the basis for the emergence of capitalism as the dominant mode of production.

In the 1960s, “state capitalism” in Algeria represented an uneasy balance of social forces. During the next decade these gave rise to growing contradictions and to an economic crisis which rapidly became a political crisis. Since 1979, the role of central planning in governing Algeria’s economy has declined still further and market forces enjoy more scope. It would be premature to argue that the Algerian social formation today demonstrates the clear predominance of capitalism; yet movement in this direction is now appreciable and provides a dynamic which will significantly affect future economic and political developments.

Pfeifer sees this trajectory as comparable to that experienced by other Third World countries “at a certain stage in their histories” — for example, Turkey in the period from 1930 to 1950 and from 1960 to 1980, and Egypt between 1954 and 1970. She suggests an empirical generalization regarding the role of “state capitalism” in Third World countries — namely, that it “builds the foundation for the emergence of the capitalist mode of production.” Arguing against the thesis of the “non-capitalist road to socialism,” Pfeifer posits that “state capitalism” does not necessarily lead to a progressive socialization of the economy. “State capitalism” may, in effect, serve as a framework for the development of the productive forces and of the social classes characteristic of capitalism. Ultimately, for Pfeifer, “movement toward socialism, or away from it (as in the 1980s), reflects the changing balance among the conflicting class forces brought to fruition by state capitalist development.”

Central to Pfeifer’s argument is the thesis that the agrarian reform of the 1970s promoted rather than curtailed class differentiation of agricultural producers into successful commercial farmers and propertyless wage workers. This “effect” was not accidental, although it may have been unintended. It was a consequence of the “hidden” agenda implicit in the very design and implementation of the reform.

Pfeifer’s presentation raises three main sets of questions. First, how convincing is the evidence for private capitalist development in agriculture during the 1970s, and to what extent can it be demonstrated that it was encouraged by the agrarian reform itself? Second, how far does the analysis of state policy toward agriculture and of agrarian change reveal the general dynamics of Algerian “state capitalism” and support the conception of “state capitalism” as the foundation for the development of capitalism in its more classical form? Third, how far does Algeria exemplify a more general trend or “developmental process” in the Third World?

The comparative analysis of “state capitalism” and development is little developed here, although Pfeifer has indicated her thinking on this question elsewhere. [2] Despite her recognition of the crucial importance of the changing balance of class forces for the direction of change, Pfeifer displays a tendency toward “developmentalism” (or historicism) in the conception of “state capitalism” as a stage in the history of Third World social formations. A comparative analysis of “state capitalism” in the Third World would have to consider the internal dynamics of specific social formations together with the particular character of their integration into the international political economy at the relevant period(s) in their history. Pfeifer has relatively little to say here concerning the international context of Algerian development over the past 25 years and its significance for the evolution of the Algerian social formation, even if she does indicate briefly some of the ways in which Algeria is linked to the world outside.

Regarding the other two sets of questions, there is a wealth of detailed information and careful analysis in the text which provide the basis for a lengthy discussion of the relationship between the agrarian reform and the development of capitalist agriculture. This issue constitutes the main focus of the book. The question of how the agrarian reform and state policy toward agriculture in general illuminate the nature of "state capitalism" in Algeria is dealt with in less detail.

The private sector remained substantial after independence; private accumulation based on commercial agriculture was significant and even grew during the 1960s. The reform further encouraged production for the market (commercialization) and helped accelerate the process of differentiation in the countryside. Among other things, this had the effect of increasing rural-urban migration during the 1970s. But do raising the level of agricultural output and increasing the commercialization of agricultural surpluses comprise “hidden” elements in the agenda of the agrarian reform? Even more importantly for Pfeifer’s thesis, was increasing commercialization associated with the increasing predominance of specifically capitalist agriculture? Pfeifer recognizes that “commodity production for the market does not necessarily indicate a capitalist socio-economic structure,” and she accepts the distinction between capitalist production and simple or petty commodity production. She observes that the agrarian reform provided more scope, particularly in the least state-controlled and high profit areas of production, for what she terms yeomen or commercialized family farms as well as for capitalist farms. She is also open-minded as to whether these yeomen will be able to hold their own in competition with capitalist farms as competition and accumulation intensify. It would be interesting, in the light of recent debates regarding the relative predominance of capitalist and petty commodity production in North African and Middle Eastern agriculture, to see a more explicit consideration of this relationship in Algeria, and of its economic and political implications. [3] The equation of capitalist farmers with “kulaks” or rich peasants may be misleading, as Terry Byres has argued in his critique of Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil’s study of capitalist development in Egyptian agriculture. [4] Finally, Pfeifer is perhaps too ready to see the new production cooperatives established by the agrarian reform as quasi-capitalist enterprises because of the contradictions in their structure and operation during the reform period.

In general, Pfeifer makes a convincing case that the agrarian reform encouraged certain tendencies — notably the growth of private enterprise and the possibility of private accumulation on the basis of production for the market — which contradicted certain “socialist” objectives of the reform. She deploys her evidence and argument well, and has the advantage of being able to consider in retrospect the initial Chadli years (1979-1984). But there may be some doubt as to whether the existence of these tendencies constitutes “the unleashing of private capitalist agriculture.” Even if private enterprise and private accumulation on the basis of commercial agriculture has taken place to a significant extent, does this necessarily mean that “motion in the direction of unqualified capitalist transformation is undeniable”?

Developments in the international sphere in the 1980s — notably the reduction in oil prices and the growth of protectionism in the West — poses such assertions with a question mark. The balance among the conflicting class forces remains precarious despite the changes described and implied by Pfeifer. Ultimately, only a detailed analysis of the class dynamics of the Algerian social formation as a whole, combined with an examination of Algeria’s mode of integration into the international political economy in the mid-1980s, would enable one to predict with any confidence the direction of Algeria’s future development.


[1] J. R. Roberts, Algerian Socialism and the Kabyle Question, Monographs in Development Studies 8, June 1981, p. 1.
[2] Karen Pfeifer, "State Capitalism and Development," MERIP Reports 78 (1979), p. 11.
[3] K. and P. Glavanis, “The Sociology of Agrarian Relations in the Middle East: The Persistence of Household Production,” Current Sociology 31/2 (1983); David Seddon, “A ‘New Paradigm’ for the Analysis of Agrarian Relations in the Middle East?” Current Sociology 34/2 (1986); and K. and P. Glavanis, “Historical Materialism or Marxist Hagiography? A Response to a Positivist Critique,” Current Sociology 34/2 (1986).
[4] Terry Byres, “Agrarian Transition and the Agrarian Question,” in J. Harriss, ed., Rural Development: Theories of Peasant Economy and Agrarian Change (Hutchinson University Library, 1982).

How to cite this article:

David Seddon "Pfeifer, Agrarian Reform Under State Capitalism in Algeria," Middle East Report 156 (January/February 1989).

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