This paper sketches and illustrates a theoretical framework for investigating the rural class dynamics of capitalism. Key analytical ideas in this framework include (i) the commodification of the conditions of reproduction of labour; (ii) a systemic shift from farming to agriculture in modern capitalism consolidated from the 1870s; (iii) agricultural petty commodity production; and (iv) the differentiation of petty producers. These ideas are combined in five theses about the much debated fate(s) of the peasantry in the modern world, which generate additional concepts of ‘agrarian capital beyond the countryside’, ‘agriculture beyond the farm’, and ‘rural labour beyond the farm’. The paper concludes with the argument that many of those termed ‘peasants’ or ‘small farmers’, notably in the South, are better understood as a major component of ‘classes of labour’. This is illustrated with aggregated data on agricultural employment, and share of adult rural population with own account farming as primary economic activity, by major regions of the South.
Keywords: Agriculture, capitalism, classes of labour, commodification of subsistence, petty commodity production, rural class differentiation