Poland's Jacquerie

"Bless... the peasant who is born, eats, and dies without anyone bothering about his affairs." So wrote that some-time Italian journalist best known for his musical compositions, Giuseppe Verdi. What Verdi believed was possible in the 19 th century and the thousand years that preceded it, but is no longer. Indeed, the opposite is more likely. In Poland, for example, peasants not only want to shout news of their affairs to the world, but they want to shape Poland in their own image.

In his The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm argued that the greatest change in the West in the 20 th century was the vast reduction in the number of people employed as farmers. Everywhere you look peasants have almost disappeared.

Not here in Eastern Europe. Soviet-style economies may have posed as avatars of industrial modernization, but in most of the USSR's former satellite states Marxist-Leninist economics locked vast numbers of people onto farms. Today, this reserve army of peasants is creating the most serious political conflicts seen in Poland since communism's fall as the country seeks membership in the European Union.

Most people in most societies feel something mystical about rural land and the people who work it. But in the Western world too much land is agricultural, so there is surplus food production. People recognize this, but still find the gradual disappearance of peasants troubling.