An English Berry?

There’s a new collection of Wendell Berry’s essays available, edited by Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame, which was reviewed by premier league literary hack DJ Taylor in last week’s Guardian Review. Taylor’s review entertained me, because his reaction was quite similar to mine when I first read Berry in the 1990s:

“Hey, this is really conservative…reactionary…utopian…”

“Hang on, this is really humane, clear-eyed and, er, pretty convincing”.

I wrote a letter to the Guardian along these lines, which to my astonishment they published in this week’s edition. I was delighted to get the phrase ‘egalitarian agrarian populism’ into a national newspaper (I’d have preferred ‘left agrarian populism’, but in view of recent harangues here at Small Farm Future I wanted to aim for maximum inclusivity).

Taylor’s review touched on the issue of whether there were any UK versions of Berry – the closest he could think of were the Distributists “a bizarre coalition of traditional conservatives…and left-leaning radicals” who were “the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK”, together with the likes of George Ewart Evans and John Stewart Collis, who he concedes aren’t really very close.

Hmmm, well the Distributists may have been an odd bunch, but I’m tempted to say that modern advocacy for small-scale agrarianism only seems intrinsically reactionary if you buy into the hokum that ‘progress’ inheres in ever larger fields and tractors. And surely UKIP can stake a good claim for being the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK. But leaving that aside, agrarianism’s political lineages in different countries does strike me as an interesting topic.

Lenin distinguished between what he called the American and Prussian paths to capitalism – respectively ‘bottom up’ in a country of settler pioneers without aristocratic landownership (albeit neglecting here the issue of the aboriginal population), and ‘top down’ in a country dominated by such landownership. This idea was developed by later scholars such as Terence Byres and Barrington Moore1. But in Britain, or at least England, a primary and indigenous capitalist development bridging the aristocracy and the wider populace intercedes between these paths. England, stereotypically, was “a country of shopkeepers” – and latterly perhaps one of spivs, wide boys and even aristocratic wheeler-dealers. Could this explain the muddying of conservatism and leftism that Taylor identifies in the Distributists and perhaps for that matter across England’s history of rural radicalism in the likes of Blake, Coleridge, Morris, Lawrence, Orwell and so on – an undertow, at once politically radical and reactionary, to the grubby business of turning coin?

I don’t know, but it’s a theory… For my part, I’m not averse to embracing some of the conservative elements within that tradition, just as I’m not averse to embracing such elements within Berry. Still, I always feel a bit sceptical of that conservative tradition in Britain, and suspicious of its motives. Could Berry’s beautiful article on the ‘agrarian mind’2 have been written by an English conservative? Maybe, but I suspect not without a patronising accent or two, a consciousness of where real social standing lies. At the same time, the leftist instinct to dissolve everything into social relations – nature as mere politics or social process – has its own limitations, illuminating as it sometimes is. Perhaps a ‘bizarre coalition’ of radicals and conservatives is no bad thing?

Such, at any rate, are my immediate thoughts on these matters. I’d be interested in other perspectives. Any suggestions for an English Berry, or what one might look like?

Meanwhile, since my letter in the Guardian Review doesn’t seem to have made it online, I’ll reproduce it here. Revolutions have been built on less…

“DJ Taylor’s review of Wendell Berry’s collected writings (Review, 4 March) evoked wistful memories. When I first read Berry twenty years ago I was a progressively-minded urban intellectual and, like Taylor, I instinctively tried to pigeonhole Berry’s thought as conservative, reactionary, utopian etc. Like Taylor, I failed – those elements are there, but only as one part of a supple and humane moral vision. I now work on a farm, and advocate for egalitarian agrarian populism however I can. The world needs Berry’s voice more than ever.”

I haven’t read any of Berry’s stuff for a while. Doubtless it’s not above criticism. What I remember liking about it is the impossibility of assimilating it to the dreary dualism of progress (ascent to a future golden age) vs. regress (descent from a past golden age). It may be that the future, like the past, will involve a larger proportion of the population working on small, labour-intensive farms than is presently the case. There’s no necessary implication there that the future will be like the past in other ways, or that it ought to be. But it’s worth thinking about how the way we have to or ought to farm conditions the other possibilities of our lives. Maybe I should write a blog about that – I could call it Small Farm Future…



  1. Moore, B. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; Byres, T. 1996. Capitalism From Above and Capitalism From Below.
  1. Berry, W. 2002. ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in Kimbrell, A. (Ed) The Fatal Harvest Reader.

12 thoughts on “An English Berry?

  1. An English Berry? An interesting notion. Along that path of thinking one could migrate to a pondering about an American Shakespeare. And for the latter one might nominate Tennessee Williams, or Neil Simon. But while competent I’m not convinced an English audience would concur.
    So from an American perspective I might nominate English folk like C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, J R R Tolkien, or even the more modern J K Rowling. Of course Tolkien and Rowling shop their wares in fantasy (and Lewis is not immune to fantastic penning)… but is it too much a stretch to pose their morality tales as an agrarian renaissance? The shire of the Hobbits always fascinated me as an agrarian utopia. And what is Hogwarts but an escape from the mean streets?
    But my first two nominees (three, I suppose Tolkien was a member to some extent) Chesterton especially and Lewis to some degree were Distributists, no? By this accounting I’m not trying to place a Distributist label on Berry. But supposing it were possible to put Berry and the others together at a pub, suspect the conversation would be most fascinating.

    • Clem, interesting nominations, but for me it is as you say “too much of a stretch.” While the Shire might be a vision of utopia, it was set in Middle Earth and not unaffected by the evil there. Their utopias are much more of a yearning than the “here and now” vision of Berry, I think.

      • Andrew:
        You may have actually strengthened the case for Tolkien by noting the setting of the Shire in Middle Earth and that by this position was surrounded by evil. In Berry’s ‘The Unsettling of America’ – likely his most famous effort – Wendell describes the bucolic American agricultural scene cast into a pot of Earl Butz’s making. A farm scene where the Secretary of Agriculture prescribed ‘Get Big of Get Out’.

        I hadn’t actually thought through the matter that closely before, but I now wonder whether one might cast Butz as Smaug, or perhaps as Saruman?

        Ents as heroes. I think Wendell would approve.

        The one ring to rule them all… globalism at the very least.

        I’d have pitched stronger for Chesterton earlier, but now Tolkien’s rank is gaining steam in my estimation.

        • Clem,
          Might I humbly suggest: Ents, Elves and Eriador: the environmental vision of J.R.R. Tolkien? This is one of the Culture of the Land series by UK (that is University of Kentucky for you Brits). A fascinating examination of Tolkien through an agrarian lens.

          • Oh snap… of course. How could I forget?? And we should also point out that Wendell was on the faculty of the UK (U Kentucky) for a good while. Though I believe he’s had a falling out with the university…

            So JR climbs another few rungs on my nomination sheet. GK better hurry up and do something or he’ll be needing to take refuge in Helm’s Deep.

          • I would be more enthusiastic regarding Tolkien’s nomination if he had actually fully included women in his various scenarios. He struck me like the Wind in the Willows guy, whatever his name. A man’s man to whom women are peripheral at best.

            Love the article, Chris! The vision is unfolding nicely. Now I have to go and read Berry. About time.

  2. As an engineer in the late 1980s, reading Berry was responsible for my move into the biological part of agriculture. However, when I read him now, I find it reactionary and utopian. Conservative too, but that I don’t mind as much.

  3. Thanks for the responses. I’m afraid I’m completely out of my depth with the Tolkien references, but it’s very educational…

  4. Glad to see Berry make an appearance on your blog, he’s quite relevant and eloquent.. ( haven’t been visiting here for all that long, so maybe you’ve had earlier discussions?)

    Anyway, I have been seeing the nascent stages of the resettling of America around here, and think Wendell’s views will hopefully become central to how that plays out, as opposed to the possibility of powerless tenant farms or some corporate serfdom economy. (BTW, have any of your past posts considered that potential political outcome?)

  5. OK, I used the search function, and see he has been mentioned in passing a few times. I guess I need to do what was apparent when I first found your blog and go back and read it all, including the comments.

    After that, I suppose I should assemble a reading list from all the references named here. Holy cow, how do you farm and get to all that reading??

  6. Yes, I’d certainly recommend reading this blog in its entirety, including all the comments…

    Not sure that I’ve written about a future of powerless tenant farmers and corporate serfs – though I’ve addressed some of those issues in the present. My aim in the later part of this year is to write about ways of trying to avoid it.

    How do I manage to farm and read so much? Well…nah, that would be telling.

    Thanks for commenting…

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