Who is and who isn't a "peasant"?

When I hear the word “peasant”, I imagine a serf or other person working the land in a feudal society. I have seen/heard it used for people in the modern era as well, but it seems to be exclusively used by English speakers in a manner looking outward. Namely, I have never seen the word applied to a British or North American farmer or agricultural worker, other than in a derogatory context. I know that in Communist countries, peasants, along with laborers, are considered (in theory) to be part of the “ruling” or “privileged” class. The first time I heard the word used for someone not in a feudal context was circa 1990, shortly after Communism had fallen in much of Europe, and the word was applied by a journalist to some Polish peasants shown in a news report. Now, over 30 years after the fall of Communism, would this same usage be considered derogatory?

In short, is it appropriate to call anyone living/working in an agricultural community today a peasant, and if so, where in the world are there peasants and where are there none?

I find it hard to imagine that calling someone a peasant is acceptable in polite society anywhere. In England it is mostly used as a mild insult, implying uneducated and uncouth.

I’ve read that in the 1960s and earlier (and possibly now?), some Latin American farm workers were peasants. These were ancestral tenants tied to the land owned by a wealthier “aristocrat”. (I had also read that the aristocrats considered themselves a different race.) Taking things further, some of these aristocrats started kicking peasants off their land and turning farmland into factories.

I doubt anyone would appreciate being called a peasant in the 21st Century, however. While some countries have potent royal families, I’m unaware of any countries that still have a semi-feudal system. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.)

Peasants are subsistence farmers working land they don’t own. Sharecroppers would be peasants. My grandparents came from peasant families in Europe.

Historically, peasant was used in Europe to refer to subsistence agricultural workers who didn’t own their own land but owed service, rent, or a share of the crops to a landlord. Today it’s rarely applied to people in the developed world, and only loosely to refer to poorer farmers living in a traditional manner. In the US, such people would be called tenant farmers or sharecroppers, although the latter term isn’t heard that often either.

There are lots of subsistence farmers in developing countries who don’t own their own land, and technically they could be called peasants. But because of the pejorative connotations the term shouldn’t be used. Here in Panama and much of Latin America rural agricultural workers are called campesinos, but that applies even to those who own their own land.

As others mention, it refers to subsistence farmers who don’t own the land they work, i.e. sharecropping. Thus in feudal times and until the removal of feudal systems, peasants typically meant those who owed a share of their production (and sometimes military service during wartime) to the noble who actually owned the land.

Obviously, those working the land 365 days a year in a non-industrial country had no need or spare time for learning, and probably had the stunted development of malnutrition that caused poor mental capacity. Thus calling someone today a peasant simply implies they are not only uneducated, but simple, lack critical thinking and a desire to become educated.

If applied to, say, eastern bloc farmers, perhaps wanted to indicate their farming practices and economic circumstances have not changed much since feudal times, Although one of the things the former Communist countries prided themselves on was universal education even if the population may have had a more isolated world view.

I can’t imagine a scenario in the today’s English speaking world where peasant isn’t an insult (other than referring to days long past).

Characters at a RenFaire that don’t wear fancy costumes. I suspect that is pretty much the list.

(My favorite part of the day when I worked RenFaire was the peasant parade at the end of the day).

In the very few occasions that I’ve heard it used and not meant as a sort of direct put-down of people lower on the socio-economic scale than those using it (what @bob_2 describes), it’s been used to indicate a sort of rustic lack of sophistication and general indication that someone is kind of on the lowest rung of the agricultural socio-economic scale and that they have very little agency in terms of their own career or security. I haven’t ever heard it mean that someone’s congenitally stupid or anything like that.

For comparison, an earlier word meaning subsistence tenant farmer was “villein”, which became “villain” in Modern English.

I’ve heard the term “peasant food” to refer to any food that was historically eaten by poor people, regardless of actual peasant status. Depression era food can get that label, for instance, if it’s the type of food you made to stretch ingredients.

In this context. it doesn’t seem to have a negative connotation at all.

As in other cases, “peasant” is OK as a adjective. Peasant blouse, peasant dances, peasant food. It’s when it’s applied to modern people that it can be insulting.

While it’s common to refer to villeins and serfs as peasants, it’s common to use the term for 19th century France farmers who worked their own land. These were often small plots, often in hock to banks and original owners. The point is just that not all peasants were in “classical” feudal relationships to lords. Many were more like a farming middle class, or petty bourgeoisie. Some might be more analogous to farm families in North America.
As a passing point of interest, when Marx referred to the “idiocy of rural life,” he meant something more like the isolation and thus relative lack of education and sophistication of the farming population, not a comment on IQ or the banality of farm life.

My understanding of the equivalent French word “paysan” is that it carries no negative connotations. I get the impression that you can even use it in France to talk about someone like that today.

Well I come from a long line of peon’s, don’t call me a peasant unless you mean to insult my heritage! :smiley:

I thought the distinction was that peasants worked in agriculture but didn’t have any rights to the land they were working on. If you had some right to use the land you were a serf or a villein.

Peasants were essentially the agricultural equivalent of factory workers. You could work when somebody needed your labor. But if your labor wasn’t needed, you were out of work and left to fend for yourself. If you were a serf, on the other hand, the local lord supposedly had some obligation to you.

Weren’t some Russian muzhiks relatively wealthy? I seem to recall reading about rich peasants in some (translated) Russian novels.

The fact that a peasant wasn’t tied to the land was a problem if you couldn’t find work; nobody was obligated to look out for you. But in good times it could be an opportunity. You were free to go to someplace like a city and seek your fortune. Most times, you would starve to death but a handful of peasants would make good. They might even succeed to the point where they could buy some farmland to call their own and have other peasants working for them.

In England, you saw terms like husbandmen, yeomen, and landed gentry to describe farmers who had gained some degree of land ownership and prosperity. They were still commoners, of course, but they had attained some degree of respect.

But I don’t believe people like this ever became common enough to develop their own social level in most of Europe. The handful of well off peasants just blended in to the general class of peasants, most of whom were poor and landless. A kulak was still a muzhik.

Ironically, it took the Russian Revolution to turn the kulaks into their own class. The Soviet regime needed some group to blame for the failings of the government’s agricultural policies so they blamed the kulaks.

A peasant is anyone the speaker wishes to insult, either because they are (a) deemed to be of low social standing and therefore unworthy (in which case the speaker fancies themself to be of a higher social standing), or (b) deemed to be too subservient to the established order, and therefore allowing themselves to be made little better than a slave (in which case the speaker likely fancies themself either a communist or a libertarian).

Hundreds of years ago or more recently in other cultures, it was something else. But I gather you are asking about today, in contemporary western society, and most especially in English speaking nations.

Friends of mine used to use it as a mocking insult, but that was only within the group. Anyone outside of the group? That definitely be insulting for real and not done.