Wolf Ladejinsky,

Tireless (and frustrated) advocate of Land Reform

by Ben Stavis
Political Science Dept.
Temple University
Philadelphia PA 19004

October 2004

One of the major issues in rural development around the world involves the distribution and redistribution of farm land to achieve both efficiency and fairness.  Land reform also has profound political implications -- it directly affects the political interests and objectives of both the rural poor and rich, and what they favor or oppose in their political system. It also affects what type of rural society emereges.  Is it an egalitarian society, in which most farmers own and till their own land?  Or is it high inegalitarian society, in which a few rich land lords dominate a poor, powerless rural workforce? 

A simple way to explore the promise of land reform and the difficulties with this approach is by reviewing the career of Wolf Ladejinsky, who was a tireless advocate for land reform.  He developed successful land reform programs in Japan and Taiwan, but in other countries, political obstacles blocked his efforts.

Background to Land Reform

Ladejinsky was born in pre revolutionary Russia, the son of a reasonably comfortable small businessman, with a mill and timber trade.  He completed secondary school in Russia.  When the revolution came in 1919, his family's business was expropriated. Wolf managed to survive and got to New York in 1922, at the age of 23.    He learned English and earned money by selling newspapers.   He obtained a BA degree at Columbia University after just two years of study (1926-28) and then started a graduate program in economics.  His first publication was on agricultural collectivization in the Soviet Union. 

Perhaps for financial reasons during the depression, he withdrew from his Ph.D. program and took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1935, with a  focus on foreign agricultural issues.  He analyzed agriculture in the Soviet Union, Japan, China, India, Malaya, Thailand, and became increasingly interested in land tenure issues.  He increasingly saw land distribution and redistribution as the key to political stability.  He had seen the power of the Bolshevik slogan, "peace, land, bread."   He gauged that if more peasants owned their own land, communism would loose much of its appeal.  Land ownership was profoundly political and land reform could be an anti communist tool.

He became the U.S. government's leading expert on rural Japan and  played a key role in developing the occupation's programs for rural Japan.   He extrapolated from his pre-revolutionary observations in Russia and other analyses of land tenure in many countries and concluded that a skewed distribution of farm land in Japan was one of the reasons for Japan's aggressiveness.  He argued that mal-distribution of land meant weak incentives for food production, and this fueled Japan's drive to acquire Taiwan and Northeast China (for rice and soybeans).  Moreover, for the vast number of poor farmers and landless laborers, military service attacking and occupying China was very attractive option.


In 1945, Ladejinsky left the Department of Agriculture and joined General McArthur's staff in Japan.  To help restructure Japan into a peaceful democracy, he advocated land re-distribution, so that the poorer farmers would become land owners.  His ideas intersected a war-time debate in Washington about whether the U.S. should eventually seek a seek a "soft" or "harsh" peace with Japan.  [see: Steven Schwartzberg, "The Soft Peace Boys: Presurrender Planning and Japanese Land Reform," The Journal of American-East Asia Relations, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 185-216.]

General Douglas McArthur, The Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in the the post-war military occupation, was swayed by the "soft" peace perspective, agreed with Ladejinsky's analysis, and implemented a massive land reform in Japan.  The Ladejinsky/McArthur land reform in Japan contributed to post-war Japan's political stability and economic growth.

The land reform had these characteristics:

  • Land reform was done in a bureaucratic manner, not a violent manner.  Bureaucrats decided who would give up how much land and who would get how much land.
  • It was done with compensation.  People who lost land were compensated with government bonds.  People who acquired land were required to pay for it, with payments each year for several years.
  • The government bonds involved investments into new industries, so the former landlords were essentially transformed into investors in the new economy.
  • After reform, a system of farmers' associations was set up to ensure that the new land owners would be able to obtain seeds and fertilizer, loans to buy these inputs before the harvest generated cash income, technical support, and marketing assistance.
General McArthur's occupation forces had no problems in implementing this land reform.  The landlords could not organize private armies to resist the policies of the occupation administration.  Nor could they call on friends in government to undermine land reform by bureaucratic meddling, because of the power of the occupation forces. 

Japan's post-war land reform has always been regarded as both important and successful for several reasons.  First, it created a new stratum of small scale peasant owners in the countryside.  As farmers, they were highly motivated to invest in agriculture and expand production.  Japan's agriculture productivity has shown solid growth over the decades.

Second, as land owners, the farm sector has been politically conservative and has contributed to political stability.  In post-war years,  Japan had sizable communist and socialist political parties, but the rural land owners supported the anti leftist parties.  Later, when several conservative parties merged to form the Liberal Democratic Party, farmers were a bedrock of support (and their support was magnified by Japan's mal-apportionment of electoral districts that over weighted rural votes.)  The conservative farm vote has played a key role in the domination of Japan's political system by the Liberal Democratic Party.  It has been in power almost all the time in the past five decades.


As soon as Japan's agrarian system was reformed,  Ladejinsky (serving as Agricultural attaché in Tokyo) was given a new (and impossible) challenge.   On the China mainland, the Chinese Communist Party was expanding its power in its civil war with China's Nationalist Party. Ladejinsky was hurriedly sent in 1949 to China to work his land reform magic.  He suggested a land reform for China as in Japan, but before he could go beyond some small experimental demonstrations, the communists swept down from the north, pushing the Nationalist army and government over the Taiwan Straits to Taiwan Province.  Ultimately, the communists organized their own land reform, with much more violence than Ladejinsky liked.


While Ladejinsky was unable to do much on the China mainland, he followed the Nationalist government to Taiwan, and offered plans to reform Taiwan's rural system. Not surprisingly, he advocated a similar program, and it met with the same success. 

Implementation similarly was not a problem.  Although Taiwan was not subject to a foreign military occupation, it did have a somewhat analogous situation.  As they retreated from the mainland, the Chinese Nationalist Party, Government, and Army were reestablished in Taiwan.  The new Chinese government was set up in Taipei.  This new government set up a Provincial Government to manage Taiwan and was recognized by the United States, many other countries, and the United Nations as the government of China..  This Chinese government quickly established martial law, until it could recover the mainland from the "Communist Bandits."  It repressed Taiwanese who might have resisted, most famously on Feb. 28, 1947, when nationalist troops killed thousands of Taiwanese who were protesting against corruption. 

From a political perspective, the Nationalist government was not indebted to Taiwan's rural power structure (as it had been when it was on the mainland), and in fact land reform would weaken and neutralize the the political status of the  rural power structure.  For this political reason, there was no problem implementing the Ladejinsky rural reform vigorously.

As in Japan, the land reform in Taiwan was very successful.  It created a class of small scale farmers, with real incentives to expand farm production.  This class was inherently conservative and contributed to the social and political stability of Taiwan.  The system of compensating former landlords with industrial bonds helped to fund industrialization, as it did in Japan.  And the system of rural Farmers' Associations provided the institutional infrastructure for rural development for decades.  In short, the Japan/Taiwan land reforms defined one strategy for rural development -- a strategy that recognized institutional change as integral with and complementary to technical change in rural development.

India,  Vietnam, and Beyond

From this base, his ideas spread to other parts of Asia.  In 1952 and 1954, U.S. Ambassador to India Chester Bowles asked Ladejinsky to visit India and examine land tenure and land reform issues.  Then, as the Cold War focused on Vietnam, Ladejinsky went to Saigon as the land reform advisor with the US AID mission. 

Ladejinsky's life took a bizarre twist in the early 1950s.  Senator Joseph McCarthy noticed that Ladejinsky, an US government employee born in Russia, was trying to help the poor rural people of the world and advocating land reform.  He decided that Ladejinsky must be a Communist (or at least a Fellow Traveler).  Needless to say, this absurd inversion of Ladejinsky's lifetime opposition to communism and ceaseless efforts to develop an anti-Communist alternative said far more about McCarthy's hallucinations and recklessness than Ladejinsky's perspective.   Nevertheless, Ladejinsky was dismissed from his government position, underscoring the widespread fear of McCarthy.

From 1956 to 1961 Ladejinsky served as a personal advisor to South Vietnam's President Diem.  In the early 1960s, he served as a roving regional consultant for the Ford Foundation, advising on Nepal, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.  In 1967, Ladejinsky served as a member of the World Bank's mission to India, and did some ad-hoc reviews of Bank's work in Iran, Philippines, and Sri Lanka.  He died in 1975, still an advocate of land reform.

Ladejinsky's later writings from Vietnam, Indonesia, and India reflected detailed analyses of the problems of rural development and of the problems faced by farmers with little or no land.  He continuously advocated land reform, but with far less impact.  In country after country, the vested interests -- typically rural land lords and the politicians they supported --  refused to adopt serious land reform.  Or if they did adopt land reform, there were enough loopholes that implementation was undermined.  A land owner could easily transfer official title to wives, children, or indentured servants, so on paper he held little land but in practice he maintained control.  Courts could delay the transfer of property rights.  One excuse after another delayed and obstructed land reform, and Ladejinsky analyzed and reported on these issues with his characteristic clarity.
He became a semi tragic Don Quixote, poking at the windmills of powerful rural vested interests.

It seemed that the Ladejinsky program for land reform was excellent, but could be adopted only in countries where there was a powerful military government that had no political debts to the rural elite and in fact was eager to weaken or dissolve it.  This was true in post-war Japan and in Taiwan just after the Nationalist invasion, but no where else. 

There were other land reforms that perversely underscored the political dynamics.  In 1962, the Shah of Iran undertook a land re-distribution program.  Farmers did not receive enough land or support and became disillusioned as their economic situation deteriorated.  Moreover, the former land owners, including religious leaders, were upset at their loss of power and influence.  Instead of strengthening the Shah's power, land reform contributed to various forms of opposition, and contributed to his overthrow in 1979.  This process made land reform even less attractive to political leaders.

Similarly, Ferdinand Marcos attempted some degree of land reform in the Philippines starting in 1972.  Implementation was very slow, especially after Marcos used it to weaken some of his political rivals.  After fifteen years, just a few percent of Philippine farmers had new titles to land.  Land owners remained opposed and were able to slow down implementation by legal through influence, bribery, and litigation.  It was clear that Ladejinsky's magic bullet had lost its magic.

Whatever else these more recent land reforms show, they underscore that the political context is critical in gauging the nature, implementation, and results of land reform -- a conclusion Ladejinsky fully understood. 


The key collection of Wolf Ladejinsky's writings, along with an excellent introduction, is:

Louis Walinsky, Ed., Agrarian Reform as Unfinished Business, the selected papers of Wolf Ladejinsky.  London: Oxford University Press, 1977.
ISBN: 0-19-920095-5 and 0-19-920098-X pbk.
This web page provided by:
Ben Stavis

October 2004