Agrarian reform has been a recurrent theme in history. The Greek and Roman eras were filled with violent struggles between landowners and the landless. The land reform issue was a major factor in the Gracchian agrarian laws. During the Middle Ages, demands for land reform triggered peasant rebellions, including the Peasants' Revolt in England led by John Ball and Wat Tyler in 1381 and the German Peasants' War of 1524–26.Russia
In the 20th cent. the Russian Revolution added a new dimension to agrarian reform—the socialization of agriculture (i.e., the collective ownership of all land partly through state farming, but mainly through collective farming under state control) as a prerequisite for attaining communism. Driven in part by the peasant's desire for land, Lenin, shortly after assuming power, decreed (1917) all land as state property. Landed estates were seized by peasants, resulting in approximately 25 million peasant holdings. His government's promotion of voluntary collectivization was ineffective, however, and after 1929 Stalin forced collectivization at an estimated cost of ten million lives. After World War II, the Eastern European nations under Communist rule implemented agrarian reforms following the Soviet model. Since the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe (1989–90) and the disintegration of the Soviet Union (1991) there has been movement, sometimes successful, sometimes fitful, toward privatization of agriculture in the former republics of the USSR.
China's Communist revolution in 1949 led, after the wholesale transfer of land to small peasants, to the amalgation of peasant cooperatives into larger communes (1958). An attempt to establish socialist agriculture prior to mechanization, the communes were much criticized by the Soviet Union. They proved inefficient, causing stagnation in agricultural productivity, and China later abolished them. By 1980 China was rapidly returning land to individual smallholders and promoting market-oriented agriculture with marked success.
In Asia, especially in such densely populated areas as the Indian subcontinent, agitation has been mainly for redistribution among landless laborers; for security of tenure; and for the elimination of middlemen, oppressive rents, and usurious interest. Agrarian reforms began in Japan during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), when feudal fiefs and stipends were abolished. After World War II, U.S. occupation forces supervised further land reform. As a result, by 1949 over 80% of Japan's tenanted land had been transferred from absentee landlords to tenant cultivators. In India and Pakistan similar programs of agrarian reform were attempted, with less success (see Bhave, Vinoba).
In S Africa, where racial policies resulted in discriminatory land policies in Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, majority rule in the late 20th cent. led to pressure for land redistribution. In Zimbabwe, wholesale land redistribution at the end of the 1900s resulted in near collapse of the country's commercial agriculture when land was transferred from white farmers to blacks who had little farming experience and inadequate equipment. Land reform has proceeded more gradually in Namibia and South Africa, resulting in greater frustration on the part of the landless but less significant decreases in agricultural production.