"THEY ARE LIVING on the frontier of two worlds -- in the middle of the ford -- haunted by the past, fevered with dreams of the future. But is is with their bellies hollow that they are waiting between their phantoms and their fevers." Germaine Tillion's description of Algerian peasants in 1958 might once have served to illustrate the condtition of peasantry the world over. Not anymore, according to Richard Critchfield. From Egypt to India, Mexico to Vietnam, Critchfield's most recent village visits have converted him to an enthusiastic faith in the dual power of the Green Revolution and contraception to fulfill the fevered dreams of that two-thirds of humanity we call peasants.

In 1973, Critchfield wrote The Golden Bowl Be Broken, evocative, often lyrical collection of reports contemporary life in four peasant communities. Shahhat, a second study of peasant life, published in 1978, chronicled the better part of a year in the life of a young man in his Egyptian village. In the first half of his new book, Villages, a continuation of Critchfield's peasant studies, he returns to the five previously depicted villages and visits yet a dozen more.

In this first section, "People," Critchfield lives among the villagers, sharing their labors, leisure and ceremonies, all the while transcribing conversations, songs and folk tales through native interpreters. From this material he creates verbal portraits of people caught in a rapidly changing world:

Carolina flees the meanness of a life in a mud hut village in northeastern Brazil for a better life in the city of Salvador. In the slum called Pau Miudo, (Small Stick), abondoned, with two children by her lover, she writes home, "We eat, but only with the help of our neighbors."

Upon her husband's death, Ommohamed, mother of Egyptian peasant Shahhat, "borrowed $600 from the Egyptian government, using future sugar harvests as collateral, to pay for zikrs, or all night prayer performances, on the seventh, fortieth, and hundredth days after his death to speed the father's spirit on its journey to Paradise."

The Shah of Iran, impatient with laggardly attempts at modernization by Iranian villagers, opens the countryside to America and British agribusiness. To make room for just three of the giant farms, "fifty-eight villages had been arbitrarily uprooted. The peasants were simply told they had to sell their land; few wanted to." Only a technician with one of the American firms protests.

Peasants, the inhabitants of most of Critchfield's villages, care little for profit, reinvestment, scientific farming. Only pressure from the outside will motivate them to produce beyond their own subsistence needs. That pressure, once the exactions of fuedal lords or conqueors, has increased a hundredfold with the inexorable march of modernization in our century. Gone are the days when five-days labor for the liege lord and a tithe for the Church would keep the outsiders at bay.

Today, peasants must compete with their own landlords to keep title to their ancestral lands. To earn money to pay rent in cash, peasants are forced into the cacophonous world of the market. Labor, for centuries the obligation of all family members,m land, the source of sustenance and meaningful life, and product, traditionally used to keep body and soul together, have become mere objects of trade in the marketplace. Peasants must either become modern farmers or lose their land. Some landless peasants reluctantly join the mass of rural workers crisscrossing the countryside following the harvest. Others, like Carolina, seek their fortune in the alien world of the city.

The second half of Villages is devoted to "Ideas." Here Critchfield presents his ponderings on village religion, history, sexual practices and the Green Revolution.

"Contraception and scientific farming are producing, at last, a change in the general human condition," he proclaims. He also lionizes 1970 Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. Borlaug developed hardy dwarf strains of wheat designed to increase tremendously the yields of Third World farmers.

Critchfield is keen on the "post-Confucian" societies of China, South Korea and Indonesia. He agrees with Roger MacFarquar that post-Confucian "social cohesion, subordination of the individual, education for action, bureaucratic tradition and moralizing certitude" make for "a potent combination for development purposes."

Critchfield also contrasts East Asian receptiveness to modern scientific agriculture and population control with "black Africa (where thanks to political turmoil, food production actually dropped 7 per cent in the 1970s) and Latin America (where Roman Catholicism still means close to 3 per cent annual population growth rates.)"

Unhappily, religious conversion will not solve world food shortages, rapid population growth, nor the grinding poverty that besets most peasants. Culture, particularly religious culture, has been shown to have only a small effect on fertility rates. Puerto Rico's birth rate declined faster than South Korea's during the period 1964-1975, even in the face of concerted opposition to contraception by the Puerto Rican Catholic Church. Turkey's fertility rae has declined dramatically without family planning programs, according to William Murdoch's recently published The Poverty of Nations.

Despite Critchfield's enthusiasm for the power of the Pill, peasants continue to base the size of their families on the need for extra field hands, the hope for more income, and a desire to ensure security in their old age. Until these needs are met by sustained rises in living standards, villagers, whatever their religion, will favor large families.

Like many of the newly converted, Richard Critchfield's zeal sometimes overcomes his good sense. Thus he is not above baiting the opposing Marxist view. He asserts that "most criticism of the Green Revolution in 1980 and 1981 came from neo-Marxists in the West." The "boos and hisses" he suffered during a Harvard faculty seminar last year are also attributed to "neo-Marxists." Critchfield's unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility of sincere and positive criticism is as regrettable as the behavior of those few professors.

This is not to suggest that Critchfield's "third way to modernize" -- through farm sciene and tropical plant genetics -- is a dead end. During his 1978 investigations in Java, every villager among nearly two hundred interviewed "replied that he was better off." The Pill was widely used and the success of new dwarf varieties of rice had wrought remarkable changes in rural living standards as many peasants became modern farmers. The verdict is not in yet, but Java appears to be a success story.

What's needed now is a widely applicable way to bring about such changes, one not based on such narrow prerequsites as religion and cultural characteristics. Critchfield points the way himself. "It would also mean that governments would need to give villagers higher prices for what they produce, enact tough land reform bound to hurt some people, broaden the rights and education of women and have special feeding programs for the poorest."

Richard Critchfield has written two books in Villages. The first, a continuation of his earlier work, could stand well on its own. The second, a compilation of his theories, suffers from evangelical excess. Critchfield is too eager to convince us of the validity of technological and contraceptive nostrums. Perhaps a future book will expand and enrich the theory while toning down the proselytism.