Scientific development of agricultural productivity after a socialist revolution
Wadi’h Halabi works on the Economics Commission, Communist Party USA, and at the Center for Marxist Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Richard Levins works in the Department of Population and International Health at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, Havana, Cuba.
Abstract: After a socialist revolution, scientific development of agricultural productivity is one of the new state’s most important yet difficult tasks. Obstacles include poverty and the opposition between city and countryside inherited from capitalism. The land reform so essential for the revolution’s victory creates millions of small landholdings which are ultimately incompatible with environmentally and socially sustainable development.
Scientific development of agriculture requires social planning based on ecological principles and primarily non-exploitative organizational forms and relations. Ecological principles require that land use be a mosaic that includes forest, pasture as well as field crops. A poor peasant household cannot afford to devote half its holdings to forest or to grow less profitable crops for the benefit of neighbors. Ecological principles will also be violated if land can be bought, sold and diverted to non-agricultural uses without planning.
Where individual holdings prevail, state-supported cooperatives can open the path to scientific development. Starting with cooperative purchasing, followed by cooperative credit and then selling, these sequential steps, each voluntary, can facilitate the transition from individual farming to cooperative production.
As in all spheres, the contending social, economic, and environmental forces shaping agriculture are all ultimately global. The fundamental interests of the two global classes are profoundly opposed. Workers’ parties and unions in capitalist countries have the same interests as the states formed by socialist revolutions in scientific development.
Key words: scientific development; agriculture; ecological principles; class interests; Marxism
After a socialist revolution, history has shown that it is possible to advance agricultural productivity on scientific social and ecological foundations. This is one of the most important tasks of the new social system. Experience has shown it is also one of the more difficult.
The scientific development concept, which China’s leadership formally adopted in 2007, correctly recognizes the profound connection between social, economic and environmental sustainability to meet human needs. It holds deep implications for agricultural policies. Nowhere is this connection more evident than in agricultural production, where nature, social organization, and global forces, both social and environmental, interact in intimate ways.
The emphasis of this article is that scientific development of agriculture is possible after socialist revolution, but within certain limits as long as capitalism remains a significant force in the world. This is because social, ecological and climate problems are global and class-based, and therefore so are the solutions.
To cite one example, recent research unexpectedly found a dramatic decline – as much as 50 percent – in tree growth rates in tropical forests in the past two decades (Feeley et al. 2007). Rising carbon dioxide levels had been expected to have the opposite effect. The exact causes for the declining growth have not been established. But there has been sufficiently rapid altering of climate and ecology to have this general effect.
The application of scientific development in China thus faces limitations. It is essential to make the best of the situation within these limitations, while acting to overcome them.
Agricultural production under capitalism
Capitalism is driven by profit (maximizing individual gains by private owners of productive forces), not social needs. Agriculture is no exception. Capitalism can make short-term gains in productivity using one-sided “scientific” and technological inputs. But these gains have come at the cost of the social and environmental foundations of agriculture, and of human nutrition.
The majority of agricultural producers under capitalism have increasingly less control over production, and more and more of what is produced is alienated from them. This alienation takes place through exploitation of workers, debt service, high rents for land, unequal exchange (high prices for agricultural inputs produced by monopolies, such as fuel, seeds, fertilizer, machinery, low prices paid to producers of agricultural commodities), and other ways.
In the USA, advances in agricultural productivity have come with poisoning of workers and environment, growing hunger and malnutrition, and significant rural poverty. Severe hunger stalks the most productive regions of California and Florida. Profit pressures again and again lead to damage to the health of workers, soil, water, air, trees, and the entire range of life, from bacteria and fungi to insects, farm animals and wildlife, essential for a healthy ecology and society. Profit pressures lead capitalist agriculture to use one-sided “science” and technological inputs.
Furthermore, the growing contradictions of capitalism compel it to accelerate the destruction of both the social and environmental foundations for humanity’s existence (Halabi 2008). This could place the world food chain, and human society at risk. It is therefore important not to confuse modernization after a socialist revolution with “modern” capitalist methods and technology.
After a Socialist Revolution
Following a socialist revolution, it becomes possible for the new state and its basic institutions to face reality and begin development on scientific foundations. A wide range of problems, including poverty, ignorance, insecurity of life, military threats, and the continuing influences of capitalism internally as well as externally, can lead to non-scientific approaches to developing agricultural productivity. Within limits, these problems can be addressed.
In efforts to rush progress, attempts may also be made to skip necessary steps, resulting in a fall down the spiral stairway of development, at significant cost of time, resources, and the masses’ confidence in leadership. Mistakes will always be made, as Lenin said; we want to avoid serious mistakes, and use of scientific method is essential.
Capitalism, on the other hand, can neither face the truth nor use consistent scientific method, which is systemic and constantly reassesses its measure of the interactions among ever-changing forces, social and natural.
Population now expects to eat
One obvious reason that development of agricultural productivity after a socialist revolution is a critical task is that inability to meet the food requirements of the population will endanger the new state – and the population now expects to eat!
More generally, saving time is the main force driving human society forward; economics is ultimately about economy of time. (Marxism is conscious that the quality of time is essential in the measure of time, and our calculations need to take this into account, based ultimately on the population’s assessment of quality and quantity.) Inability to save time in agricultural production will also threaten the new state.
Dangers to the new society from world capitalism
Probably the greatest danger to the new society is from adoption of the methods and techniques of capitalism, which are generally in profound contradiction with scientific development. These include the carry-over of capitalist ideas and values, excessive deference to capitalist thought and ways of dealing with problems, and persistence of individualism even among revolutionaries, leading to authoritarian work styles, bureaucratic abuses and corruption.
“Low agricultural productivity” means that humans’ time is unnecessarily wasted, quantitatively and qualitatively; it is a relative, yet ultimately comprehensive measure. Low agricultural productivity after a socialist revolution leaves the new social system vulnerable to destabilization by capitalism, for example as the result of rapid inflows of lower-priced products from capitalist countries.
Capitalism may achieve lower prices because of higher productivity thanks to mechanization or favorable natural conditions, but also as a result of shortcuts in production such as deforestation, destruction of grasslands, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides at the cost of ecology, “mining” or destruction of soil and water resources, monoculture in the most profitable crops, use of untested genetic varieties – the list is quite long (Montgomery 2007).
In addition, products from capitalist countries may be lower-priced as a result of “overproduction” (lack of paying demand in societies where production is for profit rather than need), and price and currency manipulations. Sometimes that manipulation is intended to destabilize. For example, in the 1980s the Reagan Administration orchestrated a simultaneous temporary lowering of the price of oil, and a devaluation of the dollar (the “1985 Plaza Accord”).
At the time, the Soviet Union was dependent on sales of oil and gas to capitalist countries to implement its economic plan. Because all oil and gas purchases were then made in dollars, this sharply cut Soviet revenues, and destabilized it economically and socially. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, oil prices have risen sharply, affecting planning in China, which became a significant oil importer in the 1990s. (The 1994 book, Victory by Peter Schweizer, describes US manipulation of oil prices and the dollar to destabilize the USSR.)
Capitalist speculation in currencies and in foods (for example, wheat, soybeans, rice) can be destabilizing, as we saw in 2008, when wheat and rice prices doubled and tripled in a few weeks. Daily speculation in foods is currently many times the value of annual production of all crops.
Generally, the prices of agricultural commodities on world capitalist markets are highly unstable. They vary more than variation in yield due to natural events such as droughts, floods, or pests. A state substantially dependent on agricultural imports for its food supply will be highly vulnerable to the uncertainties of the market and international politics.
Imperialist “globalization” measures, such as international trade treaties, attempt to weaken mechanisms to protect domestic industries, including agriculture. Even with effective protections against such destabilization, the drive to save time requires constant efforts to develop productivity after a socialist revolution. Otherwise, capitalism’s cheap commodities can knock down even the Great Wall of China, as Marx warned over 150 years ago.
The Real Challenge
The real question is how to develop agricultural productivity on sound social and ecological foundations after a socialist revolution. And as long as there is significant poverty and social inequality, the real challenge is how to combine and balance social and individual interests in production, and control over it, until the use of scientific social and ecological principles becomes more or less automatic.
The “central organizing principle” of capitalist agriculture is to maximize profits; this takes precedence over social and environmental costs. It also minimizes society’s and agricultural producers’ interest in and control over production. Agricultural producers may be both workers and land tenants, who are sometimes renters and sometimes heavily indebted “owners.”
After a socialist revolution the “central organizing principle” is to meet human needs by mobilizing the collective intelligence, energy and enthusiasm of the people. Our needs include a healthy and varied nutrition and a healthy environment. But humans also have other profound and opposed needs, such as the need to know our universe, and the need for the unknown, for magic and fun and music in our lives; we need general social equality, and the ability to express our individuality; we have a need for social solidarity, and a need for quiet time alone. These and our other basic needs take time! Agricultural production stands at the foundation of human needs; scientific development ultimately requires building agricultural productivity in a manner consistent with the many, varied needs.
Scientific development of agricultural productivity necessitates social planning based on ecological principles and on (principally) non-exploitative organizational forms and relations. Ecological principles, for example, require that land use be a mosaic that includes forest, pasture as well as field crops. A poor peasant household cannot afford to devote half its holdings to forest or to grow less profitable crops for the benefit of its neighbors. Planning and allocation of resources therefore have to be on a larger scale than individual holdings.
But large-scale planning will fail if it is imposed bureaucratically from above. Ecological principles will also be violated if farm land can be bought, sold and diverted to non-agricultural uses without planning and balancing measures.
As capitalism has demonstrated again and again, scientific development of agriculture is therefore inconsistent with private selling and buying of land. Land use requires regional planning on the scale of watershed, effective forests, water resources throughout the year, fluctuating labor needs for each crop.
Non-exploiting organizational forms in agriculture include cooperatives, collectives and state farming. Which forms are appropriate in scientific development depends in part on existing forms (for example, predominantly individual holdings, or predominantly large-scale farms, etc.), past positive and negative experiences, and more broadly on the general development of the productive forces, including industry, infrastructure (electricity, roads, railroads, etc.), and the state of science and education. Appropriate organizational forms may also depend on such factors as terrain.
In early stages, organizational forms need to consciously allow for the expression of individual as well as social interest in production, and control over production and planning. Problems should be solved at the most local level compatible with the problem, making maximum use of people’s knowledge. Each production unit should also be a research center, with people taught how to gather data and analyze, compare and thus make informed decisions.
Scientific development also requires comprehensive organization of the planning process and allocation of state resources for agricultural credit, transport, marketing and distribution, again consistent with scientific social and ecological principles.
Planning and allocation of resources is dependent on accurate and rapid collection and transmission of information, social as well as environmental; and on building the collective and individual capacity to evaluate this information, and to modify plans accordingly at every level, local, regional and society-wide. This in turn requires developing organizational forms so agricultural producers can constantly develop their scientific understanding – and teach it, not least based on their experiences in production.
Population policies are one of the most complex yet basic issues for planning consistent with scientific development. Under capitalism, population control is often used against the working class and oppressed nationalities, and especially against women. After a socialist revolution, it becomes somewhat easier to develop and implement informed population policies to best meet human needs. After a socialist revolution, a society may be “overpopulated” if agricultural productivity is very low while land and water is in short supply; a few decades later, it may be “underpopulated” if productivity has jumped but a significant part of the population has retired or is in poor health.
Designing work that is compatible with an aging population, and attending to health needs, can change the measure of “over” or “under” population. Humans have a lifelong need to contribute to our society, and also for society to support us. Population, health and work policies can allow us to both continue contributing productively to society throughout our lives, and to receive the necessary support.
Achieving all of this is very difficult and sometimes impossible under conditions of extreme poverty, such as the Soviet Union faced after its founding on November 7, 1917, or new China after October 1, 1949. The young Soviet state made some significant contributions, such as in categorization and maintenance of soil types, and development of principles in organizing agricultural cooperatives (Chayanov 1927). But poverty, the civil war, capitalist economic sanctions, the brutal imperialist aggression in World War II, and an inability to effectively manage rapid change, greatly hobbled scientific development, and contributed to internal weaknesses, including low agricultural productivity. This set the stage for collapse of the Soviet Union in the face of immense stresses from a hostile capitalism in crisis.
The young People’s Republic of China also made significant contributions, such as in biological control of pests and organic farming. But it too ran into problems with hostility from world capitalism – its sanctions and aggression against Korea in the early 1950s, its encouragement of Sino-Soviet divisions, its support for India in the 1962 war, etc. China like the USSR also faced profound problems with poverty and inequality between city and countryside inherited from capitalism.
China’s 1949 socialist revolution has permitted its agricultural productivity, and nutrition, to significantly outpace India, Bangladesh, Africa, Haiti, indeed most poor capitalist countries. This is quite an accomplishment. But agricultural productivity in China is not as high as in industrialized agriculture in the capitalist world. This leaves China, and the four other existing states formed by socialist revolutions – Vietnam, Laos, People’s Korea and Cuba – vulnerable, especially in times of capitalist crisis. (Cuba has made impressive advances in scientific development; see Levins 2005.)
What is extraordinary with China today is the development of high productivity in manufacturing; the Soviet Union did not achieve this, except perhaps in such fields as space exploration and some military manufacturing. In China there is reason to believe that productivity in a wide range of manufacturing now rivals or exceeds levels in capitalist countries, rich or poor. This achievement is the combined result of planning, the building of an unparalleled infrastructure in manufacturing regions (electricity, roads, ports, etc.), a generally superior system of education, opening up, and the fact that a state after a socialist revolution has some capacity to maintain demand in approximate balance with advances in production. (The latter is a major reason why economies after socialist revolution are non-cyclical, although of course they are affected by internal political crises, and by economic, political, military and environmental developments in the capitalist world.)
By contrast, capitalism cannot maintain the necessary balance between production and the income and demand of producers and consumers. Both production and demand can and do fall sharply in times of crisis, such as today. Capitalist crisis in turn directly and indirectly stresses states formed by socialist revolutions, including the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, and again in the 1970s and 1980s – and without question will stress China in coming years. (The present capitalist crisis is far from over; its shocks come in waves.)
Furthermore, since there is no necessary relationship between the use value and the exchange value of commodities, it is possible under capitalism to produce high value crops that do not meet nutritional needs – such as for fuels – or that aim at the consumption by the rich.
A range of problems appears to have curtailed scientific development of agricultural productivity in China after 1949. These have included poverty and the individual holdings necessarily created by the Chinese Revolution’s struggle for land reform; hostility from world capitalism; the divisions between the USSR and China; and difficulties in how to best advance from individual holdings to non exploiting organizational forms.
In addition, massive unemployment could have resulted from too-rapid advances in agricultural productivity, and that alone can endanger the new social system. To avoid such unemployment, scientific development of agricultural productivity requires balancing it with industrial development, reductions in the length of the workweek, as well as addressing global problems.
Potential Importance of Agricultural Cooperatives
Where individual holdings dominate, state-supported agricultural cooperatives can be an important step in scientific development. Soviet theoretical work on cooperatives (rather than actual experience) may make valuable contributions.
While Lenin was still alive, the Soviet leadership called for taking four steps in sequence, each voluntary, to develop cooperatives from individual holdings. The first was cooperation in purchasing, e.g. of seed or tools; the advantage is evident – reduced prices and time requirements, with payment often due only after the purchase is made. Cooperative purchasing of inputs can be linked to technical and scientific extension work which would teach ecological methods of pest, soil, and crop management. The second step was cooperation in obtaining credit. The third was cooperation in selling output, where more trust is necessary. And the final step was cooperative production, which can effectively become collective farming. Past experiences worldwide in cooperatives are examined in Alexander Chayanov’s outstanding work, The Theory of Peasant Cooperatives, first published in 1919 with a second edition issued in 1927 (Chayanov 1927). Lenin gave support to Chayanov’s work before his death. As the new state’s productive forces increase, and workers’ confidence in their state and in the future grows, state farms can also become powerful ways to advance agricultural productivity consistent with scientific development.
Scientific development requires that Communist leadership reaffirm our historic commitment to end the opposition between city and countryside, an opposition that declining capitalism has now pushed to an extreme. This goal is also consistent with our other historic commitment, to ending the opposition between intellectual and physical labor (Marx and Engels 1848). Scientific development of agriculture can make it pleasurable for city dwellers of all ages to come to the countryside, and contribute both to repetitive and creative work in agricultural production, and to teach as well as learn from the experience.
We need to educate workers and society as a whole in the problems and challenges in meeting both those commitments, and in developing measures and the capacity to judge our practice. We have to educate ourselves to be able to learn from them.
Because most of the world is still under capitalist rule, there are built-in limitations to what can be accomplished in the societies formed by socialist revolution. This is obvious now with the rapid, socially-induced climate disruption, and the perhaps less-obvious, but just as real and threatening poisoning of air, soil and water, e.g. with heavy metals or persistent organic pollutants, and the erosion, compaction and salinization of soils.
For all of the talk about protecting the environment, capitalism’s deepening contradictions compel it into destroying the social, economic and environmental foundations for human society and scientific development. The crisis of capitalism is accelerating that destruction, if only because of deepening poverty and rising conflicts.
In the final analysis, scientific development of agricultural production truly demands, Workers of the World, Unite. This is not just a slogan, it requires international organization, education, and practice to make development scientific and to start meeting the broad mosaic of opposing human needs.
Thanks especially to Prof. Xiaoqin Ding, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and World Association for Political Economy.
Chayanov, Alexander (1927) The Theory of Peasant Cooperatives (English translation, Ohio State University Press, 1991).
Feeley, Kenneth J., S. J. Wright, M. N. Nur Supardi, A. R. Kassim, and S. J. Davies (2007) “Decelerating Growth in Tropical Forest Trees,” Ecology Letters 10: 461–469.
Wadi’h Halabi (2008) “Ten Considerations, The Political Economy of Scientific Development,” CASS/ Tsinghua Univ. Conference on Marxism and Scientific Development, Lanfang City (available at WAPE2006.org).
Levins, Richard (2005) “How Cuba is Going Ecological,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 16, 3 (http:// dx.doi.org/10.1080/10455750500208706).
Marx and Engels (1848) The Communist Manifesto.
Montgomery, David R. (2007) Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.
Schweizer, Peter (1994) Victory.
Reproduced from World Review of Political Economy, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 2010 (www.plutojournals.com/wrpe)