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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 67April 2018

Culture and agriculture

What will be necessary to attract youth back to agriculture after a socialist revolution? The answers can provide the foundations for a new culture, and an ecological civilisation

Abstract: The rise of agriculture and exploitation led to the development of a pervasive ‘culture of exploitation’. A socialist revolution only partially overcomes this culture. Among its expressions are continuing if reduced inequalities between city and countryside, between intellectual and manual labour, and men and women. After a socialist revolution it takes conscious efforts to overcome the remnants of the culture of exploitation, reflected, for example, in youth leaving agricultural production for life in cities. This paper argues that attracting youth back to agriculture after a socialist revolution will be a significant test of overcoming the old culture. Agrotowns that combine ecological agriculture with the transport, communications, housing, industrial and educational facilities of towns, may set important foundations for a new culture freer of the influences of exploitation. Cuba, China, Vietnam, and other states formed by socialist revolutions, have much to offer in developing agrotowns. Agrotowns may also provide a model for the ‘new land reform’ in capitalist countries where hundreds of millions have been pushed off the land.

Keywords: Culture of exploitation; opposition between city and countryside and between intellectual and manual labour; ecological agriculture; agrotowns; cooperatives; Cuba-China cooperation; new land reform

Nature and society are complicated! Fortunately, the working class and its parties have Marxism to achieve some clarity, both in theory and practice, on these two interacting complexities. Marxism owes much to Friedrich Engels’ pioneering work on the dialectics of nature and the origin of the family, private property, and the state. At Marx’s funeral in 1883, Engels gave Marx credit for reminding us that humans have to eat! Why even mention this? Because a real separation – and opposition – had developed between city and countryside, an opposition born of exploitation.

Many city dwellers do not give much thought as to where food comes from, what it took to produce and prepare it, or food’s social and environmental costs. In capitalist countries it is common for large farms to forbid entry to outsiders. Among the reasons are slave-like conditions of work. There were several prosecutions for slavery on farms and ranches in the US in the late 20th century; the general crisis of capitalism is certain to create more such cases. Impoverishment of the countryside was behind a significant part of the protest votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Workers and the masses worldwide should also be aware of the social and environmental devastation of rural areas that followed counter-revolutions in the Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, etc. In just a few years, conditions in those areas began to resemble the destruction that capitalism has brought to rural areas in much of Africa and South Asia.

In the Communist Manifesto, the young Marx and Engels committed communist parties to overcome the opposition between city and countryside. Culture, in a sense, is the entire structure of institutions, practices, philosophies, as well as science, art and literature that largely developed atop agriculture. Of necessity, then, most of culture as we think of it developed atop a foundation of exploitation of humans and nature. Since the rise of agriculture, the periodic advances we can detect in philosophy, science, art, or literature are like bolts of lightning that illuminate social advances and, in retrospect, their limitations. Thus, the rise of capitalism in Europe also opened the door for the Renaissance, Shakespeare, Hegel’s work in philosophy, Newton and Leibniz’s advances in calculus, and so on.

The rise of the working class movement brought humanity Marxism. The theory of evolution, quantum physics and relativity are among developments that accompanied the rise of the working class. So was abstraction in art.[1]

Marxism’s commitment to land reform opened the path to overcoming the oppostion between city and countryside

Since 1871 and the Paris Commune, the working class has seized power approximately twenty times. Fifteen of those captures of power were subsequently overturned, most seriously in the Soviet Union. Remnants of the “culture of exploitation”[2] and problems with the organisation of agricultural production were among the factors in those defeats.

Marx, in his great work on why the Paris Commune was defeated, focused the Communist movement’s attention on the necessity for land reform. While the bourgeoisie celebrated the defeat of the Commune and the “death” of the working class movement, the communist movement drew lessons from that defeat. The working class and its parties can face the truth and correct its errors. Land reform was crucial to the victory of the Russian and subsequent socialist revolutions, including those in Vietnam, northern Korea and China. Land reform opened the door to overcoming the culture of exploitation. The hammer and sickle became the world communist movement’s central symbol.

Despite enormous achievements, the Soviet Union reduced but never quite overcame the opposition between city and countryside or between intellectual and manual labour. These oppositions, like the social inequality between men and women, can ultimately be traced to the rise of agriculture, exploitation, the division of labour, specialisation, and the ensuing “culture of exploitation” of both people and nature.

The privileges of Soviet officials were relatively modest compared to those we find in capitalist societies. Soviet officials were not millionaires, but they had the best housing and cars, for example. Those privileges developed atop the remnants of the “culture of exploitation”, including the inequality between intellectual and manual labour.[3] [4]

Privileges tend to be cumulative; unless firm steps are taken to limit them. In the Soviet Union, party/government leaders’ privileges led to a growing gap between the mass of agricultural and industrial workers, and as a result difficulties grew in leaders’ ability to speak the truth. The failure to speak the truth, and the underlying causes, became a factor in the fall of the Soviet Union to counter-revolution in 1991.

Differences between China and Cuba after revolution

Marx and Lenin predicted that dictatorships of the proletariat would take very different forms. In fact, there are considerable differences between China and Cuba, two of the five remaining states formed by socialist revolutions. (The others, Vietnam, People’s Korea, and Laos, also differ in form, but all are states of the working class.)

After the working class took power in China on October 1, 1949, considerable efforts went on industrial development as well as development of agricultural collectives. Remarkable achievements were recorded in both industry and agriculture. But limitations in organisation (which often followed the Soviet model) also became evident. Guided by Marxism, the leadership of the Communist Party realized that China still needed to ‘go to capitalist school’, to use Lenin’s term, and introduced motivation at every level, top to bottom. What followed since opening up and the introduction of market mechanisms in China has been simply extraordinary development of the productive forces. Like all achievements, the development of the productive forces have come at a cost. There has been a large increase in exploitation, corrosion and corruption of officials, and massive damage to the environment, rural and urban. These costs must be addressed, or the revolution can be endangered.

In Cuba, after the working class seized power in the autumn of 1960, great emphasis was placed on education, health care, the environment, and minimising social inequality. The leadership had some privileges, but these were consciously limited. Ecological agriculture, the preservation and promotion of biodiversity, and the associated efforts to develop urban as well as rural cooperatives, are some of Cuba’s historic achievements, despite significant problems and limitations.

At the same time, Cuba’s accomplishments in environment, health care and education have also come at a cost. Among these, development of the productive forces has been limited.

What will it take to attract youth back to agriculture in both China and Cuba

In both China and Cuba, the indications are that youth will avoid agriculture if they can. The reasons range from the very hard work, often under a broiling sun, to low pay, and isolation from the educational, cultural, transport, and perhaps most important communications (internet) facilities of cities.

What will it take to attract youth to agriculture and the countryside? As answers become clear, they can provide guidance and foundations for an ecological civilisation and a new culture increasingly free of the influences of exploitation. The answers also point to the considerable potential benefits of cooperation between Cuba and China, as well as Vietnam, Laos and People’s Korea. (Vietnam has been promoting cooperatives, Laos has been advancing ecological agriculture, etc.)

Agricultural production and meeting human needs

Youth are definitely human, and share most of the same needs as ordinary humans! So, while youth will provide the decisive answers as to what will attract them back to agriculture, older Marxists can make some guesses. For one, all humans have a profound, lifelong need to contribute to our society, physically and intellectually. Agriculture can help fill that need. But the physical labour must not be crushingly long and hard, nor the income crushingly low, as is common for agricultural producers under capitalism. In addition, ecological agriculture can address humanity’s desperate need for environmentally sustainable practices. Industrial agriculture as developed by capitalism accounts for half or more of all poisoning of nature. Capitalism’s existential threat to the human environment – most immediately to biodiversity (the web of life) and to climate – can be a world-revolutionary factor under communist leadership.

Ecological agriculture provides critical solutions to social and environmental problems. But capitalism cannot implement it, in part because of deepening poverty and private ownership of land.

Humans need blue skies, green trees, and clear water. We need healthy and varied food that has not been transported thousands of kilometres, or dangerously processed. The method of ecological agriculture can address those needs. Humans also have a need for solidarity and social support. The social isolation, poor communications and transport facilities common in the countryside as it evolved under exploiting societies is a major problem. They are among the reasons youth leave agriculture.

Humans need social interaction; and quiet time alone. Social spaces and proper housing are required to meet these needs. Among our most profound needs are to know our changing universe, society and selves, while we also need magic, song and play in our lives. We need to understand the opposing forces that shaped our past and present, the problems they posed or pose, and their better and poorer solutions. We need competing visions of our future, and the ability to change our world, collectively and individually. Those who produce food must also have good educational, cultural, transport and communications capacities.

Ultimately young people will provide the decisive answers as to what will attract them back to agricultural production after a socialist revolution. But we want people of all ages, not just youth, involved in the production and preparation of food and other agricultural products.

Agrotowns may provide the solution

Analysis of human needs makes it increasingly clear that the solutions to agricultural production after a socialist revolution will require something like the “agrotowns” proposed and in some cases developed in the Soviet Union by planners and agriculturalists. Agrotowns combined agricultural production with the industrial, educational, cultural, health care and other facilities of cities.[5]

Unquestionably, much study, planning, evaluation, and local involvement customisation will be needed to develop agrotowns that address social and cultural sensitivities and environmental conditions. Indeed, the participation of local workers and farmers, with their knowledge of indigenous materials and conditions, contributed to the most successful of Soviet agrotowns, at Zaiukovo. Cuba and China each have much to contribute; Cuba with its expertise in ecological agriculture and preservation of biodiversity, China with its unmatched capacity to develop modern transport, communications, energy-generation, housing, and industrial and office buildings.

Since state-supported cooperatives are likely to be the basic form of organisation, Vietnam’s growing experience with cooperatives will also have much to contribute. Laos has reportedly made significant efforts in advancing ecological agriculture.

Agrotowns may also provide solutions to land-reform challenges in capitalist countries today

Land reform is one of the most difficult problems the working class and Communist Parties in capitalist countries face today. This is because, since the 1950s, monopolised capitalism has pushed hundreds of millions of peasants and farmers off the land and into slums and a miserable life of unemployment or self- or casual employment. Even a few months’ separation from the land can make it very difficult to work it productively without extensive social support.

It is possible that agrotowns, as developed in states such as China and Cuba, can provide guidance for the “new land reform” desperately needed for national liberation and socialist revolutions in capitalist countries.[6]


Unquestionably, experimentation will be needed in developing agrotowns. Cuba and China each have much to contribute to this effort; Cuba with its expertise in ecological agriculture and preservation of biodiversity, China with its unmatched capacity to develop modern transport, communications, energy-generation, housing, and industrial and office buildings.

Cooperatives are likely to be the basic form of organization; ultimately, communist societies will be like big cooperatives. Vietnam’s growing experience with cooperatives will have much to contribute. Laos has reportedly made significant efforts in advancing ecological agriculture.

The conscious development of ecological agriculture, agrotowns and cooperatives can set the foundations for the blooming of a new culture increasingly free of the influences of the “culture of exploitation” that first arose with agriculture.

Ideas expressed in this paper do not necessarily represent those of the CPUSA. This paper was prepared in an individual capacity for the 2nd World Cultural Forum, Beijing, October 16, 2017, sponsored by the Division of Marxism, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the Council of the World Cultural Forum.

Special thanks to Sandy Rosen, Donald Donato, Samia Halaby, Marc Brodine, Eric Brooks, John Womack, Jr., Tom Whitney, and other comrades and friends of the CPUSA and the Center for Marxist Education; to Miguel Vales Garcia of the Communist Party of Cuba, the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, Havana; to comrades Deng Chundong, Liu Zixu, Yu Weihai and Li Haiyu of the Communist Party of China; and to professors Wu Xiangdong and Tian Song of Beijing Normal University. This paper benefited from discussions with Richard Levins in the years before his death. Errors are the author’s property.

[1] “The introduction of time freed art from specific subject matter in the service of historic ruling classes. Abstraction permits impulsive invention. This kind of freedom of spontaneous visual invention was not possible within the confines of the pictorial arts anywhere in the world before the flowering of working class culture and the growth of Impressionism in the late 19th century. Freedom from specific subject matter does not mean abstraction is devoid of content, as bourgeois critics tend to imply.” (Note by Samia Halaby, my comrade and collaborator, who produced the graphics cited in the next footnote.)

[2] See “Speaking the truth – Marxism’s powerful weapon against the culture of exploitation”, and, in particular, the two accompanying graphics, a contribution by this author to the 1st World Cultural Forum, Beijing, October 2015; and “Away with all pests, revisited”, on how ecological agriculture and the associated organizations can be the foundation for an ecological civilization. Contribution to the 7th World Socialism Forum, Beijing, October 2016.

[3] A fascinating argument that agriculture has not been sustainable since its earliest days is found in the geological evidence presented in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery, 2008

[4] There is evidence of gender equality before the rise of agriculture. See, for example, “Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands” by M.Dyble et al., Science, 15 May 2015.

[5] See “Agrotowns, a Brief History and Review of Resources” by Donald Donato, to be published in International Critical Thought (forthcoming).

[6] For further discussion of this topic, see the author’s “Richard Levins, Ecological Agriculture and Revolutionary Optimism,” prepared for the Richard Levins memorial in Havana, July 2017. Copies are available by writing the author,

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