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[Hugo Oehler]

The Communists and the Agrarian Crisis

(March 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 11 (Whole No. 107), 12 March 1932, pp. 3 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The confusion existing in the ranks of the Communist movement on the Agrarian question cannot be settled until we trace it to the source and at the same time present the determining factors of American agriculture. The agrarian question in America cannot be separated from the establishment of the Third International, after the successful Russian revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Power. Up to that time, the Second International had a bundle of confused ideas on the agrarian and colonial questions on the problem of the relationship between town and country. In fact, the Second International revised Marxism on this question, leaving the peasantry and colonies as open stamping grounds for imperialist robbery.

Marx and Engels present a clear analysis of this question in their writings and Lenin and Trotsky (Trotsky, Our Revolution, 1905) brought this question down to practical working class politics in the 1905 period, so successfully carried out in the 1917 revolution by the Marxists. Through the Third International this material and these lessons have become the property of the whole class throughout the world, expressed by their vanguard. However, since the establishment of the Stalin regime and the gradual crowding to the background of the Marxian ideas, we have witnessed a revival of revisionism on this question. This time, from a different angle than that of the Second International.

This revisionism takes on two different forms, one in the colonial countries, and another in the advanced countries. In turn, the problem as a whole flows from the theory of socialism in one country. In the colonial countries, Stalinism poses the question of the 1905 revolution and not that of October 1917 and comes to the conclusion of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” Its concrete expressions have been manifold, with outstanding points of revision such as: the four-class-party in China, Workers and Peasants blocks, Peasant International etc. In the advanced capitalist countries and particularly in America its opposite expression is manifested. The problem of the farmers and the agrarian crisis is not understood and Centrism, in refusing to pose this question by showing the proper relation of town and country, has left the door wide open for blunders. They have left unanswered the whole question of: What kind of a revolution? What will it look like? (Lenin and Trotsky answered this for Russia). We cannot be satisfied with merely saying: Soviets and dictatorship of the proletariat. What will the Soviets be like, when we take power, in comparison to the Soviets established by the first workers’ class rule and in a backward country with the majority of peasants? In place of these answers we have revisionism for the advanced countries expressing itself as: The “peoples’ revolution”, Workers and Farmers parties and the Workers and Farmers Government; Self determination for the American Negro and the Anti-Imperialist League, etc.

One question we must settle and that will throw considerable light upon the problem for the advanced capitalist countries is the question of American agricultural conditions today. Once we lay down a Marxian analysis on this question we can more readily come to a proper understanding of the question. The problem for colonial countries will not be taken up here. We will confine ourself to advanced America.

Agrarian Development under Capitalism

A proper elevation of the problem calls for an understanding of its historical development and relation. Under pre-capitalist conditions agriculture and manufacturing were established as a unity with manufacturing subordinated to agriculture (manufacturing used in the obsolete sense – hand-tool production), “Domestic handicraft and manufacturing labor, as side issues to agriculture, which forms the basis, is the prerequisite of that mode of production upon which natural economy rests, in European antiquity and in Middle Ages as well as in the Indian commune of the present day, in which the traditional organization has not yet been destroyed. The capitalist mode of production completely dissolves this connection”. (Marx: Capital, Vol. 3, page 913) The capitalist mode of production destroys this unity of agriculture and manufacturing and by the concentration of the means of production and their transformation into capital they are able to expropriate the direct producers and change them into wage workers. These wage workers are first concentrated in the developing cities and later, with the development of capitalism, reach out and invade the countryside as agricultural workers almost to the degree that capitalist production subordinate agriculture and molds it to its own liking. “The advent of capital as an independent and leading power in agriculture does not take place generally all at once, but gradually and separately in various lines of production. It seizes first not agriculture proper, but such lines of production as cattle raising, especially sheep raising, whose principle product, wool, offers a steady surplus of the market price over the price of production during rising industry, and this is not balanced until later. This was the case in England during the 16th Century.” Marx: Capital, Vol. 3, page 931) In the first stage of production, its forces work destructively against the pre-capitalist condition of the unity of agriculture and manufacturing. But once it has smashed this relationship, it starts the process of unifying capitalist industry and capitalist agriculture on a new plane. Developed capitalism lays the base for the transformation of agriculture into a modern industry. In the negative sense this is already accomplished in advanced America, but in the positive sense it is not, and will not be until after the seizure of power by the proletariat and the establishment of the socialist mode of production.

The Agrarian Crisis

What is the relationship between agriculture and industry in America and what is the meaning of the agrarian crisis? The agrarian crisis seems to be a permanent feature of American capitalism, and logically so, because it is by the phenomena of the concentration of capital (and land capital is no exception) that American capitalism is further transforming American agriculture to its own liking. The centralization carries with it a greater diversification of the division of social labor, with different sections specializing in different foodstuffs, even through diversified uses of the soil, in order to rotate crops for the greatest exploitation of the capital invested.

“It is the nature of the capitalist mode of production to reduce the agricultural population continually as compared to the non-agricultural, because in industry, (strictly speaking) the increase of the constant capital compared to the variable capital goes hand in hand with an absolute increase, though relative decrease, of the variable capital: whereas in agriculture the variable capital required for the exploitation of a certain piece of land is decreased absolutely and cannot increase unless new land is taken into cultivation, which implies a still greater previous growth of the non-agricultural population.” (Vol. 3, page 747)

The expropriation of the peasantry and handicraft labor as primitive accumulation of capital takes on new forms in advanced capitalism with the constant shift of the rural to the urban population and the debt-and-mortgage-ridden farmers ever on the increase, in the last analysis resulting in driving them off the land. And if they return, to return as wage laborers or tenants in varied forms.

Effects of the Land Crisis

In other words, “healthy” capitalism, carrying out the capitalist process of centralization, concentration and accumulation, creating laws the capitalists cannot control are doing nothing more nor less than is necessary for a capitalist system. Where the “logical” see the weakening of its agricultural base and point there to the “agrarian revolution” In an advanced country or to a “Workers and Farmers Government”, the fact remains that the opposite is true and the weak spot in this process manifests itself in another sphere of capitalist production. In fact, the further tearing down of outlived agricultural relations and the molding of them to capitalist liking is necessary to strengthen this “industry” that has always lagged behind the general development of industrial capitalism. The agrarian crisis in advanced countries creates friction and steam to be let off. But its weakening effect upon capitalism is expressed primarily in the industrial base of advanced countries. It transforms a decisive section of the farmer class into agricultural workers. It shifts the dead weight of the country to the top heavy weight of the city under capitalism, swelling the proletariat from two angles. It further socializes the mode of production and with it, the contradiction of accumulation and capitalist appropriation. It disorganizes the whole world division of labor, shaking up not only the internal relations between agriculture and industry but also the external relations between colonial and imperialist countries, in fact all of the contradictions of town and country as such.

The American farmer, since the war, has overproduction of foodstuffs and raw-material in every line but cannot see his own overproduction, and only points to the tremendous overproduction of the colonial regions, a necessary development and encouragement of industry under imperialism – resulting in the creation a whirlwind pressure from all sides.

“It is precisely the rapidly growing cultivation of such prairie or steppe districts which of late turns the renowned statement of Malthus, that the population ‘presses upon the means of subsistence’, into ridicule, and has created the reverse of it in the complaint of the agrarians, who wail that agriculture, and with it Germany, will be ruined unless the means of subsistence which are pressing upon the population are kept out by force. The cultivation of these steppes, prairies, pampas, llanos, etc., is only in its beginnings; its revolutionary effect on European agriculture will, therefore, make’ itself felt later on even more than hitherto.” (Engels, Vol. 3, page 785)

(To be continued)

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