The Marxist-Leninist theory of agriculture (juni 1994)
Agricultural policy in socialist countries has always led to certain specific measures that were not accidental. In socialist countries agricultural policy always aimed at the introduction, one way or the other, of collectivisation of agriculture. They were based upon a theory called Marxism-Leninism. The Marxist-Leninist theory of agriculture was constructed in the Soviet Union. After the Second World War it became the theoretical explanation for the development of agriculture in central European countries when the communist parties took power. Because of the far-reaching consequences of this theory, it is good to pay some attention to it.
Marxism-Leninism is an interpretation of Marxism, which in its turn is an interpretation of what Karl Marx said and wrote in the nineteenth century. It is important to notice that Marx was a representative of the young workers movement that came into existence along with the industrial revolution. Marx was a socialist and the workers movement called itself socialist. Socialism was important for the workers that were struggling for their emancipation. Towards the end of the century and in the beginning of our century this struggle for emancipation grew even more.
Farmers were not important in socialist theory. Marx did not say much more about farmers than that they were "like a sack of potatoes" who could be put anywhere, and who, without the sack, would roll in every possible direction. In fact, when Marx did write about farmers, he was rather hostile: farmers were capitalists who exploited their workers just like any other capitalist. And if a farmer was too small to be able to employ workers, he was just backward and bound to disappear from the historic scene. Friedrich Engels foresaw in 1894 "the unavoidable bankruptcy of the peasant farmer". Small farmers were not important and big farmers were the enemy. Socialism was a product of the city rather than of the countryside. Socialist theory never was very explicit about how a socialist society would be. Marx talked about a "voluntary association of free individuals". This utopia does not seem very concrete, but had very concrete consequences. Socialists wanted a better society and wanted to abolish all injustice and all irrationalities of the capitalist mode of production.
As Lenin put it, peasant farming shows "all the contradictions which are inseparably connected with every capitalist order: competition, struggle for economic independence, struggle for soil, concentration of production in the hands of a minority, the forced entrance of the majority into the ranks of the proletariat, the exploitation of the majority by the minority..." (from Ellman, 1980, p. 120). The socialist answer was that people working together in the fields would be better than capitalist competition and exploitation. Socialism would be more just, more satisfying for people working in agriculture, and it would result in higher production because planning would be possible.
An important argument as to why a socialist agriculture would be better was technical: just like in industry, enlargement of scale would bring about big advantages. Tractors and other machinery could be used more efficiently on bigger fields and farms. According to this theory, large-scale socialist agriculture would inevitably be more efficient than private, small-scale capitalist agriculture. While in capitalist countries the difference between towns and countryside was growing, socialist agriculture would develop into agroindustrial complexes. The difference between industrial and agricultural labourers would disappear and agricultural workers would live in villages with an infrastructure of a very high standard.
Lenin did not add much to the socialist theory of agriculture. Lenin was, first of all, a practical politician. When he needed the support of the peasants for his taking of power in October 1917, he promised them land. But when he was in power, he began to take their produce by force in order to feed the city. And when the resistance of peasants became too fierce, he gave them freedom again by introducing the New Economic Policy. In 1924 Lenin died and Stalin became his successor. As soon as Stalin felt strong enough, he started the collectivisation of agriculture. Remarkable is the fact that many people opposing Stalin's rise to power (Trotzki, for example) had propagated collectivisation of agriculture before Stalin. The idea that a large-scale planned agriculture would be better than a peasant agriculture was really strong.
After the Second World War collectivisation of agriculture was introduced in many central European countries as well. By that time Soviet experience had clearly shown that collectivisation was a cruel process and that it would lead to lower production and poverty. The fact that collectivisation nevertheless was introduced shows that there were more motives than just the ideal of a better, more rational society. Collectivisation of agriculture had become a fight for power: the fight of the communist party against a large part of the society which was stubbornly resisting state power over their activities. Farmers had power because of their numbers and because they controlled so important a thing as food. The party wanted this control, it needed it if it wanted to be sure of its power in the long run. That was what collectivisation was about.
Marxism-Leninism served as a theoretical argument for collectivisation, but neither Marx nor Lenin ever propagated forced collectivisation or the destruction of big farmers "as a class". They wanted collectivisation to happen voluntarily. Nevertheless, their theories and their ideals made it possible for Stalin (and his successors in central Europe) to invoke Marx and Lenin as advocates for his collectivisation. Marx saw the workers movement as the sole motor of progress in human history when he advocated the dictatorship of the proletariat. It did not take much time, however, before one of his followers (Stalin) called all the others an obstacle for the progress of humankind, and decided to take his own measures.
Besides communism there is another important current of socialism, the more moderate social-democracy. It is remarkable that social-democracy have so much in common with communism despite the fact that communism and social-democracy have been sharply "opposed" to each other during our century. Karl Kautsky, the most important theoretician of German social-democracy, criticised Lenin for advocating the division of land among poor peasants. Kautsky was an advocate of large-scale socialist agriculture. At the same time he was one of the first and one of the sharpest critics of Leninism and its lack of democracy. After the Second World War, the Dutch social-democrat Mansholt pleaded in the young European Economic Community for a policy towards a more large-scale, specialised agriculture. His "Plan Mansholt" wanted half the agricultural population to leave agriculture within ten years. The result was a mass demonstration of 200,000 farmers in Brussels in 1971. Socialists and farmers never were the best of friends.
A characteristic of socialism is its attitude towards nature and environment. This is based on the writings of Marx. Marx proposed that nature as such does not have a value. Products of nature get their value only after the use of labour to harvest or dig them. Within socialist thinking, nature does not have a value except as "the base of the production process". The dominant opinion is that man, as master and lord over nature, has the right to use nature (soil, water, air, minerals, animals and plants) as he likes. In the end, this way of thinking led to the axiom that pollution of environment does not exist in socialism. This axiom was maintained until the end of the seventies. Environmental pollution was only a byproduct of the wasteful capitalist mode of production. As a consequence, it took much longer to realise the importance of a clean environment in the east European countries than in the West, which meant that a lot of polluting technologies in agriculture and other fields of the economy took more severe proportions in these countries.
Recently, principles of socialism have been put in question more and more. The argument of scaling up does not hold in agriculture so much as in industry. The production on a unit of soil now seems to be reversely related to the size of a farm: Big scale farming makes coordination and control of the work difficult. Small farms have more possibilities to adapt to diverging circumstances. "Every field is different, every day is different and quick decisions have to be taken. For getting work out of the labourers, a peasant family is hard to beat. Discipline and responsibility are imposed by the pressing incentive to secure the family livelihood" (from Ellman 1981). Recent developments in Eastern Europe point in a direction that is precisely opposite to the practice in socialist countries in the past. It cannot be denied that it looks like a rather scornful defeat of socialist theory.
M. Broekmeyer, De Russische landbouw, Utrecht/Antwerpen, 1983.
M. Ellman, Socialistische planning in theorie en praktijk, Alphen a/d Rijn, 1980.
M. Ellman, "Agricultural productivity under socialism", in: World Development, Vol.9, No.9/10, 979-989, 1981.
L. Verschoor, Planning in de CSSR t.b.v. land-stad-natuur, Wageningen, 1981.