Marxism and “the Agrarian Question”

There’s an interesting discussion here and (part 2) here by Tony Cliff, whose current intellectual progeny are the UK’s beloved Socialist Workers’ Party. For those with a low Marxist-tolerance-threshold I will summarise:

1) Marx thought that capitalism set up the preconditions for socialism by, among other things, replacing small-scale individual enterprises with large-scale, industrial enterprises (such as latter-day TNCs) thus performing on its own the task of ‘collectivising’ the economy. This seems to be broadly true.

2) Marx ALSO thought, however, that (A) the exact same process would go on in agriculture, with larger and larger farms progressively squeezing out small ones. As a result, he also thought that (B) the class divisions in the countryside would grow sharper and sharper, as a mass of owner-workers separated into a mass of workers and a small group of owners. Finally, he thought that (C) socialist revolution would only be successful in highly advanced, industrialised countries, like the UK, where a developed industrial sector would be able to pump resources into the agricultural sector (machinery, fertilisers, GM crops, etc. all of which can be better used by large farms than by small ones) so as to speed up its collectivisation.

3) Unfortunately, it rather looks as though Marx was wrong on all of these counts. (A) Small farms have remained viable in much of the world and do not appear to be vanishing. (B) As a result, the class division between owners and workers remains blurry, with the same person often being both, and moreover, even where big farms do predominate, the process of ‘socialist revolution’ or something like it tends to reinforce this, by redistributing land to those farmers with little or none of it. (C) Socialist revolutions have largely tended to occur in “backward” countries where agriculture is far stronger than industry and employs the great majority of the population.

4) The key example is Russia, and Cliff describes the debates that went on among the Bolsheviks over what to do with the land. Similar things happened in China, the Eastern Bloc, etc. Basically, the Bolsheviks would have liked to do what Marx had predicted in (C), i.e. pump resources from industry into agriculture. But their industry was tiny. So instead they decided to pump resources from agriculture into industry, specifically heavy industry, so as to rapidly ‘modernise’. While they weren’t as spectacularly bad at this as some have been, they certainly encountered a problem – ‘agriculture’ wasn’t very keen on this idea. And the fact that it was basically being squeezed just like it had been before made it even less keen to ‘collectivise’ and move onto these new-fangled farming communes. Fortunately, the Bolsheviks, especially under dear uncle Joe, were able to respond to this fairly legitimate reluctance in a reasonable, adult, manner, with massive violence.

5) Finally, Cliff gives a suggestion of an alternative plan for how to deal with ‘the Agrarian Question’: that in the immediate aftermath of socialist revolution in the cities and power-centres, agriculture should remain individualist, though now with greater social support (e.g. free provision of scientific and technological advances, etc.) until such time as those engaged in agriculture voluntarily collectivised, which he suggests they will do not because large farms will be so much more productive, but because life on large farms, or in cities, gives so much more scope for individual freedom and personal development (education, culture, socialisation, etc.) than the narrow, nose-to-the-grindstone life of an individual farm owner.

Now, in large part this all seems fairly sensible to me. I don’t particularly have the confidence to get into the details of what scale of farm is most efficient, or why, but Cliff’s description of the Bolshevik’s Marxist expectations running into conflict with reality certainly rings true from what I know of history. The ownership of land certainly seems like the best candidate for an area of the economy that would retain something resembling private ownership in a post-socialist-revolution anarchic society, since people in such a society would organise their lives as they see fit, and many small farmers across the world appear to see that fit.

However, I drew a couple more conclusions from this.

Firstly, people are usually not as smart as they think they are. A master’s degree of scientific socialism does not stop even great theoreticians from, not just being wrong, but confidently asserting the exact opposite of the truth.

Now of course there’s nothing wrong with being fallible. Some of my best friends are fallible. I, fortunately, have the bones, which give me access to knowledge beyond the reach of normal people, and so I, like the Pope, am spared this particular indignity. But I can appreciate that those people who are fallible deserve our support.

The problem is not being fallible – the problem is when, as well as being fallible, you put yourself in a position to impose your views on others by force, because of your supposedly superior wisdom. This is a quaint and ridiculous notion, yet seems to be supported by almost the entirety of the (adult?) human population.

Cliff describes a debate between Trotsky and Bukharin over what would be the most efficient way to develop the country’s economy. That’s fine, debates are awesome, I myself often indulge. But most debates don’t inspire me with the confidence that I would be happy if the outcome of the debate, no matter how learned its participants, could determine my entire life or liveliehood. My experience of university certainly did nothing to change that.

Cliff argues that the Bolshevik’s (totalitarian) policy towards the peasantry was a mistake, based in faulty ideas about agricultural class economics. What he doesn’t point out is that these ideas only had the potential to spawn totalitarianism when combined with state power, which took the decision of whether to collectivise agriculture out of the hands of agriculturalists, and the decision about the balance of trade between agriculture and industry out of the hands of a negotiation between agriculturalists and industrial workers.

Secondly, it brought out very clearly that Marxism is a predictive, not prescriptive, science (yes, I am inclined to call it a science in a broad sense). It does not give ‘advice’ or principles by which to judge political matters good or bad, so much as it describes the existence of ongoing social antagonisms and predicts their eventual outcome. It’s always fairly obvious that this outcome (the proletarian revolution) is considered desirable, and that people should try to promote it and strengthen the proletariat, but outside of that issue, it doesnt’ say much. Despite it’s association with ‘revolution’ it gives almost no advice for revolutions in general, only for one in particular – the global proletarian revolution, which because it differs from other revolutions will produce a class-free society.

What this means is that Marxism does not have any concept of a free or equal society emerging except from societies dominated by the proletariat (those with no productive property). So when the oppressed classes of Russia (principally peasants, i.e. labouring land-owners) revolted, the question they posed (how can a peasant society be free and equal) couldn’t really be answered. The only two options given were ‘become an oppressive liberal-democratic capitalist society’ (a la the Mensheviks), or ‘jump somehow to a type of society (socialism) explicitly based on a population which you are not’ (a la the Bolsheviks).

This seems to me a weakness, or at least an incompleteness, of Marxism: that it’s dedicated anti-moralism, and generally suspicious attitude towards ‘bourgeois’ ideas of justice, leaves it unable to speak to non-proletarian societies, except in terms of how to be stupid.

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