Book Review: “Agriculture and Community.” by J. F. Duncan.

Agriculture and the Community by Joseph F. Duncan (Queensgate, Stirling, Scottish Farm Servants’ Union, 1921)


Mr. Duncan is secretary of the Scottish Farm Servants’ Union, but his knowledge of agriculture is by no means limited to the Trade Union aspect. He displays quite an extensive grasp of the organisation and technical development of agricultural production. What he lacks, and this is not merely a drawback, but makes the book a positive danger to the landworker who wants to understand his place in the workers’ movement, is a conception of the working class point of view on social structure. Mr. Duncan is apparently unaware even that there can be a working class point of view. He speaks for “the Community,” his object being to “discuss a policy by which the community will be able to make the industry contribute its proper share to the public welfare.”


What is the Community? Mr. Duncan assumes that his readers know; but he is quite evidently at sea himself. Webster’s dictionary says it is a body of people having common interests. Given, therefore, a group of people geographically associated, unless they have interests in common, community is a myth. Have the workers in general, or in agriculture, interests in common with the employers? Mr. Duncan admits they have not. He says (page 40) a policy based on such an idea “would be disastrous to the workers,” and (introduction) ”The interest of the community does not coincide with these sectional and class interests” (i.e., of farmers and landowners). On every page are instances of the confusion which arises from Mr. Duncan’s failure to realise the necessity of clear thinking.


In one place the community is the taxpayers who object to subsidising farmers, in another those who want cheap food, and again, the “nation” which wants protection from foreign enemies; and, as might be expected, Mr. Duncan’s notion of the State is equally out of keeping with the facts. How can some central body represent impartially the conflicting elements which compose the nation? Actually it represents the dominant class against the subject class, and incidentally at any particular time as between divergent capitalist interests it will represent that section which is in the ascendant.


Ownership of land may still carry with it social prestige, but it is no longer an important source of political power. Although a few years ago probably 2,500 people owned half the land of this country, the land owners are losing cohesion and political importance as a class, and the land is looked at with great and increasing longing by the industrial and financial capitalists as a means of lightening their own burden of taxation. Whether they tax it or get rent revenue by nationalising it, the result will be the same for them. Mr. Duncan thinks the tendency is in the direction of State ownership, but that is not of great importance. Besides revenue there is another vital question. It is that of cheap food. The industrial capitalist wants his workers’ food prices to be low, not because he wants them to live well, but because he wants them to live cheaply; the reason being that their cost of living is the basic factor of their wages. Most of the workers, like Mr. Duncan, don’t realise this, and therefore advocate Free Trade, the Liberal remedy for high prices. From about 1880 onwards there was a great slump in agriculture owing to the importation of cheap corn from such countries as America, where owing to the apparently unlimited supply of virgin soil expensive fertilising and rotation of crops were unnecessary. So long, however, as food was cheap agriculture at home could be neglected. Now however, those virgin soils are rapidly reaching exhaustion, and the same methods of cultivation have to be applied there as here. Prices have therefore, apart from abnormal war conditions, been steadily rising, with the result that since the early years of the century the capitalists have again been getting keenly interested in the agricultural industry. In brief, their idea was that by raising the whole level of agricultural production ultimately to the high standard of technique and efficiency of other branches of production, they could not only add to revenue, and thus decrease taxation, but also ensure a supply of cheap food, sufficient to check the world rise in prices. Mr. Duncan here sets out to show them how it can be done.


During the war when the submarine campaign was at its height, the Government was really panic stricken, and offered guaranteed prices for wheat and oats to encourage production. They have now recovered from their fright and have decontrolled the industry, but their subsidies were not by any means thrown away. The guaranteed prices were accompanied by minimum rates of pay, and although the Agricultural Wages Boards have now been abolished the effect of them has been to induce vast and lasting improvements in methods of cultivation. High wages are always an inducement to the introduction of machinery, and Mr. Duncan remarks that organisation to raise wages has led to the introduction of labour-saving appliances. At present the production per head in agriculture is £90 per annum, as against £200 in some industries, and the result of the raising of productivity will be shown eventually in cheaper food, from which the industrialists will reap their harvest. This, however, is no concern of the workers, as Mr. Duncan would have us believe. To use an old but useful illustration, the price of food no more concerns them than does the price of fodder concern the horse. One would have thought that this lesson would have been brought home to Mr. Duncan from the Anti-corn Law agitation of the early part of last century. The workers were foolish enough to lend their weight to that agitation, but the manufacturers it was who benefited. It is most touching to recollect how generously the manufacturers offered the workers cheap bread—at the expense of the landowners—and how the latter offered them factory legislation—at the expense of the manufacturers; all, of course, for the benefit of the workers! Mr. Duncan so little appreciates this as to wonder why factory legislation was not applied to agriculture until some time later.


Having shown that landowners do not serve any useful function, seeing that they do not to any degree sink capital in improvements or equipment, nor do they supervise or organise, Mr. Duncan wants their dead weight removed so that production can be intensified, free from their incubus. Like the good capitalists who suffer from the exactions of landowners, Mr. Duncan thinks it immoral that the landlord class, which now performs no useful service in production, should continue to receive a share of the spoil which another functionless class, the capitalists, have taken from the workers.


Outlining his case for State ownership of land and large scale farming, he usefully demonstrates the enormous economy in working and avoidance of overlapping that would be possible, but as is usual with advocates of nationalisation, he omits to show what benefits such developments can be to the workers, whose job is economised out of existence. “With more and better machinery the output could be as great from the 1,000 acre farm as from the five (200 acre farms) with fewer men employed.” (Page 89.)


He assumes the continuance of production for sale in the competitive world market, and, of course, the continued exploitation of the workers, although he suggests safeguards against too low wages. He says the whole question is: Can we produce corn cheaper than it can be imported from abroad? Sir A. D. Hall is quoted to show how uneconomical is small-holding production as compared with the possibilities of the extended use of machinery on large farms, and it throws an interesting light on political stunts to learn that the demand for these holdings does not come in the main from land workers.


He is very severe on the middlemen, who, he says, “cheated the consumer,” and shows how in Derby in October, 1919, the Co-operative Society, with 84 employees, men and women, distributed 17,000 gallons of milk per week, as against 224 retailers who handled only 15,000 gallons.


It is when Mr. Duncan deals with the policy to be adopted by the agricultural workers that he is most confused and confusing, a condition he shares with his English colleagues.
He admits that agricultural wages and prices have no direct relation (page 5), and instances the retailing of milk as a trade in which high prices and sweating prevailed side by side, and that “in good times as in bad they (the farmers) always fight stubbornly against any increase in wages. The workers need expect nothing from farmers except what they are able to force from them” (page 6). Yet, like Mr. R. B. Walker, of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, he assumes that relatively high prices will gurantee high wages : “the price must be such as will secure to the producers a proper standard of living” (page 94). Again, quite inconsistently with the statement made above and contrary to general experience, he lays it down that “steady improvement in the productive power” is essential to “progressive improvement for the wage earners” (page 41), and yet confesses (page 109) that higher wages have not resulted from better farming.


One cannot but be amazed to read on page no 110: “Given a more efficient and a larger scale industry . . . rural society would not be divided horizontally as it is to-day” ; and wonders whether Mr. Duncan really does believe that the more highly developed industries are free from conflict between employer and employed.


Lest it should be thought that muddled thinking is peculiar to Mr. Duncan, it is as well to note that an utter disregard for accuracy and consistency is shared by most of those teachers of the land workers, who justify their opposition to Socialist propaganda on the ground that it is beyond the comprehension of their pupils at present.


If there were any justification that could be pleaded for leaders it would be that they actually do give a lead to their followers ; but can those who have no considered policy themselves provide one for others?


Mr. R. B. Walker, secretary of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, quite correctly condemns “the vicious rubbish . . . that their prospects and conditions have not, and cannot have, any relation to those of urban workers ” (Labour Leader, October 13th, 1921); while Mr. H. R. Lovell, assistant secretary, ” wanted to make it clear that they were a purely land workers’ union. They did not want to be mixed up in any shape or form with the Industrial Unions of the country ” (Wages Board Gazette, December 11th, 1920). Incidentally, it is the boast of this Union, which is affiliated to the Trade Union Congress, that it is an industrial Union .


Mr. Lovell continued : “They were therefore running along with the Farmers’ Union, so far as they could, to make agriculture one of the first industries of the country—an industry which would give to the people who had their capital invested in it a fair return for ther money and brains.” This same Farmers’ Union, with in a month of the abolition of the Wages Board, had obtained more than 20 per cent, reduction of wages on the standard prevailing at the end of August.


Mr. Duncan, who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t want co-operation with the employers, refers to other people who do, as “well-meaning persons whose emotions are more easily stirred than their brains.” (Page 40.) Mr. Lovell and Mr. Walker support the policy of giving sub sidies to farmers; Mr. Duncan opposes. (Page 40.)


After the workers’ minds have been confused by this sort of stuff, is it to be wondered that Socialist propaganda is difficult?


The outstanding defect of Mr. Duncan’s book arises from his inability to see the out lines of capitalist social structure and the urgent necessity for a new organisation. He discusses what will be a problem of the new society (i.e., organising agricultural production) in relation to existing social conditions, which renders the discussion largely valueless. As conditions change so does the problem, and with it the solution of the problem. While the system remains and the capitalist class continue in power, industry can only be considered on a profit-making basis.


The present interest of the workers is to resist their exploitation to the full extent of their power, not to trouble about the technical problems which confront their exploiters.


P. J. L.