1920s >> 1927 >> no-273-may-1927

Agriulture and the workers

“Agriculture,” by H. B. Pointing and Emile Burns. Labour Research Department, 162, Buckingham Palace Road. Price 6d. 64 pages.

This booklet in the L.R.D. Labour and Capital series, is a really valuable contribution to the discussion of the so-called agricultural problem from the workers’ viewpoint. It is noteworthy because the writers have seen that the agricultural industry in this country is a Capitalist industry, existing in and dominated by the Capitalist system in general. This ought to be obvious to every observer, but one could read the bulk of the book and pamphlet literature on the subject, including that written by professed Socialists, without ever discovering that essential fact. One has only to consider the numerous back-to-the-land schemes which hover round the labour movement to realise the harm done by the persistence of the belief that agriculture is in a marked way different from other Capitalist industries. Almost every day we hear of some Labour “thinker” suggesting that the unemployment problem can be solved by promoting the growth of more food in this country instead of importing it, and thus increasing the number of workers employed on the land. Why does no one ever suggest putting the unemployed into the mines or the engineering shops? Why do we hear perpetual moans because some less fertile land is going out of cultivation. Yet no one ever protests because inefficient mines cease to be worked. At bottom, it is due, as we have stated, not to any fundamental difference between the economic laws governing agriculture and mining—there is no difference.

The confusion arises from the habit of sentimentalising about mother earth instead of applying the Marxian analysis and the test of working-class interests. This booklet should be a useful corrective to these old bad habits of thought.

It analyses agricultural production and the distribution of profits, with ample and up-to-date figures from the 1921 population census and the 1925 Agricultural Census (published in March, 1927).

Chapter II., dealing with productivity, shows that between 1871 and 1901, although the number of persons engaged in agriculture declined by 30 per cent., production fell at most 10 per cent., and probably not at all. In other words, the output per worker has been and is increasing. On page 14 it is bluntly stated that before the war the productivity of world agriculture “was rising less rapidly than that of world trade.” The phrasing is bad, but presumably it is intended to mean that agricultural productivity was falling behind industrial productivity. If so, it is a statement which calls for evidence. Its importance lies in the backing it gives for the Neo-Malthusian fallacy that food supplies are declining relatively to population. If it were true, we would expect to find agricultural prices rising in relation to industrial prices, and as was clearly demonstrated by Sir W. Beveridge in his address to the British Association in 1923 and in his subsequent controversy with Mr. Keynes, this is not the fact.

Chapter IV. deals with wages, and Chapter V. with trade unions in agriculture.

Chapter VI. on “The Future of Agriculture” effectively disposes of the smallholdings myth. A table on page 54 shows how much greater is the output per man on large farms than on small. It is gratifying to know that although all three parties favour small-holdings they are not holding their own.

There is one somewhat serious criticism of the book, but it probably touches the L.R.D. rather than the writers. The agricultural programmes of the three parties are given, but the fact is not honestly faced that not one of the three proposes any fundamental change in the position of the working-class employed in agriculture. The workers are exploited because, being propertyless, they must seek employment as wage-earners. The Labour Party urges Nationalisation of the land, and a “living wage” (whatever that may be), but it does not propose the common ownership of the means of production, either industrial or agricultural. As the writers themselves point out (page 52),

“Security of tenure for the farmer, compensation for improvements, reduced taxation, co- operative marketing, stability of prices, cheap State credit, and all the other medicines offered to the capitalist groups in agriculture—all of these are advantages for one or other of the capitalist groups, but may mean little to the workers. . . In fact, these proposed measures, if successfully applied, would strengthen the position of the farmers, and give them greater advantages in their struggle against the workers.”

They go on to show that Nationalisation will not improve and may actually worsen the position of the land-workers, but they avoid applying to the Labour Party programme the condemnation it deserves. This happens, no doubt, because the L.R.D. dare not risk offending its non-Socialist Labour Party supporters. The L.R.D.’s discretion in this matter is understandable, but the usefulness of their publications is greatly diminished by the subordination of independent criticism to the propaganda needs of the Labour Party or the Co-operative Society, or any other propagandist body.

However, we can confidently urge every student of Socialism to get this booklet if he wants (as he should) to understand the structure and tendencies of British agriculture.

The authoritative statistics alone are worth the price. There is a bad misprint on the last line of page 52—”farmer” should obviously read “former.”


(Socialist Standard, May 1927)

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