1940s >> 1946 >> no-500-april-1946

A Food Shortage in War and Peace

Poverty and plenty are the most vivid contrasts of capitalism. A day after the Manchester Guardian Weekly printed a report from Budapest which stated that owing to famine: “Of 3,000 babies born in November only 800 survived,” an article in the Economist finished with this sentence: “The agricultural crisis is still with us; but it will be our old acquaintance, the crisis of plenty—for those members of the human race who survive the present crisis of famine ” (16/2/46). They did not develop this idea—they did not ask: Why the crisis of plenty? Earlier they stated that there had never been sufficient to fill all “human bellies”; also effective demand was lacking for the “unsaleable surplus.” Why was this demand lacking? This article stopped where it could well have started.

From every part of the world comes news of a terrible food shortage. It is estimated that millions will die owing to the deficiency amounting to several millions of tons in staple foods. Politicians are not short of reasons; the monsoon has failed and long, repeated droughts have ruined the grain harvests in the Southern Hemisphere. But it is not merely a natural calamity. Given a social order where the only purpose of production was use, sufficient would be produced and stored in good years to spread over the very rare bad years. What we have had is this. For six years the representatives of capitalism urged their armies to “bomb, burn and destroy.” They, engaged in the cruel process of reducing each other to famine. To preserve their wealth and privilege our masters turned Europe into a desert of destroyed towns and ruined farms. At their victory banquets they exhort us to tighten our belts. At the same time they call on us to produce more food to avoid the disaster of mass starvation.

But will the production of an abundance of food free workers from a starvation diet? or, is a world food shortage the sole cause of hunger? Not at all. In countries such as Great Britain and America, where workers were alleged to enjoy a “high standard” of living and where there was an abundance of food before the war, millions of workers suffered from semi-starvation. The “unsaleable surplus” was there but the demand was lacking as workers, unemployed or earning low wages, were unable to buy the food necessary to health. Hunger existed, not because of a natural shortage, but because the food was produced for sale. As wheat was produced primarily for the market, good harvests were regarded as natural disasters because they threatened glut. In May, 1937, the Daily Herald reported on the possible wheat crop: “The Imperial Economic Committee fears over-production . . . the Committee visualises the “danger” of a series of good harvests ” (12/5/37). By way of a joke, the failure of 1932 was alleged to be due not to the monsoon, but the Boll Weevil; the pest that should have but failed to destroy cotton crops.

Capitalism’s politicians meet the food crisis by advocating the simple remedy—produce more. Mr. R. Law, minister in the late Coalition Government, stated in a broadcast talk, “I wonder how many people realise that there was a world food shortage before the war. Even in the U.S.A. . . . there were millions of people who were not eating the food to keep them reasonably healthy . .  . And it was not only a question of bad distribution. It was not just our old friend, ‘Poverty in the midst of plenty.’ As a matter of fact the food simply was not there.” (Quoted in Forward, 15/12/45.) He wants to produce 20 per cent more grain and 100 per cent more meat, milk and fruit. Did Mr. Law and his colleagues know that there was insufficient food before the war? If so, why did they not set about producing more? Did they make any effort to close me gap between supply and needs? If there was a shortage, why restrict production? Why destroy that which had already been produced? In his book, “But Who Has Won,” Mr. J. Scanlon gives the following quotation from “Health and Nutrition in India,” by Professor N. Gangube: “Owing to the restriction put in the export of meat by the Ottawa agreement in 1932, the Government of Chile considered it expedient to kill half a million sheep for the manufacture of tallow on condition that the carcasses should be burned. In Denmark the Government created a special destruction fund to kill and burn about 5,000 cattle per week. . . . In America the farmers of Kansas and Nebraska were subsidised for burning their grain . . . For the sake of ‘National Prosperity’ the Federal Government ordered the slaughter of some 5,000,000 pigs and some 200,000 prospective mother sows. Brazil burned its coffee crop . . .” (Page 197.) To this can be added the stories of fish sold as manure, oranges dumped in the sea and wheat used as engine fuel. The destruction of wealth for victory in war simply followed the destruction of wealth for profit in peace.

The remedy is not simply that of producing in abundance. Mr. Law has seen only part of the truth. It is true that there never has been sufficient for all, but Law has overlooked this: that no effort has been made to produce this abundance as those who own the means of producing wealth, and decide what will be produced, require not abundance but profit. They produce at a profitable level—a level far below the needs of all mankind, but a level that on average supplies the market to capacity. The cry of overproduction merely meant that too much had been produced for that market; it had no relation to the needs of the population. While Mr. Law’s colleagues bleated “too much wealth” and advocated severe wage-cuts as the remedy to the crisis, millions of workers starved. They starved while the wealth that they had helped to produce was destroyed. We have answered the questions for Mr. Law. The capitalists did not attempt to close the gap, they restricted production and destroyed wealth and for one purpose—to preserve profit.

Mr. Law scoffs at “Poverty in the midst of plenty,” but has himself completely missed the point. The act of producing more, unless accompanied by a social change, will be nullified by the workings of the economic laws of capitalism. Plenty would once more, as the Economist states, lead to crisis. The reason is that, owing to capitalist ownership, all wealth produced belongs to them while the working class have only a very limited purchasing power; a purchasing power far below the value of the goods they produce. “Unsaleable surpluses” accumulate and starvation exists while food rote in warehouses and is destroyed. The famine of peace will follow the famine of war. In capitalism, whether we have war or peace, only poverty and hunger comes to those who toil while riches and repletion come to those who own. The solution lies in the hands of the working-class. It must make the fundamental social change from private to common ownership of the means of life.

Lew Jones