Town and Country: Marxism’s Answer to the Problems

Marx and Engels are the most contemporary of writers. Reading their work of a century ago, one is struck again and again by its potent applicability to today. The recently-published Grundrisse should be thrust in the hands of every sociologist playing handy-pandy in foam and backwaters: here is the social ocean itself expounded. The problems of the present are continually anticipated — and the only tenable conclusions drawn by relating them to the economic foundation on which the complex of human organization is built.

We think of civilization as towns, and modern man as urban man, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, between the towns is country and one-fifth of man in Britain remains rural man. What about the country? The environmentalists have brought attention to the problems suffusing it today: the long-term effects of agriculture’s chemical-propelled drive for short-term gains, the damage done by improvements and the car. Apart from gloomy prophecies of the ultimate from these developments, the question to be asked is what is the countryside’s future. Has it still an organic function in society or, as the present tendency appears, is it to become simply a townsmen’s recreation ground?

Divided and Distorted

Marx and Engels considered the past, present and future of the country. “The first great division of labour in society,” wrote Engels in Anti-Dühring, “is the separation of town and country.” In The Origin of the Family, he wrote:

“Also characteristic of civilization is the establishment of a permanent opposition between town and country as basis of the whole social division of labour.” (p.201)

Elsewhere, both he and Marx spoke of “the antithesis” and “the antagonism” between the two spheres. It is, says Marx,

“. . . the most crass expression of the subjection of the individual under the division of labour, under a definite activity forced upon him — a subjection which makes one man into a restricted town-animal, the other into a restricted country-animal, and daily creates anew the conflict between their interests.” (The German Ideology, p.44)

What is being said is that town and country labour create two types of man practically in opposition in their conditioned requirements from society. If you like, two kinds of human nature; and underlying them, and their conditioning, is the division of labour which is produced by and intensified under property society. Marx observes that it begins to exist “from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears”, and goes on:

“For as soon as labour is distributed, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.” (The German Ideology, pp. 20 & 22)

And for the1 final effect of specialist division of labour on man: “It converts the labourer into a crippled monstrosity.” (Capital, Vol. I, p. 396)

Is Migration a Factor?

Thus, the countryman sees the town-dweller as an overpaid smart-alec with unhealthy lungs, and the reciprocal view is of a cretin with straw in his hair. Underlying the townie concept is acceptance, conscious or otherwise, of the theory of migratory selection: the more dynamic move, the less able stay put. Despite attractive examples like the Parsees and the Jews, the theory does not hold water. It cannot be applied to the gypsies, for instance; and, obviously, with different working and living conditions it would be the “fitter” who stayed and the “weaker” who emigrated.

The matter therefore comes back to the division of labour. The real difference — the two kinds of human nature — was expounded by Engels in Anti-Dühring:

“The town artisans, it is true, had to produce for exchange from the very beginning.”(p.300)

“The first great division of labour . . . condemned the rural population to thousands of years of degradation, and the people of the towns to subjection to each one’s individual trade. It destroyed the basis of the intellectual development of the former and the physical development of the latter”. (p.320)

A great deal is covered by this. It includes the fact that the townsman’s idea of the countryman as simple and uncomplicated is the opposite of true. “Development” means rural workers’ difficulty in organizing because of their scattered situation, which reinforces their apparent backwardness and lack of ability to improve their conditions compared with industrial workers. It should be considered also that from the Middle Ages until very recently large numbers of country people were employed in servile non-productive work as domestics, gardeners, retainers and so on.

About Pollution

Yet the techniques of industry .have, inevitably, penetrated the country. The brisk expert of today can tell us that agriculture has become an industry. Marx told us so a hundred and twenty years ago.

“But e.g. if agriculture itself rests on scientific activities — if it requires machinery, chemical fertilizer acquired through exchange, seeds from distant countries, etc., and if rural patriarchal manufacture has already vanished — which is already implied in the presupposition — then the machine-making factory, external trade, crafts etc. appear as needs for agriculture.” (Grundrisse, p.527)

Engels speaks of capitalist industry going outside the town concentrations and “bringing new large towns into being” in the countryside. This is not breaching the town-country division of labour, but in the same context Engels makes some startlingly prescient points. His comments on pollution would gratify any present-day ecologist:

“The factory town, however, transforms all water into stinking ditch water . . . The present poisoning of the air, water and land can only be put an end to by the fusion of town and country; and only this fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease.” (Anti-Dühring, pp.324-5).

Whatever may have been in Engels’s mind at the end of that passage, it applies now to the “sludge de-watering” plant which reduces sewage to clear water and a biscuit usable as low-grade fertilizer. It can serve only populations of 20,000 or less and could not deal with the amount of sheer litter that accompanies city sewage; but those considerations only support Engels’s case for a society of small communities.

Planned Spread

At the same time as attacking pollution, Engels points to the actual possibilities for decentralizing industry:

“Large-scale industry which has taught us to convert the movement of molecules, which is more or less universally realisable, into the movement of masses for technical purposes, has thereby to a considerable extent freed production from the restrictions of place. Water-power was local; steam-power is free … It is the capitalist mode of its utilisation which concentrates it mainly in the towns and changes factory villages into factory towns.”

(ibid., p.324)

For steam, electric power must now largely be substituted; but Engels’s remarks remain true. The economics of capitalism have led to even greater concentration of industry in and around major towns, and government attempts to have it re-located have been conspicuously unsuccessful. There are some examples whore decentralization has suited companies (such as Pye’s small electronics factories in villages), but they are exceptional.

Engels saw that capitalism had, in his own day, made the break-up of town agglomerations possible but impractical for its own purposes. To bring it to actuality, and end the innumerable existing problems, society must be reorganized:

“Once more, only the abolition of the capitalist character of modern industry can do away with this new vicious circle, this contradiction in modem industry, which is constantly reproducing itself. Only a society which makes possible the harmonious co-operation of its productive forces on the basis of one single vast plan can allow industry to settle in whatever form of distribution over the whole country is best adapted to its own development and the maintenance of development of the other elements of production.”

Greater Competence

What is specially important about these passages is that they present the dispersal of industry and the big city, and the ending of pollution, not as a simple-life dream but as a theory of social organization — based on the achievements of capitalism itself. “The technical basis of modern industry is revolutionary”, said Engels. In the same light, the abolition of the division of labour is not simply a cry for humanity but a leap to an immensely more competent organization of society. Marx put it:

“Modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer . . . We have seen how this absolute contradiction . . . vents its rage in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working class, in the most reckless squandering of labour power and in the devastation caused by social anarchy.” (Capital, Vol. 1, p.460)

With the ending of the division of labour, the “opposition” between town and country gives place to their fusion. The two human natures become the one, Marx’s “mere fragment of a man” replaced by his “fully developed individual … to whom the different social functions he performs are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers”.

Villages of the Future

Engels went on to suggest, from his own analysis and from the projections made by Fourier and Owen (both of whom were conscious of the effects of the division of labour), how life and labour would be in Socialism. He approved their idea of social groups of between 1,600 and 3,000 people — good-sized villages. The closest thing to a town would be four or five of these situated near one another. Every person would work in both agriculture and industry, and young people would be given all-round training so as to incorporate “the greatest possible variety of occupation for each individual”. The country would become an integral part of everyone’s activity — not as a playground and a different place, but as a productive force and a source of pleasure simultaneously.

This was both practical and urgently necessary to Marx and Engels. The problems of the present day are not new, but were considered by them in their view of society. The country’s dilemmas are also the town’s; in The Housing Problem Engels shows how the town-country antithesis blocks attempts to deal with that chronic social misery. The solutions he and Marx gave remain the only workable ones — and needed all the more urgently today.

Leave a Reply