A Socialist Reading Of Farmers’ Protests Around The World

There is an emerging debate regarding farmers’ protests – and part of the discussion is about whether these protests are the same, ie whether the left can support Third World farmers as well as Western farmers

A Socialist Reading Of Farmers’ Protests Around The World

"Farmers present by themselves the basic force of the national movement. Without farmers there can be no strong national movement. This is what we mean when we say that the nationalist question, is actually, the farmer's question."
This is a really good quote, although I must admit that I don't know its author: some people attribute it to Stalin, although I didn't find this quote in his available texts.

In any case, the genesis of the quote is not important. Instead, what is important is its content and a more general issue, which is the agrarian issue. In the modern world, especially in recent years, this has become very clear. Huge farmers' protests sweep across the world almost every year. We can mention, for example, the gigantic protests of Indian farmers in 2020-2021, opposing the introduction of the Farm Bills, which are scandalous for their living and working conditions, by the Modi government.

Currently, another equally huge wave of farmers' protests is sweeping through India, demanding debt relief, financial security, withdrawal from the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, and settlement of violence against farmers by BJP members during the protests in 2020. On the last issue, it must be noted that the BJP have just fielded the father of the murderer of farmers in the elections to parliament.

In 2022, Pakistan also saw protests by farmers demanding an improvement in their living conditions, including a reduction in energy prices. Currently, the world media are reporting farmers' protests again – and maybe even more than three years ago – but this time in the European Union. European farmers are currently demanding changes to the European ‘Green Deal,’ which will impose high environmental requirements on them. This will include limiting the use of pesticides, imposing the preservation of biodiversity in fields and leaving some agricultural land fallow.

There is an emerging debate on the left regarding the assessment of these farmers’ protests and whether to support them. Part of this discussion is about whether these protests are the same, ie whether the left can support Third World farmers as well as Western farmers. Some say ‘yes,’ arguing that those from Europe are demanding an end to the war in Ukraine, ie they are the ‘axis of resistance.’ Others argue that Western farmers are landowners and ‘kulaks,’ so they do not deserve support because they are in fact an exploiting class  - in the sense that firstly, they monopolized the land, and secondly, they often use immigrants as slaves on their farms. I mention these discussions only to signal such a discourse in the debate, but I will not go into these considerations myself. I think much of the discussion along such lines is nonsensical and ignores the source of the protests and agrarian problems.

Some, for example among the Western left, have completely forgotten about the farmers' protests in the Third World and oppose the farmers' protests because they blame the inflow of cheaper agricultural products from Ukraine to European markets for their problems. These people – considering themselves ‘progressives’ – say that the culprit for the confusion in European food markets is somehow Russia. They argue that as a result of the West imposing sanctions on Russia, it increased the production of artificial fertilizers, which caused them to produce more grain than before and flooded world markets with it, destabilizing them.

This point of view is, in my opinion, equally senseless and, above all, shallow. The real problem in agriculture is capitalism. And only from an anti-capitalist perspective can one refer to the above-mentioned farmer protests and agrarian crises. This perspective will allow us to simultaneously address both protests in the Third World and in the metropolitan regions of global capitalism. The only major distinction is that in the first case, these are mostly small farmers, while in the second they are monopoly farmers. However, both groups face the same challenge: further and deeper monopolization, ie losing competition – which, apart from private ownership and profit maximization, is the basis of the capitalist system. The difference is that there is one problem and it results from capitalism, but it affects farmers at different stages of development in this system.

The transformation of agriculture from small-peasant agriculture, as Stalin wrote, is inevitable. This is not an unjustified claim, if only because small farmers cannot afford (their income is too low) to purchase modern machinery, fertilizers, irrigation technologies and other facilities that improve crop yield.

However, there are two ways to solve this issue:

There is the capitalist way, which is to make agriculture large-scale by implanting capitalism in agriculture—a way which leads to the impoverishment of the peasantry and to the development of capitalist enterprises in agriculture.

There is another way: the socialist way, which is to introduce collective farms and state farms into agriculture, the way which leads to uniting the small peasant farms into large collective farms, employing machinery and scientific methods of farming, and capable of developing further, for such farms can achieve expanded reproduction.

One more reservation should be remembered, mentioned by Stalin: there is no (and cannot be) a third way, for that is an extremely utopian approach.

Some – even people who call themselves Marxists – show an extremely barbaric attitude on this issue, saying that "this capitalist path is inevitable, and we cannot do certain things instead of capitalism, we have to let it do its job." Not only is this cowardice, but it is also an extremely non-materialistic approach. This is because as the world's population grows, we need to increase agricultural production to feed millions more people.

Currently almost 700 million people around the world live today in extreme poverty. A child dies from hunger every 10 seconds. Poor nutrition and hunger is responsible for the death of 3.1 million children a year. That is nearly half of all deaths in children under the age of 5. The children die because their bodies lack basic nutrients. Globally, 822 million people suffer from undernourishment.

However, I am not trying to follow the path of moral arguments here. Poverty or death from hunger is not just a matter of morality or humanism. This is an important economic issue, because a well-nourished, educated, healthy society becomes much more productive. It is able to progress instead of regressing. Choosing the capitalist path and “letting the inevitable happen" will only result in more people in the world being driven into extreme poverty, which will cause further global and regional economic crises, which will have a domino effect of pushing even greater masses of people into poverty.

The amount of wasted potential – and yet capitalism is considered an "ultra-productive" system – is terrifying. This is clearly seen in the example of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is currently in a civil war supported by foreign corporations wanting to take control of the local natural resources. Nearly 22 million people in the DRC struggle with hunger and malnutrition. Meanwhile, the DRC has over 80 million hectares of arable land, of which less than 10% is currently used. The diversity of climates, supported by an important hydrographic network, allows for a variety of agricultural speculations. The meadows and savannahs can support a population of approximately 40 million cattle. Tropical forests, which cover 135 million hectares, or 52% of the territory, represent an important reserve of biodiversity and the potential for forest-friendly products. Although irrigation potential is estimated at 4 million hectares, the practice is still modest today. The fishing potential in the Congolese part of the Atlantic Ocean, the Congo River, and all lakes, is estimated at 707,000 tons of fish per year. Thus, properly (ie socialistically) managed agriculture in the Democratic Republic of Congo would be able to feed almost 2 billion people – more than the population of the entire Africa!

As Prabhat Patnaik writes: "In the era of monopoly capitalism, there is an attack by monopoly capital on petty-production, including peasant agriculture, so that the peasants have to fight not only against the landlords, as before, but also against the monopoly capitalists, the most "advanced" part of society."

Someone may be outraged when I say why I agreed with Stalin earlier that there is no middle way between capitalism and socialism when it comes to agriculture (in fact, arguably in other fields too). Another question remains: "So what to do?" I think that in the quoted fragment, Stalin also answered what to do – and it is quite an obvious solution. Only building a collective agricultural system supervised by a socialist state is a realistic solution that will spare immense suffering to the masses.

Half-measures, such as state subsidies for agriculture, only solve some contradictions but create others that are equally unpleasant and have tragic consequences. So it is also a capitalist path – only in a cheap mask with "human features". The best example of this is the European Union.

“The EU spends more than a third of its budget on agricultural subsidies every year. It is the largest item in the budget […] Direct payments to farmers are intended to compensate for losses incurred in the sale of agricultural products, for example due to low market prices. The amount is calculated per hectare of agricultural land. So if you have more, you get more. In daily work, however, it makes a considerable difference how large a farm is. Those with more land usually have the corresponding machinery - and thus need less labour.

Small farmers cannot survive on the sale of their agricultural products alone. They are dependent on subsidies. In small-scale farming, up to two-thirds of income comes from subsidies. At the same time, these small farms are essential for promoting structural change in agriculture.”

The consequence of the EU subsidy system is the deepening monopolization of agriculture. Smaller farmers go out of business over time because subsidies are not sufficient to cover the rising costs of farming. What is wrong with that? Well, these smaller farmers become the proletariat – which increases unemployment and also pushes these farmers into poverty, debt convection of retraining, etc.

Over time, this policy will lead to the almost complete elimination of farmers. That is why farmers in the EU are currently protesting because, compared to those in India, they are big monopolists, kulaks, landowners and the "agrarian bourgeoisie". Yes, that is partly true, but they also face the threat of disappearance. They will sooner or later be swallowed up – like farmers in the US – by mega-corporations like Monsanto. With this process, they will be pushed to the fate of essentially agricultural workers in the service of the corporations.

As Prof Usta Patnaik writes: "Food security for developing countries is too important an issue to be left to the global market." And of course, agricultural subsidies are essential. They can solve – or at least alleviate in the transitional period – the contradiction between the proletarian and the peasant. A contradiction consists in the fact that the farmer wants to earn as much as possible by selling his agricultural produce, while the proletarian wants to buy these products as cheaply as possible. However, if these subsidies are implemented in a capitalist system (ie based on the possibility of selling land or even selling the right to use land, which we must also classify as a capitalist phenomenon), they will lead to the consequences mentioned above in the example of the European Union.

The author is a student of law in Poland