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   Vol.65/No.31            August 13, 2001 
 
 
Communism and Labor's Transformation of Nature
Beneath organic farming hype is hostility to science alien to interests of workers, farmers
First of four parts
 
BY STEVE CLARK  
Karl Butts makes a good point concerning the final paragraph of an article in the July 2 issue of the Militant. Paraphrasing an interview with the director of an urban vegetable-growing cooperative in Havana, correspondent Joel Britton wrote that "the director explained that as in other large urban gardens they began using substitutes for chemical pesticides and fertilizers by necessity during the Special Period, but now it is by choice."

Butts is right in saying that "by reporting this particular statement" at the conclusion of the article, the socialist press can seem to be giving "a certain political weight to the concept of organic production being preferable to that where 'chemicals' are used"--a view that is neither the editorial position of the Militant nor, I believe, the opinion of the author of that article. What's more, Butts points out, readers "may also come away thinking Cuba generally chooses not to use chemicals in agricultural production."

Britton visited Cuba in mid-May as a Militant correspondent to cover the 40th anniversary events of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). Together with Wisconsin dairy farmer Randy Jasper and Carolyn Lane of Minnesota, a member of Food First, Britton also participated in the May 1719 Fourth International Meeting on Organic Agriculture, sponsored by the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians.  
 
Cuba's achievements
As Britton explained in the article in the July 2 issue, "Many of the presentations at the conference centered on how Cuban farmers, supported by the country's revolutionary leadership, responded in the early 1990s to a sharp drop in the availability of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, as well as fuel and parts needed to keep machinery running. Workers and farmers turned decisively to the use of substitutes for fertilizers and pesticides. For example, they began using bagasso, a by-product of sugar production, as fertilizer."

Prior to 1990 trade with the Soviet Union and with other countries in the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance had accounted for 85 percent of Cuba's foreign trade, much of it on favorable terms. With the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR, Cuba no longer had any buffer against the shocks of the world capitalist market. Over these same years, both Republican and Democratic administrations intensified Washington's economic warfare against Cuba as well.

During the hardest years of that crisis in the opening half of the 1990s, for example, farm-related consumption of diesel fuel and other petroleum-based energy sources was cut in half in Cuba--forcing farmers to idle tractors and other machinery and build up the nation's ox herd. The application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides dropped by 80 percent. Imports of wheat and other grains fell by 50 percent, and the drop-off in many other imported food products was even steeper.

As Britton explained, one important way the revolutionary government responded to the resulting food shortages was through organizing working people to establish urban gardens--often established as cooperatives--to produce vegetables and fruits for an expanding network of farmers markets in Havana and other cities. During the trip, Britton and other conference participants visited three such gardens in the Havana area organized as Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs).

More than 50 percent of Havana's fresh produce is now provided by these urban gardens, which also provide work for some 60,000 Cubans. Given the large concentrations of people living around the gardens, the Cuban government, as Butts points out in his letter, prohibits the use of certain chemical fertilizers or pesticides within the city limits.

In face of sharply reduced imports as well as national health regulations, the Cuban government over the past decade has organized farmers and workers to use substitute inputs in much of agricultural production. Centers have been established across the island to produce enriched compost and rock phosphates to replace manufactured fertilizers. Natural predators are being used to control pests, together with pesticides and herbicides produced using bacteria and fungi.

Some of these methods presumably have few if any detrimental affects on crop yields and have longer-term benefits for the soil, the water, and the health of human beings and other creatures. Cuba, in fact, has begun selling a line of its biological pesticides and herbicides on the world market under the brand name Biasav.  
 
No 'Golden Age'
As Butts points out, however, it is simply false that "Cuba generally chooses not to use chemicals in agricultural production." Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are used in the production of Cuba's main export crop--sugar--as well as in the cultivation of rice, coffee, potatoes, and many other commodities.

Moreover, as improved economic conditions enable them to do so, the Cuban government and people will undoubtedly choose to return to the use of farm inputs and technologies that are safe, that increase the productivity of farm labor and reduce its backbreaking character, and that feed and clothe more people at lower cost.

In the name of protecting the environment, and sometimes in the name of defending the Cuban Revolution as well, some organizations and individuals in bourgeois and petty bourgeois political circles turn the crisis measures Cubans have been forced to take into some kind of return to an idyllic Golden Age.

An example is a February 2001 article by the CEO of the Vermont-based Gardener's Supply Company. "Cuba leads the developing world," he writes, "in small-scale composting, organic soil reclamation, irrigation and crop rotation research, animal powered traction (oxen) and other innovative practices."

To be sure, the accomplishments of Cuban workers and farmers during and after the Special Period offer striking confirmation of their commitment to the socialist revolution. What they achieved in face of onerous economic and social conditions is inconceivable in any other country in the world today.

While the harnessing of oxen to plow fields was an "innovative practice" in humanity's Neolithic Period 6,000 years ago, however, few if any Cuban toilers today would call it anything but a dire necessity--one they intend to put behind them as soon as conditions allow.  
 
What does 'organic' mean?
The matters raised by Butts, however, go beyond the agricultural policies of the Cuban Revolution over the past decade. They pose one of the most fundamental questions of communist theory and practice: the transformation of nature by social labor, without which the fight by the working class to put an end to all forms of exploitation and oppression is a utopian illusion.

Karl Marx, the founding central leader of the modern revolutionary workers movement, wrote in Capital that

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. He develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power. (Capital, vol. 1, Penguin Classics edition, p. 283.)

As Butts says, the concept of organic farming as somehow inherently superior to the use of synthetic inputs in agriculture is scientifically false and thus contrary to the interests of the great toiling majority of humanity. He urges the socialist press not "to give any credence to this marketing ploy."

When statements that were open to misinterpretation along these lines were made by a couple of participants in a national leadership meeting of the Socialist Workers Party in late May, SWP national secretary Jack Barnes addressed them in his summary report to the gathering.

"What has 'organic' come to mean when used in reference to food?" Barnes said. "It means 'more expensive'--that's what it means. All products of human labor under capitalism are turned into commodities. So, when you see something at the grocery store christened as 'organic,' that simply means the U.S. Department of Agriculture has OK'd slapping a label on it enabling the marketing monopolies to put a higher price tag on it too."

A decade ago so-called organic foods could be found only in specialized "natural foods" shops catering to a small, largely middle-class market (the prices were even relatively higher back then). Today, however, virtually every one of the major food monopolies has bought up small businesses and launched its own product line. General Mills, Gerber's, Dole, Heinz, ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland--all have their own "organic" brand names, selling at a premium price to a growing niche market in major grocery chains.

(Revolutionary Cuba itself has been able to tap into this niche to offset at least a tiny portion of its losses from the declining price of sugar on the world capitalist market. Recently Cuba has begun cultivating a small quantity of sugar using only biological inputs that it sells--well above standard commodity prices--to fancy European chocolatiers and purveyors of packaged brown sugar.)

From its origins in the mid-19th century, organic farming as "a cause"--as opposed to this or that particular method of cultivation--has been associated with a suspicion of science and technology among layers of the middle class and bohemian bourgeois circles. Many of its champions in the opening five or six decades of the 20th century were also affiliated to the ultraright. They shared kinship with the right-wing conspiracy theorists of the 1950s and 1960s who campaigned to stop the fluoridation of water and toothpaste--an effort that has been revived in recent years with the backing of Ralph Nader and some other bourgeois figures parading as "environmentalists."  
 
How capitalism works
"When class-conscious workers and farmers speak of 'sustainable' agriculture," Barnes said at the May SWP leadership meeting, "what we're aiming to sustain is the transformation of nature by human labor to meet social needs."

Given the competition of capitals and imperatives of war-related research and development in the imperialist system, Barnes said, nothing is going to stop the application of science and new technologies to both industrial and agricultural production. At the same time, nothing is going to stop the allocation of capital to maximize the rulers' short-term extraction of surplus value, not to advance human health, welfare, or long-term social goals of any kind.

Since all commodities under capitalism are produced and marketed with profits in mind--not their utility to human beings--all of them, "whether 'natural' or 'synthetic,' are subject to poisons, contamination, or shoddy workmanship," Barnes pointed out.

These political questions had been addressed by Barnes in a section of his 1999 book, Capitalism's World Disorder: Working-Class Politics at the Millennium. "True environmental horrors are accelerating under capitalism today (and the Stalinist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR are responsible for unthinkable devastation as well)," Barnes wrote. "Revolutionary governments of the workers and farmers can and will reverse this deadly course." (Capitalism's World Disorder, Pathfinder Press, p. 301)

Both in that book and in his May 2001 report to the SWP National Committee, Barnes pointed out that "Marx and Engels wrote powerfully and convincingly about capital's destruction of the soil, the water, the air, and the basis for human life and civilization." Even before they had fully developed their proletarian world outlook, Barnes said, each of them as revolutionary-minded young people had been profoundly affected by what they saw all around them--whether in the newly industrializing German Rhineland where they grew up, or during trips to Great Britain where the factory system was the most advanced in the world--of the toll capitalism was taking on the nutrition and sanitary conditions of the working class and on the fouling of the natural environment.

That's why already in 1845, when Marx and Engels were both in their 20s and still three years away from joining a workers organization and helping draft its program, the Communist Manifesto, they observed that in the development of capitalism "there comes a stage when productive forces...are brought into being which, under the existing relations, only cause mischief and are no longer productive but destructive forces." (The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5, p. 52.)

To be continued next week
 
 
Related article:
Cuban farms, world hunger  
 
 
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