The Chemistry of Farming - Book Review

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Apr 24 13:50:07 MDT 2001

>This is a concept that I don't understand well -- what exactly do you mean
>you pick up Marx's phrase, and what do you think Marx meant?

Europe confronted a general crisis of soil fertility in the period from
1830 to 1870. The depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as
capitalist agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took
place on small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or
horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the
soil's nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture
turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated livestock
production from grain and food production, the organic cycle was broken and
the soil gradually lost its fertility.

The need to artificially replenish the soil's nutrients led to scientific
research into the problem. Justin Von Liebeg was one of the most important
thinkers of the day and he was the first to posit the problem in terms of
the separation between the city and the countryside.

While the research proceeded, the various capitalist powers sought to gain
control over new sources of fertilizers. This explains "guano imperialism,"
which I referred to in my post on Peru the other day. England brought Peru
into its neocolonial orbit because it was the most naturally endowed
supplier of bird dung in the world. In 1847, 227 thousand tons of guano
were imported from Peru into England. This commodity was as important to
England's economy as silver and gold were in previous centuries.

There was also a desperate search for bones. Over a ten year period, the
value of English imports rose from 14,000 pound sterling to 254,000.
Raiding parties were dispatched to battlefields to scavenge bodies of dead
soldiers. Their bones were desperately needed to replenish sterile soil.

The United States followed suit. There had been a big crisis in upstate NY
and the mid-Atlantic states in the mid 1800s. This prompted Congress to
pass the "Guano Act" of 1856, which eventually led to the seizure of 94
islands in the Pacific Ocean, rich sources of guano.

Von Liebeg theorized that such measures would eventually fall short. Even
with such substitutes, the soil tended to lose its nutrient properties so
long as the artificial divide between town and countryside was maintained.
Not only was the countryside losing its productivity, the town was being
swamped with human waste which was no longer being recycled. London had
such a terrible problem with open sewers that Parliament was forced to
relocate to a location outside the city during the summer months. The
stench was unbearable.

The neo-Classical economists tended to view soil fertility as a given, like
some kind of natural law. Ricardo and Malthus both regarded it as an
exhaustible resource. Thus, the problem of overpopulation was tightly
coupled to the existing practices of capitalist agriculture, which was to
exploit the soil and then abandon it when it lost its fertility. This has
been the main character of Malthusianism until the modern era. It accepts
the limits imposed by the capitalist mode of production as eternal.

Scientists like Von Liebeg, on the other hand, supported the notion of soil
improvement. This meant looking at the relationship between society and
nature in ecological terms. The solution to the problem was the
reintegration of the town and country. This overlapped with Marx's own
exploration of the problems in Capital. In volume three of Capital, the
discussion of farming is framed within this general dialectic. Soil
fertility could only be ensured over the long run through the abolition of
the capitalist system, which would allow food production to take place
along sound, ecological guidelines.

The concluding paragraphs of the chapter on "The Transformation of Surplus
Profit into Ground-Rent" in V. 3 of Capital are a succinct description of
the problematic:

"All criticism of small-scale landownership is ultimately reducible to
criticism of private property as a barrier and obstacle to agriculture. So
too is all counter-criticism of large landed property. Secondary political
considerations are of course left aside here in both cases. It is simply
that this barrier and obstacle which all private property in land places to
agricultural production and the rational treatment, maintenance and
improvement of the land itself, develops in various forms, and in
quarreling over these specific forms of the evil its ultimate root is

"Small-scale landownership presupposes that the overwhelming majority of
the population is agricultural and that isolated labour predominates over
social; wealth and the development of reproduction, therefore, both in its
material and intellectual aspects, is ruled out under these circumstances,
and with this also the conditions for a rational agriculture. On the other
hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever
decreasing minimum and confronts it with an every growing industrial
population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces
conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process
of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life
itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil,
which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.

"If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half
outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with
all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property
undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy
flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital
power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and
industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they
are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and
ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter
does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later
course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture
also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part
provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil."

All that being said, I am not in a position to draw up plans for a future
socialist society and how it handles overcoming the town-country dichotomy.
Suffice it to say that it is an important demand of the Communist Manifesto
and has to be retooled for the year 2001:


Louis Proyect
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