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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 66December 2017

Richard Levins, ecological agriculture, and revolutionary optimism

Summary: Decaying capitalism threatens the social and environmental foundations of human existence. Ecological agriculture can play an important role in reversing the destruction, and achieving social and environmental sustainability. The working class must take power to support and guide it. With Richard Levins’ assistance, ecological agriculture was pioneered in Cuba, guided by the Communist Party and Marxism. Ecological agriculture could also provide the key to land reform today. This is the central democratic task of national liberation, the sickle in the hammer and sickle. At one time, land reform meant “land to the tiller”. This certainly held in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. But since the 1950s, capitalism has thrown hundreds of millions off the land, often into atomized life in slums. Ecological agriculture and its associated cooperatives, and possibly agrotowns, may provide the template for the “new land reform.” China has begun evaluating ecological agriculture. Richard Levins’ “red DNA” will help green the planet.

Choking in its own wastes, decaying capitalism threatens the social and environmental foundations of human existence. Sudden failures, such as in Syria, Libya, Yemen, the Congo (starting in 1991 and ongoing) – and for that matter the fall of the Soviet Union and eleven other states formed by socialist revolutions – reflect massive, unresolved global contradictions. To move these contradictions productively, suitable forms must be built or rebuilt.

Revolutionary optimism implies confidence that the workers of the world can lead successful completion of humanity’s transition from capitalism to socialism. It will take conscious reunification of the working class and Communist Parties, applying the lessons from our errors and failures, and building on workers’ historic accomplishments.

Ecological agriculture is one of those historic accomplishments.[1] It points to methods, forms and practices essential to stop and reverse capitalism’s poisoning of human relations as well as of nature.

My teacher and friend, Richard Levins, who died in January 2016, advanced ecological agriculture in theory and practice. For half a century, he worked with Cuban state institutions, the Communist Party, scientists and ordinary farmers. His work reflects a profound integration of Marxism. His contributions ranged from theoretical design to physically nudging ants onto farm fields.

Richard Levins’ advantage in science and humour

My relation with Dick contained the ingredients for bad bourgeois jokes – “A Jew and a Palestinian walk into a bar ...”. Bring in Marxism, however, and there was the basis for wonderful insights and humour.

When we met, Dick proudly identified as a “third-generation Red”. His parents and grandparents had been in the Communist movement. His father was a founding member of the Young Communist League of the CPUSA. (A few years before he died, he announced that he actually was “a fourth-generation Red”! His daughter Aurora had discovered that some of his great-grandparents had been part of a movement that fed into the Bolshevik party!)

All that Marxist DNA, I once teased Dick, gave him an unfair advantage in science. He nodded agreement. The same genes, I continued, also gave him an unfair advantage in humour. He was lightning-fast in seeing the contradictions in developments big and small – and to bring out the humour in them when appropriate. Who could keep up with him? Yet he worked, spoke and corresponded with the humblest, and was a unifying figure in the labor and environmental movement.

The hammer and sickle – 1871 to 1949

In addition to producing food and other agricultural products sustainably, ecological agriculture may also prove critical for a central task of socialist revolutions and the liberation of oppressed nations: land reform.

Land reform is the sickle in the hammer and sickle. To take power, the working class needs to ally with oppressed to seize the land from the exploiters and their Wall Street backers, and place it in the hands of those who will work and protect it.

At one time, land reform meant “land to the tiller”. Rising capitalism had cruelly pushed millions off the land and into proletarian existence; the majority of those still working the land did so at the mercy of landlords and richer peasants and farmers.

“Land to the tiller” was an appropriate Communist call, from the Paris Commune (1871, the Commune’s failure to raise it was a factor in its defeat), to the Russian Revolution (100 years ago!), through the Vietnamese (1945), Korean (1948) and Chinese Revolutions (1949).

Ecological agriculture and the hammer and sickle today

Conditions have changed. The exploiters in recent decades have been capitalizing agriculture, using industrial methods, debt and pricing measures that are extraordinarily destructive socially as well as environmentally.

Many farmers have fallen into debt peonage – in India alone, debt has pushed perhaps three million farmers to suicide in the past three decades. The debt was often less than $200.

In addition, hundreds of millions of farmers, peasants and rural proletarians have been pushed off the land since the 1950s. Most of the displaced have fallen into utter destitution, often in slums, joining laid-off workers in a horrible atomized existence. (The book Planet of Slums by Mike Davis provides a remarkable summary of changes from the 1950s into the early 2000s.)

People of oppressed nations have formed a majority of those displaced from the land. This has included African-Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, and native peoples in the USA. Many of the displaced continue to long for land, even decades after they were pushed off.

But for the majority, there can be no going back to “land to (individual) tillers”. Why? Even short separation from the land can make it difficult, even impossible, to work it productively. In addition, it is not in the interest of humanity to recreate the social isolation, harsh labor, and unsustainable practices of peasants and farmers working individually.

Ecological agriculture can help the working class develop solutions to extraordinarily difficult problems of national oppression created by decaying capitalism. Land reform today demands cooperative approaches. It also requires deliberate, sustained social support to meet a wide range of human needs on a national and ultimately international scale.

Only the working class in power can provide the necessary direction and support, as the Cuban state demonstrated in the 1990s. Ecological agriculture, for example, requires setting land aside for forests and protection of rivers and shorelines. Who will pay the farmer whose land is turned to forest or otherwise removed from production?

Ecological agriculture requires rotation of crops. Some crops bring better incomes than others. Who will cover the difference? The exploiters won’t. Ecological agriculture requires introduction of fungi to replace synthetic fertilizers, various insects to control pests. Who will supply them if they are not profitable by capitalist standards?[2]

Sustainable agricultural practices also require comprehensive planning and organization of resources on a regional level, with informed input, control and interest from below. The land reform, the ensuing support, the planning, the allocation of resources – these can only come from a working class struggling for power, and taking power.

With the associated cooperatives for production, processing and distribution, ecological agriculture points the path forward. Progress will come step by step. Cuba has pioneered.

Ecological agriculture can help advance historic goals of Marxism

Ecological agriculture can also help the majority of humans, not only displaced peasants and farmers, become engaged in agricultural production. This includes so many city residents long separated from physical labor by capitalism.

Humans have a profound need to contribute to our society physically as well as intellectually. But if the physical labor is mercilessly hard, poorly compensated, dangerous and mind-numbing, we will try to avoid it. The resources exist to address this challenge!

Richard Levins agreed that ecological agriculture can play an important role in advancing historic goals of the Communist movement. Among these are overcoming the opposition between city and countryside and between intellectual and manual labor, and the inequality between nations, and between men and women. Dick paid particular attention to the last of those.

Why didn’t Richard Levins “export” ecological agriculture to puerto Rico?

Dick once told me his happiest years were those he spent in Puerto Rico. He retained a deep love for that beautiful island, colonized by US imperialism the same year it invaded Cuba. Why didn’t Dick “export” ecological agriculture from Cuba to nearby Puerto Rico?

The answer is that Puerto Rico is still under capitalist rule. And capitalism is simply incapable of implementing ecological agriculture. Isolated insights may develop in agro-ecology, localized efforts may be attempted here and there.

But only a state of the working class can give ecological agriculture the necessary support and protection. Even then, it poses quite a challenge. For a thousand reasons, even the most radical capitalist countries, such as Venezuela after 1999, are unable to do what Cuba put into practice in the 1990s. The working class has to take power. Today, China, Vietnam, People’s Korea and Laos are capable of emulating Cuba. Progress elsewhere awaits the expression of working class power.

Agrotowns

In recent years, Dick and I often talked about agrotowns. Agrotowns were proposed but not implemented in the Soviet Union. They were envisioned to establish close, stable combinations of food and raw-material production with processing, and also be centres of education and culture.

With ecological agriculture and new technologies correctly adapted for production and distribution, agrotowns can win youth back to agriculture. Attracting youth will be a key test! Experimentation in agrotowns by China, Vietnam, Cuba and other states of the working class can point the way forward for the “new land reform”, for the liberation of oppressed nations, and establishing socially and environmentally sustainable practices.

Richard Levins, farmer and Marxist

Dick was arguably the most important published scientist in the US, certainly the most consistent across vast fields – and one of the least-known. All three were due to his commitment to Marxism in theory, in practice, in life, in his infinite curiosity, his openness to the truth and to correction of error.

He turned down membership in the US National Academy of Sciences because of its complicity with the Pentagon. Thereafter, the bourgeois press all but “disappeared” him, rarely quoting him while turning to lesser specialists. Yet his contributions to humanity are foundational, and will remain, like Darwin’s or J B S Haldane’s.

Dick’s integration of Marxist method is evident in all his work, in ecology, agriculture, evolutionary theory, mathematical biology, public health, economics, philosophy, and beyond. Well over 400 of his articles and books have been published, and more await publication. One of the unpublished works is a “cold-war” novel set in Cuba, completed shortly before he died. The butler did not do it.

A member of the Young Communist League of the CPUSA, Dick worked hard to build the Communist Party in Puerto Rico, where he lived in McCarthyite exile in the 1950s and 1960s. Forced to farm on mountainous land in Puerto Rico, he was proud that he and his wife Rosario Morales won second prize for their carrots. That farming experience also set the stage for some of his most productive scientific insights.

The Communist Manifesto brought us together

We were neighbors and passing acquaintances in Cambridge, Mass. But it took Cuba to connect us. The setting was a February 1998 symposium in Havana to mark the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.

Such an occasion calls for grandiose talks. Dick’s choice of topics was really moving. He analyzed the contradictions that “ordinary” Cuban hotel workers were now facing with the re-opening of Cuba’s tourist industry during the Special Period. He spoke without notes, in flawless Spanish, wearing a soiled t-shirt – he had come directly from the field, where he was working on ecological measures to control citrus rust. His 1998 presentation is worth reprinting today.

The Manifesto is the only object buried with him, at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Dick’s children saw to that.

The architecture to complete the historic transition

After some hesitation, Dick accepted my argument that the decisive preparations to complete humanity’s historic transition would take place among the Communist Parties of the world, including the Communist Party of China. (The hesitation was in part because he had entertained the incorrect belief, propagated by Monthly Review among others, that the Chinese state was now capitalist.)

Once he accepted this argument, Dick moved seamlessly from the architecture of ecological agriculture to the architecture to complete humanity’s historic transition (which will incorporate ecological agriculture!).

Dick also accepted that labor unions would play a key role in overcoming the gap that has developed between most CPs and the mass of workers. He understood that unions formed or transformed by the Communist Parties had a special place. Today, these include the unions of Cuba, China, and Vietnam, as well as many unions in capitalist countries, including the Union of Electrical Workers (UE) and the United Steelworkers (USW) in the US. Some of these unions are grouped in the World Federation of Trade Unions.

Dick supported the proposition that cooperation on necessary tasks would play an essential role in rebuilding international working-class solidarity. In US-China Labor meetings convened in Boston starting in 2007, we agreed on three such tasks.

These were environmental tasks; international labor defense of political prisoners; and organizational tasks, such as unionizing the unorganized and overcoming organizational weaknesses. Despite Dick’s failing health and many commitments, he avidly followed our meetings. He proposed adding a fourth task, union cooperation on tasks of occupational safety and health, a proposal we accepted.

Reviving international labor defense

Dick encouraged efforts to revive International Labor Defense. ILD had organized mass campaigns as well as legal defense of the “Scottsboro Boys” in the 1930s. ILD helped build the Sharecroppers Unions, defended sugar workers in Cuba and helped form the Communist Party of Cuba.

Dick welcomed an August 2015 statement by the Cuba Five in support of reviving ILD, and put in his own moving words: “The ILD not only allowed workers all over the world to join forces in the face of repression but also get to know each other as allies, share our knowledge, feel victories or defeats anywhere in the world as our own. Its rebirth now reminds us of our history of solidarity.”[3]

Environmental insecurity of life is a revolutionary factor

A certain amount of insecurity is inescapable, even desirable. But under capitalism, it becomes monstrous. Advances in science and technology make it worse.

Insecurity of life then becomes a revolutionary factor. Even anti-communist historians of the Russian Revolution have admitted that the insecurity of life under capitalism was a major factor in the Bolshevik victory 100 years ago.

In the days of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the insecurity seemed “personal” – Will I have a job tomorrow? Will there be enough food to feed the family? Such insecurity has hardly disappeared.

Now humanity is conscious that it also faces an existential insecurity – Will there be air that humans can breathe, water we can drink, a climate we can survive? The enormous damage to biodiversity gives reason to ask – Could the web of life, and with it agriculture, disintegrate? Just the decline of various pollinators, from bees to bats, is reason for immense concern. This insecurity can be a world-revolutionary factor! Ecological agriculture under working class guidance points the way out.

Communist parties have a responsibility to explain that capitalism is incapable of stopping the destruction!

Freedom is the recognition of necessity. Communist Parties have a responsibility to explain that the capitalist class is not simply unwilling, it is incapable of halting social and environmental destruction. We must also explain why and how the working class can stop this destruction.[4] Dick strongly agreed with this.

Certainly the resources to stop the destruction exist. But it is beyond capitalism’s capacity to mobilize them. There are profound material reasons for its impotence. They range from the deepening social and individual poverty and debt plaguing the capitalist world, to private ownership of land, to the periodic crises and wars that make planning impossible. Capitalist mis-education and its pervasive distortion and denials of reality, its dishonest social and environmental accounting, its top-down-only functioning – all guarantee capitalist impotence.

Humans as productivores

Dick believed that what distinguished today’s Homo sapiens from the 23 or so lines of extinct humans, and from other species, is that we are “productivores”: we learned to produce most of the food we eat. Because capitalism has separated the majority of humans from agricultural production, few realize how destructive agriculture has become.

As currently practiced in most of the world, agriculture has become humanity’s single most destructive activity – socially, nutritionally and environmentally. Agriculture currently accounts for half or more of all poisoning of nature worldwide – not only the rapid disruption of climate that the capitalists now single out, but also the damage to biodiversity, the wasting of soil, the poisoning and other damage to rivers, groundwater, oceans, all life. Even though food production has not crashed, honest scientists are in agreement that today’s practices are unsustainable.

Agriculture was recently found to account for half or more of urban surface-air pollution. Emissions from synthetic fertilizers and farm animals combine with industrial and vehicle pollution to create the deadly PM2.5 particles plaguing cities in North America, Europe and China.[5]

Ecological agriculture can greatly reduce this poisoning of nature. But capitalism can’t practice it. Capitalist Sweden cannot do it. It will take working class power in Sweden, Venezuela, Haiti, Brazil, Congo, India, the USA, to achieve what Cuba has. Vietnam, People’s Korea, China and Laos on the other hand are capable of making significant advances. (Laos is pioneering in Asia.)

Communist Parties in capitalist countries have a responsibility to explain why capitalism is incapable of halting social and environmental damage, and why the working class can. Communist Parties in power also have a responsibility to follow Cuba’s lead in advancing ecological agriculture and associated cooperatives. In addition, Communist Parties in power are in a position to experiment with agrotowns.

After the Russian Revolution, with farming consisting mainly of individual plots, the Bolsheviks understood that building cooperatives would require stepwise development. The first step was cooperation in purchasing, which provides the greatest benefits – lower prices, reduced time – while demanding minimal trust. Subsequent steps are cooperation in obtaining credit, then in selling, and only finally in production (collectives). Cooperatives in start-up agrotowns will differ in their necessary steps and management, and will require experimentation and learning.

China to begin evaluating ecological agriculture

In late April 2017, the president of the Academy of Marxism in Beijing, Deng Chundong, agreed to begin an evaluation of ecological agriculture in Cuba as it might be implemented in China. Beijing Normal University professors Wu Xiangdong and Tian Song prepared the ground.

Cuban ecologist Miguel Vales Garcia, temporarily living in China, made key contributions. A member of the Communist Party of Cuba and the Cuban Academy of Sciences, Miguel was one of Richard Levins’ students and “Cuban children”.

With communist direction, the existential insecurity humanity faces today can be turned into overwhelming momentum to complete the transition to socialism. Ecological agriculture, the Cuban state and Communist Party, and Richard Levins, will have played a crucial role.

Red DNA, green planet

As Dick’s heart and lungs failed, he would sometimes go silent and nearly pass out, even in the middle of meals.

Not long before his death, I came to visit him on my bicycle. Between my helmet and riding goggles, I looked like an alien. Dick’s door was open, but he appeared passed out on his bed.

“Knock, knock,” I said, “Do you accept visitors from another planet?”

“Only if it’s the red planet,” came the immediate answer.

Dick’s bright red DNA will spread, making it possible to green the planet.

¡Richard Levins, Presente!

Postscript: Richard Levins and the 2014 changes in US strategy towards Cuba: It is the US that is getting weaker!

In December 2014, the US ruling class announced a new strategy towards working-class Cuba. Dick and I met for breakfast the next morning. We had both come to the same conclusion: the change in strategy was the result of the relative weakening of US imperialism, not of Cuba.

The new strategy posed considerable challenges for the Cuban state, party and people. But it is US imperialism that is weakening. Our assessment was based in part on studies of “changes in US social contradictions” initiated a few years earlier by the Academy of Marxism of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In just four years, 2007 to 2011, US industrial production had plummeted from 160% of China’s to 81%. This dramatic change was the combined result of the general crisis of capitalism and the rapid growth possible in a state formed by a socialist revolution, like China. (The statistics, which come from the UN, are actually biased towards the US; this is because the UN uses capitalist ‘value added’ calculations that accept monopoly pricing of commodities as honest.) In addition, the indications are that the overall productivity of labor in manufacturing in China had surpassed the US.

In addition, the tiny US ruling class was greatly weakened domestically. To save itself after the crisis in 2007-8, the ruling class had frontally attacked its own social base, lesser exploiters. Business bankruptcies tripled between 2006 and 2010. The average income of “the 1%” (the top 1% in the US, composed of lesser exploiters) fell 19% between 2007 and 2014. The income of the top 0.01% fell 27%.

By 2009, lesser exploiters were going into rebellion – the “Tea Party” was an early expression. A related development was that ruling class loss of credibility with a large portion of the US population – “NAFTA will make you rich”, “Invading Iraq will free you of terrorism”, etc.

Dick died before Donald Trump’s election, another expression of the still-unfolding rebellion of lesser exploiters. Trump is violating the ruling class’s “grand strategies”, further weakening imperialism.

Dick understood the implications of the weakening. Few things in history, he said, have been more dangerous than a weakened but well-armed ruling class.

We would be foolish to ignore the danger, even more foolish to ignore the weakness – and to ignore the strengths and accomplishments of the international working class. Ecological agriculture is one of those accomplishments.


Special thanks to Sandy Rosen, John Womack, Jr., Eric Brooks, Donald Donato, Marc Brodine, Tom Whitney, and other comrades and friends of the CPUSA and the Center for Marxist Education; to Miguel Vales Garcia of the Communist Party of Cuba and the Institute of Ecology and Systematics, Havana; to comrades Deng Chundong and Liu Zixu of the Communist Party of China and the Academy of Marxism, Beijing; and to professors Wu Xiangdong and Tian Song of Beijing Normal University.

[1] Other major accomplishments of the working class include Marxism, socialist revolutions and the states formed by them; and Communist Parties and unions worldwide. More than 70 Communist Parties are in existence today. These meet in annual International Meetings of Communist and Workers Parties. A growing number of CPs are also meeting in annual World Socialism forums in Beijing. Today there are five states where the working class holds power through its organizations. In order of formation, these are Vietnam, People’s Korea, China, Cuba and Laos. There were seventeen such states before counter-revolutions brought down the Soviet Union, Albania, Yugoslavia, etc. It is not by accident that ecological agriculture was developed in one of these states, one that survived the upheavals.

[2] Richard Levins wrote a few summaries of the social and scientific foundations of ecological agriculture in Cuba. See, for example, “How Cuba is Going Ecological” in Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol.16, Number 3, September 2005.

[3] (The Cuba 5 and Dick’s statements for International Labor Defense can be found at https://www.internationallabordefense.org/single-post/2017/06/29/The-Rebirth-of-International-Labor-Defense.)

[4] Some of the reasons why capitalism is incapable of halting the destruction are summarized by this author in “Ten Considerations: The Political Economy of Scientific Development in this Epoch,” Economic Study of Shanghai School, Volume 23, 2008 (in Chinese). In 2007, the Communist Party of China committed to scientific development, requiring comprehensive assessments of social and environmental factors to meet human needs. Richard Levins contributed to this paper. A copy in English is available by contacting the author, wah787@yahoo.com.

[5] “Significant atmospheric aerosol pollution [is] caused by world food cultivation”, S.Bauer et al, Geophysical Research Letters, April 2016. The study focused on surface urban air quality, and does not consider the considerable impact of deforestation also associated with capitalist agricultural practices.

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