The Abolition of Distinction Between City and Village Life

By Ahmad Ammar

“Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” (Communist Manifesto, 1848)

Marxist literature, particularly the contemporary century old writings of Marx and Engels are as relevant and applicable today, as they were at their time. Not only the economists but scientists, technocrats and social engineers are bound to refer towards Marxism for answers to social questions. Serious conclusions regarding the problems of today are and can only be drawn in their relation to the socioeconomic and material foundation of the human society.

When we think of civilization – towns, cities, skyscrapers and urbanized men come to mind. But between those cities, lie the countryside or villages where 45% of the world’s population resides as of 2016, but the figures are estimated to drop to 40% by 2030. There’s not much talk about the rural life and its future in general, except the environmentalists talking about the adverse effects of the biotech industry’s excessive GMO based drive for short term gains. There are some serious questions to be asked. What is the role of countryside in food production today and what is its relationship with urbanized men?

Contradiction and Conflict between Town and Country

Marx and Engels shed light on the topic. Engels wrote, “The first great division of labour in society is the separation of town and country.” (Anti-Dühring, 1877)

The Origin of the Family, Private. Property and the State is another important document in which Engels writes: “Also characteristic of civilization is the establishment of a permanent opposition between town and country as basis of the whole social division of labour.” (1884)

Discussing the contradiction and conflict between urban and rural life, Marx writes in The German Ideology: “It is 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” (1932)

In other words, the difference in urban and rural labour creates two different types of man w.r.t. their social roles. Two different manifestations of conditioned human nature and labour forms which are intensified by the class society. Marx explains earlier in the same book “Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears,” and continues, “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, 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 herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.” (ibid.)

The result of this specialized labour division is that “It converts the labourer into a crippled monstrosity.” (Das Kapital, Vol. 1, 1867)

The role of Migration

The rural settlers start seeing the townsmen as smart and overpaid men who remain deprived of the organic lifestyle, while the reciprocal view is that of stupid old farmers with white hair. Reason for the acceptance of these views is the conscious or unconscious acceptance of the Migrant Selection theory, which says that the uneducated and poor are negatively selected or accepted, in contrast to their counterparts. Examples of early migrators to America are given as negative selection and that of Parsis, Jews and Indians as positive selection; but still the theory is weak in its arguments and doesn’t explain much. The case of gypsies doesn’t fit into the theory. Moreover, in different social (living and working) conditions, unarguably the weaker migrate and the stronger stay.

Therefore, we have to bring back the labour division into the equation. The different labour types and the associated values were profoundly explained by Engels;

“The artisans of the towns, it is true, had from the first to produce for exchange . . . The first great division of labour, the separation of town and country, condemned the rural population to thousands of years of mental torpidity, and the people of the towns each to subjection to his own individual trade. It destroyed the basis of the intellectual development of the former and the physical development of the latter.” (Anti-Dühring)

This explains a lot. The townsmen’s conception of the villagers is untrue and doesn’t reflect the reality. The scatteredness of the rural settlers has been one of the major reasons for their difficulty to organize for better living conditions. Moreover, since Middle Ages, many rural workers have been forced into servile and non-productive labour such as gardening and domestics.

Environmental Issues

Despite that, the industrial revolutions mechanized the agriculture by penetrating through the rural life as predicted by Marx more than a century ago. Although the mechanization has been incomplete in post-colonial countries where capitalism had a delayed character.

Marx wrote, “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, 1857)

Engels explains that this penetration of industry in the countryside still doesn’t strike the town-country distinction and the division of labour remains intact. “This process can be studied in detail in the textile industry districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire; modern capitalist industry is constantly bringing new large towns into being there [my emphasis] by constant flight from the towns into the country. The situation is similar in the metal-working districts where, in part, other causes produce the same effects.” (Anti-Dühring)

He continues in the same chapter to provide a very modern insight on the problem of pollution. Ecologists, take notes, “The factory town transforms all water into stinking manure. However much therefore urban concentration is a basic condition of capitalist production, each individual industrial capitalist is constantly striving to get away from the large towns necessarily created by this production, and to transfer his plant to the countryside . . . Accordingly, abolition of the antithesis between town and country is not merely possible. It has become a direct necessity of industrial production itself, just as it has become a necessity of agricultural production and, besides, of public health. The present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country; and only such 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 [my emphasis].” (ibid.)

We are not sure what Engels had in his mind here. One example is that of a modern Sludge Dewatering plant, which purifies sewage into clean water and concentrates the impurities into a fertilizer biscuit, and can serve population of a few lacks. But, it’s not feasible at the level of metropolitans and industrial cities considering their staggering waste. However, such inventions are in line with Engel’s support for planned communities.

Planned Industrialization

Engels moves on to discuss the prospects of decentralized industrialization: “Modern industry, which has taught us to convert the movement of molecules, something more or less universally feasible, into the movement of masses for technical purposes, has thereby to a considerable extent freed production from restrictions of locality. Water-power was local; steam-power is free. While water-power is necessarily rural, steam-power is by no means necessarily urban. It is capitalist utilisation which concentrates it mainly in the towns and changes factory villages into factory towns.” (ibid.)

Here, electric power can be substituted at the place of steam, but the rest still holds true. The very nature of capitalist development has concentrated industry in cities and their satellite towns. Governments have only been making noise about relocating industry but mere talk or legislations don’t change the dynamics of a system. However, there are some exceptional cases of corporations which have their small factories and assembly lines in villages and still benefit from this decentralization.

The conditions for the break-up of town-country distinction were ripening but it was getting impracticable within the constraints of market forces. Engels proposed a reorganization of society to get rid of the aforementioned contradictions; “Once more, only the abolition of the capitalist character of modern industry can bring us out of this new vicious circle, can resolve this contradiction in modern industry, which is constantly reproducing itself. Only a society which makes it possible for its productive forces to dovetail harmoniously into each other on the basis of one single vast plan can allow industry to be distributed over the whole country in the way best adapted to its own development, and to the maintenance and development of the other elements of production.” (ibid.)

A Leap Forward

The importance of Engel’s explanation is that the abolition of the distinctions between cities and villages, industry and agriculture, and the solution to environmental problems is not merely a techno-utopia but a social science of reorganization. It stands on the acknowledgement of advancements of capitalism itself, as Engels said, “The technical basis of modern industry is revolutionary.” (ibid.) Similarly, abolishing the division of labour is not just a humanitarian cry but a leap forward to the realm of freedom through an advanced organization of society. Marx writes in the chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry:

“But if modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations. We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, we have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.” (Capital, Vol. 1, 1867)

When these distinctions, divisions and oppositions are done away, in the words of Marx, “mere fragment of a man” ­­will be replaced by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.” (ibid.)

Cities in Future:

Engels, based on his analysis and building up on the works of Utopian Socialists like Owen and Fourier – came up with a description of how life, work and cities would be under socialism. He discussed their idea of towns surrounded by four or five small villages of a few thousand residents. As per it, everyone would work in industry as well as agriculture (as practiced in USSR where even doctors spent some time serving in the farmlands). Youth would be educated “for the utmost possible all-round technical functions” to facilitate “the greatest possible variety of occupation for each individual”. When agriculture would be evenly mechanized, becoming an integral part of the industry being collectively and democratically planned by the masses, alienation and the aforementioned distinctions would wither away.

The approach of Marx and Engels is scientifically practicable in this regard. It clearly shows that the problems under discussion are not new, but had their basis in the fundamental contradictions of capitalism which socialist theoreticians of that time foresaw. In his book ‘The Housing Problem’, Engels wrote on the housing crisis which broke out in Germany in 1870s and the discussion remains quite valid today considering the events like London’s Grenfell Tower Fire. On a different note but American Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said that scientists could have saved a lot of time if they paid attention to Engels.

Today, considering the developments in the science of regional planning – under a collectively and rationally planned economy, new autonomous cities can be built from the ground up where most urgent human needs would be produced and made accessible locally. According to one proposed model which remains within the statistical norms of land-use planning, assuming that cities are designed with a circular layout and 45% of the city’s area is used for housing (60/40 split in favor of condos over homes), 30% allocated to food and water production, education, research, and medical facilities, etc., 25% for roads, recreational and entertainment facilities, etc., then approximately 1 million people could be provided for in a city measuring 60 km^2 (15,000 people living in houses and 985,000 in condominiums), with 10,000 cities easily providing for the needs of 10 billion people covering 600,000 km^2 (0.4% of the Earth’s total land area). Agricultural belt surrounds the circular city, where vertical hydroponic farms and outdoor fields will serve fresh and organic to the city. And for irrigation and other purposes, a circular waterway goes around the agricultural sector.

This approach will essentially unite the town and country of the past into a singular homogeneous unit. However, a capitalist market economy is devoid of any such symbiotic planning because of the hierarchical nature of corporate institutions which function not to fulfil human needs, but for private interests and profits. Only the struggle for a revolutionary socialist transformation of the society can pave way for the possibility of large scale planning of natural and human resources. Forward to socialism!