Lenin’s Hatred of Allotments


Lenins Hatred of Allotments

Photo: tataata

It’s said that during his short visit to Stockholm in 1917, Lenin was given a tour of an allotment project by the social democratic councillor Anna Lindhagen, brother of the then chief magistrate Carl Lindhagen. Anna Lindhagen was the co-founder of the Stockholm’s Farm Allotment Society (Föreningen koloniträdgårdar i Stockholm), the first of its kind in Stockholm. Here is the cover of their association’s tenth anniversary publication:

Lenins Hatred of Allotments

During his tour of the allotments, so the story goes, Lenin became irate and reproached Lindhagen. Workers should not poke about in the soil, he told her, but devote themselves to the coming proletarian revolution. The allotment project into which Lindhagen had invested her energies was, he thought, a symptom of false class consciousness.(1) Here is a short film loosely based around this story. Despite a low budget and amateur theatrics, it is a wonderful re-imagining of the encounter:

Of course, the tale is most likely apocryphal. Lenin never recorded a meeting with Lindhagen on his visit to Stockholm. Nevertheless, the story captures an interesting tension in contemporary politics, a tension between Green and Left political outlooks.

We on the Left today tend to think that class struggle and environmentalism are natural bedfellows. Whilst it is doubtless true that both outlooks emerge from a similar impulse, it is unclear whether these problems should, or even can, be tackled together. What we tend to forget is that there are differences between Green and Left political outlooks which are far from easy to reconcile. Like Lenin in the above tale, many on the Left think along lines first mapped out by Marx that anything which stands in the way of mankind’s inevitable march towards socialism is not worth dedicating one’s energies to. The class dimension of Lenin’s view is clear: Middle-class allotment diggers cannot be revolutionaries, since their ‘hobby’ requires society’s class strictures to remain as they are. God-forbid that they might also be educated and politicised women. Diggers cannot be revolutionaries, on Lenin’s view, nor should revolutionaries be diggers. Or can they?

Throughout this series on Green communitarianism, I shall frequently return to one of my central claims, that of the many conceptual gulfs which separate Green and communitarian outlooks, the stark difference in their respective attitudes towards cities is one of the most divisive. Because Green and Left have a markedly different conceptions of what cities are and what they are for, a genuine Green communitarianism from which policy proscription that deal with issues common to both will be a long time in the making. Bearing this in mind, let us without further ado turn to consider an example which could furnish us with a powerful counter-example to Lenin’s view. If the case of Cuba shows that diggers can indeed become revolutionaries, then the path toward an agenda for Green communitarianism looks a little brighter.

Could Cuba be a model for ‘Green Labour’?

Now that grain prices are beginning to show signs of stabilization in the wake of the worst US drought in half a century, even whilst fears are still running high of a repeat of the food crisis of 2008 which sparked riots in countries such as Egypt, Cameroon and Haiti, the issue of food security is reentering the public debate. And never far from the topic of food security is that treasured concept of Green politics, sustainability.

Those harbouring Green hopes and political sentiments tend to think that the havoc which speculation in commodity futures unleashes upon society is largely avoidable. The solution to these problems, some argue, is greater localism. If only we produced goods closer to the point of their consumption, they say, free from the pernicious interference of companies whose speculation distorts their price and seeds the conditions for global crisis, human flourishing can be safeguarded from the corrupting influence of global markets and/or out of control macroeconomic forces. Greater localism would result in less fossil fuels being consumed in the transportion of goods, thus yielding a more sustainable society, insulated from volatility in the price of crude oil.

This is a compelling argument, one whose thrust I agree with. The problem, however, is that defenders of this argument often speak as though a state of greater localism is a political end in itself, an end which central government must deliver using well-crafted policies.

Advocates of greater localism in regards to food production often point to Cuba as a model for how their nations might build an urban food economy that would protect citizens from the damage wrought by unforeseen economic crises and market shocks. In many respects, Cuba’s agricultural economy is indeed a model of urban sustainability. In 2002, 90 percent of all fresh produce in Havana came from local urban farms and gardens, food which according to Cuba’s Minister of Agriculture is all organic(2). By the following year, more than 200,000 Cubans were working in the expanding urban agriculture sector. At present, around 200 gardens in Havana supply the majority of residents’ fruit and vegetables. Urban agricultural activities occupy 85,500 acres of land in Havana,(3) approximately half of the city’s land area.(4) All of this means that Cuba spends less on transportation of food-stuffs between cities, with the result that the per capita emissions of Cuba’s food industry is substantially lower than many other developed nations.

However, if the case of Cuba demonstrates anything, it is that a state of greater localism in regards to food production, although ecologically desirable, is strictly beyond the power of central government policy to deliver. To understand why, we must look at how Cuba came to be the paragon of urban agriculture. Far from being the result of well-crafted policies that delivered on their promises, Cuba’s urban agricultural success was the result of an unforeseen series of economic shocks that swept through the world after the fall of the Soviet Union during the second quarter of the last century, leaving a trail of ecological catastrophes and environmental despoliation in its wake.(5) Up until 1989, Cuba was heavily dependant upon Russian oil and fertilizer subsidies to sustain its domestic agriculture. The sudden fall of Soviet communism brought this entire economy crashing down. As David Tracey, author of Urban Agriculture: Ideas and Designs for the New Food Revolution, explains:

[…] the most industrialized agricultural system in Latin America, and a farming strategy built on monocrop exports, was left to fend for itself. It didn’t help when the U.S. government tightened its trade embargo in 1992. With their export crops out of favour and Soviet tractors rusting in the fields for lack of fuel and spare parts, the big state farms couldn’t pick up the slack.(6)

Towards his article’s conclusion, Tracey asks: “If they can do it [in] Cuba, why not elsewhere, including here?” Although genuine, what this plea overlooks, however, is the fact that Cuba succeeded in constructing a largely sustainable urban agriculture in such a short space of time because its citizens had no other choice but to. Without the economic shock unleashed upon the citizens of Cuba in the wake of the dissolution of Soviet Communism, and the very real threat of malnourishment faced by the average Cuban as food stocks became scarce in the months after, there would not have existed the political will to implement wide-scale agricultural reform throughout Cuba. The reforms were the result of political expediency rather than a widespread political desire for change to a more sustainable social configuration, in other words. As the manager of BPC Organiponico Vivero Alamar told Tracey: “We had no alternative. For political reasons, we had to do it first.”

The upshot of this for a consistent vision of Green communitarianism from which sound policy proscriptions can be read off is rather worrying at first glance. In suggesting that the Green political ends of greater food security and sustainability can in certain circumstances be secured through unforeseen market upheaval, rather than through revolutionary means, those with Green political sympathies must grapple with the uncomfortable fact that the types of reforms required for a sustainable society are not in the power of politicians and policy-makers to bring about directly. They are more likely to be the result of unintended consequences issuing from blind chance than from the considered directives of policy-makers.

Green neoliberalism?

If the types of reforms we envisage for a sustainable society are not in mankind’s power to orchestrate directly, then we are left with an intriguing, if somewhat alarming, prospect. Many Greens accept that man-made climate change is one of mankind’s most pressing problems and that greater localism is a necessary step towards lower carbon emissions. If a greater localism is the outcome of market shocks, and market shocks can be politically-manufactured, it would appear that there is a utilitarian case for do so.

Here, we step into the murky and confused world of neoliberalism. The work of two economists should be mentioned. The ideas of Milton Freedman and Jeffrey Sachs were put to use in various Latin American nations and post-Soviet Russia (respectively) during the last quarter of the twentieth century in an attempt to manufacture such economic shocks. Inspired by the taming of hyperinflation in the war-torn Germany of the late 1940s, Freedman and Sachs believed that a greater state of long-term economic stability could be brought about through hasty but targeted deregulation. The technique they pioneered is known today as “shock-therapy”, and it is one of the cornerstones of neoliberal economics. The technique is comprised of administering radical currency reforms and abolition of a nation’s price controls and state subsidies, although it can also involve such measures as the liberalisation of domestic markets and the large scale privatization of a nation’s public assets.

Although the prospect of shock therapy being used for sustainable ends is an intriguing one, what the case of Cuba demonstrates is that whilst unforeseen market forces have on one occasion bootstrapped a society into a higher level of sustainability, this is not sufficient grounds for holding that policies crafted to manufacture these shocks will work on all occasions.   In thinking that their technique offered a solution for all manner of problems, the proponents of neoliberal shock therapy committed their gravest error. What an entire generation of economists failed to realize was that subtle differences between national economies rendered their ‘one size fits all’ approach ineffectual. Instead of yielding growth and stability wherever the technique was applied, in many target countries the result was the very opposite – the destruction of the socially-embedded economic practices and traditional forms of life upon which genuine growth and stability must be built. Whilst hyperinflation in post-war Germany was conquered with rapid currency reforms and the scrapping of subsidies and price controls, and a stable and growing market economy was restored, such techniques pointedly failed in post-Soviet Russia, for example, where life expectancy in the years after the fall of Soviet communism plummeted to record lows. Much like the doctrinaire insistence upon neoliberal shock therapy, the insistence on a form of Green shock therapy is the a mark of an economic terrorist, not a statesman.

But even if such shocks could be manufactured to yield a state of greater localism (which, as we’ve said, is unlikely), this does not mean that policy-makers concerned about man-made climate change should manufacture such shocks. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. see fn.36, pp.198, Michel Conan’s ‘From Vernacular Gardens to a Social Anthropology of Gardening’ in Perspectives on Garden Histories (1999, Dumbarton Oaks: Washington, D.C.), Michel Conan (ed), pp.181-204, http://www.vizkult.org/propositions/alineinnature/pdfs/perspec09-Conan.pdf
  2. http://www.cubaagriculture.com/agriculture-today.htm
  3. http://www.thepolisblog.org/2012/08/urban-agriculture-in-havana.html
  4. The 2009 consensus registered the total area of Havana to be 721.01km2, and 85,000 acres taken up with urban agriculture  is 346.01km2, yielding 48 percent of Havana’s land taken up with urban agriculture.
  5. For more on this topic, see Murray Feshbach’s monumental study Ecocide in the USSR: Health And Nature Under Siege (1992, Basic Books, New York)
  6. http://thetyee.ca/News/2009/08/27/CubasDoneIt/