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Red Theory: The contradiction between town and country

Analysis by J. Sykes |
June 12, 2022
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Much is made of what is often referred to as the urban/rural divide. There is a fundamental disconnect, we are told, between the people from the cities and the rural population. Marx and Engels called this contradiction the division between town and country. Marxism-Leninism can help us understand this contradiction, how it arose historically, and how it can be overcome.

When we think of this contradiction, a lot of things come to mind. We may think of the distinction between more conservative “red states” and more liberal “blue states.” We think of disparities in terms of education and infrastructure. We may think of the geographic location of agriculture and industry. Indeed, it is a complex issue. First, as Marxists, let’s use historical materialism to see how this contradiction has come to be. Understanding its origin and development will help us understand why and how to address it.

This contradiction, like the contradiction between mental and manual labor, originates at the very beginning of class society. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels write, “The greatest division of material and mental labor is the separation of town and country. The antagonism between town and country begins with the transition from barbarism to civilization, from tribe to State, from locality to nation, and runs through the whole history of civilization to the present day.” In that text, they cut right to the heart of the matter when they state, “The town already is in actual fact the concentration of the population, of the instruments of production, of capital, of pleasures, of needs, while the country demonstrates just the opposite fact, isolation and separation. The antagonism between town and country can only exist within the framework of private property.”

Under different relations of production different aspects of this contradiction have been principal or secondary. In slave society, the city was dominant over the countryside, while in feudal society the countryside was dominant over the towns. Under capitalism, the urban centers again dominate the rural areas.

The feudal towns became the basis of the power of the rising bourgeoisie against the feudal lords based in their country estates. And as the enclosures of the commons forced more and more displaced peasants into the towns from the countryside, the conditions for the advance from handicraft production to manufacturing was established. Peasant revolts in the countryside were common during the feudal period, and the urban-based bourgeoisie united with the peasants in the overthrow of the feudal aristocracy. In the socialist revolutions that have taken place in semi-feudal countries such as Russia and China, the worker-peasant alliance similarly proved essential to success both in the overthrow of the exploiting classes and in the process of socialist construction.

There is almost no peasantry in the modern imperialist countries, including the United States, but nevertheless there is a contradiction between town and country that is at times acutely felt. The rural countryside is the seat of agriculture, while the cities are where more mental labor and heavy industry have been historically centered. Overall, while there are large, oppressed nationality populations in rural areas, the rural population tends to be whiter and more conservative than the cities. A successful revolution in the United States will have to be able to unite with and lead workers and oppressed people in both the countryside and the urban centers. This means using the mass line to respond to their unique felt needs and being able to analyze and leverage the different contradictions at work in different areas. Only in this way can we unite all that can be united to strike blows against capitalism and raise the level of consciousness and organization of the masses.

Under socialism the correct handling of the contradiction between town and country is essential. In Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, Stalin writes, “The economic basis of this antithesis is the exploitation of the country by the town, the expropriation of the peasantry and the ruin of the majority of the rural population by the whole course of development of industry, trade and credit under capitalism. Hence, the antithesis between town and country under capitalism must be regarded as an antagonism of interests. This is what gave rise to the hostile attitude of the country towards the town and towards ‘townfolk’ in general.” Note here, as Stalin points out, as always, our ideas and attitudes arise from and are based upon our material reality.

Stalin argued that this contradiction had been eliminated in the Soviet Union, but it would be more correct to say that it had been transformed. Through the socialist removal of the “antagonism of interests” imposed by capitalism, socialism changed the material reality, and transformed this contradiction from an antagonistic to a non-antagonistic one. This “antagonism of interests'' is replaced by cooperation on the basis of mutual benefit.

We can see then that the contradiction between town and country has played an important role throughout the history of class society, from the initial formation of classes through the construction of socialism. For this reason, any organization in the United States that hopes to lead a socialist revolution needs to pay particular attention to the problem in order to be successful.

You can read the entire Fight Back! News Red Theory series on Marxist-Leninist theory here.