‘How the Farmer is Fleeced’ by Mary E. Marcy from International Socialist Review. Vol. 7 No. 1. July, 1916.

‘How the Farmer is Fleeced’ by Mary E. Marcy from International Socialist Review. Vol. 7 No. 1. July, 1916.

IN order to know what is wrong in the world today and how to right those wrongs, you have to know something about how things are produced and distributed. You have to know something about making things and what they will exchange for.

You have to understand just what the workers who make things get in exchange for their products, and just what they ought to receive. And so, first of all, we have to know what determines the value of commodities. We need to know this before we can intelligently consider what men ought to receive for so many pairs of shoes, or so many yards of cloth, or so many bushels of wheat, or machinery, etc., etc.

Now, a commodity is a product of human labor, made to satisfy some human need or want, and made for sale or exchange. When a shoemaker makes a pair of shoes to wear himself, these shoes are not a commodity. When a farmer raises young onions to be eaten at his own table, these onions are not commodities. They are made for your own use and not for sale. It does not matter how you raised these onions or made those shoes, so long as you intend to eat the onions and to wear the shoes yourself. But it is a different matter when you come to sell things to somebody else.

Then people will always consider the value of your products, and so it is very important that we should understand what determines the value of a commodity. Why, for example, a garden rake may sell for $1.00, and a suit of clothes sell (or exchange) for $25.00. Before we can really understand what is wrong in society, why the people who produce all the commodities in the whole world are usually poor people, while the people who own the factories, the mines, the railroads, the land, etc., etc., are usually rich people-we have to understand the value of commodities.

We think you farmers, who work for a living, could give a better idea of what makes value than almost any other class of useful workers. Water is useful and uncleared land is useful and virgin forests are useful, but the only reason that owners of land or water rights can sell them is because they possess a monopoly of something the people have to use in order to sustain life. These are not commodities, and they do not contain any real exchange value-because, as I suspect you have already guessed, they do not represent any necessary human labor.

Commodities have value because they are the product of human labor and because they satisfy some human need or want.

But there is one particular point in discussing the subject of value with you farmers that we shall need to make clear. The value of a bushel of wheat from “your” farm is not determined by the individual labor you spent in producing it, nor is the value of the wheat produced on a capitalistic 10,000-acre farm determined by the labor spent in raising it. Value is not determined by the individual labor, but by the necessary social labor represented in a commodity. If you think this over, you will see that.

For example, if one of your neighbors asked you to pay $1.00 for a pound of sausage just because he and his wife had spent two or three hours making it in their own kitchen, you would laugh at him. You would probably see at once that he was asking for more than the value of the sausage.

You would tell your neighbor that you couldn’t afford to pay a double or treble price for sausage just to give work to him and his wife when you could buy the same sausage, or just as good sausage, at 25 cents a pound which had been ground up and mixed and stuffed by a man operating a machine.

If a one-horse tailor drove up to your door and tried to sell you a suit of clothing for fifty dollars that you could duplicate at the store for thirty dollars, just because he had to make the whole thing by hand because he didn’t have any sewing machine, you would probably tell him you couldn’t afford to pay more than a suit was worth just because he happened to be broke.

The same conditions apply to all other branches of industry. In most fields there are thousands of people, companies and corporations, making the same things to sell. The people who make them by hand, or by small, old-fashioned machine methods, put a lot more labor into every commodity than the workers for the big companies do, because the big companies can afford to install giant machines which cut down the necessary labor in a commodity.

The suit of clothing, the sausage, the wheat, produced by large capitalist enterprises, represent very little human labor. These great packing plants and factories and capitalist farmers thus sell commodities containing very little value (or labor) when compared to the same product made by hand or by small farm methods, or even with the use of old-fashioned machinery.

Things are produced today not by an individual for an individual, but by great social groups for a whole nation, and even for the world. Individual production has given place to social production. So that it is the socially necessary human labor which determines the value of wheat, or doth, or machinery, or flour. The value of shoes is the average human labor it takes to produce shoes in a given state of society.

You can easily see to what a disadvantage this puts the small working-farmer, without modern machinery, or the small shoemaker, or the trying-to-be-independent sausage-maker or packer. You can see how this handicaps you, and yet this is a condition that the small farmer can never escape in a capitalist society. Only Socialism, or the collective ownership of the tools of production and distribution can place him on the economic level of every other man and woman.

We shall take up this most important subject of Value again later on. Just here we want to show what machinery has done to the farm and is doing to the small farmers all over the world.


Only a few score years ago the farm was the real workshop of the world. In America, especially, everybody worked from early morning till late at night producing the things the family needed and exchanging some of these products for the few things not produced on the farm. I remember reading a letter my grandmother had which was written by her father, in which he said that he and his family were producing everything used by them- except tea, sugar and nails.

In those days there were no machines, no railroads, and unless men and their wives and their children worked constantly, they found themselves without the things they needed to live on.

Women spun and wove and made the clothing for the entire family from wool or cotton or flax raised on the farm. Soap, candles, furniture and even shoes were sometimes made by the farmers, and the wives of farmers. There was little division of labor, so far as the men were concerned. Women were expected to raise the children, cook, wash, make the clothes and generally take care of things used in the home, while the men gave their attention to the land and stock.

Nearly everything was made by hand. The necessities of life meant putting in so much human labor that few people were able to live by merely owning things. Nearly everybody had to work.

Wheat was much more valuable in 1820 than it is today, because it represented so much more human labor. And gold, which is also a commodity, was also much more valuable, because it, too, meant much more labor to discover and mine it than it does today. This is why wheat did not bring more gold (or a higher price) in those days.

Without the aid of machinery farmers were unable to cultivate large areas of land, were unable to harvest big crops. But with the coming of the reaper, the binder, the thresher and other farm machines, one farmer was able to cultivate twice as much land, and then three times as much land, as two and three men had cultivated formerly.

Sons of farmers began to migrate toward the towns, where small factories, cotton and woolen mills were springing up. The railroads facilitated this movement.

Machines had entered many other fields of production and the seeds of the present factory system were sown. More and more farmers turned toward the towns and cities; better and bigger machines were used, larger factories sprung up.

And everything that was made by the new factory method represented less and less human labor than the old hand method of making things. It required an appalling amount of hand labor, for instance, to spin and weave cloth and make it up into clothing. The worker in the factory, using machinery, was able to produce this same cloth in an incredibly short period of time.

And the commodities produced by workers operating machines in the factories brought down their value (the necessary social labor in them). The machine-made article always sold for a little less than the hand-made article, until by and by the hand-weavers. and spinners found that they could not make enough to live on. The old system failed before the new one. Hand labor was starved out by the machine, just as the small machine-user is being squeezed out today by the capitalist who uses Mogul tractors and 55-Bottom engine Gangs, and automatic machinery.

Year by year, with the improvement in the tools of production, commodities decreased in value and in price. For, as Karl Marx, the great socialist economist, explains in his volumes on Capital, commodities tend to exchange (or sell) at their value. There are notable exceptions to this general rule, which we shall discuss later.

The point we are trying to make clear here is that with improved methods of production the value (or necessary social labor) in all commodities, so produced, steadily decreases. Every new machine employed in the bigger plant or on the capitalist farms reduces the value of commodities so produced until, in the past, the small manufacturer, the hand-weaver, the men using antiquated productive methods, have been inevitably pushed to the wall. It became the story of the home sausagemaker trying to compete with the Armour Packing Company.

Chicago’s stockyards.

Because commodities tend to exchange (or sell) at their value or for other commodities representing an equal necessary amount of social labor, the farmer using old-fashioned machinery, or working his farm without the necessary machines, has been compelled to sell all his farm products below their individual value, while the capitalist farmer has always sold the products of his farm above their individual value.

The mill man who buys from both and pays the same price for oats or wheat or corn to both, usually buys these commodities at their value. But, especially in America, the farmer very rarely sells his products direct to the consuming miller, who manufactures flour or breakfast foods, etc., etc.

You do not ask how the chair was made or how the cloth you are going to purchase was woven. You ask the price of these commodities. The same applies to the mill man or to the association buying farm products. They do not ask how many hours of labor you put into your crops. They don’t expect to pay, and they don’t need to pay any more for products from “hand” worked farms or from farms equipped with poor machinery, than they do for crops from farms worked almost entirely by men operating machines.

So that, even when “free competition” prevailed in the sale of farm products, as it still prevails in many countries, the machineless farmer was forced, is forced, to work harder and longer hours for less reward than the farmer who possessed or possesses capital to buy machines.

This is true today and will be true tomorrow and as long as capitalist society endures. There is neither equality of opportunity nor equality of reward when some men work to produce the necessary things of life without access to the best and most modern tools of production.

A “low-price” will unlock any door and open any market. And production by the use of more and more improved machinery means less and less value contained in commodities so produced. Machine spinning and machine weaving drove the hand weavers out of their jobs for the simple reason that the machine-made products became general, and because they represented less social labor, less value, they sold for a lower price.

The machine-made products so far reduced the price in this, and many other industries that the hand weavers, the hand producer and the user of the poor machines have found they could not sell their products for enough to live on.

Some of our readers have had an opportunity to visit the great stock yards and packing plants at Omaha, Kansas City or Chicago. After you have walked miles and miles thru these gigantic buildings, the ice-making plants, the butter factories, the killing, cutting and curing plants and having seen the wonderfully scientific methods employed in preparing the world’s meat supplies, after you have looked over the wonderful and expensive machinery used in these plants, you will realize just about how much chance you would have of going into the packing business with two or three thousand dollars capital, and successfully competing with this enormous millionaire packing trust.

Because you would be unable to buy these ten thousand dollar machines, every piece of beef you sold, every pound of sausage you disposed of, would represent much more human labor than beef sold or sausage bought from the packing trust. You would have to sell your products at the same price and on the same market as this organization.

The organization with big capital, tho not one of its members may ever perform a stroke of useful work, cannot lose. The man without land or the machinery of production cannot last- never has lasted.

The small farmer gets less and less return for his labor because he is competing with capitalist farmers with increasing capital and improving machinery. By the time you are able to think about the machine of today they will install the machinery of tomorrow. And these machines constantly reduce the value of farm products.

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v17n01-jul-1916-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf

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