Washington — Why can't the Soviet Union feed itself? Just over 300 million acres planted in grain isn't enough for 260 million Russians.
Yet 110 million Japanese grow enough rice on 7.5 million acres; 660 million Indians manage on 350 million acres; the Chinese, pushing a billion, haven't increased food imports proportionately in 10 years; and Americans, with about 390 million acres, feed themselves and a good many of the third world's cities, too.
More than $500 billion has been pumped into Russian agriculture over the past 15 years. It remains an unpredictable mess.
Last year's disappointing 179 million-ton grain harvest is far below the 222 million tons the Russians produced way back in 1973-74. Russia hoped to import 34 million tons this year, much more than any country has ever imported. (India , in the bad monsoon years of 1966 and '67, before its own green revolution, imported only 10 million tons each year.)
The Carter administration, hoping to take advantage of this dependency, cut off US grain shipments to the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan. But the punitive measures will likely have little effect.
The Soviets are finding other countries, notably Argentina, willing to fill their breadbasket to pre-embargo levels.
Still the question lingers: What is wrong with Russian agriculture? First, nature has not been particularly helpful. Large areas of the Soviet Union are subject to five-year cycles of frost and drought. There's low rainfall and a short growing season.
These won't change even if, miraculously, Russian farming becomes more efficient. But most experts feel Russia's shortage of well-watered, warm, and fertile land could be overcome with up-to-date farm science.
So second, there is technology. In a recent paper entitled "Marx Was a City Boy," Lester Brown of Washington's Worldwatch Institute says that until the mid- 1930s Russia and Eastern Europe exported 5 million tons of grain a year, the same as North America did. From about 1935 on, thanks to new seeds, irrigation, mechanization, and the massive use of fertilizer, American agricultural production took off.
The Soviets do have some of the latest farm technology, such as tractors, combines, and mineral fertilizers. But a cumbersome and inflexible management system hampers their efforts to get it to the right place on time. Experts say that little of the irrigation-based tropical farm technology that has benefited India and China since the 1960s fits the rain-fed, colder Russian environment.
Third, as Mr. Brown and others are starting to suggest, the Russians can blame Marxism-Leninism for their farming failure. Karl Marx, a German who worked out of a London library, had a strange hatred of peasant villagers. He described them as "a class that represents the barbarism within civilization."
He went on to describe the peasant as "clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism."
Lenin was shrewder. He took Marx's theory of internal proletarian revolution and transformed it into global class warfare between the West and East. But 70 to 80 percent of the East's people were and still are peasant farmers.
Lenin's technique -- familiar from Vietnam -- was to win over peasants by promising them land and playing on resentments of foreign domination. First, you promised "land to the tillers." Second, you actually carried out land reform. Third, you formed agricultural cooperatives on an ever-bigger scale. Fourth, you took the land away and made it the property of the state. Last, you forced the peasants to work harder for less return so you had the savings to industrialize rapidly.
Lenin, who gave farmers plenty of machines before gradually bringing them into socialism and communism, was able to carry out only the first three steps before he passed on.
In Russia this ended up with today's sovkhozes,m huge mechanized farms worked by squads of men and women who have no other tie to the land. There are also kolkhozes,m collective grain farms.
State and collective farm members (as well as many urban workers) now work some 32 million private plots. They produce about one-third of the Soviet Union's meat, milk, eggs, and potatoes.
The Chinese went much further, carrying Leninist doctrine to its logical conclusion. Throughout history governments have found only three ways to siphon off a farmer's surplus: religion, rent and tools, and taxes.
China abolished religion and rent, enforced tool sharing among villagers, and even limited their food with common mess halls. Cooperatives mushroomed in size -- up to 800 men by 1958 -- as the Great Leap Forward got under way. Within two years there were 26,000 "people's communes," with an average size of some 24,000 workers.
It proved such a fiasco that the Chinese made a brisk retreat back toward the family farm. The peasant got back his own house, private garden plot, and kitchen utensils in 1960. The communal mess halls went out in 1961. The work brigades dwindled. Friends just back from China tell me they now average about 20 men and women.
Mao Tse-tung clearly saw two glaring weaknesses in Soviet communism. The Russians invested heavily in industry and arms without first putting agriculture on a sound basis. Mao gave Chinese agriculture his top priority.
Lenin's concept of a single, all-powerful party dominating every aspect of life in the Soviet Union led to oppression, stagnation, and a cumbersome bureaucracy. Mao's remedy was to wage constant revolution.
These initiatives, coupled with the policies of new revisionists like Deng Xiaoping, are propelling China toward "the most successful modernization of a peasant society ever," US farm experts say.
Population growth could drag China down (hence its new "one-child family" campaign). But agriculturally, it is holding its own.
One can almost date the beginning of the decline of Marxist-Leninist revolution in Asia to the day it was decided that Western agricultural and industrial technology was the answer to China's problems.
As this writer has reported previously in the Monitor, Western farm science has begun to spread through the villages of Asia, including China. The political result is to render the whole Marxist-Leninist dream of global revolution -- the poor peasant masses of the East rising against the rich of the West -- as out of date as the horse-drawn plow. Famine in Cambodia and the exodus of the Vietnamese people are hammering this lesson home to all the prospering Asian societies around them.
The elderly Marxist-Leninists who rule the Kremlin -- Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, but especially ideologue Mikhail Suslov -- must recognize this. But they seem unwilling to take the same kind of pragmatic decision China has taken.
Every country needs food and oil to survive. (Oil is even needed to make the fertilizer to grow the food.)
For those sitting in the Kremlin just now, watching the green revolution of modern farm science defeat the old red Marxist-Leninist kind of revolution in country after country in Asia, and seeing Russian industry in serious trouble and oil running out (the CIA estimates the Soviet Union will be forced to import 700,000 barrels a day by 1985), the problems just ahead must seem staggering.
As recently as the 1960s, Russia fed itself. Then in 1972 Moscow decided to buy feed abroad rather than slaughter cattle. By the mid-1970s, grain imports rose to 9 million tons a year, then to 20 million tons. Now the need is for more than 30 million. The imported grain was needed to feed the increasing number of cattle ordered by Khrushchev to boost meat and milk supplies.
Moreover, Khrushchev's mid-'50s "virgin lands" project, an early 1960s attempt to plant millions of acres in Iowa-type hybrid maize (the growing season proved too short), and a present plan to reverse the flow of rivers to the Arctic for irrigation have not worked.
At the same time, western Russia's old oil areas are being fast depleted. And the Soviets lack the sophisticated technology to exploit Siberian permafrost reserves.
Russia uses its gold and oil to pay for Western petroleum, computer, and agricultural technology. Soaring gold and oil prices are helping underwrite these imports. But the Soviets will find it increasingly tough to finance the imported technology as their oil reserves dwindle.
Eastern Europe's economy has grown dependent on low-priced, heavily subsidized Russian oil imports.
Some of the "how to" questions that face the men in the Kremlin: (1) how to get needed technology; (2) how to get hard currency to keep open access to Western Europe; and (3) how to keep Eastern Europe pacified.
One all-purpose solution would be the high-risk policy of making a drive for the Middle Eastern and other oil fields. In the past two years, there have been movements in this direction, from Angola to Afghanistan. The alternative is to strike a deal with the West for its technology.
This is the decision that faces the coming generation of Russian leaders -- once the old revolutionaries fade from the scene. Some 260 million Russians have to get food and oil from somewhere. They need Western technology to do it.
At bottom is the inherent failure of the 1917-1980 communist experiment. As Lester Brown has rather laconically put it: "Karl Marx may have understood the problems of the urban proletariat, but he did not have anything very instructive to say about how to organize agriculture."
Mr. Brown quotes a group of young American farmers who recently passed through Washington after living on Russian collective farms in an exchange program. The Americans were amazed to see Soviet farmers leave their tractors promptly at 5 o'clock, no matter what. (This has been overcome in some areas by using two shifts of workers.)
"Planting could be weeks behind schedule or a harvest be threatened by a coming storm," Mr. Brown reports, "but it made little difference. Their mentality was that of factory workers leaving their shifts, not farmers."
He concludes: "This would never happen in Kansas or Iowa." (Not yet. But the number of family farms in this country has dropped alarmingly -- from 6.8 million in 1935, when the American agricultural revolution really began, to 2.7 million today.)
Aristotle could have set the Russians straight. The Greek philosopher felt the stimulus of gain was needed to produce hard work, just as the stimulus of private ownership was needed for industry, husbandry, and care. Were he alive today, the Greek sage would likely say that communism doesn't work because of man's natural inequality. It provides no adequate incentive to those of superior ability.
He wrote, "That which is common to the greatest number has the least attention bestowed upon it." He added: "There is always a difficulty in living together and having things in common, but especially in having common property."
The whole story of Russian and Chinese agriculture over the past 60 years has been one long battle to make human nature fit the ideas of Marx and Lenin. China shows every sign of choosing a green revolution over a red. Will the Soviet Union follow? There's little sign of its happening anytime soon.