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Mao, rural development, and two-line struggle


© Monthly Review (February 1994, vol. 45, issue 9). Used by China Study Group with permission from Monthly Review.

Note from original

This article was written as a foreword to the Chinese edition of Shenfan, which is the title of the second volume of the history of Long Bow Village, Shanxi Province, China. The first volume, Fanshen, told the story of the land reform that transformed the community between 1945 and 1948. Shenfan takes up the story with the organization of mutual aid leading first to lower and then to higher stage cooperation between 1948 and 1971, the year I first returned to China after a U. S. government mandated absence of seventeen years.

In 1993 a group of Shanxi people with support from Long Bow Village translated the whole of Shenfan. The book in Chinese may, with or without this foreword, appear in print soon.

—William Hinton

Literally “Shenfan” means “deep plowing, “ nothing more, but I have used the word to symbolize the great and deep reconstruction Of Chinese rural society carried out by the builders of village cooperatives and communes during the collectivization drive of the 1950s and 1960s.

It is fashionable today to dismiss this movement as an aberration, a left excess, an historical mistake. China’s present day agrarian theoreticians have even put forth the view that agriculture, by its very nature, is not amenable to group effort, to collective organization. They say that the time lapse between planting and harvest, the seasonal postponement of reward for hard work on the land, is too long to maintain incentive on any basis other than individual responsibility, that cooperators cannot visualize a link between their personal effort and any ultimate reward that is to be shared with others several months in the future. Lack of well- defined incentive leads to indifferent work, poor crop care, low yields and low rewards. Cooperation thus inevitably results in “eating out of one big pot”—a euphemism for sharing poverty. This theory has by now attained the status of “conventional wisdom” and today whenever anyone talks of “cooperative agriculture” the response is “one big pot.”

Nowadays it is also fashionable to talk as if bureaucratic power holders had imposed agricultural cooperation on the whole Chinese peasantry by command, if not by force, and that the development of the cooperative movement through its various forms and stages, from mutual aid through lower stage cooperatives to higher stage collectives that combined finally into communes, was an arbitrary progression dreamed up by dogmatists and inflicted on peasants to satisfy some theory rather than in a response to any real life need or desire.

A reading of Shenfan should, I think, thoroughly upend both the above pillars of conventional wisdom.

Shenfan, recounting the experience of Long Bow village in building a community-wide collective makes clear that individual incentive, far from being ignored, was an integral part of the whole process. The cooperative system was solidly based on realistic material incentives, applied the socialist principle of distribution according to work performed as the norm across the nation, and brought hundreds of millions to levels of prosperity never before achieved.

A sizeable minority of badly managed collectives without yields large enough to reward skill or diligence, sank to bare subsistence levels, but this was not reason enough to condemn the whole system as egalitarian nor was the poverty of these collectives sufficient reason to dissolve them. These teams and brigades could have been reorganized along the lines pioneered by Chen Yongkuei at Dazhai, Xiyang county, Shanxi. What Chen Yongkuei did was to mobilize the rank and file of every village to seek out those men and women of ability who had socialist vision and dedication, who put the public first, self second, and who, because they took service to the people seriously, could unite and organize whole communities for the collective rebuilding of nature and the collective construction and operation of sideline enterprises and industries. Chen brought such people into leadership and they in turn transformed, first their home villages, and then whole counties.

Long Bow Village, far from Dazhai, but influenced by it, is a case in point. In the early seventies under indifferent leadership, the villagers harvested so little grain that they had to travel to Honan in the spring and bring back dried sweet potatoes in order to survive. But through trial and error the local community finally brought to the fore a village leading group with vision and dedication. Once this group, with Party Secretary Wang Jinhong at its core, took charge, it quickly mobilized the great reservoir of talent and resources that the village possessed and transformed Long Bow from an “old, big, difficult place” into an advanced community both agriculturally and industrially. With a dozen prosperous industries and the highest level of farm mechanization in Shanxi, Long Bow became a much admired model.

I think the lessons of the rural cooperative movement in China over thirty years thoroughly refute the notion that rural producers cooperatives are ultra-left, utopian, and lead in the long run to sharing poverty—“eating out of one big pot.” In the late seventies comprehensive studies carried out by the Central Committee’s Research Group on Agrarian Policy concluded that 30 percent of the collective villages were doing well, 40 percent faced serious problems but remained viable, while another 30 percent were doing very poorly and could not easily regroup. If these figures are true, and they match with limited observations made by me in a few localities that I knew best, then some 240 million peasants were truly prospering under collective arrangements, while another 320 million were at least holding their own. Such large numbers coping successfully hardly give support to a theory that agricultural production, by its very nature, is not suited to collective forms of ownership and management. If a further 240 million were faring badly it seems obvious that the cause was not a built-in mismatch between cooperation and agriculture but poor leadership, poor training, and poor policy implementation—pushing for higher levels prematurely, jumping stages, commandism, overcentralization, and other bureaucratic excesses. A careful reading of Shenfan should bear this out.

A careful reading of Shenfan should also help refute that second proposition, so favored by conventional wisdom, that the advance of cooperation through stages, from mutual aid to lower stage co-op to higher stage co-op and on to communes, was an arbitrary formula imposed on the peasants by revolutionary dogmatists, without any real basis in peasant life or experience which might convince the peasants of its need or correctness.

Starting with mutual aid, what real life showed was that each organizational form, as it developed, generated internal contradictions—social contradictions, class contradictions—some of them severe, that could best be resolved by moving to a higher stage, by adopting a more complete and more universal collective form. Either that or abandon organized production altogether. If the latter road were chosen then, with the development of a privatized economy, similar contradictions would arise in time in even more severe, antagonistic and insoluble forms. Isn’t that, indeed, what we are witnessing today?

The collective road, as envisioned and proposed by Mao, comprised a complete ladder, a set of consecutive steps or stages, moving from the means of production held as individual private property to means of production held as property of the whole people, moving from individual producers at risk from all directions—at the mercy of the weather, a fluctuating market, personal illness, and old age—to individuals as full members of a public economic and social network nationwide in scope with productive forces fully liberated and personal security fully guaranteed by the strength of the whole sodality.

Mao’s vision was dialectical, projecting a society in constant development, communities at different levels all moving forward toward higher levels of multifaceted cooperative production at speeds determined by their own potential and their own internal dynamism.

What I want to emphasize here, however, is not the great future potential of community cooperation, which so far no one has reached (and which cannot ever materialize under the responsibility system), but the interplay of internal economic and social forces that propel collective forms of production from one level to another, not as a result of decrees rooted in subjective idealism, but as a result of contradictions generated and opportunities opened up by their very success.

Mutual aid, the first simple stage of cooperation illustrates the point well. In a community where there are not enough draft animals, carts, liquid manure tanks, plows, and animal powered grain drills to go around, where some families share only one leg of an animal, own a plow but no cart, or a cart and no plow, mutual aid is very advantageous and relatively easy to organize, at least at first. The basic principles are that aid groups should be voluntary, promote equal exchange of labor or value, and operate democratically. In addition, to make adherence to these principles easier, the groups should not be too big. The principles are easily stated and easily understood but they are hard to carry out in practice, particularly over the long haul.

Once families start working together difficult decisions come thick and fast. It rains, softening the land and making it easy to hoe. Whose land do we tackle first? Drought sears the crops. Whose corn do we water first? Your mule hauls my cart. At what ration do we swap them? In order to even things up I owe you some grain. But my grain is a little mouldy. How much should I discount it? All these decisions require many meetings that in turn require lots of time. We can avoid them by breaking up, or by bypassing most of them, by pooling our land, animals, and big equipment, farming cooperatively, and sharing the results.

If we decide to pool our land we solve many of the above problems but a whole new set arises in their place. Ordinarily, even though we are all relatively poor working peasants, the amount of land, livestock, and equipment held by each is not the same. If I own more and contribute more to the pool I may want credit for the capital assets I put in. When it comes time to share the income I may want some grain distributed according to capital shares contributed, not just according to the labor I have expended on the crop.

All this is fairly easy to adjust to if the members can agree on a distribution ratio between capital shares and labor shares, which often start out evenly matched at fifty/fifty. But over time the relations of production (who contributes how much) within the group are bound to change. If the team is well led and works hard the gross income will rise and surpluses can accrue in an accumulation fund from which new investments are made. This accumulation and these investments are due primarily to the living labor contributed by the strong young people growing up in the group. After a while they may come to resent so much grain and money being paid out to capital shareholders whose current contribution in the form of labor expended has grown less and less. To be fair the group must reduce the percentage paid out as a return on capital shares and increase that paid out as wages. In the end, due to the predominance of living labor and the new wealth created by it the members may want to abolish capital shares altogether, thus creating a higher stage co-op out of a lower stage co-op. This is not the result of anyone’s arbitrary decision but a reflection of the actual situation, of the changing balance between labor and capital in the village. When the new capital created by living labor surpasses and finally overwhelms the old capital with which the group started out, then rewarding old shareholders with disproportionate payments amounts to exploitation, a transfer of wealth from those who create it by hard labor to those who own the original shares and may, currently, not labor at all.

Mao’s collective “ladder” projected open ended progress from small, to medium, to large accounting units that would, by finally merging with the lowest units of the state, give peasants the same backing and security as that enjoyed by industrial workers in state-owned factories—not the traditional clay rice bowl so easily fractured by unfavorable weather and uncontrolled pests but the iron rice bowl held in place by the strength of the whole national economy. The reforms of the 1980s dismantled the rural cooperative movement before any communities achieved the across the board prosperity necessary to establish commune-wide accounting, a major step up that ladder but still a far cry from property of the whole people. Indeed by that time not many places had achieved the conditions necessary for keeping accounts at the brigade level, not to mention anything higher.

Nevertheless, had the cooperative movement continued, with the development of production over time questions of merger would have arrived on the agenda just as naturally as questions of co-op formation, land-pooling, abolishing land shares, and pooling livestock had already arrived. Chen Yongkuei believed that once the brigades in the local commune all reached a workday value of one yuan and a half—the level of pay that Dazhai was holding at in order not be too far ahead—they could all move to commune accounting. “Once we have commune accounting,” Chen said,

we can reorganize our whole plan of production. We can plant trees where they should be planted and grow crops where crops do the best. We can concentrate on the larger fields and make full use of machines. Then everything will fall into its rightful place…. Our brigade alone cannot take care of all the new land that can be built. Neither can the commune as a separate entity take care of it. We may have to join forces with other brigades, make a transition to commune ownership, and take care of everything together. If anyone says this is wrong and that we should split up again, let him explain how we are to solve this problem. We are not afraid to pool prosperity. We have too much. We have to share it. It’s not the same as sharing poverty!
Chen was describing a real economic development, successful land building creating pressure for changes in organizational form, pressure for taking the next step up the ownership ladder outlined by Mao as the socialist road. Climbing this ladder was not utopian, it was not voluntarist, it was not dogma—it was a realizable future for the peasantry of China so long as they adhered to and did not abandon the socialist road.

And what would the peasantry have to gain by successively enlarging the scope of collective action as they created the conditions for sustaining larger units? Scale, productive power, capital accumulation, mechanization, diversification, specialization, the remaking of nature, and the remolding of society, especially in respect to social well being, maternal and child health care, medical services, support for the sick, the infirm and the aged, and education at every level for people of all ages. In the long run it would mean the reduction and final elimination of the three differences, the difference between peasant and worker, between town and country, and between mental and manual labor. In the short run it would mean the full mobilization of all the human and physical resources of every community for all-round local development.

Much has been made of Mao’s phrase, “Take grain as the key link.” It has been ridiculed as one-sided and blamed for all manner of excesses such as cutting down fruit trees and clearing forests to plant grain. But that phrase is only part of a full sentence which reads “Take grain as the key link, develop animal husbandry, silviculture (forestry, fruit growing), fisheries, and sideline occupations in order to realize the full potential of each rural community.”

Far from being one sided, Mao’s vision was well rounded, comprehensive, and far seeing. It pointed the direction for China’s vast rural population. Those village collectives that, having refused to dissolve, followed it in full, have prospered. Of the village collectives that dissolved, actually the vast majority, only those in certain favored regions—the lower Yangtze Valley, the Pearl River Delta, the North coast of Shandong, the North China Plain around Tianjin and Beijing, the Northeast China plain near Shenyuang, Changchun, and Harbin, and a few scattered areas around fast-growing cities like Changzhi, Baotou, and Nanchang have been able to diversify, primarily into a wide variety of industrial activities linked to the urban centers of the regions where they reside. The rest of the communities, again constituting the overwhelming majority, in spite of major price increases for grain and agricultural products generally, and in spite of vastly increased inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, and improved seeds, have stagnated. They are held in check by lack of capital (which communities as such, with production privatized, no longer accumulate), by the extreme fragmentation of all arable land (making mechanization virtually impossible), by remote locations and poor communications, and by unfavorable price relations between necessary agricultural inputs and the food and fibre they produce to sell. Most of all, they are held in check by the anarchy that flows from “go it alone” ideology, not “public first, self second” that brings out the best in human nature, but “some must get rich first” that brings out the worst.

If these communities don’t again “get organized,” if they don’t, in various ways, relearn how to work together, their problems can only get worse, polarization can only accelerate, and economic stagnation can only deepen. Noodle strip farming is a dead end road.

Shenfan does, I think, clear up some other obscurantism currently distorting the nature, the validity, and the history (the rise and fall) of the cooperative movement in the Chinese countryside. But on the great political questions covered in the book, on the nature of the policy differences between Mao Tse-tung and Liu Shaochi, on the nature of the revolution that followed the Chinese people’s victory in the War of Liberation, Shenfan does less well. The book asks some of the right questions but gives too few clear cut answers.

“There is no question, even today, about the sharp divergence between these two points of view (Mao Tse-tung’s and Liu Shaochi’s).” I wrote on page 163,

They reflected two different approaches to China’s problems and called for the implementation of very different polices. The question that is now raised does not concern the divergence, but whether or not it had a class nature. Were these the views of two antagonistic classes, or were they an honest difference of opinion about the best path toward socialism? “What is not so clear at this point,” I went on to write “is that Liu Shaochi’s thesis, the call for the consolidation of the New Democratic system, was in fact a call for building capitalism.” It was not so clear to me when these words were written, but today, some fourteen years after the reform era began, it has become clear enough. I now think Mao was right, not only about the urgent need for peasants to get organized and form land pooling cooperatives to forestall polarization, as I explained on page 165 of Shenfan, but about the nature of the opposition to this, the first sharp manifestation of the two line struggle that was to dominate the politics of China from the moment of Liberation. The dispute over collectivization, Mao concluded as he pondered the need for a cultural revolution, reflected class struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie, the former bent on taking the socialist road, the latter the capitalist road.

But unlike the class struggle as it developed in most countries of the world where a significant working class existed, in China after 1949 the decisive battles were fought inside the Communist Party—inside the Party because its victory was so complete and its prestige and power were so great that it became the primary arena for all significant political action. At the same time the party contained within itself factions that reflected the multifaceted society out of which it was formed. Such sundry groups coexisted in one party because that party had brought together, during the bourgeois-democratic stage of the revolution—the struggle against feudalism and imperialism—the best representatives of all progressive classes, including the national bourgeoisie. With the stunning victory of 1949 this New Democratic coalition., built up out of truly diverse class elements only transiently united by decades of shared political and military battles, split over future goals. As long as Mao lived he kept socialist transformation at the center of the agenda and defended it against all attacks, mobilizing the people through mass movements to transform society and in that process to educate themselves, educate the party, enlarge the consciousness of both leaders and led, and find new ways forward toward further transformation.

At every step of the way, however, Mao’s line met opposition and resistance, primarily from a more “orthodox” group at the center that considered the party to be above external supervision and capable of self-rectification without immersing itself in great mass movements of the people. This group, disregarding the masses as creators of history, relied on planner; instead, stressed technology and expertise, hierarchy and one-man management. It one-sidedly pushed material incentive as the key to progress and neglected groundwork for the building of socialism.

After a series of clashes culminating in sharp disagreements over the conduct and results of the Socialist Education Movement Mao concluded that a small group of capitalist roaders inside the higher echelons of the party had become an insurmountable stumbling block to the development of the socialist revolution. When patient persuasion, ordinary education, party rectification as practiced hitherto all proved ineffective in resolving the problem Mao launched the cultural revolution—a mass movement of the people outside the party aimed at rectifying the Party from below.

Mao’s conclusion that the antagonistic contradiction blocking socialist construction lay inside the Party was astonishing and unprecedented. The method he proposed for resolving it—a massive mobilization of the people—was even more so. It was bold, uncharted, fraught with difficulty and uncertain of success. Few people, even among Mao’s strongest supporters, really understood it. Certainly I did not understand it very well, nor did, for instance, the more politically advanced peasants, the leaders of the Communist Party in Long Bow. They told me later,

we didn’t really have any idea what the capitalist road was. Mao talked about it, explained it, expounded on it, but we didn’t have any clear idea of it, what it might mean in practice to our lives. It is only now, since the reform, since the responsibility system, since we have had to contract everything out for private profit that we have had some experience of the capitalist road and can form an opinion of it.

I had been, with much less excuse, plagued by a similar ignorance. Growing up in America, I at least had had long years of experience with capitalism in one of its more venal modes, and I had few illusions about it, but it was not until the reform had dismantled one sector after another of China’s socialist economic base, a transformation I had never imagined possible, that I began to understand what Mao meant by “capitalist road” and “capitalist roader” in China. Thus the unfolding practice of reform since 1979 educated me and I began to see that it did not embody any quest for the best road to national development. It was not a matter of learning by trial and error, testing this and rejecting that, as measures for liberating and expanding the productive forces of the country. Nor was it a matter of “feeling out the stepping stones in order to cross the river” (an apolitical concept which never said what river was being crossed) as its authors were so fond of declaiming. It was, on the contrary, the conscious implementation of a well thought out plan to dismantle step-by-step every facet of the socialist superstructure and remove stone by stone the very building blocks of the socialist economic base.

The reform has, from the start, been a remarkably deft, well orchestrated and protracted campaign to do what all its covering rhetoric insists is not being done. Each stage begins by selecting some small, hard to defend weak link in the socialist policy or institution under attack and moves on to engulf and do away with the whole fabric that holds that link in place. The longer it goes on the clearer it becomes that what we are witnessing is no “feeling out” at all, but the inexorable unfolding of a grand design to tie China irretrievably into the capitalist system. And by what method? By transforming China into one vast free market hinterland, thus raising the question of who will be conqueror and who the conquered? For even a great dragon, it seems, cannot hope to match pearls with the Dragon God of the Sea and come out a winner.1

Given the insight gained from the actual practice of reform, I would, if I could rewrite Shenfan today, make a very different and more critical evaluation of the post liberation opposition call for consolidation of the New Democratic system. The same goes for the more recent idea that feudal vestiges might be a more important road block to the building of socialism than “Party people in authority taking the capitalist road.” And I would make a more positive evaluation of Mao’s struggle at Lushan and the outcome of the clash there between the chairman and his critics. Mao grasped what too many people, including myself, failed to grasp, a clear picture of where the vociferous criticism was coming from, of the class bias it expressed, and he stood firm in support of the main content and thrust of the Great Leap. I would also, in summing up, make a more positive appraisal of the cultural revolution, a more positive appraisal of Mao’s life work, and especially of his last years, for those are the years when he made his greatest creative contribution, saw farthest and delved most deeply into the dialectics of human and societal development.

The great socialist revolutions of our century have all ended, at least temporarily, in disarray, including the one led by Mao. But even though Mao’s “Great Strategic Plan,” the cultural revolution, failed to save the vision he had for China, his analysis revealed the heart of the problem confronting the proletarian revolutionaries of the past and serves as a vital lesson for those of the future, whose emergence is as certain as the rising of the sun. Mao had the insight and the courage to expose the ongoing, antagonistic class struggle at the very core of the Communist Party in the course of socialist construction. And he insisted that the revolution could only be saved by mobilizing the mass of the people, the real creators of history, to take on and to rectify the party. Mao insisted that

the party itself is only an instrument involved in, but not dominating, the dialectical process of continuous revolution….The party does not stand outside the revolutionary process with foreknowledge of its laws. “For people to know the laws they must go through a process. The vanguard is no exception.” Only through practice can knowledge develop; only by immersing itself among the masses can the Party lead the revolution.2
I wish Shenfan had brought out these ideas clearly and forcefully. If it had it would be a more useful book for those who must change the world in the next generation. There is no point, however, in rewriting it now. There is a chance to make all this clear in a third volume of the Long Bow trilogy, which will be called not Li Chun as previously suggested, but Fen Shan, (Divide the Mountain). It will tell the story of the break up of collective agriculture and the adoption of the family responsibility system in one small village leading to the crucial choice now facing all peasants in China, the choice between rural stagnation rooted in hand tilled, private noodle strips or growth based on scale production—a new form of organization that unifies land, machine tillage, crop and livestock technology, input supply and output sales under community ownership and management.


1 Mao used this metaphor to oppose guerrilla forces slugging it out in frontal battle with the heavily armed minions of Chiang Kai-shek. In this case the dragon is China and the Dragon God of the Sea is the multinational military industrial complex that rules the world market from the top of the heap.

2 From Mao Tse-tung, A Critique of Soviet Economics, Introduction by James Peck, (Monthly Review Press: New York, 1977) p. 20.

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