Reposted from the defunct China Left Review (issue #3, 2010). We’re reposting this old article here for reference because the Chinese version was recently reposted on Groundbreaking (破土), and 金沙水磨坊,  and we noticed that the English version is no longer available.1 Although we disagree with some of the content, the article is worth archiving and relates to historical questions explored in the forthcoming first issue of the Chuǎng journal.2



Stephen Endicott’s Red Earth: Revolution in a Sichuan Village (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1991) is one of the few enjoyable village studies that provide carefully documented, detailed accounts of the system of agrarian “people’s communes” that dramatically transformed rural and urban China from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. As such, it provides important insights to students of modern Chinese history, researchers on “development” in general, and even to social activists concerned with how to create a better post-capitalist world. To those who recognize the unsustainability and injustice of capitalism but think no better alternative is possible, that “communism is a good idea in theory but will never work in practice,” pointing to China as an example of its failure, Red Earth demonstrates that, while the PRC was never communist (and never claimed to be), some of the communistic arrangements it experimented with did work despite unfavorable circumstances, and it was not any inherent impracticality that led to their abandonment.

Many reviews of this classic study have been published, one of which can be accessed for free online,1 so below I focus on those parts of the book related to the commune period, using these as a springboard for a broader reflection on China’s experience with agrarian socialism and the lessons this offers to anti-capitalists of all stripes today. But first I start with an overview of Endicott’s analysis.

Endicott’s Perspective

Stephen Endicott, born to Canadian missionary parents in 1930s Shanghai and raised in Sichuan for 13 years, belongs to the tradition of (more or less critical) praise for the Maoist path of “socialist construction” by Western observers such as the Hintons, the Crooks and Jan Myrdal.2 In the acknowledgements section of Red Earth, Endicott cites these writers in particular and their “search for the realities of modern China” as a source of inspiration, noting that he “may not agree” with their perspectives (xiii). Like William Hinton’s Fanshen and Shenfan, overall Red Earth stays close to the words of interviewed villagers and local “cadres”3 (with – apparently paraphrased – direct quotations accounting for about a quarter of the book’s narrative sections), while incorporating information from official records, including quantitative data presented in 27 tables. Endicott’s own analysis is suggested in the epilogue, where he reflects on four decades of change in MaGaoqiao village as observed during several visits from 1980 to 1988. In 1980, he writes, the villagers

worked in collective groups under the production teams and were proud of the co-operative medical clinic, the school, the electrified grain processing mill, the big tractors, the methane gas pits by the side of every house and other tangible achievements. The socialist collective period clearly had been a time of qualitative change in productive capacity, highly successful in turning surplus labor into capital for economic growth. The value of the capital construction – the roads, railway, waterways, reservoirs, fish ponds, reclaimed wasteland, new orchards, leveled fields – went unrecorded in the account books; statistically they did not exist, but they were there, nevertheless, for the eye to see. (211)

Despite all this development, however, “Individual living standards, in terms of housing and available consumer products, had not changed much in two decades” (212). Somewhat surprisingly, Endicott claims “the people seemed to understand this disappointment as a consequence of their contribution to the industrialization of China under conditions of external threats from imperialist powers” (212). At the same time, the author notes vast improvements in health and life expectancy (211, 155-6) and modest progress in the replacement of “old ways of thinking and behavior” with “socialist values” – “enough to have an on-going impetus for equality, social justice, women’s emancipation” (211). For now let us just note in passing that Endicott relegates the latter three – presumably central goals of communism – to a separate paragraph following that on the development of productive capacity, seeming to associate them with a Marxist “superstructure” secondary to the changes in MaGaoqiao’s “economic base.”4

When Endicott returned in 1983, the land had been contracted to individual households, other collective assets had been auctioned off to the wealthiest or best-connected villagers, the village no longer supplied grain or other basic necessities to needy villagers, the party-state was helping the most successful one-third of village households to invest in individual market-oriented enterprises, poorer villagers were working for these enterprises, and the gap between rich and poor was growing rapidly (212-213). In 1986, however, Endicott observed some disillusionment with individual entrepreneurialism among ordinary villagers and a renewed focus by both central and local levels of the party-state on collective entrepreneurialism, with all loans by the county government in the past year going to cooperative and collective enterprises (213). By March 1988, MaGaoqiao had “reorganized as a joint co-operative divided into seven small co-operatives.” Households continued to contract land, but now a contract would be renewed each year only if the household fulfilled certain obligations to the cooperative (including quotas for certain crops), and the cooperatives would “re-establish their accumulation funds for capital investment and to provide services to their members before, during and after production – better seeds, credit, technical information, machinery, sales and transportation facilities” (218-219). This change was made partly in response to a drought that had led to deadly fighting among farmers, followed by a flood that had washed away 24 houses and put 70 families on relief. Local cadres attributed both disasters to the dissolution of collective institutions and increased competition among families. As team leader Wang Daoquan put it, “Things that should be done for the public welfare could not be done; everyone was busy doing his or her own business” (218).

Endicott concludes that Chinese leaders were still grappling with “two problems left unresolved by the early period of socialist construction: how to increase the productivity of farm labor so as to raise living standards appropriate to a modernized China, and secondly how to reform a style of leadership that tends to degenerate into bureaucratic commandism” (214-215). Below I argue that the former problem – or rather the push to raise productivity itself – was a key factor leading to the latter. Endicott doesn’t make this connection, instead apparently taking for granted the Dengists’ emphasis on individual incentive mechanisms and claiming that the collective work-point system had been “wasteful of labor power, open to favoritism and abuse by cadres, and increasingly resented by the villagers” (215). As for “commandism,” Endicott gives only various theories put forth by others, among which the only cause proposed (by the China Historical Materialism Study Society) is “remnant feudal ideas” (216). The proposed solutions all take for granted the need to raise productivity, although there is a phrase that might be taken as a vague suggestion that productivity is less important than equality and social welfare: “Many people worry that the ‘cures’ offered by the free market or by the free-standing co-operatives may be worse than the ‘illness’ of socialist collectives” (217).

The book closes on a hopeful note that “In the struggle between individualism and collectivism, the balance has shifted once again in favor of the more socialist-minded” (219), but this is tempered by the fear that “a new rich peasant class” may yet prevail over “the collective interest” (220). This designation of rich peasants as the main threat to China’s rural communities and their poorer members, and this framing of the issue as a “struggle between individualism and collectivism,” both point to a theoretical confusion in the way the communes have been understood by their proponents and detractors alike. Below I attempt to untangle this confusion while using Endicott’s account of MaGaoqiao, along with other sources, to demonstrate the existence of communistic elements in China’s agrarian communes, propose an alternative explanation of their failure, and thereby redeem the communes as providing both positive and negative lessons about how to create better alternatives to the capitalist present.

My Perspective

Let’s start by distinguishing between communist, communistic, and socialist types of social relations and proposing rough definitions. These definitions are gleaned from the history of the communist movement since its emergence from workers’ struggles against capitalism in mid-19th century Europe, along with predecessors such as the Radical Reformation, millennia of “primitive communist” formations throughout the world, and communistic relations in the interstices of class-divided societies.5

A “communist” society is one where everyone can participate directly in the planning of production and distribution according to need, on the basis of common access to the means of production.6

“Communistic” refers to arrangements approaching that ideal in the context of antagonistic social systems – such as the global capitalist system that limited and shaped China’s communes and other communistic experiments elsewhere.

“Socialism” has been used to mean many different things – from communism to the capitalist welfare state to anything Barack Obama advocates. Here I use it in a narrow sense referring to those societies called “socialist” by ruling Communist Parties, as in the USSR and the PRC until the 1990s, which had one foot inside and one outside the global capitalist system, differing from capitalist societies mainly in that (1) the means of production were concentrated in the hands of the party-state and (largely state-controlled) semi-autonomous collectives (such as the communes in China), (2) the party-state systematically directed the means of production – and the investment of capital produced through their use – toward developing the forces of production and destruction (whereas capitalism had developed these forces haphazardly, more slowly, and with the aid of colonial spoils), (3) a primary force driving this process of state-directed development was defensive military competition with the major capitalist states (the latter in turn driven by commercial competition among firms in those states and their capital’s need to expand into the territories ruled by Communist Parties), and (4) CP ideologues regarded socialism as transitional to communism and beholden to “the laboring masses of workers and peasants,” so at least some socialist states experimented with communistic arrangements and policies that did not fit comfortably into a productivist logic of development (such as certain aspects of China’s agrarian communes described in Endicott’s Red Earth and discussed below).

Many observers have dismissed the “people’s communes” as functionally comparable to the factories and factory-farms of capitalism. They were established under strong top-down pressure, membership was not determined voluntarily, and they were fundamentally shaped by the process of “socialist primitive accumulation”: state extraction of surplus-value from commune members to fuel China’s industrialization and military modernization, mainly through the “price scissors” (below-value grain procurement coupled with above-value prices for urban industrial goods), as well as through the state’s use of underpaid rural labor for capital construction (digging canals, building roads, etc.).7 However, closer inspection through accounts such as Red Earth reveals a more complicated picture. It may be helpful to borrow from what Karl Marx wrote about the Russian obshchina (another kind of agrarian commune, also “crushed by the direct extortions of the State”) in the late 19th century, where he discerned a “dualism” between its “collective” and “property” aspects, either of which might “gain the upper hand” depending on the “historical surroundings.”8 The Chinese communes likewise seem to have possessed a dual nature, with extractive functions (inevitably giving rise to authoritarian tendencies) uncomfortably intertwined with communistic elements.

Moreover, the Chinese communes possessed an important advantage over most experiments associated with the communist movement (such as the Paris Commune of 1871 and other short-lived arrangements that emerged from the uprisings of workers and peasants in Russia and the Ukraine in 1917, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956, etc.9): many communes were basically self-sufficient, being based on farming a variety of crops, for both use and exchange, combined with other industries, locally-run health services, etc., and they began to diversify, increase productivity (through both sustainable and unsustainable methods), and dramatically improve life expectancy. Among the arrangements that emerged from uprisings elsewhere, I’m not aware of any that managed to work out smooth distribution of basic necessities among the various units, divided as they were by industry (food shortages were a major problem with the system in revolutionary Spain, for example). In defense of the latter, one could point out that (1) they were in the midst of war or warlike conditions, so much of their energy and resources were devoted to fighting, and they didn’t have time to work out smooth systems, and (2) they were part of popular movements against capitalism, so they might have developed into more ideal arrangements as they gained both resources from capitalist hands and peace as their enemies receded. But couldn’t the latter possibility be posed for the Chinese communes as well? That is, if their “historical surroundings” had changed so that the pressure to supply large amounts of cheap grain and labor was relieved, mightn’t their communistic seedlings have come into bloom? Of course such counterfactuals are moot, as is the question of whether to attribute these seedlings to communistic elements in the minds of policy-makers such as Mao Zedong, popular initiatives or something else. My point is simply to encourage anti-capitalists of all stripes to recognize there are both positive and negative lessons to learn from the Chinese communes, as from any other experiments with new social relations one may point to.

1958-1961: The Great Leap Forward and the Formation of Junction Commune

I begin with the most controversial part, which is also the historical beginning. Endicott opens his account of the Great Leap by highlighting a concrete link between its origin in the worsening international situation of 1957 and the Leap’s impact on the peasants of Junction township (Lianglukou xiang) in Shifang county, Sichuan. At the grain station – housed in a former temple to the Fire God – where peasants carried their grain for sale to the government (by then the monopoly purchaser), in place of traditional couplets about weather and fortune, the Communist Party had inscribed the words “Behold the waves of anti-imperialist movements on the five continents – The imperialist powers are declining daily.” Endicott comments,

The link between this invisible but vaguely inspiring revolutionary outer world and the peasants’ grain could be inferred by the centerpiece: Chairman Mao’s portrait. Through the local broadcasting system everyone was familiar with Mao’s words… “Wait until we’ve made thirty million tons of steel… When we’ve achieved this, then we shall be able to negotiate with the Americans with a bit more spirit.” (44)

Endicott reminds us that, after a brief easing of relations with the US following the Korean War, China’s state planners had felt safe to revamp the national budget in the second five-year plan, reducing the size of the military, diverting spending from military and heavy industry to agriculture and light industries, raising living standards (in part by raising grain procurement prices), and developing international trade as a new source of capital (trade with many countries having been blocked by the US embargo). Unfortunately, “a sudden hardening of US policy towards China in 1957 threw the Chinese leaders into temporary confusion and dealt a fatal blow to their planning” (45). Cold warriors such as John Foster Dulles rose back to prominence in the US Congress and renewed their saber-rattling. “Between 1953 and 1958 the United States threatened China with nuclear attack seven times during the crises in Korea, Indo-China and the Offshore Islands in the Taiwan straits” (45). The Pentagon stationed guided missiles with nuclear capability on Taiwan and deployed the Seventh Fleet at several locations off the coast of China, the CIA increased its activities such as training Tibetan guerrillas (contributing to the 1959 uprising10), and the US boosted its military and economic aid to allies on China’s borders, including the anti-communist forces in Vietnam. Meanwhile the USSR – responding in part to China’s earlier moves toward détente with the US – became increasingly hostile, denying help in building a nuclear deterrent, demanding the immediate repayment of loans (including those for aid in the Korean War). “In response to the new situation Mao, along with most of China’s top leaders, proposed a self-reliant ‘great leap forward’ to mobilize the vast reserves of peasant labor in revolutionizing agriculture through communes and militias, and they made an appeal for local initiative to conquer China’s technological backwardness… aiming to reach the level of British industry in fifteen years” (46).

Here it requires a turn to Maurice Meisner’s history of the PRC to recall that “communization” (the transformation of agrarian townships into industrially diverse and self-sufficient communes) and “the transition from socialism to communism” were not part of the December 1957 Politburo proposal which launched the Leap. “Only a few months before Mao anticipated that it would take five years or more to consolidate the existing [simpler and smaller-scale] collective farms,” with private household plots and markets still constituting a significant parallel economy throughout China:

The communization movement involved the complex interplay of the spontaneous radicalism of rural cadres and poor peasants from below with the radical utopianism of Mao and Maoists from above… with the result that the movement acquired a fantastic momentum of its own and proceeded at a frantic tempo that far exceeded the hopes and expectations of even its most radical exponents. The first of the communes appeared on an experimental basis in Henan province in April 1958… [In July] the amalgamation of collectives into communes spread rapidly in Henan and Hebei provinces and certain areas of Manchuria. The movement spread without official Party sanction and with little central direction, but it received powerful ideological encouragement from Maoist leaders. In the July 1, 1958 issue of [the new Maoist periodical] Red Flag, Chen Boda… first used the term “people’s commune” to describe an expanded and reorganized collective in Hubei [which had] succeeded in combining agricultural and industrial production, and it had produced “all-round” people who were acquiring scientific and technological knowledge in the course of working, integrating “technological revolution” and “cultural revolution,” and learning to perform essential administrative functions as well as advanced production methods… thereby opening the road “on which our country can smoothly pass over from socialism to communism.”11

At the end of this article I examine the ideology underlying Chen Boda’s statement in more depth. Here let me just note in passing that the most important theoretical error of Maoism and the key to understanding why “communism” failed in China is, simply put, the belief that experimentation with communistic social relations implies an increase in the scale, efficiency and output of production, or in Marxist terms that the transition to communism goes naturally together with development of the forces of production – and this even while the state not only continues but intensifies its extraction of surplus-value to fuel such development.12

It should also be highlighted that the Maoists’ talk of “communism” was not just populist rhetoric. It would be difficult to make sense of campaigns such as the Leap without recognizing how they sought to diverge from the USSR’s more narrowly productivist model of development (which the Maoists regarded as having already led to the “restoration” of capitalism there,13 and which the dominant faction of China’s party-state leadership still advocated), and to promote experimentation with distribution according to need, mass participation in the planning and management of production, devolution of certain state functions to self-sufficient communes (including the goal of replacing the standing army with popular militias), mass supervision of elected leaders, women’s liberation, and “abolition of the three big differences” – between mental and manual labor, city and countryside, and workers and peasants.14

Endicott recounts how, in imitation of the communes in northern China being touted as national models, the leaders of Junction decided to pool all the township’s farmland, livestock, machinery and other means of production into one big commune to be managed by over 100 teams of about 30 to 40 households each,15 with food and other necessities provided for free in addition to monthly wages determined by democratically elected team accountants according to the amount of work each able-bodied member performed (52-67, 123). The commune adopted public canteens, nurseries, “homes of respect for the aged,” and “other collective welfare measures to emancipate women from the drudgery of the kitchen, and presently men and women began to receive wages for their labor, supplemented by free supply of such items as rice, oil, salt, soya sauce, vinegar and vegetables” (52), along with free “clothing, medicine, child-delivery, even your haircut” (57). This was declared as beginning “the gradual transition from the socialist principle of ‘to each according to his work’ to the communist principle of ‘to each according to his needs’” (52). As midwife Yang Yongxiu put it,

In the past all households (women) cooked, and looked after their own children while at the same time we women had to work in the fields. But with the opening of the canteens, cooks prepared meals for all the people. Special people raised pigs collectively and the children had kindergartens and nurseries and all the people who worked in these areas were elected by the commune members… I was the happiest I’d ever been. (55)

All this “absolute egalitarianism” is conventionally cited as a major factor leading to the famine, and to the alleged failure of the communes. Such an explanation seems ridiculous when we keep in mind that all along the state was squeezing large amounts of grain and labor from the communes. During the Leap, the campaign to “surpass the UK and catch up with the US” (and to use grain to repay China’s debt to the USSR), the belief that enthusiasm could increase output by improving farmers’ ability to cooperate on larger scales (even without modern farm machinery in many areas), and the practice of rewarding officials who reported higher grain yields all conspired to create an atmosphere where provincial and county governments put pressure on the communes to exaggerate their output and sell off more grain than they could afford to lose – long after shortages became obvious. Wang Daoquan, leader of MaGaoqiao village’s team #5, recalls,

One day [in late 1958] Deng Yuanming, our team accountant, went to the commune to report on our output of grain. He told them it was 500 jin per mu [250 kg/0.067 ha or 3.75 t/ha]. They turned him away saying, “No, that’s not the number. You can’t pass the gate.” We talked it over and sent him back a second time to say it was 700 jin per mu. Again they said no. They told him that if the number wasn’t up to 1,000 jin per mu then he could not get his figures accepted. So he said “Yes, yes, it is 1,000 jin.” Then he passed.

… This happened because those who could show the best results had a better chance to become a model or an official. It was another kind of competition…

In the spring of 1959 Chairman Mao became worried about the results of boasting and urged us not to accept unreasonable demands, but… [i]f people had some inner doubts, they didn’t dare speak them out because they noticed that cadres were dismissed for raising questions about the way things were going. (58-59)

Here Wang is referring to Mao’s April 1959 letter to local cadres encouraging them to reject such unreasonable demands from superiors, writing “It must be said the some of the lies are squeezed out by a higher level which brags, oppresses its subordinates, and indulges in wishful thinking, making life difficult for those who are under it” (249). Unfortunately Li Jingquan, party secretary of Sichuan, criticized this letter for “blowing a cold wind” on popular enthusiasm and ordered local officials to ignore it and maintain existing output targets (249). According to economic historian Chris Bramall, Li sought to gain entry to the Politburo by quickly pushing through more “Utopian” elements of the Leap, such as larger-scale brigade-level management over the more common team-level management, and then persisting in such practices long after they had been abandoned in other provinces due to the problems of combining such rapid and untested institutional change with high levels of extraction, and this partly accounts for why the famine was worse in Sichuan than any other province.16

The death toll is still highly disputed for China as a whole, with some scholars arguing it was actually lower than normal years prior to the Communist takeover and about the same as normal years in contemporary India (China’s annual death rate having fallen from 29/1,000 in 1949 to 12/1,000 in 1958 due to relative peace and dramatically improved access to food and health care, compared with 25.4/1,000 at the height of the famine in 1960 and 24.6/1,000 in India during the same year).17 But Bramall estimates 8-15 million excess deaths in Sichuan alone from 1958 to 1963, at a death rate of 54/1,000 in 1960.18 In Junction, Endicott estimates as many as one in ten people died during the famine, with 300 deaths in MaGaoqiao village alone – 20% of the population (55-56).

In addition to the fatal combination of rapid institutional change with increased grain collection under the conditions of an authoritarian system driven by military competition with the US along with bureaucrats’ pursuit of personal promotion, another major aspect of the Leap that also contributed to the famine was the chaotic beginning of rural industrialization. In Junction this consisted mainly of the “iron and steel campaign”:

Responding to the party’s call for self-reliant participation in the Great Leap, the county government asked each village in Shifang to recruit about seventy of its best, most capable young men and women for the new production front… To the beating of gongs and fireworks 11 per cent of the commune’s work-force marched out, banners waving, with their bed-rolls and cooking utensils, to discover ore bodies and establish a blast furnace high in the Dragon Gate Mountains. It was the same in other communes and soon the county mobilized 12,000 people to the task. (52)

As is well known, throughout China such campaigns contributed to the famine by suddenly diverting a large portion of the agricultural workforce out of farming even while the state was demanding more grain than before. It is also well publicized that much of the iron and steel produced by such campaigns and “backyard furnaces” was useless. In this case, however (and Bramall and others have reported similar cases elsewhere), the campaign did have a positive impact on Shifang’s long-term development. In addition to “gaining technical knowledge and new skills in social organization,” the iron-and-steel brigades discovered coal, limestone and phosphorus in the mountains. They built the county’s first railroad in a few months and started hauling these precious minerals out of the mountains in less than a year, laying a big part of the foundation for Shifang’s later industrialization. Considering that the major mode of transport in this area prior to the railroad was the shoulder-pole, it is important to note that “each engine could pull a load that would have taken a thousand peasants to carry on their shoulders” (53).

1962-1982: Two Decades of Egalitarian Development

Although Endicott does not put it in exactly these terms, accounts such as his make it clear that the main cause of the famine was the fact that the government suddenly diverted large amounts of agricultural labor-power into (often poorly-planned and fruitless) rural industrialization campaigns while simultaneously demanding more grain than previously (shipping much of it off to the USSR for debt repayment, while the latter suddenly withdrew all 1,200 of its technical advisors stationed in China). The famine was also complicated by the difficulties of adapting to the communes’ experimental arrangements for production and distribution, as well as by severe floods, droughts and pests affecting about 60% of China’s cultivated area (but not including Shifang).19 Nevertheless, both Mao’s contemporary right-wing opponents (led by then-president Liu Shaoqi and general secretary Deng Xiaoping) and anti-communists elsewhere, past and present, have laid the blame squarely on the “utopianism” of the communes’ social experimentation – especially their more communistic aspects such as need-based distribution.20 Then and now, Chinese Communist Party ideologues have framed this in Marxist terms, claiming that China’s forces of production were not yet developed enough to enable such “advanced” social relations, and eventually this became the main theoretical justification for completely dismantling the communes and marketizing Chinese society in general. But the gist of their argument is similar to the reasoning that has become hegemonic globally over the past few decades, encapsulated in what neoclassical economists call “the free-rider problem”: when people can use goods and services for free, and when contribution to the production of those goods is voluntary, people tend to consume more than they produce, leading to shortages and falling productivity. The solution proposed by both neoliberals and Dengists alike has been to use market mechanisms to discipline the masses into diligent producers and paying consumers. As Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and others have pointed out, such theories fail to account for the fact that many societies throughout human history and prehistory have managed to do well (at least in terms of sustainability and life expectancy) without regulation by such market mechanisms.21 I won’t get into the various explanations of how communistic arrangements (such as participatory management of common pool resources) work under certain conditions. Here I just want to highlight that the dominant explanation for the failure of communism in both China and elsewhere is not only inaccurate, but also highly ideological, in that it has been used historically to suppress experiments with egalitarian arrangements and restore the conditions for widening the gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside, mental and manual labor, managers and managed, etc.

At the time, the Dengists compromised with the Maoists, allowing the communes to remain with their more communistic aspects excised or scaled down. Many communes had already abandoned these experiments in response to the crisis, but the state also helped fertilize the sprouts of agrarian capitalism by restoring the “three small freedoms” – private plots, free markets and private sideline enterprises – and encouraging teams to contract land to households to raise productivity (66). (It was at this time that Deng Xiaoping made his famous statement that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” – it’s often forgotten that the “mice” implicitly referred not to peasant prosperity but to cheap grain for urbanites, soldiers and bureaucrats.22) Later, with stimulation from Maoist campaigns such as “learn from Dazhai” (Dazhai being a village in Shanxi touted as a model for “everyone getting rich together”), communes such as Junction resumed their attempts to combine the communist ideals of equality, need-based distribution and participatory management with the apparent requirement for some kind of labor incentives to maintain sufficient productivity for improving living standards while meeting state quotas. Certainly this problem would have been simpler if the latter pressure were removed, and some communists may think such problems are irrelevant under today’s conditions of abundance and high productivity, but (setting aside the question of whether many aspects of industrial production should be abandoned as unsustainable or alienating), it seems likely that this problem will remain to some extent until we figure out (following the Situationists23) how to make all the necessary and desired forms of production enjoyable enough that people will do them for fun.24 Junction never managed to find a perfect balance, but it did manage at least – experimenting with four different systems of remuneration – to gradually raise output and living standards while making sure everyone had access to sufficient food and health care, with the highest income in MaGaoqiao’s team #5 only four times the lowest in 1980, and 2/3 the households at roughly the same level of income (130).

After the Leap-era free-supply system was scrapped, Junction’s villages continued to supply all villagers with a basic grain ration and other goods accounting for about 1/3 of village income, only now it kept records, and if a household did not have enough work points to pay for it all at the end of the year, the household would accumulate interest-free debt until it was able to pay. Meanwhile, the teams experimented with various methods of remunerating labor democratically. The Dazhai system involved rating the value of each member’s labor on a scale of one to ten, through discussion among teammates, and then revising that rating once a month on the basis of one’s performance. If someone was rated 8, the accountant would credit her with 8 points for each full day of work (of any kind) and 4 points for each half day of work. This made it possible to reward people who worked more or harder than others at the end of the year, in a way that most regarded as fair. Unfortunately, this system

depended on a high level of social… consciousness among the members. If group meetings were poorly led or ineffective, a lazy person could go out and stand in the field gossiping half the day without doing much and still get his or her circle [credit for a full day of work], since rewards were not directly linked to results as in the piece-work contract system. (127)

This led to falling enthusiasm among those who felt they were not being reimbursed for working harder. After experimenting with this method from 1967 to 1971, the villagers went back to an earlier, more complicated system called “three contracts, one reward,” this time splitting the teams into smaller groups of accounting “so that members could feel more intimately accountable to each other” (129). Endicott’s description of this system (125) sounds similar to the system famously proposed six years later in Guanghan county (also in Sichuan), known as “contracting production to groups” (baochan dao zu). In the Dengist narrative of PRC history that has come to dominate the popular imagination, Guanghan’s adoption of this system is credited as one of a few spontaneous sparks of decollectivization, so it is important to note that (1) this was in fact quite different from decollectivization (fentian daohu), and (2) similar arrangements had been adopted elsewhere as early as 1971 and used successfully for many years prior to state-imposed decollectivization in 1982. Here is Chris Bramall’s description of the 1977 Guanghan innovation (abbreviated “BCDZ”):

Under BCDZ, the production team signed a contract with each work group in which the team agreed to allocate a certain number of work points to the group when it had met an output quota. If the group was able to over-fulfill its quota, it received extra workpoints or was even allowed to retain the entire surplus. In this way, a clear incentive was provided for output maximization. At the same time, however, the essentials of the collective economy were retained. The control of the means of production remained in the hands of the production team and the value of each work-point depended upon the performance of the entire production team. In effect, distribution remained the prerogative of the team even though production was decentralized to the group and ultimately to the household.

The baochan systems thus amounted to modified forms of collective farming. They sought to combine the positive incentive effects of small-scale farming with the capacity of the collective to mobilize surplus profits and labour for infrastructural projects. Thus baochan centred around the retention of the production team as the unit of account. Although groups and households received additional workpoints for over-fulfillment of their contract, the value of these workpoints was dependent upon the performance of other groups or households within the production team. Crucially, however, the awarding of workpoints in the late 1970s on the basis of output generated powerful incentive effects compared with both the task-based and Dazhai workpoint systems. It was the decentralization of production to households and groups that made this new system possible; collective workers in the Maoist era moved between jobs during the year and were rarely responsible for seeing a single crop through from beginning to end.25

This system wasn’t perfect either, but it sufficed to gradually raise incomes without sacrificing equality or the ability to conduct collective capital-construction projects (the key to Junction’s long-term development) for the remaining 11 years of the commune’s existence.

Probably the most admirable accomplishments of the commune system were in the area of public health. Life expectancy in Shifang doubled, from 33 to 66.7 years, between 1949 and 1980 (155-156), and in China as a whole rose from 35 to 68 years, with the fastest increase between 1965 and 1980, at one of the fastest rates in world history (whereas after 1980 the rate of increase slowed to below the world average, increasing only to 71.8 years as late as 2003).26 This was largely due to rural public health campaigns and experiments with “cooperative health care” beginning during the Great Leap Forward but really taking off in 1968. The Leap involved a national campaign to bring under control “the four pests” – originally defined as rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. (The latter was changed to bedbugs when people realized that killing sparrows increased the number of insects – a major ecological mistake that has been blamed for exacerbating the famine in some parts of China.27) This campaign soon expanded to include the snails that cause “snail fever” (schistosomiasis), an ancient scourge of China’s wet rice farming regions, with one in four people in Junction found to have the disease in the first systematic check in 1959 (159). The disease is fatal if allowed to run its course, and in earlier stages causes severe pain and disruption of metabolism, children’s maturation and women’s menstrual cycles. In the communes of Shifang county, the campaign against snail fever “followed a national pattern that included both medical and political dimensions”:

By means of posters, radio broadcasts, films, exhibitions and mass meetings the peasants learned the nature of their ancient enemy. Once they became aware of the sources… they joined in making plans and in forming a public health army to defeat it… Each production team appointed a medical orderly and organized groups of seven or eight people to gather the snails from the banks of the irrigation ditches. (159)

This campaign successfully reduced schistosomiasis but didn’t eliminate it, so in 1975 Shifang mobilized 50,000 people to revive the campaign:

They dug new irrigation ditches and filled in the old ones to eliminate the snails’ habitat. [They] tried to interrupt the life-cycle of the worms at another point by preventing feces containing live eggs from contaminating the fields… by making cement-lined pits to store the excrement for several weeks until the heat generated by the ammonia killed the parasites. (This process also created methane gas for cooking and lighting. At the end of five years 55 per cent of the families in [MaGaoqiao village] had such methane gas pits for curing fertilizer and also for creating inexpensive fuel.) (160)

In addition to such preventative measures, the campaign also sought to treat cases of infection through annual inspections starting in 1959:

The huge scale of this effort could only be accomplished by local people using simple, improvised methods with a minimal dependence on outside experts… Each [village] set up a temporary headquarters with about ten staff – one trained person from the county hospital, one person from the commune and the rest from the production teams. (160)

By 1982 the number of people with the disease in Junction was reduced to four. Sociologist Wang Ximing notes that in another part of the Western Sichuan Plain, where (unlike in most parts of China since decollectivization) the sub-village teams continue to hold annual assemblies and play an active role in public life, the teams have organized snail-hunts (mieluo) twice every year since 1957, and since 1960 no one has contracted snail fever. In a more typical village in Hubei where such collective activities disappeared long ago, in 2004 1,050 of the village’s 1,879 residents were found to have the disease, and eight had died from it in the past three years alone.28

The main component of the communes’ “public health revolution,” however, was the “cooperative health care” system and its “barefoot doctors.” In 1949 there was only one Western-style clinic in all of Shifang, and that was expensive and inaccessible for the vast majority of the population. There were a few doctors of traditional Chinese medicine in the market town of Junction, but they did not visit the villages and could not cure many common ailments in any case. After the Communist takeover, the new township government brought these doctors together to found a clinic, which added a doctor of Western medicine during the Leap. Finally in 1968, in response to Mao’s “June 26th Directive on Public Health,” the county bureau of public health gave Junction 20,000 yuan to establish a twenty-bed hospital with an X-ray machine and staff for several departments of both traditional and Western medicine, and it also launched the campaign to establish village clinics and train “barefoot doctors.” The latter were villagers trained by qualified doctors for three to six months in “basic first aid, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, the use of thermometers, the dispensing of vaccines by injection and drugs for influenza, stomach upsets and other common ailments” and paid in work points from each village’s collective fund, like any other villager. By 1975 such efforts resulted in raising the number of medical personnel in Shifang county from 592 to 3,420, among whom 658 were barefoot doctors (156-158).

The main problem the clinics faced was the cost of medical supplies. Junction’s leaders invited the commune members to submit proposals about how to deal with this problem, and one method they came up with was to grow medicinal herbs, which could be compensated in work points or used in lieu of the annual 3 yuan each member was supposed to contribute to the clinic. Any herbs not used by the clinics could be sold to the state to fund purchases of Western medical supplies. One village volunteered to experiment with this and soon it spread throughout the commune, and eventually – through media publicity – throughout Sichuan. (The province even funded the building of an auditorium seating 600 in the village in order to accommodate all the visitors who came to learn about this model.) Later some younger members of the commune who had returned home after attending college in the city set up a collectively-owned factory for making pills out of herbs grown in Junction. By 1985 this had grown to employ 106 commune members and sell four million yuan worth of medicine annually. Regarding the factory’s management, director Ran Shengxiang says,

We are all jointly masters of the enterprise, there is no such thing as giving bad treatment or beating workers. We have a workers’ congress and a women workers’ committee that join us in making plans and regulations. The financial position of the factory is posted on the wall at the end of every month for everyone to see…

Each month I take 48 yuan which is 40 per cent of my wage. This is for living expenses. The other 60 per cent will be linked to economic results… It is the same for everyone who works here. (166)

Unfortunately Endicott doesn’t go into any more detail about the extent to which the ideal of “democratic management” was practiced in Junction’s collective enterprises.29 As for the measures they took to contribute to the commune as a whole, Endicott notes that most of the enterprises used locally-produced raw materials (such as the herbs and other agricultural products, as well as the minerals from the nearby mines opened during the Leap) to produce goods that could be used by the commune (in medicine, agriculture, construction, home use, etc.) in addition to raising funds through sales. After taxes and administrative costs, the commune distributed the profits as “grants in support of schools, medical care, farmland reconstruction, purchase of farm machinery, or as bonuses to families that agreed to have only one child, according to the wishes of the various brigades,” with the remainder given directly to each team (93). In order to prevent the formation of a gap between enterprise employees and the other commune members (between “workers” and “peasants”), the commune devised a special system of remuneration:

The factory credited each worker supplied by the production team with work points and sent the cash (except for bonuses) to the production team for the general year-end distribution in which the workers also took part. Since factory work paid more than farm work, these work points boosted the value of the whole team’s work day rather than just benefiting a few individuals, and at the same time no widening gap appeared between the incomes of the workers and the peasants. In 1980, for example, this system boosted the average value of the work day on the commune from 78 cents to 90 cents, with the result that the average annual per capita income in the whole commune rose… from 152 yuan to 173 yuan. (92)

But the development of these enterprises was difficult at first, due in part to restrictions under the Liu Shaoqi government. Reasoning that the initial attempt to industrialize the communes during the Great Leap had played a role in causing the famine, in 1962 the government went to the opposite extreme by prohibiting communes from setting up new collective industrial enterprises “for years to come” (88). The leaders of Junction tried to circumvent that restriction in 1966, “adding an agricultural machinery workshop and a building construction team to the five small enterprises that had survived the Great Leap,” but, in the words of commune director Yang Changyou,

It was either not allowed at all, or if allowed then no help was given to get it going. Once an official from Chengdu, at the provincial level, helped us start a brick kiln, but then got into trouble for it. We could not get loans and our construction unit, with about thirty people, was not given permission to operate in the towns. (88)

It wasn’t until 1976 that the government resumed its support for rural industrialization, with Shifang county loans to rural enterprises rising from 150,000 yuan in 1974 to 1.7 million yuan in 1978, along with grants, technical advice and a three-year tax holiday (89-90). Junction’s collective enterprises rose from 9 in 1975 to 23 in 1982, by 1985 employing 2,300 people (up from 301 in 1975) and earning the commune 960,000 yuan (over 41,000 in 1975) (90).

Although Endicott doesn’t address the degree to which employees or other commune members were able to participate in the management of these enterprises, he does discuss some experiments with “mass supervision” of rural cadres. Most of these methods were flawed or even disastrous, and they rarely reached beyond the team level to exert any direct influence over the more powerful organs of the party-state or its system of “socialist primitive accumulation.” Nevertheless, along with the obvious negative lessons, we may also be able to glean some useful ideas from these efforts to increase the level of popular control over the administration of public affairs beyond the mechanism of periodic elections.

Meisner tells us that the “Four Clean-ups” campaign – part of the Socialist Education Movement formally launched in 1963 – was originally outlined by Mao Zedong as way to combat “the increasingly bureaucratic character of the Communist Party and the widespread corruption which pervaded local rural Party organs” by “mobilizing the masses” through independent “poor and lower-middle peasant associations.”30 By the time the campaign reached Junction in 1966, it had already been reformulated through compromise with Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, each of whom revised the Central Committee resolution to reflect their fear that such a campaign would threaten agricultural productivity and “the organizational viability of the CCP.” In this case, although the entire six-month procedure was initiated and directed by a special “work team” sent by the provincial CCP committee, it did “mobilize the masses” to form independent peasant associations supposed to monitor village and team cadres. Endicott does not discuss the associations’ long-term efficacy, except that they were officially dissolved after the Deng government repudiated the Cultural Revolution in 1981 (144).

I won’t go into to the somewhat absurd details of the Four Clean-ups. The upshot is that the provincial work teams convened village and team assemblies where the villagers criticized their cadres for alleged abuses of power, leading some to lose their positions (most of whom were reinstated in the next election), and scaring them all into “serving the people” more scrupulously in the future (97-111). One problem with this method of “mass supervision” is that it led to false accusations and unfounded personal attacks motivated by petty ambition and the competition to appear more “leftist.” In the similar “One Strike, Three Antis” campaign in 1968, the vice-leader of MaGaoqiao’s team #5 committed suicide out of stress and humiliation, even though his crimes seem minor (embezzling 150 yuan, cutting down three collectively-owned trees to make a wheelbarrow, etc.) (118-120). On the other hand, perhaps false accusations, humiliation and even occasional bloodshed are small prices to pay for the creation of a culture in which people in positions of power are afraid to abuse that power. Such spectacles of “mass criticism” may bear comparison with the macabre rituals and myths of certain “primitive communist” societies that function to forestall even the idea of trying to monopolize power or resources.31

The Cultural Revolution could be seen in part as an extension of this approach to “big democracy.” In Junction the compromise of local Red Guards (whose antics had paralyzed the commune administration) with an army-dispatched Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team resulted in the formation of a commune-level “revolutionary committee” in 1968, incorporating Red Guards and cadres into one organization (118). This replaced the former commune administration and presided over most of the experiments with egalitarian and participatory development discussed above, along with accomplishments in women’s liberation, education, farmland reconstruction and irrigation, until the commune was disbanded in 1982.

1982: State-led Decollectivization and Marketization

The rationale of the Deng Xiaoping government in dismantling the communes and promoting marketization has been discussed above. Here I want to add details from Red Earth indicating that these changes were not justified, at least in the case of Junction, even according to the Dengists’ narrow criterion of increasing economic output (in Deng’s words, whether or not the commune system “caught mice”).32

First there’s the question of whether the commune members wanted to decollectivize. According to Endicott,

Villagers at MaGaoqiao did not seem eager to give up collective farming. Those interviewed as late as 1981 reacted negatively to talk of structural reform returning the responsibility for production to individual households. In spite of the fact that they knew about such experiments elsewhere in Sichuan, they were not anxious to follow suit. (134)

At first I assumed the “experiments elsewhere in Sichuan” referred to Guanghan county, which is often touted as a pioneer of decollectivization, but it turns out (as mentioned above) that Guanghan’s 1977 experiment was with a form of collective farming similar to that devised in Junction as early as 1971. I have seen no evidence that peasants anywhere in Sichuan spontaneously proposed decollectivization.33 Zhao Ziyang (appointed by Deng Xiaoping as Sichuan’s party secretary in 1975) introduced experiments with decollectivization to 10% of Sichuan’s production teams in 1980, and asked the rest to follow suit in 1982, with 94% finally doing so by 1983.34 Apparently in 1981, 21% of Sichuan’s teams voluntarily decollectivized in imitation of the original 10%, and surely many peasants eagerly embraced the opportunity to return to family farming (Endicott’s account is ambiguous on this point, and the only two relevant quotations he provides – expressing uncertainty about the change – are from a team leader and the commune party secretary). But among the several Sichuan villages for which I am aware of such data, all waited until the government ordered them to decollectivize in 1982 or 1983, and one (Baoshan in Pengzhou) actually resisted the change, telling the government they had decollectivized but secretly continuing to use a collective system – a system which became a foundation for its now renowned “socialist” village economy.35

As for the question of income, Endicott reports that, in Junction, “the commune collective system (not including the private plots and household sidelines) tripled or even quadrupled (in the case of [MaGaoqiao’s] No. 5 production team) the individual peasant’s spending power from 1975 to 1982,” with Junction’s per capita net income rising from 78 yuan in 1975 to 240 in 1982 (135-136). This figure includes industrial enterprises as well as farming, but table 7 (231) shows that MaGaoqiao’s income from farming alone rose from 415,660 yuan in 1980 to 510,129 in 1982, while wages and profit distribution from commune industries rose from 17,000 to 83,000. However, it is important to note that this rise in income began only after a ten-year decline, indicated by Endicott in terms of a fall in the “value of the work day”36 at MaGaoqiao from 0.95 yuan in 1965 to 0.66 in 1970 and on down to 0.47 in 1975 (83). Endicott attributes this primarily to the combination of two factors: (1) “after 1966 the government did not increase the procurement price of grain again until 1979,” and (2) “escalating costs for the modern inputs needed to produce such high levels of commodity grain – the chemicals, plastic sheeting, hybrid plants, electricity, and tractors” – and let’s not forget the diesel fuel to run those tractors. “By 1975, ten years after the introduction of modern science to farming, expenses rose sharply from 15 to 26 per cent, while the annual per capita income from the collective collapsed from 51 yuan to a reported 17 yuan” (83). Table 12 (236) explains that (also in MaGaoqiao) the cost of “modern scientific inputs” for agriculture increased from 16% of income in 1965 to 26% in 1975, after which it began to fall slightly. Table 17 (241) shows that the percentage of income the farmers of MaGaoqiao got to keep after subtracting production costs, state taxes and village fees fell from 64.6% in 1965 to 59.4% in 1975, rising slightly to 63.5% in 1980. Here it’s especially interesting that this figure peaked at 78.3% in 1983 only because the county government temporarily lowered the price of agricultural inputs in order to offset popular criticism for its promotion of the enrichment of a minority of “specialized households,” i.e. entrepreneurs, as part of the Dengist push toward marketization and “letting a few people get rich first” (140). In 1985 (the last year in the table) after-tax net income fell back to 69.8%.

These figures strongly suggest that the roller coaster of peasant incomes from farming during these years had more to do with how the state priced grain and agricultural inputs in a given year than whether farming was organized collectively or individually. As for output, Endicott’s table 11 (235) shows that Junction’s grain output grew continuously from 1963 to 1982 (from 6,410 tons to 11,585), and actually fell (to 11,318 tons) in 1985 (the last year on the table). Rapeseed output likewise grew continuously (from 129 tons in 1963 to 650 in 1980), except that it fell slightly (to 635) in 1982. Crop yield (output per unit land, according to table 10 on page 234) for rice, wheat and rapeseed also rose continuously in Junction and nationally, with the national yield of rapeseed falling in 1983.

Endicott’s data for Junction is consistent with Chris Bramall’s study of Sichuan as a whole.37 There Bramall shows that agricultural output value grew by 9.1% in Sichuan between 1977 and 1982, but only 4.9% between 1982 and 1988, and the output value of commune-level collective industry grew faster during the first period as well (747). He also compared the gross value of agricultural and industrial output of different counties from 1975 to 1982, finding that output value increased 1.5% faster in those counties that had not yet decollectivized than in those that had already decollectivized before autumn 1982, concluding (albeit tentatively) that “If anything, decollectivization seems to have had an adverse effect upon the rate of increase.”

The evidence of Endicott and Bramall thus indicate that, in Sichuan at least, the communes did not fail to increase output for either agriculture or industry. Less clear in these accounts is whether and what percentage of peasants wanted decollectivization as such, rather than simply wanting better terms of trade and more control over production processes and products. Endicott does provide a detailed depiction of how the county party committee went systematically about dismantling the communes, promoting a few “specialized households” and marketizing social life, but I will leave that for you to read yourself.

Conclusion: What Could Have Been Done Differently under the Historical Circumstances?

In the first section of this paper I noted Endicott’s characterization of MaGaoqiao’s historical twists and turns as defined by “the struggle between individualism and collectivism,” and his fear that a new rich peasant class would prevail over the collective interest. I claimed that these statements point to a theoretical confusion among both proponents and detractors of the China’s agrarian commune system. Endicott’s own data introduced above suggest that the more important struggle determining both the prosperity of MaGaoqiao and the success or failure of its collective and individual endeavors alike was something more like a class struggle between the peasantry and the developmental state bureaucracy, the latter driven by a combination of defensive military competition with the major capitalist states and the bureaucrats’ individual pursuit of promotion to rapidly develop China’s forces of production and destruction. That is, the villagers’ fortunes seem to have fluctuated with the intensity of pressures to extract surplus-value from them, depending on how the state priced grain and agricultural inputs, how much grain and other products the peasantry was pressured to produce and hand over, and how much underpaid labor peasants were asked to contribute to rural capital construction.

This is not to say that such extraction was not at all beneficial to the peasantry in the long run. Some of the capital construction projects described in Red Earth resulted in new means of production controlled exclusively by village or team collectives: expanded, squared, leveled and irrigated farmland; fishponds, orchards, etc. And the peasants also used or otherwise seem to have benefitted from most of those projects that expanded state-owned facilities (canals, roads and railroads, mines, etc.) and commune-owned enterprises – at least until much of this (along with certain village and team means of production) was auctioned off and converted to the exclusive service of individual profit at the expense of collective interests. As for grain quotas and the price scissors, it could be argued that a period of such “socialist primitive accumulation” was the only way, under the historical conditions discussed above, for China to industrialize and militarily modernize enough to raise living standards through increasing productivity, improving access to modern health care, etc., while defending against imperialist threats. The plan was to squeeze the peasantry for a few years until a certain level of development was reached and then start reimbursing them by reversing the flow of value (fanbu). Writers such as Pao-yu Ching argue that this reversal had already begun to take place in the 1970s, since state investment in agriculture and the production of agricultural inputs increased, and the price scissors relaxed (that is, the terms of trade became more favorable to agriculture).38 On the other hand, the price scissors never disappeared or reversed (indeed, as mentioned above, grain procurement prices were frozen between 1966 and 1979), and increased state investment in agriculture and inputs meant only an increase in agricultural output and productivity, not a decrease in the rate of exploitation – as suggested by Endicott’s aforementioned figures for the falling “value of the work day” until 1975, which didn’t surpass the 1965 level until 1982. A better indication that a reversal was beginning may be the state’s massive reallocation of funding and trained personnel into rural health care and education after 1968.

In any case, while it seems accurate to say that the social wage (access to social services such as health care) rose from about 1968 and the rate of exploitation fell from about 1975, and that Mao and his followers intended all along to reverse the flow of value as soon as possible, my point is just that a more or less contradictory relation between peasantry and bureaucracy continued throughout the lifetime of the commune system. When this contradiction became intense – as during the Great Leap famine – peasants rebelled, refusing to sell grain to the state, hiding and defending it from teams sent to collect it, seizing grain from state granaries, and even taking up armed struggle and “seizing power” in some places.39 Some observers have also argued that the alleged low productivity of collective farming and many peasants’ tendency to focus energy and resources (such as manure) on their private plots were forms of resistance to state exploitation.40 It seems likely that, in some cases, peasants welcomed or even pushed for all-out decollectivization for this reason. But it’s also clear that their contradiction with the bureaucracy – and the state-owned capital whose interest it served – only grew following the few years of more favorable conditions mentioned above. To this was added a whole new set of contradictions with the formation of new exploitative classes or class-fractions: the minority of “rich peasants” mentioned by Endicott above (some of whom became capitalists), along with various other new forms of private and state capital, for which the profit motive and (now increasingly globalized) competition among firms combined with the previously dominant forces of defensive military competition and bureaucratism to increase the rate of exploitation and multiply its mechanisms (now including wage relations, interest on loans, predation by commercial middlemen, price-gouging by providers of services previously provided by the collective, etc.), to say nothing of the dramatic rise of direct expropriation of land and the often fatal pollution of water and air. Until the party-state resumed efforts to mitigate these contradictions around 2005, there should be no doubt that the degree of the peasantry’s exploitation by all these forms of capital in combination increased since the late 1980s, leading to rising frequency and scale of peasant resistance.41 But we must understand this not as something entirely new but a worsening, privatization and diversification of the contradictory relation that already existed in simpler, less antagonistic, “socialist” forms during the preceding periods.42

My aim in writing all this is not to point fingers at Mao-era China or the commune system as exploitative or authoritarian. In comparison with other cases of such rapid and large-scale modernization, such as Germany under Bismarck, the USSR under Stalin or Japan under Hirohito,43 China almost certainly modernized in the most egalitarian and democratic manner, without conquering new territories to provide cheap resources,44 and under particularly unfavorable conditions – including devastation by over a century of invasions and civil war, embargo and imperialist threats by the nuclear-armed US, and antagonistic relations with the USSR after 1957. My purpose is rather to show that the communistic experimentation associated with the Great Leap Forward and the agrarian commune system did not fail because of any inherent impracticality of communism, but basically because they were introduced by a party-state that was simultaneously (and arguably as a means to eventually realize communist goals) extracting surplus-value from the commune members. But were there other options under the historical conditions?

On an ideological level, as mentioned above, we can say at least that the Maoists were wrong to imagine the transition to communism as going naturally together with a rapid increase in output and development of productive capacity, especially under the multiply unfavorable conditions of the Great Leap Forward discussed above. More conventional Marxists (including the Dengists, as discussed above) take from this the lesson that the forces of production must achieve a certain high level of development before communization becomes possible, but this contradicts the apparent predominance of communistic arrangements among prehistorical societies and in many “primitive” groups observed throughout history. Even if we aim to incorporate modern science and technology into communist social relations, it is important to recognize both that these are not necessary precursors, and that communization would actually require abandoning or modifying many technologies, modes of organization and entire economic sectors developed for capitalist purposes.45 The Maoists apparently recognized this to some extent (promoting, for example, experimentation with various methods of participatory management and remuneration, and the introduction of new appropriate technologies such as methane-burning stoves). But the overall political/economic vision captured in Endicott’s phrase “the struggle between individualism and collectivism” takes for granted the high modernist faith in scale that still dominates the world’s thinking about agriculture, giving it a fatal Marxist twist by assuming, at the extreme, that the larger the scale of collectivization (of farming and as many other aspects of production and life as possible), the more communist an arrangement is. When reading texts such as Red Earth or Chen Boda’s influential comments (quoted above) on the first experiments with “people’s communes,” one wonders whether the consolidation of smaller into larger-scale units is being eulogized because it’s believed to be more egalitarian or more productive; apparently the assumption is that the two go naturally together. This contradicts millennia of experience that the most communist (i.e. the most participatory, egalitarian, democratic, etc.) arrangements that have also been the most successful – among both traditional and experimental formations – have tended to focus most production on small-scale cooperation, with larger-scale cooperation and exchange among small groups coordinated through voluntary federal, rhizomatic or segmentary lineage relations.46 This is not to say that communism can’t be done on a larger scale, or that it can’t be more productive than Neolithic technologies would allow. New technologies such as the internet have already begun to make possible certain forms of communistic cooperation on a global scale, and surely we could create more such technologies appropriate to making communism work on various scales and at higher levels of productivity. But the conventional Marxist beliefs that capitalist “socialization” of the forces of production points directly to communization of social relations, that communism can simply take over the existing capitalist technologies and ways of organizing production, and in the Chinese case, that essentially capitalist forces of production must be developed either prior to or during the transition to communism – all seem unfounded, mystical, and potentially dangerous.

On the other hand, even if the CCP recognized that communism neither requires development of productive capacity nor should simply adopt capitalist technologies or increase the scale of production, could they or the communes survive without doing so? Probably not, unless the imperialist threat of the major capitalist states disappeared from the picture. So the practical options for Chinese communists were (1) to focus their efforts on promoting revolution in the major capitalist states (not seriously considered, understandably), (2) to retire from the political sphere and wait until the conditions became more suitable for communization (as many Chinese anarchists did), (3) to shift gears to developing China as a nation-state, waiting until either China becomes the new global superpower or communization begins in the major capitalist states (as the Dengists essentially did), or (4) to try to do both at the same time, hoping to defend China’s sovereignty while beginning the transition to communism within Chinese territory, hoping the communist movement would spread and undermine the major capitalist states (as the Maoists arguably did).

One problem with the Maoist option is that, by developing China into a powerful nation-state, it created (despite all attempts at “cultural revolution”) the conditions for the bureaucracy inevitably engendered by such development to augment its power through marketization and globalization, dismantling the communes and pushing China ever further from communization.47 Another problem is that, even during the high tide of revolutionary internationalism in the late 1960s, the Maoist conflation of communism with development and state-building either turned potential supporters away or led to similar ideological confusion within their ranks – in both cases decreasing the chances for truly communist revolution in the major capitalist states.48

To recapitulate the main points of this paper, Endicott’s Red Earth, among other sources, indicates that

(1) at least some of the communes had communistic aspects, and were established as part of a movement conceptualized as beginning “the transition from socialism to communism”

(2) it was not those aspects that led to the Great Leap famine, but the combination of rapid institutional experimentation with a transfer of much of the rural workforce out of agriculture, even while the state was procuring more grain than before, in an ideological and bureaucratic atmosphere that rewarded exaggeration of yields

(3) some communistic experiments (such as need-based distribution) were abandoned and stigmatized because the famine was wrongly blamed on them

(4) output and yield of most major crops and rural industrial products grew throughout the commune period, some even faster toward the end of the period (1977-1982) than after decollectivization

(5) the global dominance of capital and capitalist states such as the US led most Chinese communists to focus on either state-building or attempting to combine state-building with communistic experiments; complete communization would have probably been impossible without revolution in the major capitalist states

(6) meanwhile, records of China’s “people’s communes” such as Red Earth provide some specific positive and negative lessons about how to organize post-capitalist arrangements in the future.

And that future becomes ever closer as the environmental and social crisis of global capitalism deepens. At the same time, China’s rise to replace the US as the global superpower renders anachronistic the historical limitations emphasized above: if the conditions for communization to begin in China were not yet ripe in the 1920s, 1950s or 1980s, there should be no doubt that they are approaching ripeness now.


— Husunzi, China Left Review, 2010


Chuang notes


  1. Except in this PDF from China Study Group, which also appears likely to disappear soon. The PDF includes footnotes omitted from this page – apologies for the dead hyperlinks.
  2. Also see “Maoism vs. Communism: A Debate” from China Study Group and “Confusing History with Spectacle” from Ultra.