Reflections on the Experience of the People's Commune

by Stephen Endicott

York University

In 1982 the Communist Party of China decided to abolish the people's communes and by that sweeping decision it encouraged many practices associated with capitalism and pre-capitalist culture to return to the Chinese countryside.

The land remained public property, but it was leased out by contract and for most purposes the commune families once again became independent small peasant producers responsible for their own profits and losses as in the early 1950's. In addition, except for grain and certain industrial crops, individual contracts made on the free market gradually replaced much state planning as the regulator of production.

Although exaggerated claims have been made about the success of

new agricultural policies,(1) economic results following restructuring proved positive, especially in non-farm rural economic activity. As for the output of agricultural products, they grew by 6.5 per cent each year in the decade after 1978 compared to a 5.7 per cent average annual growth in the preceding 14 years.(2)

But the economic gains of privatization entailed serious social costs. The leaders currently ascendant in the Communist Party are aware of the negative trends in the economy, trends which sparked massive popular support for the anti-government student demonstrations in Beijing in the spring of 1989: the price inflation, the unfair income distribution, mass migrations of unemployed peasants into cities, the corrupt practices of party officials and decline in social morals that flow from a new ideology that says `it is

Paper delivered at the Canadian Asian Studies Association, Laval University, Quebec City, 6 June 1989 (C)

glorious to get rich.' The process of building socialism has become unhitched from the goals of the socialist future.

After spending six months spread over eight years in the Sichuan

countryside from 1981 to 1988, I am of the opinion that responsibility for the difficulties attributed to the people's communes rest on certain policies adopted by the government of the day rather than on the advanced social formation through which production was organized even though that formation was by no means perfect.

Historical background

When Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, China was a nation of 500 million agricultural paupers.

The challenge that faced the party was how to organize and direct the energies of this vast mass of people so as to feed the population and create a wealthy and powerful nation in the context of something thought of as a New China that would lead into a socialist future.

After a few years of experimentation and preparation, the vehicle they chose was the rural people's commune combining industry, agriculture, trade, education and military affairs to become the basic units of state power.

The people's communes existed in the Chinese countryside from 1958 (or perhaps more properly from 1962 when they achieved a stable form) until 1982. In the end there were 54,000 of them, with an average population of 15,000, of which about half the members were able-bodied, the rest being too old, too young or disabled in some fashion.

During most of these two and a half decades the Chinese, as well as many foreign observers, considered the communes to be a socialist formation. That is to say they mainly had non-capitalist forms of ownership and organization, namely: (1) public rather than private ownership of the means of production; (2) production for social use rather than for individual profit; (3) regulation of production by social plan rather than the mechanism of the free-market. In addition there were two other aspects, less clearly defined, but essential to any socialist project for remaking history: (4) distribution according to work combined with social policies to promote a reduction of disparities between rich and poor, between town and country and between those who do mental and manual work; and (5) the search for political forms leading to a progressive distribution of power that allows people to check bureaucracy, to support women's liberation and the liberation of other oppressed groups. To one degree or another the people's communes combined all of these features.

As we are all aware there has been a sea change in attitudes to the rural socialist experiment in China. When the Chinese Communist Party summed up its history from 1949-1981 it did not even refer to the people's communes by name although some of their achievements were mentioned in passing.(3) Some formerly sympathetic Western observers have also changed their minds. In their view the people's communes, instead of having an innovative track record in developing socialist industrialization and rural development, represented a time of stagnation, a time of widening disparities and gaps between town and country with an increase of dictatorial powers by a self-serving bureaucracy.(4) Such reversals can only be the result of short memories, expressions of ideological apostasy or perhaps nervous exhaustion.

During the long history of the people's communes there were ups and downs, oscillations of policy, especially between those stressing economic development and others emphasising the need for concurrent social-political transformation. Mao Zedong led the latter group advocating the importance of continuous social change and what he called `the mass line' to prevent lop-sided economic development and the widening of gaps between rich and poor; he was prepared to pursue social revolution and experimentation even at the cost of some material output although he clearly expected that new, more just social relations would eventually spur enthusiasm for production. For the socialist future to emerge, in Mao's view it had to be present in the process.

The other group, led by Deng Xiaoping, criticised Mao's policy as leftism that led to errors "comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration."(5) Drawing upon what they consider to be a more orthodox Marxist analysis, this group holds that the pursuit of self-interest must be permitted in larger measure in China's present semi-industrialized economy in order to release pent up productive forces in society. Karl Marx, basing himself on European experience, believed that socialism could appear only after a capitalist stage of development had raised high the level of material output; he argued that socialism and communism could not be built on the basis of scarcity. Since China moved directly from semi-feudalism to a socialist revolution, missing the stage of capitalism, some of her new leading theoreticians have concluded that she requires an intermediate stage of `market socialism,' a term which has become a euphemism for `capitalism with Chinese characteristics.' Backtracking from socialism, China's current leaders are restructuring the economy in that sense.

Although Mao's successors are rejecting his practice they pay tribute to his powerful ability to theorize and they still claim to use Mao Zedong Thought as their guide. Mao's theory for simultaneous economic and social advance was based upon his analysis of China's history and experience. How well did Mao's socialism work?

A minority of the people's communes (estimated at 30%(6)) never functioned very well, but over-all, on the basis of grain output and other, non-farm activity of a collectivized agriculture (which included new physical arrangements for farming--field reconstruction, improved irrigation systems, mechanization, etc.--as well as new social relations among the 750 million peasants--brigades, production teams, small private plots for household use, commune rural enterprises etc.) China was without doubt able to make an impressive start on her industrial revolution. Creating a steel industry and a machine building capability that was the envy of the third world China also won the recognition of major first world economists. Economist Arthur G. Ashbrook Jr., in a summary of the achievements of the first three decades prepared for the U. S. Congress, writes:

The People's Republic of China has posted an impressive overall growth record. It has provisioned a huge and rapidly growing population, channelled a large fraction of output to the swift expansion of industrial capacity, and mastered ever-increasing amounts of post-World War II technology. In contrast to most other developing countries, China has steered clear of massive foreign debt, prevented uncontrolled migration into urban areas, devised a practical rural development and employment strategy, and established domestic production capacity for a variety of modern armaments.(7)

Simultaneously with the development of industry there came a dramatic improvement in the well-being of the people: life expectancy rose in China from 38 years in 1949 to 68 years by 1979. Considering the size of the population, almost a quarter of the human race, this is an advance in human health and welfare unprecedented in world history.

In spite of these successes, a number of unresolved problems remained in the operations of the rural economy under the people's communes: `five people doing the work of three' owing to population pressures, disagreements over work incentives, and a style of leadership that tended to degenerate into bureaucratic commandism. These difficulties were addressed in various ways.(8) But one vital flaw overshadowed all the achievements of the people's communes. The people might be healthy and they might be educated but they were poor. The disposable income for commune members remained low. After twenty strenuous years of building socialism in the countryside, the average annual per capita income in 1978 was just under US$35 (134 yuan).(9)

Based upon this flaw, members of the central committee of the Communist Party, after Mao's death, began raising doubts about the effectiveness of the people's communes. "We still do not know what socialism is or what it will be like in the future," said the post-Mao party leadership. "What we do know is that it is not a community of poverty, that is not socialism."(10) Most of all they blamed and exaggerated egalitarian income distribution policies of the people's communes and rigidities in state planning as deterrents to unlocking the productive forces.

The party leaders are trying to keep calm. "We have to find our own solutions," they say. "In the past we exaggerated the defects of capitalist society. Now that we have opened up to the West, people have seen differently. So we are being punished for our narrow views. So far we have not established the superiority of socialism as a social system that is better than capitalism."(11)

The difficulties, dislocations, confusions as well as the successes that the abrupt turnabout in agricultural policies caused are beyond the scope of this paper. Three questions, however, emerge relating to history and to theory: (1) what is the responsibility of the people's commune as a social formation for the low income of the peasants? (2) what theoretical conclusions, if any, may be drawn from the historical experience of building socialism in the Chinese countryside? and (3) what are the future prospects for co-operative, socialist agriculture in China?

About the low income of commune members

This is a question of special interest to Western Marxists because of its implications for the capabilities of a socialist system. Is it true, as some Chinese Marxists are saying, that compared to capitalism the socialist system as understood and practiced to date is incapable of creating the goods and services needed to sustain and raise living standards? Socialists who live in advanced industrial countries take the productivity of capitalism for granted and criticise its social injustices. The Chinese come abroad and admire the wealth of our societies. We find it frustrating that they are prepared to ignore the injustices while seeking to learn from the techniques of private enterprise as if the two are somehow unconnected. It is difficult to find a meeting of minds. But if Western Marxists are right about the eventual bankruptcy of capitalism then someday the Chinese may have to reconsider the theories and practice of Mao's Marxism.

The best proof for the thesis that responsibility for low disposable income for commune members rests with certain government policies rather than with the advanced social formation of the people's commune lies in the experience of the final four years of the communes after 1978. In these years the disposable income of commune members began to rise significantly. By 1982 the average net income per capita of the commune members was US$68 (270 yuan).(12) Thus in the last four years disposable incomes doubled, something that had taken twenty years to do under Mao's leadership of the commune social formation.

How did it happen? The answer is quite simple. With the communes still intact, Deng Xiaoping took a policy decision in late 1978 to make a massive investment in agriculture, reducing rural tax quotas, raising the effective price paid to farmers for grain by 40% (the first increase since 1966) and providing six times as much chemical fertilizer.(13) Naturally the peasants' enthusiasm rose and so did farm production! China's reformers like to point to figures for 1984, after the demise of the communes, when incomes reached US$88 (355 yuan), to suggest that it was the structural reform of the system, the return to small-scale peasant `household responsibility system' and contract (capitalist?) farming that made the difference. But the experience of the last years of the people's communes challenges this claim.

A question remains as to why Mao failed to raise the price for grain (and peasant incomes) for 12 years at a time when he was urging peasants to `take grain as the key link' and their costs for producing grain were rising. The paradox was that the more grain the peasants produced the poorer they became in terms of disposable income. (Their food grain was guaranteed by the `basic grain ration,' also known as the `iron rice bowl.') No explanation has ever been given for this policy lapse.

One hypothesis is that it related to the high cost of fighting the `paper tigers' of imperialism. During those years when both the super powers were China's enemies, China gave the Vietnamese US$20 billion to fight the American invasion and they supported liberation movements elsewhere, especially in Africa (Tanzam railway, etc.) to the tune of several billion. In addition the relocation of industry to the interior of China for defence purposes took up half the national capital construction funds for the decade after 1964.(14) Any attempt to understand the experience of China's socialist construction and the low incomes available to her people that fails to take into account the externally imposed costs on China's budget must be considered either uninformed or deliberately misleading.(15)

Another reason for the low disposable income of the commune members was that the communes were urged and directed to put the public interest ahead of private interest. Mao's strategy was to `strike while the iron is hot' by mobilizing the revolutionary energies of the masses in a self-reliant way to `transform the rivers and mountains' of China. His successors claim that China's economy would have made even greater strides had it not been for these mass movements. These claims can neither be proved nor disproved. However, the figures gathered over the years by the State Statistical Bureau do not take into account much of the work done by commune members. No estimates or published statistics exist for the billions of labour days invested in basic farmland capital construction from one end of the country to the other during the Cultural Revolution. If such calculations are ever made it is safe to say that they will dwarf the pyramids, the Great Wall or any other previous human construction in scale and social purpose many times over. The policy decisions of Mao and his central committee put a heavy burden on the peasants, did not raise their immediate disposable income, but they did create the debt free infrastructure (irrigation works, roads, railways, mines, oil wells, hydro power etc.) that have become the basis for China's later advances and for her ability to turn to consumer production. In addition it should not be forgotten that the people's communes supported social income policies that provided health care, educational and other services at a level never before reached in the Chinese countryside.

Theorizing about socialism as `a community of poverty' should take its point of departure from an honest and objective reading of history. Once the `iron rice bowl' was secured the socialist collectives did not fail to raise private income; they never tried, at least not until the last few years of their existence. Government policy on investment, not the advanced social formation represented by the people's commune, was responsible for the low disposable income of the peasants. It is true that egalitarian incentives created some difficult problems and capitalism with its appeal to greed might well have done better on that score, but then China would long ago have come to resemble Brasil or some other member of the world capitalist hinterland, shackled by foreign debt, victim of run-a-way inflation and witnessing an immense and growing gap between rich and poor. Wisely or not the path taken by the low-income people's communes resulted from choices adopted by the government of the day. It was the communes' socialist spirit that allowed China to travel so far.

About Historical Experience and the Theory of Socialism

In the wake of improved performance by the rural economy in the 1980's, China's Marxists have begun to search for theoretical postulates about such practice and to explain the failings of the socialist past. In this search academic authorities and state agencies are churning out a shower of theoretical papers like confetti at a wedding.

So far two accepted generalizations have emerged. The first is that China must have a socialism with Chinese characteristics. This formulation suggests a criticism of past practice. Too much weight on foreign (i.e. Soviet) examples in deciding the organization of agriculture. Perhaps large collectives, they argue, are not necessary, or not necessarily socialist. Lacking experience, China copied things that should not have been copied.

The second theory, put forward at the 13th Congress of the party, is that China is in the primary stage of socialism. A mistake was made, it is argued, in trying to leap over stages. Socialism must be built bit by bit making use of previously existing social formations in agriculture and industry until their productive usefulness is exhausted or superceded by the development of the productive forces. To try to jump over stages, to go beyond where the people are willing to follow, is to practice idealism, not Marxist materialism. According to this theory any means which increases the productive forces in the country spontaneously builds socialism, is socialist in nature. This theory sets the stage for the rebirth of capitalism in China. Some foreign observers, puzzled by the idea that socialism can emerge stronger by using non-socialist methods, call the new Chinese platform social capitalism.(16)

The head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who believes that capitalism is not practical for China, has projected a more Maoist proposition into the debate. "Socialism," wrote Hu Sheng in 1987, "will not grow spontaneously."(17) This conclusion is surely grounded in the experience of the Chinese revolution. Like any other social formation socialism requires committed supporters. It needs people who are ideologically awakened and sensitive to the regime of a collective where certain individual rights are given up in favour of social obligations and where private privilege gives way to social justice. It can grow only if it has a material base of collective organization and if every collective understands how each unit is related to its neighbour and to the layer upon layer of human organization and activity that is China. These things take a lot of commitment, require clear theoretical guidelines and strong practical leadership.

Future Prospects for Co-operative Agriculture in China

The prediction of political trends in China is a difficult and precarious matter. A Japanese specialist in Chinese agricultural development, who is well aware of formidable problems in the existing `individual farm' system and who suggests that China's rural areas are now "far more capitalistic than even those of Japan," predicts, nevertheless, that "the old system of socialist co-operative associations will never be restored in China." The main rationale he gives for this conclusion is the familiar one that the commune structure left many farmers as poor as they had been before collectivisation.(18)

A different conclusion is also possible. Through continued public ownership of the farm land, of the irrigation systems and of an impressive number of rural industrial enterprises that employ about half of the non-farm workforce,(19) the material base for socialist relations of production remains largely intact in the countryside. Successful examples of villages that resisted de-collectivization or that have re-collectivized can be found here and there scattered across the country, but especially in the north around Beijing.(20) The prospect of socialism remains in contention.

But for agriculture to move again in the direction of socialist cooperativisation on a large scale it is obvious that there will have to be another sea change in attitudes. Without a positive signal from the highest level there will be no major movement to strengthen the co-operative sector. As William Hinton has argued, a suitable climate is needed for co-ops to grow:

Credit policy, price policy, investment policy, mechanization policy, technical policy, inheritance policy, health care policy and many others must all favor cooperation. The thrust of culture must encourage `public first, self second' as the ethical norm. Slogans such as, "Some must get rich first,"...and "Enrich yourself" must be countered....some sort of proletarian counteroffensive that would at least challenge the current monopoly of the whole field by bourgeois standards and ideology.(21)

Such a vision has not appeared in the public speeches of party leaders nor in the Chinese media in the 1980's. But that does not mean that socialist collective thinking has vanished from the minds and hearts of people, both high and low. Even the most casual observers notice that Mao's prestige remains high in many sectors of Chinese society. And with the deteriorating economic and social situation that became so severe in 1988-1989(22) more and more questions are being raised about the viability of Deng Xiaoping's reform package as well as about the ideologically repugnant features associated with it.(23)

If the surviving agricultural collectives offer any guide, then I would venture that should China persist on the socialist road, it will be a modified form of the people's commune structure that takes root again. Participation will be more voluntary; there will be more room for individual side-line activity. China is a large country with regional variations and there have always been local differences in the application of the Communist Party's programme.

A capitalist model that is currently promoted is Da Qiu village which was visited by Jan Wong of the Globe and Mail in 1989. She writes: "A historian stumbling onto Da Qiu Village would be reminded of nothing so much as England's Industrial Revolution, compressed in time. There is the same unbridled greed, an emerging nouveau riche class and a miserable underpaid mass of workers." The village's six hundred families exploit the labour of 5,000 outsiders who earn half what villagers earn for similar work in the auto body plant. The outsiders live in dormitories while the villagers have new two-storey homes that are patrolled by German shepherds and armed guards.(24) Such a division of wealth is incompatible with a healthy social order, let alone socialist principles!

There are other models as well.

Doudian Village in the suburbs of Beijing is a village that decided not to divide up the land under the `household responsibility system.' Instead it `contracted' the land to itself and under other names maintains the co-operative forms of work and income distribution that worked under the people's commune. As the village prospers in output and per capita income there is no wide gap between rich and poor. Last year 40,000 people came to have a look. Many liked what they saw and Doudian's socialist example is spreading.(25) Thus, although the nature of China's political system precludes much publicity for those who differ from the ascendant view in the Central Committee, the Doudian example shows that despite the lure of capitalism the caravan of collective living continues to move forward and that Mao's theme of social solidarity keeps a strong beat in parts of China. In the spring of 1989 it is too early to pronounce eulogies on the demise of socialism. Things can change; they usually do in China.

1. See William Hinton in Deane and Hinton. 'Mao's rural policies: a debate,' Monthly Review, v. 40, (March 1989), pp. 33-34

2. Beijing Review, No. 39, 1988, 31; Lee Travers, 'Peasant non-agricultural production in the People's Republic of China,' in Joint Economic Committee, U. S. Congress (ed), China's Economy Looks Toward the Year 2000, v. 1 Washington D.C., (1986), 379

3. Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People's Republic of China, July 27, 1981, (Beijing, Foreign Languages Press, 1981), p. 14

4. Andrew Walder, "Actually existing Maoism,' The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs ,  No 18, (July 1987), 155ff

5.  Central Committee, op. cit. p. 41

 6.  Deane and Hinton, op. cit. p. 10

7.  Arthur G. Ashbrook Jr., 'China: economic modernization and long-term performance,' in Joint Economimc Committee, U. S. Congress, China Under the Four Modernizations, Part 1, (Washington, D.C., 1982),  p. 105

8. Louis Putterman, 'Group farming and work incentives in collective-era China,' Modern China, v. 14, No. 4, October 1988), pp. 419-450;  John H. Hamer, 'Can the collectivization of agriculture be made palatable through organization and incentives?' Peasant Studies, v. 15, No. 4, 1988, pp. 233-251;  Stephen Endicott, Red Earth: revolution in a Sichuan village, (Toronto, 1989) pp. 87ff, 123-127, 215-217

9. State Statistical Bureau, Statistical Yearbook of China 1983, (English edition, Hong Kong, 1983), p. 499

10. Interview, with members of the Central Committee, CCP, in Beijing, by the author in August 1988

11.  Ibid

12. State Statistical Bureau (1983), op. cit., p. 499; Lee Travers, 'Post-1978 rural economic policy and peasant income in China,' China Quarterly, No. 98, (june 1984), p. 245

13. Endicott (1989), op. cit., p. 134

14. Shigeru Ishikawa, 'China's economic growth since 1949 -- an assessment," China Quarterly, No. 94 (June 1983), p. 257; also Barry Naughton, "The Third Front: defence industrialization in the Chinese interior, China Quarterly, No. 115, (September 1988), pp. 351-386

15. Endicott (1989), op. cit.,  47-48, 250-251

16. Gordon White, 'The impact of economic reforms in the Chinese countryside: towards the politics of social capitalism?' Modern China, v. 13, No. 4, (October 1987), pp 411-440

17. Beijing Review, No.22, 1987, p.  24

18. Reitsu Kojima, 'Agricultural organization: new forms, new contradicitons,' China Quarterly, No. 116, (December 1988), pp.  733, 714

19. Lee Travers, 'Peasant non-agricultural production in the People's Republic of China,' (1986) op. cit. , p. 385; Christine Wong, 'Interpreting rural industrial growth in the post-Mao period,' Modern China, v. 14, No. 1, (January1988), pp. 21ff;  Ch'en Te-sheng, 'The development of town and township enterprises in mainland China since 1979,' Issues & Studies, 1986, 22(10), pp. 67-88

20. Liu Chenlie, 'Consolidating farmland for greater efficiency: Shunyi county pioneers a new 'appropriate-scale' farm system,' China Reconstructs, (May 1989), pp. 25-27;  Stephen Endicott, 'On and off the beaten track,' Canadian Far Eastern Newsletter, v. 40, No. 390, (October 1988), Supplement

21. Deane and Hinton (1989), op. cit., p. 35

22. State Statistical Bureau, 'The Chinese economy in 1988,' Beijing Review, No. 6, (1989) pp. 21-24

23. John Gittings, 'A new look at China's old questions,' Manchester Guardian Weekly, May 14, 1989

24. Jan Wong, 'Village offers glimpse into darker side of China's econommic reform,' Globe and Mail, January 10, 1989

25. Stephen Endicott, 'On and off the beaten track,' (1988) op. cit.