Tony Cliff

The Decline of the Chinese Communes

(Spring 1962)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, pp.18-22.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Tony Cliff is the author of Stalinist Russia, A Marxist Analysis (London 1955), Rosa Luxemberg (London 1960) and numerous other books and pamphlets on working-class problems. He has contributed several times to International Socialism, and frequently writes for Socialist Review. He is currently engaged on a political assessment of Trotsky and on a study of problems of collectivisation.

An event of the utmost international importance took place with the establishment of the Chinese People’s Communes – encompassing more than 500 million people – in 1958. The rise of the People’s Communes has been dealt with in a previous article (International Socialism, No.1) which also described their structure and functioning. In the two years since then radical changes have taken place. To understand them we will start by summing up the main features of the People’s Communes at the time of their rise.

In 1958 all the Chinese peasants were organized in 24,000 Communes with an average of over 20,000 people to a Commune. All land and other means of production, such as livestock and ploughs, were declared the common property of the Commune, which, besides managing agriculture, was to own and manage industrial undertakings, and educational and other social institutions such as schools, nurseries and hospitals. All members of the Commune were to be fed in a number of common mess-halls. The Commune was also declared to be a political-military unit of the State and Party.

The Commune ownership of practically all means of production was only a transition stage to state ownership, ‘the completion of which may take less tune – three or four years – in some places, and longer – five or six years or even longer – elsewhere.’ [1]

The transition to complete communism in China as a whole was on the horizon.

‘... the People’s Communes are the best form of organization for the attainment of socialism and gradual transition to communism. They will develop into the basic social units in communist society ... It seems that the attainment of communism in China is no longer a remote future event. We should actively use the form of the People’s Communes to explore the practical road of transition to communism.’ [2]

In tightening the control over peasants an end was put to the elements of private property that still existed in the agricultural producer co-operatives. As the Regulations of Weihsing Commune prescribed:

‘In changing over to the Commune the members of the co-operatives must turn over to the common ownership of the Commune all privately-owned plots of farmland and house sites and other means of production such as livestock, tree holdings, etc., on the basis that common ownership of the means of production is in the main the end. However the co-operative members may keep a small number) of domestic animals and fowls as private property.’ [3]

Thus the one loophole to individual ownership so characteristic of the Russian kolkhoz was stopped up in the People’s Communes.

To get control over individual consumption, a ‘supply system’ was established with emphasis on egalitarianism.

‘A number of the People’s Communes in Honan have instituted the supply system. Some provide their members with rice, others with rice and food dishes, all free of charge. Still others, better situated economically, are experimenting with a supply system whereby seven or ten of the basic requirements of life are given to the members gratis, in accordance with specific standards. The seven basic requirements are eating, clothing, housing, childbirth, education, medical treatment, marriage and funeral expenses; while the ten basic requirements cover eating, clothing, childbirth, marriage, funeral, education, housing, fuel for winter, haircut, and the theatre. Apart from the basic requirements of life the communes pay a certain subsidy to their members according to work done.’ [4]

This arrangement was a transitional stage to complete communist equality in consumption.

‘The adoption of the combined system of grain or meals supply and wage payment marks the beginning of the gradual transition to the stage of “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”’ [5]

The abolition of the private farm aimed to secure greater control over peasant labour. Peasants were made to work more than ever before. They were mobilized to work on water conservancy schemes, and in one year some 100 million men and women were engaged in this work. Tremendous efforts were made to mobilize peasants for industry, mining, etc. We are informed that ‘about 60,000,000 people are engaged in the operations of millions of new native iron-smelting and steel-refining furnaces which came into being in the country, forming an important force on the industrial front.’ [6]

Many millions of others were engaged in other industrial enterprises. Quite a considerable portion of the rural population were so employed.

‘Once set up, many People’s Communes took out 30 per cent and even about 50 per cent of the labourers to extract coal, to coke, to make charcoal, to exploit mines, to smelt iron and steel and to set up groups of native-type furnaces everywhere.’ [7]

To realize the ‘Great Leap’, a big effort was made to raise the rate of capital accumulation in the Communes. Thus, the People’s Daily recommended that 30-40 per cent of the net income of Communes should be put to reserves ‘over the following several years.’ [8]

Actually there is record of Communes which went even further in tightening the belts of their members for the sake of capital accumulation. Thus the Ho Shang Ch’iao People’s Commune of Chang Kehsien, in Honan Province, distributed only 29.3 per cent of its gross income among its members in 1958, while it devoted 58 per cent to reserves. [9] The Weihsing Commune in the same province gave individual members only 23.8 per cent of the gross income, allocating 57.8 per cent to reserves. [10]

This was the picture in 1958-9. However, Mao and his officials were later compelled to retreat from the positions gained.

The high tide of Commune building lasted only a few short months; then came the ebb. A turning point was reached in August 1959 at a Plenum of the Central Committee, which had to admit that the previously published statistics very much exaggerated the production results of the ‘Great Leap’. In the first flush of enthusiasm after the establishment of People’s Communes, it was announced that the total grain output reached 375 million tons in 1958, doubling that of the previous year. Cotton output at 3.32 million tons was also claimed to have doubled that of the previous year, and there were similar supposed increases for other agricultural products. [11] However, the August Plenum declared the figures to be grossly exaggerated, the real figures being 250 million tons for grains, or 35 per cent above 1957; and 2.1 million tons for cotton, or 28 per cent above 1957. [12]

The target figures for 1959 were cut drastically: grain from 525 million tons to 275 million tons; cotton from 5.2 million tons to 2.3 million tons.

The same session of the Central Committee criticised the Commune movement for ‘tendencies to overcentralisation, to egalitarianism and extravagance.’ [13]

The main conclusion regarding the organisational structure and functioning of the Communes was:

‘It is laid down that at the present stage a three-level ownership of the means of production should be applied in the People’s Communes. Ownership at the production-brigade level constitutes the basic order. Part of the ownership is vested on the Commune level (in addition to ownership of the public economic undertakings run by the Commune, the Commune can draw a suitable amount of accumulation funds annually from the income of the production-brigades). And there should also be a small part of the ownership vested in the production-team level.’ [14]

The production-brigade corresponds to the former agricultural production co-operative, and usually covers the area of a village; the production-team – previously lower agricultural producer co-operative – of some 10 to 20 families.

There is no more talk of the imminent transference of Commune property to full state ownership.

Elaborating upon the August 1959 Resolution, Ch’en Chen-jen, Deputy Director of the Rural Work Department of the Party Central Committee, defined the property and function of the production brigade thus:

‘Most of the land, draft-animals, farm tools and equipment for subsidiary occupations and other such means of production belong to the production-brigades; the production-brigade is the basic accounting unit; within the production-brigade, the products of the collective efforts of all the members are distributed in a unified way after paying the State tax and laying aside a small proportion for the accumulation fund of the Commune.’ [15]

The Commune now covers a much narrower field of ownership. It embraces Commune-operated industry, enterprises, large farming machines, the major means of transportation, and Commune-controlled capital accumulations and public welfare funds, for which it draws certain sums every year from the production-brigades. [16]

The 1959 Resolution put an end to the extremely high rates of accumulation. The individual peasant’s share of agricultural production, which was between 30 and 50 per cent during the Great Leap, was raised to about 60 per cent. Of this only 30 per cent was to be in the form of free supplies, ‘the rest in wages, corresponding to work performed.’ [17] This arrangement reversed previous efforts at greater equality.

In some Communes the percentage of ‘free supplies’ is even smaller than 30 per cent. A case is quoted where it was only 20 per cent [18]; information about other Communes shows no distribution of ‘free supplies’ at all. [19]

Even what is called ‘free supplies’, is not really so, and the pretence that it is has already been given up; and various accounting systems have been suggested for distribution. One suggestion is to have staple food per person fixed; if less is consumed the rest should be returned; vegetables and other such dishes should be charged according to the amount consumed. Another system proposed is monthly payment with an extra charge for extra food. Yet another, payment for food consumed, either by ration ticket or money. [20]

Really free supplies, in August 1958 described as the harbinger of rapidly approaching communism, are now ‘no more than a kind of most important and most reliable social insurance,’ covering only the sick and aged. [21]

With all these changes, it is no wonder that many Chinese concluded that the ‘People’s Communes have become an empty framework.’ [22]

In the high fever of Commune building, all garden plots, livestock and other property had been expropriated on the promise that all needs would be satisfied by the Commune. In the about-face, individual initiative and work were to play a significant role. Small plots of land were returned to individual householders for private cultivation. In addition, ‘the Commune members should be enabled to utilize their spare time to grow some food grains, melons, vegetables, and fruit trees, and raise some small domestic animals and domestic poultry on vacant plots of land and waste land. [23]

As a result, individual farming now plays quite a considerable role in the life of the peasantry. It was found, for example, in P’enghsing Commune, Hupeh Province, that the share of individual farming in the general income of production-brigade members was: 1st brigade, 36.38 per cent; 2nd brigade 28 per cent; 4th brigade, 19.76 per cent. [24] In Hsiaokang People’s Commune, Hupeh, peasants individually raised 65 per cent of all pigs sold and 95 per cent of all chickens and eggs sold. [25]

Peasants are now no more obliged to work on Commune enterprises. Thus, for instance, the Kwangtung Provincial Committee of the Communist Party decided that ‘the enterprises of the Communes (including those in the categories of industry, communications, forestry, animal husbandry, subsidiary production and fishery) are as a rule not allowed to draft more than 8 per cent of the labour power of the production-brigades.’ [26]

As the Commune has no land of its own and engages the peasants for only a very short period of the year, Commune enterprise ceased to be a significant source of income for the peasantry. Thus, a report entitled Correct Handling of Economic Relations between Collective Body and Commune Members in Feukong Production Brigade of Kwangtung Province, stated that the Commune members derived 64.5 per cent of their income from the production-brigade, 20.8 per cent from their respective production-teams, and 14.7 per cent from their own domestic sideline occupations. [27]

There is no more talk of accumulating 30, 40, 50 or as much as 60 per cent of the net income of the Communes! Instead:

‘The main theme of the distribution policy now in force in the People’s Communes is to keep less and distribute more and enable not less than 90 per cent of all Commune members to receive a better income.

‘... As a rule, in 1960, the contributions to the public reserves and common benefit funds of the Communes accounted for only about 5 per cent of their total income.’ [28]

The establishment of communism has ceased to be a target realizable in a matter of years, but ‘an historical process which can be completed through many stages of development in several decades or even in one century’. [29]

On December 29, 1960, the New China News Agency reported that ‘60 million hectares of land, or even half of China’s total farmland, was attacked by natural calamities this year. Of this, 20-26 million hectares were seriously affected with some land producing nothing.’

Drought was the major cause of the disaster, damaging 30 million hectares of cultivated land and affecting almost every province except Sinkiang and Tibet. Hopei, Honan, Shantung and Shansi provinces were ‘most seriously hit’, with 60 per cent of their farmland subjected to a ‘protracted dry spell’ which in general lasted six to seven months. For forty days, from March to June, there was virtually no flow of water in the lower stream of the Yellow River in two counties of Shantung Province.

Typhoons and water-logging were the next most serious causes of disaster affecting twenty provinces. The regions principally hit were the North East, Shantung, Fukien, Kiangsu and coastal Kwangtung. Eleven typhoons hit the country during the year, and this was said to be the greatest number for 50 years.

Other calamities included hailstorms, frost, insect pests and plant diseases. Some areas were attacked by one catastrophe after another. Eastern Shantung is said to have been hit first by spring drought, then by rainstorms caused by typhoons, hailstorms, frosts, pests and plant diseases. [30]

The People’s Daily summed up the effect of natural calamities thus: ‘In 1959 ... over 500 million mow (sixth of an acre) of farm land suffered natural calamities, and in 1960 over 600 million mow of farm land was stricken.’ [31] Premier Chou En-Lai admitted to the American journalist Edgar Snow that 1959 and 1960 had been years of the ‘most serious natural calamities that China has encountered in the twentieth century.’

Under the impact of these natural calamities, whose effects were aggravated by previous agricultural policies, the leaders of China were forced to retreat even further from the original pattern of People’s Communes.

The end of 1960 saw a further retreat from the original pattern of the People’s Commune.

The August 1959 Central Committee Resolution had shifted certain spheres of administration from the Commune to the production brigade, making the latter the pivot of ownership, production and distribution; the beginning of 1961 saw a further shift to the production team as the basic unit of operation. This was done by separating rights of ownership and usufruct. The former continued to be vested in the production brigades, but the usufruct of land, labour, draft animals, farming tools, was vested permanently in the production-team.

‘... Our present stage takes the production-teams as the basic unit for organising production, and basically all manpower, land, draft animals and agricultural implements owned by the production brigade are allocated and fixed to the production teams (the so-called “four-fixed”). The production brigade holds the production teams responsible for their output, manpower, and production cost, and institutes the system of rewards for extra production (the so-called “three guarantee and one reward” system).’ [31]

Furthermore, ‘in as much as land-use rights have been assured the production team, crop planting rights must also be transferred to the production team.’ Thus while the production brigade would continue to determine general production plans and targets, the production team would have the right, within these general limits, to operate freely. Actually, in fixing the general targets, the production brigade is obliged to consult the production team. Thus on the whole the production brigade has become, instead of an operating unit, a control-administrative unit.

An accompaniment of the shift of emphasis of management from Commune to production brigade and then to production team, has inevitably been growing inequality.

In each production team ‘the amount of consumer funds ... is distributed according to work-points earned by each person. (This is somewhat like the piece-wage system enforced in factories) and is issued to Commune members several times a year.’ [32]

‘... as the income level varies with different production teams, the value of work-points will be different while the amount of pay obtained by members of each production team will not be the same. And members within the same production team will get different amounts of income because of different work-points earned.’ [33]

The year 1961 saw a further cut in the rate of accumulation. Production brigades were now allowed to deduct only up to 3 per cent of their income for accumulation. [34]

‘Of the reserve fund in the income deducted for accumulation, the greater part is placed at the disposal of the production brigades; and a small part is delivered to the Commune as a prescribed ratio.’ [35]

The hullabaloo about Commune-run industry subsided completely. Now we are informed:

‘For initiating Commune industry, rural People’s Communes should depend mainly on the profits of Commune enterprises and Communes’ reserve funds and may not expect funds either from above (the State) or from below (brigades). Under present conditions, Commune industry should generally not take up more than 2 per cent of the total number of labourers in production brigades. [36] Production brigade enterprises and undertakings – which cover a much wider field than industry – ‘should generally not take up more than 5 per cent of the total number of labourers of production teams.’ [37]

Hardly a remnant remains of the original pattern of the People’s Communes.

The decline of the People’s Communes shows clearly that forced collectivisation is less suitable and more fraught with danger in a country with intensive agriculture like China than it is in a country with a largely extensive agriculture like Russia. The failure of forced collectivisation in China was forecast a couple of years before the establishment of the People’s Communes. The main reasons for pessimism were as follows:

‘In Russia, State control over the Machine Tractor Stations guaranteed that a big portion of whatever the peasants produced would go into the State treasury to provide capital for industrialisation. In China the role of the machine tractor stations – even in the few places where they do exist – could not be as commanding, as intensive agriculture, especially garden cultivation is not, and could not be, as dependent upon mechanisation. The converse of this greater importance of human labour is that the will to work, care and zeal in production play a much greater role in China’s agriculture than in Russia’s. Forced deliveries, together with the emphasis on heavy industry, inevitably pour cold water on the peasant’s desire to increase production: not only is he prevented from eating more but no consumer goods are offered to induce him to sell his surplus output. And without inducement, increased output from intensive agriculture is most unlikely.

‘The conclusion that the pattern of Russian collectivisation is likely to prove a false guide to China gains support from the economic history of the two countries. Ever since Chinese agriculture became dependent on irrigation, serfdom gave place to a peasant economy based on private property. However exploited and oppressed the peasant may have been, it was not the whip which urged him to work, As against this, serfdom and the feudal whip were the salient features of rural society in Russia, with its extensive agriculture, for a thousand years.’ [38]

The failure of the People’s Communes has led to the exacerbation of relations between poor, struggling China and rich, self-sufficient, ungenerous Russia.

The fate of the People’s Communes has already had and will certainly in future have a decisive influence not only on giant China, but also on the prospects of Communism in> other Asian countries (most of whom also depend on intensive agriculture).

Over the last few years, since 1956, hardly any credit has gone from Russia to China. There was some flow before this, but information about it is shrouded in mystery. However, some light is thrown on the subject by figures for foreign trade. As the trade between the two countries is bilateral, it is clear that where China’s imports from Russia are larger than exports to Russia, this reflects actual credit given to China. This was the situation in 1953, 1954 and 1955. In these years the balance of China’s imports over her exports to Russia was 231 million dollars in the first year, 181 million in the second, and 99 million in the third. However, the picture has changed radically since. In 1956 China’s exports exceeded her imports from Russia by 31 million dollars, and in 1957 by 94 million. [39]


1. People’s Communes in China, Peking 1958, p.7.

2. Ibid., p.8.

3. Hung Chi (Red Flag), editorial, September 1, 1958, Ibid., p.63.

4. Ibid., p.37.

5. Ibid., October 1, 1958, p.55.

6. Peking, New China News Agency (hereafter referred to as NCNA), November 19, 1958.

7. Hung Chi (Red Flag), January 1, 1959. Extracts from China Mainland Magazines (Hereafter referred to as ECMM) 158.

8. Jen Min Jih Pao (People’s Daily), Peking (hereafter referred to as JMJP), October 31, 1958. Survey of China’s Mainland Press (hereafter referred to as SCMP) 1961.

9. Tung Chi Kung Tso (Statistical Work), November 14, 1958.

10. JMJP, September 20, 1958. SCMP 1875.

11. Peking, NCNA, April 14, 1959.

12. Peking, NCNA, August 26, 1959.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. JMJP, October 18, 1959. SCMP 2125.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Lanchow, Kansu Jih Pao, June 15, 1959, SCMP 2079.

19. JMJP, October 18, 1959, SCMP 2125.

20. Chung Kuo Ch’ing Nien (China Youth), June 16, 1959.

21. Ibid., April 16, 1959. ECMM 179.

22. Ibid., September 6, 1959, SCMP 2104.

23. Peking, Chung Kuo Ch’ing Nien Pao (China Youth Daily), July 8, 1959. SCMP 2086.

24. JMJP, August 24, 1959. SCMP 2092.

25. Ibid.

26. JMJP, July 11, 1960. SCMP 2301.

27. JMJP, February 2, 1961. SCMP 2439.

28. Peking, Ta Kung Pao, February 10, 1961. SCMP 2465.

29. Canton, Nan Fang Jih Pao (Southern Daily), September 15, SCMP 2120.

30. China Quarterly, London, No.6, 1961.

31. JMJP, August 25, 1960. SCMP 2333.

32. Chung Kuo Ch’ing Nien (China Youth), January 1, 1961. Selections from China’s Mainland Magazines 246.

33. Peking, Kung Jen Jih Pao (Daily Worker), July 21, 1961. CB 669.

34. Kung Jen Jih Pao (Daily Worker), Peking, July 21, 1961. CB 669.

35. Peking, Chung Kuo Ch’ing Nien Pao (China Youth Daily), January 18, 1961. CB 648.

36. Peking, Kung Jen Jih Pao (Daily Worker), July 28, 1961. CB 669.

37. Ibid.

38. Y. Gluckstein, Mao’s China, London 1957, pp.171-2.

39. N.B. Scott, Sino-Soviet Trade, Soviet Studies, Oxford, October 1958; and United Nations, Economic Survey of Asia and the Far East, 1958, Bangkok, 1958, p.103.


Last updated on 2 March 2010