Isaac Deutscher 1955

Can Mao Collectivise Half a Billion Farmers?

Source: The Reporter, 1 December 1955. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

A few weeks ago, on 11 October, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China decided to embark firmly upon the collectivisation of farming. The decision was taken after an internal controversy which had been resolved by Mao Tse-tung in an address delivered to party secretaries on 31 July but kept secret until well along in October. This decision is a momentous event, and its consequences will occupy China, Asia and the world at large for decades to come. China’s ‘second revolution’ has begun. By its scale alone it dwarfs even the Soviet collectivisation of the early 1930s.

The Prodigious Schedule: A few plain figures indicate the magnitude of the task Mao’s government has set itself. Since the land reform of 1950-52 China has had about 110 million small farms, with a farming population of over 500 million, five times as numerous as the Soviet peasantry before collectivisation. Our imagination, accustomed to the European or the American scale of social developments, staggers when we consider that this enormous segment of humanity is to be collectivised, and to have its conditions of existence completely revolutionised within this decade.

By June 1955, 17 million small holdings (with a population of about 75 million) had already been merged in 650,000 cooperative farms. But the tempo is to be speeded up. Before the fall of 1956 another 16 or 17 million small holdings are to be similarly merged. By the spring of 1958 not less than one-half of the peasantry – 250 million people on 55 million holdings – are to have been transferred from private to cooperative farming, and within the following two years up to 1960, collectivisation is to embrace the whole of the peasantry.

What induces or compels the Chinese Communist Party to embark upon this prodigious and immensely risky undertaking?

Mao Tse-tung has set out some of the reasons, and they are familiar from the Russian experience. China’s supplies of food and raw materials, he said, are highly inadequate, especially if China is to carry out its plans of industrialisation and also support its swelling industrial and urban population. The primitive and backward mode of farming characteristic of the present tiny small holdings does not lend itself to a great increase in agricultural output. As in Russia in the 1920s, a cleavage has developed within the peasantry between the minority of wealthy peasants – ‘wealthy’ by Chinese standards – and the vast majority of the poor. The government is increasingly dependent on the wealthy farmers for the supply of raw materials and of food to the towns, and in this unwelcome dependence it senses a potential threat both to itself and to its newly socialised industry.

Mao spoke also about the strain imposed by a dense and rapidly growing population on the limited resources of cultivated land. China has at present only half an acre of tilled land per inhabitant, and in the southern provinces not more than one-fifth or one-sixth of an acre. Plans are laid for the opening up and colonisation of about 75 million acres of virgin soil by the mid-1960s. But this can be no more than a palliative in a country like China, whose population increases in a single decade by more than 100 million, or the equivalent of the combined populations of Great Britain and France. Rapid mechanisation and modernisation of agriculture – which to Marxists imply large-scale farming – are a matter of life and death.

The Horrible Example: Mao has repeatedly referred to the experience and the success of Soviet collectivisation, but his speech shows that he is haunted by the nightmares of that experience. He well remembers the Russian peasants’ bitter resistance to collectivisation, the great slaughter of cattle, the disastrous Russian harvests and famines, and the tense and bloody antagonism between Stalin’s government and the peasantry. He is evidently anxious to avoid a repetition of such calamities in his country, and has launched collectivisation in a spirit very different from Stalin’s. Daring though Mao’s scheme is, he is extremely prudent about the manner of its execution, and he is moderate in tone. He does not call for the ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class’. He insists, on the contrary, that the wealthy peasants must be permitted to carry on just as they did before.

He speaks in fact about the ‘cooperative farm’ with all its connotations. In almost every passage of his address he dwells on the principle of voluntary collectivisation. The peasant should join the cooperatives without compulsion, and he must also be completely free to contract out of it, says Mao.

The size of the Chinese cooperative farm is to be much smaller than that of the Russian kolkhoz. As a rule it is to contain only about twenty-five small holdings, so that the peasant will not feel lost and submerged in it. Collectivisation is to proceed through three stages. At first, ‘brigades of mutual assistance’ are to be formed. In these the peasants are to help each other to till their fields, without surrendering any of their possessions. Next will come the ‘semi-socialist cooperatives’. At this stage the peasant is expected to surrender his plot of land to the cooperative, but he is to retain ownership of cattle, agricultural implements, etc. These are to become the property of the ‘full-fledged socialist cooperative’ which is to be formed at the last stage, and even then the peasants are to be allowed to possess private vegetable gardens or small orchards.

These gradations are supposed to smooth the transition for the peasants. By 1960, when the whole peasantry is to be collectivised, the ‘semi-socialist’ rather than the ‘fully socialist’ cooperative will predominate. Stalin began his collectivist drive by hitting the peasant on the head and confiscating his cattle and agricultural implements. Mao’s much subtler design resembles schemes once advanced in Russia by anti-Stalinist groups, with whom Mao saw eye to eye in the 1920s.

Carrot or Stick? But will Mao be able to carry out so gigantic a revolution bloodlessly and with the peasantry’s consent? The great weakness of his scheme is that, like Stalin, he is trying to collectivise farming before the technical equipment – the tractors and modern implements necessary for large-scale farming – is available. This equipment, he says, cannot become available in sufficient quantities before the 1960s, when industrialisation will have progressed under China’s third and fourth Five-Year Plans. Thus, he concludes, it will take from twenty to twenty-five years before the socialisation of farming is completed and consolidated.

During most of that time, however, China’s agriculture will of necessity forfeit some of the advantages of small-scale farming, but will enjoy only very few of the advantages of large-scale farming. Will the peasants become restive in the meantime? And will Mao, despite his present prudence, attempt to break their resistance in the Stalinist manner by means of forcible collectivisation?

These questions have indeed been raised in the inner councils of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao himself says that he has had to deal with two groups of opposition. One group, like that of Bukharin and Rykov in Russia, has been fearful of the undertaking, and has urged a much slower tempo of collectivisation – Bukharin’s ‘snail’s pace’. The other group has pressed Mao to adopt the Stalinist method right away, and has argued that collectivisation is a surgical operation which cannot be carried out in instalments. The mere threat of it, this group holds, is sure to antagonise the peasants and to throw the country into turmoil. Consequently, the quicker and the more ruthlessly the job is done, the better. Mao has rejected this advice. It remains to be seen whether his own scheme will work.

Softly, Softly...’ The collectivisation drive is bound to have far-reaching consequences in the international field. These can only be briefly indicated. China will need vast quantities of farming machinery. Russia and East Germany will be able to meet only a fraction of the demand. It used to be said that if every Chinese decided to wear shirts one inch longer, that would be enough to keep Lancashire’s cotton industry employed for years. China’s demand for agricultural machinery could keep the world’s manufacturers of such machinery busy for a very long time to come. If ever there can be such a thing as an inexhaustible market, here it is – in theory. But to what extent, in practice, can China pay for imports? Could it obtain agricultural machinery from the West on credit? Peking’s rulers probably do not have many illusions on this score. But it would be surprising if they did not try to sound out Western countries and make some fairly big deals in the next few years.

The developments in China are bound to have tremendous repercussions throughout Asia. If, through bloody suppression, Mao’s government were to alienate the peasantry, whose support has so far been the main source of its strength, then Communist China would cease to exercise its present fascination on neighbouring nations, and its prestige would slump throughout Asia. If, on the other hand, gradual and bloodless collectivisation were to prove possible, then China’s attraction would be immensely enhanced. In any case, for about twenty years all the country’s energies will be absorbed in the domestic upheaval, just as Russia’s were in the 1930s. For this reason caution and prudence are most likely to govern China’s foreign policy during this long and critical period.