Cochran Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Bert Cochran

New Thunder out of Communist China

(April 1959)

From American Socialist, April 1959.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Learning from Russian experience and from their own earlier efforts, the Communist regime in China has adopted distinctly new and different ideas of economic planning. The first results are New Thunder Out of Communist China

THE Chinese Communists, like the Biblical apostles, are fond of Prophetic sayings. One of their favorites now is Marx’s remark that there are periods when 20 years are compressed into one day. They are living up to the prophecy. The country is working as if driven by all the furies of hell. The slogan is ‘to catch up with and outstrip Britain in fifteen years.’ At the rate they are going, they won’t need fifteen years – those that don’t break down with nervous exhaustion in the meantime. The Western geopolitical analysts are with good reason worrying about the contours of power in 1980. China is blasting her way out of the sloth of centuries with a demonic speed that is defying all precedents.

Up to 1957, it appeared as if China would follow the path blazed by Stalin in Russia. With the completion of the first (1952-1957) Five Year Plan, the leaders could congratulate themselves on having forced through collectivization without the embittered struggle and disruption of production that attended Stalin’s effort. As the plan had gathered speed, better than 20 percent of the growing national income went into accumulation; gross industrial output considerably better than doubled in five years, rising 19 percent annually; while gross agricultural production brought up the rear, going up a quarter in the five-year span. The original outline of the second (1958–1962) Plan augured a continuation of the same: the sinking of the bulk of the funds into large basic industrial complexes, the neglect of consumer industries, a chronic agricultural lag, and the proliferation of a heavy apparatus to continue forcing the pace by the administrative whip. This was Stalin’s method of industrializing – and it had become frozen into a Communist dogma as the only way the job could be done.

BUT the Hungarian and Polish affairs in late 1956 produced a crisis in the highly tensed Chinese society in its Communist leadership as well. The façade of unanimity in the party councils makes it impossible to see the precise lineups, hut the anonymously directed polemics are evidence that a serious debate was afoot on economic policy inside the party paralleling the debate on the outside. Caught off-guard by the boldness of the liberal opposition that responded to Mao’s invitation to ‘let a hundred flowers bloom,’ the Communist heads resolved to extirpate all dissent in a new massive ‘rectification campaign.’ From May to the end of the year, the campaign raged first in the party, then in the government bureaus, then in the ranks of the cities and the countryside. It is a terrifying and somewhat obscene business getting a whole nation ‘rectified,’ going through mass scenes of mummery and confessions under the watchful eye of Big Brother, with the folks finally getting their ideological metabolism properly adjusted through purgations of criticism and self-criticism.

When the rectification was finished, the botanical question which Mao had left in a twilight haze was once and for all cleared up. Reported Liu Shao-chi to the May 1918 Communist Party Congress: ‘The reactionary rightists of the bourgeoisie claimed to be one of the hundred socialist flowers. But that was simply a fraud. They can’t be recognized as such ... Since poisonous weeds exist objectively, if we did not allow them to grow as they are, they would have appeared in disguise, and poisoned the people in secret. We had better tell them openly: ‘Poisonous weeds are illegal, they’ve got to be uprooted when they grow. But we do not stop you from sprouting if you want to. Whoever wants to come out and fight, let them do so!’ Liu assured the Congress that ‘this policy had proved very effective.’ There is no ground to question the assertion.

The ramifications of the rectification campaign can be gathered from General Secretary Teng Hsiao-ping’s September 1957 report to the Central Committee. He explained that since the opening of the free market, the middle peasants in the collectives had been wavering, resisting state purchases, and speculating in grain. To make matters worse, ‘a serious right-deviationist view showed itself in the party’ to the effect that there was no longer any need to stress class divisions in the countryside. We learn further that ‘Capitalist ideology has also gained ground among a few cadres in the rural areas, with the changed economic status of their families.’ The report outlined an intricate set of methods to be employed to carry on the struggle in the countryside. As for the workers, their socialist education had to be polished up so that they would correctly grasp their role as the leaders in the socialist revolution, which role was to consist of developing ‘the excellent tradition of working hard, the noble characteristics of justice and selflessness, produce more, be industrious and economical.’ Among the subjects to be discussed in factories was listed ‘relation between workers and peasants (here the discussion should be centered mainly on why the workers’ living standards should not be much higher than those of the peasants).‘

WHILE the political lid was clamped on tight, the regime slowed down the economic pace drastically through most of 1957, cleaned up some of the loose ends and plugged up holes in the imbalanced economy. Free markets had already been set up in the final quarter of 1956 to correct the maladjustment between supply and demand, as shortages had developed in food items and consumer goods, as well as pig iron, steel, timber, and cement. Once the propaganda campaign was pretty well along, the economic campaign was resumed full blast. The big news of the 1958 ‘Big Leap’ was not that after a year of consolidation, the breakneck race for production had been resumed, nor even that prodigal records had been piled up. The big news was that China had veered away from a number of unsatisfactory Stalinist patterns which it slavishly adhered to in the first plan, and had evolved a new integrated concept of growth more suited to her needs and background. The new pattern produces better results, permits a more harmonious growth of the economy, and offers the possibility of better compensation to the people who are doing the sweating and sacrificing.

The change in concept, compared to the first plan, is basic. At the start, Chinese planning was rudimentary. The complete plan figures were not published until mid-1955 when the plan period was half over. A delegation of leading Chinese had gone to Moscow in late 1952 and negotiated for Soviet assistance until mid-1953. It appears that the general scope of the Chinese plan was determined in the course of these discussions. The Soviet Union finally agreed to help build 91 large scale construction projects, which with the 50 previously contracted brought the total to 141. These became the foundation of the five-year plan.

Stalin was an imperialist-minded tyrant and exacted far-reaching concessions in return for the assistance. Had his rule continued, he might have brought relations with the Chinese to the pass to which he brought them with Tito. Fortunately he departed that year. The new Soviet heads displayed better judgement in the matter. In late 1954, when Khrushchev and Bulganin visited Peking, they increased the number of aid projects to 156, announced a new $130 million loan, and agreed to dissolve the joint-stock companies that Stalin had forced on the Chinese. Russian thinking naturally dominated much of the plan organization, as the Chinese lacked experience and had to depend on the experts sent them. The extent of the dependence can be gauged from the statement of China’s top economic planner: ‘On the 156 industrial projects which the Soviet Union is helping us to build, she assists us throughout the whole process from start to finish, from geological surveying, selecting construction sites, collecting basic data for designing, supplying equipment, directing the work of construction, installation, and getting into production, and supplying technical information, right down to directing the manufacture of new products.’ But the Chinese are apt pupils and learned fast.

A FEW general considerations of the experience in planning will help clarify what is going on in China today. One of the major criticisms of Russian planning, voiced by Trotsky in the thirties, and taken up by some of the Yugoslav and Polish economists recently, was that it lacked proportion. The disequilibriums between agriculture and industry, between producer-goods industry and consumer-goods industry, between transportation facilities and plant requirements, led to high costs and enormous wastage. The argument went on that the chase after specific high targets and an arbitrary maximization of the accumulation fund did not necessarily lead to maximum rates of actual growth. In the pell-mell race for statistical records, general]y in specific basic industries, costs were disregarded, slipshod work containing big percentages of rejects was pushed through, while necessary interlocking industries were neglected or ignored. Finally, the neglect of consumer goods and lack of attention to producers’ living conditions, lowered productivity. In other words, it was claimed that planning is not a simple matter of the larger the accumulation and capital investment, the faster the rate of growth. A somewhat smaller capital investment, with greater attention paid to the harmonious development of the intermeshing links of agriculture, transportation, heavy and light divisions of industry, and concern for the welfare of the human atoms making up the labor force, might under certain circumstances increase the actual growth rate. The problem was one of delicate balance and coordination rather than a rough-house race regardless of human and monetary costs. This ‘equilibrium’ thesis had a corollary: Russian planning was too centralized and top-heavy. To accurately plan the economy of a huge country, millions of people would have to he drawn into the process, checking, providing grass-roots knowledge, giving down-to-earth reports of what was actually going on in their localities. Costly mistakes and soul-less bureaucratism were inevitable unless the rank and file participated.

A DIFFERENT kind of theoretical concept was forged by Professor Ragnar Nurske in his important work, Problems of Capital Formation in Underdeveloped Countries, published in 1953. Economists have analyzed for many years the twin scourges of rural overpopulation and underemployment in backward agricultural societies and how industrialization pointed the only way out of the cul de sac. But how to break out of the vicious circle and start industrializing? Professor Nurske came up with a novel solution (although he mistakenly thought it had no application for a densely populated country like China). You don’t need, he said, a huge capital investment to achieve substantial increases in labor productivity. If you can put the rural folk to work half to two-thirds of whom have nothing to do for over half of the year, their annual production would increase enormously. Since they eat after a fashion while they are doing nothing, it would be sufficient to give them just a little more food while getting them to work. The largest part of their increased production could be treated as a social investment fund. Once this has been set up, you have the basis for large scale industrialization, not by lowering, but by increasing the standard of living. Professor Nurske discussed various possibilities of raising agricultural production by fertilization and irrigation operated with low-cost methods, from shoveling the mud out of river beds for use as fertilizers to the digging of thousands of small canals. As for equipment, he proposed the importation of a large mass of cheap simple tools, and to start the peasantry producing the most necessary primitive tools on their own.

Whether these critical writings actually influenced the Chinese, or whether they came to their conclusions through their own deductions, or both – is not important. The fact is they decided from their experience of the disarray of the economy after the first plan that they needed a change along the lines of the two propositions just discussed. No revised draft of the second plan has been published as yet, and it is probable that no such complete draft is in existence, as conditions are changing so rapidly from year to year. But the new watchword for planning is ‘walking on two legs,’ by which is meant the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture, heavy and light industry. As Po I-po thunders out the new dispensation:

‘The law of planned and proportionate development must be observed in expanding the socialist economy ... There must be all-round arrangements so that every branch can develop proportionately.’

The implementation of this line necessitated the stress on conservation and irrigation projects and the buildup of local industry. This in turn required widespread participation of tens of millions of people, from which derived the so-called ‘mass line’ for planning.

HERE is how the new course shaped up in practice. Beginning with the winter of 1957, great armies of rural laborers were mobilized for thousands of local regional irrigation and conservation projects. A number of these were enormous modern engineering ventures organized by the central government and requiring sizable investments of equipment. The bulk were smaller affairs of a labor-intense character involving little investment. work, financed in great part by the food supplied to the laborers, has been estimated to have added an actual third to the total accumulation fund. According to Liu Shao-chi the government invested 1,450 million yuan to harness the Huai river, and completed over 1,600 million cubic meters of masonry and earth work in eight years. But by means of labor, money, and material resources of the peasants themselves, in six months of the winter of 1957 and spring of 1958, more than 12,000 million cubic meters of masonry and earth work were completed in Honan and Anhwei provinces alone.

China’s use of chemical fertilizer is still negligible, and dependent on foreign sources for most of that. The original plan looked forward to the manufacture of three million tons in 1962, which would only provide under 20 pounds per acre as against Japan’s use of 40 times as much per acre. But it is remarkable to note that in this same period, the peasants accumulated 15¼ billion tons of crude and mud fertilizers with which they were able to achieve startling results. The two main efforts, improved irrigation and increased use of fertilizer, coupled with better seed election and control of pests and plant diseases, has been sufficient for spectacular increases in 1958 which revolutionized all perspectives. Where the original figure for grain was 250 million tons, later revised downward to 240 million tons for 1962, production for 1958 is now estimated at 350 to 375 million tons – double last year’s crop. Where the raw cotton target was 2⅖ million tons, later revised downward to 2⅙ million tons for 1962, production for 1958 was estimated at 3⅓ million tons – again, a doubling of production within one year. Output of cured tobacco, sugar cane and sugar beets doubled. Other farm produce increased by 20 to 40 percent. It was assumed by Westerners, as the reports of bumper crops came in, that the sown area had been considerably extended. But Liao Lu-yen, the Minister of Agriculture, explained that the area enlargement was very slight; the increases were due primarily to higher yields unit.

WHAT is one to make of these figures? There has never been reported anything like it. The most spectacular example of agricultural advance in a population-congested has been that of Japan. It was able to double agricultural production prior to mechanization from 1885 to 1915, a period of thirty years, by standardization, seed selection, improved irrigation, scientific management, and large uses of commercial fertilizers. In this thirty-year span, output by three-quarters, a rate of increase of 2⅖ percent per year, with the rural population declining while the national population was rapidly growing. Western experts convinced that this type of advance was excluded for China, as her population density was already extreme and growing at an alarming rate, and her productivity per acre was high, much of her farming being practically of the garden type.

The 1958 achievement has demolished this Western expertise. It has demonstrated that once the social barriers to the scientific application of production techniques and utilization of labor are swept away, even in a country as thickly inhabited as China (where a smaller acreage than of the United States supports a population 3¾ times as large), productivity advances are possible of a magnitude and at a rate that no one had dared suggest before. Even if we downgrade the figures considerably (as Chinese statistics necessarily have a high component of inaccuracy, and the Communists have a tradition of juggling with figures), it is still unimpeachable, as many Western observers have attested, that agricultural production has been revolutionized and the whole economic perspective has altered for the better.

The next stage in the ‘leap forward’ came in the spring of 1958 when small workshops and local industries were set up in thousands of villages. This is the sharpest point of the break with the Stalinist tradition of planning, as the collectivization and conservation campaigns were not so much distinct in conception as in execution and performance. Stalin’s plans provided no bridge from the technology of the eighteenth or seventeenth century to the last word of the twentieth. Unskilled workers but recently recruited from backward villages were put to work on the most complex and intricate engineering structures under the tutelage of experts, a considerable number of whom were hired from abroad in the early years. There was no proportionality between the different parts of the economy. Industry was constantly running short of parts, fuel, raw materials. Deliveries were rarely in accordance with the schedule. There was no realistic provision for the housing, clothing, and feeding of the swiftly growing working class. The party machine had to substitute for the market as the regulatory machine. Naturally, big mistakes were unavoidable, the disequilibrium produced chaotic conditions in many lines, and the over-centralization made for unbearable rigidity and bureaucratism. What Stalin never understood after 25 years, the Chinese learned in four. Already in his February speech, Mao adumbrated the new concept. He said:

‘As China is a great agricultural country, with over 80 percent of its population in the villages, its industry and agriculture must be developed simultaneously. Only then will industry have raw materials and a market, and only thus will it be possible to accumulate fairly large funds for the building up of a powerful heavy industry ... Hence what may seem to be a slower pace of industrialization is actually not so, and indeed the tempo may even be speeded up.’

BY the spring of 1958, the new line as laid down by the party was ‘to oppose any tendency to chase only after the latest technical equipment, while failing to make full use of all that is on hand; to oppose any tendency to overemphasize the role of experts to the disparagement of the great role that can be played by the workers and peasants in developing new production techniques.’ The results have probably left Professor Nurske breathless. According to official statistics, more than 15,000 medium and small factories and mines were set up on the county level, and two million workshops, more than 30,000 of which work regularly the year round, were turning out mountains of goods from pig iron and steel (or at least stuff that is called steel), to farm implements, simple machinery, and a variety of consumers’ products. China, it should be remembered, suffered cruelly from rural underemployment. Even in 1955 the national average was computed at somewhere around 125 work-days per year. But in 1958, the villager labored 300 days, with only two days rest a month provided for. Rural underemployment had turned into overemployment.

The big advantage of local and cottage industry is that it permits the immediate output of a considerable amount of simple production based on indigenous techniques calling for very small investment, and making possible an immediate improvement in the mass living standard. Because results are quickly seen, people can be enlisted for continuing efforts to hurtle the next economic challenges. Here in a nutshell lies the possibility of industrializing a backward country without big foreign investments while slowly raising rather than lowering living standards. The January 6, 1959 Peking Review reported that

‘Although more projects were built in the past year than during the entire first Five Year Plan, the total investment was less than half the amount invested in the 1953–1957 period. This was possible because the costs of construction were reduced in many cases by more than one half as indigenous methods were combined with modern methods, materials locally available were used to the full and excessively high standards were lowered.’

This new pattern of work unleashed the initiative of masses of people and the results have been little short of miraculous. The September 1958 China Reconstructs gives the flavor of some of the doings:

In mountainous Yunnan, where over two million new tools have been popularized, the emphasis has been on transport. The watchword became: ‘End carrying on tile back, the shoulders and the head.’ This was spurred by the need to free manpower for other farm tasks. A wheelbarrow can free two people and take five or six times as much per trip as a set of baskets on a pole, while an oxcart releases nine peasants for other jobs. These low-cost wooden vehicles have been made at the co-ops in large numbers. Together with wooden rail systems for short hauls on reservoir projects, they have raised efficiency 15 to 20 times and in some places 40 or 50 times.

Ho Ting, a once poverty-stricken peasant from Honan province who never had a day of schooling in his youth, devised a system of wooden earth-carriers moving on overhead cables with an automatic dump and return mechanism which reduces by eight times the amount of labor needed to build a reservoir ...

Over 3,000 inventions from all parts of the country were brought together for exhibition this spring at the College of Agricultural Mechanization just outside Peking. To it came thousands of farmer delegates to study the devices, sketch them, take home scale models or blueprints, and otherwise consult on farm tool problems. Similar exhibitions have been held in almost every province and region. Copies of 300 of the most widely used farm tools from the Peking exhibition are being sent to every provincial show. By mid-summer more than 30,000 types of tools have been invented or improved and tens of millions were in use.

Business Week (December 13, 1958) can sneer that the peasants are up to fourteenth-century technical standards. To be sure, the techniques are crude. But what counts is that they represent a big rise in Chinese productivity, a utilization of wasted manpower, an addition to the total wealth, and an effective school for industrialization. A serious problem would arise, as in Russia under the NEP, if cottage industry based on crude techniques were to become the substitute for the buildup of modern industry. But China is going ahead with both: Cottage industry is used to fill some of the gaps while great modern industrial enterprises are being erected.

THE Communist leaders were bowled over by the results obtained from the two innovations in agricultural development and establishment of local industry. All their targets had been left far behind. They called an extraordinary meeting of the Central Committee, held August 17–30, 1958, which proceeded to raise the sights all along the line, in modern industry as well as agricultural. But the most controversial decision of all was to establish ‘People’s Communes.’ The exact origin of the communes is obscure, but apparently a number of the regional leaders set up on their own during the summer some coordinated systems on county levels as they found the collective inadequate for the organization of vast public works projects, and for the accumulations of raw materials and manpower to feed the local industries. In any case, by the middle of August, the Communist hierarchs, according to the Yugoslavs, after embittered debates in the Political Bureau, took the plunge and issued the directive to reorganize the countryside along communal lines. So effective is the Communist organizational machinery that within two months, 90 percent of the peasant households were swept into the communal maw. By December it was all over: 740,000 collectives had been converted into 26,000 communes consisting of 120 million households. The speed of the operation seems to indicate that many of the pre-conditions for the communes had al ready been established during the public works and local industry drives.

The commune has replaced the township as well as the individual collective and is now the governmental, legal, economic, administrative, and social center. The governing committee runs its own courts, directs the local militia, issues all directives and edicts, and operates the common enterprises, which according to figures at the end of 1958 added up to 1,400,000 public restaurants, 1,200,000 crêches, and a variety of free services like public baths, barbering establishments, tailoring shops, medical clinic commissaries, etc. All the property of the collective far has now become the property of the communes, an even the midget personal holdings have been largely take over. When R.H.S. Crossman, the British journalist, who visited a number of communes last autumn, asked an elderly peasant whether he objected to turning over personal farm and private livestock, he got the reply: ‘We work too hard and too long here to manage a private plot.’ He told Crossman what he had left was his house, garden trees, and fowls. The communes are able to exercise considerable local initiative, but they are rigidly bound as their rights and obligations by the central authority. They are permitted to barter some of their goods with other communes, but they cannot sell in the open market (which has likewise been sharply curtailed in the past months), and prices and selling arrangements are fixed by the government.

THE Mao entourage has on more than one occasion exhibited strong gambling traits. Under the mood of success in 1958, many of them thought that they had discovered a short cut to full-blown communism via a virtual militarization of the whole Chinese people. The original resolution promulgating the communes declared:

‘It seems 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.’

An editorial appeared in the theoretical journal, Red Flag, in September, which explained that of the ten measures that Marx and Engels had held necessary in the Communist Manifesto to establish a communist society, eight had already been realized in China, and the remaining two were on the way to being carried out. Next there was talk of abolishing wages. On October 11, the People’s Daily ran an article called Abolish the Ideology of Bourgeois Rights. The authors called for doing away with wages and demanded, ‘Who got wages on the Long March?’ The Hshushui Commune announced that it had already eliminated the wage system.

These ideas of hurtling into the society of the free and equal by way of a Spartan sharing of the scarcity are like echoes of Russia’s ‘War Communism.’ The mood there was similarly heroic and military. Voicing a thought that was common to all the leading Bolsheviks at the time, Trotsky said in 1920:

‘We are now advancing towards a type of labor socially regulated on the basis of an economic plan ... compulsory for every worker. That is the foundation of socialism ... And once we have recognized this, we thereby recognize ... the right of the workers’ state to send each working man and woman to the place where they are needed for the fulfillment of economic tasks ...’

Lenin personally participated in a ‘Communist Saturday’ (unpaid work) to give an example, and the active workers engaged in Trotsky’s emergency campaign for the rehabilitation of the prostrate transportation system were called udarniki, shock troops. Bukharin that year in his Economics of the Transition Period argued that compulsory labor service, which under capitalism meant ‘enslavement,’ was simply ‘the self-organization of the working class’ under the proletarian state. In the Russian case, all these notions of a forced march to communism evaporated when the government had to give way to the peasant with the announcement of the NEP in 1921.

The hubbub in Western Communist circles about the new miraculous Chinese short-cut to communism was abruptly silenced by the frigid reaction of the Russians. Khrushchev told Senator Humphrey that the communal system wouldn’t work. Mikoyan remarked in the course of his American visit that they had tried the same thing in Russia, and had to give it up. The Polish Communist press went to great pains to explain that whatever merits the scheme possessed for China, it had no application at all for Poland. The Yugoslav press emphatically rejected the communes. Nova Makedonija claimed that the year before ‘750,000 members of the security organs’ had been employed to quell armed peasant revolts, and that terror had been widely used to push the peasants into the communes.

IN fairness to the Chinese communes, it should be pointed out that the Russian analogy is of limited application. The Russian experiment of payments in kind to workers and barter arrangements between plants and cooperatives took place in the depths of the civil war when industry was progressively breaking down and inflation was destroying the value of the currency. The requisition of the peasant’s grain by armed formations from the cities, the regimentation of labor and the ad hoc quasi-communistic arrangements to feed and clothe the people, were less the result of ideology than the grim necessities forced upon the regime. They were the only way to prosecute the civil war and keep things from going under in the general dislocation and disintegration. Once the imperative of the civil war was removed, the system of compulsion fell apart. But that didn’t end the matter. Ten years later, tinder other circumstances, a semi-militarization of labor was again put into effect under Stalin’s industrialization, and whatever its true worth in most effectively mobilizing labor, and whatever justification it may or may not have from the socialist and humanist point of view, it ‘worked,’ in John Dewey’s sense of the term.

The Chinese communes have been created – were one to use the Russian political calendar – not in 1919, but in 1934. The country is not only making remarkable economic progress but living conditions are slowly improving. Moreover, the communes are not simply a mechanism of compulsion for the forced extraction of the peasant’s produce, or the seizure of his personal holdings, but part of an integrated constructive framework to organize beneficial public works, local industries, and public services. To arrive at any reasonable estimate of the communes and their future, one has to consider their different functions. There has been a good deal of philistinism, not to mention cold-war humbuggery, in the American press criticism. It is unnecessary to spend too much time on a good many of the self-righteous journalistic moralists who have flung up their hands in horror at the horrendous breaking up of ancient Chinese traditions. The destruction of what traditions are they so exercised about? The patriarchal family where women were held in virtual bondage? Where daughters were sold into concubinage and prostitution? Where hunger was the most stable feature of the peasant’s life? Many of the communal services, like public restaurants, free medical centers, children’s nurseries, do not only free labor for work in the fields and public projects, but arc clearly a marked improvement in the living conditions of the rural people, who for centuries have never had enough to eat, who have had to eke out their life necessities under the most primitive and back-breaking conditions. To read some of the heart-rending accounts in our pulp press about the separation of children from parents, and the tragedy of communal feeding, one would imagine that the writers had never heard of plant cafeterias and child nurseries in our own country. This type of criticism is not to be taken seriously.

ON the other hand, one must reject all utopian notions about the institution being a bridge to communism. The society of the free and equal, without compulsion or domination – or any society that is a half-way reasonable facsimile thereof – can only come when there is an abundance of material goods, when the most acute adjustments have been righted – and most probably when the acute conflicts between nations have been ameliorated. To imagine that all this can come via rural settlements in China whose per capita output cannot equal England’s or Germany’s for another forty years, is to indulge in the fantasies of Russian nineteenth-century populism. The process of accumulation in China will inevitably breed an income differentiation in the countryside no less than in the cities – just as it has in Russia. Even were it barred from the front entrance by communal fiat, it would re-enter by the rear door Before long, we will be reading about rich communes, poor communes, and rich and poor members within same communes.

As a matter of fact, after a few months of frenzied socialization, the regime was forced to spell out its objectives more in keeping with the facts. The December 10 resolution of the Communist Central Committee first called a halt to any further spread of the communes. They were not to be introduced into the cites for a while until ‘the skeptics and doubters have been convinced.’ Furthermore, the organizers were told to understand ‘socialist ownership by the whole people’ will not realized ‘very soon,’ and they are not to lose sight the fact that the properties and output of the commune are ‘collectively owned by the communes and differ from those of the state-owned enterprises.’ Further, every Marxist must soberly realize that the transition socialism to communism is a fairly long and complicated process of development,’ and therefore the abandonment of wage payments can not be rushed. As a matter of fact ‘the communes must strive gradually to increase the wealth of their members and, for a number of years to come, must increase them at a rate faster than that portion of the income which comes under the heading of free supply’. To set the communist Eldorado further back, the resolution added that wage scales should be divided into to eight grades, ‘and the highest grade may be four more times as much as the lowest grade.’

When divested of high-flown rhetoric and stripped of illusions, the communes can be compared to the ill-fated agro-town scheme projected some years back by Khrushchev. Why was the proposition dropped like a hot potato in Russia, and why has it been pushed through in China? Mao Tse-tung has provided the essential explanation. The people of China are like ‘a sheet of blank paper.’ Nothing is written on a blank sheet, ‘but it lends itself admirably to receive the latest and most beautiful words.’ Others have idealized the same fact by declaring that the Chinese have not been morally and intellectually contaminated by capitalism.

WELL, we don’t want to pile too many crimes on the shoulders of capitalism. True, it has bred a highly property-minded class of petty proprietors whose social he horizons are narrow if not non-existent. This has traditionally been considered a debit by socialists. But the highly developed sense of individualism of this class, its stubbornness in arranging its own affairs, its hostility to regimentation by the government, is an expression of the general flowering of the human personality under capitalism. This has been thought hitherto as providing the groundwork for the onward march of humanity. We can probably accept as fact that the Chinese were successfully hustled out of semi-feudal villages into collectives, and now into communes, because they never had a sturdy, independent yeomanry, and that this very backwardness may save them some troubles in industrializing the country. But if we are going to idealize ‘blank sheets of paper,’ then we have to provide in the beneficent society of the future a class of mandarins who will do the beautiful writing, and a class of helots who will docilely do the reading. Under that arrangement, who is to guarantee the continuing wisdom and benevolence of the mandarins? And even if some deity were to underwrite this clause in the contract, wouldn’t life lose its savor if people were regimented and ordered about – for their own good, to be sure – by a Brahmin caste of calligraphers?

This is the biggest objection to the communes – the militarization of the labor and lives of its members. There is no point in anybody trying to talk around this. The Chinese Communists make no bones about it. The December 10 resolution lays down the line: ‘What we describe as getting organized along military lines means getting organized on the pattern of a factory. It means that the organization of labor in the People’s Commune should be as organized and disciplined as in a factory or the army.’ Admittedly, Chinese regimentation is not a simple matter of Simon Legrees forcing people to labor on chain gangs at the point of a gun. There us an amazing élan in the nation. Many are in a frenzy of patriotism. The prospects he country are dazzling. A wide variety of observers has noted how much more indigenous is the local and regional leadership, and how much smaller the role of outside experts, in comparison with Russian enterprises. R.H.S. Crossman believes that the communes sprang from the hard puritan elite of peasant Communists who have emerged in tens of thousands through the countryside. He is probably right. It is nevertheless a disturbing proposition – a fanatical mass movement which flattens out all dissent and pushes millions along as so many cogs of the centrally directed apparatus, which in turn is run on a military basis with directives funneled from the top down. It is a far cry from the first few years of the Russian revolution with the rich diversities of thought and cultural renaissance.

THE Chinese revolution is probably the most important social event in post-World War II history. Western socialists have to see the reality of what is going on there without prejudice, and also, without blinders. They would be foolish just to damn this momentous changeover that is transforming China into a modern nation because it employs compulsion and dictatorship. There is merit in the argument that compulsion is necessary to get a backward people to make the sacrifices necessary for a forced industrialization. Moreover, democracy is not a suprahistorical moral ideal which can be fitted into any society, whether it be the Egypt of the Pharaohs, or the Athens of Pericles, or the England of Richard the Lion Hearted. It arose out of certain material and social circumstances in the evolution of middle class commercial states in the West, and it has survived and survives only when a society achieves certain material and cultural advantages and enjoys a mitigation of the social struggles within the nation. In the absence of these sufficient conditions, democracy succumbs. Look at Asia today. From one end to the other, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia, parliamentary regimes have given way to military dictatorships, with no intervention of Communists. Why? Because there is an insufficient cultural level to maintain parliamentary democracy, and the internal conflicts and pressures are too raw to be adjudicated by European parliamentary processes. Hence, it is unreasonable to ignore the Chinese heritage and background and the difficulties it is up against, and to make demands upon it that no set of leaders, no matter who, is in a position to fulfill. The Chinese are entitled to sympathy from the West in their herculean efforts to lift themselves by their bootstraps; they are entitled to practical aid in their battle for industrialization. They should not be blockaded. They should not be ostracized. They should not be reviled. They should be helped.

At the same time, the Left in the West has to maintain certain standards of what it means by socialism, and what methods are on the approved list to get to the new society. We cannot accept militarization of a people, the hounding of dissenters, the enthronement of a new bureaucratic elite, as the true face of the culture we stand for. We have to take our stand on the ground of a new humanist and democratic society, all the more so as the socialism of Russia, and now of China, have been blended with so many barbarisms of their past cultures, that Eastern socialism is alien and repellent to the labor movements of the West – where socialism was first born. Whatever its rising attractive power in the colonial world, it has up to now undermined rather than facilitated the spread of socialism in the capitalist heartland.

B. Cochran Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 12 February 2020