William H. Hinton died in the early morning of Saturday, 15th of May, 2004. He was born in Chicago in 1919. At the age of 17 he worked his way to the Far East. Without money, he supported himself by washing dishes, and then got a job for six months as a reporter on an English language newspaper in Japan. He continued his travels by way of Japanese occupied Korea and Northeast China, then through the USSR to Poland and Germany, and finally returned to the United States by working as a deckhand on an American freighter.
Bill Hinton read Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China in 1942, and it changed his life. According to Bill, the book changed his world outlook from that of a pacifist to that of a Marxist. In 1945 he returned to China as a staff member of the U.S. Office of War Information. Present at the Chongqing peace talks between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party, he got acquainted with Zhou Enlai and met Mao Tse Tung on three occasions. From these meetings Bill came to see and feel the possibilities for China’s future.
In 1947 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) donated some tractors to China, and among the instructors sent to teach their use was Bill Hinton. Assigned to a district under the control of the Guomindang, Hinton was outraged at the prevailing corruption and volunteered to cross over to a liberated zone in the south of Hebei Province. Conditions in the liberated zone were harsh, but the honesty and enthusiasm were what Bill had dreamed of. He made a major contribution to the introduction of mechanized farming in the liberated areas.
When the UNRRA was terminated and U.S. technicians were told to return to the USA, Bill Hinton asked to stay on in China. He accepted a post as an English teacher at the Northern University in Southeast Shanxi province, near Changzhi City, in a liberated district. In 1948 he asked to join the university staffed land reform work team in the village of Long Bow in the outskirts of Changzhi. Hinton spent eight months working in the fields in the day and attending land reform meetings both day and night. He took careful notes on the land reform process, and forged close bonds with the people of Long Bow village.
After the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953 Hinton returned to the United States. His notes were seized by the U.S. Customs and turned over to the notorious Senate Committee on Internal Security (the “Eastland Committee”). Hinton was placed under continuous harassment by the FBI. His passport was confiscated, and he was barred from all teaching jobs. At first permitted to work as a truck mechanic, he was later blacklisted and denied all employment. He then took up farming on some land inherited from his mother, and farmed for a living for some fifteen years. During this whole period Hinton kept up a continuous fight to speak out about the successes of the Chinese Revolution, and waged a long (and eventually successful) legal battle to recover his notes and papers from the Eastland Committee.
Once his notes and papers had been returned, Hinton set to writing a documentary account of the land reform in Long Bow village in which he had been both observer and participant. The book, Fanshen, was finished in 1966. After many big U.S. publishers had turned it down, it was published by Monthly Review Press. Fanshen was a stunning success. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold, and translations appeared in ten languages. Playwright David Hare adapted Fanshenas a play staged first in London, and then all over the world. On Zhou Enlai’s initiative Fanshen was translated into Chinese, and in 1971 Zhou invited Hinton to again visit China.
Bill Hinton followed Fanshen with books documenting the achievements of Revolutionary China, such as Iron Oxen and Shenfan. On repeated visits he resumed the work of agricultural instruction that had first brought him to China at the end of the Second World War. In particular he returned again and again to Long Bow, introducing new agricultural techniques and investing his own savings in new Long Bow industries. He has called Long Bow his “second hometown.” Bill’s affection has been returned by the people of Long Bow. In the spring of 2002 Long Bow sent their mayor on a long and special journey to the nursing home near Boston where Bill Hinton, aged and ill with a serious heart disease, was confined. He brought with him from Long Bow copies of the handsome photo book William Hinton : An Old Friend of Chinese People, published in Long Bow in honor of Bill Hinton. These biographical notes are based on that book.
With the turn under Deng Xiaoping to the rapid expansion of capitalist social relations, Hinton increasingly came into disagreement with the direction taken by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The essays from Monthly Review collected in China : An Unfinished Battle (Cornerstone Publications : Kharagpur, India; 2002) set out that critique and struggle, with which his sunset years have been occupied. Bill Hinton again and again challenged the one-sided negative account of the Cultural Revolution that is now official dogma in China, no less than in the global imperium of the United States. His belief in the revolutionary transformative power of the peasantry, of ordinary people, cannot be shaken because it has been based on what he had himself experienced.
In the last years, more than ever, Bill Hinton has been close to Monthly Review. As late as 1996 Bill intervened at a critical moment to help set things right at Monthly Review when it looked for a moment as if the enterprise was in danger. After a visit to India in the late 1990s, Bill stopped by in New York City to chat with us at Monthly Review about his trip. He talked with pleasure of the young Indian Maoist students who strained his waning resources of energy, and would have kept him up all night every night to talk of what had happened in China and what might yet happen in India and elsewhere. Bill mentioned with pleasure seeing tattered copies of the Indian edition of Monthly Review that showed clear evidence of having passed from hand to hand. Tired and ill, he seemed young and vigorous at the thought of poor revolutionary youth fighting to master theory and brave practice.
Straightforward and passionate, farmer and revolutionary, Bill Hinton’s life demonstrates the universal core of Marxist revolutionary practice. Neither cultural nor generational differences proved barriers to his learning and teaching. Live like him.