From Commune to Capitalism: How China’s Peasants Lost Collective Farming and Gained Urban Poverty
154 pp, $25 pbk, ISBN 978-1-58367-698-1
By Zhun Xu
Reviewed by Kaan Kangal for Science & Society, Vol. 84, No. 2, 287-89, April 2020
This book is expressive of a new wave of scholarly reassessments of China’s transition from its socialist past to capitalist present. From a Chinese perspective, it has not much in common with the canonical CCP narratives widely circulated in printed media and Party phone apps, as Zhun Xu employs a “betrayal of the revolution” rhetoric that pinpoints ruptures between a socialist China under Mao Zedong’s leadership and a capitalist China headed by Deng Xiaoping and afterwards (11). From a non-Chinese perspective, the book seems to share some of the political convictions of a minor ideological stream, some sort of “Maoism,” to use a non-Chinese term, which made the headlines in the Western media with the recent shutdown of the leftist website Utopia, repression of Jasic workers’ struggle in Shenzhen and several groups of Marxist university students’ support for it. The book is a useful source for starters of the “China debate,” and it is refreshing for advanced students of the topic. For the author, an assistant professor of economics at Howard University in the USA, the book, a collection of previously published articles, seems to represent a point of departure for further research rather than his final word on “how China became capitalist.”
The book clusters around two questions: 1) “What historical forces led to a rapid decollectivization and a gradual path to capitalist agriculture” (12); and 2) what was the reaction of the peasant class to the course of decollectivization? (62).
Contra the official narratives predominant in the Chinese literature, the author claims that decollectivization was forcefully operated in a top-down fashion and it reflected the internal ideological struggles within the Party. The new agricultural policy at the end of 1970s served as a means to justify Deng’s new policy of “modernization” against Mao’s vision of “class struggle” (69, 77). To this end, the peasant collectives were condemned to economic failure, inefficiency and underproductivity, and suggested to be replaced by the so-called individual Household Responsibility System (12). Decollectivization was advertised under the heading of welfare increase as part of privatization of state-owned enterprises, though it had disastrous effects such as high inflation, fiscal deficits (due to wage increase and large-scale foreign imports) and massive unemployment (71). The 1959–61 famine is sometimes used as an excuse for justifying decollectivization, but the author argues that the collectives are not the cause but the solution to natural disasters, as they quickly managed to return to the pre-famine production levels in the first quarter of 1960 (14). Admittedly, there was a significant improvement in the agricultural economy in the 1980s, but that happened in spite of, not because of, decollectivization (109). Crucial factors, in this regard, were the increasing quality of soil fertilizers and introduction of new machinery (54).
On Zhun Xu’s account, what preceded decollectivization of the peasant communes was collective rather than individual ownership of the means of production (i.e., “land and draft animals”; machinery is not mentioned) whereby each member of the cooperative “received income proportionate to their labor contributions only” with a threefold hierarchy of organization units at its head (production team, brigade and commune), implementing the Party’s policies in rural areas (81). The internal problems of the commune system were political stratification, income inequality and overall poverty, which served as good reasons for Deng’s leadership for a policy change (90). “Decollectivization seemed to be able to destroy stratification by destroying the collectives” (106). This change encountered a variety of reactions. For some, the new situation was a disaster, for with the previous division of labor gone, farmers were left alone to run their business which eventually led to bankruptcy. Others were rather happy, because they did not “have to work so hard as under collectives” (105). A third group felt it easier not to resist the new course and preferred to adapt to it. The “wind” of ideology blows in different directions under different circumstances. What remains the same is to make a living, provide for the family and save some earnings for the future (106).
Retrospective insights into China’s past from within, a number of anecdotes and interviews as well as statistical research on agricultural policies make this short book interesting. Having said this, the author is unarmed against a series of potential objections.
1) He fails to make clear the theoretical grounds on which he squarely equates the pre-1978 period collectives with socialism. At some point the author states that the Chinese agrarian policy is a product of learning from the “mistakes of the Soviet Union,” as Mao once said. One initial socialist undertaking in the Soviet Union was an overall transformation of all kolkhozes into sovkhozes, a project that was sustained by transfer of the Machine and Tractor Stations (MTS) to the collective farms at the end of the 1950s. The issue which the second chapter (“Chinese Agrarian Change in World-Historical Context”) does not address is this: was it a mistake of the Soviets a) to have initiated nationalization of the agrarian means of production; or b) to have transferred the MTS to the collectives? Did Mao try to avoid the first or the latter path? In other words, does Mao’s socialism defend collective or state ownership of the agricultural means of production?
2) As is well known, the official narrative makes use of culturalist–nationalist epithets of Chinese-ness, as in Makesizhuyi Zhongguohua (Sinified Marxism) or Zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi (Socialism with Chinese Characteristics). This not only marks particular social, historical and cultural features peculiar to local circumstances that supposedly make the Chinese context unique, but it also serves to relativize the programs, tasks or even content of “socialism.” Chinese-ness is emphasized by both Mao and Deng, and I am curious as to whether the author proposes to replace this cultural element with a universal notion of class struggle, which he ascribes to Mao rather than to Deng. An additional question is whether the author allows for a multiplicity of socialisms that are compatible with one another, as the epithet of Chineseness indicates, or whether we should rather stick to a singular Marxism.
Department of Philosophy