No. 38, December 2004
William Hinton, 1919-2004
[This piece was written by RUPE for Analytical Monthly Review (the Indian edition of Monthly Review), and appeared in the June 2004 issue. We reproduce it here with the permission of the publishers. -- RUPE]
William Hinton will be mourned by people around the world. He was a treasurehouse of knowledge on the revolutionary transformation of Chinese agriculture. But further, in recent times, in the face of systematic denigration of the Chinese revolution by the western media and by the present rulers of China themselves, Hinton stood up to assert, with an authority both "red and expert", that the revolution was justified and necessary.
From his teens, Hinton exhibited a hunger for direct experience of the world — scaling an unclimbed peak in Canada while still in high school, and taking a year off before college to travel around the country and the world, working his way at such varied jobs as a dishwasher, brick cleaner, newspaper correspondent and ship's machine boy. This last carried him to Japan, from where he went on to northeastern China, through the Soviet Union, Europe and finally to a ship back to the US. After such an education, it is not surprising that at Harvard he felt too far away from "the real world". Despite flourishing academically there, he transferred to Cornell to study agriculture.
It was reading Edgar Snow's Red Star over China in 1942 that changed him from a pacifist to a Marxist. From then on, whatever the varied nature of his work — writer, farmer, farmers' organiser, agricultural expert, newspaper correspondent, film-maker and myriad other jobs — he thought of himself principally as a Marxist revolutionary. "What has meant the most to me", he told a 1991 Harvard reunion, "is the world outlook of Marxism. I began to study Marxism in 1943... and (it) has motivated the whole of my life since."
He found his way back to China in 1945 and again in 1947, the last time as a tractor technician with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. He managed to stay on in Communist-held north China teaching English, and seized the chance to join as an observer a land reform work-team sent to Long Bow village in Shanxi province. The following six months in Long Bow would change his life. He took a thousand pages of notes, and participated "directly in the revolutionary transformation of China, the greatest social upheaval of all time, at least in terms of numbers. It has been an experience to savor and renew, again and again. I would not exchange it for any other."
Upon his return to the US in 1953, his notes and his passport
were seized and he was hauled up before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal
Security. This did not deter him from travelling incessantly across the
US to tell people the truth about the Chinese Revolution. That year alone,
at the height of McCarthyism, he gave 300 such talks.
Apart from its richness of detail and depth of sympathy, Fanshen was striking for its candour. It made no attempt to cover up serious offences by Party members and even errors of Party policy, and it made no attempt to prettify or romanticise the people. Rather, it revealed the process by which those errors were corrected, wrongs righted, Party members reformed, and people convinced: criticism and self-criticism not only within the Party, but also by the people. It showed concretely how, while the Party was the leading element, the people were the authority.
The revolutionary land reform in Long Bow had immediate material consequences. First, where once each peasant family struggled for sheer survival, it now had enough to live on; and second, the surplus of agriculture was no longer drained off by a parasitic class of landlords, but remained in the hands of the people for reinvestment. But it also had profound political and cultural consequences. "Fanshen" meant literally "to turn over". In the course of the Chinese revolution it came to mean to throw off the landlord yoke by seizing land, stock, implements and houses, and further, by transforming society and culture. Peasants, so long under the sway of reactionary and fatalistic philosophies which taught them to submit to feudal oppression (how familiar we are with that phenomenon in India!), for the first time tasted democracy, engaged in political action, and began to think of their own organised body as the authority in their lives. Without this liberation, they would be unable to take further initiatives even in production.
Fanshen's significance was not limited to understanding the Chinese revolution. Hinton wrote in his preface of 1966:
Thirty-eight years since he wrote those words, they remain as timely: India has yet to undergo its fanshen, and its retrogressive agrarian scene still casts its pall over all of Indian society and economy.
The great democratic awakening and mammoth re-ordering of material base immediately gave birth to fresh questions, already posed by the end of Fanshen. The peasants now had land of their own, but their holdings were tiny, further divided into scattered strips, making any type of mechanisation impossible. Even the largest holding in Long Bow could not effectively use all the productive capacity of one mule. Moreover, there was vast surplus labour available and there was need for major capital construction to improve agriculture (dams, irrigation systems, drainage networks, hill terraces, reclamation of wetlands, and so on). But it was only possible to mobilise this labour, and to eliminate individual losses of land and wages, if the gain from these works was collective. Finally, a larger pool of surplus was needed for investment in rural industry, and this was possible only in a collective. Collectivisation was thus the only rational choice, dictated not by abstract theoretical constructs but by the contradictions in the existing situation.
On the other hand, if the other path — of "consolidating" the New Democratic stage, recommended by Liu Shauqi (Shao-ch'i) — were chosen, inequalities would emerge, threatening the very social base itself of the revolution (within a few years of liberation, many poor peasants, lacking draft animals and tools, had sold their land to rich peasants; others had sunk into debt). Even this process of capitalist consolidation of land would not proceed fast enough to allow mechanisation. Thus Mao's insistence that cooperation could not wait for mechanisation, but had to precede it, flowed from both the need to consolidate socialism politically as well as the need to raise labour productivity.
It was this struggle that engaged Hinton's attention in the following decades. During the Cultural Revolution, and till Mao's death, Hinton supported Mao's policies in such essays as Turning Point in China. However, many developments during the Cultural Revolution — the injustices committed to many persons, the emergence of opportunist elements who took advantage of the turmoil to advance their careers, and (what appeared to Hinton at the time as) the excesses and commandism of the left -- shook him. In Shenfan (1983), written as the second volume of a trilogy about Long Bow, he drastically revised his estimate of Mao's policies.
Shenfan proceeded at two levels: the developments on the national plane, and those at the level of Long Bow and its vicinity as well as in Dazhai. Hinton acknowledged the basic policy differences between Mao and Liu Shauqi, but now argued that, as far back as in the 1959 Lushan conference, these differences were overshadowed by a factional power struggle between Mao and Liu. The crucial question for Hinton was "whether or not it [the divergence of views between Mao and Liu] had a class nature. Were these the views of two antagonistic classes, or were they an honest difference of opinion about the best path toward socialism?... What is not so clear, at this point, is that Liu Shao-ch'i's thesis, the call for the consolidation of the New Democratic system, was in fact a call for building capitalism." In which case, Hinton concluded, the Cultural Revolution was not a struggle for working-class power, but for Mao's personal, increasingly feudal-imperial, power.
Nevertheless Shenfan brought out, through a wealth of detail, the need for, and viability of, precisely the "socialist road" in agriculture advocated by Mao. It showed how, even while badly managed cooperatives fared poorly, creatively led ones such as Dazhai achieved miraculous transformations both in consciousness and productivity. Dazhai's yields, in the most unfavourable physical conditions, rivalled those of the American farm-state Iowa. All the tumult and setbacks of the Cultural Revolution could not shake Hinton from this core perception, for it was based on his direct experience, including his own labour at Long Bow, Dazhai and other places.
But by the time Shenfan went to press, Dazhai and its leader, Chen Yungguei, were themselves under attack, and the entire structure of cooperative agriculture was more or less dismantled and replaced with "family contracts", ie private use-rights.
It was with "Dazhai Revisited" (Monthly Review, March 1988; also see "A Response to Hugh Deane", Monthly Review, March 1989, both reprinted in China: An Unfinished Battle, Cornerstone Publications, 2002) that Hinton began a series of articles and talks through the late eighties and nineties defending the era of collective agriculture in China, and warning of the disastrous implications of the new policies. He began by examining the regime's propaganda against the collective-era Dazhai, and its claims regarding the growth under the new system. Here Hinton is at his best, intimately familiar with the economics of the cooperative. Having seen the Dazhai yields personally, he was in a position to deflate the charges that they were greatly exaggerated, and to take apart the claims of higher yields post-'reform' (inflated, for example, in the year 1984 by releasing stocks of collective grain). He pointed to the steep decline in capital construction or even maintenance of earlier construction, as well as the grave environmental damage being done in the new system, all of which would have a long-term effect on agriculture. Most of all, he warned that with the privatisation of land Chinese agriculture would revert to noodle-strip farming, condemned to low productivity.
Hinton cited a study by the Central Committee's Research Group on Agrarian Policy, on the basis of which the 'reforms' were carried out. This revealed that 30 per cent of the collectives (ie 240 million peasants) were prospering, while another 40 per cent faced serious problems but remained viable, and another 30 per cent were doing poorly; this matched his own observations. This showed that cooperative agriculture could succeed for vast numbers, and that what was required was attention to the leadership of the cooperatives that were faring poorly. In "Mao, Rural Development and the Two-Line Struggle" (Monthly Review, February 1994) Hinton showed how each phase, from land reform to mutual aid to cooperatives and communes, generated internal contradictions that could best be resolved by moving to a higher stage, by adopting a more complete and universal collective form. "Either that or abandon organized production altogether."
Now Hinton drastically revised his assessment of Mao once more, candidly conceding his earlier error. It was clear to him now that Liu's line was one of restoration of capitalism; that there were in fact two classes in contention throughout this period; that the upheaval was the inevitable outcome of their contention. "To blame Mao then for the struggle that ensued and for its outcome is unwarranted, unrealistic and unhistorical. Mao did what needed to be done given his social base, while Liu did what he had to do given his social base". Hinton now felt that the conception and principles of the Cultural Revolution were "a great creative departure in history", and Mao's greatest contribution to revolutionary theory and practice. (Talk at the Socialist Scholars Conference, New York, April 1999)
In this last battle of his life, Hinton rendered great service to all those for whom China was not an academic pursuit, but most relevant for revolutionary practice. At a time when some who had once celebrated the Cultural Revolution are producing tomes attacking the entire Chinese revolution since 1949, he defended it in simple, concrete terms, hard facts backed by a theoretical grasp.
Whether one concludes, with Hinton, that China is returning to a semi-feudal, semi-colonial condition or that it has turned to some form of capitalism, his warning about the changes in Chinese crop agriculture can hardly be refuted. According to official data, grain production grew at an annual rate of just 1.7 per cent during 1985-95, which fell to 0.03 per cent during 1996-2000; it appears to have fallen further since. Sideline activities have shown growth, but it is estimated that over 300 million are unemployed in the rural areas. And the surplus is drained off by the new rulers even as investment in agriculture shrinks. For the two-thirds of the population which resides in the rural areas, the actual ratio of per capita disposable income to that in urban areas is reportedly one to six, thanks partly to a host of illegal levies by local governments. "A Study of Mass Incidents", a book circulated internally by the Chinese police in 2002, warns that large-scale public disturbances are increasing annually, particularly in the countryside, one reason being the growing gap between rich and poor. As so many Chinese working people told Hinton in the 1980s, "After all, the old man was right!"
Hinton's passing is the second such loss this year. Like Paul Sweezy, Hinton was from a generation that had seen the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II; and had seen the hope that socialism brought to people of the world. Like Sweezy, even in the last years of his life Hinton radiated confidence, and inspired confidence in others, that the world's labouring people would overcome the historic reverses suffered by the great revolutions: Because for them, indeed for the future of humanity, socialism is an objective necessity.
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