Shenfan: the continuing revolution in a Chinese village.
To have these monumental social, economic, political, and educational movements that racked China for decades arranged here in one continual narrative is in itself greatly superior to the isolated accounts we typically receive. To have Hinton for our guide into the contending political meeting rooms, households, factories, farms, and the hearts and minds of the participating peasants provides unique access to how this history was made. Of necessity Shenfan is a far more demanding and ambitious work than Fanshen since it must analyze this socialist advance on its wounded battlefields, accepting the challenge of Fanshen to discover where, how, and if "the peasants were gradually learning the central lesson of our time, 'that only through participation in common struggle can any individual achieve personal emancipation.'"
Here Hinton's search is in fact a dual one; he plunges into rural China to force out socialism's trail, and he plunges into himself, exhibiting a struggle with his own expectation that is heroic and totally devoid of sentimentality. In allowing the evidence of experience and report to weigh out over long-standing personal hopes as well as official rhetoric, Shenfan becomes a model of intellectual courage. It is a proud book which, like all art, creates its own compelling narrative, here formed by a rhythm of devotion, puzzlement, and despair, and an abiding optimism that is our most meaningful freedom. For ten years Hinton yanked his guts out over what he learned from many trips to Long Bow and elsewhere in China, and over how to convey all this with justice. Despite grueling encounters with often brutal truth, Hinton retains and supports that optimism in individual and social progress that is also the source of all significant pride. In this, Shenfan transcends Fanshen in ideological importance since there optimism involved less struggle.
Hinton does not pretend to offer a "comprehensive theory" to frame and exalt his inquiry, recognizing that a meaningful overview must await the work of many, over decades. Of course such temperance does not characterize scores of others who write about China, nor many of the two-year China correspondents who reviewed Shenfan, and China, from a perspective of omniscience. Shenfan is a powerful revelation, but it does not achieve power through dogmatism but by accepting and analyzing reality, as we all must.
A variety of perspectives are used to tell his tale, predominantly history, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, anthropology, and agriculture, each pouring its insights into this rich, massive documentary. Hinton's method also weaves among levels, including the individual, the family, the cooperative, the commune, the town, city, province, and nation, following the dynamics of how real events are influenced and come to be. All is reinforced by vast primary material, gained through frank, sometimes agonizing, personal interviews and conversations, and through memories reviewed, extensively supported by official quotes and documents. There is no method that could have done it better, though like reality istelf Shenfan is at times messy and complex, and necessarily lengthy.
The history and empathy in Hinton's bones provide a context for viewing and analyzing his experiences which in turn provide the book with a unique richness, especially valuable since few Westerners have had significant access to rural China, and none the long-term trust of scores of peasants and rural cadres. Moreover, Hinton is not hampered by the usual difficulties Westerners from a capitalist country have in understanding or respecting poor, socialist, sometimes uneducated peasants (each of the three characteristics creates its own difficulties). Nevertheless, throooughout the book serious and complex criticism is offered of the peasants' actions, espcially those based on their factionalism and ideological rigidity which often obscured what was for Hinton a more sensible socialist road.
Shenfan, like Fanshen, make clear that Hinton is committed to the Chinese movement toward socialism as expressed among other ways in collectivization in agriculture, but this certainly does not commit him to, and is not identical with, forced collectivization. Consciousness and values, Hinton tells us, cannot change on command and efforts such as the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution to force such changes are a betrayal of Marxist understanding. Indeed much of the book critically analyzes such "Communist winds" (as, at times, did Mao), beginning with the Great Leap excesses which Hinton sees as caused in part by policy differences but even more by a high-level power struggle initiated by Mao. Concerning the Cultural Revolution, Hinton has this to say:
The marvelous rhetoric of the Sixteen Points cloaked, in the end, a venal contest of all against all that harked back to imperial times. . . . Quick to perceive that what was at stake in the first instance was power and power alone, and that this had very little to do with the capitalist road or the socialist road, the whole bureaucratic apparatus of China fell to with a will . . . jockeying ruthlessly for whatever power or position came within local grasp. The unprincipled quality of Mao's attack on P'eng Teh-haui [at Lushan], now renewed as he put down Liu and Teng, set the standard for strategy and tactics in this free-for-all. . . . In the course of the Lushan meeting Mao shed a lot of democratic clothing, the garments of a comrade, in order to don, layer by layer, the vestments of a sovereign.
Above all else, Hinton wants and needs to know why some policies went wrong, he wants to uncover and correctly assign the errors of policy and practice, and most impressively, doesn't assume that he already knows. What he finds, even when critical of Mao, he says with a courage and clarity that is impossible to ignore, which makes some critics' accusation of Hinton as a "Maoist" scarcely intelligible.
At the same time Hinton's preference for key aspects of Mao's policy, especially coollectivization, is evident and leads to a severe disappointment with the new economic policies that reverse that direction in embracing the family-based contract responsibility system with its adjunct recommendation that "a few must get rich first." Hinton considers the policy a regression that contains, among other ills, a serious risk of class polarization due to such differing scales of income that quantity passes onto quality. Correspondingly, Hinton is discouraged to find Chinese officials and the Chinese press involved in a sweeping rejection of collectivization, typically by attaching it to the now thoroughly discredited Cultural Revolution, also decapitated with one knife stroke. According to Hinton, grave errors in policy since 1956 undermined the proper functioning of collectivization and led it into coercive and ultra-leftist egalitarian patterns. In truth it is more wondrous that it functioned well anywhere under the political chaos and "Communist wind" assaults common for more than 20 years. Nonetheless 30 percent of the collectives have long been judged successful, but they too have been swept away, along with the others. Do we really know how the peasants judge this decision? If so, how?
Is there no position between the forced collectivization with excessive egalitarianism, and the dismantling of collectives? Of course there is, and it is Hinton's position. One does not have to be a "Maoist" to regret this universal change. Indeed after the debacle following the Great Leap, Deng Xiaoping himself said:
The best form of production [collective or individual] is that which . . . is most likely to restore and develop production. . . . We can only progress if we temporarily accept the need to take one step backward first. . . . To build individual enterprise as a basic political line would be a mistake, but it could be used temporarily to cope with an urgent situation.
It is one step backward from the goals of socialism, Hinton contends, and one can only prefer and applaud it, if it is believed there are no possible steps forward. If so, there would be no need to share Hinton's life-long pain concerning the ancient sacrifice of Chinese peasants in toil and worry, straining at their tiny undercapitalized, undermechanized family plots, a process that has in fact about reached the limit of land productivity (and food production). Since any real economic takeoff for peasants working the land would require significant medium-scale mechanization, Hinton foresees an inevitable further disparity between urban and rural living standards, and between the few rich peasants and the many.
Hinton is a good enough Marxist to know you must sometimes take one step backward to move forward. If truth can only be learned from practice (not "facts"), the results cannot be known in advance, so commitment must be based on vision and courage, and a faith in progress through the zig-zags of developing reality. The always important point, however, is not to forget the goals by allowing temporary tactics to become strategy. It is this possibility that Hinton is criticizing. If Deng were still saying that the reversal of collectivization is a necessary but temporary step backward, Hinton would not be so worried. But Deng is not saying that, at least not in public.
It is fair to ask why, if collectivization is as valuable as Hinton thinks it is, did China change its policy? As Hinton persuasively details, with any change of leadership China tends, with the knife stroke, to smash all that was associated with the previous leaders, rather as emperors of old burned to the ground the palaces of their predecessors. Moreover, political factionalism often focused attention on exaggerated class struggle fired by excesses on the "left" (and the "right") to undermine credibility of the policy, and severely curtailed economic development. Add to this the very real foot-dragging of state cadre who Hinton suspects felt threatened in their power by the strength of collectivization, and you have the stifling feudal, institutional pattern that Hinton decries throughout Shenfan. Moreover, the rise in people's material well-being could not increase as rapidly as desired or expected (in large part due to the huge population expansion as well as the political and economic upheaval), such material progress being intrinsic to the problem of socialist policy.
Thus it was an easy slice of the knife to use the failure of the Cultural Revolution to tarnish collectivization as the reason for the lack of rapid material progress, and bring them down together. Who would want to do that? As Shenfan brilliantly depicts, there are always at least two political lines in struggle at any one time in the only apparently monolithic Communist Party leadership; and, as is well known, the Deng group never accepted Mao's time-table for cooollectivization. Add to that the post-Cultural Revolution strong stress on modernization of China, requiring a rapid increase in wealth for accumulation and capitalization, and you have the responsibility system recommending itslef very persuasively.
The leadership is apparently willing to risk the inevitable economic polarization, which of course it recognizes, hoping to reverse it later with a return to collectivization in a new form. Hinton isn't sanguine about that scenario, which is being advanced privately, versions of which I heard from serious Marxists throughout China last summer. In essence it is seen that within several decades the present family contract system will develop its own need for collective economic relations as the material forces of rural production advance. Such recollectivization would avoid the "commandism" of the 1950s by springing from the motivation of the peasants themselves, and would take more authentic forms due to that mass origin, and being in accord with material conditions. Some Chinese correspondents further asserted that only then could China pass from its incipient capitalist stage into socialism, reflecting the debate that has haunted New China since its origin concerning how long the mixed economy of the New Democratic period must last, and the clues to its completion.
For at least the following reasons, Hinton would not be comfortable: The attainment of privilege, under any structure, makes it difficult to expect that the privileged--and their corresponding consciousness of the "rights" of privilege--will encourage or accept such changes. Moreover, an entire generation that has understood "socialist liberty" to mean economic independence will find it ideologically alienating to welcome collective endeavor. Finally, the millions who do not advance under the responsibility system will have their own reasons to distrust the socialist promises of any leadership that has engineered or continued their fall from equality; indeed, for some Hinton predicts severe poverty, even beggary. For many in these groups it would appear then that another cycle of commands from the top will be necessary, although perhaps this time not sufficient, for recollectivization to occur. The worst-case scenario has it that another (socialist) revolution would then be required.
But it is also certain that the Chinese people are tired of poverty. Mao wanted them to advance together (although not identically), even if that meant holding some back. Deng just wants them to advance, any way at all; and as each is encouraged to try everything, the present situation borders on a barely contained, but so far largely successful, anarchy. In short, it is obvious why the new economics have surfaced and been applauded, but it has little to do with any proof that adequately supported coollectivization would not bring China to its ultimate socialist goals more surely and more rapidly, as Hinton contends.
And though we have yet to see all the special problems the contract system will create, it would be ingenuous to fail to recognize that any massive social movement must be fraught with risks and difficulties, as well as the profound problems concerning its transition to the future, noted above. Hinton will find no satisfaction in these troubles. As he has long known, the only serious and sincere debate must be whether at the end of such struggles we are closer to looking at socialist justic face to face. Shenfan is important evidence in that debate, perhaps the best there is.
Although it will surprise no one, it should be noted that because many reviewers in the major media began by pegging Hinton, incorrectly and consistently, as a knee-jerk "Maoist," there was in fact no possibility that they would learn anything from Shenfan, so busy were they rejecting Hinton's alleged ideological perspectives. This is to use journalistic devices that bear closely and dangerously on deceit.
What we have in Shenfan is exactly Hinton and his publisher intended: his description, analysis, and evaluation of Long Bow's development from his perspective, which includes a critical and open commitment to Marxist goals, including some of Mao's goals and strategies. His tactics, as evidenced in an earlier quote, were often severely denounced. To get stuck in observing this perspectival reality is really to be stuck in politics and to be reviewing Bill Hinton instead of reviewing Shenfan. It is always important to remember that this is not what we mean by a free press.