I had the opportunity to visit a preserved commune “museum” in China.
It preserved a genuine Mao-era commune near YeHeShan, mountains in Shaanxi Province.
I was with a Chinese university professor and her graduate student, and this was a relict from the China before 1980. This commune consisted of lines of rooms where farm families had lived, more compact than most old rural villages. Several lines of rooms radiated out from the center. They had been painted and restored to show what it was 50 years ago. Mao’s sayings were painted in red on whitewashed walls.
“Where is the big meeting area?” I asked.
They were puzzled. I explained the saying; “Before Liberation, a plague of taxes. After Liberation, a plague of meetings.”
Before 1949, warlord soldiers collected “taxes” from peasants for many years into the future — essentially robbery at gunpoint. After the Communists took over in 1949, meetings were held regularly in villages across China. Having suffered centuries of indentured servitude under landlords, Chinese peasants were unfamiliar with how to deal with their newfound independence, and especially how to work together under the new Maoist ideals of sharing resources.
We came to the central courtyard filled with small trees, all younger than 40 years. That area would have been the open space back then.
“This was the meeting place,” we decided. “The common cooking pot is gone,” they noted. A large communal cooking pot or “da guo fan” was central to how the commune system worked. Everyone came back from the fields to eat in the evening. The hard workers were fed. But the lazy persons who did little were also fed. The phrase “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” was a central tenet of Marxism although this phrase was used by prior utopians and dated back to Acts 4: 35: “...and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
”Simply, the commune — the centerpiece of Maoist agrarian communism — did not work. If the hard worker received no reward greater than the lazy, there was no motivation to do more than the minimum.
Mao died in 1976 and by 1980, Deng Xiao-ping was fully in power. He began moving China onto a route to market capitalism with Chinese characteristics. No more communal ownership and distribution of property. If you worked hard and had good business ideas, there was no limit. Property became private and communes and communism came to an end.In 21 trips to China over the last 20 years, despite lecturing at over 25 universities in 12 provinces, I have yet to encounter communism in China. Today’s China has some socialist institutions, but not many more than we have in the United States. State owned enterprises include the power grid, railroads and steel mills. But in general, businesses across China compete, succeed or fail in competition.
While the Communist Party retains the name “communist,” it describes its economic system as socialist. Chinese own their own property, decide their own business ventures, and move and work where there is opportunity. Anyone who is out of work and wants a job can be employed to sweep streets, etc. In most areas of business, there is free and open competition. They have a growing number of millionaires and billionaires. With their huge middle class, larger than our total population, the first trillionaire is predicted to come from China. China’s rapid rise in affluence has been due to their massive investment in education, and the distribution of wealth “to each according to their ability.”
It is important to distinguish systems of governing from their economic systems. Countries with socialist economies vary from fully democratic to despotic, just as many of the world’s most repressive countries are fully capitalistic. Cuba is probably the sole remaining communist country where everyone is equal — and equally poor — as China was 50 years ago.
China remains a centralized one party state despite having adopted a market economy.
Under Marxist philosophy, socialism is just one step along the road to communism. When I discuss with colleagues their Chinese market system with limited socialism, I ask if today’s system will therefore merely be one step leading to communism in the future. “No way” they respond. They like their economy working just the way it is.