|This paper was originally published in
Since the late 1970s the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership
of a group that we will describe as the "pragmatists," has embarked on
a course of economic reform designed to decentralize economic decision
-making, liberalize market relationships, induce technological innovation,
change the mix of class processes in the economy, and raise the level of
the aggregate social surplus. For the pragmatist leaders, the most prominent
of whom has been Deng Xiao-Pin g, socialist notions of building a more
egalitarian, less oppressive society were given lower priority than the
nationalistic goal of making China economically competitive with the nations
of Western Europe and Japan, and ultimately with the United States . This
nationalistic goal is one of the determinants of the economic reforms.
The political crisis that led to the massacre at Tiananmen Square, although
certainly not intended to be one of the outcomes of the reforms, was directly
shaped by these reforms and the consequent loosening of central government
control over China's economic institutions. The particular manner in which
the political crisis was "resolved" was in turn shaped by the new class
dynamics that arose out of the reforms.
Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff (1990) have already examined in this
journal the class and political dynamics that led to the widespread urban
support for the student-led movement in Tiananmen. However, few have discussed
the lack of moral support for the prodemocracy movement. In this paper
we intend to address this very issue by analyzing the post-Mao era's effect
on rural China in explicitly class terms.
In particular, we argue that the reforms have contributed to a significant
growth in the ancient fundamental and subsumed class processes in China
and that this growth in self-exploitation (Gabriel 1989, 1990) provides
a necessary, thou gh not sufficient condition for the Chinese government
5 crackdown on urban dissent, and that the economic and political importance
of the growing ancient class, coupled with the alienation of large portions
of the urban intelligentsia from the party, has created the context for
a unique, ancient-centered strategy for building socialism in China.'
For the most part, the political movement represented by the students
who occupied Tiananmen Square did not include rural activists nor were
the political slogans and proposals sensitive to the needs and desires
of the rural population, in particular the large and increasingly powerful
force of ancient direct producers. The so-called Democracy Movement demanded
the adoption of a multiparty, liberal-democratic political environment,
an end to high-level corruption, and a return to more e galitarian "iron
rice bowl" economic policies.
Ancient producers, in both the rural and urban areas, may have supported
the call for an end to high-level corruption but were not so keen on returning
to the iron rice bowl policies of Mao, particularly since such policies
were associa ted with the communes and centralized economic control. As
for the call for political reforms, these ancient producers were probably
more indifferent than anything else. After all, under the current system
they had been successful at getting a large part of what they wanted from
the central and provincial governments. Ancient producers had not only
acquired rights to land and other means of production and the right to
first receipt of their own surplus product, but owing to reduced social
demands upon the ir surplus in the form of taxes (particularly given the
dismantling of the communes), they enjoyed control over a relatively large
surplus product with the attendant increase in their individual social
influence. Thus, the existing political system was, f rom the standpoint
of many ancient producers, doing just fine.
Having seen their standard of living rise rapidly over the period of
the reforms, ancient producers had found themselves in the enviable position
of simultaneously controlling a larger surplus product and enjoying an
increasing necessar y product. Indeed, the growth of relative wealth among
many ancient producers, both rural and urban, had intensified the concern
of the "liberals" that economic reform was fostering economic inequality.
This concern was often expressed in comparisons of t he growth in incomes
for ancient producers with the falling relative standard of living for
college professors, professionals, and managers in state enterprises. Such
comparisons, fuel for the Democracy Movement's call for a return to iron
rice bowl redis tributionary economic policies, only pushed ancient producers
more to the side of the pragmatist leadership in the government.
Thus, it should not be surprising to find that large numbers of rural
residents and urban ancient producers have accepted the official government
account of the political crisis, including the government's description
of the students as "hooligans" engaging in counter-revolutionary agitation
and propaganda. One should not, therefore, assume that reports of support
for the government's policy are simply the outcome of fear and coercion,
as the Western press likes to imply.
In the wake of Tiananmen, it has been implied in the Western press that
the current pragmatist leadership of the Chinese government will eventually
have to give way to more political reform-minded leaders. This belief is
consistent with the notion that economic reforms leading to more decentralized
decision-making must necessarily lead to decentralized political mechanisms,
and that the Tiananmen incident will simply speed up this "natural" process
of political liberalization.
Insofar as the reforms implemented after 1978 have simultaneously resulted
in the growth in ancient producers and support by such ancient producers
of the central government, it is not so clear that the recent political
crisis and the r esultant Tiananmen massacre should necessarily result
in the downfall of the current Chinese leadership. So long as the government
maintains support among the ancient class, it may be able to successfully
weather this political storm and continue on its c urrent ancient-led path
of economic development. It may do this without reforming the political
process, in the sense of decentralizing political decision-making. In other
words, the decentralized economy, with self-exploitation prevailing, may
be fostere d by a centralized political structure. Indeed, there may be
a symbiotic relationship between the reproduction of a highly centralized
bureaucracy led by the pragmatists in the Communist party and the reproduction
and expansion in self-exploitation.
However, this situation of needing the ancient producers more than ever
may be a two-edged sword for the politicians. It is not clear that the
leaders of the Communist party ever intended to promote ancient production
for any sustained period, but rather that they wanted to foster a means
of increasing the social surplus available for investment in industrial
expansion and modernization. But for the central government to tap this
ancient surplus, they must implement means for drawing it out of the hands
of ancient producers and of other secondary (ancient subsumed class) claimants
into government coffers. The government might do this through increased
taxes, higher prices for inputs purchased by ancient producers from industrial
enterpr ises and/or the state, or other similar economic mechanisms. If
these measures are tried, however, the government risks alienating an increasingly
crucial group of supporters. Given the recent unrest and continued disenchantment
on the part of large segme nts of the urban population, including industrial
workers who have seen their relative income lag behind that of rural ancient
producers. The current leadership may not be in a position to alienate
what has become its strongest base of support.
Thus, the Communist party may be forced to choose between abandoning
its communist goal of a gradual shift of class processes towards communal
production and appropriation or devising a new strategy for moving towards
communism, a strat egy that is based upon self-exploitation as the bridge
between the old society and the new. In this paper, we examine the possibility
that the ancient fundamental and subsumed class processes might be the
basis for a unique path to a communist China.
The structure of the paper is as follows: First, we explore the class
and nonclass processes that have historically contributed to the development
of the pro-ancient reforms and the similarities of these reforms to the
New Economic Policy carried out i n the early years of the Soviet Union.
Further, we explore the ways in which these reforms and the growth in self-exploitation
affect the politics of the Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath. Second,
we examine how the Chinese reforms have led to the dimi nution in communal
forms of surplus appropriation and the rapid expansion in self-exploitation,
including the ways in which self-exploitation has persisted over time,
even during the period when the communes predominated in rural China. Third,
we examine the specific policy measures embodied in the da bao gan or
"big contract system," a subset of the overall nongye shengchan zeren
zhi or "agricultural production responsibility system" reforms, which
have provided conditions for the expansion of self-exploitation as the
prevalent form of exploitation in rural China. Fourth, we discuss recent
modifications in the economic reforms that have strengthened self-exploitation,
as well as economic policies that attempt to solve problems generated by
the earlier reforms. Finally, we argue that it is possible for the pro-ancient
economic reforms to be compatible with socialism and the construction of
a unique ancient road to communism.
China's Reforms and the Soviet Union's NEP
In making sense of the rural reforms, it is important to establish the
connection between them and historic struggles in the postrevolutionary
Chinese countryside over issues of class. It is common in both the Marxian
and non-Marxia n literatures on postrevolutionary China to either ignore
the issue of class (for example, Hsiung and Putterman 1989) or to assume
that struggle occurs only in certain sites, such as within the Chinese
Communist Party or within the state bureaucracy (for example, McFarlane
1984). Our argument is that direct producers in the countryside have played
a significant and decisive role in the struggles over class in China, and
that these struggles have shaped and continue to shape Chinese economic
and political development.
In particular, it is our contention that support for self-exploitation
has been and continues to be very strong among the rural population. As
a result, the rural population's support for self-exploitation has led
to its rapid growth an d stability since 1978. In making this argument,
it must be recognized that we do not intend to make any normative statement
about the relative social worth of ancient, capitalist, or communist class
processes, but merely seek to make sense of the interna l dynamic of struggles
over class within China.
The subset of the overall economic reforms that is most relevant to
our analysis of the growth in self-exploitation are those referred to as
the nongye shengchan zeren zhi, or the "agricultural production
responsibility system" ( Hama 1982). The nongye shengchan zeren zhi
are particularly relevant to understanding the rapid expansion of self-exploitation
in the post-Mao period.
The nongye shengchan zeren zhi reforms bear a close resemblance
to certain aspects of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the early years
of the Soviet Union. In particular, both the Chinese reforms and the NEP
were designed in part , to promote the creation of an increased social
surplus from agriculture and other related rural production processes to
finance the rapid "modernization" of the industrial sector. These expectations
were based on a set of assumptions concerning the resp onse of the rural
population to the reforms.
Among the assumptions shared by the Chinese and Soviet officials was
the belief that rural direct producers allowed to engage in self-exploitation
would work more intensively and extensively to create a larger relative
and absolute surp lus product. It should be understood that this anticipated
increased productivity was not based upon "technical" changes in production
but upon changes in class processes. Both the Chinese and Soviet leaders
understood the interaction of class and product ivity. They understood
that the particular manner in which surplus labor was performed and appropriated
would affect the aggregate magnitude of new wealth created in the society.
By manipulating the form of exploitation in their respective societies,
they hoped to create the conditions for economic growth. Further, it was
assumed that economic growth was a precondition for achieving other goals,
including the socialist goal of creating a communist society.
In both the NEP and the Chinese responsibility system, the respective
national governments reduced their percentage claims on agriculturally
produced surplus products to further encourage newly self-exploiting producers
to expand output . By reducing the in-kind tax rate on agricultural production,
both governments reduced their percentage share of surplus output
and yet reaped the benefits of increased total supplies of food
and other agricultural products. Indeed, the gro wth in total output made
it feasible for both governments to receive larger absolute tax receipts
with a smaller percentage tax rate. Thus, although the Laffer curve has
been for the most part discredited as a theoretical tool for explaining
the interacti on of tax receipts and output growth in advanced capitalist
societies such as the United States, it may be of some analytical use in
explaining such an interaction in the case of self-exploitation.
Both governments assumed that an increase in output would bring down
food and other consumer product prices for both rural and urban consumers,
eliminate shortages, and presumably increase popular support for the national
leadership. On 25 April 1921, Lenin put it this way:
The tax in kind amounts to only about one-half of the surplus-grain
appropriation rate…Every peasant will know the exact amount of tax he has
to pay beforehand, that is, in the spring. This will reduce the abuses
of tax collection. It will be an incentive for the peasant to
cultivate a larger area, to improve his farm, and to to raise
(1960, vol.32, 366; emphasis added).
For the Chinese, the effects of the shengchan zeren zhi were
described as follows:
It gave full pay to peasants' enthusiasm. Our agricultural production,
long stagnant, was able to thrive in a sudden change and develop at a pace
rarely witnessed in history (Nongmin Ribao Editorial Board 1989
Not only would this larger aggregate output increase products available
for consumption, but it was assumed by both Soviet and Chinese officials
that more intermediate inputs for industrial production and products av
ailable for exports would also be generated. Relatively low-cost consumption
goods for direct producers, increased quantities of intermediate products,
and more foreign exchange for the purchase of foreign technology and machinery
were all considered prec onditions for economic growth and development,
and ultimately for the survival of socialism. Thus, encouraging self-exploitation
satisfied many of the objectives of both the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union, in the case of the NEP and the Chinese Commu nist party, in the
case of the nongye shengchan zeren zhi, although in both countries
there were and are intellectuals and officials who have argued against
the compatibility of such policies with socialism. In the Soviet case,
the pivotal figure i n opposing the "ancient road" was Stalin, whose leadership
was characterized by the brutal destruction of millions of ancient producers.
forced collectivization, and the inauguration of a long-term agricultural
Lenin, although he did not favor self-exploitation or believe in an
"ancient road" to communism, at least understood and emphasized the economic
and political benefits of granting direct producers the right to engage
in self-exploitatio n. Lenin viewed this as a policy that would foster
support for the Communist party among the rural population and potentially
provide more abundant consumer products that might improve conditions for
the urban working class. Both of these outcomes would s trengthen popular
support for the communist party:
The most urgent thing at the present time is to take measures that will
immediately increase the productive forces of peasant farming. Only in
this way [i.e., the agricultural reforms of the NEP] will it be po
ssible to improve the conditions of the workers. strengthen the alliance
between the workers and the peasants, and consolidate the dictatorship
of the proletariat (Lenin 1960, vol.32, 341).
The Chinese saw their reforms in a similar light, emphasizing the economic
benefits arising out of the economic reforms:
Facts show that the rapid development of agriculture in the several
ensuing years after the third plenary session brought about an upsurge
in the whole national economy…A more plentiful supply of staple and nonstaple
food was provided for urban residents. The ever-growing raw material needs
of light and textile industries were basically satisfied. Of foreign exchange
earnings from exports, agricultural products or commodities made with agricultural
products as raw ma terials accounted for a very large percentage (Nongmin
Ribao Editorial Board 1989, 47).
Finally, both groups of officials assumed that granting rural direct
producers the right to engage in self-exploitation would allow the State
to shift the economic burden for certain social costs from the government
onto the rural direct producers themselves. Self-exploiting direct producers,
it was assumed, would play a more independent role (voluntarism) in providing
their own infrastructure, social services, and social insurance, thereby
reducing demands upon gove rnmental resources.
At the same time that the State reduced its commitment of resources
to rural public investments, it was assumed that hard-working ancient producers
would boost total social output sufficiently to generate higher State revenues.
Direct p roducers would produce a larger absolute surplus and thus provide
substantially increased aggregate taxes and other subsumed class payments
to the State. It was assumed that direct producers granted the right to
self-exploit and faced with a smaller pe rcentage tax would work
more intensively and, perhaps, extensively and invest a portion of the
increased surplus in expanding and improving their means of production.
The benefits from these private efforts would be shared by the whole society.
Lenin stated this succinctly in a speech on 15 March 1921:
From the standpoint of the small proprietor, the small farmer, the tax,
which is to be smaller than surplus appropriation, will be more definite
and will enable him to sow more. and assure him of the opportunity of u
sing his surplus to improve his farm (1960, vol. 32, 235).
In 1983, the Chinese leadership also saw the returned surplus of the
self-exploiting producers as a source of social accumulation and technical
It is necessary to tap new sources of funds in order to speed up rural
construction…However, limited state investment can only be made in important
construction projects The building of small farmland capital constru ction
projects and service facilities should primarily rely on the funds accumulated
from agricultural income and on rural labor (Xinhua 1983. K10).
Just as important as the similarities of the assumptions that went into
the policies are the similarities in the histories of the evolution of
the policies. In both the Soviet Union and in China, the government faced
widespread disapproval of the agricultural policies preceding the reforms.
War Communism in the Soviet Union and the commune system in China were
both identified with low agricultural growth, low rural standards of living,
and low agricultural productivi ty. In both countries, the rural population
frequently went against official policy and implemented unsanctioned self-exploitation
in production. Officials in both countries were faced with either trying
to enforce generally unpopular and unsuccessful pol icies or officially
validating the "experiments" implemented by rural direct producers.2
In the Soviet Union, Lenin described the attitudes of the rural producers
concerning pre-NEP conditions thusly:
Under no circumstances must we try to hide anything; we must plainly
state that the peasantry is dissatisfied with the forms of our relations,
that it does not want relations of this type and will not continue to liv
e as it has hitherto . . The state of affairs that has prevailed so far
cannot be continued any longer (1960, vol. 32, 215).
Despite some concerns about the possibility that self-exploitation could
provide an opening for capitalist exploitation to re-emerge, Lenin opted
for the "pragmatic" approach of giving "peasants" what they wanted, the
right to engage in self-exploitation. Stalin's rise to power put to rest
the possibility that these pragmatic efforts might have become a Soviet
experiment in an ancient road to communism. The rise of Stalinism brought
forth a period of reversing the NEP reforms. forced co llectivization of
rural production, and rapid decline in the role of self-exploitation in
the Soviet economy. The recent attempt at "perestroika" or "restructuring"
in the Soviet Union was an effort to return, at least in part, to the NEP
reforms. includi ng the promotion of self-exploitation.
In China, the 1949 revolution opened the possibility for a rise in self-exploitation.
Faced with a militant rural population anticipating significant improvements
in social conditions and a power vacuum left by the flight of many landlo
rds from rural areas, the Communist party implemented the Land Reform Act
of 1950. Using a system to categorize the rural population that
was explicitly based on class analysis, land was taken from feudal "landlords"
(without compensation) and give n to their feudal "tenants" and to landless
capitalist agricultural workers. Land owned by capitalist "rich peasants"
was not redistributed in the land reform but capitalist exploitation was
made illegal. Thus, the Communist party promoted self-exploitati on while
simultaneously banning certain forms of capitalist exploitation.
The result was the creation of a large number of ancient "middle and
poor peasants" engaging in self-exploitation on their newly won land. It
was not, however, the goal of the party to foster the long-term growth
of self-exploitation. C onsequently, the party leadership developed a long-term
plan, starting in 1952, for a transition from self-exploitation to communal
appropriation in the countryside. This policy ultimately resulted in the
rise to prominence of the rural communes.
The procommune policy was not completely successful. By all indications,
large numbers of rural producers resisted the transition to communal appropriation
and, although the transition was not as violent as under Stalin, there
was coerc ion. Rural producers forced to engage in communal appropriation
turned from explicit resistance to a de facto work slowdown form of resistance.
The process of communalization thus signified a growing political gap between
the party and the "peasantry" and the inauguration of a period of productivity
problems. These problems were directly related to popular opposition to
communal appropriation and a desire by the rural producers to return to
As in the pre-NEP period in the USSR, there were instances of "experimentation"
by rural producers who took it upon themselves to make the transition from
communal appropriation back to self-exploitation. Thus, while the party
leadershi p held its third plenum in 1978, unsanctioned experiments with
agricultural reforms arose in Anhui (Hama 1982, 6; Watson 1984, 90). According
to Watson, "the pressures (for change) came from below and proceeded to
force the pace of change thereafter" (198 4, 90). Official approval of
the shengchan zeren zhi reforms came in stages, starting with Documents
#75 in September 1980, continuing with Documents #1 in 1984 and 1985, and
more recently appearing with Presidential Decree #12 in 1988. Several aut
hors (Ash 1988; Hama 1982; Watson 1984) have described this process in
detail, noting that official policy usually lagged behind already existing,
regionally enacted changes. Support for self-exploitation and opposition
to communal appropriation was not, however, unanimous. Some writers (Hartford
1985; Perry 1985; Zweig 1983) have indicated that the Chinese government
may have forced some areas to enact the proancient reforms despite local
opposition. But, overall, we see that struggles for self-exploitat ion
by rural direct producers and affiliated local officials were decisive
in the formulation of the economic reforms.
Does the Soviet experiment with self-exploitation provide us with any
lessons for the possible future of the Chinese reforms? Why did the Soviet
Communist party abandon the NEP and self-exploitation? NEP was rather short-lived
for a num ber of complex reasons. While reliance on self-exploitation did
result in increased agricultural production (Nove 1969, 110), the amount
of marketed agricultural output did not increase fast enough to satisfy
some elements in the Party (Dobb 1966, 161f., 214; Nove 1969, III). Further,
owing to such factors as State monopsonies in agricultural purchases and
monopolies in industrial product sales, rising agricultural supply, and
deliberate policy measures to support State industrial "capital1st" enterprises
, the terms of trade between agricultural and industrial commodities moved
against agriculture (Dobb 1966, 162; Nove 1969, 95), threatening future
No less important was the development of rural capitalism during the
NEP, a result that Lenin and others had feared might arise out of the reforms:
Freedom of turnover and freedom to trade means commodity exchange between
individual, small proprietors. All of us who have learnt at least the ABCs
of Marxism know that this turnover and freedom of trade inevitably leads
to the division of the commodity producers into owners of capital and owners
of labour power, a division into capitalists and wage workers, i.e., the
restoration of capitalist wage slavery (Rochester 1942, 131).
Lenin made an elaborate argument along these lines in The Development
of capitalism in Russia (1960) where be argued that the re-emergence
and growth of capitalism were an inevitable result of self-exploitatio
n.3 In this logic, Lenin and Stalin were probably not far apart.
It is, therefore, not surprising that this theoretical position came to
dominate the debate over the role of the peasantry in the new society.
But didn't the party's own procapitalist sentiments and policies create
the space for the re-emergence of rural capitalism? After all, the Communist
party had the power to ban capitalist exploitation without ending self-exploitation,
bu t instead the party-instituted State industrial "capitalist" enterprises
copied the industrial practices of capitalist enterprises in other countries,
and continued to laud the "technical" achievements of capitalism (something
that remains common among Ma rxists).
The possibility that the growth of capitalism within these rural areas
might not have been a simple consequence of self-exploitation, but might
have been fostered by a whole array of political policies, cultural processes,
and other soc ial conditions was, with only a few exceptions (such as Bukharin)
not considered by the dominant intellectual and political leaders in the
Soviet Union. It was Stalin who took this "party line" on self-exploitation
to its most brutal conclusion. In the St alinist logic of the post-NEP
period, self-exploitation had to be crushed in order to consolidate socialism.
Ancient producers and many other rural citizens in the Soviet Union were
violently forced into new economic relationships, with many losing their
lives in the process.
The book is still being written on the Chinese reforms, but one can
see certain similarities between China of the 1980s and the Soviet Union
of the '20s. Agricultural production in China rose quickly after implementation
of the reforms, only to level off later (Zhongguo Tongji Nianjian 1988,
216). Just as in the NEP period in the Soviet Union, the early reform period
in China saw the terms of trade move in favor of agriculture as the "free
market" was allowed to flourish, only to switch and move against agricultural
commodities as government intervention was reasserted in an effort to stem
inflation (Zhongguo Tongji Nianjian 1988, 792).
At the same time, the Chinese government has relaxed anticapitalist
laws restricting wage-labor employment in the countryside. This and other
factors have intensified the class contradictions in China, encouraging
the growth in capitali st exploitation and reinforcing the old notions
that self-exploitation inevitably leads to capitalist exploitation. This
has contributed to anti-ancient ideas among Chinese intellectuals, including
some who participated in the social movement quelled by t he Tiananmen
massacre. Economist Han Bo (1988) reported: "The individual producers in
the countryside now make, on average, more than college professors and
most government officials. Many cadres in the countryside find it necessary
to take guangxi (bribes) to supplement their State salaries. This
is why many people would prefer to go back to the 'iron rice bowl system.
"but many ancient producers view a return to the iron rice bowl system
as a code word for the commune system, as well as general i ncome redistribution
to achieve more income equality. Thus, many of these ancient producers
have become even stronger supporters of the current pragmatist leadership
that has promised no rollbacks in the reform process.
The Contradictory Class Dynamics of the Chinese Communes
What ancient producers fear most is a return to the days of the old
commune. The necessary product in the communes was distributed to the members
of the teams according to a workpoint system (Hartford 1985, 32; Howard
1988, 41f.; Le eming 1985, 34; Nolan and White 1979, 2~30; Oi 1985, 244).
Mao Zedong and other radical communists advocated allowing the production
teams a great deal of latitude in allocating work points. As Perkins points
out, "left to their own devices
· . . production teams tended to favor
more egalitarian forms of distribution" (1988, 609). Thus, the communes
tended towards the communist principle of distribution where indivi duals
received a portion of the necessary product according to need more than
to work effort.
Planning and management of production were handled by nonproducers outside
of the commune (Nolan and White 1979, 18f.). The allocation of work within
the commune was determined by local cadres and members of the production
team (Oi 1985 , 243, 246). One method of work allocation was to assign
members of the same household to complete a particular task: "the allocation
of certain amount of land to an individual or household on a long-term
basis with this individual or household receiving all income after meeting
certain obligations to the collective and the state" (Perkins 1988, 609).
This particular arrangement presents interesting possibilities in terms
of class. On one hand, household contracts may have provided conditions
of existence for any number of class processes, including feudal, communal,
and ancient, within the household site.4 On the other hand,
direct producers who contracted with the collective to produce on a plot
of land were typically the producers and first receivers of individually
produced surplus product. A portion of the surplus product may have been
transferred to the collective as a subsumed class payment in return for
temporary use rights to the land, political protection for self-exploitation,
and ot her conditions of existence of self-exploitation.
In this case, self-exploitation may have continued within the
communes throughout the period when communal appropriation prevailed. If
this was the case, then it may have been all the easier to make a transition
from the prevalen ce of communal appropriation to self-exploitation with
the later reforms.
The continued existence of "private plots" was another mechanism for
the continuation of self-exploitation under the commune system. While the
percentage varied between 1958 and 1978, each household was allocated a
small parcel of land to cultivate privately. The output of these "private
plots" could either be consumed by the household or, in some cases, sold
in the local markets. As mentioned previously, this household-based production
presents a variety of possibilities in class terms , only one of which
is self-exploitation. In other words, the existence of "private plots"
added to the contradictory class dynamic within the communes.
We believe that some portion-a significant portion of the output produced
on these "private plots" was the result of ancient necessary and surplus
labor. We further presume that the presence of this potentially ancient
alternative for r ural labor lowered direct labor in communal production
and undercut productivity on production teams. Simultaneously, self-exploitation
may have supplemented communal income, potentially reducing communist necessary
labor and increasing the relative surpl us product in the communist class
process. The continued presence of an ancient alternative in rural China
provided both the basis for transformation of the commune system and a
model for the development of an ancient alternative throughout China.
During the late 1970s, a number of critiques of the commune system began
to appear in the official Chinese journals. The workpoint remuneration
system was viewed by many State officials and pragmatists within the Party
as unsatisfactory as an incentive to productivity growth because of its
tendency to displace the "socialist" principle of "to each according to
his/her contribution" with the "communist" principle of "to each according
to his/her need":
In practice it was difficult to tie income to performance under this
work point system. Self-assessment of the quantity and quality of work
done was not likely to produce an accurate measure of actual effort. But,
mu tual assessment by all members of the team was also difficult. It could
take up enourmous amounts of time and lead to great tension among village
families because some would inevitably feel they were unfairly treated
(Perkins 1988, 609).
The prevalence of this communist principle of distribution, coupled
with a revealed preference by rural direct producers for self-exploitation
over communal appropriation, dampened the productivity of communal direct
producers. The result was a lower total product than might otherwise have
been obtained; and communist production that was more susceptible to so-called
external shocks, such as bad weather, rising input costs, sudden infrastructural
bottlenecks, and so on. From the standpoint of many government officials
and Communist party leaders, the reforms represented a way to bring about
an increase in the social surplus, regardless of its class context, to
eliminate some of the serious imbalances in the economy, particularly in
terms of agricultural outputs and inputs, and to gain more long-term support
for Party and State economic policies.
Nevertheless, it would be overly simplistic to assume that the changes
embodied in the economic reforms were universally supported either by the
Communist party or the rural population. Early in the reform period, the
notion that only a portion of the communes needed to be reformed was promoted.
Hinton (1983, 4) cites a young economist who concludes "a whole 30 percent
had been doing badly, while the middle 40 percent had been holding their
own."5 And resistance among the rur al cadre and rural producers
to the implementation of the shengchan zeren zhi reforms has been
well-documented (Perry 1985; Zweig 1983).
However, it must be assumed that many cadres and government officials
understood that there was insufficient support for communal production
and appropriation to motivate direct producers to make this system work
and that support for se lf-exploitation remained strong among the vast
majority of such producers. When the pragmatists called for reform in the
rural incentive structures and the institution of a "responsibility system"
zhiren zhi) for agriculture in 1978, few analysts or, for that matter,
Chinese officials could have predicted the outcome of those changes, but
it was certainly believed that the new policy would be more popular among
rural direct producers than the communal approach had been. The belief
was th at the shift to self-exploitation would legitimate Communist party
authority by granting rural producers something they wanted and, assuming
these rural producers would become more productive if given the right to
engage in self-exploitation, increase agg regate social wealth.
After Mao's death in 1976, the relative strength of the procommune radicals
and proancient pragmatists within the Communist party appears to have shifted
decisively in favor of the conservatives and their preferred policy of
decentraliz ed markets and reversal of communalization in rural production.
In particular, support for self-exploitation seems to have strengthened
both within and outside the Party and resulted in the adoption of the reforms
called da bao gan or "big contract " system.
Meanwhile, the process of dismantling the communal structures and abandoning
communal production and appropriation was pervasive. By 1983, the ancient
fundamental class process had largely displaced communal production and
appropriation as the prevalent class process in rural China. The vast majority
of rural producers had independently adopted the da bao gan system,
which Hinton described as "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's while
I take the rest for myself' (Hinton 198 3, 6).
Da Bao Gan and Expansion in Self-Exploitation
We recognize that although rural direct producers rejoiced at the ending
of feudal exploitation, they do not seem to have supported the growth of
communal appropriation. Indeed, the fact that for the first few years following
"liber ation" in 1949 self-exploitation was allowed to flourish is generally
understood as contributing to popular support for the Communist party and
the new postrevolutionary government.
Party officials, on the other hand, disagreed over what to do about
the class nature of rural production. One faction, which we have defined
as the pragmatists, advocated the gradual transformation of the ancient
producers into communis t producers by using political, economic, and cultural
mechanisms to entice rural producers into forming voluntary collectives
that would facilitate modernization and take advantage of returns to scale.
Another faction, which we have defined as the procommune radicals, argued
that such an approach would not lead to voluntary collectivization but,
rather, to a return of capitalist relations in the countryside. As an alternative,
the radicals proposed a mass education campaign to alter the ancient pr
oducers' class-consciousness in favor of the formation of collective farms,
while simultaneously implementing policies that would establish such collectives
by State fiat.
Communist party policies have sometimes favored the pragmatists. including
policies supported by perhaps the most famous party pragmatist, Chou En
Lai, and at other times favored the radicals. Thus what we see in postrevolutionary
Chine se history is a policy towards self-exploitation that has been inconsistent.
Self-exploitation has at times been supported by the central government
and the Party and at other times has been out of favor.
In the 1960s self-exploitation was out of favor as radicals, led by
Mao. successfully promoted the notion that self-exploitation represented
"seeds of capitalism." Ancient producers were physically and verbally attacked
by their neighbo rs: local cadres confiscated their property. It was believed
that self-exploitation inevitably led to the increased polarity of rural
incomes, the marginalization of many rural producers, and their eventual
proletarianization. This view of self-exploitati on as a precursor to capitalist
exploitation was based upon a teleological view of history and ignored
the distinctive dynamic potential of self-exploitation.
Nevertheless, in spite of the recent social tensions and increasing
income inequality, for many rural producers self-exploitation remains enormously
popular. In addition, the pragmatists can point to the successful increase
in social ou tput consequent upon adoption of their proancient economic
reforms. For instance, the 1984 value of agricultural output grew by 15.6
percent over the 1983 level, even though net investment in agriculture
fell (Zhongguo Tongji Nianjian: 1988, 214). This increase is even
more dramatic when one considers the expansion in the variety of agricultural
goods available. The increased aggregate output resulted in both a more
varied and larger bundle of goods.
The shift to self-exploitation has allowed ancient producers to improve
their standard of living: with a larger necessary and surplus product,
ancient producers have been able to buy more consumer goods. The national
average nominal per capita income for China's rural population more than
trebled between 1978 and 1987 (Zhongguo Yongji Nianjian: 1988, 823).
Per capita consumption of grain almost doubled, pork consumption more than
doubled, and poultry consumption more than quadrup led between 1978 and
1987 (Zhongguo Yongji Nianjian: 1988, 825). And as ancient producers
enjoyed greater material prosperity, sentiment in favor of self-exploitation,
and of the pragmatist leadership that had promoted self-exploitation, was
What are some of the specific reforms that were instituted by the pragmatist
leadership and how have these reforms supported the growth in self-exploitation?
One set of reforms is embodied in the da bao gan or "big contract"
syst em.6 Under the da bao gan rural direct producers
were granted individual use rights to the land and other means of production,
acquired allocative control of their surplus product, gained the right
to engage in market exchanges, and were allowed to negotiate futures contracts
with the government for delivery of specific products at negotiated prices.7
At the same time, the government continued to purchase a relatively
limited share of output by requiring ancient producers to sell a fixed
amount of their output at negotiated prices to the government. Thus, ancient
producers sold their output in what has been described as a "dual-market"
system of circulation: one portion of ancient output was sold on the "free"
market and the other portion was sold to the State. The portion of ancient
output that was sold to the State, although sold at lower than "free" market
prices, provided ancient producers with a guaranteed income, no matter
what future market conditions might be. As it has turned out, this arrangement
has benefited many ancient producers by reducing market risk, as is gene
rally the case in futures contracts.
The total output received by the government initially increased after
implementation of the reforms. By 1986, the State greatly reduced its contractual
purchases of agricultural output from rural direct producers. This output
included p roducts that were resold at subsidized retail prices. The government
did this in order to lower government expenditures and balance the budget.
On one hand, this increased the market risk faced by ancient producers,
placing them more at the mercy of priva te demand. On the other hand, some
ancient producers benefited due to the rise in retail prices as government-subsidized
products became less available.
At the same time, the total public outlay for infrastructure and social
services declined with institution of the reforms. For example, Hinton
(1988, 42f.) reported the deterioration of basic infrastructure in the
famous Dazhai village. The ancient producers did not engage in social investment
to anywhere near the extent that had been carried out by the communes.
In part, some have argued, this was owing to insecurity among the ancient
producers about the long-term survival of the da bao gan policy.
Fearing yet another policy reversal that might turn against self-exploitation,
many ancient producers chose not to invest in agricultural infrastructure
or to fund social services out of their privately appropriated surplus.
The long- term consequences of this reduction in social investment may
include an increase in income inequalities, a lower quality and quantity
of many social services (such as health care and education), and reduced
social insurance funds to protect direct produce rs and other citizens
from natural disasters or other catastrophes.
Reforming Da Bao Gan
The initial material success of the da bao gan system contributed
to even greater approval of the reform process among the party leadership.
Between 1984 and 1988, a series of policy changes were initiated by the
State to consolidate and reinforce the da bao gan system and to
encourage greater confidence among the ancient producers in the State's
long-term commitment to self-exploitation. In 1984, the "Circular for the
Central Committee of the CCP on Rural Work Dur ing
1984," also known as 1984 Document #1, called upon the Party to "stabilize
and improve the output-related system of contracted responsibilities" (Xinhua
133-38). More specifically, it extended the length of land contracts t
o at least 15 years, allowed for the transferal (but not sale) of land
use rights, permitted the free exchange of nonland means of production,
and provided for the compensation of ancient producers for any investments
they may have made on their contracte d land. And further, Document #1
permitted market exchange of noncontracted agricultural output, recommended
that purchase quotas remain unchanged for several years, and ordered an
end to "irrational assignment of expenses to peasants" (Xinhua 1985
a, 138). These "expenses" were subsumed class payments to the State for
use of State-owned means of production.
In 1985, the CCP issued another circular on rural reforms, commonly
known as the 1985 Document #1 (Xinhua 1985a, kI-7). In the 1985
Document #1 ten specific policy changes were made, which included the following:
1. The end of mandatory quotas, except for "certain strategic products,"
such as grain and cotton, and the creation of free markets for the exchange
of most agricultural commodities.
2. Greater State investment in road construction and maritime transportation
in rural areas.
3. More liberal lending policies for rural borrowers, primarily ancient
4. The declaration that the "policies of the contracted responsibility
system with remuneration linked to output and the individual economy will
remain untouched for a long time to come.
5. A call for the expansion of rural-urban trade.
6. The permission for certain rural direct producers to enter into foreign
Thus, by 1985, with only a few exceptions, the State openly endorsed
free exchange of agricultural output under the direct control of ancient
producers. Then, in 1988, President Yang Shangkun issued a decree further
relaxing restriction s on land use transfers, officially permitting the
direct sale of land use rights among rural direct producers for the first
time (Xinhua 1988, 35).
On the other hand, the expansion in rural free markets where ancient
producers could sell their products has contributed to inflation and intensified
income inequalities. According to Xiong Xing Mei, deputy director of the
Institute of International Economics at Nankai University, inflation rates
in the 1980s have averaged over 20 percent per annum, although the officially
published rates put out by the central government continue to understate
this rate. While ancient producers have, i n general, benefited from the
reforms, price instability and increasing inequality may foster opposition
to these reforms and to self-exploitation. As has been previously indicated,
such sentiments were expressed by many of those who participated in the
p ro-democracy movement demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
As part of its anti-inflation policy implemented in 1985, the Chinese
government, recognizing the destabilizing potential of inflation, has moved
to slow price increases for agricultural products. In addition, as previously
stated, the State has greatly reduced public investment, including the
planned increase in agricultural investment. This has negatively affected
many ancient producers who, for the first time since the reforms were started,
may be caught in "price scissors" where the ir output prices are held down
by government price controls even as their input prices continue to rise.
In addition, tensions between those who support self-exploitation and
those who oppose it continue, although the opponents have become somewhat
quieter in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. In an odd twist of
fate, the political c risis created by the Tiananmen protest and subsequent
massacre may have strengthened the hand of the proancient pragmatists.
This is due to the increased importance of ancient producers as a core
support group for the Communist party. The Party is hardly in a position
to alienate another segment of the population, particularly a segment that
is so important to rural China where 80 percent of the population resides.
We have argued that from 1978 to the present, conditions for the existence
and expansion of self-exploitation have been created throughout rural China,
and to a lesser extent in urban China (where self-exploitation remains
largely perip heral to State "capitalist" enterprises). In part, this was
caused by the active and passive resistance of the rural direct producers
to communal production and appropriation-and their support for self-exploitation.
The Party's need for legitimization and the sentiments of these rural direct
producers formed an important basis for establishing the proancient reform
policies. The conditions that fostered the reforms have no doubt been reinforced
by the Tiananmen massacre, and there is no reason to believe that the Communist
party will turn against self-exploitation anytime soon.
Thus, the case of China provides an excellent counterexample to the
belief that self-exploitation is a relatively insignificant and inherently
unstable way of life existing in the interstices of feudal or capitalist
societies. In the ne xt section of the paper, we challenge the claim that
the growth of self-exploitation inevitably signals the rise of capitalist
exploitation and is therefore incompatible with the building of a communist
society. In making this argument, we hope to send a warning to Marxist
theorists about the dangers of operating out of a prejudiced notion of
the path to a society without exploitation. Whether a social formation
begins as primarily capitalist. feudal, ancient, or something else, it
is necessary to do the work of theorizing how such a society might be reproduced
or transformed. The theorist cannot be freed from the necessity of exploring
the unique political, cultural, and economic changes that might move such
a society towards communism.
Shengchan Zhiren Zhi and Socialism
It is our belief that the pro-ancient pragmatists were not being disingenuous
when they argued that self-exploitation or "individual economy was not
incompatible with socialism. We assume that these pragmatists within the
Party, the int elligentsia, and other spheres of social life genuinely
believe that by promoting expansion in self-exploitation. they are simultaneously
promoting the kinds of social changes necessary for an eventual transition
to a communist China. In other words, we d o not believe that our theoretical
claim that there can be an ancient road to communism is unique.
We argue, rather, that unlike most of the theoretical and political
arguments prevalent in Marxism and still popular among many Chinese radicals
and some of the pragmatists, the adoption of self-exploitation need not
be viewed as a "sho rt-term" mechanism for stimulating greater social output
in order to modernize and expand the State "capitalist" sector-which is
viewed as the more direct route to communism-and a mechanism that many
believe is only a backdoor way of promoting capitalism. We do not accept
the notion that the State-owned and
-operated enterprises prevalent in urban China, enterprises within which
wage-laborers produce surplus-value that is appropriated by a set of nonlaborers
selected by the State (and/or Party), are necessarily more consistent with
communi st transformation than are enterprises within which self-exploitation
Although the details of this argument are presented elsewhere (see Gabriel
1989), let us present at least the basics. In order to bring about a transformation
to a society within which communal production and appropriation prevails,
one might assume that it is necessary for direct producers to become accustomed
to working together, to cooperating with one another. Marx believed that
such cooperation might be fostered within capitalist enterprises. However,
this need not be the case. Cap italism does not necessarily foster cooperation.
On the other hand, it is also not out of the question that ancient producers
might learn to cooperate with one another.
For example, ancient producers in China might form different types of
partnership arrangements, within which they would continue to individually
produce and appropriate surplus products but collectively provide for certain
conditions th at are necessary to such self-exploitation. Ancient producers
in a partnership might collectively lease land and/or other means of production
from the State (or combine their already individually leased land and/or
other means of production). By doing so, these ancient producers might
take advantage of returns to scale, utilizing technology that might be
too costly for individual ancient producers to afford. A number of Chinese
commentators (Kong 1985, k3-7; Lin 1984, 91-93. Xinhua 1985b, k23;
Yong , Xiao, and Xu, 1984, k5) have focused on the recent formations
of "new economic combinations" or xinjingji lianhe as examples of
such a process.
If self-exploitation promotes such cooperation, or results in other
changes that could create conditions of existence for communal production
and appropriation-such as the build-up of a social infrastructure, changes
in attitudes toward private and communal forms of appropriation wherein
"bipolar" forms of private exploitation are considered unethical and forms
of appropriation within which the direct producers appropriate the surplus
fruit of their individual and/or collective labor ar e ethical, or greater
direct producer control over the invention and innovation of productive
technology-then self-exploitation may very well serve as a catalyst in
advancing an eventual transition to communism. However, this is only a
possibility and cer tainly not inevitability. There is no a priori reason
to presume that direct producers granted the right to engage in self-exploitation
should desire a transition to communism anymore than it should be presumed
that such direct producers would desire to e ngage in capitalist, feudal,
or any other nonancient form of private appropriation.
It is clear that some members of the Communist party believe that ancient
producers will learn to cooperate more with each other on a voluntary basis
(Lin 1984, 91-93; Xinhua 1985a, k5). This has been quite explicitly
stated by c ertain supporters of the da bao gan reforms. It is hoped
that such voluntary cooperation and voluntary social investment will promote
socialism and a socialist consciousness in a way that the imposition of
communal production and appropriation did not. This remains to be seen.
However, it is important to consider the possibility that such could be
The form of communist development that might arise out of these experiments
in self-exploitation, market reforms, and changes in incentives would likely
be very different from what is typically envisioned by Marxian and non-Marxian
theo rists, particularly since the vision most theorists have of advanced
capitalism is considered by them to be a precondition for communism. On
the contrary, the ancient road that Chinese leaders have chosen (or been
forced to choose) may be a healthy approa ch to the issue of transition-an
approach that is based upon experimentation and nonessentialism.