Witness to a revolution

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST

William Hinton, 1919-2004.

WILLIAM HINTON'S name immediately conjures up Long Bow village, Shansi, and his detailed description and lapidary analysis in Fanshen of the actual practice of revolutionary land reforms guided by the Communist Party of China. Along with Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley and Norman Bethune, William Hinton belonged to that group of admirable Americans who not only recognised very early the significance of the great adventure that was the Chinese revolution, transforming as it did the lives of a quarter of humankind, but who also participated wholeheartedly in that adventure and meticulously recorded its unfolding.

Hinton first went to China in 1936 as a teenager working his way across the world. Returning home, he completed two years of study at Harvard and graduated in agronomy from Cornell University in 1941. Reading Edgar Snow's Red Star over China (1942) influenced him profoundly and changed his worldview from pacifism to Marxism. At a time when most in the world identified China with Chiang Kai-shek's Guomingdang, Edgar Snow, who had reached Yenan had seen that the future of China lay in the principled and militant Communist struggle and conveyed the excitement of that discovery through his writings. Hinton returned to China in 1945 as a staff member of the United States War Information Office and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai on several occasions. Returning in 1947, now as a member of a technical mission of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, he stayed on when the work was over.

After teaching briefly at the Northern University near Changzhi, Hinton joined a land reform work team and spent eight months in 1948 living and working in Long Bow village. Over a thousand pages of his notes recording in minute detail the process of land reform were seized by the U.S. Customs on Hinton's return from China. It was only after a prolonged legal battle that they were restored to Hinton, thereby enabling him to publish his book Fanshen (to `turn over'). Hinton was harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), his passport was seized, and he was forbidden to teach or be in any other employment, so he made a living as a farmer for 15 years.

The remarkable feature of Fanshen, which makes it a book like no other, is the vivid account it gives not only of the class struggle behind land reform but also of the human agents involved in it, with all their strengths and weaknesses. Land reform was directed, but not implemented, from the top. The peasants threw up their own organic intellectual-activists in the course of the struggle, which they then led as cadres. This enabled the complete destruction, through democratic processes and with remarkably little violence, of the centuries-old domination of landlords and gentry over the peasantry and also achieved a substantial undermining of gender discrimination. Mao Zedong's directive in "The Work of Land Reform and of Party Consolidation in 1948" (in Volume IV of the Selected Works) was that cadres should "Identify class status according to correct criteria. Distribute feudal land property... the final result of the distribution must be such that it is considered fair and reasonable by all the main strata and that the landlords too feel that there is a way for them to make a living and that this is assured". Hinton's account shows through what social and political processes this was actually implemented in Long Bow.

Unlike in the Soviet Union, there was never any organised attempted sabotage by landlords of the reforms, which ultimately redistributed nearly half of the total cultivated area in China. The local cadres then persuaded the peasants to go in for cooperative production, culminating in the formation of the people's communes. Who can forget Hinton's description of the ill-fed but dedicated cadres of Long Bow, or the young bride Hsien-e who took a leading role in the village Women's Association, or the many other characters who people his account?

As Hinton himself put it: "What I have tried to do in the book as a whole is to reveal, through the microcosm of Long Bow village, something of the essence of the great anti-imperialist, anti-feudal revolution which transformed China in the first half of the twentieth century and unleashed political and social forces so tremendous that they continue to shake not only China but the world... The question naturally arises as to whether Long Bow can be considered a microcosm typical enough to reveal the essence of the Chinese Revolution. Was Long Bow's development universal or unique? The answer can only be that it was something of both."

William Hinton's Fanshen remains the definitive documentary of what the revolution meant to the ordinary people who took part in it. Fanshen became a classic, which was translated into 10 languages and sold lakhs of copies. Hinton's daughter Carmelita, who was born and educated in China, stayed on to become a part of New China. Hinton himself went back again and again to Long Bow, invested his own savings in helping to set up village industry and later wrote the voluminous Shenfan ("digging deep"), which documented meticulously the events and theoretical debates of the Great Leap Forward and of the Cultural Revolution, providing important insights into that turbulent period.

In recent years, a section of China Studies in Northern universities has degenerated into poor scholarship aimed at demonising the entire Maoist period, denigrating the Great Leap Forward in particular and attacking the people's communes. Hinton's work serves to document the great benefits of cooperative labour mobilisation which he had seen before his eyes and passionately believed in, for it had enabled the Chinese peasants and workers to pull themselves out of the slough of poverty, to build up productive assets, and set in place a health care and elementary educational system at the level of the village and the commune. Above all, China under Mao's egalitarian socialist policies had given the world a working model of an alternative moral order, of cooperation and socialist emulation, as against the pursuit of individual self-interest which lies at the core of capitalism, and that is why it was feared by capitalists. As late as 1983, when I had visited China for three weeks, though the misguided process of reversing egalitarianism had started, these were early days and one saw that there was as yet no unemployment, no urban slums, no beggars or crime, and no doors in houses or hotels could be locked from outside - money and valuables were left safely, for no one stole.

When William Hinton visited India a few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting him at a talk he gave in the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. A tall and well-built man already past 80, he was completely clear and focussed. He was deeply unhappy with the dismantling of the commune system under Deng Xiaoping's market-oriented economic reforms and deplored the resulting surge of rural unemployment and fast growth of inequalities. In the last few years of his life he battled the ideologically motivated denigration of the Maoist period. William Hinton's passing will be mourned by all who value revolutionary integrity and commitment and his great classic Fanshen will continue to depict the truth of China's revolution to future generations.

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