IN this particular Chinese village, capitalism was marked by two pigs that were exploded.
It was the mid 1960s. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was on the move—in accordance with Mao’s decree—to “cut the tail of capitalism down to the countryside.” The ‘Cultural Revolution’ was spreading. Party cadres were sent into the countryside to motivate the farmers.
I read about this turbulent time in Lian Heng’s memoirs, Son of the Revolution, published in 1983.
Lian was born in 1954. When he was about 10, he went with his father, a former journalist considered ideologically tainted, who had been sent to live in a backward village commune in the area of Changling, Hunan Province. His father did not complain. He was happy to be given the duty of motivating the farmers in the fight to ‘cut the tail of capitalism’. But in that poor village, what would that ‘tail’ look like? Who was ‘capitalist’ among the farmers, living hand to mouth, worried about not having enough rice and now having to support Lian’s family too? What would happen if he did not find any ‘capitalism’ there, even though there had to be ‘class struggle’?
And so it went that one day Lian and his father accompanied Li, a local Communist Party figure and the leader of the commune brigade, on a tour of the village. As they went around, they suddenly spied six ducklings swimming in a drain. Comrade Li was relieved: those ducklings were signs of capitalism. Class struggle could happen in this village.
That night, the villagers were gathered. Li gave a speech. He accused Gao Laoda, the duck owner, as a capitalist who had done wrong. In this commune, private ownership was forbidden—including raising small animals. Gao had first to beg forgiveness from Chairman Mao (by bowing before his picture) and then he had to kill his six ducks.
Gao was afraid and did what he was told. But that was not enough. The next night, there was the noise of an explosion. The two pigs in Gao’s pigpen were blown to smithereens by a grenade. Gao’s wife cried, grabbing the meat, bones and blood scattered everywhere, their last possessions…
Chairman Mao: What did he want from the farmers? What was his idea of them? The PRC was often presented as the fruit of the beautiful revolution of farmers. But something was wrong, it seemed.
Mao had a detailed analysis of Chinese farmers. In 1926, he wrote that there were ‘landlords’, ‘middle bourgeoisie’, ‘petty bourgeoisie’ and ‘semi-proletariat’. Among them all, but especially the poorest, were some who would become part of the Revolution to destroy remnants of ‘feudalism’. But they were not the most reliable. To Mao, the ‘most progressive’ class was the ‘industrial proletariat’, the workers in the modern sector. They were few in number, but it was them—not the farmers, not the middle or petty bourgeoisie—who would become ‘the leading force in the revolutionary movement’. The farmers had to be left behind, or completely changed.
It appears that implicit in Mao’s views were those of Marx and Engels, whose view of the world came from European social history. They were ambivalent about farmers. According to Engels, on the one hand the role of the peasants’ revolution should be acknowledged, for instance the ‘Peasant War’ in Germany in the 16th century. But on the other hand, history progresses towards industrial society, and peasants will be devoured by change. They will become proletariat. “[The peasant] is hopelessly doomed, he is a future proletariat,” Engels wrote in 1894.
This is why the Communist Manifesto was so fierce in its depiction of the dynamics of the bourgeoisie in changing life: cities arose and societies were freed from the ‘idiocy of rural life’.
One can see here that Marx was a city person through and through. He was born in Tiers, Germany, and died in London. He would never have stood life in the agrarian world. To him, rural life was rooted in its place, and only developed inwardly. So he welcomed English capitalism’s entry to India in the 19th century, stifling village textile activity and forcing society to change dynamically. “[W]hatever may have been the crimes of England,” Marx wrote, “she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.”
From this we know why, to Marxists in all their variants, the workers—not the farmers—have their own special aura. The worker is the figure of the modern world. The others, no. Even Bung Karno did not see the petit bourgeois, who he called Marhaenists—namely the small farmers, market traders, ‘tinkers’ and fishers—as fit to play a great role in the struggle.
Writing in 1933, Bung Karno praised the proletariat. The proletariat is “what I call modern,” he said, “this is called rational.” Because the proletariat is more “in tune with the times.” Farmers, on the contrary, Bung Karno said, “usually still live with mystical musings flying around above the skies.”
It seems as though Bung Karno himself was also ambivalent. His ‘Marhaen’ figure was indeed a poor farmer he met by chance on the roadside. But, like Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, that farmer had to be transformed.
What was not foreseen was that this group would persevere into the 21st century. They are not always trapped by capitalism becoming the proletariat. They become ‘petty bourgeois’, the largest sector of society, which has never been considered heroic but is important—like the woman running the food stall on the corner, or the owner of the ducks, pigs, goats…