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US Maoist who was critical of Cultural Revolution, saw Tiananmen massacre

By Harsh Thakor* 

William H Hinton, who reflected in his writings the strides of China secured under Mao Zedong, died 20 years ago on May 15th, 2004, at a nursing home in Concord, Massachusetts, US. He was 85. 
His writings illustrate Mao’s Chinese experiments, claiming, autonomy of workers and peasants surpassed level of any western democracy or third world country.
He wrote about the historical periods from the land reform movements in the pre-revolutionary period of the 1940s to later stages of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. 
Hinton was born February 2, 1919, in Chicago. He accepted the Harvard admission, but postponed college and instead traveled to the Far East, supporting himself with odd jobs. He attended Harvard from 1937 to 1939, then transferred to Cornell, and in 1941 took a Bachelor of Science degree in agronomy and dairy husbandry.
Hinton returned to China during World War II as a propaganda analyst for the Office of War Information, and then again in 1947 as a tractor technician for the United Nations. When the United Nations programme ended he stayed on as an English teacher and land-reforms adviser in Fanshen, where he took more than 1,000 pages of notes on what he saw.
The botes, with pinpoint detail, point to the struggle waged against landlords and between different categories of peasants in the village of Long Bow. Much later, he would recall "the lice, the fleas and all the hardships, and eating that terrible gruel out of an unwashed bowl while a young girl lay dying of tuberculosis".
Infuriated at the corruption of the Kuomintang nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, Hinton crossed to a zone already liberated by the communists in the civil war. Landing in southern Shanxi province, teaching English, he marched with his students to join the land reform movement.
When the Kuomintang attacked in 1948, he joined the retreat with the notes in his backpack. A year later, he witnessed Mao's triumph. When his passport expired, he returned to the United States in 1953, but was now hounded by the authorities. 
After the Eastland Committee tried him and declared the trunk full of papers they had taken from him to be ''the autobiography of a traitor,'' he worked as a truck mechanic in Philadelphia until he was blacklisted, then took up farming in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, on the land that his mother owned.
When he returned to the United States in 1953, his notes were confiscated by the senate internal security committee. He retrieved them after 5 years. Hinton organized Chinese dumpling parties to pay for the legal fees -- and then eight years to publish the book 'Fanshen.'
With high resilience, he waged a legal battle to recover his notes and papers. When he finally won, he embarked on writing 'Fanshen.' In 1971, after the book was translated into Chinese, Zhou Enlai invited him to visit China again, and he resumed his work as an agricultural adviser.
Returning to China in the heat and backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, and to Long Bow, would take another five years, with the support of the country's deputy leader Zhou Enlai.
After the death of Mao and ascendancy of "capitalist roaders" from 1976, Hinton was bitterly critical of the gang of four and supported their arrest.
In the 1980s, as the post-Mao regime dismantled the people's communes, Hinton backed the cooperative way. He was terrified with the redivision of the land into thin strips calling it "noodle strip farming" which in his view violated Marxism.
In the mid 1980s Hinton drifted from his earlier stand and became critical of the practice of the Cultural Revolution, classifying it as a factional struggle, with Mao seeking power.
In 1993, on the 100th anniversary of Mao's birth, in a tea party in Beijing, where retired cadres from the ministry of culture sang nostalgic songs about the revolution,  writing in the US Marxist journal 'Monthly Review', Hinton charged Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping of having reverted “from the socialist road to the capitalist road".
Hinton was highly disturbed by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which he was a first hand, driving through the suburbs of Beijing to monitor the advance of the army. His daughter by his first marriage, Carmelita Hinton, born and educated in China, later co-produced 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace' (1996), a challenging film about the massacre.
In 1995, Hinton moved to Mongolia with his third wife Katherine Chiu, when she was appointed to the UNICEF office in Ulan Bator. He lectured on no-till farming -- the technique of leaving the soil untouched from planting to harvest, which he had developed on his own farm in Pennsylvania. 
In 1995 in an interview he dissected every element of Mao’s political career, to give a knockout punch to the vilification of Mao  as a dictator. He dwelled into why it was imperative for Mao to wage political struggle against the line of Liu Shao Chi and Deng Xiaoping, to defend the political power of the working class. 
Hinton believed why the Cultural Revolution as a whole was a great creative departure in history and not a plot, not a purge, but a mass mobilization, whereby people were inspired to come to the party and supervise their cadres and form new popular committees to exercise control at the grassroots and higher.
Hinton toured different parts of the world to express his solidarity with revolutionary movements. During the final years of his life, he felt it was his duty to uphold the Chinese revolution combating the attacks and distortions waged against it. In writings and lectures given around the world, he upheld Mao’s revolutionary approach to land reform and collectivization. He played a major role in countering the ideological offensive against communism.
Fanshen and Other Books
Hilton's book 'Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village' (1966) is about the impact of the 1949 revolution on a village where he worked. It was a classic in its own right and imperative reading for generations of university students over the decades.
The book offered illustration of the patterns of life for the peasants. His writing refuted American media on Communist China at a time when America was diehard anti-Communist, which led to a 14-year delay of the publication of the book. He insisted, the Chinese Communist party championed practice of mass democracy.
Hinton described how the revolution shaped and transformed the traditional way of life, through the resistance to change in Long Bow, in southeastern Shaanxi Province. He narrated the struggles of elected councils to uproot and replace the old magistrates who ran the village. 
He described how individual villagers ''hopefully placed'' the family privy ''at the edge of the public road in anticipation of a contribution to the domestic store of fertilizer from any traveler who might be in need of relief.''
Tiananmen Square 
This book is based on extensive notes gathered in the village of Long Bow, Lucheng County, Shansi Province, during the spring and summer of 1948. The main focus of the book is to illustrate conditions which the members of the work team discovered and the actions which they subsequently led the people of the village to undertake.
Hinton’s book on land reforms in China, 'Iron Oxen’ (1971) investigates the early stages of the state’s collectivization of agriculture and its first mechanized crops. It is an illustrative portrayal of the heady days just before and after the liberation as a teacher in China’s first tractor school, where students sat on bricks in classrooms without roofs and eventually and jubilantly learned how to do emergency field repairs on giant Soviet combines. 
In 'Hundred Day War' (1972) Hinton narrates the story of the intense struggle of Red Guard factions at Qinghua University during the Cultural Revolution, which eventually led to students constructing their own cannons and tanks to engage in armed conflict. These events were a direct product of the line struggle that was being waged at the top levels of the Communist party. 
In 'Turning Point' (1972) Hinton projected the contending class forces that sprung up and the synthesis of mass movements with the party line upholding the Cultural Revolution. He summed up how in spite of aberrations like factional fighting, disruption in production and higher education disrupted, overall, it was a consolidation of working class power. 
Hinton dwelled on the three in one revolutionary committees first tried in Shantung and Heilungokiang.These comprised delegates from mass organisations, old party organisations who were revolutionary in orientation and from local army units.
He vividly described the recurrent factionalism spurred by rebel red guards in fighting the loyal red guards, critically evaluating the red guard movement and its integration with student community and attempt by opposition to subvert it.
A most descriptive account was given of the functioning of the Tachai Brigade,  where collective ownership, production and social services escalated by  overcoming of "narrow self-interest" through study and mutual self-criticism. Hinton described the method of earning in China’s communes, where work points were allotted for any productive job, taking into account the skills required. Work was now measured by periodically measuring each person as a worker, instead of calculating the actual work done.
In 'Turning Point', Hinton said:
In the course of the Cultural Revolution Mao Tse-tung and his supporters, by mobilizing a great mass movement of the people, have confronted one great wave of capitalist restoration. Other waves are sure to follow. It will take decades, perhaps a century or two, before the working class can establish socialism so firmly in any one country that it can no longer be challenged. In fact this can probably only come about when socialism is established on a world scale. One can expect more cultural revolutions in China and many cultural revolutions in other parts of the world wherever working people take power and embark on socialist construction… 
"All this indicates that socialist revolution is much more complex and difficult than most revolutionaries have hitherto supposed, that the seizure of power ... is only the first step in a protracted revolutionary process and may well be easier than the steps which follow.”
In 'Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village' (1983) Hinton denotes how the Cultural Revolution quickly degenerated into factionalism and unprincipled contests for power at national, provincial, and local levels. He  launches an attack to criticize ultra-leftism and groupings that split and wrecked mass movements, paving the way for rightist forces to usurp power. He also rejected the seizure of power by revolutionary workers in Shanghai in 1967. He asserted that Mao was responsible for these leftist excesses because he refused to initiate mass campaigns to erase them and was making use of China’s Confucian and feudal culture to elevate a personality cult .
In 'Dazhai Revisited' (1988) Hinton defended the era of collective agriculture in China, and warned of the disastrous implications of the new policies. He noted the sharp decline in capital construction or even maintenance of earlier construction, as well as the grave environmental damage being done in the new system, all of which would have a negative repercussion on agriculture.
‘The Great Reversal’ (1990) examines the path of agricultural reform over the past decade, and its consequences in different areas of the countryside and its implications for the country as a whole. He brings to light the escalating landlessness, inequality and the destruction of the nation’s natural resources and the collectively built infrastructure that was considered the great achievement of the revolution.
---
*Freelance journalist 

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