Rural Socialism in China: The Push for Cooperative Farming


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

In the countryside, the process of socialist transformation was more complex and took longer to complete than urban industrialization. The process, known as collectivization, was divided into three sequential stages: mutual aid, cooperative farming, and full collectivization. But the process was not as smooth as expected, and Mao had to intervene.

A scroll painting of Chinese farmers.
The Communist government in China set out to transform traditional Chinese farming into the socialist form planned by the Soviets. (Image: W. M. Keck Foundation Gift and other gifts, in memory of Douglas Dillon, 2005/Public domain)

The Mutual Aid Stage

The first stage of rural transformation was the mutual aid stage which began in 1953. Small groups of six to eight neighboring farm families within a single village were encouraged to form seasonal mutual aid teams. These teams would share their farm tools, draft animals and even their labor on a temporary basis during the busiest periods of crop planting and harvesting.

Since many peasant families suffered from a shortage of essential means of production, the seasonal sharing of tools, animals, and labor would arguably lead to greater farm output for everyone and would hence increase each participating family’s personal income.

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The Success of Mutual Aid

For centuries Chinese peasant families had tilled individually small plots of self-owned or rented land. The point of mutual aid was to gradually habituate the peasants to work together for the benefit of all. At this stage, all property was still privately owned; and each family was entitled to consume or even to sell all produce grown on its own land (minus local taxes and mandatory state grain deliveries).

Based on the demonstrated success of mutual aid teams in raising the income of most of their members, after one or two harvest cycles, the second stage of collectivization was initiated. In this stage, the cooperative aspects of farm production were extended, along with the size of the farming group.

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Cooperative Farming

Now, 20 or 30 families, comprising 100 to 200 people, were grouped together in a cooperative farm, on a year-round basis. At this stage, all productive property, including land, animals, and tools, remained privately owned, at least in theory, but now the property was permanently invested in the cooperative.

Now family income was determined by a combined calculus. This included, first, a return proportional to the assessed share value of the assets invested in the co-op, that is, land, tools, and animals of a particular family; and second, a return proportional to the family’s actual labor contribution based on the number of work points earned by each family member.

Collective Ownership

Like mutual aid, the cooperative farms were expressly intended to be voluntary in nature. Coercion was strictly forbidden. Unlike mutual aid, however, peasant families were not free to sell or consume the crops grown on their own piece of land.

The harvest now belonged to the co-op as a whole, with the profits shared out according to the dual criteria of the size of investment shares owned and work points earned. The former favored well-to-do farmers, while the latter favored able-bodied laborers.

Mixed Results of Cooperative Farming

Where the mutual aid teams had been largely successful in fostering an attitude of shared responsibility and welfare, the results of cooperative farming were more mixed. On the plus side, the year-round pooling of land, labor, tools, and animals, involving 20 or 30 households, made possible both a more well-defined division of farm labor, and larger, more efficient economies of scale in farm production.

The main problem with voluntary membership was that the cooperative farms tended to attract mainly the poor families. Drawn by the prospect of sharing the land and assets of their better-off neighbors, poorer peasants flocked to join the co-ops.

Chinese rural earthen dwelling.
The gradual collectivization of farming was attractive for the poorer farmers. (Image: Lao Ma/Shutterstock)

The Reluctance of the Rich

But an entirely different calculus guided the behavior of more affluent rural families. If they joined the co-op, they would lose half the return on their family property, and would have to make up the loss through ordinary labor. This meant that the well-to-do would, in effect, be subsidizing the poor. So, for a rational affluent peasant, joining a co-op was not a particularly attractive option.

And so, after a full year of cooperative farming, the results bore out the logic of calculated self-interest. Poor peasants flocked into the co-ops, while richer peasants held back, preferring to go it alone. Consequently, rural China began to polarize into two distinct economic strata.

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Rural Class Polarization

One comprised hundreds of thousands of so-called “paupers’ co-ops,” with impoverished members who generally possessed low quality land, few draft animals, insufficient labor, and low levels of skill.

The second stratum was made up of a much smaller number of relatively affluent, self-sufficient farm families. These upscale farmers had no inclination to join the co-ops, causing the emergence of a new class of affluent rich peasants, who were flourishing outside the boundaries of the socialist economy.

Additionally, in some provinces, well-off peasants who had initially been persuaded to join the co-ops were now demanding to leave, and to take their property with them. Worse still, local cadres in some provinces were allowing them to do so.

Mao Intervenes

In response to these dual tendencies of rising class polarization and the abandonment of cooperative farming by the well-to-do, Mao Zedong put his foot down in the summer of 1955.

Writing in July of 1955, Mao strongly criticized those who had allowed rich peasants to abandon the co-ops. Mao argued also that there would soon be a dramatic upsurge in mass enthusiasm for collectivization in the Chinese countryside. Mao then sat back to measure the impact of his words.

Forced Collectivization

The impact was not long in coming. Rural officials read the chairman’s  words as a mandate for accelerating the process of collectivization. The timetable for third-stage collectivization was moved up by anxious officials. If one valued one’s career, too much, too soon was far better than too little, too late.

By February of 1956, more than half the villages in China had been pushed into the higher stage of collectivization—a full two years ahead of schedule. By the end of 1956, more than 90 percent of China’s 500 million peasants had been organized into collective farms. It was as Mao had predicted.

Common Questions about the Collectivization of Farming in China

Q: How was farming implemented in the mutual aid stage in China?

In the mutual aid stage, small groups of six to eight neighboring farm families within a single village were encouraged to form seasonal mutual aid teams. These teams would share their farm tools, draft animals and even their labor on a temporary basis during the busiest periods of crop planting and harvesting.

Q: What was the structure in the cooperative stage of farmingin China?

In the cooperative farming stage, 20 or 30 families, comprising 100 to 200 people, were grouped together in a cooperative farm, on a year-round basis.

Q: What was the result of Mao’s intervention in farming collectivization?

As a result of Mao’s intervention, farming collectivization was accelerated, and more than 90 percent of Chinese farmers were collectivized by 1956.

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