II The People’s Republic of China

History, Capitalism, and the Making of the Postsocialist Chinese Peasant

Alexander Day

Much discussion over the years, especially within Western social science, has focused on the definition of the peasantry. China scholars Myron Cohen and Charles Hayford have both suggested that the translation of the term “peasant” into Chinese as nong- min early in the twentieth century was part of a process through which intellectuals distinguished themselves from the peasant, often portrayed as a backward and ignorant figure.2 The discourse on the peasant in the twentieth century thus can be seen as a form of discrimination and marginalization. Cohen has argued that the category “peasant” was an early-twentieth-century cultural invention that helped to legitimate both the politics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded in 1921, and the privileged status of Chinese intellectuals as bearers of truth and enlightenment. Cohen was writing in the aftermath of the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations when the reevaluation of the revolutionary and iconoclastic tradition of Chinese politics was at its height following the cultural fever of the 1980s.3 According to Cohen, an antipeasant iconoclasm was foundational to the mistaken radical politics of twentieth- century China, characterized as antipopular and authoritarian.4 The introduction of the category nongmin—usually translated as “peasant”—into early-twentieth-century political discussions by leftist Chinese intellectuals was a key cultural intervention in this process. Cohen states

Through the transformation of “farmers” into “peasants,” “tradition” into “feudalism,” and “customs” or “religion” into “superstition,” there was invented not only the “old society” that had to be supplanted, but also the basic negative criteria designating a new status group, one held by definition to be incapable of creative and

autonomous participation in China’s reconstruction.5

Charles Hayford has made a similar argument, suggesting that the “peasant” was largely constructed during the May Fourth and New Culture Movement (1916—1923).6 Both Cohen and Hayford tie the term “peasant” (nongmin) to the negative historical category “feudalism” (fengjian), whereas they see the term “farmer” as a positive category. While Cohen and Hayford do mention that some intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s were an exception to the dominant antipeasant iconoclasm, noting Fei Xiaotong and rural reconstructionists among others, they stress that at its inception the category nongmin carried a negative valence that has influenced understandings of the rural ever since.

Hayford and Cohen are certainly correct in drawing attention to this aspect of the discourse on the peasant: the images of a backward peasant can be found throughout the twentieth century.7 John Flower brings this justified criticism of elite intellectual attitudes toward the peasantry into the early reform period, arguing that social science in China—as in the West—has constructed the peasant as the backwards other of the intellectual.8 But the category nongmin has from the beginning contained more complex meanings than this focus on antipeasant discrimination implies, necessitating greater attention to historical and political-economic context. Elitism cannot be transcended simply by redefining the “peasant” as a “farmer,” somehow evading social science categorization and reaching the real of the rural. Moreover, the term “farmer” is no less problematic or political than “peasant”; it, too, must be understood within the particular historical and political context from which it emerged and in which it operates. Instead, we need to better account for social theorization—the continual reinvention of the peasant—within the context of the political economy of the postsocialist period, for the relationship between the peasant and history remains central to any theorization of the evolution of our global condition.

The postsocialist reconfiguration of Marxist historiography in the early reform period forms an important departure point for all discussions about the peasant in the contemporary moment. Postsocialism is the historical condition of reform period China, in which, as it joined with global capitalism, the historical and political narrative of socialism as an opposition to capitalism lost much of its power. Arif Dirlik argues that postsocialism is a discourse within which arguments over the meaning of socialism are combined with an understanding that the global conditions original to socialism—its antagonistic opposition to capitalism—have changed dramatically. Dirlik uses the term “postsocialism” primarily to understand the “condition of ideological contradiction and uncertainty” produced in the discursive struggle over Chinese socialism during the early reform period. The historical condition of postsocialism centers on socialism’s loss of “coherence as a metatheory of politics” resulting from its rearticulation to the capitalist world order.9 A “metatheory of politics,” here, should be understood as an embedding of politics within history, in which the political evaluation of actions and policy is determined through a theoretical elaboration of the relationship between that political act and a narrative of history. During the Maoist period, this historical mode of politics—the explicit embedding of politics within historical discourse—entailed a dialectical understanding of peasant social and political tendencies, meaning that the propensity of peasants to act in a certain way had to be interpreted within the context of concrete historical and social conditions. Peasants could incline toward either egalitarian actions or class differentiation, depending on circumstances. This dialectical conception reached a point of fracture by the time of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, and in the process of postsocialist reform beginning in the late 1970s, it was replaced by a single-sided and static interpretation of the role of peasants in history. Social and political understandings of the peasant lost their dominance, and the economic mode of interpretation became hegemonic. Discussions of intellectual discrimination against peasants tend to miss this dynamic.

Two linked aspects of the postsocialist reevaluation of the peasant by Chinese intellectuals are highlighted here. First, the historical agency of the peasant as a revolutionary subject—a central component of Maoist and dialectical understandings of the peasant—was contested by reform-period intellectuals, and the peasant increasingly was seen in a one-sided manner as backward, ignorant, and the cause of China’s supposed slow social and economic development. Second, postsocialism was a revaluation of labor, in which a stress on the differential “quality” of labor replaced the more egalitarian mode of valuing labor that characterized the Maoist period. In other words, the historical agency of the peasantry to transform society was replaced with an individual entrepreneurial agency. While earlier CCP theories of the peasant—which began to be developed in the 1920s and 1930s as Marxist theory was integrated with Chinese conditions— continued as an important point of reference, they were significantly altered within this new context, leading to the end of a dialectical understanding of the peasant. This essay looks at three different categories—agrarian socialism, the Asiatic mode of production, and suzhi (quality)—through which the role of the peasant in history was reevaluated during the reform period, introducing a nondialectical understanding of peasant social tendencies. These key categories all link a particular understanding of history, based on the progressive development of the productive forces and technology, to a politics of the peasants, who are understood as needing liberation to develop their capitalist tendencies and transform themselves into entrepreneurial farmers. This understanding in turn undergirds contemporary policy decisions on rural China.

 
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