Remembering William Hinton (1919-2004)

by Raymond Lotta

Revolutionary Worker #1253, October 3, 2004, posted at

William Hinton died on May 15 at the age of 85. He will be remembered as one of the great observers and proponents of the Chinese Revolution. He was not only a witness to revolution but also an active participant in revolution.

William Hinton wrote a book that had an enormous and inspiring impact on the generation of revolutionaries who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That book was Fanshen , an extraordinary account of China's communist-led agrarian revolution in the late 1940s. In subsequent writings, Hinton carried the story forward and brought the experiences and lessons of Mao's Cultural Revolution to an international audience.

Interestingly, it was an earlier study of the Chinese revolution that changed Bill Hinton's life. As a young man in the early 1940s, he read Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China , which chronicled the early years of the Chinese revolution and Mao Tsetung's leadership. The book turned Hinton into a Marxist-socialist and convinced him to abandon his pacifist views.

At the end of World War 2, Hinton went to China as part of a U.S. government delegation (short-lived peace talks were taking place between the Chinese revolutionaries and the reactionary Kuomintang forces). He met Mao Tsetung. In 1947, Hinton, who had a degree in agronomy from Cornell University, returned to China as a tractor instructor. A year later, after teaching for a short time at the Northern University near Changzhi, he joined up with a land reform work team led by the Communist Party in a liberated district. His experiences with peasants and party members formed the basis of Fanshen.

In 1949, the Maoist revolution triumphed. Hinton decided to stay behind in China to participate in the revolution and contribute to the new society. He came back to the U.S. in 1953. This was a time of intense repression against communists and leftists. The U.S. government authorities seized Hinton's notes and journals and confiscated his passport. He was harassed by the FBI. Not backing down from his support of the revolutionary cause, he was blacklisted and denied employment. Forbidden to take a job, he became a Pennsylvania farmer, and continued to farm for many years. After lengthy legal contests, Hinton eventually regained his notes and papers. He completed Fanshen , and it was finally published in 1966.

Like so many others who read Fanshen , I found myself not only being transported to another place--the small village of Long Bow in Shanxi province, which Hinton described in vivid detail--but also becoming a kind of indirect participant in the complex and liberating struggle of the peasant masses to remake society and to challenge tenacious old customs, habits, and beliefs. Fanshen opened our eyes to the possibility of a different future for humanity. With his finely textured prose, Hinton helped us to see and feel how transformative communism is--to the very marrow of lived experience. Fanshen helped us to understand more deeply that revolutions must be revolutions of the masses, but that the masses need communist leadership. It also brought to life the Maoist principle that leaders must both lead and learn from the masses, and that leaders must themselves be the object of criticism and revolutionary transformation.

By the time Fanshen was going into paperback editions, a new chapter of the Chinese revolution was unfolding. This was the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao in 1966. Hinton, who continued to visit China, began writing and speaking ardently about the experiences and goals of the Cultural Revolution.

I invited Hinton to my campus in 1970. He stayed with us for several days and gave a wonderful series of lectures on the new-democratic revolution, the phase of socialist transformation beginning in 1949, and the Cultural Revolution. Tall and lean and with a distinctive shock of white hair, Hinton delivered his talks in a disarmingly plainspoken style. He had a great effect on us. He illuminated the historical arc of the Chinese revolution--the stages it passed through--and the incredible breakthroughs of the Cultural Revolution. He explained how the shifts in Party policy that were described in Fanshen reflected the contention between Mao's line and opposing bourgeois lines in the Chinese Communist Party. He gave examples of the struggle between the capitalist road and the socialist road under socialism. And he highlighted Mao's idea of continuing the revolution against new bourgeois forces and how the Cultural Revolution was "bombarding" their headquarters within the Communist Party. After his lectures, he talked with us late into the night. (It was the sort of thing he would continue doing in many corners of the world throughout his life.)

This was a time when many revolutionary-minded students had decided to leave campus to take revolutionary politics to the workers in surrounding communities and factories. We were part of that and Hinton was encouraged by, and supportive of, what we were embarking on.

After Mao died in 1976, rightist forces, led by Deng Xiaoping from behind the scenes, staged a coup in China. They suppressed the Maoist revolutionary leadership and began the process of restoring capitalism. Where Bob Avakian led the Revolutionary Communist Party in assessing that the so-called "gang of four" was fighting for Mao's line and leading the fight against the forces of capitalist restoration, Hinton supported the coup and the putting down of the "gang of four." It was a position that caused great damage. For several years, Hinton continued to support the Chinese government, a government that was no longer socialist or revolutionary. But as Deng Xiaoping revealed his utterly capitalist program, Hinton took better positions, turning against the Deng regime and arguing that China was on the capitalist road.

There still remained significant differences between Hinton and the RCP on issues of the 1976 coup in China, and it was not clear whether Hinton felt--as the RCP did --that a whole new revolution, led by a whole new communist party, was needed to overthrow the regime and the existing economic and social order in China. But Hinton was open to struggle and dialogue. I had the chance to exchange views with him at several international conferences and I visited with him on his farm. The RCP continued to learn from Bill Hinton until his death--even on matters where there were sharp disagreements, like the "gang of four."

Hinton traveled to different parts of the world to express his solidarity with revolutionary movements. During the final years of his life, he felt a special responsibility to uphold the Chinese revolution against the attacks and distortions leveled against it. In writings and lectures given around the world, he explained and defended Mao's revolutionary approach to land reform and collectivization. He took on the slanders directed at the Great Leap Forward and Mao's agricultural policies, and he stood strongly against the vilification of the Cultural Revolution. This was an important contribution to the battle to counter the bourgeoisie's ideological offensive against communism.

Fanshen has been translated into ten languages and has established itself as a classic documentation of revolution in the 20th century. Today, a new generation of revolutionaries is discovering Fanshen .And that is perhaps the most fitting tribute to William Hinton. He will be missed greatly.

NOTE: The latest edition of Fanshen is available from the University of California Press.