Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

The collapsing US military & economic empire is making Washington & NATO even more dangerous. US could not beat the Taliban but thinks it can take on China-Russia-Iran...a sign of psychopathology for sure.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Book report: Stories from inside a revolution


Sid Engst and Joan Hinton in their early days working on dairy farm in China. As a scientist Joan specialized in helping to develop various technologies to make farm production more efficient while Sid usually directed the dairy operation since he was raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York.

I've just finished what I consider one of the top five most interesting books I've ever read.  I wrote a bit here about the book awhile ago and wanted to share some more.  The book is called Silage Choppers & Snake Spirits: The Lives & Struggles of Two Americans in Modern China.  

It is the story about Joan Hinton (Nuclear physicist who worked on the secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb) and her husband Sid Engst (dairy farmer).  The book is so well written, the author did a great job of story telling about the Chinese revolution, Mao, the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960's and the eventual counter-revolution under Deng Xiaoping who turned China back toward capitalism. So this story (told thru the lives of these two fascinating Americans) for me was a real page turner. It makes me want to learn even more.  

I start from the fact that virtually everything we know about China (and that period of time) is filtered through US propaganda.  I am always one who wants to cut through the clouds and see the real picture.

So I'm going to share just a couple items from the book - things that moved me and helped me understand China policy a bit better. Joan tells one story about life on the state farm where the workers met in small groups each morning to learn more about politics and also to do 'self criticism' that included being honest and telling about your own mistakes while also criticizing leadership (local and national) with the thought of seeking positive reflection and change.  Here is her memory of one meeting where the farm director led such a discussion:

"I'm glad to have the opportunity to meet with you dairy workers today," he said, opening the meeting. "I don't think I've ever been in a meeting with you people alone. The result has been that your specific problems have always been swallowed up by the many problems of the more numerous farm workers.  My idea for today's meeting would be, if you all agree, for each of you to say whatever it is that's on your mind, so that I and all of us for that matter, can become more familiar with your work and your problems, what specific problems each one of you has, and what if anything is troubling you. In particular, I would suggest you take this opportunity to bring out any suggestions or ideas you may have about the leadership. I would like to add that I hope no one will be bashful.  Only if we bring things out in the open, will they get a chance to be cleared up.  Keeping troubles to ourselves and not letting others know only prevents us from having even the hope of solving it. We should have faith that many minds working together always have more power than a single one alone. Who will be the first to speak?"

Imagine that happening at workplaces across America.  Not likely in most places.  Joan was particularly impressed by the process and went on to share some of Mao's reasoning behind instituting this program to increase the confidence, the power and the local democracy for those who had lived in poverty as virtual slaves to wealthy land owners prior to the revolution. She said this:

I kept thinking of Chairman Mao's teaching: when someone criticizes you, don't try to look for all that is wrong with what they are saying, look for what is right. Even if 90% is wrong, look carefully for that 10% that's right. Analyze it. Think about it. Make it become part of you. Only in this way can you expect to improve.


Joan, Sid and their three children, all who were born in China

Certainly that is very good advice that I intend to follow. Another story from the book that really stuck out for me (again reflecting how little we actually know about Chinese history) is the story about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Joan shared:

[In 1959] the elite CIA-trained Tibetans surrounding the Dalai Lama in the northwestern province of Tibet staged an unsuccessful revolt. India did its part on the advice of the Soviet Union by opening up its doors to the fleeing Tibetans. Zhou Enlai [China's foreign minister] made a trip in the middle of the negotiations to talk to the Dalai Lama himself, to try to convince him to stay and work things out.  He assured the young Lama that the Central government had no intentions of destroying Tibetan culture - but that practices of feudal oppression, slave ownership and serfdom [ in Tibet] had to be abolished. The Dalai Lama developed a respect for Zhou Enlai that he would talk about candidly in the following years, but in the end took the advice of his inner circle and went into exile in India. 


Joan and Sid were deeply troubled by the turn of events that led to the demise of socialism in China.  Mao had seen the writing on the wall when he created the Cultural Revolution in his later years to help re-focus the people on the purposes and gains of the revolution.  But by then he was quite ill and near death so the 'capitalist roaders' like Deng Xiaoping did all they could to distract the people and divide them to ensure their own rise to power.  

In 1979 Deng went to Washington to meet with Jimmy Carter (with a stop in Texas where he was given a big cowboy hat) and upon his return to China he famously stated, "Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious!" Joan remarked about this period:

The Cultural Revolution failed because of the ability of the capitalist roaders to whip up factionalism among the people. And in fact, the people are so easily whipped into factionalism. It's the petit bourgeois ideology, which is so strong in all of us: our Achilles' heel. We can't join together to fight the main enemy, because of our own petit bourgeois tendency to become factional. To me, if we can't get over this, it's the one thing that's gonna keep ordinary people from every being able to develop socialism...

In the US it's against the foreign born, it's whites against blacks and so on - all done to divide the working people. The working people fall for it all the time, because we do not have proletarian ideology. We don't think that the working people are one family; we just look at somebody from the other village and think, "they're not our village..." There's no reason on earth for them to hate each other.  All working people get their living from working.


Speaking of Deng, Sid put it this way:

I don't think Joan and I ever had any illusions about the "Reform," because as the saying goes, if you know its past and you can understand its present, you know its past and its present and you can predict its future; that's true of Deng...

For me I see so many similarities with what is happening today right here in the USA and around the world where US-NATO (essentially representing western capitalism) do all they can to divide the people in order to keep in control and extract wealth from the public. 

I love to learn, I love history, and most of all I love stories about the lives of others who take extraordinary steps to make much needed changes in our world.  Thus this book was a treasure for me. I learned so much.



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