Communism on a tiny scale can work – unless it’s in China where, ironically, it can’t stand a chance

At the bonsai scale – in one trade union, one collective farm, one European province – communism’s achievements are inspiring

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It’s how, in a sane world, we would all choose to live. The first sentence of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital reads: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist method of production prevails takes the form of an immense accumulation of commodities.” We know in our hearts that this state of affairs is neither healthy nor sane. We can’t take those commodities with us; their production destroys the natural world and the gross inequality of their distribution poisons the social bloodstream. But that is how our societies function.

In a community called New Oasis for Life they are challenging those assumptions. Members of the commune, who range from illiterate peasants to middle-class refugees from the city, have no money or private possessions; they toil in fields and orchards that are owned and worked communally and they receive what they need to survive, nothing more. “What we’re doing here is basically communism,” says the community’s founder. “People do what they can and get what they need.”

The stinging irony is that New Oasis for Life is in China’s Yunnan province, and although its ideology is directly inspired by Marx, the authorities of the People’s Republic are doing all in their power to shut it down. Members have been beaten up by thugs from outside; water pipes and generators have been destroyed; the police have set up a monitoring post. In December the Forestry Bureau ordered the property be returned to its original state and fined members 168,000 renminbi (£16,000). All the community’s children have been forcibly removed and sent to state schools.

We already know from the brutal persecution of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement characterised as an “evil cult” by Beijing, that China has very limited tolerance for groups that challenge the status quo. As The New York Times reported this week, New Oasis members suspect that the real reason the authorities are trying to close them down is because politically well-connected speculators are itching to get their hands on the land – and the plausibility of that scenario is a reminder of how far China has left behind the old-time communist religion of Mao and his comrades.

But the emergence of New Oasis is yet more proof of the strength and persistence of the communist dream that has inspired generation after generation of revolutionaries, a dream that refuses to die. Bob Crow described himself as a “communist socialist”, and his great success in building up his union owed much to his passionate political convictions. Millions of people across the Indian state of Kerala, the Italian province of Tuscany and large swathes of the former eastern bloc look back on the social and educational provisions of the communist years with keen nostalgia.

At the bonsai scale – in one trade union, one collective farm, one European province – communism’s achievements are inspiring. I remember the shock of discovering a remarkably pure strain at Kibbutz Malkiya in Upper Galilee, where I volunteered before going to university, back before the Yom Kippur war: no wages, few private possessions, children reared communally, clothes dished out from a central store, meals eaten together. The founding kibbutzniks, refugee intellectuals from Eastern Europe, the walls of their simple homes adorned with prints by Miro and Klee, had found salvation. For them this really was the promised land.

Both the charm and the success of these experiments lie in their tiny scale. This is dwarf communism, and bears the same relation to Stalin’s Soviet Union as a gecko does to a dinosaur. They pose no threat to the established order. Communism’s economic contradictions – the idiocies produced by centralised planning and the denial of the market – are masked by the donations of outsiders. They flourish in their artificial microclimates, when the brisk air of the real world would kill them stone dead.

Above all, they are escapable: when they become Animal Farm-like tyrannies, you can run away. It’s much harder to escape the octopus tentacles of a communist party once it has achieved its goal of total control – as the communards of Yunnan are now discovering to their cost.

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