Friedrich Engels is still shaping Chinese cities, 120 years after his death

In my last post I wrote about how China’s distinctive urbanization policies–capping the population of big cities and encouraging population flows to smaller and inland cities–are a holdover from the planned-economy era. In the 1950s, the new People’s Republic adopted much of the Soviet model including its urban strategy, which guaranteed good benefits to the existing residents of big cities but tried to avoid extending those benefits to many more people, instead promoting the growth of smaller urban centers.

But where does this distinctive set of ideas about the right way to organize cities come from? After doing some more reading, I have come to the conclusion that these are not just arbitrary choices of authoritarian governments, but part of the intellectual heritage of socialism itself. It goes all the way back to the founding fathers.

Marx’s collaborator and editor Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) argued that socialism should pursue not only the public ownership of the means of production, but also a significant geographical redistribution of population and industry in order to reduce their concentration in large cities. These ideas are stated most clearly in a passage from his Anti-Dühring. Although long by blog standards, I’m reproducing all of it here so that the logic of the original is not lost:

Water-power was local; steam-power is free. While water-power is necessarily rural, steam-power is by no means necessarily urban. It is capitalist utilisation which concentrates it mainly in the towns and changes factory villages into factory towns. But in so doing it at the same time undermines the conditions under which it operates. The first requirement of the steam-engine, and a main requirement of almost all branches of production in modern industry, is relatively pure water. But the factory town transforms all water into stinking manure. However much therefore urban concentration is a basic condition of capitalist production, each individual industrial capitalist is constantly striving to get away from the large towns necessarily created by this production, and to transfer his plant to the countryside. This process can be studied in detail in the textile industry districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire; modern capitalist industry is constantly bringing new large towns into being there by constant flight from the towns into the country. The situation is similar in the metal-working districts where, in part, other causes produce the same effects.

Once more, only the abolition of the capitalist character of modern industry can bring us out of this new vicious circle, can resolve this contradiction in modern industry, which is constantly reproducing itself. Only a society which makes it possible for its productive forces to dovetail harmoniously into each other on the basis of one single vast plan can allow industry to be distributed over the whole country in the way best adapted to its own development, and to the maintenance and development of the other elements of production.

Accordingly, abolition of the antithesis between town and country is not merely possible. It has become a direct necessity of industrial production itself, just as it has become a necessity of agricultural production and, besides, of public health. The present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country; and only such fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease.

Capitalist industry has already made itself relatively independent of the local limitations arising from the location of sources of the raw materials it needs. The textile industry works up, in the main, imported raw materials. Spanish iron ore is worked up in England and Germany and Spanish and South-American copper ores, in England. Every coalfield now supplies fuel to an industrial area far beyond its own borders, an area which is widening every year. Along the whole of the European coast steam-engines are driven by English and to some extent also by German and Belgian coal. Society liberated from the restrictions of capitalist production can go much further still. By generating a race of producers with an all-round development who understand the scientific basis of industrial production as a whole, and each of whom has had practical experience in a whole series of branches of production from start to finish, this society will bring into being a new productive force which will abundantly compensate for the labour required to transport raw materials and fuel from great distances.

The abolition of the separation of town and country is therefore not utopian, also, in so far as it is conditioned on the most equal distribution possible of modern industry over the whole country. It is true that in the huge towns civilisation has bequeathed us a heritage which it will take much time and trouble to get rid of. But it must and will be got rid of, however, protracted a process it may be.

This is a complex and not totally consistent set of ideas. Both Marx and Engels did on various occasions praise the intellectual and other advances that accompanied 19th century urbanization. But, as in the above passage, they also criticized environmental degradation and the living conditions of the urban proletariat. Engels saw urbanization and industrialization as a necessary part of progress, but not as the ultimate end goal. So while he did not oppose urbanization and industrialization per se, he thought they should be done differently under socialism. It’s this commitment to pushing back against the natural dynamics of urbanization that became a hallmark of socialism.

These ideas would likely have remained vague and unformed suggestions had they not been put into very forceful practice by the leadership of the Soviet Union. The following remark by Lenin in 1914 show particularly clearly how he was influenced by this strand of Engels’ thought:

Capitalism breaks for all time the ties between agriculture and industry, but at the same time, through its highest developed, it prepares new elements of those ties, a union between industry and agriculture based on the conscious application of science and the concentration of collective labor, and on a redistribution of the human population–thus putting an end both to rural backwardness, isolation and barbarism, and to the unnatural concentration of vast masses of people in big cities.

Lenin was particularly fond of talking about what Engels called the “abolition of the antithesis between town and country”. Agricultural collectivization was a big part of this concept: making agriculture more like industry, organized into big, capital-intensive state farms. The enormous suffering and dislocation that were caused by collectivization in both the Soviet Union and China are well known. But the drive for geographic redistribution of industry and the urban population is a less widely appreciated aspect of the same concept. Since cities spring up around industry, spreading industry evenly around the country also means spreading cities evenly.

The evidence for how important these ideas about geographical redistribution is less in what leaders said than in what the Soviet Union did. It did in fact pursue a massive redistribution of the population across Russia’s vast expanses, founding many new cities and attempting to limit the concentration of population in Moscow. Even today Russia and Ukraine have much less concentrated and more distributed urban populations than is the global norm:


China today has an even lower degree of urban population concentration than Russia, probably because it has been practicing socialist-style urbanization policies fairly consistently since the 1960s. Indeed, Mao followed Lenin and Stalin in being a proponent of Engels-style “equal distribution of industry.” Here is a passage from his famous 1956 speech on the economy, “On the Ten Major Relationships“:

In the past our industry was concentrated in the coastal regions. By coastal regions we mean Liaoning, Hopei, Peking, Tientsin, eastern Honan, Shantung, Anhwei, Kiangsu, Shanghai, Chekiang, Fukien, Kwangtung and Kwangsi. About 70 per cent of all our industry, both light and heavy, is to be found in the coastal regions and only 30 percent in the interior. This irrational situation is a product of history. The coastal industrial base must be put to full use, but to even out the distribution of industry as it develops we must strive to promote industry in the interior. …

It does not follow that all new factories should be built in the coastal regions. Without doubt, the greater part of the new industry should be located in the interior so that industry may gradually become evenly distributed; moreover, this will help our preparations against war. But a number of new factories and mines, even some large ones, may also be built in the coastal regions.

What scholars politely call China’s “distributed” pattern of urbanization could therefore more accurately be called the “socialist” pattern of urbanization. Given that two of the world’s largest countries have this pattern, a big chunk of the Eurasian landmass is affected. It is rather amazing that some 19th century polemics against urbanization would have such an enormous effect on the physical landscape and living conditions of hundreds of millions of people.

Is this just a costless esthetic preference for a different type of urban layout, or a more serious economic problem? I increasingly incline to the latter view. The World Bank’s unbelievably thorough Urban China report from 2014 amounts to an extended argument about the economic costs and lost opportunities resulting from a distributed urbanization policy and the limits to migration in the hukou system:

In an economic sense, these administrative barriers work like an expensive tax on migration; based on current productivity differences between agriculture and urban occupations in industry or services, every 1 percent more migration from rural to urban areas would yield 1.2 percent more GDP. At the current level of mechanization, agricultural surplus labor is estimated to be 105 million people, and this could increase as China’s agricultural modernization accelerates. If China’s migration rates had matched those of Korea’s in the past, China’s economy would be nearly 25 percent larger today.

The report argues that China does not need to particularly favor big cities, but that it should adopt neutral urbanization policies rather than continuing to try to limit overall migration and redirect population flows into smaller inland cities. But that argument has not been successful: the “new-style” urbanization plan adopted in 2014 in fact reinforced measures to restrict growth of the largest cities, in the much the same terms as in the 1950s. China is becoming more not less committed to the socialist pattern of urbanization.


  1. More recently in German history, the National Socialists in Germany had similar urbanization policies:

    Totally agree with your conclusion. This sort of guided development will likely end in tears. China’s new towns are a way to fund local government and government officials. Local property taxes are an example of a policy that could help even the playing field.

    All best, Lyric


  2. This is something else. The chart and it’s pattern tells a different story. It is a paradoxe that New York has declined in relative importance to America but increased to the world. Dallas etc continue to grow faster. Canada and Europe have seen the opposite, one major metro becoming pre-eminent…and decline Montreal and Glasgow.


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