Twenty-four years ago, Mao Tse-tung forced China's half-billion peasants into "people's communes," which he hailed as the bridge to communist utopia. All private property was collectivized. Backyard steel furnaces and schools were set up to provide every need. Wages were distributed equally.

Today, Mao's communist successors are debating the dismantling of what must be the largest social experiment ever imposed. Mao's proudest achievement is now deemed a failure that has reaped little more than excessive bureaucracy, inefficiency and official corruption.

In the new spirit of pragmatism that is the prevailing philosophy of China today, proposals are being circulated within top party circles calling for the restoration of traditional districts and townships that administered the vast Chinese countryside before communes were established.

In some central Chinese provinces, rural cadres -- the communist officials who run the communes -- have already been sent back to the farm and criticized for drawing years of salary without so much as picking up a pitchfork.

Although top policy-makers have discussed plans to abolish the commune network since 1978, the issue continues to be gingerly handled because of the potentially explosive impact on peasants still loyal to Mao's memory and the likely political backlash from millions of rural cadres who would be out of power.

Foreign agriculture experts in Peking believe that scuttling China's 50,000 communes after nearly a quarter-century would be even more radical than the original decision in 1958 to set them up as administrative shells governing every facet of rural life, from fixing production quotas to providing health care.

One U.S. official likened the current anticommune campaign to kicking out the mayor, city council and fire department of a small American town. "You're really getting into a mess when you go back to people and tell them that what they've been doing for the last 20 years is wrong and won't wash anymore," he said.

Actually, the last three years have seen sweeping changes in China's countryside that have drastically reduced the stature of communes by giving greater decision-making power to the peasants, who just a few years ago simply followed orders passed down by bosses in the commune or its subordinate branches.

Instead of communal overlords setting output requirements for an entire village and apportioning wages on the basis of each peasant's contribution to the harvest, the current system of production -- which is intended to motivate peasants -- bestows full "responsibility" on a household or group of households.

Peasants now sign binding contracts with local commune officials promising to produce so much for the state, commune and village. After meeting their responsibility by fulfilling the quota, the households can keep whatever remains for their own consumption or for sale at a private market. This new "responsibility system" that covers more than 90 percent of China's countryside is a far cry from the egalitarian philosophy of people's communes as conceived by Mao and his radical followers who popularized the saying, "Everybody eats out of one big pot of rice."

Mao promoted communes as the vehicle for China's transition to a perfect communist society. They were called "organizers of the living" as well as units of production that would produce "all-around men" -- farmers, laborers and teachers -- who would share equally in the work and benefits of this Marxist nirvana.

Early communes not only were given absolute management control of rural life; they became the repositories of all private property. Everything was collectivized, from livestock to homes, furnishings and even wristwatches.

Communization brought with it tremendous social and economic changes as it swept through the conservative Chinese countryside in 1958. Cottage industries were built to augment agricultural work with fertilizer production and irrigation projects. Part-time schools were organized to impart basic technical skills.

Women for the first time were freed from their domestic chores, their traditional roles performed by huge communal mess halls that fed hundreds of peasants at a time. Live-in nurseries run by the elderly supervised children while mothers worked in the fields.

Despite the intitial euphoria, a combination of natural disasters, breakdown in economic planning and the organizational chaos caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward greatly diminished harvests and drove the newly communized countryside into near starvation by 1960.

This forced a restructuring of Mao's communes and a retreat from his ideals. The party restored the individual's right to own private property. Communes would still exist, but their decision-making power was decentralized to the local brigades and production teams that had more direct contact with the peasants.

China's peasants, who now number 800 million, have remained accountable to their local units ever since, although Mao briefly revived the purer commune form in the 1970's during the Cultural Revolution.

Since his death in 1976, China's rulers have taken a critical look at Mao's legacy and uncovered enough disconcerting facts to prompt them to consider doing away with the communes.

Instead of producing a class of "new communist men" steeped in Marxist ideology and technical skills, the communes have yielded a bumper crop of self-aggrandizing bureaucrats who live off communal subsidies at the expense of productive peasants, according to Chinese critics.

Rural cadres in the central province of Henan were found to have spent so much money on their own salaries and lavish communal projects -- amounting to half the value of a village's annual output -- that the farmers were left without any income and with less than two pounds of grain a day.

Stories of enormous waste, bungling and petty corruption by communal bosses regularly fill the pages of China's official newspapers, which dutifully record the unfair burden shouldered by peasants who finance the bureaucrats.

The first public hint of party debate on the subject came last October when a top economic planner told Japanese reporters that studies for an "overall renovation" of communes were under way.

The first indication that the campaign was gaining momentum surfaced last summer in an unusually sharp attack on communes that initially was circulated among party officials and later published by the official New China News Agency, which suggests the issues raised were well-received.

The author, Liu Yuzhai, a prefectural party secretary from Henan Province, called for abolishing communes and restoring political districts and townships to govern rural China. Obviously writing with top-level approval, he recommended that the commune's administrative functions be handled by such political jurisdictions as they had been before 1958.

Liu also suggested bringing back agricultural cooperatives to replace village-level commune branches known as production teams. Peasants pooled and farmed their land in such cooperatives in the early 1950's before the state nationalized their property. Liu does not clarify whether the state would retain the land under his proposal.

Reporting that his own prefecture greatly cut costs by firing three-quarters of its cadres, Liu proposed a detailed plan for slashing unproductive bureaucrats and reorganizing local government.

An editor's note preceded the proposal, underlining its importance with the comment, "The peasants' burden has been too heavy. Effective measures must be taken to carry out reforms. . . . Measures like Liu's are feasible."