By John Riddell
April 21, 2009 -- Socialist Voice -- On October 1, the People’s Republic of China will mark the 60th
anniversary of its foundation. This will be an occasion to celebrate
one of the most influential victories of popular struggle in our era.
This great uprising forged a united and independent Chinese state,
freed the country from foreign domination and capitalist rule, ended
landlordism, provided broad access to education and health care, and
set in motion popular energies that modernised and industrialised its
economy. The revolutionary triumph of 1949 laid the foundation for
China’s present dynamism and influence, as well as providing an
enormous impetus to anti-colonial revolution worldwide.
Yet despite these gains, the socialist movement and ideology that
headed the revolution, identified with Communist Party Chairman Mao
Zedong, disappeared from China soon after his death in 1976. The
revolution’s central leader is still revered, but his doctrines have
been set aside. The country’s present leadership has promoted private
capitalist accumulation, not socialist planning, as China’s chief
engine of growth. Its policies have aroused much popular protest, but
not a revived Maoist movement.
How was revolutionary China diverted onto a capitalist path? This
setback has a lengthy prehistory, reaching back to the impact on
Chinese Communist Party of policies identified with Joseph Stalin in
the late 1920s. But much can be learned by considering the first major
setback of the People’s Republic, a dark episode that reached its
culmination exactly 50 years ago. This was China’s 1958-60 “Great Leap
Forward” -- an ambitious and failed attempt to jump-start rapid
industrialisation by reshaping China’s countryside.
The first years of the People’s Republic saw great progress in every
sphere: the forging of a unified state; facing down imperialist
reprisals, including by halting the US military in the 1950-53 Korean
War; surviving isolation and reprisals; economic revival; and the
beginnings of industrialisation. Above all, the Chinese peasantry, the
driving force of the revolution, carried out a radical land reform and
restored the rural economy. In 1955 almost the entire peasantry pooled
its lands in cooperative farms.
But as China’s first Five-Year Plan for economic development drew to
a close in 1957, there were signs of disequilibrium, including massive
unemployment in the cities and underutilisation of labour in the
countryside, ills that China’s focus on capital-intensive heavy
industry had failed to address.
The Communist Party leadership responded with a plan for
“simultaneous development” of heavy and light industry, carried out in
both urban centres and rural areas, in a crash campaign to mobilise a
large portion of the rural workforce in labour-intensive industrial and
The goals were praiseworthy, but how was this massive new industrial work force to be organised and fed?
It was this challenge that inspired the launch of the Great Leap
Forward at the beginning of 1958 -- a campaign to produce “more, faster,
better and cheaper.”
In factories, hours of work were lengthened and production quotas
raised. In rural areas, small-scale industrial projects were started
up, the most publicised being “backyard blast furnaces” to produce iron
and steel. Peasants were mobilised for major irrigation and other
Planning was based on projections that food production per hectare
could be swiftly increased five to 20 times over, through introduction
of large-scale collective farms and the use of new, unproven techniques
of cultivation. These projections inspired Mao to declare that
“planting one-third [of the land] is enough.” So labour could safely be
diverted to industrial projects.
As the campaign unfolded, a new social form was invented -- the
“people’s communes” -- each of which organised tens of thousands of
peasants for collective field labour, industrial work and land
improvement projects. In the course of 1958, several hundred million
peasants were enrolled in the communes.
Broadly speaking, the program was modelled on collectivisation in the
Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin after 1928, a program that aimed to
enable the state to get direct control of peasant production and divert
a large part of it to the support of industrialisation.
As in the Soviet Union, the results in China were discouraging.
National economic planning gave way under the strain. Shortages of raw
materials and transportation blockages spread. Some rural industry
projects took root, but waste was enormous, and rural steel production
proved a costly failure. Floods and droughts aggravated the crisis.
Most ominous of all, agriculture was crippled by the many forms of
disruption engendered by the communes, and the grain harvest fell by
about 30%. By 1959, the entire country was gripped by hunger, which
lasted through 1960. Starvation claimed millions of victims. It took 15
years to bring per-capita grain production back up to pre-Great Leap
Famine and revolution
It is not unusual for the upheaval of revolution to be accompanied by a crisis of food production.
The young Russian Soviet republic, for example, experienced a severe
famine in 1920-21. Its causes were clear: seven years of devastation by
war and civil war, which had led to a collapse of urban-rural economic
exchange. The Soviet government energetically publicised this tragedy,
calling in aid organisations set up by the world workers’ movement as
well as pro-capitalist agencies such as the American Relief Agency
headed by later US president Herbert Hoover.
Within a few months, the Soviets enacted the New Economic Policy
(NEP), which restored the peasants’ right to trade grain freely;
agricultural recovery was swift.
But the course of the Chinese food crisis of 1959-60 had more in
common with that in Stalin’s Soviet Union during 1932-33, where forced
collectivisation led to a hidden famine that claimed an estimated 6-8
In the Chinese case, the food crisis was shrouded in secrecy.
Suspicions of a major Chinese famine seemed outlandish, since abolition
of famine had been one of the revolution’s proudest achievements.
Moreover, the Great Leap began under conditions of peace and rising
production. Outside observers were misled by the 50% increase in
China’s grain exports during the Great Leap years. It was not until
after Mao’s death, two decades later, that the famine’s extent became
widely known outside China.
There is today in China no independent movement of workers and
peasants who can convey to us their historic memory and assessment of
In preparing this article, I focused on sources that are sympathetic
to the Chinese revolution and its achievements, avoiding those poisoned
by anti-Communist bias. But even sympatheic writers report many
barriers in reconstructing the course of events. One three-person team
says that on their first field trip, a month of intensive interviewing
did not get at any of what were later revealed to be the key facts in
the history of the village under investigation.
The Great Leap’s toll
In this challenging context, the Great Leap experience has become
the focus of raging controversy between Mao’s defenders and detractors.
Typical is the disagreement over the number of famine deaths.
In the early 1980s, the Chinese government released demographic
statistics pointing to 15 million famine-related deaths. Writers
hostile to the People’s Republic claim this is an understatement,
offering estimates as high as 38 million.
Mao’s supporters say all these estimates are unreliable and biased
attempts to besmirch Mao’s memory, but even they concede that a serious
famine took place and that the death toll was high. Among them, Robert
Weil concedes 15 million or more “excess deaths”; Mobo Gao puts the
total at 8.3 million; William Hinton estimates a “demographic gap” of
more than 13 million, including through a decline in the birth rate.
(See “Sources” below.)
As Gao notes, “even the lowest estimate of several million deaths cannot gloss over the disaster”.
Mao’s defenders stress the enduring achievements of the People’s
Republic’s early years, comparing them favourably with the ambiguous
record of the recent period. They are on strong ground here.
While conceding the Great Leap’s excesses, Mao’s defenders argue
that he was not personally responsible; other leaders and subordinates,
they say, were mainly to blame. Even if that is true, it tells us
nothing about the Great Leap policies as such.
Moreover, Mao’s defenders have little to say regarding the function
and structure of the newly formed people’s communes. They leave
unchallenged the analysis presented in a number of recent detailed
studies of village life in the Great Leap period, such as those by
Edward Friedman et al., Ralph Thaxton, and also Mobo Gao.
The communes' central importance, these studies tell us, lay in
transferring the organisation of farm labour, the disposal of peasants’
production and the responsibility for feeding rural producers from the
peasant family to an administration that was usually located outside
the village and was not subject to its control.
So great was the prestige among the peasants of the government --
their government -- that this change was accepted with little
resistance, and promises that it would bring peasant prosperity were
greeted with enthusiasm. But the actual outcome was to allocate more
food to the cities and to state officials and less to rural producers,
depriving them of hard-won food security.
Peasants were forbidden not only from buying or selling grain but
also from traditional handicraft sidelines like rope-making. Small
plots for family cultivation were abolished. Food was provided by
communal kitchens -- indeed cooking at home was banned. In some cases,
peasant homes were torn down (without compensation) and peasants camped
out in tents in the fields. Field work extended to 12 hours a day.
Peasants could no longer travel without permission.
Rations in the communal kitchens, generous at first, were
progressively reduced to starvation levels. The commune became a trap:
peasant families had lost access to traditional recourses to stave off
a food emergency.
A massive campaign to collect scrap iron for rural blast furnaces
turned into an assault on the rural household: even iron cooking
utensils and door hinges were seized and fed to the furnaces, leaving
doorways gaping empty in the wind. Tragically, the furnaces produced
little that was usable, and most were soon abandoned.
Meanwhile, local officials faced pressure to exaggerate in reports
on crop yields. Many of those who insisted on truthful reporting were
punished. Aggressive state grain procurement left peasants with less
than the minimum needed to assure subsistence.
“The end result of all this”, writes Mobo Gao, “was that the rural residents were left to starve”.
Even in crisis conditions, distribution of food was unequal. The
grain ration in 1960-61 was 8 jin/month for peasants, 21 jin for
factory workers and 24 jin for party officials whose need was less
because they did not carry out manual labour (1 jin = 500 grams). The
state preached equality but in reality provided privileges to those
with access to networks of influence and power. Scarce goods were
distributed to officials according to rank, through a five-tier supply
The principle of equality was also violated by creation of a caste
of pariahs in the villages, composed of so-called landlords, rich
peasants and rightists. The landlords and rich peasants designation
was based on landholdings long since swept away by the land reform.
Outcast status was passed on to children.
An “anti-rightist” campaign, launched in 1957, targeted above all
those who had complained about bureaucratic corruption or abuses.
Millions were labelled rightists, in part because of government rewards
to localities that placed more than 5% in that category. During the
Great Leap, anyone who complained about government policy faced the
danger of being hurled down into this stigmatised caste. Hundreds of
thousands were sent to labour camps, where they were held for many
Reprisals against suspected dissidents included “public criticism”, in which suspects were subjected to verbal and physical abuse as a
means of extraction admissions of guilt. Other punishments included
withdrawal of food rations, beatings and, in some cases, killings.
Do such reports represent exceptional cases? It is true that Ralph
Thaxton’s study concerns a province, Henan, where the regional
authorities’ extreme application of the Great Leap policies, originally
lauded as a model, was later disavowed by the central government.
But available sources do not report any trace of open public
discussion of Great Leap policies, either nationally or on the commune
level. These sources do not report any instances during the Great Leap
where peasants successfully overturned an abusive commune or village
leadership, even in communes that held back reserves in their granaries
during the worst of the famine.
Nor is there evidence of attempts by the central leadership to
establish guidelines to protect working people against abuse of power,
safeguard dissident voices, or guarantee of the right of working people
to join together in advocating alternative policies.
The way the Great Leap ended gives us something of its extremist
flavour. In 1961, peasants were granted “three freedoms” -- to cultivate
a small private plot of land, to cook in private homes and to engage
in petty trade. Other restrictions on peasant activity also eased.
Meanwhile, China stopped its multimillion-ton grain exports and began
importing grain in similar quantities.
Recovery was rapid. Robert Weil reports that life expectancy in 1962
was double the Great Leap level and higher than before the emergency.
Food production picked up as well, although full recovery took many
At the height of the Great Leap, in August 1959, Peng Shuzi, a
Chinese communist forced into exile a decade earlier for his dissident
views, termed the newly formed people’s communes “an effective
instrument in the hands of the CCP for exploiting and controlling the
Peng believed that this “exploitation” was different from what we
experience under capitalism: the intended beneficiary was not a private
capitalist but the national economy from which those in power drew
But for the peasantry the coercive transfer of wealth out of the
hands of local producers had similarities to landlordism. And despite
the egalitarian idealism that was so prominent at the Great Leap’s
outset, the communes functioned in a manner similar to a capitalist
factory -- but with no right to form a union or to change jobs. The
Great Leap thus prefigured the exploitative system that emerged after
When the Chinese government ultimately pulled back from the most
destructive policies of the Great Leap, it did not repudiate the
hierarchy, privilege and disregard for workers’ democracy that
characterised those years.
The architects of the Great Leap hoped that its arbitrary, coercive
and destructive character would be justified by a jump in production.
This, they hoped, would create the preconditions for a truly just
society. However, the resulting collapse of production is strong
evidence that socialist policies must not destroy but build on worker
and peasant culture, wisdom, initiative and control -- what the
Venezuelan revolutionists today call “protagonism”.
The setbacks in the Great Leap included not only the tragic famine
but also the weakening of the ties between Chinese working people and
the new state they had created. It marked a step on the road that led
ultimately to the rise of a capitalist system of production in the
Sources consulted for this article include the following.
Maurice Meisner. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic
(3rd edition). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. A general history,
supportive of the revolution but critical of the Maoist leadership.
Mark Selden. Political Economy of Chinese Socialism. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1988. An analysis sympathetic to policies of the Chinese leadership under Mao and after his death.
Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. A history of Wugong, a village in Hebei province, through the Great Leap period.
Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz and Mark Selden. Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Carries the story of Wugong to the close of the century.
Ralph A. Thaxton, Jr. Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2008. A history of Da Fo village in Henan
province, focusing on the Great Leap period and its consequences.
Mobo C.F. Gao. Gao Village: A Portrait of Rural Life in Modern China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999. A Chinese scholar reviews the history of his native village in Jiangxi province.
Mobo Gao. The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press, 2008. A defence of the Mao Zedong leadership’s record.
William Hinton. Through a Glass Darkly: U.S. Views of the Chinese Revolution.
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006. A long-time student of Chinese
society sympathetic to the Mao leadership rebuts critical analyses of
the Mao period, focusing on Chinese Village, Socialist State.
Robert Weil. Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of ‘Market Socialism.’ New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996. A critique of the record of the Chinese government leadership after Mao’s death.
P’eng Shu-tse (Peng Shuzi). “A Criticism of the Various Views Supporting the Rural People’s Communes”, in The Chinese Communist Party in Power.
New York: Monad Press, 1980. In this book, a founder of the Chinese
communist movement examines Communist Party policy from the
revolutionary victory until Mao’s death.
Joseph Ball. “Did Mao Really Kill Millions,” in Monthly Review,
September 2006. www.monthlyreview.org/0906ball.htm. A critique of
evidence that tens of millions died in the Great Leap famine.
Nigel Harris. The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China.
London: Quartet Books, 1978. An account of the Chinese revolution by a
supporter who regards the Mao leadership as bourgeois in character.