The Great Leap Forward was a creative yet disastrous interruption in Chinese economic development. It is one of those “moments” in Chinese history that is the epitome of Mao Zedong’s willingness to experiment, as well as his political genius in seizing control of the forms of government out of the hands of his intellectual and political adversaries within the Communist Party of China. Given that more conservative leaders, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, were not in agreement with Mao on the policies of the Great Leap Forward.
The implementation of these policies resulted in disaster, generating a crisis in Chinese society as well as a massive famine that would in the end be resolved in ways unfavorable to Mao’s political, economic, and cultural vision of a future China. Mao wanted Chinese direct producers, particularly farmers, to use more advanced technologies than the relatively crude implements that were available but he argued against a continuation of the Stalinist approach because it relied on what we would today call capital-intensive investments.
In the Stalinist views on “modernization” the number one aspect was the building of larger “economies of scale” industrial operations, particularly those operations that were most critical to further industrialization. The Stalinist approach of placing a heavy focus on an investment in heavy industry at the expense of light industry and agriculture required vast net resources. The resources that were needed were obtained by draining surplus products out of the rural work force: a process that has been described as super-exploiting the rural labor force.
This Stalinist approach, which could be described as “big is beautiful,” was neither the first nor the last instance of placing rural lives at a lower priority than industrialization. This approach, when applied to China, gave proof to the fact that production that was most scarce in China, large-scale machinery and other forms of relatively advanced material technology, and put less emphasis on the factor of production that China had in abundance, human man power.
Mao was making the argument that the Chinese government should not be focusing their efforts on industrial projects that were dependent on advanced material technology that they either did not have or had in very low stock. Mao’s preference was for a more evenly distributed developmental strategy. In this strategy, the quality of production technology employed by the greatest number of direct producers took precedence over the pace at which large-scale, mass production technology could be used.
The Maoist ideas of technological accumulation, as practiced in the Great Leap Forward, focused on improving the productivity of all Chinese workers, whether in the rural or urban enterprises, by investing in human development and labor-intensive technology, even at the cost of slowing down the pace of investment in heavy industry. Mao did not believe that economic growth and development would be sacrificed by this shift from heavy industry to appropriate or intermediate technology.
Mao was so confident in China’s labor advantage that he believed that China would surpass Great Britain in economic power by the end of the Twentieth Century. Mao urged the leadership of the CPC to promote the development of appropriate technology for use by the rural direct producers, who made up the vast majority of the Chinese working population. However, the shift in priorities embodied in the Great Leap Forward was also recognized as a strategy for cutting government obligations: the Great Leap Forward was expected to result in lower investment outlays than had been embodied in the Five-Year Economic Plans.
Mao envisioned the rural population making their own investments in appropriate technology directly out of the surplus that they would generate, without a need for any net transfer of resources to the rural areas. Therefore, the new policy could also be described as a form of “self-help” strategy for economic development. The government would provide the encouragement and the coordination, but the rural direct producers would provide the materials and the hard work. Mao believed the new policy would be so successful in stimulating output and surplus resources that the government would see a net gain in surplus captured from the countryside.
Mao saw that this surplus that could be invested in heavy industry, mining, and infrastructure among other things. This optimism about the potential increases in productivity of rural laborers also encouraged the central government to massively relocate labor from agriculture to industry. It would not appear that Mao nor any of his top aides asked themselves one most important questions: What happens if the productivity estimations are wrong? Those on the political left also argued that the Great Leap Forward would help to slow the growing urban unemployment issue.
It was thought that the adoption of new technology in the rural areas, and the development of more rural-heavy industry, would generate more rural employment opportunities and improve the incomes of rural peasants. These factors would not only eliminate one of the primary motives for moving from the countryside to the urban areas, but would even result in a reversal of the migratory flow, in other words, the “industrialization” of the countryside would create a better life and people would want to return to the rural countryside from the cities.
The government did not rely completely on these economic policies to keep their people on the farms. In order to make sure that direct producers did not wander off the rural reservations into the cities, the State Council established a new system for centralized control over the allocation of positions within the government and the placement of people in those offices. Nevertheless, the overarching theme of the Great Leap Forward was to create positive incentives for direct producers to remain in the rural areas.
More jobs and higher incomes in the countryside would mean larger output and a higher demand for products and services. People in the countryside would be producing more goods and a variety of products and they would also have the income to buy this extra supply. Indeed, the Mao-inspired left-wing of the CPC believed that the Great Leap Forward would have a tremendous impact on the standard of living for all Chinese. It was envisioned that the new, rural small-scale industries would result in the aforementioned expansion in output and incomes in the rural areas that would result in more overall demand for products and services.
Urban industries would gain new customers and more orders from existing customers in the countryside and be in a stronger position to generate higher revenues and absorb a growing labor force. More workers would be employed in both the city and the countryside. The result was more workers earning incomes. Therefore, workers would benefit from the economic boom by obtaining higher incomes. In the competitive labor market the higher incomes would come from higher wages and in the communes the increased revenues would make it possible for subsistence shares to be increased to commune members.
The production of an increased surplus would theoretically make possible increased payments to laborers. Higher incomes would result in further increases in demand and this would work to boost the gross domestic product of the nation. The higher gross domestic product would facilitate an increased surplus available for investment in all areas of the economy. This is the basic thrust of the economic argument in favor of the Great Leap Forward. Mao also made the argument that the Great Leap Forward was necessary for more political and cultural reasons, as well.
Mao and the Maoist Left believed that the CPC was at risk of becoming more and more like the Kuomintang, a Party that settled into the “urban lifestyle” once power had been achieved and that forgot the revolutionary mission of creating a new society. Cases of corruption among CPC officials were not uncommon and some Party members had indeed adopted more lavish lifestyles in the cities where they now resided. Concern about the moral dangers to the Party leadership was voiced primarily by younger members of the CPC, but Mao took this issue and smartly used it to his advantage.
The perception was that the cities were, in many ways, corrupting influences and the Stalinist approach to economic development clearly favored the cities over the countryside. Given that the rural population had been the base of support for the Party and most of the foot soldiers and officers of the People’s Liberation Army were from peasant backgrounds, it was probably not difficult to link Stalinism, corruption, and urban bias in an argument that the policies of the government needed to be changed.
Given that the Great Leap Forward focused upon the countryside as the catalyst for economic development, it provided not only an alternative but one that was in keeping with the belief that the government needed to return to its roots in the rural areas. And the argument that communism could become a present day reality, rather than a vision of a time-uncertain future, was appealing to a wide range of young people as well as intellectuals. In practical terms, the Great Leap required not only the cooperation of the rural direct producers but their mass mobilization.
Millions of uncoordinated efforts to experiment with small-scale production and appropriate technology were implemented. Rather than using underemployed rural labor to boost overall social output, as many of the leftists envisioned, the enthusiasm of the rural cadre led to the diversion of a great deal of labor from agriculture and other regular production activities to the new attempts to construct commune-based light industry and such efforts as the creation of small-scale, appropriate, steel making furnaces, ater know as “backyard furnaces. ” The leftists had anticipated that workers would learn the best way of doing things by trial and error. In reality, the process was far more chaotic and the Party, often with very little training that would have helped them to carry out their ambitious ideas, exercised inordinate weight on the day-to-day decisions about how to implement the Great Leap Forward, including how to apply the new technologies. The enthusiasm of the cadre was such that expertise was often deemed unnecessary.
The Great Leap Forward was the democratization of technology. It is not clear that Mao meant this to be the case, but it seems to have been accepted doctrine among many of the rank-and-file within the Party. Engineers and other technically trained personnel, who might have contributed greatly to the development and application of the new technologies, were typically ignored or criticized for letting their urban or Western biases get the better of them. At the center of the Great Leap Forward were the “people’s communes. These communes were established in late 1958 by order of the central government in Beijing. And despite the clear indication that the idea for the communes came from Mao, the policies were implemented by the largely conservative governmental bureaucracy. The concept of communes fit with Mao’s vision of a great leap from the old feudal society to communist society, by-passing a capitalist phase, but was implemented in a manner that was far from a leap forward.
Rather than creating communes where the collective of direct producers controlled their own work life and surplus the communes established in 1958 can be seen as little more than state feudal manors: collections of enterprises and living spaces organized on the basis of a juridical requirement of the peasants to produce a surplus product that was appropriated by the commune administrators, who then passed along a portion of the surplus to the higher “lords” in the central government. One of the conditions for the reproduction of this feudal condition was the relative immobility of the commune workers.
Therefore, with the establishment of state feudal communes, the experiment in self-exploitation was ended, although this termination was not as abrupt as it might seem. The rural direct producers had already been asked to form various ancient partnerships and cooperative arrangements, as well as some collective farming activities prior to 1958. Nevertheless, the so-called people’s communes represented a dramatic change in the freedoms enjoyed by rural direct producers and the mechanisms by which governmental power was exercised in rural communities.
The mobilization of rural labor power would no longer be voluntary. Indeed, it was within the state feudal communes, and under the direction of feudal commune administrators, that the mass mobilization of rural labor power, in the manner of labor, was to take place. Party cadres in these state feudal communes made effective use of the rhetoric of communism and military-style organization to minimize opposition and to mobilize the commune direct producers into work brigades that could generate a feudal surplus for the government.
Given that this essentially feudal surplus would now be controlled by government functionaries, who would also have the power to alter the size of the necessary product distributed to commune workers, it would not be necessary for the absolute rural surplus to increase in order for a larger total surplus to be controlled by the government. Like feudal manors of Europe or Japan, the state feudal communes represented a concentration of political, economic and cultural control, including concentrated control over labor power and the surplus generated by labor.
State hegemony over labor power could be exercised by commune management, which was appointed by the government and responsible to the government. Therefore, the state created a new hierarchy of political power that resulted in the creation of a new system within which commune-level government functionaries determined both the necessary and surplus portions of the product, extracted the surplus product from commune members, and then distributed secondary residuals from that surplus to the higher levels of government.
If any member of the feudal commune failed to display proper “socialist” behavior, as determined by commune management or Party cadres, the result could be not only legal punishments but also cultural ostracism. The feudal commune was, in this sense, a total institution, dominating virtually all aspects of the commune members’ lives. This concentration of power over the economic, political and cultural life of the economic agent was viewed, in Maoist thinking, as the basis for transforming the rural direct producers into a “socialist” person. It was understood that rules of the game of the commune would reshape thinking and behavior.
In fact, as previously indicated, the rules of the game of the commune were essentially feudal, not communist, and did, indeed, result in a transformation of direct producers. Direct producers were transformed from their prior social position as primarily self-employed direct producers to feudal serfs of the government via the state feudal communes. Although few members of the commune are likely to have been in a position to recognize the feudal nature of this new institution of which they had been made an involuntary participant, there does seem to be some recognition of the hypocrisy of the rhetoric about socialism and communism.
The “enthusiasm” of commune members for the activities of the Great Leap Forward was, for the most part, attempts to conform to the behavioral parameters determined by the feudal rulers — the government — represented in the day-to-day life of direct producers by the commune management and Party cadres. It was hardly necessary to understand the philosophical arguments of Mao Zedong to understand that one’s life would be better if one was perceived as working for the success of the Great Leap Forward, rather than holding back and not actively participating.
The initial results of the Great Leap Forward appeared promising. Laborers were successfully deployed to dramatically expand irrigation, roads, storage facilities, and other infrastructure necessary to agricultural growth. Overall output did increase, despite numerous organizational mistakes on the communes and some degree of confusion throughout the government. This new approach was not well-planned and many participants had no idea what they were supposed to be doing. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the early results would have been positive.
Nevertheless, productivity did not seem to suffer and total work effort seems to have increased. The feudal appropriation resulted in a larger surplus being captured for transfer to the central government to be used for national purposes. However, the government seems to have moved rather precipitously to increase the mandated surplus extracted from the communes because it would soon be apparent that the total output in the countryside could not support the magnitude of surplus product demanded by the government without a sharp fall in the necessary product kept by the commune direct producers.
In other words, feudal appropriation increased the size of the surplus, in part, by forcing direct producers to lower their material standard of living. At the end of the 1950s, the early successes in generating increased output proved to be short-lived. The initial rise in output was followed by a decline that proved to be lover than pre-Great Leap Forward levels as direct producers adapted to the new system or became more disenchanted with their role in that system. Productivity declined. Agricultural output fell further due to a series of natural disasters in 1960.
China could hardly bear the effects of such declines in agricultural output. China is the most populous nation on Earth and at the time was very poor. The ability to provide enough food for the population was always a serious concern. The shortfall caused by the combination of natural and human-made disasters resulted in large-scale famines in parts of the country and a noticeable drop in food availability throughout the country. The government’s failure to adjust the surplus extracted from the countryside made matters worse.
As total output fell, the government continued to extract the same level of output as previously. This meant less was left for division among the commune membership. In some cases, this caused malnutrition and in some instances may have contributed to famines. To make matters worse, the cadres and commune management did not always pass along correct information on the conditions of the rural population. Commune managers often wanted to paint a rosy picture of their “success” and thus gave the central authorities a false sense of how much output had been produced.
Eventually, the government came to understand the magnitude of the problems in the countryside as reports filtered in about production problems, unrest, and famine. The Party tried to respond to this fall in output and productivity, and the risk of increased social unrest from famine and hunger, by modifications in the “feudal” system of the communes, giving direct producers limited freedom to once again engage in self-exploitation, in addition to their feudal duties on the communes. This was too little, too late, and it was clear that the Maoist approach had suffered a serious setback that would not be easily repaired.
The failure of the Great Leap Forward was, no doubt, humiliating for Mao and the Left. But just as Mao had used the failure of the five year plans as a weapon to beat the party conservatives into submission, the Right now used the Great Leap Forward to push back the Left and regain prominence within the Party. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and other more conservative members of the Party moved into positions of greater authority and influence and the Great Leap Forward — which now appeared more like a Great Fall Downward — was terminated.