The Battle for the Truth About the Great Leap Forward: Resources for Readers of Revolution

November 15, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


The New York Times and the New York Review of Books have recently featured two high-profile articles about the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60. They both serve the anticommunist "master narrative" that the Great Leap Forward was an exercise in demonic Maoist control that led to history's worst famine. And they share in common a method of argumentation that traffics in colossal lies and distortions about historical fact, as well as the actual goals and policies of the Great Leap Forward.

These articles are part of the continuing bourgeois ideological offensive to slander and vilify the Soviet revolution of 1917-56 and the Chinese revolution of 1949-76. The take-home message of these widely promoted attacks on the first wave of socialist revolution is this: "leave this capitalist world of horror as it is; this is the best and only of all possible worlds." 

The op-ed "China's Great Shame" by Yang Jisheng in the New York Times (November 13) states that the Chinese revolution, and the Great Leap Forward in particular, had instituted a "vast system of slavery in the name of liberating mankind" and that this system led to the death of "36 million victims." There is not a shred of truth to these statements, and the "facts" cited by the author are no more than baseless assertions.

But readers can learn the truth of the Great Leap Forward—about what it set out to achieve, its actual record of accomplishment and problems, the causes of the famine that did take place, and the measures taken to alleviate it. They can access valuable material from Bob Avakian in "Radically Different Systems: Radically Different Outlooks and Objectives, Radically Different Results," (section of the new interview, WHAT HUMANITY NEEDS: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism), from the Great Leap Forward page on the Set the Record Straight website (, and from the YouTube, "Raymond Lotta Takes on Lies about Mao's Great Leap Forward."

There are four key points to keep in mind:

1) The Great Leap Forward was aimed at creating a sustainable agriculture, bringing masses of peasants into the running of administrative and political affairs, bringing women out of the household and into the swirl of the battle to create a new society, and overcoming unequal development between the cities and countryside. The commune system that was one of the great innovations of the Great Leap Forward created new forms of social cooperation. This was not "slavery," as Yang Jisheng asserts, but a leap in social organization.

2) The famine that struck China in 1959-60 was principally the result of unprecedented droughts and flooding. There were other factors, including the sudden withdrawal of aid and technical support by the Soviet Union to punish China for challenging and breaking with the Soviet economic and political model; policy mistakes made by the revolutionary leadership; intense social and political struggles; temporary dislocations in the planning system; and China's encirclement by Western imperialism. This was not "Mao's great famine" but a famine of complex, intermeshing causes.

3) Yang Jisheng's claim that 36 million people died as a result of the Great Leap Forward is just that…a claim. It is based on sensationalistic and politically motivated estimates, unreliable demographic and census data, archival materials of questionable quality, and dubious statistical projections. Such wildly exaggerated mortality numbers are highly contested by demographers and other scholars.

4) Mao and the revolutionary leadership took measures to cope with food crisis and famine. These included emergency deliveries of grain, changing the structure of the communes so that they could better deal with economic matters, putting more emphasis on agricultural production, and scaling back exports. China's historic food problem was overcome by 1970. China's socialist revolution saved millions of lives, as evidenced in the doubling of life expectancy between 1949 and 1976.

To learn more about socialism in the Soviet Union (1917-1956) and in China (1949-1976), readers should go to the Set the Record Straight website,

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