Revolution #221, January 9, 2011
The Real Story of the Great Leap Forward
Editors' note: A recent piece in New Yorker magazine recycles, reinforces, and expands on profoundly untrue and distorted "conventional wisdom" about Mao Tsetung and the communist revolution he led in China ("Staying Power: Mao and the Maoists" by Pankaj Mishra). In particular, it asserts that the Great Leap Forward (in the early years of socialist China) was Mao's campaign of "condemning tens of millions to early death." While not responding in detail to all the lies and distortions in the New Yorker piece here and now, this excerpt from Raymond Lotta's speech, "Socialism is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World," paints a basic picture of the real nature of the Great Leap Forward. The entire speech was serialized in Revolution, and is available online at revcom.us (revcom.us/strs/set-the-record-straight.html).
The Great Leap Forward of 1958-59 was the first bold step by Mao to forge a more liberating road of socialist economic and social development. At the heart of the Great Leap Forward in the countryside was the movement to form communes. They combined economic, social, militia, and administrative activities and became the basic units of proletarian power in China's countryside.
The people's communes came about as a result of a complex and dynamic process of social and economic struggle and transformation and mass upsurge and experimentation.
Early in the history of the revolution, peasants, with the backing of the [Communist] party, had formed mutual-aid teams to help each other in planting and harvesting. Within a few years of Liberation, they established cooperatives in which they farmed land together and distributed the produce according to how much land, tools, and animals each family had put in, as well as their labor.
By the mid-1950s, peasants had formed higher-level cooperatives. They burnt the deeds to their land because they now worked the land, tools, and animals in common. This was a zigzag process, with different areas moving at a different pace. Some peasants would join and then drop out. But at some stages of this process there were waiting lists of peasants wanting to join up. Many peasants pooled their land and labor, giving up isolated plots and working together to change the physical face of the land. This enabled peasants to use tractors and other machinery in areas that had never before even seen an iron plow.
This was the setting for the Great Leap Forward.
The Birth of the People's Communes
The communes started spontaneously. In Honan province in 1957, peasant cooperatives joined forces with their neighbors to begin a vast project to bring water across a mountain range to irrigate dry plains. The peasants merged their cooperatives and created something new: an economic and political form through which tens of thousands of people built a common life. Mao toured these areas and later gave the name "commune" to describe what was going on.
The Great Leap is often vilified as an irrational utopian experiment. But it made enormous economic and political sense... from the standpoint of liberating people and productive capabilities.
The communes were able to mobilize and organize China's vast reserve of labor power. Irrigation and flood control works, road construction, reforesting, land reclamation, and other projects could now be planned and carried out on a large scale. Fertilizer and cement factories and small hydroelectric power works were built. The communes provided experimental space for teams of experts and peasants to engage in scientific farming and geological prospecting.
The Great Leap Forward brought women out of the household and into the swirl of the battle to create a new society. The communes opened community dining rooms, nurseries, cooperative home repair, and established other forms of social welfare that provided collective solutions for social needs. Women took part in the start-up of new factories and in irrigation projects like the famous Red Flag Canal. "The Iron Women's Brigade" was in the front lines of that project.
Old habits and values were questioned. Ideological struggle was waged against superstition, prejudice, and fatalism, along with feudal customs that still persisted, like arranged marriage. The communes established networks of primary and middle-schools, as well as health facilities.
The Great Leap Forward put the emphasis on the rural areas in order to gradually close the gap between the city and countryside, and between workers and peasants. Small-scale industries took root in the countryside; peasants began to master technology; scientific knowledge was spread. The approach of the Great Leap was a liberating alternative to the process of rural dislocation and massive urban immigration that takes place in the imperialist-dominated Third World.
A self-reliant economy that spread industrial and technical capabilities into the countryside could also stand up better to imperialist attack and invasion and support world revolution.
A Vicious Slander
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book Mao: The Unknown Story charge that the Great Leap and the communes were just a cover for slave labor. They allege that 30 million people died because of Mao's policies. Some things need to be said straight up here.
First, as I have explained, the Great Leap Forward was not reckless but guided by coherent policy goals. It tapped the energy and enthusiasm of the peasant masses.
Were there problems? Were there famine deaths? Yes. But the difficulties of those years was a complex phenomenon.
There was a sharp decline in food production in 1959. China had suffered the worst climatic disasters in a century. Floods and drought affected over half of China's agricultural land.
The ideological struggle between revolutionary China and the Soviet Union had been intensifying. Mao denounced the Soviet leadership as revisionist—analyzing that it had gone off the socialist road and was selling out the interests of the world revolution to U.S. imperialism. In response, the Soviets sought to punish China by withdrawing advisors, halting aid, walking off with blueprints to unfinished industrial installations, and leaving the country with a debt burden that had to be repaid. This created additional strains on the economy.
There were also certain policy mistakes by the Maoists. One problem was that in many rural areas too much peasant labor time was spent on nonagricultural projects. This hurt food production. In the euphoric spirit of the times, output levels and capabilities were often exaggerated by local officials. This made it hard to know how much grain there really was and to plan accurately.
Chang and Halliday charge that Mao didn't care about the hardships and suffering and willfully suppressed knowledge of deaths. In fact, investigations were conducted and adjustments were made. The communes were reduced in size, eventually stabilizing at about 15,000 to 25,000 people. The amount of grain to be delivered to the state was lowered. Certain nonagricultural projects were scaled back, so that people could spend more time on food production. Grain was rationed countrywide and emergency grain supplies were sent to regions in distress.
As for the accusation of 30 million deaths—this is an absurd and sensationalistic estimate. It is based on unreliable statistics. It is based on outrageous calculations that compare projected population size with actual population size. In other words, people who weren't even born are added to a total death count.
And the main point is this: By 1970, China was for the first time in its history able to solve its food problem. The new society was able to provide for a minimal diet and food security. This had everything to do with the Great Leap Forward and the formation of communes. It had everything to do with the collective mobilization of people to build irrigation and flood works, to reclaim and improve land, to master new agricultural techniques, and to establish small industries in the countryside. It had everything to do with the spirit of working for the common good promoted by socialist revolution.
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