China’s Great Leap Forward


What the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60 Was About, Why It Is Attacked, and the Issue of Famine

Background to the Great Leap Forward

Early in the history of the Chinese revolution, peasants, with the backing of the Chinese Communist Party, formed mutual-aid teams to help each other in planting and harvesting. Within a few years after Liberation in 1949, the peasants 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 burned 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. (For more on the history leading up to the Great Leap Forward, read Part 9: The Great Leap Forward.)

Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Party of China, was striving to forge a liberatory road of economic and social development—a road that could rupture with what Bob Avakian has described as “two legacies.” The first legacy was the continuing pressure and influence of capitalism and Western imperialism—this interacting with China’s history of backwardness. The second legacy was the received wisdom of the Soviet developmental model. The Soviet model was marked by a highly technocratic approach to economic development, with a great stress on specialization, rigid division of labor, reliance on income incentives, and strict top-down enterprise management; one-sided focus on the development of heavy industry; a steering of resources to  the cities and towards the already more highly developed rural sectors. This approach would supposedly lead to a kind of growth-by-trickle-down in the countryside.

Mao was developing a model and road of socialist development based on social cooperation and social ownership:

—an economy that would meet the material and social needs of the people

—an economy that would solve China’s historic problem of chronic hunger, malnutrition, and recurrent famine

—an economy that would foster mutually supportive relations between industry and agriculture, instead of soaking up resources from the countryside for industry

—an economy that would contribute to reducing and ultimately overcoming the gaps between city and countryside, between industry and agriculture, and between regions

—an economy that would not rely on material incentives but, rather, rely on conscious activism, and that did not accept widening social differences as “the price of development”

—an economy that relied on and promoted the collective understanding and the collective mastery of the masses over the processes of production

—an economy that could resist imperialist attack and support revolutions in other parts of the world.

What the Great Leap Forward Was About

Raymond Lotta discusses the historical background and purposes of the Great Leap Forward in his speech, “Socialism Is Much Better than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World”:

The communes started spontaneously. In Henan 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 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 countries.

A self-reliant economy that spread industrial and technical capabilities through the countryside could also stand up better to imperialist attack and invasion and support world revolution.

The Great Leap Forward is often decried as “irrational,” “reckless,” and “utopian.” But there was nothing “irrational” about collectivizing land holdings to promote mechanization and more social forms of work and cooperation; nothing irrational about creating rural infrastructure like water control projects, or planting forests and orchards, expanding rural industry in the countryside; and certainly nothing irrational about overcoming inequality between men and women and the age-old domestic responsibilities that have been foisted on women.

Certainly there were problems and shortcomings of the Great Leap Forward, as would be expected of a massive movement of transformation on this scale. Certainly, there were measures and experiments that proved to be impractical. But the defining features and breakthroughs of the Great Leap Forward are irrational only from the standpoint of capitalist-style development—with capitalism’s rationality of exploitation, social inequalities, and subordination of rural development to the cities.

The most important thing about the Great Leap Forward was not the mobilization for production, or the economic strategy of combining more basic with intermediate and advanced technologies, or the focus on balanced and self-reliant development in the countryside. It was the fact that relations between people were changing, new relations of ownership with the communes brought people together in new cooperative ways; people were working and living and struggling and taking up the study of Marxism to more deeply understand and more consciously change. The Great Leap Forward was, more than anything else, a leap in consciousness and a leap in social organization.

Contradictions and Difficulties of the Great Leap Forward, Food Crisis, and Famine

Of the invective hurled at the Great Leap Forward, none is more mendacious and poisonous than the claim that the policies of the Great Leap Forward—and Mao’s commitment to the Great Leap Forward—were directly responsible for massive famine. In the work of anticommunist ideologues like Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in Mao: The Unknown Story, or Jasper Becker in Hungry Ghosts, or Frank Dikotter in Mao’s Great Famine wild estimates of “needless” famine deaths are pumped out, with numbers ranging from 38 to 60 million starvation deaths. Harvard historian Roderick MacFarquhar calls the Great Leap Forward “the worst man-made catastrophe, ever.”

What is the truth?

To begin with, there was a sharp decline in food production in 1959 and a famine ensued. There were multiple reasons for this. But a decisive fact is that starting in 1959 China suffered the worst climatic disasters in a century. By 1960 crop damage caused by floods and drought affected over half of China’s agricultural land. The evidence is very strong that bad weather accounted for a large portion of the grain yield losses and was a major contributing factor to the agricultural crisis of 1959-61 (in this regard, the research of Y.Y. Kueh, cited in the Selected Readings and Research Resources below, is important).

Second, the grain shortage was exacerbated by the international situation. State-to-state and party-to-party relations between revolutionary China and the Soviet Union had been rapidly deteriorating. Mao had been critiquing 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 imperialism. The Soviets had castigated the Great Leap Forward as, yes, utopian; they had sought out like-minded elements within the Chinese leadership.

As China-Soviet relations grew more strained in 1960, the Soviet leadership looked to punish and isolate the Chinese. In July-August 1960, they withdrew experts, halted aid, and walked off with blueprints to unfinished industrial installations. The Soviets also left China saddled with a large debt burden, most of it incurred during the Korean War. At the same time, U.S. imperialism continued to exert military pressure on China: in 1958, the pro-U.S. Kuomintang regime in Taiwan had shelled two offshore islands off the People’s Republic, and in 1959 the CIA had given support to a reactionary uprising in Tibet. Clashes between China and India also broke out in 1959.

This was the hostile international environment in which the Great Leap Forward and subsequent food crisis were occurring. It was not a situation of China’s making. Against this international backdrop, Mao and the revolutionary leadership wanted to free the country of external debt dependency to maximize maneuvering room. So China continued to sell grain on the world market to generate earnings to pay back the Soviet debt.

Third, there were policy mistakes made by the Maoists in carrying out the Great Leap Forward. The speed with which the communes were formed and the tendency to create collectives that were too big created problems in the management of grain production. In many rural areas too much peasant labor was diverted to nonagricultural projects—and this undercut food production. Too much grain was also being requisitioned by the state to feed the urban population—and this contributed to supply problems in the countryside. Finally, in the euphoric spirit of the times, output levels and capabilities were often exaggerated by local officials, and this made it hard to know how much grain there really was and to plan accurately.

The standard anticommunist accounts charge that Mao didn’t care about the hardship and suffering and willfully suppressed reports of difficulties and famine-level 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 more labor time was devoted to food production.

Grain was rationed countrywide and emergency grain supplies were sent to regions in distress. Advances made in transport capacity by the Chinese revolution from 1949 onward, public policy measures, and the new socialist health care system actually limited the loss of life. In late 1960, China also started importing wheat from Canada.

In understanding the course of the Great Leap Forward, it is important to recognize that this economic strategy and social movement took place in the context of sharp class struggle in Chinese society.

As mentioned, the Soviet developmental model exerted a great deal of influence—and this model had its champions at the highest levels of leadership within the Chinese Communist Party. In 1959, at a major leadership conference, the Minister of Defense, Peng Dehuai, launched a fierce political attack on the Great Leap Forward. Peng, who had looked to the Soviet model and to the Soviets as long-term allies, wanted resources steered to the modern industrial sectors and towards the military (for Soviet-style military modernization). He rationalized his attack on the Great Leap Forward by posing as the voice of the hungry and suffering.

In 1960, in the face of the natural calamities, the Sino-Soviet break, and some of the problems and mistakes spoken to, it was necessary to make adjustments. But what kind of adjustments was also a matter of class struggle. The rightist and conservative forces were seizing on the crisis to reverse the whole thrust of the Great Leap Forward—wanting to give wide play to free market forces in the countryside, the adoption of profit measures to guide investment, and removing support for small-scale rural industry. Mao and the revolutionaries saw the need to adjust and retreat on various fronts, but were also fighting to uphold the basic principles and direction of the Great Leap.

The situation was not one simply of economic difficulties and the need for adjustment. There was class struggle, concentrated at the highest levels of society, over the road that China would take: socialism or capitalism.

As for the accusations of 16.5 million . . . 38 million . . . 45 million . . . 60 million needless deaths—these are sensationalistic and politically motivated estimates (and the extreme range of these estimates should itself be a warning sign). They are based on unreliable demographic and census data, archival materials of questionable quality, and dubious methodology that makes liberal use of unfounded statistical projections.

Some authors, for instance, make comparisons between what China’s population would have been, had it had been growing at normal rates without the “excess deaths” of the famine, and population figures of later years. The famine is said to have wiped out the “missing population.” But as several critical studies have shown, birth rates had dropped steeply during the period of the famine and many of the “missing population” simply weren’t born. And leaving this aside, it is not at all clear that there was anything approaching a comprehensive national death registration system in place during these years of upheaval. Moreover, as various researchers have analyzed, there was considerable movement of population during the Great Leap Forward, which adds another difficulty to tracking population changes.

It has also been usefully pointed out that, in addition to the questionable reliability of the raw statistical material on which such charges as 45 million deaths are based, there is also the “political agenda” underlying the 1983 release by the Chinese government of “supporting data” underlying the “massive famine” thesis (see the article by Joseph Ball cited below). This was a time when the new capitalist rulers of China led by Deng Xiaoping were engaged in a campaign to vilify the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and waging a broad ideological attack on the whole idea of collective-based agriculture.

A terrible famine did take place in 1959-61. The difficulties of those years, as analyzed here, was a complex phenomenon. More research is called for to advance understanding. But the sordid, shoddy “famine scholarship” of recent years serves an entirely different function: demonizing Mao, distorting the aims and purposes of the Great Leap Forward, and putting on offer history by inflated body count.


To sum up, the Great Leap Forward was guided by coherent policy goals; tapped the energy and enthusiasm of the peasant masses; and yielded enormous positive long-term effects. Indeed, by 1970 China was able, for the first time in its history, to solve its historic 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.

Suggested Readings and Research Resources

The Aims and Accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward

The Battle for the Truth About the Great Leap Forward: Resources for Readers of Revolution. Revolution, 11/15/2012.

New York Times Review Repeats Lies About Mao and Great Leap Forward: An Answer and Another Reason for People to Check Out the “Set the Record Straight” Website. Revolution, 10/29/2012.

Burchett, Wilfred, and Alley, Rewi. China: The Quality of Life (New York: Penguin, 1976)

Chesneaux, Jean. China: The Peoples’ Republic, 1949-1976 (New York: Pantheon, 1979)

Crook, Isabel and David. The First Years of Yangyi Commune (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979)

Han, Dongping. Ch. 2 “Rural Education: Unfulfilled Promises,” and Ch. 3 “Collectivization and Obstacles to Economic Development,” in The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008)

Han Suyin. Ch. 8 “The Great Leap Forward and the Communes, 1958-1959,” in Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution, 1949-75 (Boston: Little Brown, 1977)

Hinton, William. Through a Glass Darkly: U.S. Views of the Chinese Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006)

Mao Tsetung. “On the Ten Major Relationships,” April 25, 1956, Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Vol. 5 (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1977) pp. 284-307.

__. “Reading Notes on the Soviet Text Political Economy (1961-1962),” in Critique of Soviet Economics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977)

Riskin, Carl. China’s Political Economy: The Quest for Development Since 1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)

Wheelwright, E.L., McFarlane, Bruce. The Chinese Road to Socialism: Economics of the Cultural Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971)

The Famine of 1959-61

Ball, Joseph. “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward,” Monthly Review, September 2006.

__. “Review of Mao’s Great Famine.”

Gao, Mobo. The Battle for China’s Past: Mao & the Cultural Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2008)

Han, Dongping. “Farmers, Mao, and Discontent in China: From the Great Leap Forward to the Present,” Monthly Review, Vol. 61, Issue 07, December 2009.

__. “The Great Leap Famine, the Cultural Revolution and Post Mao Rural Reform: The Lessons of Rural Development in Contemporary China,” China Study Group, April 2003.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Great Leap into Famine: A Review Essay,” Population and Development Review, March 2011.

Patnaik, Utsa. “Republic of Hunger,” in The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays (Pontypool, UK: Merlin Press, 2008).

Riskin, Carl. “Seven Questions about the Chinese Famine of 1959-61,” China Economic Review, Vol 9, No. 2, 1998.

Kueh, YY. Agricultural Instability in China, 1931-1991: Weather, Technology, and Institutions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Li, Minqi. The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008)

Vukovich, Daniel. Chapter 4: “Accounting for the Great Leap Forward: Missing Millions, Excess Deaths, And A Crisis of Chinese Proportions,” in China and Orientalism (New York: Routledge, 2011)

Watch Raymond Lotta respond to a student’s question on the Great Leap Forward

To an audience of 300 students at University of Chicago in 2009, Raymond Lotta takes apart the lie that 30 million people were killed during Mao’s Great Leap Forward.