The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward was a state-directed economic policy applied in China by Mao Tse-tung between 1958 and 1963. The purpose of this communist plan was to deeply transform the country’s traditional economic and social structure from an agrarian economy into a modern communist society through the process of agriculturalization, industrialization, and collectivization. The Great Leap Forward had no regard for individual interprises no matter how small they were as the Marxist state directed every aspect of the economy and society.

Based on the Theory of Productive Forces, which were a widely-used concept in communism, the Great Leap Forward was personally led by Mao Tse-tung, who intensified it after being informed of the impending disaster from grain shortages. The period during which the Great Leap Forward economic and social plan was conducted was a period of economic regress or stagnation. The growth of national income for the entire 1958-63 period was less than half of the 1966-78 period, and it took almost twice the level of investment to produce a given increase in output in the former period as in the latter. In short, the Great Leap was a very expensive disaster which cause the greatest famine of the 20th century history.


Communist China’s firs attempt of economic and technological development was initiated with about 150 development projects planned, financed and staffed by the Soviet Union ruled by Stalin. Nevertheless, political and ideological differences between Nikita Khrushchev (the new Soviet premier) and Mao Tse-tung led to what is known as the Sino-Soviet Split. As a result, approximately 15,000 Soviet engineers and staff that had been working on several development projects in the People’s Republic of China were withdrawn and the blueprints for future projects destroyed. China did not have the technological and financial resources to complete these projects on its own and Mao Tse-tung was made conscious of how vulnerable China was in depending upon outside aid, even from communist regimes.

Mao decided to undertake the technological development and industrialization of China on its own. Mao Tse-tung knew that the first attempt to create a socialist economy was brought to a halt in the Soviet Union in 1921 when peasants had reacted to confiscation of their grain harvest by declining to plant and produce as much grain. Mao also had to bear in mind that when Stalin began his five-year plans he collectivized agriculture in order to have control over what was planted and produced. Mao should have also been aware, although perhaps he was not, that the collectivization program in the Soviet Union was a great failure in terms of production and that a severe famine occured in the Ukraine afterwards.

The Plan

In order to carry out his Great Leap Forward, peasants were organized into cooperatives of 20 to 40 families at the village level. Next the cooperatives were replaced by county-wide collectives involving hundreds of thousands of people. In addition to calling for the creation of communes, Mao Tse-tung urged the peasants to build backyard blastfurnaces to make iron and steel for tools. The unskilled peasants were supposed to melt down scrap metal to make useful items such as tools and utensils.

In practice the program worked backwards since peasants melted down useful items to produce unusable masses of metal. This was the result an authoritarian State that constantly demanded and ordered the peasants to increase production from the backyard blast furnaces and when they ran out of scrap they started melting down anything they could find, including the useles tools and utensils they had already made. Some of this destruction of useful objects to increase the production from the backyard blastfurnaces might be attributed to enthusiasm but probably more of it was due to there being quotas of production from the furnaces that had to be met.

The direct consequence of the backyard blastfurnaces and other nonagricultural projects of the Great Leap Forward was that they took labor away from food production and led to a shortage of food. China had always been on the edge of subsistence and any decrease in food production meant starvation. To make matters worse the centralized control resulted in no one with the authority to change things being informed of the decline in food production. The commune leaders were under pressure to exceed past production and when production declined they did report it. They, in fact, reported what the higher authorities wanted to hear. This caused the food shortage to continue beyond the point when no one could do anything about them. The central government made things even worse for the peasants by taking a share based upon the falsified production figures and thus leaving the peasants too little to survive on.

Aside from the steep decrease in food production due to the diversion of effort away from agriculture, there was losses in food production because of the erroneous policies carried out by the State. One of these idiocies was close planting. If two plants are set too close to each other there is not enough nutrients in the soil to feed both and both die. The State promoted close planting of grain to increase productivity.

The direct result of communist China Great Leap Forward was a leap into starvation and death. Famine struck everywhere in China and was particularly more severe in some areas. The people in these areas were forbidden to leave their area and so were doomed to starvation. Approximately 30 million people died in this communism-induced famine, which was caused by the shortfall in food production but as a result of bad policies and centralization of power in the central government. It was made worse by the refusal to admit the problem. During the time peasants were starving in the country side the government was shipping to grain to the Soviet Union to repay loans. Some grain also rotted in warehouses in the cities where it was taken from the communes.

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Thor is Carlos Benito Camacho, the manager and writer of this blog.