A Libertarian Communist analysis of the Great Leap Forward under Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Communists which aims to show that the Great Leap Forward was a capitalist project rather than a socialist, or communist one.
Like “Holodomor”, The Cultural Revolution, The Combodian Genocide, and the Great Purges the Great Leap Forward is widely viewed as proof of the failure and bloodthirsty nature of communism. It and it’s victims are used to compare the old “communist” regimes of the 20th century to the Third Reich. Supposedly the Great Leap forward is more proof than anyone needs to show that communism is irredeemable and that revolutionary anti-capitalism is at best a utopian idea that paves the road to slaughter and economic collapse. This cold war ideological narrative is designed to paper over the real events that took place, specifically that they were a result of capitalism and the prevention of a genuine, radical alternative to it.
Then, of coarse, the Stalinist left will attempt to defend these events. They flip the script on the anti-communist version of events and contend that, in this case, the great leap forward was part of a genuine socialist project carried out by a genuinely revolutionary communist regime. They effectively invert anti-communism. Stalinists will claim that the number of people who are said to have been killed in the Great Leap Forward is a fabrication and/or that the resulting famines were purely a result of bad whether. This inverted anti-communism is just as deceptive as anti-communism proper. It paints the economic and political projects of capitalist states, founded on rolling back social revolutions, and sporting a distorted version of Marxism as their ideological veil, as “achievements” of socialism in action. A real revolutionary analysis of the events of the Great Leap Forward implies showing the real culprit in capitalism and counterrevolution while at the same time acknowledging the human toll this capitalism and counterrevolution caused in terms of oppression and exploitation of ordinary working people.
The Great Leap Forward was carried out by the People’s Republic Of China starting at the tail end of the 50s. The people’s republic was established after decades of civil war which themselves were the result of revolutionary convulsions that ended the old Chinese imperial and Confucian dynasties. The Chinese Communist party had come to power as a result of rallying the Chinese peasants to their side in the civil war and thus, in 1949, officially created the people’s republic. Instead of the masses of Chinese workers and peasants taking control of society and the means of production a state controlled by the communist party was established with control over both. It’s essential purpose was to carry out economic development in China through extracting what workers and peasants produced, which in a global capitalist society means the accumulation of capital and the development of a national capitalist economy.
Like in the Soviet Union, the industrialization used to carry out this development was based on the exploitation of the working class (as is all capitalist development) and thus industrialization far outstripped the living standards of the workers themselves. The working class remained subordinated to an alien class which extracted what they produced to turn profit in exchange for giving workers just what they needed to live. The communist party controlled the state which itself controlled the economy through state-owned enterprises. It thus constituted the capitalist class which lived off of profit made from said enterprises, effectively owned production as it’s property, and employed labor which it paid under the “full value” of to make profit. This is the essential make up of capitalist society. The only real difference between it and western capitalist “democracies” was that instead of the capitalist class being constituted of private owners who compete on the market it was constituted by one state bureaucracy which owned firms that it compelled to generate profits through the state organized and developed “central plan” (this plan in reality being the mechanism that facilitated the market activity of state firms).
The Great Leap Forward was an agricultural development strategy to carry out the development of this capitalist economy. Initially the Chinese “communist” state allowed peasants to carry out “self-exploitation” where they could produce and market their wears on their own initiative for their personal benefit. The Great Leap Forward was Mao Tse-Tung’s attempt to develop the Chinese economy further from this situation. Unlike other party bureaucrats, such as Deng Xioping, Mao did not want to fallow the traditional Stalinist path (as fallowed in the Soviet Union) of breakneck industrialization and forced collectivization. Mao, and the following on this issue he amassed, wanted a more self-directed process that wouldn’t require the adoption of new and larger scale production tools and techniques. They wanted to construct a project where peasants could carry out agricultural development with their more traditional techniques and tools and through this development incentivize urban Chinese to move to the countryside to take part in the rising economic tide. This agricultural development, through producing for the urban economy, would in turn develop the latter. Party cadres were to teach the peasants in using their traditional tools and techniques to contribute to further economic development.
The GLF (Great Leap Forward) was thus carried out by party cadres going into the countryside to mobilize, and supposedly teach the peasants. The latter were mobilized into communes where they would supposedly carry out communal production of a communist nature through free associated labor, and to melt down huge amounts of steel in backyard furnaces. The communes themselves were a farce. They were organized to be completely controlled by party officials, rather than the peasants themselves. This was compounded by the introduction of draconian standards, not only for producing surplus that could be extracted for the state and for the officials’ own income, but also preventing the peasants from leaving the communes with threat of legal penalty. Communism is a society without set divisions of labor that empower a group of managers to extract the product produced by laborers, let alone do this through the imposition of draconian legal standards. In a communist society production is the property of all and thus managed by all in collective agreement and discussion processes. In the communes it was instead the property of the state and managed by state officials above the producers themselves compelled by the forces of capital accumulation. As such, from the standpoint of communism, or socialism, or even a standpoint of a working class social revolution, the communes of the great leap forward were a farce. In fact, one could compare them to feudal estates as a result of the draconian surplus extraction and limitations on the peasants’ movement. There would be a key difference however. Feudal estates simply performed the function of providing for the feudal ruling class through extracting tribute from the producers. In the case of the GLF communes’s surplus was extracted for the state’s accumulation of capital. The draconian standards were always imposed with a view towards providing the state with an income that could then be used to develop the urban economy. The communes were state-capitalism at work.
The cadres that were suppose to teach the peasants in self-directed traditional production simply assumed authority in the process. Production was organized by the cadre bureaucrats with little to no input from the peasants themselves. This is because the accumulation of capital requires exploitation. A surplus needs to be extracted from the worker and then sold on the market. This requires managerial authority that imposes the standards of capitalist production on the worker. Mao’s fantasy of a self-directed, traditionally peasant centered agricultural capital accumulation could have never been implemented in real life. When the GLR began a tail spin and it was obvious to the communist party ruling class that the project was rapidly failing they reduced the pressure on peasants to produce surplus and allowed a small scale return to “self-exploitation”. Despite this the needs of a rapidly declining agricultural capitalism made a complete return to those salad days impossible.
The extraction of surplus carried out by the great leap forward and the managers and officials in charge of it rapidly became to much for the peasants to meet. Officials in the countryside began falsifying the amount that was produced in their report backs to the regime. Famine and with it starvation began breaking out in the country. Once the regime proper became privy to the situation it was far to late to halt the decline and Chinese agricultural state-capitalism was in full force economic crises. Mao and his faction were completely discredited. While Soviet Industrialization produced massive famine and misery for the peasants, unlike the great leap forward, it didn’t fall into complete crises and actually fueled urban economic development during the world capitalist crises of the Great Depression because the peasants were sucked dry. They were forced into collectives and proletarianized (transformed into wage workers). This meant that the Soviet regime didn’t have to scramble to meet quotas like the people’s republic. The GLR simply didn’t carry out the needed exploitation and immisseration of the peasantry. This is obviously not to call for Soviet style expropriation of the peasants, but to show state-capitalism is the same as any other form of capitalism in that it requires fierce exploitation of ordinary people, otherwise it will break down. Capitalist crises are crises of exploitation, situations were the effectiveness (not necessarily the severity) of worker exploitation has failed.
The GLR and it’s miseries were the product of developing capitalism and it’s crises, not the bloodthirsty nature, or economic failure of communism. In turn the real failures and human impact of state-capitalism can not be ignored, or washed away in order to claim that Stalinism was in fact genuine socialism. The GLR illustrates that anti-communism and it’s loyal Stalinist opposition are about concealing the real nature of the “socialist world” in the 20th century by masking it in ideology. This is done with the goal of further domination of the working class. Stalinists dream of one day again coming to power through their party and developing a national economy on the backs of peasants and workers, and establishment neoliberal capitalism goes through pains to instill in workers that overthrowing their masters will only lead to famine and death.
Political Economy Of The Great Leap Forward: Permanent Revolution and State Feudal Communes, Satya J. Gabriel
Towards An Anarchist History Of The Chinese Revolution, Andrew Flood
State Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management, Adam Buick and John Crump