50 Years After: The Tragedy of China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’

By John Riddell. On October 1, the People’s Republic of China will mark the 60th anniversary of its foundation. This will be an occasion to celebrate one of the most influential victories of popular struggle in our era.

This great uprising forged a united and independent Chinese state, freed the country from foreign domination and capitalist rule, ended landlordism, provided broad access to education and health care, and set in motion popular energies that modernized and industrialized its economy. The revolutionary triumph of 1949 laid the foundation for China’s present dynamism and influence, as well as providing an enormous impetus to anti-colonial revolution worldwide.

Yet despite these gains, the socialist movement and ideology that headed the revolution, identified with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, disappeared from China soon after his death in 1976. The revolution’s central leader is still revered, but his doctrines have been set aside. The country’s present leadership has promoted private capitalist accumulation, not socialist planning, as China’s chief engine of growth. Its policies have aroused much popular protest, but not a revived Maoist movement.

How was revolutionary China diverted onto a capitalist path? This setback has a lengthy prehistory, reaching back to the impact on Chinese Communist Party of policies identified with Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s. But much can be learned by considering the first major setback of the People’s Republic, a dark episode that reached its culmination exactly 50 years ago. This was China’s 1958-60 “Great Leap Forward” – an ambitious and failed attempt to jump-start rapid industrialization by reshaping China’s countryside.

Revolutionary breakthrough

The first years of the People’s Republic saw great progress in every sphere: the forging of a unified state; facing down imperialist reprisals, including by halting the U.S. military in the 1950-53 Korean War; surviving isolation and reprisals; economic revival; and the beginnings of industrialization. Above all, the Chinese peasantry, the driving force of the revolution, carried out a radical land reform and restored the rural economy. In 1955 almost the entire peasantry pooled its lands in cooperative farms.

But as China’s first Five-Year Plan for economic development drew to a close in 1957, there were signs of disequilibrium, including massive unemployment in the cities and underutilization of labour in the countryside, ills that China’s focus on capital-intensive heavy industry had failed to address.

The Communist Party leadership responded with a plan for “simultaneous development” of heavy and light industry, carried out in both urban centres and rural areas, in a crash campaign to mobilize a large portion of the rural workforce in labour-intensive industrial and infrastructural development.

The goals were praiseworthy, but how was this massive new industrial work force to be organized and fed?

‘Great Leap’

It was this challenge that inspired the launch of the Great Leap Forward at the beginning of 1958 – a campaign to produce “more, faster, better, and cheaper.”

In factories, hours of work were lengthened and production quotas raised. In rural areas, small-scale industrial projects were started up, the most publicized being “backyard blast furnaces” to produce iron and steel. Peasants were mobilized for major irrigation and other land-improvement projects.

Planning was based on projections that food production per hectare could be swiftly increased five to 20 times over, through introduction of large-scale collective farms and the use of new, unproven techniques of cultivation. These projections inspired Mao to declare that “planting one-third [of the land] is enough.” So labour could safely be diverted to industrial projects.

As the campaign unfolded, a new social form was invented – the “people’s communes” – each of which organized tens of thousands of peasants for collective field labour, industrial work, and land improvement projects. In the course of 1958, several hundred million peasants were enrolled in the communes.

Broadly speaking, the program was modeled on collectivization in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin after 1928, a program that aimed to enable the state to get direct control of peasant production and divert a large part of it to the support of industrialization.

As in the Soviet Union, the results in China were discouraging. National economic planning gave way under the strain. Shortages of raw materials and transportation blockages spread. Some rural industry projects took root, but waste was enormous, and rural steel production proved a costly failure. Floods and droughts aggravated the crisis.

Most ominous of all, agriculture was crippled by the many forms of disruption engendered by the communes, and the grain harvest fell by about 30%. By 1959, the entire country was gripped by hunger, which lasted through 1960. Starvation claimed millions of victims. It took 15 years to bring per-capita grain production back up to pre-Great Leap levels.

Famine and revolution

It is not unusual for the upheaval of revolution to be accompanied by a crisis of food production.

The young Russian Soviet republic, for example, experienced a severe famine in 1920-21. Its causes were clear: seven years of devastation by war and civil war, which had led to a collapse of urban-rural economic exchange. The Soviet government energetically publicized this tragedy, calling in aid organizations set up by the world workers’ movement as well as pro-capitalist agencies such as the American Relief Agency headed by later U.S. president Herbert Hoover.

Within a few months, the Soviets enacted the New Economic Policy (NEP), which restored the peasants’ right to trade grain freely; agricultural recovery was swift.

But the course of the Chinese food crisis of 1959-60 had more in common with that in Stalin’s Soviet Union during 1932-33, where forced collectivization led to a hidden famine that claimed an estimated 6-8 million victims.

In the Chinese case, the food crisis was shrouded in secrecy. Suspicions of a major Chinese famine seemed outlandish, since abolition of famine had been one of the revolution’s proudest achievements. Moreover, the Great Leap began under conditions of peace and rising production. Outside observers were misled by the 50% increase in China’s grain exports during the Great Leap years. It was not until after Mao’s death, two decades later, that the famine’s extent became widely known outside China.

There is today in China no independent movement of workers and peasants who can convey to us their historic memory and assessment of this experience.

In preparing this article, I focused on sources that are sympathetic to the Chinese revolution and its achievements, avoiding those poisoned by anti-Communist bias. But even sympatheic writers report many barriers in reconstructing the course of events. One three-person team says that on their first field trip, a month of intensive interviewing did not get at any of what were later revealed to be the key facts in the history of the village under investigation.

The Great Leap’s toll

In this challenging context, the Great Leap experience has become the focus of raging controversy between Mao’s defenders and detractors. Typical is the disagreement over the number of famine deaths.

In the early 1980s, the Chinese government released demographic statistics pointing to 15 million famine-related deaths. Writers hostile to the People’s Republic claim this is an understatement, offering estimates as high as 38 million.

Mao’s supporters say all these estimates are unreliable and biased attempts to besmirch Mao’s memory, but even they concede that a serious famine took place and that the death toll was high. Among them, Robert Weil concedes 15 million or more “excess deaths”; Mobo Gao puts the total at 8.3 million; William Hinton estimates a “demographic gap” of more than 13 million, including through a decline in the birth rate. (See “Sources,” below.)

As Gao notes, “even the lowest estimate of several million deaths cannot gloss over the disaster.”

Mao’s defenders stress the enduring achievements of the People’s Republic’s early years, comparing them favourably with the ambiguous record of the recent period. They are on strong ground here.

While conceding the Great Leap’s excesses, Mao’s defenders argue that he was not personally responsible; other leaders and subordinates, they say, were mainly to blame. Even if that is true, it tells us nothing about the Great Leap policies as such.

Moreover, Mao’s defenders have little to say regarding the function and structure of the newly formed people’s communes. They leave unchallenged the analysis presented in a number of recent detailed studies of village life in the Great Leap period, such as those by Edward Friedman et al., Ralph Thaxton, and also Mobo Gao.

The Commune’s central importance, these studies tell us, lay in transferring the organization of farm labour, the disposal of peasants’ production, and the responsibility for feeding rural producers from the peasant family to an administration that was usually located outside the village and was not subject to its control.

So great was the prestige among the peasants of the government – their government – that this change was accepted with little resistance, and promises that it would bring peasant prosperity were greeted with enthusiasm. But the actual outcome was to allocate more food to the cities and to state officials and less to rural producers, depriving them of hard-won food security.

Peasants were forbidden not only from buying or selling grain but also from traditional handicraft sidelines like rope-making. Small plots for family cultivation were abolished. Food was provided by communal kitchens – indeed cooking at home was banned. In some cases, peasant homes were torn down (without compensation) and peasants camped out in tents in the fields. Field work extended to 12 hours a day. Peasants could no longer travel without permission.

Rations in the communal kitchens, generous at first, were progressively reduced to starvation levels. The commune became a trap: peasant families had lost access to traditional recourses to stave off a food emergency.

A massive campaign to collect scrap iron for rural blast furnaces turned into an assault on the rural household: even iron cooking utensils and door hinges were seized and fed to the furnaces, leaving doorways gaping empty in the wind. Tragically, the furnaces produced little that was usable, and most were soon abandoned.

Meanwhile, local officials faced pressure to exaggerate in reports on crop yields. Many of those who insisted on truthful reporting were punished. Aggressive state grain procurement left peasants with less than the minimum needed to assure subsistence.

“The end result of all this,” writes Mobo Gao, “was that the rural residents were left to starve.”

New inequalities

Even in crisis conditions, distribution of food was unequal. The grain ration in 1960-61 was 8 jin/month for peasants, 21 jin for factory workers, and 24 jin for party officials whose need was less because they did not carry out manual labour. (1 jin=500 grams) The state preached equality but in reality provided privileges to those with access to networks of influence and power. Scarce goods were distributed to officials according to rank, through a five-tier supply system.

The principle of equality was also violated by creation of a caste of pariahs in the villages, composed of so-called landlords, rich peasants, and rightists. The landlords and rich peasants designation was based on landholdings long since swept away by the land reform. Outcast status was passed on to children.

An “anti-rightist” campaign, launched in 1957, targeted above all those who had complained about bureaucratic corruption or abuses. Millions were labelled rightists, in part because of government rewards to localities that placed more than 5% in that category. During the Great Leap, anyone who complained about government policy faced the danger of being hurled down into this stigmatized caste. Hundreds of thousands were sent to labour camps, where they were held for many years.

Reprisals against suspected dissidents included “public criticism,” in which suspects were subjected to verbal and physical abuse as a means of extraction admissions of guilt. Other punishments included withdrawal of food rations, beatings, and, in some cases, killings.

Do such reports represent exceptional cases? It is true that Ralph Thaxton’s study concerns a province, Henan, where the regional authorities’ extreme application of the Great Leap policies, originally lauded as a model, was later disavowed by the central government.

But available sources do not report any trace of open public discussion of Great Leap policies, either nationally or on the commune level. These sources do not report any instances during the Great Leap where peasants successfully overturned an abusive commune or village leadership, even in communes that held back reserves in their granaries during the worst of the famine.

Nor is there evidence of attempts by the central leadership to establish guidelines to protect working people against abuse of power, safeguard dissident voices, or guarantee of the right of working people to join together in advocating alternative policies.

The way the Great Leap ended gives us something of its extremist flavour. In 1961, peasants were granted “three freedoms” – to cultivate a small private plot of land, to cook in private homes, and to engage in petty trade. Other restrictions on peasant activity also eased. Meanwhile, China stopped its multi-million-ton grain exports and began importing grain in similar quantities.

Recovery was rapid. Robert Weil reports that life expectancy in 1962 was double the Great Leap level and higher than before the emergency. Food production picked up as well, although full recovery took many years.

Capitalist road

At the height of the Great Leap, in August 1959, Peng Shuzi, a Chinese communist forced into exile a decade earlier for his dissident views, termed the newly formed People’s Communes “an effective instrument in the hands of the CCP for exploiting and controlling the peasant.”

Peng believed that this “exploitation” was different from what we experience under capitalism: the intended beneficiary was not a private capitalist but the national economy from which those in power drew their privileges.

But for the peasantry the coercive transfer of wealth out of the hands of local producers had similarities to landlordism. And despite the egalitarian idealism that was so prominent at the Great Leap’s outset, the communes functioned in a manner similar to a capitalist factory – but with no right to form a union or to change jobs. The Great Leap thus prefigured the exploitative system that emerged after Mao’s death.

When the Chinese government ultimately pulled back from the most destructive policies of the Great Leap, it did not repudiate the hierarchy, privilege, and disregard for workers’ democracy that characterized those years.

The architects of the Great Leap hoped that its arbitrary, coercive, and destructive character would be justified by a jump in production. This, they hoped, would create the preconditions for a truly just society. However, the resulting collapse of production is strong evidence that socialist policies must not destroy but build on worker and peasant culture, wisdom, initiative, and control – what the Venezuelan revolutionists today call “protagonism.”

The setbacks in the Great Leap included not only the tragic famine but also the weakening of the ties between Chinese working people and the new state they had created. It marked a step on the road that led ultimately to the rise of a capitalist system of production in the People’s Republic.



Sources consulted for this paper include the following.

Maurice Meisner. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic (3rd edition). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. A general history, supportive of the revolution but critical of the Maoist leadership.

Mark Selden. Political Economy of Chinese Socialism. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1988. An analysis sympathetic to policies of the Chinese leadership under Mao and after his death.

Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. A history of Wugong, a village in Hebei province, through the Great Leap period.

Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Carries the story of Wugong to the close of the century.

Ralph A. Thaxton, Jr. Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A history of Da Fo village in Henan province, focusing on the Great Leap period and its consequences.

Mobo C.F. Gao. Gao Village: A Portrait of Rural Life in Modern China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999. A Chinese scholar reviews the history of his native village in Jiangxi province.

Mobo Gao. The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press, 2008. A defense of the Mao Zedong leadership’s record.

William Hinton. Through a Glass Darkly: U.S. Views of the Chinese Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006. A long-time student of Chinese society sympathetic to the Mao leadership rebuts critical analyses of the Mao period, focusing on Chinese Village, Socialist State.

Robert Weil. Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of ‘Market Socialism.’ New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996. A critique of the record of the Chinese government leadership after Mao’s death.

P’eng Shu-tse (Peng Shuzi). “A Criticism of the Various Views Supporting the Rural People’s Communes,” in The Chinese Communist Party in Power. New York: Monad Press, 1980. In this book, a founder of the Chinese communist movement examines Communist Party policy from the revolutionary victory until Mao’s death.

Joseph Ball. “Did Mao Really Kill Millions,” in Monthly Review, September 2006. www.monthlyreview.org/0906ball.htm. A critique of evidence that tens of millions died in the Great Leap famine.

Nigel Harris. The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China. London: Quartet Books, 1978. An account of the Chinese revolution by a supporter who regards the Mao leadership as bourgeois in character.

8 thoughts on “50 Years After: The Tragedy of China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’

  1. Walter Lippmann

    Well, I thought the above was my last thought, but shortly after posting the above, I received this commentary by James Petras. Relevent to these issues.

    Even though Petras uses the word “capitalist” to describe China, he see’s China’s role in the world in a way completely different from the way John Riddell does.

    Also, there was a third paragraph in John Riddell’s original posting which had a positive attitude toward the PRC, not two as I stated previously. Sorry.

    The US and China: One Side is Losing, the Other is Winning
    by James Petras

    EXCERPT from conclusion:

    China is not an exceptional capitalist country. Under Chinese capitalism, labor is exploited; inequalities in wealth and access to services are rampant; peasant-farmers are displaced by mega-dam projects and Chinese companies recklessly extract minerals and other natural resources in the Third World. However, China has created scores of millions of manufacturing jobs, reduced poverty faster and for more people in the shortest time span in history. Its banks mostly finance production. China doesn’t bomb, invade or ravage other countries. In contrast, US capitalism has been harnessed to a monstrous global military machine that drains the domestic economy and lowers the domestic standard of living in order to fund its never-ending foreign wars. Finance, real estate and commercial capital undermine the manufacturing sector, drawing profits from speculation and cheap imports.

    China invests in petroleum-rich countries; the US attacks them. China sells plates and bowls for Afghan wedding feasts; US drone aircraft bomb the celebrations. China invests in extractive industries, but, unlike European colonialists, it builds railroads, ports, airfields and provides easy credit. China does not finance and arm ethnic wars and ‘color rebellions’ like the US CIA. China self-finances its own growth, trade and transportation system; the US sinks under a multi trillion dollar debt to finance its endless wars, bail out its Wall Street banks and prop up other non-productive sectors while many millions remain without jobs.

    China will grow and exercise power through the market; the US will engage in endless wars on its road to bankruptcy and internal decay. China’s diversified growth is linked to dynamic economic partners; US militarism has tied itself to narco-states, warlord regimes, the overseers of banana republics and the last and worst bona fide racist colonial regime, Israel.

    China entices the world’s consumers. US global wars provoke terrorists here and abroad.


  2. Walter Lippmann

    Two final thoughts on this matter which John Riddell might want to ponder:

    Will John Riddell now take up the protectionist banner against foreign investment as a general principle? His silence on this question raises that question.

    Chinese investment in Canada has become a prominent feature in Chinese and Canadian life. Will John Riddell propagandize against Chinese investment in his own country, Canada? Here’s a report from Merco Press, not a leftist source:

    Then let’s look at Cuba, which has accepted foreign investment and wants more.
    Should Cubans reject foreign investment as well? Not in Cuban opinion, as projected by a leading Cuban official working today in that key sector in Cuba’s economy:

    I’d like to suggest and hope that John Riddell reconsider his sweeping opposition to all forms of foreign investment. It’s a peculiar position for a socialist, and more so for a socialist living in an imperialist country.


    Walter Lippmann
    Los Angeles, California

  3. Walter Lippmann

    John Riddell’s commentary evokes Paul Robeson’s interpretation of the old song “Oh, No John, No John, No John, No!” which you can listen to here:

    Labor and labor power are the source of all wealth, but foreign investment proved key, in China’s specific circumstances, to multiplying the power of China’s now one billion people. The wealth was created by labor power, but the technology was brought in by foreign investors in exchange for money and labor power. The capitalists also made a lot of money.

    China’s economy today is the fastest-growing in the world. When the leadership of the Chinese government and Communist Party made the decision to invite in foreign private investment, there was no “workers democracy”, however John Riddell would define it. There never has been from the first days of the Chinese Revolution up to the present. China’s economic growth and development have occurred without that.

    Do I think workers democracy – however defined – would have made China a better place? Sure. But how was this workers democracy going to come about? Should the Chinese government have simply imposed it from the top?
    Would that have been democratic? And can John Riddell tell us with certainty that if this workers democracy had come about, that China would have made the economic progress it has? Neither he nor I can know that for sure, since it’s all in the realm of abstract speculation.

    Like some other radicals living in the capitalist West, the idea that China has now joined the capitalist system seems oddly appealing. They fight so hard against the Chinese experiment that it’s become a virtual mantra: China is capitalist! China is capitalist!

    Look again at the commentary by John Riddell. It’s over seventy paragraphs long. After the first two paragraphs tipping his hat to the Chinese revolution, the rest is one relentless condemnation after another. This isn’t a balanced assessment, it’s an all-out indictment. It’s not criticism, it’s condemnation.

    Those Chinese dissidents who really DO want China to become capitalist must wonder what’s with these foreign radicals who think that what they want has already come to pass, but no one told the Chinese government.

    What the Chinese government and Communist Party have done is to utilize foreign investment and the expansion of China’s international trading possibilities to become a powerful force in the world today. So powerful that the United States government, whose currency and debt the Chinese are holding up, has had to rein in its arrogant hectoring tongue.

    Foreign private investment in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, as long as the foreign private investment remains under the control of the local government as it is in China and in Cuba, and in Vietnam as well. Foreign companies must obey Chinese law. The Chinese state retains control of the banks, the mass media and the armed forces which represent state power in the society.

    Cuba wants and needs foreign investment, and it has already taken foreign investment. Spain’s Sol Melia builds hotels in joint ventures with the Cuban state. Canada’s Sherritt Corporation builds hotels and has mined nickel together with the Cuban state. Chinese investors are participating in the Chinese market as well, in joint ventures with the Cuban state. Anyone who has read the charter of ALBA knows that it includes preferential treatment for private foreign investments from Venezuela into Cuba.

    Are their contradictions? Social differentiation? Ecological damage? Of course there are. Is there a single country on earth where these things haven’t happened?. If so, please name that country. We’d all surely like to know which country that is. We could all learn something, if only we knew which country it was.

    Do I think China is a model for how a socialist society should be built? Of course not. But then, I don’t believe in models. Each country has to find its own way to build a socialist society, or to find its own “socialist voice”, to coin a phrase. There is no one-size-fits-all model for how socialism can or should or must be constructed.

    Some of us, like John Riddell and myself, come from a tradition which defined the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a model, indeed as THE model for how socialism should be built. The fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of Eastern Europe and its return to capitalism have convinced me that there aren’t and really can’t be any universal prescription.

    It seems like John Riddell is becoming a modern-day isolationist – FOR CHINA. I haven’t noticed, but is John Riddell also against Chinese investment in Canada, too? Or is it only for China that he’s against foreign investment?

    It’s worth keeping in mind, by the way, that Cuba would take private foreign investment from from the United States in the oil sector if only Washington would get out of the way. And probably in other sectors as well. Will John Riddell and others like him beat the drums against foreign investment for Cuba, too?

    Finally, I refer interested readers again to Fidel Castro’s thoughts on China:

  4. John Riddell

    In his praise for China, Walter advances concepts normally voiced only by capitalist ideologists.

    He dismisses “socialist policies,” “workers’ democracy,” and the creative achievements of working people. He accepts the deceptive capitalist criterion of “economic growth” as a measure of social progress. He identifies the main factor in Chinese success as “inviting in foreign, private, capitalist investment, and utilizing its massive population of ONE BILLION people.”

    It would seem that the capitalist investors are the main creative and productive force in China, and that the labour of one billion working people is a passive factor, effective only when “utilized” by the capitalists.

    This is not a language that Walter, a lifelong socialist, would employ with regard to the United States, or any other country except China.

    What is it about China that creates the impression that private capital investment is a force for social progress? In brief, it is the fact that this investment is taking place in the framework of the immense social gains and, to a considerable degree, the economic framework resulting from the Chinese revolution. The overriding achievement of this revolution is to have unleashed, if only partially, the immense productive and creative power of Chinese working people.

    And it goes without saying that we should support their efforts to obtain social and political rights – equality before the law, freedom of speech and assembly, etc. – and to resist capitalist exploitation, just as we do with regard to working people in the United States and Canada.

  5. Walter Lippmann

    p.s., Let me clarify that I’m not at all picking on the Trotskyists, since there are other self-described revolutionary tendencies which don’t describe themselves as Trotskyist, and of course aren’t, such as the Revolutionary Communist Party of the US led by Bob Avakian, who are also fiercely hostile to Cuba.

    It would have been clearer had I used the term “perfectionistic” rather than Trotskyist, as the Trotskyists are but a subset of left-wing perfectionists.

    By that I mean people with an abstract, arbitrary schema (say, for example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 Russia), against which all other revolutionary experiences are to be judged, and, generally, to be found wanting.

  6. Walter Lippmann

    Though John Riddell tips his hat to the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949, he otherwise thinks the leadership of that revolution has been more or less wrong in more or less everything it has done, pretty much before and even more so since the triumph of the Chinese Revolution.

    Ask yourself, what does John Riddell think China has done right? The article speaks for itself: after the first two paragraphs, nothing. It’s all one endless indictment. It’s impossible to take it all up, but a few points are worth considering here.

    In the original article, John Riddell wrote:

    “When the Chinese government ultimately pulled back from the most destructive policies of the Great Leap, it did not repudiate the hierarchy, privilege, and disregard for workers’ democracy that characterized those years.”

    “disregard for workers democracy”?

    Was there ever any “workers democracy” in China, from October 1, 1949, to the present? How could any one step back from something which never existed?

    What does John Riddell mean by “workers democracy”? A multi-party system? The ability to form factions within the party? John Riddell doesn’t way what he means by “workers democracy”, so anyone can guess what he might – or might not – actually mean by that nice-sounding term.

    In the original article, John Riddell also wrote:

    The architects of the Great Leap hoped that its arbitrary, coercive, and destructive character would be justified by a jump in production. This, they hoped, would create the preconditions for a truly just society. However, the resulting collapse of production is strong evidence that socialist policies must not destroy but build on worker and peasant culture, wisdom, initiative, and control – what the Venezuelan revolutionists today call “protagonism.”

    Walter continues:
    Today’s massive economic growth in China has been based, not on the socialist policies which John and others, including myself, might imagine are preferable, but by inviting in foreign, private, capitalist investment, and utilizing its massive population of ONE BILLION people, toward national goals.

    Are their contradictions and problems in China? Of course, lots and lots of them, but China’s growth and development were not, unfortunately, founded in “workers democracy or “worker and peasant culture, wisdom, initiative and control” as John and others, and myself, might wish and imagine.

    Trying to pit China against Cuba also isn’t very helpful, especially given China’s help to Cuba by maintaining normal diplomatic and economic relations with the blockaded revolutionary island.

    The 1957-1979 Great Leap Forward took place while China was under a massive US blockade, a fact omitted in John Riddell’s commentary, just a few short years after the Korean War.

    All proportions guarded, John Riddell might consider Cuba’s attempt in 1970 to reach a goal of ten million tons of sugar production. What it promulgated by a regime of “workers democracy”? Was its failure discussed, debated and analyzed under a regime of “workers democracy”?

    The Cuban economy suffered massive dislocations as a result of that unsuccessful experiment. Fortunately, Cuba was aligned with the Soviet Union at the time which was able to provide the island with economic support and the at least theoretical military link to what was then the world’s other principal military power center.

    Of course there has never been any “workers democracy” in Cuba, in the sense that John Riddell seems to mean. That is, there never were any soviets, which is to say elected workers councils such as existed in Russia during the 1917 revolution. And let’s recall those were multi-party bodies. Does John call for a multi-party system in China? In Vietnam? In Cuba today?

    Those workers councils in the Russian Revolution of 1917 are frequently romanticized by those of us with a Trotskyist heritage, such as John Riddell and myself, who met and knew each other in the 1960s, because of our long-time participation in Trotskyist sister organizations. He was in Canada, I was here in the United States, but the trends were closely linked. He remained in that environment much longer than I did. (My involuntary departure took place in 1983.) but that Trotskyist heritage remains part of our background, training and ways of thinking about many issues.

    Instead of basing ourselves on extrapolations of what we think took place during the very few short years when “workers democracy” existed in the Soviet Union – quickly eliminated in light of a civil war and massive foreign invasions – it would make more sense, in my opinion, to look at the long-term growth and development, with its ups and downs and contradictions, which bring China, and Cuba, and Venezuela (which really IS a capitalist country), to where they are as the year 2009 draws to a close.

    John Riddell argues that China is capitalist, and so, as a socialist, he’s completely against China and its role in today’s world. Completely. That means 100%, at least as far as can be read in John’s commentary.

    Fidel Castro has a different approach. Just a few WEEKS ago, Fidel described a recent speech by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the following terms:

    Hu Jintao’s speech was short and precise. In just under 10 minutes he expressed many ideas. On that day he surpassed Barack Obama’s gift for synthesis. When he speaks, he represents almost five times more population than the president of the United States. He doesn’t have to shut down torture centers nor is he at war with any other state; he doesn’t send his soldiers more than 6,250 miles away to intervene and kill with sophisticated war means; he doesn’t have hundreds of military bases in other countries or powerful fleets sailing the seven seas; he does not owe trillions of dollars or in the midst of an enormous international financial crisis offers the world the cooperation of a country whose economy is not in recession and keeps growing at a high rate.

    Walter continues:
    National revolutionary experiences, and studying the experiences of others, and NOT one single, universally-applicable model, that would be a better way to approach historical development.

    At least in my opinion.

    Finally, it’s useful to re-emphasize a point completely omitted in John Riddell’s comments, which trace what he considers China’s mistaken policies all the way back to the 1920s:

    China was blockaded until the mid-1970s. The Great Leap Forward was an attempt to break out of the effects of that, but John Riddell doesn’t mention China being blockaded then.

    Today Cuba remains a blockaded country, while China and Vietnam are not blockaded. The West wanted to use and end to their blockades to both make money through investment, and to generate social differentiation which they hoped to use to bring down those governments, which they hadn’t been able to defeat through blockading them.

    In other words, the carrot instead of the stick. Cuba wants and needs more foreign private investment. I’m sure the Cubans would prefer to deal with revolutionary and socialist governments elsewhere, but until and unless that happens, the Cubans will have to continue to live in the world as it is, and not as they – or we – might wish it to be.

    And if the US blockade is ever lifted – something I don’t expect anytime soon – I’m sure that there will be leftist critics telling them they are wrong to accept foreign private investments, tourism, and so on.

    Today there already are a range of Trotskyist tendencies, among them the Freedom Socialist Party, the Spartacists, the International Socialist Organization, and the International Marxist Tendency of Grant and Woods, which are already blazing this well-trodden path.

    These are all issues worth pondering.

  7. John Riddell

    Walter Lippmann is right to stress the remarkable successes of China’s development into “an international economic giant.” He also provides a link to useful statements by Fidel Castro on the Chinese revolution.

    But what is his quarrel with my article, “The Tragedy of China’s Great Leap Forward”? (http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=383) Walter’s comment makes no reference to my topic and no specific reference to the article. Yet he dismisses the article as “gloom and doom commentary.”

    Did he read the article’s opening paragraphs? They state:

    “On October 1, the People’s Republic of China will mark the 60th anniversary of its foundation. This will be an occasion to celebrate one of the most influential victories of popular struggle in our era.

    “This great uprising forged a united and independent Chinese state, freed the country from foreign domination and capitalist rule, ended landlordism, provided broad access to education and health care, and set in motion popular energies that modernized and industrialized its economy. The revolutionary triumph of 1949 laid the foundation for China’s present dynamism and influence, as well as providing an enormous impetus to anti-colonial revolution worldwide.”

    Does Walter disagree with this assessment?

    Walter refers us to Fidel Castro’s comments on China. But nowhere does Fidel take up the ‘Great Leap’ experience. This is in fact unnecessary: one need only compare the heavy-handed methods of ‘Great Leap’, and its disastrous results, with the care and wisdom of Cuban policy toward farmers over fifty years of revolutionary history.

    Walter seems to wonder why a socialist today – a ‘Canadian’, no less – would wish to analyze events that took place so far away and so long ago.

    This question is answered in the sentence of my article immediately following the quote given above. It asks why “the socialist movement and ideology that headed the revolution, identified with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, disappeared from China soon after his death in 1976.”

    The revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party began with sweeping authority and prestige in all sectors of society – more extensive than in any other anti-capitalist revolution of its century. Today the Communist Party still rules, and the flame of anti-imperialism is strong in the consciousness of Chinese working people. But there is no socialist movement in China. No sector of the world’s oppressed and exploited look to today’s China for political guidance and inspiration. Despite its immense wealth and prestige, China does not carry out international solidarity work on the scale even of small, poor, and embattled Cuba.

    My article aimed to take a small step toward an explanation, by describing the circumstances in which the close alliance of the Chinese Communist Party with the peasantry was shattered.

    This is an issue worth debating.

    John Riddell

  8. Walter Lippmann

    All this doom-and-gloom commentary doesn’t help to explain how China, despite all of the terrible things John Riddell says the Chinese leadership has been and continues to do, has become the world economic powerhouse that it has.

    Guided by the conception that China’s leadership has deliberately done the wrong thing, at least according to the Canadian John Riddell, it would be hard to explain the progress mixed with the problems which has taken place in the People’s Republic. As a minimum, China’s “failure”, as perceived by John Riddell in 2009, can be explained simply by the PRC’s failure to do what John Riddell thinks they should have done instead of what they did do, long decades after the Chinese fact.

    China today is one of the world’s workshops. It’s been so successful that the United States of America is in deep economic debt to China, which is holding large amounts of US-government financial obligations. This may be one of the reasons why Washington no longer tries to blockade China as it did for the first quarter century after the triumph of the Chinese Revolution in 1949.

    Though some foreign investors have made lots of money from their Chinese investments, and social differentiation in the People’s Republic is substantial, it is ALSO true the China is an international economic giant. These facts are at odds with one another from a socialist perspective, but are they entirely contradictory? Isn’t it possible that both are true at the same time? It’s obvious that it is.

    Just why some Canadian radicals, like some in the United States and Australia as well, seem so bound and determined to revile China, rather then focusing primarily on how to understand what has happened and why, is certainly beyond my understanding.

    Instead of trying to force the Chinese square peg into the round hole of the experience in the early years of the Soviet Union, it would seem better to try to look at China through the prism of its own history, culture, traditions and experiences. The idea of historical models, against which each socialist experience is to be judged – and usually found wanting – should be jettisoned, in my opinion.

    Fidel Castro has a completely different view of developments in China. A selection of his commentaries on China over the past ten years can be found here:

    Fidel Castro on the Chinese Revolution

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