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Essay Number 4
September 1998 
Political Economy of the Great Leap Forward:

Permanent Revolution and State Feudal Communes

thin rule
By Satya J. Gabriel


A bird flies above
A wooden man-made figure
Of a bird flying.


The Great Leap Forward was an extraordinarily creative intervention in Chinese economic development. It is one of those "moments" in Chinese history that is testament to Mao Zedong's willingness to experiment, as well as his political savvy in seizing control of the apparatuses of government out of the hands of his intellectual and political adversaries within the Communist Party of China (CPC). Given that more conservative leaders, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, described Mao's approach as "adventurism" and were, in general, not predisposed to experimentation (preferring, instead, to copy Stalinist industrialization, including the adoption of similar production technology and social arrangements as were found in the "western" capitalist economies --- what the leftists called "pulling the cart without watching the road") it is no mean feat that the Great Leap Forward could have been approved and adopted as policy. None of this is to be taken as indication of the Great Leap Forward's success, quite the contrary. The policy seems to have been an unmitigated disaster, generating a crisis in Chinese society (and, coupled with a sharp negative change in weather conditions, generating one of the worst famines in human history) that would ultimately be resolved in ways unfavorable to Mao's political, economic, and cultural vision of a future China. However, this doesn't change the fact that the policy was grounded in a logical theory of economic development (albeit not an orthodox version of Marxian theory --- Mao's theoretical arguments for the Great Leap Forward were, in fact, contrary to more conventional versions of Marxian theory, particularly the Stalinist interpretation of Marxian theory) and represented an unambiguous social invention --- an invention that was tested on a grand scale. Thus, when the invention proved faulty, the failure was similarly on a grand scale, but we will come back to this point.

The theoretical underpinnings of the Great Leap Forward are similar, in many ways, to the arguments of the late E. F. Schumacher, as presented in his book Small is Beautiful. Schumacher argued in favor of a strategy of development based on "intermediate" or "appropriate" technologies, rather than the most technologically advanced and capital intensive technologies that are often considered most desirable or the more "primitive" technologies that were often in use in less industrialized countries. Like Schumacher, Mao wanted Chinese direct producers, particularly farmers, to use more advanced technologies than the relatively crude implements that were available but he argued against a continuation of the Stalinist approach because it relied on what we would today call capital-intensive investments.

In the Stalinist drive to "modernization" the number one priority was the building of larger "economies of scale" industrial operations, particularly those operations that were most critical to further industrialization, i.e. the heavy industry sector where the primary output was capital goods (machines used in the building of other outputs, including more machines). The Stalinist approach of placing emphasis on investment in heavy industry at the expense of light (consumer goods oriented) industry and agriculture required substantial net social resources, i.e. surplus resources in excess of what was needed for consumption purposes.  These resources were obtained by draining surplus products out of the rural work force: a process that has been described as super-exploiting the rural labor force.

This Stalinist approach, which could be described as "big is beautiful," was neither the first nor the last instance of placing rural lives at a lower priority than industrialization. This approach, when applied to China, gave primacy to the factor of production that was most scarce in China, large-scale machinery and other forms of relatively advanced material technology, and de-emphasized the factor of production that China had in relative abundance, human labor power.  If labor is the most abundant "resource" in the society, then according to orthodox economic thinking, labor (or, better said, the potential to do labor) should be considered relatively less costly than other more scarce resources, such as physical capital, where physical capital is understood as the material embodiment of technology (machines, tools, assembly lines, etc.) that has been developed by previous investments of the available social surplus and/or externally borrowed resources.  This physical capital can then be deployed by wage laborers in producing an expanded social surplus.  Just as E. F. Schumacher argued against using capital-intensive technology in the presence of labor abundance, Mao made the argument that the Chinese government should not be focusing its development efforts on industrial strategies dependent on advanced material technology, especially when it could only do so by extracting a sizable surplus from the countryside to finance the purchase and operation of such technology.[1]

The Maoist (and Schumacherian) preference was for a more evenly distributed developmental strategy.  In this strategy, the quality of production technology employed by the greatest number of direct producers took precedence over the pace at which large-scale, mass production technology ("big is beautiful") could be implemented.  The Maoist (and Schumacherian) dynamic of technological accumulation, as practiced in the Great Leap Forward, focused on improving the productivity of all Chinese workers, whether in the rural or urban enterprises, by investing in human development and labor-intensive technology, even at the cost of slowing down the pace of investment in heavy industry. Mao did not believe that economic growth and development would be sacrificed by this shift from heavy industry to appropriate or intermediate technology. Mao believed that China's labor advantage could be exploited in this strategy such that China would surpass Great Britain in economic clout by the end of the Twentieth Century.

E. F. Schumacher similarly advocated the adoption of appropriate technology in less industrialized nations as a strategy that was consistent with economic growth and development.  Schumacher believed that capital intensive investments in such societies were often wasteful and did not advance the economic prospects of poor nations.  For example, he argued that a labor intensive society should not be importing big tractors and combines that require expensive and sophisticated spare parts, consume large quantities of expensive fuel, and are complicated to operate and repair if the leaders of that society want genuine and sustainable agricultural development, but should be adopting smaller, cheaper, less sophisticated machines and tools that could easily be used and repaired given existing natural resources and skills.  Indeed, in my work for the United Nations Development Programme I've often seen American-made tractors and other expensive equipment rusting away unused because of the lack of spare parts, inadequate funding to pay for fuel, or because the one person who knew how to operate the machine had gone away to the city or elsewhere.  Thus, the Schumacher argument about appropriate technology has a certain intuitive appeal.  Mao made a similar argument long before Schumacher discovered that "small is beautiful."  What many today might consider a Schumacherian approach to development was integral to the Great Leap Forward.

Mao urged the CPC leadership to promote the development of appropriate technology for use by the rural direct producers, who made up the vast majority of the Chinese working population.  However, the shift in priorities embodied in the Great Leap Forward was also recognized as a strategy for cutting government obligations: the Great Leap Forward was expected to result in lower investment outlays than had been embodied in the Five-Year Economic Plans.  Mao envisioned the rural population "voluntarily" making most of the investments in appropriate technology directly out of the surplus that they generated, without any need for a net transfer of resources to the countryside.  Thus, the new policy could also be described as a form of "self-help" strategy for economic development. The government would provide the encouragement and the coordination (via the cadres) but the rural direct producers would provide the materials and the hard work. Indeed, Mao believed the new policy would be so successful in stimulating output and surplus resources that the government would see a net gain in surplus captured from the countryside (a surplus that could be invested in heavy industry, mining, and infrastructure). This optimism about the potential increases in productivity of rural laborers also encouraged the central government to massively reallocate labor from agriculture to industry. It was anticipated that the remaining agricultural workers, employing appropriate production techniques could more than make up for their brethren who were shifted to the new small scale industrialization experiments. It would seem that no one in the leadership asked the key question: What happens if this productivity assumption is incorrect?

The leftists also argued that the Great Leap Forward would help to alleviate the growing urban unemployment problem (inherited from the Nationalist government, which promoted a mixed state capitalist and private capitalist urban economy). Again, the arguments were logical and consistent, if not complete. It was argued that the adoption of new, appropriate technologies in the countryside, and the concomitant development of more rural-based light industry, would generate more rural employment opportunities and improve rural incomes. [2]  These factors, it was believed, would not only eliminate one of the primary motives for migrating from the countryside to the cities (employment in better jobs than were available in the countryside) but would even result in a reversal of the migratory flow (the "industrialization" of the countryside would create a better life and entice people to return to the countryside from the cities).

The government did not rely solely on these economic incentives to keep folks down on the farms (so to speak). In order to make sure that direct producers did not wander off the rural reservations into the cities, the State Council established a new system for centralized control over the allocation of positions within the governmental/SOE bureaucracy and the placement of specific persons within those positions. The danwei system was established by which workers were not simply employed in these urban workplaces but owed their allegiance to the workplace and depended upon the workplace for the most fundamental social welfare services, including the education of their children, the housing and health care for their families, and the provision of food (including the distribution of ration coupons for certain food stuffs and other household goods). By 1958 the Public Security Bureau (PSB) had established a pass or household registration system, hukou, that specifically designated where a person might live and work. The PSB had the right to check a person's registration on demand and used this power to stop migrants from leaving their home areas.

Nevertheless, the overarching idea of the Great Leap Forward was to create positive incentives for direct producers to remain in the rural areas. More employment and higher incomes in the countryside would mean greater output and more demand for products and services. People in the countryside would be producing more goods and a wider range of goods and have the income to buy this extra supply. In other words, the aggregate supply curve for the countryside would shift outward, but so would the aggregate demand curve.

Indeed, the Mao-inspired left-wing of the CPC believed that the Great Leap Forward would have a dynamic impact on the standard of living of all Chinese in a process that is similar to the multiplier discussed in macroeconomics. It was envisioned that the new, rural small-scale industries (which would be part of the communes and, if one is to believe the rhetoric of Mao and the broader Left, organized as communist institutions) would result in the aforementioned expansion in output and incomes in the rural areas that would result in more overall demand for products and services: not only would the demand curves for agricultural and rural handicrafts shift up and to the right, but so would the demand curves for urban industrial products (and urban handicrafts). Urban industries would gain new customers and more orders from existing customers in the countryside and be in a stronger position to generate higher revenues and absorb a growing labor force. More workers would be employed in both the city and the countryside. This would result not only in more workers earning incomes but, if the typical supply and demand curve relationships are assumed to hold in the market for labor time, then one could assume that the higher demand for labor time would drive up wages (assuming, for the moment, a competitive labor market, rather than the sort of captive labor force that epitomized feudal social arrangements). Thus, existing workers would benefit from the economic boom by obtaining higher incomes. In the competitive labor market the higher incomes would come from higher wages and in the communes the increased revenues would make it possible for subsistence shares to be increased to commune members. (This language follows the Maoist/leftist assumption that the communes are communist. The picture is a bit murkier if the communes are feudal, rather than communist.[3]  One runs into similar complications if the urban labor market is one in which workers are assigned to work and have little or no choice, rather than the freedom of choice that is associated with capitalist labor markets). The production of an increased surplus would make possible increased payments to unproductive laborers, such as those within the state bureaucracy. Higher incomes would result in further increases in demand and the beneficial multiplier would work to dramatically boost the gross domestic product of the nation. The higher gross domestic product (GDP) would facilitate an increased surplus available for investment in all sectors of the economy.

This is the basic thrust of the economic argument in favor of the Great Leap Forward. Mao also made the argument that the Great Leap Forward was necessary for more political and cultural reasons, as well. Mao and the Maoist Left believed that the CPC was at risk of becoming more and more like the Guomindang, a Party that settled into the "urban lifestyle" once power had been achieved and that forgot the revolutionary mission of creating a new non-exploitative society. Cases of corruption among CPC officials were not uncommon and some Party members had indeed adopted more lavish lifestyles in the cities where they now resided. Concern about the "moral" dangers to the Party leadership was voiced primarily by younger members of the CPC, but Mao also took up this issue and used it to his advantage. The perception was that the cities were, in many ways, corrupting influences and the Stalinist approach to economic development clearly favored the cities over the countryside. Given that the rural population had been the base of support for the Party and most of the foot soldiers and officers of the People's Liberation Army were from "peasant" origins, it was probably not difficult to link Stalinism, corruption, and urban bias in an argument that the policies of the government needed to be changed from the FYEP-approach to something different. Given that the Great Leap Forward focused upon the countryside as the catalyst for economic development, it provided not only an alternative but one that was in keeping with the belief that the government needed to "get back to its roots" in the countryside. And the argument that communism could become a present day reality, rather than a vision of a time-uncertain future, was appealing to a wide range of young people, intellectuals, and/or idealistic communists --- a range of individuals who made up something of a fan-base for Chairman Mao.

In practical terms, the Great Leap required not only the cooperation of the rural direct producers but their mass mobilization. The central plan was out. Millions of uncoordinated efforts to experiment with small-scale production and "appropriate" technology was in. Rather than using underemployed rural labor to boost overall social output, as many of the leftists envisioned, the "enthusiasm" of the rural cadre led to the diversion of a great deal of labor from agriculture and other regular production activities to the new attempts to construct commune-based light industry and such efforts as the creation of small-scale, "appropriate," steel making furnaces. (No discussion of the Great Leap Forward is considered "complete" without mentioning these "backyard" steel furnaces, although there were many other creative applications of appropriate technology during the period, many of which did have a positive impact on the productivity of rural direct producers.) The leftists had anticipated that workers would learn the best way of doing things by trial and error and enthusiasm. In reality, the process was far more chaotic and Party cadre, often with very little training that would have helped them to carry out this ambitious idea, exercised inordinate weight on the day-to-day decisions about how to implement the Great Leap Forward, including how to apply the new technologies. The enthusiasm of the cadre was such that expertise was often deemed unnecessary. The Great Leap Forward was the democratization of technology. It is not clear that Mao meant this to be the case, but it seems to have been accepted doctrine among many of the rank-and-file within the Party. Engineers and other technically trained personnel, who might have contributed greatly to the development and application of the new technologies, were typically ignored or criticized for letting their urban or Western biases get the better of them. 

At the center of the Great Leap Forward were the "people's communes." These communes were established in late 1958 by order of the central government in Beijing. And despite the clear indication that the idea for the communes originated with Mao, the policy was implemented by the largely conservative governmental bureaucracy. The concept of communes fit with Mao's vision of a great leap from the old feudal society to communist society, by-passing a capitalist phase, but was implemented in a manner that was far from a leap forward (and most likely a leap backwards from the progress made with the 1949 Revolution, at least from the standpoint of rural direct producers). Rather than creating communes where the collective of direct producers controlled their own work life and surplus (that is, communes based upon communist relations of production), the communes established in 1958 were little more than state feudal manors: collections of enterprises and living spaces organized on the basis of a juridical requirement of the so-called peasants to produce a surplus product that was appropriated by the commune administrators qua feudal lords, who then passed along a portion of the surplus to the higher lords in the central government. In a phrase, these were state feudal communes that were established in 1958 and later dismantled in 1985. One of the conditions for the reproduction of this feudal condition was the relative immobility of the commune workers qua feudal serfs. This immobility was also reinforced in 1958 by the codification of the hukou system, which prevented commune residents from escaping from their feudal obligations to the state.[4]

Thus, with the establishment of state feudal communes, the experiment in self-exploitation (which had resulted in a more than 25% increase in real agricultural output since the revolution) was terminated, although this termination was not as abrubt as it might seem. The rural direct producers had already been encouraged to form various ancient partnerships and cooperative arrangements, as well as some collective farming activities (which may very well have been communist), prior to 1958. Nevertheless, the so-called people's communes represented a dramatic change in the freedoms enjoyed by rural direct producers and the mechanisms by which governmental power was exercised in rural communities. The mobilization of rural labor power would no longer be voluntary. 

Indeed, it was within the state feudal communes, and under the direction of feudal commune administrators, that the mass mobilization of rural labor power, in the manner of corvee labor, was to take place. Party cadres in these state feudal communes made effective use of the rhetoric of communism and military-style organization to minimize opposition and to mobilize the commune direct producers into work brigades that could generate a feudal surplus for the government. Given that this feudal surplus would now be controlled by government functionaries, who would also have the power to alter the size of the necessary product distributed to commune workers, it would not be necessary for the absolute rural surplus to increase in order for a larger total surplus to be controlled by the government. Like feudal manors of Europe or Japan, the state feudal communes represented a concentration of political, economic and cultural control, including concentrated control over labor power and the surplus generated by labor. State hegemony over labor power could be exercised by commune management, which was appointed by the government (and almost invariably from outside the local community) and responsible to the government. Thus, the state created a new hierarchy of political power that resulted in the creation of a new form of seigneurial system within which commune-level government functionaries determined both the necessary and surplus portions of the product, extracted the surplus product from commune members, and then distributed secondary residuals from that surplus (after paying local residual claims, including paying themselves a managerial "salary") to the higher levels of government. 

If any member of the feudal commune failed to display proper "socialist" behavior, as determined by commune management or Party cadres, the result could be not only legal punishments but also cultural ostracism. The feudal commune was, in this sense, a total institution, dominating virtually all aspects of the commune members' lives. This concentration of power over the economic, political and cultural life of the economic agent was viewed, in Maoist thinking, as the basis for transforming the rural direct producers (and their children) into a "socialist" person. It was understood that rules of the game of the commune would reshape thinking and behavior. In fact, as previously indicated, the rules of the game of the commune were feudal, not communist, and did, indeed, result in a transformation of direct producers. Direct producers were transformed from their prior social position as primarily self-employed (ancient) direct producers to feudal serfs of the government via the state feudal communes. Although few members of the commune are likely to have been in a position to recognize the feudal nature of this new institution of which they had been made an involuntary participant, there does seem to be some recognition of the hypocrisy of the rhetoric about socialism and communism. During my interviews of direct producers in Yunnan Province in 1983, it was clear that commune management was viewed as the representatives of government power, not representatives of the commune membership, and that any work done on the commune was being done for the government, rather than for a collective of workers. Prior contentment with the CPC-led government, which had given the right to self-exploit only to now take it away, turned to hostility. Given that the Maoist/Schumacherian strategy is dependent for its success on the cooperation and enthusiastic support of rural direct producers, this change in sentiment made it unlikely that the transformative goals of the Great Leap Forward could be achieved. 

The "enthusiasm" of commune members for the activities of the Great Leap Forward were, for the most part, attempts to conform to the behavioral parameters determined by the feudal rulers --- the government --- represented in the day-to-day life of direct producers by the commune management and Party cadres. It was hardly necessary to understand the philosophical arguments of Mao Zedong to understand that one's life would be better if one was perceived as working for the success of the Great Leap Forward, rather than holding back and not actively participating. This did not, however, indicate one's support for such policies or even one's understanding of the purpose of such policies. 

The initial results of the Great Leap Forward appeared promising. Labor corvees were successfully deployed to dramatically expand irrigation, roads, storage facilities, and other infrastructure necessary to agricultural growth. Overall output did increase, despite numerous organizational snafus on the communes and some degree of confusion throughout the governmental hierarchy. This new approach was not well-planned and many participants had no idea what they were supposed to be doing. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the early results would have been positive. Nevertheless, productivity did not seem to suffer and total work effort seems to have increased. The feudal appropriation mechanism resulted in a larger surplus being captured for transfer to the central government to be used for national purposes. However, the government seems to have moved rather precipitously to increase the mandated surplus extracted from the communes because it would soon be apparent that the total output in the countryside could not support the magnitude of surplus product demanded by the government without a sharp fall in the necessary product kept by the commune direct producers. In other words, feudal appropriation increased the size of the surplus, in part, by forcing direct producers to lower their material standard of living. 

At the end of the 1950s, the early successes in generating increased output proved to be short-lived. The initial rise in output was followed by a decline below pre-Great Leap Forward levels as direct producers adapted to the new system (and learned that hard work was not necessarily rewarded, as it had been under the old regime of self-exploitation) or became more disenchanted with their role in that system. Productivity declined. Agricultural output fell further due to a series of natural disasters in 1960. China could hardly bear the effects of such declines in agricultural output. China is, as we've noted before, the most populous nation on Earth and very poor. The ability to provide enough food for the population is always a serious concern. The shortfall caused by the combination of natural and human-made disasters resulted in large-scale famines in parts of the country and a noticeable drop in food availability throughout the country.[5]The government's failure to adjust downward the surplus extracted from the countryside made matters worse. As total output fell, the government continued to extract the same level of output as previously. This meant less was left for division among the commune membership. In some cases, this fostered conditions of malnutrition and in some instances may have contributed to famines. The lack of proper signaling mechanisms between the people and the government meant that the government was not responding to the real conditions that prevailed in the countryside. To make matters worse, the cadres and commune management did not always pass along correct information on the conditions of the rural population. Commune managers often wanted to paint a rosy picture of their "success" and thus gave the central authorities a false sense of how much output had been produced and was available for procurement.[6] 

Eventually, the government came to understand the magnitude of the problems in the countryside as reports filtered in about production problems, unrest, and famine. The Party tried to respond to this fall in output and productivity, and the risk of increased social unrest from famine and hunger, by modifications in the feudal system of the communes, giving direct producers limited freedom to once again engage in self-exploitation, in addition to their feudal duties on the communes. This was too little, too late, and it was clear that the "Maoist" approach had suffered a serious setback that could not be easily repaired.

The failure of the Great Leap Forward was, no doubt, humiliating for Mao and the Left. But just as Mao had used the failure of the five year plans as a weapon to beat the party conservatives into submission, the Right now used the Great Leap Forward to push back the Left and regain prominence within the Party. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and other more conservative members of the Party moved into positions of greater authority and influence and the Great Leap Forward --- which now appeared more like a Great Fall Downward --- was terminated.

Despite the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the later failure of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (henceforth referred to simply as the Cultural Revolution), the Maoist narrative of "permanent revolution," as embodied in the ideas of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, did not fail. It would be correct to say that the particular politics and economics of these two social movements has been largely discredited by mainstream social science and the current political orthodoxy in China, but not the ontological foundation for them: the Maoist narrative of the ongoing struggle within the social formation to destroy traditional (conservative) institutions, ways of thinking (consciousness), and social processes, such that a radically new set of institutions, ways of thinking, and social processes can be advanced remains a potent intellectual force in China.

Thus, while it would be very difficult in contemporary China to argue for the displacement of large-scale, Fordist manufacturing in favor of small-scale, "appropriate" technology, it is not uncommon to hear arguments in favor of displacing the existing factory model that prevails in Chinese industry --- the entire blueprint of political, economic and cultural arrangements by which factory life is shaped --- with alternative models from Europe, Japan, or the United States. Indeed, the actual transformations taking place in Chinese industry are more far-reaching than the displacement of one material technology by another. Chinese enterprises are undergoing dramatic changes in internal governance structures, the relationship of enterprises to the state, ownership processes, and the rules of interaction with foreign entities (both public and private), among other social relationships in flux, at the same time that material technological transformations are being pursued. Similarly, while it would be difficult to argue for the destruction of the governmental bureaucracy and complete decentralization of governmental functions (the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution in which the "withering away of the state" seemed a real possibility), it is the policy of the new administration of Zhu Rongji to dramatically downsize that bureaucracy, to strip government agencies of some of their powers, and to encourage the further development and extension of authority of elected local governments. And the Chinese leadership is actively considering several alternative models of political governance at both the local and national levels.[7] 

It is clear that the narrative of permanent revolution has had a more powerful impact upon Chinese politics, economics, and culture than the aforementioned dual moments of "revolutionary" intervention (the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution). The leftist permanent revolution failed. But the notion of permanent revolution did not. The narrative of permanent revolution shaped not only "Maoist" China but also "Dengist" China. It shaped the way Chinese leaders think about economic, political and cultural development and the concrete public policies they formulate and attempt to implement.

It has become commonplace in China to think of society undergoing radical transformation, to accept the possibility of uprooting traditional ways of life and replacing such ways of life with completely alien social institutions and processes. It would be very difficult for Americans to conceive of abandoning existing corporate structures and laws and adopting a radically new way of organizing economic life (particularly if this new way of life was understood as of foreign origin --- Can you imagine Americans calling for the adoption of the Swedish model of enterprise governance, for example?) or, to take a milder case of "reform," to conceive of replacing the existing form of government with a parliamentary system headed by a prime minister. In China, such thinking is normal. During my two years at Nanjing University, I had numerous conversations with faculty and students on various proposals for transforming China's economic, political and cultural life. Many of these ideas are in contention among not only China's intellectuals but the top leadership of the CPC and government, as well. And concrete changes are being implemented. We will discuss in coming weeks many of these radical transformations in Chinese institutions, ways of thinking, and social processes. Thinking in terms of a permanent revolution --- an unending radical destruction of the old and creation of the new in a process that leads continually to fundamentally different social formations --- has become part of the fabric of Chinese intellectual life and political struggle. This is one of Mao's legacies.

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[1] The Stalinist approach, as applied in the USSR, required direct and brutal coercion of the rural population. The rural direct producers were treated, essentially, as expendable human beings whose lives would be sacrificed, in whole or part, to the creation of investable resources to finance the Soviet Union's rapid industrialization and impressive growth rates during the Stalinist era. The rural people of the USSR thus served a role in USSR development similar to that of the African slaves in USA development (albeit over a much shorter historical period). One should always keep in mind that, as of the time of the 1949 Chinese Revolution, the Soviet Union had been one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The conservatives in the Chinese leadership were impressed by the rapidity of Soviet industrialization. The Maoist Left would not have been unimpressed by this fact, but, perhaps, focused more on the means (the harsh exploitation of the countryside) than the ends. In any event, it is clear that Mao and those who followed his ideological lead did not want to replicate the Stalinist model.

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[2] These rural-based light industrial enterprises would later form the foundation for the town-village enterprises that have led the way in China's last two decades of rapid economic growth. It is somewhat ironic that these enterprises would ultimately succeed in achieving positive impacts on rural incomes and employment but only after the Maoist leadership had given way to the reform-minded modernists (so-called because of their adherence to a teleological version of Marxian theory in which society must necessarily progress along predictable stages of development from more primitive forms of society to more modern forms, with capitalism as a necessary stage and communism as the end point or telos of this movement). The modernists proceeded to dismantle the communes and allow private entrepreneurs to contract the rights to appropriate the surplus value generated in these local government-owned enterprises as part of a strategy to "modernize" the society and move it further along their predicted teleological path of development. Town-village enterprises will be discussed in detail in future essays in this series.

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[3] The communes (which ranged in number from 50,000 to 90,000 over the course of their institutional life) did not seem to be a "progressive" move in class terms, if by the term "progressive" we mean a social relationship that was less oppressive or exploitative. During the worst period of the Great Leap Forward, the state took so much of the output of the communes that rural direct producers and their families were left without enough food to avoid malnutrition. In other words, the state controlled the commune surplus and could, when it desired, cut sharply into the necessary portion of the commune output, as well. By the time the Great Leap Forward was over, it was clear that the communes were being run by state functionaries as state-run feudal institutions. These communes were feudal in the sense that rural direct producers were "contractually" bound to serve the state within the communes, producing a feudal surplus in-kind. In other words, the rural direct producers ("peasants") did not have the "freedom" to opt out of performing this surplus labor within the constraints of living normally within Chinese society. Service was compulsory. By creating these feudal institutions in the rural areas, state authorities were in a better position to monitor quantities of various products and to collect a larger surplus product for transfer to the cities than might have been the case under some other arrangements. The amount of the surplus was determined in negotiations between the commune leadership and the government. The government had a great deal of latitude in these negotiations and in determining what constituted "local needs" or what Marx called "the necessary product."

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[4] The hukou system was first established in rural areas in 1955 and in the cities in 1951, but did not become a permanent labor control system until its codification in 1958 with the full weight of the party-state bureaucracy behind it.

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[5] According to the Cambridge History of China, the estimated number of deaths (primarily due to famine) during the Great Leap Forward was between 16 and 27 million people with over 10 million dying in 1960 alone (p. 370). "One must move back in history to the pre-railway era and the famine of 1877-78 to find disaster on the scale of the Great Leap." (p. 371) Although the policies pursued during the Great Leap Forward contributed to these deaths, should we view this as malfeasance or misfeasance on the part of the Chinese authorities? In other words, was this a "crime against humanity" on a parallel with ante-bellum slavery in the United States (where countless millions died in incarceration and an estimated 50 million died in the "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic) or is it more like the deaths that could be attributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s, which was an unintentional consequence of economic policies? (Thanks to Anna Stolk for providing this information.)

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[6] An alternative explanation for the bureaucracy's failure to properly respond is that the officials in the government who were responsible for implementing and monitoring the communes were more conservative than those who had recommended the policy in the first place, had no stake in the success of the communes, and may even have wanted them to fail. Although this seems a cynical analysis, it is consistent with the often discussed factional conflicts within the CPC between the Maoist Left and the conservatives. The former dominated the ranks of the cadres but the latter dominated the bureaucracy. It was the bureaucracy that controlled commune policies, including the appointment of commune administrators (who were typically urban bureaucrats and not the cadre who had experience in the rural villages).

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[7] One effect of this decentralization has been a sharp drop in tax revenues flowing from the provincial level to the central government. Some have even described this as a public finance crisis in China. Whether this was an unintended or planned consequence of the decentralization remains to be seen. However, it is likely that the degree to which tax revenues have proven sticky at local and provincial levels may impede the central government's infrastructure development plans and require some degree of modification in the political restructuring.

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Copyright © 1999 Satya J. Gabriel, Mount Holyoke College.  All Rights Reserved. 

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