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The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: The Great Leap Forward

January 30, 2010

Roderick MacFarquhar. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, 2: The Great Leap Forward, 1958-1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2003)

In the conclusion to this extraordinarily detailed account of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), Roderick MacFarquhar quotes a 1981 Chinese appraisal of the causes of the disaster: “‘human factors’ played a more decisive role than ‘forces of nature'” (p. 332). Among these “human factors,” MacFarquhar goes on to say, one was paramount: Mao himself. Although concise and undeniably well substantiated in the 331 pages that precede it, this conclusion falls short of doing justice to the enormous complexity and multiplicity of causes that the volume documents so well.

Ideological uncertainty alone makes its appearance in section after section. In early stages of the leap, such uncertainty arose as to whether the party was to mobilize the masses or simply “unleash” their energy (p. 54), and again as to whether the carrot held out to overtaxed workers should be “overcoats lined with fox furs” (as agricultural chief Tan Zhenlin suggested) or the intrinsic rewards of building a socialist country (pp. 84-5). When in fall 1958 food shortages began to throw negative light on the exuberance of the original plans, Mao and others swung back and forth on such ideological issues as optimism vs. subjectivism and centralization vs. departmentalism, the latter ambiguously symbolized by the “chess game concept” (pp. 142-4). At the end of the leap, as MacFarquhar points out, ideological confusion was rampant and the “point of divergence” in this case “was attitude towards Mao’s thought and works” (p. 318) – that is whether Mao Zedong thought should apply to everything from economic policy to ping-pong and whether it should replace the Marxist-Leninist “classics” (p. 319). Perhaps most importantly (and as MacFarquhar does point out in his conclusion), the Great Leap Forward was based on a premise that “turn[ed] Marxism on its head” (p. 335). Mao’s voluntarism stood in contrast to Marxist materialism: Mao expected the willpower of the masses to transform the economic structure of society. Finally, running throughout the book is the ideological (though at the same time very human) question about the appropriateness of a cult of personality around Mao.

But despite the attention MacFarquhar pays to these crucial issues, the book is in the end really about people (the “human factors”) after all. The case of Peng Dehuai stands out in this regard. Peng’s early disagreements with Mao over military strategy (pp. 63-71) and most importantly his critique of the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan conference deeply offended Mao, resulting in his purge and replacement by Lin Biao. The consequences of Mao’s actions, according to MacFarquhar, were enormous. First, Peng’s purge was the “direct cause” of the unfortunate revival of the leap after a brief period of retrenchment (p. 247). Second, it was Mao’s “first arbitrary abuse of personal power in such a context” and set the stage for the similar abuses “that characterized the cultural revolution” (p. 233). Such “human factors” are critical to MacFarquhar’s overall message. This is a finger-pointing book, and the finger points squarely at Mao.

If this is primarily a book about “human factors,” it is important to ask which humans receive attention. This is the subject of the most substantive criticism raised by contemporary reviewers. In a review in the Journal of Asian Studies (44.3:601-2), David Bachman noted that the book “is overwhelmingly focused on the central elite, in particular on Mao,” with the result that questions about the roles played by provincial leaders and other important figures remain unanswered. Aside from this and a handful of minor quibbles about certain events and their significance, reviewers unanimously praised MacFarquhar’s stunning achievement. As Harold Hinton put it (citing Brahms’s remark on a Johann Strauss score), “unfortunately, not by me” (The American Historical Review, 89.4:1136-7). It remained for later scholarship to question the theory supported by MacFarquhar and others that it was a “consumption spree” (p. 328) and not gross political mishandling in 1958 that started the ball rolling for what was to become the greatest famine in human history.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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