It was strange that the collectivization in the Soviet Union led to the Soviet famine of 1932-33 and the history repeated itself in 1959-61 in China.

So far as I know the Soviet Union helped the Communists create their party and Stalin played a big role in the Communist Victory in China by supporting Mao in Manchuria in the civil war. Mao and his party had a close connection with Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Did Chairman Mao and his cult know about the Soviet famine before starting the collectivization in China? If he did why he followed in Stalin's footsteps? If he didn't know that, why?

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    Why do you find it strange? Similar policies - similar results. Feb 12, 2021 at 16:36
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    This appears to be a question that is purposely subjective, with the intent of providing the author an opportunity to dump all their knowledge on the subject without worry of being objectively wrong (as long as the argument can be supported). This is great for school essays, but is simply not the kind of question we can field here. Our format requires objectively answerable questions. If your own research on this topic turns up a question that looks objectively answerable, feel free to ask that here. Feb 12, 2021 at 16:52
  • 6
    Why is it strange? Isn't it a fairly obvious consequence of collectivization, plus the desire to suppress dissident elements of the population?
    – jamesqf
    Feb 12, 2021 at 17:14
  • Am I correct that the hive mind wants this question split into more manageable pieces? For example, one piece could be about what the Chinese leadership in the 50s knew about the Soviet famine, and whether/how they took that information into account?
    – capet
    Feb 12, 2021 at 19:57
  • 2
    I think the headline question on its own terms is a good one, but the body could be greatly improved with a bit of research. The fact that there was a direct relationship between Mao and Stalin is one point that seems worth addressing in the question.
    – Brian Z
    Feb 15, 2021 at 16:25

2 Answers 2


To quote Felix Wemheuer - Famine Politics in Maoist China nad the Soviet Union:

One question that remains unanswered is why the Chinese Communists learned so little from the Soviet experience of famine. The three famines after the October Revolution ought to have given rise to a clear awareness that a radical transformation of society could lead to famine. The famine of 1921–1922 was no secret; it was reported in the international media. What is more, during the famine of 1931–1933, many Chinese cadres lived in the Soviet Union, and yet I have so far not found a single direct reference to the Soviet famine in the speeches of Chinese leaders. It remains unclear how much the Chinese government really knew about the extent of the loss of life caused by the Soviet famines of 1931–1933 and 1947. Mao criticized the Soviets for their exploitation of the peasants and believed it was a mistake to “dry the pond to catch the fish.” However, the Chinese Communists made the same mistakes as their Soviet counterparts and changed policies in 1962 only after millions of Chinese peasants had paid the “tuition fee” (xuefei) with their lives. Did the interaction between the Communist parties and the peasants result in famines even if leaders like Mao realized Stalin had gone too far in exploiting the countryside?

I would add: The great famine in the SU and the great leap famine have similarities: The overall goal of industrialization, hence feeding the cities by starving the countryside, grain exports during ongoing famines. But how the respective governments arrived at causing, and later ending, the famines are very different.

To directly adress the questions:

Did Chairman Mao and his cult know about the Soviet famine before starting the collectivization in China?

Probably, but we don't know how much they knew. There was a land reform in 1950-1952, collectivization started in 1955 (and I have not found sources how much land was collectivized by 1959), then followed the great leap famine in 1959-1961. The most immediate causes for the great leap famine and the huge losses of life - 20 to 40 million people - where IMO:

  • fall in agricultural production in the preceding years,
  • grain exports
  • brutal requisitioning of food in the countryside, which would include seed stocks and cattle fodder
  • ... to feed an urban population that had grown by 20 million in the preceding years and whom had access to ration cards, unlike the peasants

Conversely, the measures taken in '61 to end the famine where sending back urban dwellers into the countryside (out of the rationing system), importing grain and easing the requisitioning.

During the 50ties, China had set up a system where excess grain produce was bought by the state for a fixed price and then redistributed, mostly to cities, the army and export, but also as disaster relief for rural population. It appears there was never a hard lower limit on how much grain a family should keep, the guidelines appear to hover around at least one jin (600g) of grains a day, more typical 400-500 jin per year. In the years preceding the famine, official public sources openly discussed grievances of peasants who claimed (wrongly or rightly) that too much grain was requisitiond from them. Later the party line became that these peasants where hoarders who did not want to share food with the cities. This was likely true in some cases, but the way the whole issue was politiziced madie (at least that's what I gather) impossible for the party to actually assess the situation in the countryside.

If he did why he followed in Stalin's footsteps?

The situation in China before the great leap was different from the SU on the onset of the great famine, while there are broad similarities between both famines there are also important differences - It is IMO not correct to say Mao followed Stalins footsteps.

If he didn't know that, why?

We don't know.

p.s.: This is maybe tangential to the question - here's two explanations from party sources:

Textbooks that came out during the early 1970s, after universities had been reopened and students had to attend CCP history classes, discuss the Great Leap at some length. They argue that, in the initial years after the communist takeover, China suffered under the pressure of having to imitate the Soviet Union and, therefore, ended up in the same kind of crisis as was encountered in Eastern Europe in the early 1950s. Mao Zedong analyzed the situation and came to the conclusion that socialism in China had to be different from socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe. He strongly criticized Stalin’s approach to the political economy of socialism and came up with the idea that, in developing its own economy, China mainly had to rely on its enormously large workforce. In discussing the experience of organizing cooperatives in the Chinese countryside, he convinced himself that Chinese peasants supported the idea of collectivization and, thus, that the reorganization of the countryside would work out much better in China than it had in the Soviet Union. This is why Cultural Revolution textbooks on Party history argue that the Great Leap was the first success that the Party, under Mao’s leadership, could claim with regard to distancing itself from the Russian experience and in finding its own path towards socialism – a path that would be fundamentally different from what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union summarized as its own experience in the “Short Course of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” which was instituted under Stalin’s leadership.

Note that the famine is not mentioned. After Mao's era, the hisoriography changes:

The Great Leap is seen as an early example of Mao Zedong’s development of “ultra-leftist” ideas about socialism in China, which would turn out to be highly erroneous. The 1981 “Resolution on Some Questions Concerning the History of the Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” states:

The 2nd Plenary Session of the 8th Party Congress passed the resolution on the general line and other points of fundamental importance. The correct side about this resolution is its reflecting the wish and strong demand of the masses to change the state of underdevelopment of our economy. Its mistake consisted in underestimating the role of economic laws. However, because of the lack of experience in building socialism and a lack of knowledge regarding the laws of economic development as well as the overall economic situation in our country, but even more so because Comrade Mao Zedong as well as many comrades from the central to the local levels became self-satisfied and arrogant as a result of our victory, we started to become impatient in expecting success and to overestimate the role of subjective willingness and subjective endeavour.

The Great Famine is still not depicted as such: “During the years 1959 to 1961 the economy of our country came across severe problems, and the state as well as the people had to suffer great damages because of mistakes that had been committed during the Great Leap Forward and the Campaign against Rightists, as well as because of natural calamities having taken place. On top of that, the economy was badly affected by the Soviet Union perfidiously tearing contracts into pieces.”

Source for both quotes: Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, Re-Imagining the Chinese Peasant: The Historiography on the Great Leap Forward, in: Kimberley Ens Manning and Felix Wemheuer (editors), Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on Chinas great Leap forward and Famine

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    Land reform - i.e. redistribution of land to poorer farmers- is different from Collectivization. Though about a million landowners were killed for redistribution, it was a popular measure and did not impact output. The village level 'Help teams' weren't a bad idea. However the total Collectivization under giant 'People's Commune' was what the bizarre propaganda of the Great Leap was designed to sugar-coat. Here Mao certainly borrowed from Stalin's crazy agronomists. But the guy wasn't stupid any more than Stalin had been stupid. They were prepared to pay a high price for their Utopia.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Feb 16, 2021 at 0:19
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    "The collectivization of land was in 1950-1952" As @Vivek lyer points out, this is a confusion with land redistribution and/or an oversimplification. Collective farms only became a factor after 1955. (according to chinaknowledge.de/History/PRC/…)
    – Jan
    Feb 16, 2021 at 11:22
  • both of you, I will look into this and will update my answer accordingly. I also want to expand the differences between SU and China.
    – mart
    Feb 16, 2021 at 12:49

There was nothing strange about either the Soviet or the Chinese leadership pushing through collectivization of agriculture though it was obvious that this would cause output decline, food availability deficit, and high mortality among large sections of the peasantry as well as some shortages in the Cities.

Nevertheless, if the proletarian revolution was to be secured the power of the 'kulaks' had to be broken. Agricultural land could not be allowed to remain in either individual or kulak dominated collective hands for three reasons

  1. danger of a White counter-revolution- i.e landlords seeking to return in alliance with richer peasants and the traditional priests etc.Destruction of 'kulak' class was essential for the Revolution to be secure.

  2. recurrence of 'Scissors crises'- i.e. agriculturists refusing to supply the Cities save in exchange for wage and capital goods. Party control of agricultural land was essential for a Socialist pattern of Society. This ties in with-

  3. extraction of surpluses so as to permit import of Capital and Technology for the modern sector.

Mao prevailed on the issue of Collectivization and 'Great Leap forward' propaganda sweetened the pill but the outcome was known in advance and so some adjustments were made quite soon. However, this weakened Mao and so he struck back with the Cultural Revolution.

The problem with this question is that it assumes that Soviet or Chinese leaders were as stupid as some Historians. The simple fact is that everybody understands that a hard working guy who works for himself using his own property won't work hard if his property is taken away and he doesn't get to keep the reward of his effort. However, after starving for a bit, and being beaten for a bit, most would be reconciled to a sullen type of serf labor for the Glorious Leader.

Marx said 'to each according to his contribution' (till Scarcity ends). But Socialism wanted that 'contribution' to be completely independent of anything inherited or any 'capital' considered to be 'self created'. Collectivization was justified in the same way as Nationalization of Industry and Commerce. Output would initially decline because kulaks and entrepreneurs and so forth would be disgruntled or would flee. But eventually most people would accept the new reality. Proper ideological re-education was supposed to speed this process and then itself yield a bonus in terms of motivated effort and esprit de corps.

In the Eighties Chinese leaders explicitly mention Marx in explaining why, now nobody in China had any illusions re. the Party owning everything, the Party could allow 'control rights' to vest in 'contributors'. But 'residuary control rights' remained with the Party as Chairman Xi has now made abundantly clear.

  • 1
    "Mao prevailed on the issue of Collectivization but the outcome was known in advance" - I don't think that's right. Can you back that claim up?
    – mart
    Feb 16, 2021 at 7:09
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    The reason Mao was opposed was because the outcome was known in advance to be horrible. However the success of the anti-rightist campaign meant opposition became silent. Everybody pretended to believe the thing was a success. Later the survivors told academics and World Bank officials what had happened. However, this is still not a safe subject for discussion. The fact is, Mao succeeded. The threat of counter-revolution was averted. The Party gained complete control over the country. It retains it to this day.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Feb 17, 2021 at 4:20

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