In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to forcibly collectivise Chinese agriculture and industrialise the country within just a few years. This involved the use of pseudoscientific farming practices which reduced yield rather than increasing it, massive industrial and irrigation projects which diverted manpower from food production and placed enormous demands on the remaining farmers, attempts to stamp out the customs and traditions that served as the fabric of the peasant farmers' livelihood, wholesale torture and murder of anyone who tried to point out the impossibility of the demands being placed on the populace or the massive blunders being made, etc.

Unsurprisingly, the Great Leap Forward was an unmitigated disaster, seeing a collapse in food production, the confiscation by Communist Party officials of what little food was left, massive famine (resulting in 30-55 million deaths),1 and tremendous damage to the Chinese economy and infrastructure; armed revolts broke out across China (although not on a large enough scale to seriously threaten the central government's hold on the country), and the catastrophe probably came closer than anything else before or since to causing the collapse of the People's Republic of China. Mao, the architect of the Great Leap Forward, was forced out of the governmental decision-making process in favour of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping (allowing China to recover from what Mao had done to it), and remained out of power until he made his return in 1966 with the Cultural Revolution. However, unlike the opponents of the Great Leap Forward, who had been purged (and, in many cases, executed) for daring to oppose him, Mao was allowed a comfortable semi-retirement which left him the opportunity to plan his comeback. This would eventually come around to bite Liu and Deng in their asses, as Mao had both of them purged in revenge (resulting in Liu's death and nearly Deng's as well).

Given the disaster Mao had wrought, why didn't Liu and Deng have him purged (and possibly executed) as punishment for the failures of the Great Leap Forward?

1: This makes the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961 the single deadliest famine in all of recorded history (with even low-end estimates placing it at well over twice the death toll of the runner-up), caused China's population to actually decrease during the years of the Great Leap Forward (one of only three times this has happened in the last 600 years), and left 1960 with the dubious honour of being the only known year in human history where the total number of human deaths worldwide surpassed 60 million (a number that has still not been surpassed, even with the considerable increase in the world's population since then).

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    Why Stalin was not purged during or after collectivization? This is in the nature of Communist regimes: most of them have absolutist nature, one person rules, no matter what blunders he makes. A leader of a communist regime can be removed only by a plot, there is no regular procedure.
    – Alex
    Mar 7, 2021 at 12:46
  • @Alex, that's probably not a bad way of running society, provided the ruler shares the goals of the led, and is learning from his mistakes as he goes. Despite the abhorrence of the capitalist world to central planning, when it comes to democratic politics they seem to think that leaders should always have a master plan and never blunder, rather than viewing leadership as itself a process of learning and experimentation. The Chinese have this down to a fine art these days - they experiment politically in a small area, then generalise any successes.
    – Steve
    Mar 7, 2021 at 21:06
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    @Steve: to all communist sympathizers in the West, I have only one advise: go to a communist country and try to live there!
    – Alex
    Mar 8, 2021 at 0:53
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    @Alex, why should anyone wish to move from their own society to underdeveloped countries? China's soaring growth, for example, hasn't yet closed the gap with the West.
    – Steve
    Mar 8, 2021 at 10:34

1 Answer 1


False god of communism

When we look at communism, we must first notice that this is a revolutionary movement that wants complete change of society. Or in other words, not just change people in power (Peter instead of Paul), not just change form of government (president instead of monarch), but also do away with existing production, social and religious norms. Religion is very important here. Called "opium of the people" by Marx, it was universally targeted by communist regimes across the globe. Nevertheless, function of the religion, i.e. giving psychological aid and comfort, plus simple but firm explanation of the world, something you could always rely on no matter how hard the times are, could not be discarded by communists. So they simply replaced existing religions with marxism as state ideology and indeed new religion. Of course, this new religion needed its own gods, saints and martyrs. First god was of course Karl Marx himself, and his images were standard decorum of every official procession in communist countries. He was often joined with Lenin, as first communist head of state. However, Lenin was short lived, and both of these were dead gods - they should be revered and their words should be studied, but they could not be used to solve day-to-day problems or new situations arising in changing world.

Communism therefore needed living god, someone on whom mostly uneducated masses (poor farmers and industrial workers) could rely on in every difficulty that arises. And difficulties were plentiful, especially during civil wars and revolutions, but also latter during (often disastrous) economic transformations of the land. For these simple masses it was comforting to know that there is some comrade Stalin, or in this case Mao, that knows everything, understands everything and has a plan for every difficult situation. This was often accompanied with selected thoughts of the leader, sort of "new gospel" like for example famous Mao's Red Book , simplified cookbook they could use to find recipes for everyday life.

Note that does not mean that internal running mechanisms of communist party were free from the struggle. In fact, as we can see both in cases of Mao and Stalin, there were lot of intrigues and backstabbing and losers would be finally denunciated in party congresses as "rightists" or even "fascists" , demoted, dismissed and sometimes even imprisoned or executed. Party always maintained facade of so called "democratic centralism" and unity, real reasons of the struggle were often hidden (and sometimes remain hidden to this day) behind opaque and sometimes meaningless gibberish of "official speak". It should be noted that in such circumstances persons with psychopathic traits (like Mao Zedong, or Stalin) often thrive. They could be charming and persuasive, but really do no care about others (as Mao's famous quotes about nuclear war show), often change ideology as it suits them and never apologize, not even after millions of deaths during Great Leap Forward. However, when such person ascends to the top of the ladder, it would gladly accept cult of personality that develops around them, and it will grow its status as a living god.

In case of Mao, his cult started even before WW2, right during and after Long March. Interestingly enough, Long March was actually almost completely destructive for the communists, but party leadership maintained brave face and proclaimed it as a great success. Mao in particular used it to remove any opposition to himself in the party. Although CCP was significantly numerically reduced, for Mao it was a great success because he managed to sideline Zhou Enlai and other communist leaders at the time. Latter during the war he purged and even killed others opposing him in CCP itself, during so called Yan'an Rectification Movement and emerged as de facto leader and face of the party . Of course this only grew after communist takeover in 1949 and in period leading to Great Leap Forward in 1958.

So what happened when Great Leap Forward failed ? During so called 7000 Cadres Conference it became clear that Mao's ludicrous economic policies are disastrous. Communist control over country was threatened. However, publicly admitting that Mao is a psychopath that should be removed and possibly executed was not possible. This was perhaps similar situation with hypothetical removal of Stalin on June 30th, 1941 when Soviet Red Army was collapsing under German attack. In both cases removing the leader would mean removal of the party, because both leaders at the time had acquired godlike status. Just like Stalin, Mao was propped for too long and ingrained in the psyche of the masses. Considering overall bad situation, disbelief in him would create disbelief in the party, and potentially loss of power.

Therefore, Mao was allowed to pass with mild self-criticism, he withdraw from some functions and remained in semi-retirement, while day-to-day running of the country was left to more capable. In private, he didn't feel remorse which confirms that he had psychopathic personality. In fact he was plotting comeback and revenge, in which he succeeded during Cultural Revolution, again with great loss of life and economic damage. Tragedy of so called moderates in CCP was they were too afraid to lose power that in the end they lost not only that but some of them also their lives. As always, proverbial deals with the devil usually turn sour.

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    "but really do no care about others" - I don't think that is an accurate representation of their mentality. They are not sanctimonious or over-agonised about the loss of individual lives, but their purpose is to bequeath a better society for those left living (including the families of those who die). This is no different to any military leadership, where loss of life is simply compensated for (if necessary) by increased reproduction rates, which is a perfectly legitimate way of operating society if the population are willing to tolerate it. So I'd consider this answer to be a cod analysis.
    – Steve
    Mar 7, 2021 at 20:59
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    I'm really, really confused at your attempt to inject moral arguments into an answer to this question - seeing words like evil and False God is just so unbelievably weird on a history forum. Also, I'm not sure where you got your understanding of psychopathy from - it takes an ever-increasing amount of psychopathic tendencies to make an effective leader, "evil" or not.
    – dROOOze
    Mar 8, 2021 at 9:52
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    @rs.29, a good military commander does not squander lives unnecessarily, but there is no suggestion that Mao did, nor that he was driven by narrow self-interest rather than his vision for Chinese society. Arguably a main element of military leadership, is spending a large number of lives effectively. As I say, your assertions about his psychology are pure cod - the ravings of a staunch pro-capitalist.
    – Steve
    Mar 8, 2021 at 10:40
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    Indeed you're probably a prime example - with your incoherent ravings about the psychology of individuals, and utterly unsound analysis - of the mentality that Mao was up against, and the majority of people who wanted progress and didn't want laissez-faire capitalism understood that they had to spend a large amount of lives to purge Chinese society of enough capitalist roadsters, like yourself, that the regime would stabilise and progress would occur (which it has). It's the same in any revolution. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Mar 8, 2021 at 19:46
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    @Steve Man of higher stature would commit honorable suicide. I do not consider Churchill to be a particularly noteworthy and certainly not a hero he is presented today, but he didn't plunge Britain into darkness by his own mistake and certainly didn't kill millions in peacetime. Mao did willingly kill thousands and millions and he admitted that - there is no beating around the bush about this one.
    – rs.29
    Mar 8, 2021 at 19:53

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