Mao on responsibility for the Great Leap Forward (1959)

great leap forward responsibility
Backyard steel furnaces in Yumen, 1958
By the middle of 1959, Mao Zedong was coming under increasing criticism for the failures of the Great Leap Forward. Of particular concern were production levels and living conditions in the People’s Communes, as well as Mao’s disastrous pet scheme for smelting steel in ‘backyard furnaces’. In July 1959, defence minister Peng Dehuai sent Mao a private memorandum containing guarded criticisms of the Great Leap Forward. Mao responded aggressively, publicising Peng’s letter, denouncing him as a Rightist and forcing his expulsion from the government. At a party meeting in Lushan, Mao admitted some responsibility for the failures of the Great Leap Forward – but he also blamed bad advice, failed implementation and poor decision-making by other high-ranking party members. This abridged speech, given the Lushan meeting on July 23rd, encapsulates his response and ends with a typically crude Mao analogy:

“I have read the comrades’ reports, speeches and documents and I have talked to a number of them. I feel they have… the tendency to be touchy… Some people feel the pressure and don’t want others to say bad things about them. They don’t want to hear bad things, only good things. I advise these comrades to listen… Good words and bad words are all words and they should listen to both kinds…

We are sandwiched between attacks from Rightists within our Party and from outside… Whenever they speak, they say we are in a mess. The more they say we in a mess the better, and the more we should listen… China will not sink down, the sky will not fall. We have done some good things and our backbones are strong…

Could the People’s Communes collapse? Up to now, not one has collapsed. We were prepared for the collapse of half of them, and if 70 percent collapsed, there would still be 30 percent left. If they must collapse, let them. If they are not well run, they are sure to collapse. The Communist Party aims to run things well, to run the communes well, to run all enterprises well, to run agriculture, industry, commerce, communications, transport, and culture and education well…

Many things have happened which we could not possibly predict beforehand… Who was responsible for the idea of the mass smelting of steel? I say it was me… In June I talked about [producing] 10.7 million tons. Then we went ahead and did it. It was published in the Peitaiho communique; [the writer] put forward some ideas and believed it would be all right. With this, we rushed into a great catastrophe and 90 million people went into battle… Small native-type blast furnaces were built… I read a lot of discussion reports and everyone said it could be done. Provided we came to grips with the problem and worked really hard, we could raise the quality, reduce cost, lower the sulphur content and produce really good iron.

I have committed two crimes, one of which is calling for 10.7 million tons of steel and the mass smelting of steel. If you agreed with this, you should share some of the blame. But I cannot pass on the blame: the main responsibility is mine. As for the People’s Communes, the whole world opposed them; the Soviet Union opposed them. There is also the General Line. Whether it has any substance or not, you can share some of the responsibility for this. The proof is to be seen in its implementation in industry and agriculture. As for the other big guns, other people should also take some of the responsibility.

If you want to talk about haste, Marx also made many mistakes. Every day he hoped that a European revolution would arrive, but it did not arrive. There were many ups and downs and it had still not arrived when he died. It only arrived in Lenin’s time. Wasn’t this a case of impatience? Wasn’t this petit-bourgeois fanaticism? …

Will our present work also fail, as happened in 1927? Or will it be like the Long March, when most of our bases were lost and the Soviet areas were reduced to one-tenth of their former size? No, it will not be like these. Have we failed this time? All the comrades present say there have been gains; it is not a complete failure. Is it mainly a failure? No, it’s only a partial failure. We have paid a high price. A lot of ‘communist wind’ has blown past but the people of the whole country have learned a lesson…

As for talking of responsibility, [other CCP leaders] have some responsibility – but the one with the most responsibility is me… The chaos caused was on a grand scale and I take responsibility. Comrades, you must all analyse your own responsibility. If you have to shit, then shit. If you have to fart, then fart. You will feel better for it.”

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