I just read the section of Wild Swans by Jung Chang where she lives through the Great Leap Forward in China, though it seems she was a child and most of the story was gathered later from older friends' accounts. Except by loyalists to Chairman Mao, the Great Leap Forward is generally regarded as a disaster. In particular it is one of the disasters that anti-communists point to when they want to "prove" that capitalism and free markets are the holy shining light of human civilization. Yet it reminds me of the Great Depression in the United States, also a disaster, generally accepted as a free-market capitalist disaster, except by a few free-market ideologues who manage to blame it on socialism even though there was no socialism to blame it on at the time it began.
Most people keep these two historic events in two different bins in their minds. For a while my own tiny mind has been creeping up carefully to the idea that they might be worth comparing and contrasting. Now I'm going to try to show they should actually go in the same bin, as long as we recognize they were both very complex events, occurring in different contexts.
The Great Leap Forward took place in China between 1958 and 1961. Recall that the Chinese Communists had set up areas of China under their control as early as the 1920s. After World War II ended they fought a war against the United States and the Kuomintang war lords that resulted in the communist takeover of all of mainland China (except Hong Kong) in 1949. This ended a century-long period of chaos during which death and starvation were common features of the globalization of China. By 1959 just the fact that China was united under one government, and that it was not prey to Japan, the United States, and Europe, had brought the nation to relative prosperity. I say relative because China had a very low level of industrial development in the 1950s, perhaps comparable to that of the United States in the 1870s. But food was being produced and distributed relatively efficiently; not starving was considered prosperity in China.
China was under a one-party system, and the acknowledged leader of the Communist Party was Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-tung in older texts). Mao wanted to make China more economically powerful, both for its self-defense and for its greater glory. He decided to do a rapid industrialization, similar both to Stalin's industrialization of the USSR during the 1930's (corresponding to the Great Depression in the West) and to the earlier capitalist industrialization of Germany, Great Britain and the United States. Only he thought he was a communist genius and would do it by expanding steel production with hundreds of thousands of small, "backyard" smelting furnaces.
That was stupid. Making good steel requires high technical skill (read, for instance, the early chapters of The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester). Let's just say that after three years of converting a lot of perfectly good woks to lumps of iron, even Mao had to give up on that plan.
More important, most critics of Mao and communism like to bandy around vast numbers of people who died, mostly of starvation, in the Great Leap Forward. The numbers are typically put at 20 million to 30 million. What happened? In short everyone, from peasants through bureaucrats up to Mao, pretended that food production was booming because communist ideology was like Miracle-Gro when applied to farming. Real food, equivalent to imaginary surpluses, was sent to feed urban Chinese, and so much was left over that large amounts of it were exported to the Soviet Union to repay that nation for military equipment loaned during the Korean War. In reality food production actually declined for a variety of reasons. Left with the imaginary portions of their harvests, a lot of peasants went hungry and even starved to death.
Now think of the Great Depression. We don't see any reports on how many Americans died due to capitalism during the Great Depression. But anecdotal reports, and grim statistics, show that many did. Certainly hundreds of thousands, probably millions. Using the same statistical methods that are used to come up with the thirty million figure in China, we can get figures for the U.S. How fast did the U.S. population grow between the 1920 census and the 1930 census? Take that figure and add it to the 1930 population (take immigration numbers into account, of course). Then look at the counted population in 1940 versus the projection, and the difference is the number of deaths due to capitalist folly. Or, if you won't blame any deaths on capitalism no matter what, blame those deaths on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.
Their are other ways to do the numbers. A lot of the deaths in the U.S. were due to infant mortality. Take as a baseline the infant mortality rates of the capitalist class in the 1920s. Then take the rates of working class people (or use the handy census numbers showing the high death rate of black children). Multiply the difference in the rates by the population and you get an approximation of children murdered by the logic of the capitalist system during the Great Depression. You can even apply that logic to other decades. Since Roosevelt's Democratic Party did nothing about racism (except promote it) until the 1960s, you could pin a lot of black infant deaths on the party.
Those rates would have been lower if the Democratic Party had not blocked (Republican) President Herbert Hoover's attempts to help the American people from 1930 until 1932. And they would have been higher if those same programs, and a bunch of additional ones, had not been adopted by the Democrats (actually, if anyone looked at votes in Congress, by an alliance of liberal Democrats with liberal Republicans) and renamed the New Deal starting around 1933. And they would have been higher still if Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had not revived the German economy starting in 1933, and if later massive rearmament programs had not stimulated the U.S. economy in the late 1930s.
What is most sad about China is that they actually, by admittedly thin margins, had enough food to feed themselves even during the Great Leap forward. What is most sad about the United States is that people were starving during the Great Depression in a nation that was capable of feeding its own people and exporting vast quantities of food as well.
There may be some advantages of pure socialism over pure capitalism, or vice-versa, but most nations have chosen mixed systems after their 20th century experiences. The Great Leap Forward shows socialism at its worst, while the Great Depression shows capitalism at its worst. Smart humans will use all the tools in the social-economic toolbox to build the society they desire.
Manias sometimes affect entire societies, or even the entire globe. The depressive side of manias is illustrated by the Great Depression. Although it was a tragedy, the Great Leap Forward actually more resembles manias like the Tulip Mania, the Internet boom, and the recent housing market bubble.
Socialist theory and Capitalist economic theory both try to describe reality accurately, but both have a tendency to over-generalize. Which reminds me of the story of some third-world theoretical physics students having their first encounter with a real automobile. They drive it around for a while, then it conks out. Not realizing how complicated it actually is, they use their knowledge of thermodynamics to decide it has stopped due to insufficient energy content. To build up its energy again, they build a fire under it ...