How can I compare Mao Zedong's roles in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Mao Zedong who fathered "the Great Leap Forward" in 1958 and the one who engineered "the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in 1966 were very much one and the same. As with the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Mao and Zhou Enlai had to occasionally balance practical necessities with ideological orthodoxy. China had suffered dearly under the Japanese occupation, and the civil war that followed between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Communists resulted in even more devastation. Mao knew that, to ensure the Party's survival, the Chinese economy had to develop, albeit according to strict standards reflected in his writings, as evident in the following quote from a 1939 essay he authored:

"The ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class forced them into numerous uprisings against its rule.... It was the class struggles of the peasants, the peasant uprisings and peasant wars that constituted the real motive force of historical development in Chinese feudal society."

In other words, mobilize the masses--and if China had anything, it had masses--and they would represent an unstoppable force for change. This philosophy underlied much of what motivated Mao. With the Soviet Union emerging as a major power and the capitalist, anti-communist United States representing a counter-revolutionary threat, China had to grow economically and, by extension, militarily to ensure its survival and its place at the table of great nations. As with Stalin's policies of industrialization and collectivization, Mao calculated that economic growth on the scale required dictated forceful measures to similarly ensure his own country's emergence as a great power. That the Great Leap Forward, as with Stalin's agricultural collectivization policy, resulted in tens of millions of dead, mostly due to starvation and disease, was relegated to secondary importance by Mao even as it posed the threat of weakening his position within the Party hierarchy. The massive failures of the Great Leap Forward enabled Mao's critics within the Communist Party to present alternative directions for the nation's development.

It was Mao's need to reinforce his position in the Communist Party that precipitated another enormously damaging policy, that of "the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." By encouraging the denunciation and imprisonment (including forced labor in the fields) of "counter-revolutionaries," Mao succeeded in stirring up the brain-washed masses, especially among university students, and directed their anger at anyone Mao and his supporters suspected of less-than-total fealty to his extreme applications of Marxist-Leninist ideology. As with the Great Leap Forward, however, the Proletarian Revolution seriously weakened China and represented a major step backward in its increasingly bitter confrontation with the neighboring Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The emergence in 1964 of the more liberal, 'reformist' Nikita Khrushchev as leader of the more technologically-advanced Russian-dominated empire was viewed as blasphemous by the ideologically-extreme Mao Zedong. To Mao, Khrushchev represented as much of a threat to the revolution as did the capitalist colossus across the Pacific. The purging of "counter-revolutionary" elements from Chinese society would, Mao believed, place China on a more pure footing while marginalizing his critics within the Communist Party. His death on September 9, 1976, and the exposure of the so-called "Gang of Four," which included Mao's widow, opened the door to the emergence of a more liberal and socially-enlightened leadership, led by Deng Xiaoping, who would introduce the market-oriented economic polices that subsequently did what Mao's policies failed to do: facilitate China's development into a major global power.

The Mao Zedong who ordered the Great Leap Forward was the same person who ordered the Cultural Revolution. Mao was an ideologically-driven revolutionary whose goal of a strong, independent China dominated by socialist practices foundered under the brutality and idiocy of his policies. That China would emerge as a true global power only after his demise and the rise of state-sponsored capitalism is an interesting testament to the limitations of orthodox applications of ideology. 

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