The Economic Consequences of Socialism: Bread Lines and Mass Graves

By Stuart Clayton Lee

If the Great Leap Forward were to be viewed as a literal great leap forward, it would almost be akin to a suicide jump off a bridge. What is the greatest empirical argument against socialism? Those familiar with Austrian School methodology know multiple arguments against socialism based on praxeology, however, many are better swayed by empirical arguments. The greatest of these arguments against socialism come in the form of Communist China’s Great Leap Forward in 1958. This directly points to deaths that can be attributed to a problematic economic theory as opposed to deaths that can be attributed to authoritarian governments (although we also can see that a socialist economic system requires an authoritarian government).

Will those who fly a communist flag like many on college campuses be swayed perhaps by an examination of The Great Leap Forward? It’s unclear considering many communists will just claim it’s all western propaganda instead of objective fact, but it still requires examination and remembrance in honor of those whose lives have been lost due to the strive for communism.

I visited China two summers ago, Shanghai to be specific. There’s a small museum that resides underneath an apartment complex hidden from the streets above. This museum contained a collection of old communist chinese propaganda. The artwork is admittedly fantastic, but it was not reality. It did represent a goal, but socialism seems to never reach such goals. Posters containing images of smiling Chinese workers heading towards some unseen light really did look like Mao had a beautiful plan for the future. Unfortunately, the plan missed the goal drastically.

From 1958 to 1963, Mao introduced China’s own five year plan. The plan was to develop and strengthen China’s agriculture and industry by collectivizing the means of production and then creating a utopia where everyone works hard for the betterment of the people. Communes were set up and are described as a socialist’s dream:

“People in a commune gave up their ownership of tools, animals etc so that everything was owned by the commune. People now worked for the commune and not for themselves. The life of an individual was controlled by the commune. Schools and nurseries were provided by the communes so that all adults could work. Health care was provided and the elderly were moved into ‘houses of happiness’ so that they could be looked after and also so that families could work and not have to worry about leaving their elderly relatives at home.” (Trueman 2015)

It sounds beautiful to your common Maoist, Marxist or even a handful of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. This point is really important. For many, ideas of communism and socialism sound beautiful. I’m not at all surprised this ideology has taken quite a hold on many impressionable college students who focus on the mirage that is the promises of socialism while ignoring empirical, historical, and logical problems with the ideology.

Of course The Great Leap Forward was a catastrophic disaster to historians and economists, but there are deniers of such claims. The Maoist International Movement presents this critique:

“The first problem with these myths is that they are based on inaccurate statistics. Such high mortality figures are based on comparing projected population size with actual population size. This method assumes constant population growth, which is far from reality during tumultuous periods in history such as a revolution. The statistics are also based on figures supplied by the bourgeoisie and revisionists, which were enemies of the Great Leap.” (Maoist International Movement)

Their first problem is with constant population growth. Unfortunately for them, population growth has been constant throughout history. Not only globally, but even if we specifically look at China.

(Our World in Data 2015)

(World Meters 2017)

Now those on the left, specifically Maoists, might jump in and claim, like they do in regards to Stalin, that a population increase means that there really was no one starving to death. This unfortunately implies that net population must decrease when mass famine occurs. This assumes that people are incapable of reproduction. Population did increase as a result of a reproduction, however, this does not cover up a mass famine. The Maoists also claim that criticism against The Great Leap Forward is all just from the bourgeoisie and revisionists. What if we had an actual Chinese member of the proletariat discredit The Great Leap Forward though? What if we had Mao himself?

Mao himself spoke of the problems of The Great Leap Forward and is quoted as saying  “The chaos caused was on a grand scale, and I take responsibility. Comrades, you must all analyse your own responsibility” (Mao 1959). Unless Mao is considered a bourgeois or a revisionist by the Maoists, their argument is invalid. Now that we’ve entertained left wing arguments denying the atrocities in China, let’s look at the actual numbers.

Historian Frank Dikötter has studied Chinese rural history from 1958 to 1962 best describes the situation:

“What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.” (Dikötter 2016)

I find the number of 45 million and Dikötter’s findings to be the most reliable. If you’re not convinced yet, look at the methodology of this study. The study looked into,

“hundreds of hitherto unseen party archives, including: secret reports from the Public Security Bureau; detailed minutes of top party meetings; unexpunged versions of leadership speeches; surveys of working conditions in the countryside; investigations into cases of mass murder; confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people; inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward; general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign; secret police opinion surveys; letters of complaint written by ordinary people; and much more.” (Dikötter 2016)

Why does the drug user shoot heroin? Why does the child spend hours in front of the television? Why does the college student love communism? All the same reasons, an escape from reality. I admit to this too when I visit the cinema, however the college communist will believe their false reality and ignore objective fact. It’s unfortunate that many enter college worshiping an ideology that has lead to the deaths of millions due to a romanticized escape from reality. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where scarcity doesn’t exist, everything would be taken care of, the rivers would be full of soda pop and it would be sunny all day?

Of course, but that’s not our world. Scarcity exists, and trying to ignore it will lead you down these roads to serfdom.



“World Population Growth.” Our World In Data. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.

“China Population (LIVE).” China Population (2017) – Worldometers. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.

Myths About Maoism. Maoist International Movement, n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.

Dikötter, Frank. “Looking back on the Great Leap Forward.” Looking back on the Great Leap Forward | History Today. N.p., 2016. Web. 24 May 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Great Leap Forward.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.

“The Great Leap Forward.” History Learning Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2017.