Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

The Big Push and the Great Leap Forward: Development Strategies in East and West in the 1950s

Tochkov Kiril, Texas Christian University

The late 1950s were marked by various large-scale government drives in the Communist Bloc to speed up industrialization and boost agricultural production in an effort to catch up with Western economies. The Great Leap Forward campaign in China became one of the most prominent of these efforts, not least because it ended disastrously. Chinese economists justified the campaign by arguing that only a concerted effort by the government aimed at mobilizing labor and untapped resources would help China overcome poverty and showcase the superiority of the Communist system. In part, the Soviet industrialization drive of the late 1920s and early 1930s served as a model. At the same time, Western economists were designing theories and strategies for assisting underdeveloped countries to break out of their poverty traps. These structuralist development models called for a “big push” in investment led by the government. This paper explores the economic thought behind the Big Push framework and the Great Leap Forward campaign from a comparative perspective. The ideas of Rosenstein-Rodan and other development economists are considered in the context of the aftermath of the Great Depression and are juxtaposed to the thinking of economists from the Communist Bloc who rely on Stalinist and Maoist concepts of development. Similarities between the two strands of ideas indicate the profound influence of the earlier Soviet experience. The key weaknesses of the Great Leap Forward strategy are identified and contrasted with the corresponding aspects of the Western Big Push concepts. Although both development strategies experienced a decline in the 1960s, similar ideas have reemerged in China in recent years.

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Keywords: development strategy; structuralist models; China; Great Leap Forward; socialist industrialization