The question was very easy to understand for the genuine communists in China. They faced two dangers, forming an immediate counter-revolutionary possibility of restoration.
The first one was the pragmatic temptation to authorize capitalist enterprises as a “tool” to develop the productive forces. The second one was the taking of power of the specialists and the cadres of the state, with the destruction of the Party.
In the USSR, the first threat was historically mainly carried by Bukharinism and Trotskyism, the second by the Khrushchev clique.
In this context, there was only one possibility left: calling the masses. Only the unleashed power of the masses was capable of modernizing Chinese economy in this terrible situation, without falling in the hands of the partisans of the restoration of capitalism. This is the very sense of the Great Leap Forward.
Ideologically, this answer was not yet characterized by an approach that should be called “Maoist”. In fact, Mao Zedong was directly following the position of Stalin, which was developed in the 1940's and 1950's, and was marked by a certain subjectivism.
Forgetting that the contradiction is internal, the communists thought at that time that it would be possible to act from the outside to transform matter and conform it to human needs. Because of this, the Great Leap Forward had two aspects: first of all, it was a modernization and a defense of the collectivization. Thus, it expressed a subjectivist, petty-bourgeois trend of the anarcho-syndicalist kind.
The Great Leap Forward was indeed a call to develop the productive forces, without the submission to the specialists, using the experiences of the masses to generalize easy and practical solutions.
The famous step in this direction was the formation of the people's communes. The goal was to make a leap in the concentration of peasants' structures. Peasants were to unite to organize their production, but also the reality of everyday life, from the kitchen to the schools.
At the end of August 1958, 37 780 households were united in 8730 people's communes. At the end of September of the same year, 121 940 households were united in 26 425 people's communes. It means that 750 000 cooperatives disappeared so that the masses in the country were organized at the national level in people's communes, as a socially more developed form.
On average, each people's commune was composed of 22 000 people, who had to be organized politically so that they could form a real unit of production. It means that the people's commune was thought to be self-sufficient at all levels, having to produce its fertilizers, organizing small-scale pig-iron furnaces, managing its schools (most of the people were still illiterate) and militias, structuring its own administration.
Concerning work, there were two levels of production: the brigade and the team, each people's commune having around sixteen brigades, each consisting of seven teams (of around 200 people each). The teams cared for the farm work, the brigade for the intermediate activities (workshops, elementary schools), whereas the commune cared for the small factories, the hospitals, high schools, etc.
For everyday life, it meant the creation of communal kitchens and nurseries, mess halls, and the generalization of reservoirs, holding pools, wells, irrigation canals. One famous event during this process was the construction of the 71 kilometers long Red Flag Canal. It is considered that during the Great Leap Forward, and only in 1958, 580 million cubic meters of earth were moved.
The people's communes were indeed not cut off from one another, and collective work at the national level was also organized, of course. The national management was of a great importance – the first tractors factory appeared only in 1958. But the main aspect of the Great Leap Forward was to maintain the coherence of the development of the economy, the mobilization of the masses permitting to avoid a counter-revolutionary coup.
The expectation was great; it was hoped that with the local production of steel, it would be possible in this domain to catch up Great Britain in only fifteen years.