This article examines two theoretical frameworks used to evaluate Maoist development. The first is based on neoclassical economic theory, and the second is rooted in the idea that the Chinese Communist Party made China into a state capitalist regime. Both these theoretical frameworks presume to know what economic practices the CCP should have engaged in and fault the Party for not conforming to their standards of judgment. This article finds this normative approach to analyzing Maoist development to be wanting for four reasons. In its drive to depict China as acting anomalously, this normative standpoint insufficiently attends to the empirical specificities of economic activities of the Mao era. It does not take enough into account how China's socialist identity shaped the CCP's economic initiatives. Nor does it dig deep enough into how the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War influenced Chinese development. This way of writing the history of the Mao period also overlooks similarities between China and other developmental states in Cold War East Asia. This article calls on historians to adopt a different approach to the study of Chinese development and scour available documentation with the aim of comprehending the economic practices of Mao's China on their own terms.