Friday, July 22, 2016

A hundred million people

I have often heard the charge, The communists killed 100 million people! (the number varies from tens to scores to hundreds); therefore communism is bad. This charge does not just come from a few internet commenters; I've heard it repeated by Ph.D. political scientists and economists. I'm skeptical of this claim for three reasons: I don't know that it's true, to the extent that people who called themselves communists killed people I don't know that these killings were caused by communism per se, and mass killing is so common in human society that I don't think think that the charge does much to differentiate communism from other political ideologies, especially capitalism.

Killing 100 million, or even 10 million, people is extremely difficult in practice, and should leave a lot of evidence. I have a Bachelor's degree in political science, and I have never seen direct evidence of mass killing on such a scale. My personal ignorance does not, of course, mean that such evidence does not exist, but in contrast, the evidence that the Nazis killed 10 or 15 million people is so ubiquitous that I was aware of not only the charge but the evidence and documentation before I started studying political science. I have, for example, actually visited Dachau. So that the evidence for such a massive charge is not readily apparent at least raises suspicion.

I have not studied the topic academically in any depth. However, what little I have studied indicates the evidence for the scope of mass killings is at best indirect, perhaps unsound, and at worst simply fabricated. In The Battle for China's Past, Mobo Gao claims that the "evidence" for the Chinese Communist killing of scores of millions rests on calculating how many people should have been alive in China at some point, subtracting the number actually alive, and counting the difference as mass killing. Not only is this technique unsound on its face, but Gao also rebuts the claim directly: he compares China's population growth India's (where no allegations of mass killings have been made) and finds no significant difference.

Also, despite their problems, both the Soviet Union and China had sufficient economic growth under Stalin and Mao to become world powers; it is difficult on its face to reconcile that economic growth with the incredible economic drain that the mass killings of scores of millions of people would have caused. And these mass killings would have to have been on top of those caused in the Second Imperialist War, unless we to blame the Nazis on Stalin and the Japanese on Mao.

Finally, the capitalist west has been explicitly struggling against communism since its inception. Western scholars, as well as Chinese scholars who, as Gao also claims, desire Western favor, have considerable incentive to interpret any evidence uncharitably. When someone has a good reason to shave the truth or lie outright, we do need to examine the actual evidence most carefully.

As noted earlier, I am not saying here that absence of evidence is evidence of absence; I have not made a thorough search for the evidence. However, this deficiency could easily be corrected by someone who has made a thorough search to send me at least their bibliography.

But my objections do not end just at whether or not mass killings actually occurred. Let us assume, arguendo, that at least some of the charges are true. I would also need to see evidence that the mass killings occurred because of communism per se.

There was a lot going on in the Soviet Union and China. Russia was devastated by the First Imperialist War, which cannot, of course, be attributed to communism. Then, as Trotsky observes in Terrorism and Communism, the Soviet Union faced massive shortages of raw materials because of the Western blockade and the West's prosecution and support of the Russian Civil War; Trotsky complains that the Soviets had to run their entire economy, including their transportation network, almost entirely on firewood. Soon after the end of the Civil War, the Soviet Union faced Hitler and the resurgence in its time of the most powerful industrial economy and the most skilled and disciplined military power, explicitly bent on the annihilation of the slavic people. To prepare to fight Hitler, Stalin required the absolute dedication of the Soviet Union's population and labor. (Very similarly, most Western nations also required near-total popular effort during the war, overcoming substantial resistance and dissent.) Finally, after the end of the Second Imperialist War, both the Soviet Union and China faced a nuclear-armed United States, with at least some US factions explicitly advocating nuclear annihilation, e.g. Patton for Russia and MacArthur for China. While Truman repudiated both, neither the Soviet Union nor China should be expected to rely entirely the United States' charity for their very survival.

There are other things going on too, of course. Both the Soviet Union and Communist China emerged not from bourgeois republics but directly from authoritarian regimes, without even the beginnings of political socialization of democratization provided by a bourgeois republic.

At the very least, those linking provable mass killing to the communists would need to show that these mass killing were not substantially related to the massive effort necessary for weak agrarian economies to industrialize rapidly enough to stave off genuine existential threats.

Finally, mass killing is hardly unique to communism. Mass killing goes back not only to the beginning of recorded history — Thucydides documents any number of massacres — but is shown in the archeological record. Capitalist countries have themselves engaged in mass killing and other comparable behavior, notably the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas, the enslavement of black people, at least a million deaths in the American Civil War, the First and Second Imperialists Wars and the use of firebombing and nuclear bombing of civilians in the Second, the Irish Potato Famine, the Influenza Epidemic Pandemic of 1918, the Bengal Famine, etc. ad nauseam.

It is important to note that the reasons for these deaths are irrelevant in this context. It is simply the number of deaths that opponents of communism claim are relevant, not the reasons or justifications. If no justification could excuse communist mass killings, it would be rank hypocrisy to justify capitalism's mass deaths.

After studying socialism and communism both as an amateur and academic, I see absolutely nothing in socialist and communist theory to justify mass killings. It is possible that Stalin and Mao actually did kill a lot of people, with or without good justification. If so, a good communist such as myself must simply say that we must discover the reasons and causes of those killings, and ensure that they do not recur in the future. Even justified killing is not really acceptable: our goal is the liberation of all humanity, and even one death is a failure.

ETA (5:10 am): Here's another example of capitalism literally killing people: Public Health Takes a Hit Even as Uruguay Prevails in Infamous Philip Morris Investor-State Attack. According to the Centers for Disease control, tobacco kills 6 million people per year. What makes these deaths directly attributable to capitalism is the tobacco companies' powerful resistance to national democratic governments' smoking cessation programs. The perpetuation of these deaths follows directly from the capitalist premise that companies have a property right to profits, and those rights cannot under any circumstances be legitimately abridged by democratically elected governments.

5 comments:

  1. I haven't read Gao's book yet, but I do have a masters with my focus being the history of Chinese communism. This was decades ago now,so no fair asking detailed questions anymore ☺

    If the book focuses on the Cultural Revolution as a measure of mass killings, this is pretty selective. The vast bulk of the mass killings under Mao arr attributed to the Great Leap Forward, an attempt at mass communization and forced industrialization. The ability to understand real facts on the ground are limited due to China's closed nature at the time (they had kicked out the Soviets around that time). There are, however, similar taxation and export schemes like what the kulaks faced, but on a massively greater scale. The policies, attempting to jump straight to communism, led to mass starvation. The estimates range from about 50-80m excess deaths/fewer births combined.

    I object, by the way, of your characterization of the combination of excess death and reduced birth on its race. This is actually a standard method for understanding demographics, so dismissing the method as "unsound on its face" requires substantial justification.

    Lastly, scholarship on this subject does not ignore the cause. There is substantial scholarship on agricultural policies under communization that were absolutely tied to party directives that led to the GLF failure. Rewarding false reports of excess yields, party structure that demanded excess results meet outliers causing local repressions, policies of continuing exports during famine, the destruction of local markets, the repurposing of labor to iron production, refusal to ask for help because of coomunist-enforced isolation--all of these were party policies or results of the party rewards system that took a poor harvest and made it a catastrophe.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The wannabe intellectuals can claim all the want! They are liars!! The Russian communists did not kill any one and the same for the Chinese. As they are NOT a communism, they were both totalitarian dictatorships of the privileged rich. Russia and Chinese are as much communism as the USA is a democracy...meaning NOT!!! Like ISIS or the midevil RCC, they are dogmatic aholes who used death and violence to obtain their results. And ALL dogma is evil!
    So do they kill lots? Well history and present day dogmatic groups try their best to kill lots, And how many is too many??? As I say to the criminal dogmatic RCC, during the inquisition killing ONE heretic is 1 too many! And people of the west had better not get all holeyr-than-thou about this as history shows you aren't any better!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Please remember that I do have a job, so my replies may be somewhat slow. I will definitely respond to everyone; please be patient.

    ReplyDelete
  4. MLA: I have not forgotten you! I am trying to give your comment the care and attention it deserves.

    ReplyDelete
  5. MLA: I have responded to the main points of your comment in a new post: The Great Chinese Famine.

    I have some miscellaneous comments that I will make here:

    do have a masters with my focus being the history of Chinese communism.

    Just FYI, I am a Master's candidate myself. On the one hand, a Master's ain't chopped liver. On the other hand, I generally do not afford intellectual authority on the basis of credentials.

    The estimates range from about 50-80m excess deaths/fewer births combined. . . . I object, by the way, of your characterization of the combination of excess death and reduced birth on its race. This is actually a standard method for understanding demographics, so dismissing the method as "unsound on its face" requires substantial justification.

    First of all, I did not object to measuring excess death and reduced birth. First, I objected to the methodology of simply estimating what the population "should have" been, and then subtracting the actual population. This methodology might give a ballpark estimate of demographic effects, but there are too many assumptions in the estimate side to be plausible as a solid number, especially when, in the case of the Great Chinese Famine, the projected death toll is smaller than the margin of error in the measurement of the actual population.

    More importantly, when we are talking about the moral dimensions of mass killings, it is simply unsound to count reduced births as killings.

    There is substantial scholarship on agricultural policies under communization that were absolutely tied to party directives that led to the GLF failure. Rewarding false reports of excess yields, party structure that demanded excess results meet outliers causing local repressions, policies of continuing exports during famine, the destruction of local markets, the repurposing of labor to iron production, refusal to ask for help because of coomunist-enforced isolation--all of these were party policies or results of the party rewards system that took a poor harvest and made it a catastrophe.

    I won't argue that there were serious problems in the organizational structure of a nine-year-old government that had just fought (and won) three consecutive wars and was facing an existential threat from the capitalist west. Clearly, the organizational structure of the Chinese Communist Party in 1958 was catastrophically deficient.

    But anything can be done wrong. The question is, rather, whether communism per se necessitates these catastrophic organizational deficiencies. As time permits, I will argue that communism does not necessitate these deficiencies: we don't have to do communism like the Chinese did it in 1958.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.