Monday, July 25, 2016

The Great Chinese Famine

Commenter MLA opens his or her rebuttal with Mao's Great Leap Forward, which was one of the many causes of the Great Chinese Famine.

Regardless of its cause, the famine was an inexcusable catastrophe. There is no other response to the famine than to accurately identify its cause, and ensure nothing even remotely like it happens again. And, if the cause were communism, then communism must be abandoned. But, and I know this will come as a shock, I do not believe that communism per se was in fact the cause.

The charge, as I mentioned earlier, is that these communists killed a lot people, not that a lot of people died. Even absent natural or entirely excusable causes, people die by the millions all the time, with plague, famine, and war — hardly unique to communism — the principle causes. Again, I don't wish to excuse these deaths, but if we're going to make momentous political decisions, we must employ some measure of dispassionate analysis to accurately determine causes and lay blame.

I do not think I am being particularly controversial by saying that the Holocaust constitutes the paradigm of politically motivated mass murder. The Nazis explicitly decided to kill millions of people without even the shaky justifications of war, and this decision was rooted in ideological foundations not just of historically specific Nazism, but fascism in general. Indeed, that we know both theoretically and empirically that fascism causes mass murder is by itself sufficient

It is important to note that if we call the People's Republic of China "communist" on a minimal definition of communism, then we are entitled to call the Nazis capitalists because they endorsed the private ownership of the means of production. I am emphatically not saying that capitalists are therefore Nazis; I merely note that the fallacy of the converse is identical when applied to capitalists and communists. Fascism is an aberrant version of capitalism, and to their credit the capitalists have not (yet) repeated the horrors of fascism.

In contrast, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 caused massive death, and, like the Great Chinese Famine, was an inexcusable catastrphe, in the sense that we cannot simply say, "Well, that just happens from time to time," and do nothing in response. However, there was never any intent to kill anyone, nor was the scope of the catastrophe substantially magnified by gross negligence. Hence we can conclude that the pandemic was simply a natural disaster: while we must (and did) take serious measures to prevent a recurrence, there is little or no blame to lay. (When I attribute the pandemic deaths to capitalism, I do so to highlight the stupidity and hypocrisy of throwing around large numbers without detailed analysis of causes.)

The Great Chinese Famine falls short of Holocaust-like intentional mass killing, but because of gross negligence was more than a blameless natural disaster.

We can infer the lack of intent from two factors. First, the stated motivation of the Great Leap Forward was rapid industrialization to counter an existential threat to the Chinese people. The Chinese had only recently recovered from the depredations of the Japanese, the civil war, and had reason to believe that factions of the capitalist West were prepared to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese. Before the First Imperialist War, the Chinese had been subject to the most abject subordination of capitalist imperialism for more than a century, and it is notable that Chiang Kai-shek's capitalist friendly Nationalists had not fought the Japanese during the occupation. Additionally, any covert intention to kill millions of people seems implausible: one does not defeat a stronger enemy — and the West was clearly stronger than China — by casually killing millions of productive people.

Second, once the magnitude of the catastrophe had become impossible to ignore, the Chinese Communist Party reversed course, changed its policies, and dealt as harshly as it could with Mao, removing him from power. The Chinese were under no external pressure to reverse course, so had the intention been to kill millions of people, the Party would have had no reason to change their policies or discipline Mao.

Although the case for intention fails, gross negligence clearly exacerbated the situation, and plausibly turned what might have been mild consequences of a mistake into a horrific catastrophe. Had the communist bureaucracy not systematically hidden the consequences of the Great Leap Forward, it is likely that few or no people at all would have died of starvation. Again, it is notable that in response to the famine, the Chinese did in fact make thoroughgoing changes to their bureaucracy, going all the way up to Mao, and to my knowledge there has not been another mass famine in China.

Although it might be possible to attribute to communism the gross negligence that exacerbated the Great Chinese Famine (which I will discuss later), we cannot use the famine to condemn communism on the same basis that we can use the Holocaust to condemn fascism.


  1. Sorry it took me so long, Larry, but I disagree with your assessment. it is no coincidence that the GLF failure happened after local markets (which could have alleviated the suffering) were made illegal, and after the shift to non-market rewards based on politically-defined economic incentives were put into place. Those two factors were straight out of the Marxist/Leninist playbook. If the measures of success for GLF were market metrics, there would be no ability to essentially lie one's way to success. They would have had to demonstrate sales in the marketplace, which while it could still be gamed is much harder to game than the face value bureaucratic reporting that seems to take place in traditional communist organizational structures. China had had famines before, but this famine was different, and the major key differentiators were top-down, non-market driven policies.

    It is also a bit misleading to say that "once the magnitude of the catastrophe had become impossible to ignore, the Chinese Communist Party reversed course, changed its policies, and dealt as harshly as it could with Mao, removing him from power." In 1959, the failures of the GLF were discussed at the Lushan Conference, and yet it took a full two years of famine before Mao was effectively neutered. The chief critic of Mao's policy, interestingly enough, was also removed from power for this criticism.

    I would highly recommend looking at some of the key aspects of the GLF policy, particularly Frank Dik├Âtter's excellent "Mao's Great Famine" (which, as far as I know, is the only Western history based on access to the Chinese archives from 1958-1962). The full intent of the GLF was to create a sterling path to communism that was uniquely Chinese (and not purely Leninist, significantly caused by the break from the USSR a few years earlier). The policy outcomes were based on Mao's and the CCP's interpretation of Marxism, and the results were disastrous.

    1. No worries about the timing... I'm not exactly The Flash about replying myself.

      Indeed, it might be a few days before I can make a substantive reply.


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