21 March 2013

Was China's famine the tombstone of communism?

A superficial reading of Yang Jisheng's Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 could confirm anyone's fears of communism, at least as it was practiced in the 20th century. Yang, a Chinese journalist whose father died in the famine, did his research on the mainland but had to publish his book in Hong Kong, where greater freedom of the press is allowed. He'd probably agree that communism, at least as a political system, was to blame for the deaths of at least 36,000,000 people during the famine. He blames both unrealistic policies on the part of Chairman Mao and a totalitarian bureaucracy that made every official the slave of those above him and a despot to those below. Since the famine followed a Chinese decision to collectivize all farmland in a rush to implement communism, mass starvation is now seen as a likely if not inevitable result of communism. Mao definitely made some stupendously stupid decisions at this time, but to what extent can the famine be blamed on him and his stooges personally, rather than the system they created or the ideal they hoped to realize?

For many people, Mao stands alongside Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and the Kim dynasty of North Korea as the worst-case scenarios of communism. Worse, he has come to represent the type of leadership many believe a communist country inevitably will have. It's hard to deny that Leninism increases the danger of such people getting power, since the Leninist idea of a vanguard party appeals to those whose idea of a social revolution is getting the chance to tell the whole world what to do. The reliance on a party that never really stops seeing itself as a revolutionary conspiracy requiring  a certain ruthless obedience also seems to encourage the kind of insecure and dishonest servility that made the Chinese famine worse for everyone.  Mao's particular problem was that he abhorred doubt and took it as a lack of faith in or loyalty to himself. You never wanted to tell him that something couldn't be done, much less that it wasn't worth trying. He was ideologically convinced that communism would unlock unlimited human potential; he really believed that under the right leadership the Chinese people could work wonders. Yang's account makes clear that Mao wasn't impervious to facts, but it took testimony from his own relatives -- people he presumably wouldn't see as rivals or untrustworthy subordinates -- to convince him that the disaster in the countryside was real. Until then, he had happily set unrealistic goals and made a commitment to fulfilling them a test of loyalty to the revolution. Paradoxically, he would not trust party members if they'd dared tell him that certain things couldn't be done -- he'd interpret their skepticism as "right deviationism" or some such heresy --  but chose to trust them when they lied about surpassing the production quotas set for them. The root of the trouble, in political terms, was Mao's expectation of optimism within the party and his willingness to punish people for insufficient optimism. It led to party members telling Mao what they thought he wanted to hear, rather than the truth, in order to advance their careers or simply save their own necks. He has to be blamed for creating incentives for people to lie to him.

Lies weren't told to Mao alone, of course. Propaganda had convinced much of the peasantry that collectivization would mean unprecedented prosperity. Many believed that prosperity had come to pass as soon as communal kitchens opened across the country. Yang suggests that the peasantry in many places contributed to their own later suffering by gorging themselves in the early months on the abundant free food initially supplied in these kitchens, but no one in the government discouraged them from doing so. Rather, the party wanted everyone to believe that abundance was an already accomplished fact. Later, dependence on the communal kitchens doomed millions, since they had given up their own cooking equipment as part of collectivization. When communal kitchens closed for lack of food, families were left with no means of preparing (not to mention acquiring) their own food. Many resorted to cannibalism. Party members pressed to meet quotas blamed shortages on hoarding and subjected scapegoats to often-fatal torture, then lied about surpassing their quotas. That only guaranteed higher quotas next time. It was Mao's own natural impulse to blame the shortages he heard of on people somehow hoarding grain or otherwise refusing to cooperate. Maoism was an innovation in Leninism because of Mao's reliance on a peasant rather than proletarian base, but once in power he treated peasants like crap. He took their food to feed the cities. He took it for export, to exchange for industrial products. That is, this arch-communist treated food like a commodity. He diverted labor from crops to dig canals or forge useless pig-iron in a forlorn attempt to surpass the U.K. in iron production, leaving the weakest people, the oldest and youngest, to try to bring the crops in. As with Stalin, the good of the poor was secondary, at best, to making the country into a superpower. It all looks like exploitation to me, but I thought Communists were against that.

We can distinguish between small-c communism as the absence of private property and Capital-C Communism as vanguard-party tyranny, but we should also note a persistent tension within anti-capitalist movements between what I call, using American terminology, populist and progressive tendencies. Leninism and Maoism are perhaps the ultimate expressions of the progressive tendency, which is arguably more revolutionary yet less democratic than the populist tendency. There's a reactionary core in populism that often takes the form of cultural conservatism or chauvinism, but the general point of conflict with progressivism is over society's need for change. Populists may recognize the need for revolution to overthrow capitalism, but while they resent capitalism for exploiting them they also object to hours, discipline, etc., and to boss-dictated changes to routine that disrupt their lives. Populists aren't really looking for the change in management progressives propose, and they sometimes find progressive stewardship more obnoxious and more intrusive than the mere rule of bosses in the workplace, to the extent that progressives expect both society and its people to evolve. In simpler terms, populism seeks revolution for the benefit of the here-and-now, while progressives expect to bring better people into being. In Mao's terms, populism would be right deviationism if not the capitalist road, but communism needs a populist element to check its progressive element if its purpose is to any extent to prevent exploitation -- in this case the exploitation of the present for the sake of the future. It can certainly be argued that society and the people in it must evolve, but shouldn't that -- both the need and the conditions for evolution -- be for the people, rather than a self-appointed vanguard, to determine? Mao's Communism was all top-down; it only qualifies as communism if you accept his Leninist claim to represent the masses and know their interests better than they did. No truly communist revolution should produce a Mao, either as a person or as a Great Leader to be idolized. A revolution that results in a Mao having the the power he had may already be judged a failure, but as Yang shows it could escalate into a catastrophe. Some Communists still idolize Mao, but they'd be better off figuring out how to prevent him.


Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the right will always point to China, Cuba, et. al. as their evidence that Communism leads to tyranny, yet they never make that same connection regarding dictatorships which practice capitalism - such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Fascist Italy, et. al.

It seems a more reasonable conclusion that certain individuals crave power and will use any convenient justification. In all of these examples it is always Fearless leader and his cult of personality who rule. Not the market, not the people. And they always rule through violence and threat of violence, not by consent. When government rules in this manner, there is no social contract, therefore no defensible legitimacy.

Anonymous said...

Communism is an idea, as such it can not be killed. Even if every book on communism was burned, every bit of historical evidence regarding communism somehow was destroyed, eventually someone would "invent" it all over again, as long as there is a large majority of human beings being exploited for the benefit of a small minority of their fellow human beings.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon1: The blind spot among rightists you mention may be related to their overall failure (or refusal) to see capitalism as a product of politics. If anything, they assume that capitalism nurtures free political institutions, hence the persistent hope that Communist-sanctioned capitalism in modern China will result in political liberalization. The funny thing is that they're so confident about the benign political effects of capitalism that they can justify the imposition of dictatorship in Chile in 1973 so that an elected Marxist could be replaced with a capitalist junta.

Anonymous said...

It all affects all. Politics has ramifications on social and economic issues. Economic issues affect social issues and are used in one form or another to influence politics. Social aspects create political philosophies and social activism. None of it is separate or uninfluential on the whole. Whether they understand this, accept it or just ignore it makes no difference. That is how it is. That is reality.

The only real affect "capitalism" is having in China is the exact same affect it has where ever it rears it's head: a small percentage of the population gets fabulously wealthy while the majority foots the bill.

Anonymous said...

How many famines has this planet seen since the beginning of the human race? How many famines before "communism" was invented? How many famines since then have hit non-communist countries?

Was "communism" at fault for this particular famine? NO. Was the leadership of China at fault? Most certainly at least part of the blame belongs with the leadership, depending on the cause of the famine.

People love to try to draw lines between that which they dislike and catastrophic events, even though such a line may not exist. It is ignorance to do so. People who attempt to blame communism for things which also occur in non-communist countries should not even be taken seriously by the educated and intelligent.

Samuel Wilson said...

Tombstone accepts the premise of the Indian economist Amartya Sen that famines are never so severe in modern democracies (e.g. independent India has never had as bad a famine as the country experienced under British rule) thanks mainly to a freedom of information and movement that didn't exist in Mao's China, but you can certainly argue that Mao, not "communism" is to blame for that. Where Tombstone specifically indicts communism as a system of social organization is its charge that collectivization made it more difficult for people to save themselves because peasant households no longer had even the tools to prepare food. On that point, it can be argued that Leninism and the power it reserves for party cadres is what makes communism potentially lethal. As far as I know, bad weather or other natural factors aren't considered major causes of the Chinese famine, which is blamed largely on diversion of resources usually employed on farms to Mao's various other projects.

Anonymous said...

The problem with capitalists is that they see EVERYTHING as a commodity - including politics and politicians. In a dictatorship, it is the government who reminds them otherwise. In a free and democratic society, it is the responsibility of the people to ensure their government remains free and democratic [ie NOT a commodity].

We have failed miserably in that our government has become nothing more than a commodity, but our politicians willingly sell themselves, like whores, to corporate pimps for campaign contributions.

Anonymous said...

Well, you can blame "Leninism" or you can blame the individuals who, having a monopoly on political power, made the wrong decisions. Considering that true communism - according to Marx - must evolve in certain stages and both the Russians and Chinese attempted to bypass those stages in a mad grab for pure power.

Since communism shares roots with "community", one would infer that communism must rise out of the community of the state, not from "glorious leader". It seems to me that, from a political perspective, communism cannot exist until "the people" understand that there is no need for "glorious leader", that they, themselves, must become "glorious leaders" in order for communism to manifest.

Anonymous said...

Let's talk about the "dustbowl" during the early 20th century. Was democracy to blame? The various market crashes - was that the fault of democracy? Why is it so acceptable to blame "communism" for the problems in so-called communist countries, but we don't blame democracy or capitalism for the problems in those countries?

In fact, why do people spend so much time trying to find fault with other states when there are so many unsolved problems in their own?

Samuel Wilson said...

To catch up with the latest comments: during the Great Depression many Americans did blame democracy and/or capitalism for the Crash of 1929, and there was much speculation and desire that FDR would/should assume dictatorial powers to save the nation. Many people openly proposed Mussolini-style fascism as the solution for America, while a smaller number called for communism, Stalinist or otherwise. What you can argue is that American ideology has hardened since then to the point that no one arguing for an alternative political system is taken seriously in the U.S.

Meanwhile I can and do blame "Leninism" for much of the disasters that smear communism's reputation because Lenin himself set the precedent for self-appointed Great Leaders dragging the masses to communism, kicking and screaming if necessary. His impatience for power set the tone for the future, even if Lenin himself lacked the disgusting need for adulation (maybe based on inferiority complexes vis-a-vis Lenin) so common among his imitators.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong, I have no liking or respect for Lenin, or any "glorious leader". But you have to accept the good with the bad. For every Socrates, a Goebbel; for every Washington, a Napoleon. Evolution doesn't take sides. Objectively there is no good or evil. There are only forces.

The problem with all of these political/economic philosophies is that they are all based on false premises. They all ignore human nature and assume the best behaviour under favorable conditions. They all assume that everyone wants and should want the same thing. But they all also assume a certain "natural" hierarchy, and that everyone will naturally accept their place in that hierarchy without rocking the boat.