Answering a listener question on the Great Leap Forward famine.
Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past
United Nations, “Losing 25,000 to Hunger Every Day”
Minhaz Merchant, “Churchill’s Bengal Famine”
Karl Marx, Capital
Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts
Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England
Welcome to episode 107 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode we wrapped up our six-episode series dealing with the Sixth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Next episode, I want to return to the narrative stream following the forces under Mao and Zhu De’s command, who we last saw departing the Jinggangshan base area on January 14, 1929, in episode 100.
But this episode I want to devote to answering a listener question which came in. The name of the listener has been withheld in order to protect the innocent, but the question goes like this: What’s the best way to talk to people about listening to a podcast about Mao Zedong? The general education you get about Mao in the United States frames him as a mass murderer comparable to Hitler, so it’s a bit shocking to hear for most people. I know the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are the most infamous incidents of Mao’s career, and it’ll be a while before we get there in the podcast’s narrative, but is there a good framework for understanding these events that doesn’t exonerate Mao or frame their death tolls as the whole story? What’s a good way to answer someone who asks, ‘wasn’t Mao basically Chinese Hitler?’
So, I get a lot of questions by email, and I try to give brief answers to them when I am able. Probably, if I had ignored more of the emails, we would have about twice as many episodes as we currently have of this podcast. Anyways, this question asked by a listener is an issue that a lot of people might be thinking about, and so it’s worth taking an episode to explore it.
The first and most basic thing that I want to say about this question is that you have no reason to be defensive about listening to a podcast about, or being into, Chinese history or learning about Mao at all. The fundamental thing about the Chinese Revolution is that it was a justified and righteous endeavor. China was occupied by several different imperialist countries, who took on local elites as partners in exploiting the people of China in vicious ways. The Chinese revolution was all about ending poverty, starvation, and the foreign dehumanization and exploitation of China. Mao Zedong is the person who has come to be broadly recognized as the figure most associated with this whole process of liberation, and he is widely loved in China today. It is nearly impossible to fully convey the significance of Mao as a historical figure to most Americans, but think of someone greater than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt combined. I get it that the way that the Chinese Revolution, and Mao in particular, are typically discussed in our society will, if you are not careful and conscientious about how you approach this topic with people, quickly put you on the defensive. After all, the United States was an enemy of the revolution from day one, so there are highly developed social scripts for how China and Mao are discussed in the United States, and they are all negative. It takes thought and effort to break from those scripts, and once you get a little knowledge about China, you can feel like you are being gaslit by the dominant culture (as with so many other important subjects). So, I want to repeat, that there is absolutely no reason to be defensive about being ‘into’ the Chinese Revolution.
But, even if this were not the case, I also think that there would be no reason to be defensive. China is obviously a super important place, and there are major figures in the US whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment and even stirring things up for potentially having a war with China. Clearly, it is really important for Americans (and everyone else) to learn about Chinese history and to understand China better in general. And I hope that this podcast can make a small contribution towards that sort of understanding. And you say that people talk about Mao as if he was China’s Hitler. Well, what sort of person thinks that people shouldn’t learn about Hitler or Nazi Germany? I mean, these people who look askance at others who seek knowledge about objectionable topics and historical figures, they’re just dummies right? What are they doing but advocating ignorance. So, really, if someone is so ignorant as to object to you listening to a podcast about Mao, if you want to engage with these people, don’t be defensive, rather talk to them about why they feel like they would promote ignorance. I don’t think people like that are at the level yet where they are going to be able to deal with the nuance and details needed to really process coming to understand the complicated history of events like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Now, with all that said, I do want to acknowledge that many people who are basically sympathetic to progressive movements in history and who want fundamental social change in the world today have a lot of questions about and want to better understand events like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I imagine that this is also what this question from a listener is about. So, I do want to take this opportunity to address this question in just a very beginning and abbreviated way.
One of the reasons that I go into the level of detail that I usually do in this podcast is because I think that details are extremely important in actually understanding history. It’s hard, because we often don’t have the time or space to process details, and so, inevitably, we all get by on some level with a kind of caricatured understanding of many historical events. There is always going to be some sort of compromise between the time and space that we actually have available (both as authors and as readers or listeners), and the capacity that we would really need to have a thorough understanding of any complicated historical topic.
I want to, eventually, take the podcast up chronologically to the events of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution. But, realistically, that’s a long way off, and so I think it is probably worthwhile to take a little time here and share how I think about these events, and maybe that will be helpful for some of you who are listening and who are curious about these events.
To be clear, I need to add a major disclaimer that I am going to be way more brief than the topic deserves, and that I will be skirting major issues that I plan to eventually get into in some detail later on. There are few events in history more complicated than the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and so they don’t lend themselves to good, short, encapsulated summations. Yet, there is clearly a need to be able to speak in a brief way to the essence of these issues.
Now, before I begin here, for people who really want to dig into the question of the historical evaluation of Mao Zedong and how meaning has been attached to the events of his life, both in China and outside China, I strongly recommend a book called The Battle for China’s Past. It’s by Mobo Gao, a Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide, and it’s a book that I will be drawing upon for this episode.
First off, let’s start with a framework for understanding the particular events in question here: The Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. And after talking about the framework that I use for understanding those events, I want to also discuss a broader framework for understanding profound, revolutionary social change in general, particularly in regard to the historical experiences of industrialization in both capitalist and socialist societies.
So, to understand the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, we have to understand the basic context in which the policies that brought forth those events were formulated. I want to eventually get this podcast up to those events and deal with them in great detail. But we’re pretty far off from there right now, so this very short discussion will have to do for the time being.
Basically, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the idea was that the problems involved with how to build up a socialist society had already been figured out in the Soviet Union, and that with the help of Soviet experts, China could quickly modernize its economy and enjoy the benefits of industrial modernization and general social progress. By 1956 two things had happened. During the early 1950s, the Soviet economic model had shown itself to have a lot of problems and to require a lot of modification. Then a real break with Soviet thinking about the nature of socialism and economic modernization began in 1956, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev delivered his speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union denouncing Stalin’s legacy (Stalin had died in 1953). The crisis of the socialist bloc heralded by Khrushchev’s speech was soon expressed in revolts in Poland and Hungary (and had been prefigured by a 1953 revolt in East Germany). Khrushchev responded to the crisis of socialism by announcing policies of limited openness in society and the promotion of the production of more consumer goods to placate the wants of the masses. Mao, on the other hand, saw this outlook as retreating from socialist values and embracing what was called ‘bourgeois right.’ (A very important term which I don’t have the space to go into here, however, if you are interested, I suggest listening to episode 91.) Mao saw Khrushchev as responding to crisis by moving backward and embracing the values of the capitalist past, rather than pushing forward into a socialist future, and eventually Mao declared that capitalism had been restored in the Soviet Union.
In China, beginning with the Great Leap Forward in 1958, Mao pushed for policies that experimented in combining attempts at rapid economic growth with political campaigns that were intended to raise the political consciousness of the broad masses of people and to promote self-sacrificing attitudes on the part of the people. These efforts were experimental and involved reorganizing the economy and basic institutions of daily life so as to reinforce values of community and a sense of shared purpose in modernizing China as part of participating in the global movement for the liberation of oppressed peoples. If the experience of work and daily life in the Soviet Union had so easily allowed for a restoration of capitalism, Mao was determined to create more clearly revolutionary conditions of life in China which were opposed to the atomized selfishness that characterizes life under capitalism. And in the process, China was supposed to also rapidly accomplish a revolution in agricultural and industrial production, and to create forms of dual industrial and agricultural production which broke down the divisions between cities and rural areas (and, in so doing, was supposed to bring some of the benefits of urban development to rural peoples who would otherwise be deprived of many of the benefits of industrial progress as traditionally conceived, which highly favors cities at the expense of the countryside).
However, nothing like this had ever been done before, and this first attempt at the society-wide implementation of these experimental ideas led to a massive famine. In the wake of the disastrous famine, less idealistic (that is, more pragmatic) leaders within the Chinese Communist Party took over the day-to-day affairs of running the state in the wake of the Great Leap famine. These leaders had less of a commitment to the total transformation of society in line with communist values, and their priority was more to create a strong China by any means possible (which meant doing things more like other countries had previously done in order to become strong). Initially the model for these more pragmatic leaders remained the Soviet Union, although later on some of these people would turn to the model of the so-called Asian tigers (South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) as their model for growth (as Deng Xiaoping did beginning in the late 1970s).
This retreat after the Great Leap Forward from radical and experimental policies back to a more pragmatic approach to daily life and economic development in the early 1960s, however, led Mao and other radicals within the Communist Party to fear that China itself was at risk of capitalist restoration. In opposition to the hegemony of the more conservative wing of the Communist Party, Mao initiated a massive political campaign to mobilize the masses to overthrow the capitalist roaders within the Communist Party. This event was known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Parts of the Cultural Revolution, especially at the beginning (it lasted from 1966-1976), were characterized by tremendous mass upheaval and violence, as Mao called upon people, especially youth, to overthrow the capitalist roaders within the Communist Party.
So, to return to the question that the listener asked, if Mao was responsible first for policies that led to a massive famine in one situation, and then later on was willing to foment chaos and upheaval on a grand scale (and which meant a lot of senseless violence and suffering for a lot of regular people who had nothing to do with the small group of people leading China back toward capitalism), and these aspects of Mao’s life are what are both emphasized and exaggerated when Mao is discussed in most mainstream discussions of Mao and the Chinese Revolution, then what is the framework that we can draw on for understanding Mao’s life that doesn’t reduce it to a simplistic narrative of evil-doing but which also does not pretend like some pretty bad things didn’t happen as a result of some of what Mao did?
So, first off, understanding context is important. Why was Mao doing these things? Was Mao just some guy with a perverted attachment to egalitarian politics? Or is there an actual material reason why someone would want to fundamentally change the economic and social organization of the world? We live in a world where, in 2008, the United Nations estimated that 25,000 people (including 10,000 children) die of starvation daily. That’s 9,125,000 people dying of starvation every year as measured in 2008, although as we all know, the economy has gotten so much better for everyone around the planet since 2008, right? And that’s just starvation, one of the easiest and most incontestable forms of suffering which we can point to, which is caused by the way the world economy is organized, but far from the only terrible thing caused by a capitalist world order.
So, it’s important for people to understand the Mao’s desire to find a form of organizing China’s economy and society which would break with capitalism was not the result of some sort of ideological perversion, or insanity, or ambition to be a Hitler-like mass murdering supervillain. Rather, the motivation was to find a way to end hunger and suffering. Initially, he thought the Soviet Union provided a model for doing that. When he discovered that this was not the case, he began experimenting.
Now, just because he had what I, at least, would qualify as good motivations, does that mean he does not bear any responsibility for the people that died in the famine? No, it doesn’t. There were people in the Chinese Communist leadership who argued for a more cautious approach which would not have risked so many lives, who he argued against. And the speed of collectivization that he argued for in the winter of 1957 and spring of 1958 meant that it was not possible to supervise and monitor the system of grain production. And when it became clear that a famine was underway, Mao delayed rolling back policies that were killing people because he knew that not reforming China’s agriculture was also a way of killing people. And all of this was exacerbated by a series of floods and droughts that made everything much worse than it otherwise would have been (which, to be clear, would have been very bad anyways).
But, at the end of the day, these were policy decisions made by Mao that went badly wrong, not deliberate attempts to kill people. And the dominant narrative about the Great Leap which treats these deaths as ‘murder by dictator’ expresses a double standard. There are many capitalist policies that result in devastating poverty and early death, yet it is rare to hear the people who devised these policies described as mass murderers (even though, in those cases, it was often predictable that many people would die as a result of the policies at the time their policies were formulated). As Mobo Gao notes in The Battle for China’s Past “Who is supposed to be the murderer of the millions of Russians whose life expectancy has been shortened by ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union?” And no one seems to refer to Winston Churchill as ‘British Hitler’ despite the three million people who died in the Bengal famine of 1943.
And this narrative of Mao as mass murderer ignores other policy choices that Mao made which emphasized public health and the egalitarian distribution of the benefits of economic development and which led, during the Mao years, to giving an estimated 35 billion extra collective years of life to the Chinese people, even including the losses of the Great Leap famine in the sum total.
And I would add that, given the fact that this was the first time that a social experiment with goals like those of the Great Leap was tried, it’s not a huge surprise that it did not work as expected. It’s amazing to me that, somehow, a terrible fiasco in a first experiment aimed at achieving egalitarian and just social relations is thought by some people to somehow discredit socialism in favor of a capitalist system whose growth and maintenance has involved systematic slavery and genocide among other atrocities.
Rather, I think that the tragedies that have happened despite good intentions in the process of trying to build socialism, in both the USSR and in China, show just how difficult it is to transform the world, not only in terms of changing how people think, but also in terms of altering the basic economic and social structures of society. The way to deal with these problems is not to act like they were the product of people who intended to do evil, but to try to understand how people trying to change the world for the better were undone by objective problems that arise in the process of changing the world, so that if anyone is ever in a position again to try to reshape a society and economy in such fundamental ways, they can learn from the experience. Otherwise, I think they will just reproduce it, however unintentionally.
And this brings us to the second major framework that I would propose for understanding deaths caused during a process of fundamental social change. I think that, if we look closely at history, there has never been any form of fundamental reworking of society that did not involve a tremendous amount of pain, suffering, violence, and death. When Marx described how capitalism came onto the historical stage and transformed the world, he wrote that “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Marx is referring to the way in which industrial capitalism was born through a process (referred to as primitive accumulation) which involved dispossessing peasants of their land, enslaving large numbers of Africans (and some other people as well, such as Filipinos), and the genocide of numerous peoples. The ongoing process of industrial development and capitalist exploitation involved numerous famines, the best known of which took place in Ireland and on a repeating basis in India from the 1770s through the 1940s. In every case of these famines, natural conditions were exacerbated by the policies pursued by the imperialist rulers which decisively turned unfortunate climate conditions into mass death events.
And aside from the mass death events involved in the process of primitive accumulation, industrialization also involved grinding up the lives of so many working class people. Anyone who has read a Dickens novel has to have gotten some sense of this. Frederick Engels’s classic book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written during his time in Manchester in the early 1840s, provides a lot of vivid descriptions of the waste of human life involved in capitalist industrial development. But it is important to remember that, in the case of capitalist development, while the ruling decision makers may have been callous to the suffering of the masses, they did not set out to cause such suffering per se, rather the structural changes involved in changing pre-capitalist society into industrial capitalism brought about all this suffering. And so, if a society was going to try to industrialize without bringing about a massive amount of suffering and premature death, it was going to have to enact measures to prevent that suffering and death.
So when the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s and China in the 1950s and 1960s tried to rapidly reproduce the bloody process of industrialization that capitalism had accomplished but in an even more rapid timeframe and under conditions of extreme external pressure from the imperialist countries, it is, in retrospect, hard to imagine how those transformations would have been carried out so rapidly, and in such an unfavorable international climate, without reproducing also much of the human carnage that had also been involved in capitalist industrialization.
The hypocrisy of those who talk about the famines of socialism but ignore those of capitalism should be obvious. But I offer this more by way of explanation and framework for understanding than as an excuse.
There are certainly people out there who argue that this was the only way that rapid industrialization could take place, and that just as capitalist industrialization took place at the expense of millions and millions of lives chewed up, it was inevitable and excusable that this was also the case for socialist countries. Anyone who listens to enough socialist podcasts will hear this argument. (Although actually, the dominant way in which these issues are dealt with by advocates for revolutionary change is to ignore the problem entirely.)
There is a poignant version of the argument that lots of people are just going to die in revolutions and in the process of fundamental social change and so people who want that sort of change should just accept it that I remember hearing when I was doing research in Bolivia. I was interviewing a leading Bolivian Maoist who had been a Xinhua news agency correspondent in Bolivia during the Mao years and been very involved in the Communist movement there for a long time. Not long after the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, in 1956, at the beginning of de-Stalinization, some Bolivian communist leaders came back from being in Moscow to La Paz, where this guy was a member of a party cell which was named the Stalin Cell, and they said that, what with the new policy of de-Stalinization, that the Stalin Cell was going to have to change its name.
And so, this guy said, why do we have to change our name, and they said that Stalin killed people. And so, this guy told me that his response was “Of course he killed people! It’s a revolution!”
On one level, this sort of statement is a recognition of objective facts. In a revolution, people are killed. Revolutionaries kill people. Sometimes this is intentional, and sometimes it is a byproduct of policies that have gone wrong. Some people who advocate for revolutionary change embrace this. They have the position that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”
And perhaps it’s unavoidable that people who have gone through extended periods of incredible violence, like those we have described in earlier podcast episodes on the Chinese Revolution, become inured to violence and death.
I don’t personally think that the way to correct the ways in which Stalin had been killing people was to just go back to killing people the way that capitalists do, which is the road that Khruschev went down.
But it is my opinion that socialists should be held to higher standards than capitalists, and so it is incumbent on socialists to find ways to transform society that do not involve large amounts of famine and death. Somehow, even in the context of a revolutionary process, for socialists to remain true to their fundamental values, I think that they have to find ways to demonstrate that they value human life far more than the capitalists do. And sadly, I think that they have failed at this in important ways historically. For what it’s worth, it’s my hope that if anyone is ever in a position to attempt a similarly deep transformation of society again, that their collective leadership will have studied and learned from the tragic shortcomings in China and the Soviet Union, otherwise I’m sure that they will repeat those errors. Because ignoring those errors or painting the policy architects as murderers ignores the structural situation which led to decisions that resulted in very many deaths.
And I hope that we can get up to these events someday in this podcast and then really get into the nitty gritty of what actually happened.
So, this was my two cents on answering the listener question on finding “a good framework for understanding the events of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that doesn’t exonerate Mao or frame their death tolls as the whole story.” I hope this was helpful to somebody, because I’m much more interested in exploring the details of a very interesting history than in getting up on a soapbox, which I feel like I may have done a bit more than I am comfortable with in this episode.
Anyways, there you have it.
Next episode, back to Mao.