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TCW’s Summer Reads: The truth about hunger and socialism


Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter; Walker & Company, 2011

TOBY Young recently jibed at a Left-leaning opponent in a television debate: ‘Socialism always begins with a universal vision for the brotherhood of man and ends with people having to eat their own pets.’

The truth about hunger and socialism was often far worse, with people eating not just their pets, but each other. In the 20th century, Marxist rule, through both ideology and malice, brought terrible famines, with cannibalism a feature. 

Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Greatest Catastrophe 1958-1962 describes a wholly avoidable famine in which tens of millions of lives were lost.

Despite its vast scale and recentness, it is tragically little known in the west. Dikötter’s patient and accessible recital of the story makes an excellent addition to the subject’s history.

The famine sprang from Mao’s determination radically to modernise China in a ‘Great Leap Forward’. China was backward, desperately poor and still in recovery from both its civil war and the war against Japan. Its people were demoralised, often hungry and largely illiterate. Mao believed that Communist zeal and the total mobilisation of society under fierce dictatorial control would allow China to overtake the capitalist world, and outstrip the Soviet Union to gain leadership of global Communism.

The Great Leap’s first major campaign was water management. Flood defence was of huge importance in China, and it was hoped that massive irrigation schemes would boost agricultural production.

Dikötter describes a vast programme to construct dykes, dams, canals and reservoirs, using human labour in a manner reminiscent of Pharaonic Egypt. By 1958, almost one in six Chinese were involved in the back-breaking work of shifting earth with hand tools in harsh conditions. According to Dikötter, those directing the armies of labourers expected and planned for deaths by the thousand. Mao authorised one project in Jiangsu where the death toll was predicted to be thirty thousand.

Brutal coercion was needed to extract the necessary labour. Beatings were common; Dikötter tells of work overseers routinely carrying whips. Torture and murder were already familiar, having been used extensively throughout China on anyone who had opposed the establishment of Communist power. Now they were the default method for dealing with those who failed to accept their place in the great rebuilding of society.

In agricultural areas, the peasantry who had already had their goods, land and livestock seized in earlier collectivisation campaigns were now incorporated into communes. Their lives were subject to military-style discipline and constant supervision. Their movements were directed by bugle calls and whistles. Privacy and family life were squeezed out to the point of non-existence.

Industry was set impossible targets to achieve, with managers needing to demonstrate their Communist devotion through ever higher output figures. But quantity brought a precipitous drop in quality. Dikötter cites one official report which estimated that a staggering 70 per cent of one region’s industrial output was so poor as to be unusable. Transport problems often meant that finished goods never reached their destinations.

The main battleground was the production of steel. Communist propaganda fetishised heavy industry and saw steel production as its heart. As Dikötter puts it, ‘towering blast furnaces . . . were the consecrated image of socialist modernity’. But China lacked the elements needed to boost output to the levels Mao wanted.

His solution was an insane country-wide campaign for the micro-scale backyard manufacture of steel. With homemade tools, jerry-built furnaces and almost zero technical knowledge, a vast workforce was thrown into the task. Unsurprisingly, the end product was often worthless metallic rubbish, with serious consequences for the nation’s infrastructure and the industries that relied on steel for their own products.

China fell into chaos, particularly its agriculture. The diversion of resources and labour, the mayhem and terror caused by enforcing state control, and sheer mismanagement all combined with terrible effect. The result was a devastating famine that Dikötter describes in ghastly detail.

People ate dogs, cats, rats, wild berries, bark and grass, even the straw from their roofs. Huge numbers left their homes looking for food; this only added to the disruption. Where food was available, it became a means of control. Anyone who displeased the party cadres or the petty tyrants in charge received the most miserable rations.

As famine gripped, villages were wiped out, whole counties left devastated. Dikötter describes how the survivors were slowly driven to the last terrible resort of cannibalism. The first examples were of the corpses of the recently buried being dug up and eaten. The practice spread and eventually a black market emerged in human meat, often heavily disguised from the authorities with different spices or hot peppers, or mixed in with chopped dog flesh. Although most meat was taken from those already dead, murder to obtain human flesh for food was certainly not unknown. This was the peasant socialism that so many idiotic western Leftist intellectuals idealised.

Dikötter finishes the book with a summary of the various estimates of the final death toll. Of course it’s impossible to produce a definitive figure, but serious estimates range from 45million to 55million. Without any disrespect to the victims, precision barely matters when you are counting corpses in tens of millions. Although it seems unlikely that such a disaster as Mao’s rule could happen again, it is certainly not impossible. Even today you will find apologists for Mao, and India is still struggling with the Naxalite terrorist movement who are proud to call themselves Maoist.

A country fractured by war or serious economic failure could easily seek salvation in political cults as demented as Maoism. An essential part of our defence against these ideas and movements is doing as much as we can to remember the crimes and victims of their earlier eruptions. Dikötter’s book, which is accompanied by separate volumes on the Communist seizure of power in China and the Cultural Revolution, is an important contribution to this.

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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