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20 November 2012

A new account of Mao’s great famine reveals the dark heart of socialism

What is it about Communism and mass starvation?

From the Soviet Union in the 1930s to Ethiopia in the 1980s, Communist regimes have deliberately engineered famines to achieve their political aims. However, the greatest of all of these crimes against humanity was the Great Chinese Famine of 1958 to 1962 in which at least 36 million people died.

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson reviews a translation of Tombstone, Yang Jisheng’s monumental account of the catastrophe: 

  • "Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people’s own efforts to confront their history, despite the fact that the party responsible for the Great Famine is still in power. This fact is often lost on outsiders who wonder why the Chinese haven’t delved into their history as deeply as the Germans or Russians or Cambodians. In this sense, Yang is like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: someone inside the system trying to uncover its darkest secrets." 

The book is banned in China – unsurprisingly, given its central argument: 

  • "His main point is to prove that the Party, from the village chief up to Chairman Mao, knew exactly what was going on but was too warped by ideology to change course until tens of millions had died. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, the book is a cry of outrage from a victim. Yang vowed to erect for his father an everlasting tombstone, one that would not crumble or fall with time, and he did so with this book." 

Ian Johnson’s review provides a useful guide to the book, which few of us are likely to read, but all of us should know at least something about. Consider, for instance, the following insight into the mentality of those responsible for the deaths so many people: 

  • "Adding to the problem were the harmless-sounding ‘communal kitchens,’ in which everyone ate. The kitchens took on a sinister aspect because of a nonsensical plan to boost steel production by melting down everything from hoes and plows to the family wok and meat cleaver. Families thus couldn’t cook and had to eat in the canteens, giving the state complete control over the supply of food. At first, people gorged themselves, but when food became scarce, the kitchens controlled who lived and who died: 
  • ‘The staff of the communal kitchens held the ladles, and therefore enjoyed the greatest power in distributing food. They could dredge a richer stew from the bottom of a pot or merely skim a few vegetable slices from the thin broth near the surface.’  
  • "These posts, of course, went to the Party’s most trusted members or relatives." 

When conservatism goes wrong, it is because it is distorted beyond all recognition. For instance, free markets cease to function as such when governments allow vested interests to exploit a monopoly position or to escape the consequences of their own recklessness.

But when socialism goes wrong (more wrong than usual, that is) it is still recognisably – indeed, characteristically – socialist. The policies that resulted in Mao’s great famine, though extreme, are nevertheless totally consistent with the idea that the state knows best.


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