It is a strange fact of the modern world that whilst fascism is quite rightly shunned as a fanatical, despicable movement, communism is still admired in many circles. Communist apologists regularly pop up, like the Guardian’s Seumas Milne and John Gittings,ready to defend Lenin, Stalin and Mao as great men poorly understood.
Olivier Besancenot, the face of French communism
It is not just marginal journalists and academics who admire the hard left. When I was working in France in 2007, once a month a union man would stand at the entrance to the factory waving a huge hammer and sickle flag, demanding money from all those entering. Not only was this allowed (shame on you ST Micro) but many of my French co-workers saluted his stance: despite working in a globalised company whose success was based on capitalist ideals.
Perhaps the reason for these lingering pro-communist feelings is that the true horrors of its proponents have been so poorly understood in the West.
How many Londoners would know for example that the communist Khmer Rouge killed around 2 million people in less than five years, about a fifth of the total population of Cambodia?
Cambodia's communist killing fields
And how many know of the tens of millions killed by Mao Zedong under his leadership of China?
Into this historical blind spot comes a book by Dutch professor Frank Dikotter, shedding light on one of the most terrible moments in the history of mankind. Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in an attempt to catch up and overtake the Western world, resulted in 45 million people being worked, starved or beaten to death in four short years between 1958-62.
Professor Dikotter’s book – Mao’s Great Famine – uses a wealth of archival evidence to capture how and why decisions that led to the famine were taken at the top and how these decisions affected the lives of ordinary people on the ground.
The account shows how people of all walks of life had to hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state in order to survive, including resorting to armed rebellion and assaults on granaries or trains.
Mao knew people were dying
China went on an international shopping spree in 1958. As the bills were coming in, Premier Zhou Enlai, with the support of his colleagues and the backing of the Chairman, relentlessly pressed the countryside into fulfilling ever greater procurements in order to meet foreign commitments.
The idea that the state mistakenly took too much grain from the countryside because it assumed that the harvest was much larger than it was is largely a myth – at most partially true for the autumn of 1958 only. In most cases the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death. At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated 25 March 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting he announced that ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’
The book is the first to use a whole range of archives to come up with an estimate of at least 45 million premature deaths, instead of the usual estimate of 30 to 32 million based on official population statistics.
By a very rough approximation, between 6 and 8 per cent of these victims, or 2 to 3 million people, were buried alive, tortured or beaten to death.
Many of the victims did not die because there was no grain available in the villages, instead they were deliberately and selectively deprived of food by local cadres because they were relatively rich, dragged their feet, spoke out, or simply were not liked, for whatever reason, by whoever wielded the canteen ladle.
Many people vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work and hence unable to earn their keep; they were considered to be expendable by the state.
Not only Mao, but also other senior leaders were willing to condone the deaths of millions of people in the Great Leap Forward. In 1962, having lost about ten million people in Sichuan, provincial leader Li Jingquan compared the Great Leap Forward to the Long March in which only one in ten had made it to the end: ‘We are not weak, we are stronger, we have kept the backbone’.
Starved to death: another victim of the Great Leap Forward
In the midst of famine China sharply increased the amount of free economic aid and interest-free or low-interest loans to other countries. China also shipped grain for free to allied countries.
Up to 30 or 40 per cent of all housing was turned into rubble, as homes were pulled down to make fertiliser, to build canteens, to relocate villagers, to straighten roads, to make place for a better future beckoning ahead or simply to punish their occupants.
A prolonged and intense attack on nature claimed up to 50 per cent of all trees in some provinces, while dams and canals, built by hundreds of millions of farmers at great human and economic cost, were for the greatest part rendered useless or even dangerous, resulting in land slides, river silting, soil salinisation and devastating inundations.
All in all, the book chronicles a period of history that should never be forgotten. And it was communism that was to blame.
The saving grace for China following the Great Leap Forward – and the following Cultural Revolution, which killed a further unknown amount of men, woman and children, perhaps numbering up to 30 million – was that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) learnt the lessons of the past.
The Guardian's Seumas Milne: a fan of communism
It is inconceivable that the CCP would ever again allow the wholesale slaughter of the population in the name of ideology. As the CCP acknowledges itself, the modern economic miracle that is China, and the hundreds of millions of people who have been dragged out of grinding poverty, is thanks to the embrace of capitalist ideas.
At a time of chronic economic instability, and when the states and economic systems of the West seem to be in terminal decline, it is worth remembering that communism is never an alternative; as anyone living during Mao’s great famine would attest.