Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine, 1958-1962, An Oral History
By Zhou Xun
Yale University Press, 2013
336 pp, $35.00
In his excellent history book Timelines, John Rees has a graph, which in one image sums up the people’s history contained in Zhou Xun’s Forgotten Voices. The line showing improvements in life expectancy in China suddenly shows a total reversal, a deep plunge into an abyss and then a quick return to the original curve.
This abyss was Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.
Starting in 1958, Mao unleashed his plan to transform China from a backward, feudal, agricultural society into a modern, industrial, communist nation in one fell swoop. It was a disaster that killed at least 40 million people.
There is no justification, no defence, no rational reason that can be advanced for the calamity that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party inflicted. It was a violation of all socialist principles and was a near-suicidal misadventure for the Chinese Revolution, which defeated pro-imperialist forces in 1949.
Zhou Xun has travelled the length and breadth of China interviewing aging survivors. Presented with very little political commentary, the stories echo the same tale again and again: the Party led the people into catastrophe.
You can open this book to virtually any page and see the same narrative. The Party dictated that all peasants had to join collective farms; that household food preparation was a thing of the past to be replaced with communal canteens; and, in addition to communal farming, small-scale steel production would catapult China into the league of advanced nations.
Far from taking the country forward, what occurred was a descent into a Hell where reality was turned upside down at the whim of cadres who told Beijing what the leadership wanted to hear.
Mao’s theory was that collective farming would produce prodigious yields, so that was what local leaders reported. In reality, the fields were devastated through inane practices such as “deep ploughing” (digging huge gashes in the earth that were supposed to increase growth) and close seeding of crops, which simply caused plants to compete and shrivel.
Having promised food supplies to Beijing and produced nothing, the only solution for the local officials was to strip the peasants of rations and ship those out.
What Maoism produced in abundance was poetic slogans and descriptors. The lies told by cadres were called the Wind of Exaggeration, the empty paddocks supposedly producing bumper crops were called Sputnik Fields and the peasants who were being worked to death were rewarded with little red flags.
To survive, people were reduced to cannibalism. On top of this, China’s ecology is still recovering from some of the worst excesses.
Zhou Xun lets the survivors tell the grim reality. Occasionally she opines that Mao was doing what all communists want to do: pursue utopian dreams without regard for human life.
In fact, disregard of humanity is not a unique signifier of communism. Every day, at least 50,000 children die from starvation on our planet and 4400 US citizens die for want of affordable medical attention every month.
Those daily tragedies are part of the “background radiation” of the capitalist market system that goes without comment.
However, Maoist insanity was of an altogether different type to capitalist inhumanity. It also has nothing in common with Marxism.
In the 19th century, Positivism competed with Marxism as an ideology of social progress. It held that advances in modern industry would naturally produce a peaceful, advanced society without the need for revolution.
This thinking infected the leaders of the socialist movement gathered in the Second International. As lazy bureaucrats, they found it easier to believe that simple industrialisation would develop humanity.
After Stalin achieved his bureaucratic counter-revolution in the USSR, he adapted Positivism to his own ends, linking it to his brutal police-state methods. Under Stalin, the Five Year Plan became idealised, such that material reality was overthrown in favour of official duplicity.
Maoism was formed in the school of Stalinism and advanced via militarism, not workers’ struggles. Alternative, progressive Chinese socialist elements were wiped out by the combined pressures of the pro-capitalist Kuomintang, Japanese imperialism and Maoist factionalism.
It was the combined idealisation of industrialism, separation from working class reality and the regimented tyranny of the bureaucratic caste that created the Great Leap Forward.
The idea was to rush to compete with the industrialised West in terms of commodity production, instead of strengthening egalitarianism by establishing a genuine social welfare system. It almost fatally debilitated the Chinese socialist project.
It is only at the end of her book that Zhou Xun lets slip that nearly every one of her interviewees forgives and reveres Mao. She cannot account for this, except by regarding it as peasant brain washing.
But the fact remains that despite the crimes of the Maoist regime, the Chinese people also achieved a great revolution that Mao helped lead in 1949 ― expelling foreign powers and liberating their nation. That feat is what the Chinese people revere.
Mao’s Stalinist madness after that triumph is not to be confused with this achievement.