Just go and ask, and they will all tell you that they did it for the sake of virtue, for everybody’s good. That’s why they drove mothers to cannibalism.
Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing
China’s infallible Communist overlord, Mao, was cynical, incredulous, resistant and threatening to anyone who might dare to tell him how disastrous his utopian projects were. But he was also eager to believe the falsified, highly incredible reports of the success of his policies. In 1958 Mao visited Henan province one of the hardest hit in China by the famine his policies had unleashed. He had been told that grain yields had increased by at least a factor of ten, from 330 lbs. per 0.17 acres to 3,330 and at times far beyond. Mao’s visits were choreographed by local officials who prepared the fields he visited with temporarily replanted wheat stalks close to the original ones. When he left, they put the replanted stalks back in their original fields. Mao then announced at top-level meeting that these yields were possible everywhere in China. [Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, New York, 1998, 122]
Mao, like his mentor Stalin, was proclaimed a genius even though he was not one. Khrushchev sarcastically remarked of his egotism: “Mao thought of himself as a man brought by God to God’s bidding. In fact Mao probably thought God did Mao’s own bidding.” [Becker, Hungry Ghosts, 55] But Mao’s liege men always spoke of his infallibility. After the disasters of the famine were too obvious to ignore in 1962, Lin Biao continued to defend the Chairman. “The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct…Chairman Mao’s superiority has many aspects, not just one, and I know from experience that Chairman Mao’s most outstanding quality is realism.” [Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, New York, 2010, 336] Mao was not a normal human being. He could never be wrong. But nothing could be further from the truth – the courtiers merely amplified the staggering, criminal dishonesty – and Lin Biao’s encomium is testimony to the extent to which the Chinese Communist leadership lived in a false world. Mao operated in his own delusional universe of self-perceived infallibility, unable to comprehend that his half-baked views about agriculture, industry, medicine, etc. wrought nothing but destruction and misery when they were put into practice.
Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962 pushed China into one of the world’s worst famines, a brutal replay, Asian style, of Stalin’s own efforts on behalf of the peasants in Ukraine three decades earlier. History did not in this case, as Marx opined, repeat itself first as tragedy then as farce. Communist agricultural policy was always a tragedy for the peasant farmers, whatever country they were in. Mao in the 1950s and 1960s forced the grotesque and savage plunge into a deliberately induced mass starvation similar to what Stalin did in the 1930s. Peasant existence whether under Stalin or Mao meant massive coercion, privation, hunger and a good chance to die of starvation. The facts of the famine and the reports of the misery and death that abounded, however, would not fit into Mao’s epistemic framework. His theory was assured and unassailable. “When malnourishment reached the inner recess of power in Zhongnanhai and Zi Zhisui told the Chairman that hepatitis and oedema were everywhere, Mao quipped: ‘You doctors are just upsetting people by talking about disease. You are making it difficult for everybody. I just don’t believe you.’” [Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, 274] Mao’s colossal egotism and fundamental dishonesty, lethal and murderous in its application, was self-corrupting on a scale that made him invincible to the truth, oblivious to the consequences of massive failure of his programs and the idiocy of his ideas. Like Stalin, Mao’s self-asserted expertise in all areas of life magically superseded those of any real expert and displaced centuries of accumulated experience, wisdom and skill.
The Great Leap Forward, one is tempted to say, is a spectacular illustration of Communist utopianism at the best it can be. All of the essential elements for making the utopian transformation a practical reality were in place for Mao and the Chinese Communist Party. First, China was a very large and populous country with so much raw human and material resources at hand for experiment, and so any major achievement by the planners could not be dismissed by skeptics with an argument of small scale success or limited opportunity. Second, the Communists in 1958 in China were without serious rivals for power. They were in complete charge and could do whatever they believed was necessary. And so they did. Also, initially they had come to power in a country where the people had experienced great oppression, constant upheaval and abuse of power, and so there was considerable initial popular support for the Communists who had promised to eliminate corruption and govern to benefit a large peasant population that had been particularly hard pressed. Third, there was virtually no outside interference and considerable assistance from their Communist allies including the Soviet Union. Fourth, the top leader, Chairman Mao, had a near mystical, god-like aura that gave him an authority and preemptive options that no leader in a western-style, constitutional democratic government could rival. No ambitious utopian project ever began with fewer obstacles, and with such high attainment predicted. One sycophant in Mao’s close entourage, Kang Sheng composed this verse for the peasants to recite:
Communism is paradise.
The People’s Communes
are the bridge to it.
Communism is heaven.
The Commune is the ladder.
If we build that ladder
We can climb the heights.
[Becker, Hungry Ghosts, 104]
The results of the Great Leap Forward can be credibly affirmed to be exactly what happens when Communists, without impediments and with complete power, put their theory into practice. Given the theory and given the power at the disposal of the Chinese Communist governors for full practical implementation, the Social Workers’ Paradise would certainly come gloriously into being. The very opposite, as it continues to be richly and extensively documented, is what transpired. Mao’s China came to resemble about as close a picture of hell as the most darkly imaginative and talented novelist could invent – starvation, wreckage, devastation and brutality on an unprecedented scale. Chinese peasants, like the Ukrainians three decades before, experienced and reacted to Communism as it was applied to them in its most coercive, elemental form: having their grain taken away and sold to foreign markets so as to finance the operations of the regime and feed those living in the cities, with no food to eat, they began to eat rats, insects, grass, bark, dirt, and finally, each other. The twentieth century crowning culmination of Communism in the two vast countries in which it was forcefully brought into a completed reality was … cannibalism.
In marked contrast to the CCP’s “ladder to heaven” that would be the joyful future of the Great Leap Forward into Communism we have the reality of it reflected in one of the posting of government regulations in Fengyang where it was a massive challenge just to dispose of all of the corpses.
- Shallow burials are prohibited. All corpses must be buried at least three feet deep and crops must be grown on top.
- No burials are allowed near roads.
- All crying and wailing is forbidden.
- The wearing of mourning clothes if forbidden.
[Becker, Hungry Ghosts, 138]
Because the sheer number of people dying was so great it was challenging to bury them properly as regulation number one suggests. Regulation number two became a necessity because so many people were simply dropping dead of starvation on the roads. Numbers three and four are worth commenting on. They show the fundamental impulse of Communism to deny and to cover up the hideous reality that it forces its people into. They also reflect fundamental cruelty of Communism – people are forbidden even to engage in any way and express their grief – and the way Communists rulers attempt to overrule reality.
The Communist theorizing that unleashed the Great Leap Forward did not simply bring about famine and massive starvation. It overturned the old order and swept away the most elemental standards of human decency and morality – Hobbes’s “war of all against all” became the appropriate descriptor. Humiliation, physical and psychological intimidation, and beatings became a common feature of daily life. Families, villages and entire communities were ruptured, torn into pieces and scattered. Resources were plundered then squandered by the planners and the Party enforcers. Basic needs of food and shelter were stripped away leaving vast swaths of individuals destitute, alone, helpless and vulnerable. The young, the old, the infirmed were abandoned and rendered defenseless against younger and stronger who were torn away from whatever previously established structures, customs and norms that might have restrained them. The historian Frank Dikotter in his Mao’s Great Famine writes that: “at least 45 million people perished above a normal death rate during the famine from 1958 to 1962 [during the Great Leap Forward]. Given the extent and scope of violence so abundantly documented in the party archives, it is likely that at least 2.5 million of these victims were beaten or tortured to death.” [Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, 298]