Mao's Great Famine

I have been exploring communism for months. This recent read came recommended from a “top five best books on Chinese Communism” list, and it is the first part of a trilogy.

It is also a litany of horrors.

Jumping into history here, at the start of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, is like watching Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad halfway through the series: it’s clear that there’s a lot of plot that came before, and it’s critical to really understanding the whole story, but even without it it’s still possible to enjoy the action.

And by “enjoy the action” I mean “be numbed to the point of insensibility”. Like Kurt Tucholsky said, “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” As I read of the unfortunate Chinese who perished under Mao’s ham-handed implementation of socialism, I kept thinking that it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought or heard that it was. Many of the examples that Dikötter relates are anecdotal stories of individual mistreatment interspersed with the records of a dozen deaths here, a few hundred there. Until near the end of the book, I felt that there was a case being made that the human cost of bringing China up to speed with the other industrialized superpowers wasn’t so bad. Eggs and omelettes, and all that.

Then the grand totals were tallied, and while no perfect data exists, anywhere from fifteen to forty-five million people perished in the four years from 1948 to 1952. That’s a lot of eggs, and really: one is too many. Could the work have been accomplished in a kinder, gentler fashion? I have to wonder. After all, Mao had an entire nation of over half a billion people willing to roll up their sleeves and “make China great”.

Something else I’ve been mulling over as I explore radical socialism in practice: who’s the biggest culprit? Was it Stalin? Mao? I’m starting to lean towards Karl Marx and the people who propagated his philosophy as being the bloodiest of the butchers in all of this, but I still have a long way to go with my research.


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