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Circumstances Do Not Dictate, People Do: Conflicting Views on the History of Communism

Carnegie boxing Stalin (mocked-up)

In fact, in both the USSR and China, the famine process worked like this (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004; Chen and Kung 2011). First, the leaders issued quotas for the collection of food, province by province. They also gave the provincial leaders to understand that their future depended on meeting the quota. The provincial leaders competed to raise more grain than their neighbours in order to show loyalty and to save their own lives and the lives of their families. And they passed these incentives down the line to their subordinates charged with doing the actual work. When some people reported that the quotas were too heavy, or they resisted or dragged their feet, they were arrested and others took their place. Food collections began and the first people started to die. When some people reported that other people were dying, they were told that this was just “simulation or provocation”: enemies were maliciously withholding food and starving their own children to cause trouble (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004, p. 206).

While the first ones were dying, the people responsible for extracting grain from the villages had to go deeper and deeper into the countryside to find food and take it by force. On every journey along all the different routes they took, they had to go past the people from whom they had already taken food, who were now dead or dying, to find more food that they could take. In China, the provincial leaders of lower rank had more to prove and Chen and Kung (2011) show these people tried harder, so that more grain was collected and more people died in their provinces. Returning from every journey past the already dying and dead people, they sometimes reported what they had seen (although it was sometimes “forbidden to keep an official record”) but in public they had to remain absolutely silent about, not just at the time but for the rest of their lives. The same applied to everyone with business that required them to move around the countryside. While they were doing this, others had to be ordered to stop some of the dying people who were not dead yet from moving out in search of food elsewhere. They had to be ordered to stop them because the food that had been collected and stored elsewhere was destined for others; if the dying people were allowed to eat it, it would not be available to feed Stalin’s Great Breakthrough or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. A particular reason for these orders is that when hungry people are allowed to mix with people that have enough to eat, it is extraordinary difficult to stop kind people from giving some of their food to starving families; the Germans found this in occupied Europe when they tried to cut Jewish communities off from food, and this is one reason why they first herded Jews into ghettoes and later decided to accelerate the Holocaust (Collingham 2010, pp. 205 ff). Finally, both at the time and later, the surviving victims and perpetrators alike learned never to talk about it, perhaps not even to their children. As a result, witnesses of terrible things (such as Yang 2012) often concluded the events they had seen were isolated and exceptional.

In other words, the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy” was enough to start a famine, but further deliberate actions were required to ensure government priorities for food supplies when millions of people were dying of hunger. All this must be read into the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy,” and it suggests why those words do not begin to provide a full explanation.

UE says: “It is also worth noting that the remaining Cold War paranoia was certainly not a USSR-only phenomenon, with McCarthyism and the red scare in the US reaching levels which now seem ridiculous to most.”

No. McCarthyism was ridiculous and, partly as a result of it, the FBI missed many Soviet agents that were actually at work in American government and society after the war (Moynihan Commission 1997).

UE says: “In Poland, the popular party Solidarity wanted some form of worker ownership – in other words, socialism – until, in desperation, they had to turn to the IMF, who made capitalist policies a condition for any aid. In Russia, Boris Yeltin’s ‘free market’ reforms were resisted, which was met with force; similarly, in China, the Tienanmen Square massacres were not made in favour of capitalism but in favour of democracy and worker control” (citing Naomi Klein).

Politics is the art of the possible, and for this reason people tend to express their choices strategically, in the light of the constraints they perceive and the choices they expect others to make.

No. None of us can possibly know what demonstrators in China or elsewhere “really” wanted. Politics is the art of the possible, and for this reason people tend to express their choices strategically, in the light of the constraints they perceive and the choices they expect others to make. I saw this myself in Russia: As long as the communist party was in full control, many dissenters preferred to limit their demands by appealing to rights guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, asking for a return to “true” Leninism, calling to rehabilitate Old Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Bukharin, and so forth. Only when the communist monopoly gave way did it become politically and psychologically possible for free thinkers to go further; some didn't but many did. UE refers to IMF conditionality in a disparaging way; but why would a responsible aid donor give aid without wishing to rule out uses of its resources that would be damaging or counterproductive? UE relies on Klein’s Shock Doctrine as a source; on its use of evidence see Harrison (2009).

UE says: “While estimates of deaths from Mao’s GLF are exaggerated using dubious estimation techniques (which effectively allow the demographers to pick the number arbitrarily), little to no cover has been given to the increase in Russian deaths during the ‘transition’ to capitalism, which, by a reasonable estimation method of simply counting the increase in death rates, claimed 4 million lives between 1990 and 1996” (citing Utsa Patnaik).

No. UE (or perhaps Utsa Patnaik) seems to confuse demographic studies with the literary and journalistic accounts written by people who do not have a good understanding of error margins. Demographers know that when people die in numbers so large that they are not recorded individually there is always an error margin. The error margin has several sources: mismeasurement of the population before and after the shock, imputation of normal mortality during the shock (required to infer excess mortality), and correctly apportioning the birth deficit between babies not born (or miscarried) and babies born and died within the famine period. In other words the best available estimation techniques give rise to ranges rather than point estimates, and it is from these ranges that nonspecialists feel entitled to pick and choose.

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