Within three months we become emaciated. The extremities turn thin but the bellies are bloated. On less nourishment than the daily intake of 1600 calories, the process commences earlier. Next we become lethargic and tire easily. Sometimes we are capable of bursts of violent rage as we frantically search for anything edible. In fact, we become delusional, incapable of thinking of anything but food. We eat grass, leaves, bark, worms, soil, and even feces. Diarrhea usually results and weakens us further. In desperation, some of us sell our children for food, primarily daughters as prostitutes. However, with that source of nourishment exhausted, we start losing basic motor skills. At this point, some of us resort to cannibalism. It is not too uncommon for parents to kill their children and eat them, or vice versa. Again, females are consumed first. Once all means of sustenance are exhausted, we fall into a hunger-induced stupor. Even breathing becomes a Herculean task. We become human skeletons incapable of controlling bodily functions. Finally, we just fade away. Hunger kills us.
All of this happened on a mass scale in China where, between 1959 and 1961, about 30 million people starved to death. Historically, famines had been quite common in China. But this one was different; unlike all others, it was entirely man-made. The famine resulted from a failed attempt to organize political, social, and economic life according to the teachings of a nineteenth century philosopher: Karl Marx. This thinker held that the history of humanity is determined by the dialectic of the class struggle, the oppressed vs. the oppressor. It takes place in a world devoid of spirituality, where all material things are conditioned by the environment. The environment is evil, hierarchical, and capitalist. The inevitable proletarian revolution will change the environment through its destruction and usher in an egalitarian utopia, where property is held collectively. Marxism held a promise of modernization, a revolutionary transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial one and finally to communism. The power of the messianic Marxist message was strengthened by the fact that it is expressed in allegedly scientific terms of dialectical materialism. Marx’s approach was the only correct–or as Lenin put it, “politically correct”–way of analyzing and solving human problems.
With a firm conviction that they had history on their side, the Chinese Communists embarked upon their egalitarian experiment. Following revolutionary logic, one qualified as an “oppressor” if one had a mule or had ever hired a seasonal laborer. During the revolution and after its victory, anyone who came from an “oppressor” family was permanently branded as a class enemy, a “bloodsucker.” Thus, even if such a person earnestly wanted to embrace Communism, it was not allowed. A parallel would be a Jewish German who was barred from becoming a Nazi. The struggle against such genetic class enemies was to be carried out to the end.
In 1958, the Chinese Communist Party launched the “Great Leap Forward” campaign to achieve communism. It was an attempt to modernize China by mandating that every peasant build an iron smelting furnace in his backyard. And build they did. Additionally, the peasants were dragooned into participating in humongous public projects, like building makeshift dams and dikes. The results were catastrophic. The increase in industrial output failed to materialize; the makeshift structures promptly collapsed. Meanwhile, the peasants were absent from the field, thus neglecting the crops. However, that also was a calculated party policy. The Communists believed that science would multiply the crop yield and relieve the peasants’ burden.
Here Mao relied on Soviet science. Since everything is conditioned by the environment, Mendelian teachings of inherited genetic traits were dubbed “fascism.” The top Soviet agricultural expert, Trofim Lysenko, believed that beneficial changes could be obtained if plants were planted in different environments, and that these changes would only then be permanently inherited. For that reason, Lysenko advocated planting grain in the snows of Siberia to create a seed impregnable to extreme temperatures. Operating on a similar premise, I. V. Michurin practiced tree and vegetable grafting to create random hybrids like apple-tomato or cucumber-watermelon. The results were disastrous but because the premise was “politically correct,” the Soviets and later the Chinese based their agricultural policies on Lysenko and his school.
Soon an army of Chinese scientists and technicians was busy introducing Marxist measures in agriculture, while peasants were slaving at harebrained industrial schemes and public projects. Simultaneously, the Communists introduced collectivization. All private possessions were collectivized, including pots and pans. People had to eat in communal kitchens and their children were taken away for “reeducation.” In a few places, the party considered collectivizing women, presumably for collective sex. Inhuman work norms were established and ruthlessly executed by the cadres. An average work day lasted 14 hours, after which the peasants were herded into collective halls for indoctrination sessions.
There was some resistance. The peasants slaughtered most of the livestock and destroyed agricultural tools rather than give them up to the Communists. Some farmers even attempted to run away. Havoc and misery reigned throughout China.
Thus, the agricultural and industrial policies of the “Great Leap Forward” caused a massive famine. Concentration camps and jails swelled with “class enemies.” The resistance weakened as hunger set in. Begging was forbidden and no peasant was allowed to leave his collective farm without an official permission. Beggars were beaten or killed. Persons trying to flee across the border to India or Hong Kong were shot down by the sentries. People were machine-gunned while trying to steal grain from state granaries. Women prostituted themselves to get food. Parents sold their children to Communist party officials as slaves. Cannibalism was rampant, but the cadres mostly ignored it. The peasants began dying by the millions. Only the Communist prospered.
Incredibly, all of this took place to the propaganda fanfares of Communist intellectuals and the production of thousands of verses, films, performances, and books to praise Mao and his “Great Leap Forward.” As usual, the leftists in the United States swayed in adulation of the Great Egalitarian Experiment. Next to Che Guevara, Mao was lionized by student radicals across American campuses. Following their demonstrations, sit-ins, and protests, they were free to give vent to their class hatred by devouring big, juicy, capitalist hamburgers. That was much easier than, say, launching a hunger strike in solidarity with the starving people of China. After all, why diet for class enemies?
Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (New York: The Free Press, 1996)