Why did communist governments in the twentieth century experience such devastating famines?
The Communist regimes of the twentieth century – most notably in the USSR and China – had three clear and unmistakeable characteristics in common that engendered social and humanitarian crises, culminating in large scale famine and death through starvation. The first is that the communism that emerged in Russia and China, was taking root in nations that were economically, politically and technologically backward, with a nominal industrial base. 80% of the Russian population were peasants who had not experienced much of an improvement in their circumstances from emancipation in 1861 up until the October Revolution of 1917. The demographic discrepancies between rural and urban population was similar in China; in fact, even up until 2012 the rural population of China exceeded that of those living in towns and cities. The significance of this factor will be delineated in the main body of this essay, but the commentary will centre on how this population disparity influenced and interacted with the second common characteristic which I will examine, which is the efforts to rapidly industrialise in Russia – with its Five Year Plans – and in China during the Great Leap Forward. It will be shown that the burden of moving communism on to a par with the modern industrial nations of the West fell heavily on the peasantry. Mao’s myopic desire to transform China into a modern socialist utopia within a generation led to what Frank Dikötter estimates to be ‘a minimum of 45 million excess deaths’ i.e. those that died unnecessarily through starvation and malnourishment. While in Russia the number who died in the Soviet Famine of 1932-3, towards the end of the First Five Year Plan is approximately 5.5 to 6.5 million.
Catching up to the industrialised democracies of the West was an obsession of the Communist regimes of both Mao and Stalin. For Stalin, ‘the pace of Soviet industrialisation would determine whether the socialist fatherland survived or crumbled before its enemies’. If socialism was to survive the attacks from liberal democracy it was necessary to achieve the capacity to compete technologically with the advanced industrialised nations of Britain and the United States as soon as possible. To overhaul decades of economic backwardness in a couple of decades would inevitably give rise to social upheaval as many millions of erstwhile agrarian labourers would be required to migrate into the towns and cities. It also required the State to shift priorities and direct a steadfast heavy-handedness in the treatment of its own citizens in order to achieve such monumental objectives. The building of a modern industrial base would demand blood and sacrifice. This consequence of rapid industrialisation is witnessed through the forced collectivisation initiatives that were a prerequisite to successful industrialisation. The nascent urban working class needed to be fed adequately to increase productions and high grain procurements would yield more raw materials, machinery, tools and capital for large scale industry initiatives through its trade to the industrialised nations. These considerations relate closely with the third common characteristic that helps answer why Communist governments experienced famines: unrealistic targets and the folly of trying to overfulfil the aims of already overly-ambitious plans.
The USSR and China, in the twentieth century, were huge expanses of territory with a large population. A brisk but steady course toward industrialisation could have been taken in order to propel these regimes into economic and technological modernity without the devastation of famine and mass starvation. There was enough food cultivated to feed the entire population, but political decision diverted the grain to certain favoured groups (the urban working class and the military) and towards international trade so as to bring in the revenue to allow industrialisation to continue apace. China and the USSR were also two polities that were increasingly isolated and operating in an atmosphere of hostility from all sides. Paranoia and suspicion, especially in the USSR, were symptoms of a regime that lacked political mandate and one that emerged from a violent revolution. Therefore there was a steely desire to become self-sufficient and make up the deficit with the West within 10-15 years or risk extinction, which meant that realistic and steady goals were never an option. Industrialisation in the USSR was couched in war terms, symbolising a fight to survive. Rather than simply carrying out the goals of the Five Year Plan, industry and communist officials were exhorted to overfulfil the plan, and the ends (fulfilling or overfulfilling the plan) were more important than the means. Priorities were constantly changing in response to crises or a rising in targets in a key sector of industry and supply priorities were routinely decided by a series of ad hoc decisions by various arms of the Soviet bureaucracy. It is understandable that under all this chaotic changes back and forth and improvised measures – with no consideration on its social consequences – which afflicted the communist regimes in both China and the USSR, that humanitarian calamity became part and parcel of the insular way in which the industrialisation drives were orchestrated. This essay will demonstrate that economic backwardness coupled with the desire to play catch up, and the ideological recklessness and callousness of the state bureaucracy in attempting to rapidly reach a par with the advanced industrial nations of the West interacted to lead to the immense deprivation and loss of life experienced by the ordinary citizens of these two communist dictatorships.
Beginning with Russia, it has already been mentioned above that the Russian Empire prior to 1917 was political and economic decay. A plan for rapid industrialisation had only really begun in the 1880s and although it was highly concentrated in areas like the Donbass, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa and the Caucasus, heavy industry was still very much in its infancy during the advent of communism in Russia. The economic stagnation in Russia – compounded by the Civil War (1917-1922) – had forced Lenin to tolerate small scale private enterprise in industry in order to encourage investment, develop the nation’s industry and help repair a ruined Russian economy. Once Stalin assumed power of the Communist Party this New Economic Policy was abolished and instituted a centralised planning and control of the economy which would culminate in the First Five Year Plan. The impetus behind the plan was a desire to rapidly industrialise – particularly in heavy industry like iron and steel – and this was to be realised through a large increase in food production and consumer goods on an equal footing with the growth of capital goods. In theory this would provide incentives for both the working class and the peasantry: increased production would enable the peasant and the urban population to receive more food. However this policy failed catastrophically, largely due to the brutal attempts of the State to reorder peasant life through mass collectivisation. A principal aim was as much to achieve an administrative system of control that reached into the countryside, since peasants – throughout Russian history – had largely been isolated from the wider economy, as it was to do with increased grain yields. The collectivisation is the USSR was certainly a ‘revolution from above’. Constituting 25 million individual peasant economies into a quarter of a million communal ones brought alarming difficulties, made worse by the inability of most communist leaders and functionaries to understand agriculture or the peasants.
Failings in State administration as well as ideologically-driven directives precipitated the disaster of the famine in the early 1930s. According to Sheila Fitzpatrick, there seemed to be a strategy to withhold any clear instructions on how to implement collectivisation. It appears that rather being an oversight, this lack of clarity was by design, and it was hoped that it would foster competition among the local cadres to push for the maximum grain procurement. For the cadres it was better to ‘go too far in collectivizing than not to go far enough’. As was the case in China, in the USSR communist officials charged with requisitioning prescribed grain quotas were enthusiastic and desperate not to fail to reach their quota or be outdone by other comrades who were requisitioning in neighbouring farming collectives. This often meant that if the grain harvest was poor and the quota could not be filled via the peasants’ grain surplus, commissars and party members would simply confiscate all that they could find, even if it meant the villagers were left with insufficient food to sustain themselves. Revolutionary and ideological fervour was as damaging to the collectivization process as was the State’s ad hoc system of collectivisation and procurement and its unrealistic grain quotas which were often based on overly optimistic grain harvest estimates. That the harvest had not yielded the grain quantities anticipated did not mean that the prescribed quotas were relaxed. If peasants could not fulfil the quota with their grain surplus then it would come out of their own personal stock. This often led to attempts at grain hoarding, the beating and murder of officials and collectivisers and the voluntary slaughter, or quick sale of livestock so as not to hand it over to the state who they felt were punishing them for their previous resistance to collectivisation.
In addition to the inflated harvest estimates and ideological rapacity of the collectivisers, were other notable issues that were ignored or underestimated by the State authorities. First was the deterioration of agricultural technology brought on by the ‘over-extension of the sown area’. The Five Year Plan attempted to achieve part of its increase in grain production via the development of state farms (sovkhozy) on virgin lands. Throughout the USSR, this reorganisation of land disrupted the traditional practices for the cultivation of the soil. The restoration of traditional crop rotation was not implemented until after the autumn of 1932, but by then most of the damage had already been done. Without the plans for replenishing the fertile soil following the extension of the sown area meant that yields declined dramatically after 1930 and increased the incidence of crop disease. Ukraine was to suffer the worst consequences of the soil exhaustion. The decline in draught animals was another major factor which inhibited agriculture and led to poor cultivation. The grain collections had been removing not only food from the peasants but also fodder from the animals that were essential for draught power. The decline on food for the animals led to their poor maintenance and ill-health which invariably impacted on crop yields. There were of course other factors beyond the control of the State, such as poor weather, but these were of subsidiary importance when one considers the damage that communist policies and unrealistic, ideologically-driven collectivisation targets were doing. The Soviet authorities could have slowed down industrialisation to allow the radical changes to Russia’s agriculture to settle and therefore keep the citizens fed, but as mentioned above, Stalin and the Soviet authorities were acting on the belief that socialism in Russia would be torn asunder by the capitalist enemies if industrialisation was not instigated at a consistently frantic and high-octane pace.
The story of China’s great famine under Mao is similar but with important distinctions. Whereas in Russia, political decisions and ideologically-driven policies, relating to agriculture especially, precipitated the tensions and difficulties that led to famine, in China, the actions and policies of the Communist regime exacerbated a problem that had already developed beyond an embryonic phase and turned it into a nationwide catastrophe. According to Yang Jisheng, drought and adverse weather conditions were significant contributors to the famine, but such was the political environment of China during this time, the local communist functionaries in the provinces and prefectures did not try to assuage the famine conditions, but rather tried to mask it by attempting to yield ever bigger harvests in spite of the ruinous impact of the weather. For example, when a drought hit Xinyang prefecture in 1959 and drove down its crop yields, the party cadres – overcome by fanaticism and a desire not be punished as right deviationists – proposed the slogan “Big drought, Big harvest”, and claimed higher yields than the previous year. Like Russia, China suffered from poverty and economic and technological backwardness, and like Stalin, Mao wanted a fully socialist agricultural system throughout his country established quickly. The impetus behind this comprehensive and radical collectivisation was to use it as a foundation for a mass industrialisation drive in the mould of the USSR. One goal was to pass the United Kingdom in steel production within fifteen years.
Collectivisation was an unmitigated disaster from the outset in 1958 for China, as ideologically-driven policies and procurement quotas compounded already devastating crop failures. Again, like in Russia, quotas were not relaxed, but instead every last grain of wheat and rice was confiscated from peasants wherever it was found so that the cadres could fulfil their quota. The actions of the cadres were part ideological and partly fear-driven. The Communist Party of China was quick to label failure or setbacks as part of a right deviationist plot. Party officials in the provinces were fearful of returning the lowest grain procurement in their region and so would make desperate and damaging (for the peasants) attempts to fulfil or even overfulfil the grain quotas, such was the way in which the political situation in China drove many to behave. Some officials would even drastically inflate their grain estimates even when faced with severe droughts. Higher estimates meant a higher grain procurement quota and a higher likelihood of averting the possibility of being the territory that returns the lowest yield. Suspicion and paranoia was rampant and the charge of being right deviationist could come with any show of dissent, failure or even lack of enthusiasm played its part in intensifying the dire situation. This was truest among the hardest hit provinces like Henan, where it is determined that the political culture and environment of the time at least aggravated the famine. The idea that the grain estimates might just be lower than anticipated failed to cross the minds of many party officials and so a right deviationist enemy was invented and indications of grain hoarding were falsified in order to account for low yields, despite plenty of evidence of starving farmers and peasants. Even those cadres who dared to report starvations were liable to be held up as ‘right deviationists’, and the rhetoric of grain hoarding persisted despite overwhelming evidence indicating otherwise. Loyalty to the regime or blind obedience out of fear or conviction seemed to trump everything. Party policy and ideological conviction took on a surreal veneer when it is acknowledged that in some areas, like Xinyang, there were large reserves of grain stored in silos. Millions could have been spared death had these stores been released. People would starve to death while sitting outside these huge grain silos. The only concern for party officials was to fulfil the grain quotas.
No political ideology, by its very nature, causes famines. Many factors converge and interplay to cause such catastrophes, however when considering the examples of the two Communist regimes mentioned above it is clear that the State apparatus and political actions of these governments were major contributors to the widespread famine and harrowing death toll that was its consequence. But attempting to isolate the primary source of each tragedy causes one to recall the particular nations from which both regimes emerged. China and Russia were economic, political and technological backwaters at the turn of the century. Had a communist government emerged in one of the modern industrial powers of the West then it can be argued that large-scale famine would have been unlikely. But the economic situation in Russia and China was so lamentable, and the threat to communism’s existence so real in the eyes of the party leadership in both nations, that it was deemed necessary to conduct a complete overhaul of agriculture; a radical social transformation, and commit to a plan of rapid industrialisation without compromise. In China, this policy exacerbated already unfavourable conditions for beginning a total reorganisation of rural life. While in Russia, the collectivisation process, which was conducted in conjunction with the industrialisation drive, engendered social tensions and catastrophic damage to agriculture and crop cultivation due to the insular and short-term character of Communist Party policy.