We really don\’t want plans imposed from the centre you know

Tombstone meticulously demonstrates that the famine was not only vast, but manmade; and not only manmade but political, born of totalitarianism. Mao Zedong had vowed to build a communist paradise in China through sheer revolutionary zeal, collectivising farmland and creating massive communes at astonishing speed. In 1958 he sought to go further, launching the Great Leap Forward: a plan to modernise the entire Chinese economy so ambitious that it tipped over into insanity.

Many believe personal ambition played a crucial role. Not satisfied with being \”the most powerful emperor who had ever ruled China\”, Mao strove to snatch leadership of the international communist movement. If the Soviet Union believed it could catch up with the US in 15 years, he vowed, China could overtake Britain in production. His vicious attacks on other leaders who dared to voice concern cowed opposition. But, as Yang notes: \”It\’s a very complicated historical process, why China believed in Maoism and took this path. It wasn\’t one person\’s mistake but many people\’s. It was a process.\”

The plan proved a disaster from the first.

14 thoughts on “We really don\’t want plans imposed from the centre you know”

  1. In what sense did “China believed in Maoism and took this path”?

    I can understand why Yang says this. Even in modern China it’s expedient to spread the blame when revealing a scandal. But for Branigan to repeat this as if it were a serious point is disturbing

  2. The significance of these histories lies not so much in how brutal and callous leaders can be. It is how brutal and callous masses of ordinary petty local officials can be. Maybe us too. Maybe me, if I was scared enough.

    The concept of people sobbing and crying while the party thugs haul away the last of their food, maybe even for export, is harrowing. But for the authoritarian left, that isn’t even a bug, it’s a feature. Starvation is actually a very powerful weapon for a ruling elite to use against its own civilians. They always take the food, all of it.

  3. So Much for Subtlety

    I am not sure that the moral of this lesson is that we do not need planning from the centre. One of them perhaps, but surely not the most important one by a long shot.

    I am more interested that it is the Guardian that has published this. Has anyone gone back and looked at their coverage of the Great Leap Forward? Anyone asked their Maoist suck ups like John Gittings what he thinks? Any number of people, mainly employed by the Guardian at the time, thought the Great Leap Forward was the best thing since sliced bread. How about a little juxtaposition between then and now?

  4. Because obviously, the factual evidence and underlying organisational theory that we now have available demonstrating that planned economies don’t work, and that the GLF was destined to be a murderous failure, were fully available to European writers in the 1950s.

    This is a time when right-wing commentators feared that the Soviet system could be more efficient than the west at military and technological advancement to the point where the USSR would be able to overpower US forces in Western Europe, FFS.

    In both cases, the fact that we now know communist command economies don’t bloody work doesn’t mean people at the time who thought it would work were idiots/liars/madmen.

  5. True. After all, it was only about thirty years since Hayek and Mises had pointed out why central planning could never work… can’t expect the news to have filtered through to the ‘intellectuals’ in such a short period of time.

  6. So Much For Subtlety

    john b – “Because obviously, the factual evidence and underlying organisational theory that we now have available demonstrating that planned economies don’t work, and that the GLF was destined to be a murderous failure, were fully available to European writers in the 1950s.”

    Yes they were. Various provinces were promising to increase their grain output sevenfold in a single year. Tell me, what special knowledge do we have now that we did not have then, that tells us this is not possible?

    “This is a time when right-wing commentators feared that the Soviet system could be more efficient than the west at military and technological advancement to the point where the USSR would be able to overpower US forces in Western Europe, FFS.”

    I don’t think the Right ever feared the Soviet Union would be more *efficient*. What they feared was that the totalitarian state could concentrate so much of a society’s resources into war making that they would dominate in this one area. So the Soviet Union, even at the end, had fewer cars per head of population than even Black South Africans but ever since the 1930s they had more tanks than the rest of the world combined.

    And actually there was probably never a time when the USSR could not have overpowered the West in Europe.

    “In both cases, the fact that we now know communist command economies don’t bloody work doesn’t mean people at the time who thought it would work were idiots/liars/madmen.”

    Yes it does. The evidence was there. I have a nice book written by a Tsarist economist, who was eventually expelled in the late 1920s I think off hand, who shows without the slightest problem that the Soviet system could not work. He mocks Lenin for saying that the socialist economic system would be so simple that a tram driver could run it. Everyone who cared to look for evidence would have found a wealth of both theoretical and practical evidence that it could not work. Theoretical in the sense that abolishing prices is insane. Practical in the sense that Lenin had to murder anyone who pointed out the system was not, in fact, working and was rather producing mass famine.

    But I agree, not everyone who believed otherwise were idiots/liars/madmen. I don’t think Lenin was. I don’t think Stalin was. Nor do I think their many apologists and supporters were. I think they were entirely rational and sensible beings who argued themselves into believing that mass murder on a genocidal scale was necessary and desirable. Although it did lead a lot of them to lie. Unlike the Nazis I suppose. Who were also entirely rational and sensible beings, a small number of whom argued themselves into believing that mass murder on a genocidal scale was necessary and desirable. But they tended not to lie about it much.

    No real difference otherwise.

  7. The significance of these histories lies not so much in how brutal and callous leaders can be. It is how brutal and callous masses of ordinary petty local officials can be. Maybe us too. Maybe me, if I was scared enough.

    Quite. One of the things which struck me when reading about Stalin’s reign of terror is that those killed in the second wave of the purges were often those who had pulled the triggers or signed the death warrants during the first wave; and those killed in the third wave were those who had happily taken part in the second.

    The other thing that struck me is that such purges would not have been possible without the willing cooperation of hundred of thousands (if not millions) of “ordinary” people. I have often wondered if such events are possible in any society, or whether some are more prone to it than others.

  8. So Much For Subtlety

    Roue le Jour – “See that “forever” in there?”

    Yes but I don’t see the relevance.

    At least one British academic became a Stalinist because of reading Darkness at Noon. I bet that Orwell convinced more people with PhD to support Stalinism than he ever put off.

  9. I have a nice book written by a Tsarist economist, who was eventually expelled in the late 1920s I think off hand, who shows without the slightest problem that the Soviet system could not work.

    Irrelevant, just like the apocryphal economist who was hailed as a genius for successfully predicting 10 of the last four recessions.

    “Some crank wrote a book” doesn’t alter the fact that the overwhelming consensus at the time among sane people, left, right, and centre, was not that the system was doomed.

    Nor does it suggest that the crank in question was extraordinarily perceptive – rather, that there are enough people in the world writing enough crap that one of them is guaranteed to turn out right in the end, and the odds that that person will be someone who anybody sensible was listening to at the time are very, very low.

    (the fact that someone will win next week’s lottery does not mean that this week, they are a brilliant-but-undiscovered numerologist)

  10. So Much for Subtlety

    john b – “Irrelevant, just like the apocryphal economist who was hailed as a genius for successfully predicting 10 of the last four recessions.”

    No it isn’t. In fact it is hard to see what rational point you are making except you don’t like people pointing out the obvious. Perhaps you might like to try again but this time with something more coherent?

    ““Some crank wrote a book” doesn’t alter the fact that the overwhelming consensus at the time among sane people, left, right, and centre, was not that the system was doomed.”

    Boris Brutzkas was not a crank. But of course I understand why you need to retrospectively justify what I assume was your faith. It is sad but that is what is irrelevant. No one in their right mind said the Soviet system would work – although of course the Soviets made it up as they went along because they didn’t have a clue either. The point being it did not work as Lenin said it was going to work. He simply destroyed the Russian economy in a few short months while proclaiming that Socialism would be achieved in six months. It didn’t work that way.

    “Nor does it suggest that the crank in question was extraordinarily perceptive – rather, that there are enough people in the world writing enough crap that one of them is guaranteed to turn out right in the end, and the odds that that person will be someone who anybody sensible was listening to at the time are very, very low.”

    The question is not whether Brutzkas was right. He was. The question is who disagreed with him. That would be harder to determine. I doubt many sane economists came down on your side at the time.

    But I do admire your willingness to condemn without even having heard of the guy. So very … Stalinist. I guess you can leave the party but the party’s stamp will never leave you.

    So we are simply stuck with what looks like yet another SWP tool trying to justify the poor choices of his youth. In the real world, no one in their right mind thought Communism would work. And it didn’t.

  11. I reckon there would be a very large number of people in the UK who would be enthusiastic minor officials of such a regime. Coating the terror in the sugar of bureaucracy and officialdom would help too. There is nothing uniquely evil about Russia or China, they just chose a form of social organisation which gave direction and power to the nutjobs.

    The more fragmented and local power is, the less likely that one day your neighbour will be stealing the last of your food, armed with a sub-machine gun and wearing a beret with a red star on it.

  12. SMFS – you should know better than trying to argue with JohnB.

    Lesley Chamberlain tells the story in (the very readable) The Philosophy Steamer, about a ship which contained a few other ‘cranks’ who saw through ‘the overwhelming consensus’ and were deported by Lenin in 1922, with their families, with the warning that they would be shot if they ever returned to Russia.

    Ironically, they were the lucky ones, as it turned out.

  13. As john b said, everyone thought the system was nasty but sustainable. Orwell says so explicitly in that quote. To say that any fool could see it wasn’t may very well be true, but the argument is undermined by the availability of hindsight.

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