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I am just finishing up the absolutely gut-wrenching book from Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine.¬†Words cannot do it justice. Just as the Hiroshima story and the Auschwitz story and the slavery story must be told and retold and taught to our children, it would be unconscionable for all of us not to be very well educated about what happened in the totalitarian Socialist regimes through history. I have read dozens of books on it, but I really think what happened during Mao’s Great Leap Forward is the most absurd. Some regimes have been more internally brutal such as Stalin and his purges, and some regimes have been far more efficient at wiping out anything that disagreed with them (Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge), but no regime can match the sustained ideological and economic delusion that Mao and his cadres perpetrated on the people of China.

Two things stand out as truly incredible to me in this entire gruesome episode, and perhaps they will come as a shock to the anti-capitalist apologists for socialism.

One: There is an absurd degree of competition in the socialist regime, far more than you see under capitalist regimes. The POINT of capitalist regimes is to find ways to cooperate with each other. It may appear that buyers compete with buyers and that sellers compete with sellers, but that is all for the privilege of cooperating with each other. And the wonderful part of capitalist institutions is that if you “lose” the competition to cooperate with one partner, you still have resources to bargain with and you can propose a huge range of alternative transactions to satisfy other trading partners.

That is certainly not the case in socialist regimes. Not only did the entire Chinese communist system prostrate itself to its dear leader (most ridiculously by the Potemkin experimental agricultural plots that had cadres jacking up yield and production numbers by doing things like destroying peasant clay huts to use as fertilizer, by replanting grain from other fields and close-cropping them onto the experimental fields, by simply making up ridiculously wrong production numbers, and then to “impress” Mao with these surplus production so much so that they were encouraged to stop planting for a year or two, or to eat five meals a day, even as they villages were on the verge of starvation, and then this is followed with the absolute cultish insanity of trying to rise up the world production rankings for things like steel and cotton and other commodities, so they would export lots of this “surplus” grain to other nations in order to import industrial machinery to help them become the world’s 3rd largest producer of cotton bolts instead of 5th. The whole thing was immorally absurd), but the kind of competition that Mao and his cadres enforced on his people makes the most ruthless capitalist look like a stuffed animal. Mao had all of the communes and villages competing with each other to show the best production numbers, and if they did not hit increasingly unrealistic expectations for production targets, extreme shame and worse would befall village managers and the peasants they managed. It was a fiasco. Hundreds of calls per week went back and forth from Beijing and the villages to report on how well various villages were doing in this race. The managers and workers, fearing obviously for their own and their families’ well being would stop at nothing to fall behind, and to disasterous consequences.

Second: and when the obvious disastrous consequences came, and they did horrifically, the Chinese citizens went so far beyond what happens in a market as to create the need for a new word to describe it. When you are disgustingly poor and hungry, you do and sell anything just for a morsel. And that they did. The Chinese peasants were forced to prostitute themselves, and that was a modest problem. They were forced to eat anything and consume anything that was theirs, immediately, because it was all to become the “property” of the canteen (the entity that distributed the collective goods). Indeed, the canteen encouraged the peasants to eat as much as they could, so as to continue the myth of the bountiful harvests of the workers. And this exacerbated the shortages of everything. The peasants resorted to selling anything and everything they could. They would rip up their floorboards of their modest homes (before they were destroyed or condemned by the collective) just to secure a little food, and they would even resort to selling their children, or worse.

You really need to read it to appreciate the scale and magnitude and depth of the deprivation and maliciousness. But it is also clear that the Maoists believed their own BS. Ultimately, they unleashed competitive and greedy forces that no market system could possibly be capable of.

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