Mao’s Great Famine:
The History of China’s Most
Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
By Frank Dikötter
Walker & Company, 448 pages
The Wind from the East:
French Intellectuals, the Cultural
Revolution, and the Legacy
of the 1960s
By Richard Wolin
Princeton, 400 pages
In 1965, the venerable New York publisher Random House released Report from a Chinese Village, a plodding exercise in Maoist stenography from Swedish writer Jan Myrdal, son of Nobel Prize–winning sociologists Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. Chronicling the author’s 1962 visit to rural China, the book claimed that, under the benevolent leadership of Chairman Mao, a once-backward country was now speeding toward a glorious socialist future. By the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union had disappointed all but the most slavish party members and fellow travelers, but the People’s Republic of China, having just completed its “Great Leap Forward” in agricultural and industrial production, would serve as the new hope.
After the revelations of Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech detailing Stalinist crimes—and confirming what most clear-eyed observers long understood—it is astonishing that so many intellectuals and journalists would again surrender to the delusions of Communism. The New York Times hoped that Report from a Chinese Village would “be widely read.” Another Times writer—it was reviewed twice—deemed it an “important” contribution to the study of Mao’s revolution because Myrdal “demonstrates clearly the amount of change which can be effected in a peasant village” through collectivization. In 1976, long after the genocidal enormity of Maoism could be plausibly denied, the Times tagged Report from a Chinese Village a “valuable and moving” book. But by the late 1970s, even Myrdal had slinked away from China, having transitioned to writing paeans to Stalinist Albania and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
It wasn’t just academic sympathizers and journalists who testified to the promise of Maoism. Future French president François Mitterrand, assured by China’s Communist leadership that reports of famine were crude examples of imperialist propaganda, endorsed the Great Leap Forward and, upon returning to Paris, declared Mao to be “a humanist.” Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the famous commander of British forces during the Second World War, visited China twice during the famine (“no large-scale famine, just shortages in certain areas”) and argued that the country “needs the Chairman.” In 1959, citing the supposed improvement achieved under the Great Leap Forward, then-Senator John F. Kennedy, warming up for his presidential campaign, warned of an emerging economic gap in the Third World, fretting that “Communist China offers a potential model” to poor countries after it posted impressive (and wholly invented) growth numbers.
But by 1959, as Frank Dikötter meticulously documents in Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, China was already prosecuting perhaps the “most deadly mass killings in human history.” Dikötter, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, acknowledges readily that the book’s subtitle is misleading; to speak of “famine” implies that the dead were victims of poorly executed agricultural policy. The mass killings of the Great Leap Forward were very much man-made, consequences of the “coercion, terror, and systematic violence” inherent in Maoism.
In the four years of the Great Leap Forward, a period in which Mao boasted that China would outperform the United Kingdom, Dikötter calculates that at least 45 million Chinese perished, though he suspects that the real figure exceeds 50 million. According to internal party documents reviewed by Dikötter—he was allowed to use regional and local party archives but prevented from accessing material in the central party archive in Beijing—the Chinese government estimated that, in the Sichuan province alone, the Great Leap Forward resulted in a staggering 8 million “excess deaths.” The 1960 death toll for the Xinyang region was over a million. “Of these victims,” Dikötter found, “67,000 were clubbed to death with sticks.”
If the scale of violence and death is incomprehensible, the archival material mined by Dikötter humanizes the 50 million victims. Documents detail countless horrors: children beaten by party cadres and bamboo inserted under fingernails for “stealing” a handful of rice; starving families attempting to quell hunger pangs by eating mud (which would temporarily assuage hunger but hasten death); a father forced to bury his son alive for stealing a small amount of grain; pregnant women who missed work forced, in the dead of winter, to disrobe and break ice; people resorting to cannibalism. The public humiliations and the brutal violence that would be the trademark of the Cultural Revolution, Dikötter demonstrates, were perfected during the Great Leap Forward.
Farmers responded with incredulity when party leaders demanded they “close crop”—sow seeds closer together because, as Mao claimed, “with company they grow easily, when they grow together they will be comfortable”—but said nothing for fear of being denounced as “rightists.” In terrifying detail, Dikötter elucidates the cult-like world of Maoism and the sycophancy of the Chairman’s inner circle, where party lackeys sputtered that “the thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct” even as crops failed and emaciated corpses were piled into mass graves.
But while the Chinese peasant submitted to ideological authority in order to survive, many Western intellectuals enthusiastically chose Beijing as the next destination on their political pilgrimage. In The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s, Richard Wolin, professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, investigates the French mania for Mao, which hooked big-name philosophers like Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Louis Althusser.
Wolin points out that the influential May 1968 student revolt in Paris really began in January, when students at the university in Nanterre took to the streets in protest: oppressed male students were being prevented from visiting the dorm rooms of their female comrades, a situation, said student leader (and current member of the European Parliament) Danny Cohn-Bendit, that was creating “sexual misery” among the middle-class rebels. Wolin writes, “Guardhouses, which served as surveillance posts, were ominously stationed throughout the campus to ensure that the visitation regulations were stringently enforced.” It was, he says, a “Petainiste moral code,” invoking France’s brutal quisling government during the Second World War. The enforcement of these rules caused Cohn-Bendit to denounce a visiting government minister responsible for student affairs as not unlike a Hitler Youth commander.
While students in Nanterre denounced the “surveillance” of their sex lives by university administrators and the “ominous” checkpoints erected to police student’s sexual behavior, the Chinese—recently relieved of 50 million hungry peasants—were being swallowed by Maoism and its rather more serious surveillance state.
In France, the Maoist and Marxist university students of Paris’s École Normale Supérieure were on the verge of toppling the de Gaulle administration. Jean Luc-Godard, who will be awarded this year an honorary Oscar, was making soporific films promoting the Chinese path to liberation. Sartre, darling of countless chin-stroking grad students, declared, “For the Maoists…everywhere revolutionary violence is born among the masses it is immediately and profoundly moral.”
While beating up on the French Maoists for excessive credulity, Wolin argues repeatedly that readers should understand that reliable information about China’s ongoing genocide was in short supply. It’s the same argument that was proffered by Soviet sycophants in the 1930s, German civilians hauled before de-Nazification panels in 1946, and academic cheerleaders of the Khmer Rouge, all of whom dismissed abundant atrocity stories as sketchy and unreliable. But Wolin writes that “to much of the outside world, the Cultural Revolution appeared as a noble attempt to reignite Chinese communism’s fading revolutionary ardor.” The outside world, one presumes, consisted mainly of French academics.
And while it’s true that precise details of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t emerge until much later—and in the case of Dikötter’s book, which is the most detailed account published in English, a half century later—there existed both credible media stories and the historical precedent of the Soviet Union. In 1958, as the country began its collectivization campaign, the Washington Post, for instance, wrote that China was “George Orwell’s ‘1984’ with a vengeance,” pointing out, rather clumsily, that
“[w]hat happened in Nazi Germany and is happening in the Soviet Union to the human spirit pales beside the pattern and the details of the newly-established Chinese communes.”
The Wind from the East contains a number of small, irritating errors: The phrase “long march through the institutions” was coined by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, not German student leader Rudi Dutschke; former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer did not “hurl a brick” at a police officer; Solzhenitsyn was first published in France in 1973, not 1974. It’s unclear just what a “libertarian Maoist” believes, and it’s laughable to suggest that the 1956 anti-Soviet revolt in Hungary was guided by “libertarian socialism.” And Wolin’s writing periodically slips into the inelegant and obtuse style common among academics (“The semiotics of publicity implored citizens to partake of the new ethos of socially administered hedonism”).
After upbraiding Maoist intellectuals like the unrepentant Alain Badiou (who, along with his frequent writing partner Slavoj Zizek, is popular at American universities), Althusser (who murdered his wife in 1980), and Sartre (who called Marxism the “unsurpassable horizon of our time,” in between celebrations of Black September terrorism and Castro’s Cuba), Wolin argues unconvincingly that the French fascination with Maoism proved “strangely beneficial,” ultimately helping promote “cultural pluralism and the right to difference.” That many New Philosophers and anti-totalitarian intellectuals were once advocates of Maoism says more about the cesspool of soixante-huitard ideology than the benefits of having plumped for Mao.
France’s repentant Maoists shouldn’t be given credit for abandoning a murderous doctrine that an overwhelming majority of their fellow intellectuals rejected; they should be required to read Frank Dikötter’s masterpiece of historical investigation and be forever reminded of their complicity in one of the 20th century’s most criminal regimes.