Posts Tagged ‘Failure of Communism’

China, Mao and historical amnesia

June 6, 2014

A Chinese man recalls:

Twenty-five years ago, before the Tiananmen massacre, my father told me: “Son, be good and stay at home, never provoke the Communist Party.”

My father knew what he was talking about.  His courage had been broken, by countless political campaigns. Right after the 1949 “liberation,” in his hometown Yanting [in Sichuan] they executed dozens of “despotic landowners” in a few minutes. 

That wasn’t enough fun for some people.  They came with swords, severed those broken skulls, and kicked them down the river bank.  And so the heads were floating away two or three at a time, just like time, or like the setting sun always waiting for fresh heads at the next ferry point.  My father left my grandfather, who had made money through hard work, and fled in the night.

mao.famineAfterward he never said a bad word about the Communist Party.  Even at the time of the Great Leap famine, when almost forty million people starved to death, and when I, his little son, almost died.  He did not say anything.  It was hell on earth. 

People ate grass and bark.  They ate some kind of stinking clay; it was called Guanyin Soil [after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy].  If they were very lucky, they would catch an earthworm; that was a rare delicacy.  Many people died bloated from Guanyin Soil.

My grandmother also died; she was just skin and bones.  Grandfather carried her under his arm to the next slope, dug a small pit, and buried her.  But Mao Zedong, the great deliverer of the Chinese people, would never admit a mistake.  He just said it was the fault of the Soviet Union. 

And so the wretched people all hated the Soviet Union. Just because of their goddamned Revisionism [the label Chinese Communists used for Soviet ideology after the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s], the Soviets had called back their experts and their aid for China!

Mao’s second-in-command Liu Shaoqi couldn’t stand it any longer and mumbled, “So many people have starved to death. History will record this.” For this slip he paid dearly.  During the Cultural Revolution they let him starve to death in a secret prison.  We have a saying: “Illness enters at the mouth, peril comes out at the mouth.”

via NYRblog | The New York Review of Books.

Since the death of Mao, the Chinese have raised their material standard of living, and made their country into one of the world’s strongest powers.  Ordinary people are less badly off in a Foxconn sweatshop than their forefathers were in Mao’s communes.  But there are no civil rights or labor rights, or any rule of law or restriction of governmental power.

I wrote in a previous post about how the Confucian tradition strengthens China.  I should add that while the present Chinese government supports the teaching of Confucius that calls for obedience to authority, it does not follow the Confucian  teachings of ethical conduct, respect for tradition and reciprocal obligation.

The philosopher George Santayana wrote that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.   So long as Chinese authorities suppress the historical record of what Mao has done, the Chinese people will be helpless to prevent the rule of a new Mao.

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The dream of a Communist utopia

December 3, 2010

I remember talking years ago to Richard Rosett, then dean of the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Business, about his meetings with Soviet economists.  He said he would ask them how, in the absence of supply and demand, they decided what and how much to produce.  He said they replied that they decided scientifically.  Their economic planning was organized around the biological needs of human beings for food, clothing, shelter and so on.

In that case, Dr. Rosett asked, how did they decide how many red dresses and blue dresses to produce.  Their reply was that it doesn’t matter whether dresses are red or blue.  But Dr. Rosett’s question is a proxy for much else.  No tiny group of central planners can grasp the needs and wants of hundreds of millions of human beings, except in very crude and general terms, and no planning mechanism has been found as effective as the market in integrating human desires with human knowledge.

There was a time, which I remember well, when things seemed otherwise.  The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik in 1957, its economy was reported to be growing faster than ours, and many Americans had much the same feeling in the 1950s and 1960s as they had toward Japan in the 1980s or China and India today.  Then as now I opposed any governmental or economic system that gives absolute power to an individual or a self-selected elite, but at the time I feared the Soviet system would be more effective than American capitalism in increasing and projecting military and political might.

I recently read a historical novel, or fictionalized history, entitled Red Plenty, which recreates that era well.  The author, Francis Spufford, describes the efforts of idealistic reformers in the Soviet Union in the 1960s to overcome the inherent flaws of central planning and make the promises of Communism come true.  He shows why their ideas seemed plausible, and also why they didn’t work out.

This story is told as a series of vignettes about characters both historical and fictional involved in the workings or the attempted reform of the Soviet economy, in a style that is sardonic, poignant and highly readable.  The second chapter is told from the viewpoint of an exuberant Nikita Khrushchev, visiting the United States in 1959 and challenging the capitalist world to peaceful economic competition.  The last chapter returns to Khrushchev in forced retirement in 1968, sitting in his garden and brooding on what went wrong.  Spufford conveys a sense of Soviet life during that period that is so convincing I would have thought he experienced it; in fact, he is a Briton who doesn’t speak Russian.

Along the way he does an excellent job of explaining Soviet and Western economics in both theory and practice. The flaw of Soviet economics is that no system of central planning has been found that can substitute for supply and demand as a means of coordinating an economy.  In a market economy, the price of a product reflects everything that is known about its value and scarcity, without the need for omniscient masterminds at the top.

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