A recent YouGov survey found that 19 percent of millennials hold favorable views of Communism, compared with only 4 percent of baby boomers. In its “Red Century” series, the New York Times celebrates Communism’s supposed progressive virtues. “For all its flaws,” said one writer, “the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big.”
One of Communism’s “flaws” is its death toll, which runs in the tens of millions. Political persecutions like those of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union are well known. But many have forgotten the deaths, intended and unintended, from mass starvation. During the twentieth century, approximately 70 million people perished from famine. That most famine deaths happened in Communist regimes is no accident: centrally planned food-procurement systems often fail, leading to food shortages and privation.
To take just one example: between 1959 and 1961, 30 million people died of famine in China. I have analyzed the agricultural and demographic record to explain the causes of this tragedy. Three myths about the event should be discarded.
First, contrary to China’s official explanation, there was no food shortage due to bad weather. Despite the drop in food production—principally driven by failed collectivization policies—China produced more than three times the amount of food necessary to prevent starvation.
Second, Mao Zedong’s malice did not cause the famine. Most famine deaths occurred in rural areas, which represented the Communist regime’s base of support. The government had to spend years after the famine rebuilding its political legitimacy in those areas.
Third, China did not lack an effective food-distribution network—in fact, China’s distribution network made the famine possible. The central government procured so much food from the most productive farms that it left these farmers without enough to feed themselves.
The Chinese government got its food-production forecast wrong. The government set higher procurement targets for historically more productive farms. The goal was to leave enough for subsistence food consumption in farms, while storing the rest to feed the urban population. As a result, the unanticipated, but moderate, decline in national food production in 1959 led to over-procurement from the most high-yield farms. By the time the death toll became apparent, China’s centrally planned system was too slow to respond.
Could the famine have been avoided? Perhaps—if the Communists hadn’t outlawed agricultural markets. In a market system, any local food shortage would result in higher food prices, inducing those with a surplus to direct resources toward those with a deficit. Indeed, according to historical accounts, Communist Party members, who could engage in black-market transactions with impunity, escaped the worst hunger.
Anyone celebrating Communism on its hundredth anniversary should be honest about its deadly track record, rooted in a set of failed ideas—such as abandoning free markets and relying on government bureaucrats to distribute resources, thus making entire societies vulnerable to the effects of even small human errors. Between 1959 and 1961, those errors cost 30 million Chinese lives.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons