The War for Quadrant Two

Quadrant two will prove to be the quadrant of victory for the proletariat

► The Great Famine in China (1958-62) and the need for democratic rights (“Tombstone”, by Yang Jisheng) – [WQ2.12.11.22]

Posted by Ben Seattle on November 22, 2012

(excerpt from an email to Art)
I have been reading the Yang book, “Tombstone”, about the Great Famine in China 1958-62.  I have found it
hard to put down.  I made up my mind that I was a revolutionary in 1973.  I considered myself a Maoist at that
time.  And I considered myself a Maoist until 1978 when, with others in the predecessor organization that
became the MLP, we studied Enver Hoxha’s “Imperialism and the Revolution”.  But (somewhat like a former
Catholic) the Maoist influence in my early thinking and training as a revolutionary has all sorts of remnants.
As a result, in reading this book, a lot of the pieces of my own life came together.
Here is a short excerpt from the NYT review:
            Originally published in 2008, the Chinese version of Tombstone is a legendary book in China. 
            It is hard to find an intellectual in Beijing who has not read it, even though it remains banned
            and was only published in Hong Kong. Yang’s great success is using the Communist Party’s
            own records to document, as he puts it, “a tragedy unprecedented in world history for tens of
            millions of people to starve to death and to resort to cannibalism during a period of normal
            climate patterns with no wars or epidemics.”
The size of the famine in China (approx 36 million !) is a number that it is quite difficult for me to comprehend.
As (like many of my background) a student of sorts of the cultural revolution, I read the chapter on the 1959
Lushan conference with great interest.  The confrontation there led to a speech by Mao that was widely
studied during the cultural revolution.  Here is one of the most famous passages by Mao:
        There are about 700,000 production brigades; if each brigade makes one error, and you wanted
        to publish all 700,000 errors within a year, how could it be done? Moreover some articles are long
        and some short; it would take at least a year to publish them all. What would the result be? Our state
        would collapse and even if the imperialists didn’t come, the people would rise up and overthrow us.
        If the paper you publish prints bad news every day, people will have no heart for their work. It wouldn’t
        take as long as a year; we would perish within a week.  […]  But if we do ten things and nine are bad,
        and they are all published in the press, then we will certainly perish, and will deserve to perish. In that
        case, I will go to the countryside to lead the peasants to overthrow the government. If those of you in
        the Liberation Army won’t follow me, then I will go and find a Red Army, and organize another
        Liberation Army. But I think the Liberation Army would follow me.
I was familar with this passage in the 1970’s (and considered it a powerful example of a revolutionary
attitude) but I had no idea of the *context* in which this struggle took place.  Many *millions* of people
had starved to death by the time Mao gave his speech–and *tens* more millions would starve to death
in the year that followed.
The Yang book was published in Chinese in 2008 but the English version just came out this month.
This will be an important book, and I intend to write about it.  I am hoping that I can write about it
without the arrogant, know-it-all attitude that we often encounter in the “insurrectionist” section of the
movement.  We don’t know everything, and Yang’s book is flawed in various ways.  There is a need
for perspective and humility in approaching a crime of this magnitude and connecting what happened
in China with the other key events of the 20th century (if these are not understood, it would be difficult
to understand how the Great Famine could have happened).
The most powerful conclusion from this experience may be simple:
The proletariat cannot defend and maintain its rule over society if democratic rights
are not extended to the entire population. 
I have said this many times, but this book, in my opinion, proves it in a way that is just about as vivid
as could be imagined.
And, in relation to our current tasks, this book illustrates another decisive principle:
If the proletariat does not have an organization where different currents have the right
to self-organize and openly oppose one another (ie: mass democracy, as opposed to
supposedly “democratic centralism”) it will end up with nothing.
I have looked at the Kasama site, to see how they will discuss this book (since most of them still
have a reverential attitude toward Mao).  So far, their blog has not said a word.  It occured to me that
Mike Ely and the Kasama crew may choose to simply *ignore* this book.  Here is what Mike said a
few days ago:
        When people ask me for a good beginning history of China’s Maoist revolution I have long suggested
        that they read Han Suyin’s two volume work “Morning Deluge” and “Wind in the Tower”. I still feel
        that way — it is a fine, detailed, partisan, readable overview of that great communist revolution, and of
        the work of Mao Zedong at its helm.  […]  Whatever her own views were (then or later), these books
        represent a communist summation of these events — written for audiences outside China. They had
        a powerful impact when they were published — and they could have an impact now if we choose to
        use them.
So Mike calls Han Suyin’s book a “communist summation” of these events!  This shows how empty and
bankrupt it is for Mike and the Kasama crew to toss around words like “communism” as a *substitute* for
thinking and making an effort to understand the nature of our goal and the democratic principles which
must be the foundation for the organization we need.  I read Han Suyin’s “Wind in the Tower” when it was
published in 1976.  It covers the period 1949-1965 and (of course) makes no mention of the great famine.
I would reply to Mike on his blog–but have had it (for now) with his deletions of my posts and threats to
permanently ban me from his paternalistic community.  I will post this to my upper blog.  We should discuss
this book.  Maybe the news of a crime of this magnitude will help to wake up a few of the people we know.
— Ben
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One Response to “► The Great Famine in China (1958-62) and the need for democratic rights (“Tombstone”, by Yang Jisheng) – [WQ2.12.11.22]”

  1. I did a google search on Kasama + famine + China. Here is the closest that Mike comes to dealing
    with this:

    Not Give Any Ground: Žižek’s Factual Controversy Over Mao (Oct 2010)
    http://kasamaproject.org/2010/10/27/not-give-any-ground-zizeks-factual-controversy-over-mao/

    — begin quote —

    A new book has just been published, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, which will (typically) add more fuel to these controversies. There will be a need, undoubtedly, to study it and respond to its argumentation. And lets be frank: There is not yet a clear communist summation of the Great Leap Forward (the events, the accomplishments, the unintended consequences, the international context, etc.) — and it may be time for some serious folks to work one up.

    For now we would like to share with readers some of the existing work done on these more narrow discussions of famine in the Maoist years. I think we can frame it generally within two assertions:

    First, the radical transformation of agriculture was essential for the liberation of China’s people, even though inevitably such revolutionary change affected harvests for a number of years.

    Second, overall, the changes accompanying communist revolution in China brought that society out of that endless, historic sequence of famines and natural disasters that had tortured Chinese people under feudalism.

    — end quote —

    So, basically, Mike is arguing that we need to “look into this” while “maintaining perspective”.

    It is difficult to see such a “look” emerge from the paternalistic Kasama community. We just
    have to look at Mike’s comment on “Wind in the Tower” (more than two years later) to see that
    Mike does not appear to have looked into this or even remembered that it took place. It also
    appears likely that it would be difficult to raise this topic in the Kasama community and generate
    the necessary discussion and necessary conclusions.

    Without the *democratic rights of speech and organization* for the masses, what existed in China
    (and the Soviet Union) was in many ways closer to “scientific feudalism” than “scientific socialism”
    because the working class had no *independent voice* with which to oppose the incompetence, hypocrisy
    and corruption that are *inevitable* when so much power is so concentrated for such a long time.

    Our movement needs a living idea of workers’ rule that is based on the fundamental
    democratic rights of speech and organization for the masses.
    There is no way around
    this. Anything short of this cannot be considered to be the rule of the working class. This
    means that workers’ rule has never existed. We need to soberly sum up the 20th century, not
    prettify (or ignore) either:

    (1) the crimes of the last century — or —

    (2) the fact that our movement will *never* be deserving of the respect of the working class
    and oppressed until we can understand and describe (in thousands of articles, as part of a
    revolutionary news service, without insulting the intelligence of readers) how the rule of
    the working class will be *better* than the rule of the bourgeoisie.

    A. B. Razlatsky (who organized an underground communist group in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s
    and 1980’s) held that the Soviet economy was, in large part, based on an advanced form of feudalism.
    It is possible he may be right. Razlatsky’s comrade, Gregory Isayev, by the way, building on Razlatsky’s
    ideas, is the person who proposed, in 1999, that the term “proletarism” replace the term “socialism”
    in order to provide greater clarity concerning the nature of our goal. (see related links below)

    http://www.revleft.com/vb/b-razlatsky-proletarian-t88950/index.html
    http://www.proletarism.proletarism.ru/abr_turb.shtml
    http://www.proletarism.proletarism.ru/isbk.shtml
    http://proletarism.com/

    Mike also mentions (by way of reposting an article by Bob Weil) the famine here:

    Contrast India & China: What a Difference Revolution Makes!
    http://kasamaproject.org/2010/07/19/contrast-india-china-what-a-difference-revolution-makes/

    — begin quote —

    These gains came at a very high cost. A combination of severe natural disasters, overly rigid implementation of policies, exaggerated reporting of grain production and excessive procurement during the Great Leap Forward led to famine conditions in many parts of the country. While debate continues over the scale of the losses and primary responsibility for them, estimates run from several to 30 million “excess deaths.” The loss of life during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution was much smaller, but the social disruption and violence even more severe. The heavy cost of these and other campaigns led by Mao must be weighed against the gains that they achieved, and especially when compared with other countries, such as India. The deaths that accompanied the Chinese efforts to build a socialist society occurred mainly during a few years of intense struggle. But they led to improvements—especially in life expectancy and infant mortality—for hundreds of millions. Similarly, while the movement of the rural population to the cities was restricted, among the more striking results was a virtually total absence of sprawling urban slums that are ubiquitous across much of the global South. During the same period, India avoided famine and the social turmoil found in China. Amartya Sen has argued that Indian democracy and a less collectivized economy helped protect against such losses. But he also noted “that compared with China’s rapid increase in life expectancy in the Mao era, the capitalist experiment in India could be said to have caused an extra 4 million deaths a year since India’s independence.” As Sen put it, “‘India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame, 1958-61’” (Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, London: Pluto Press, 2008, 139, Sen quote from Antony C. Black, “Black propaganda,” Guardian Weekly, 2/24/00.) Indian democracy blunted class conflict, and allowed for a flourishing of civil society and movements for social change. But it left in place a system of rigid divisions of class and caste, deep impoverishment and widespread malnutrition, a chronic semi-famine in some areas. As a result, from the 1940s-1970s, loss of life from the social conditions of Indian capitalism exceeded several times over those of Chinese socialism.

    — end quote —

    Of course even if it is true that the capitalist model of India is worse for people–that
    is beside the point. In response to any crime, it will almost always be possible to point
    to a larger crime. But we cannot expect the working class, in their millions, to sacrifice
    for the sake of a lesser crime. We need a goal, as a movement, that does not insult the
    intelligence of the working class. Mike does not understand this, and the rubber-stamp Kasama
    organization does not appear inclined to challenge him on this. They are too busy chasing
    numbers (millions of page views as well as members in their rubber-stamp organization) to give
    thought to the necessary center of our movement.

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