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August 12, 2013



Iraq has not always been a daily O.K. Corral with Shiite, Kurd and Sunni elements blowing one another away. It was first known as Mesopotamia (“land between two rivers,” the Tigris and Euphrates), the birthplace of Abraham (Ur), and perhaps most importantly, the beginning of domesticated agriculture in surplus. The land was fertile, and roving bands of hunters and gatherers finally came up with domesticated agriculture, settled down, built villages and cities, and with such surplus agriculture did not need to rove the countryside as before in search of food. Without surplus agriculture, there would be no civilization as we know it. Prospective Bachs and Shakespeares would have had to hunt and gather every day and great music and literature would have been on hold awaiting agricultural surplus.

With that background, this essay is about the essence of famine and the horrors it brings. We must first understand that humanity has only had a relatively few years of “feasts” and hundreds of thousands of years of “famine.” Hunters and gathering bands of humans faced famine every day for many thousands of years, and sometimes when food was in short supply had to resort to killing their children, the old and the sick among their number since they were unproductive consumers. Life was short, hungry, and brutal ; cannibalism was not unknown. This was the condition of humanity for (in geologic time) almost all of our existence. Civilization has flowered since the Fertile Crescent in present-day Iraq yielded an agricultural surplus, without which we would still be roving the planet in search of food, practicing infanticide, cannibalism etc. There would have been no Bachs, Lincolns, Christs, or Shakespeares.

So now, with mechanized farming and Monsanto-genetic tactics and Burbank wonders, our ancient  problem of famine is solved, right? Wrong. However, recent and contemporary famines are not all necessarily caused by ignorance of modern farming methods or bad weather (drought, rainouts, volcanic eruptions etc.); they are sometimes deliberately induced by totalitarian regimes in furtherance of political objectives. Thus it is not necessary to have a war to kill your enemies, domestic or foreign. It is not even necessary that they be enemies; they can be your own people (as with Mao).You can just starve them to death.

I will cite two such examples, Stalin and (mainly ) Mao, since he was responsible  for starving his own people on such a massive scale with his “Great Leap Forward” nonsense paraded as policy. While Mao was a communist, I here note that any “ism” can foster hunger. (Look around. The House eliminated food stamps from the farm bill while simultaneously giving billions to corporate farmers recently.) (?)

Stalin’s starvation tactics were borne of murderous intent in a classic example of the use of famine as a cruel political weapon. The plan was known as the Holodomor of 1933, during which Stalin deliberately starved to death more than 3 million Ukrainians. With the many millions of others killed in Russia as the “Reds” consolidated their power (especially but not limited to south Russia), Stalin killed far more people than Hitler during the latter’s murderous regime. (It is peculiarly ironic that it was Ukrainians who died of malnutrition, since the Ukraine was and still is known as “the breadbasket of Europe.”)

Mao (with his Great Leap Forward program of 1958-1962) killed far more people than Stalin (estimates range from official publication records of 17 million to more recent data suggesting a range of 36 million to 47 million Chinese dead from famine. It appears that Mao has outdone both Hitler and Stalin in killing people, and these do not include those killed in wars during their respective tenures. These are “peace time” killings! Motives (or even lack of motives) for killing millions of such people are immaterial; the people who died are just as dead irrespective of motive of the killers.

Their motives did in fact vary. Hitler intended to kill Jews (among others) and Stalin intended to kill Ukrainians (among others). Mao’s killings were the result of political myopia and bungling rather than murderous intent, however foreseeable and horrifying the consequences of such myopia and bungling. The so-called “Great Helmsman” (Mao) cannot be excused for lack of motive. His apologists have claimed that Mao suffered an information blackout by provincial functionaries who were well-versed in the art of meeting expectations and concealing bad news; that they told Mao what he wanted to hear and that he believed them.

This is sham, in my opinion. The real problem was and is that there is a lack of political accountability at every level of a totalitarian state, that Mao’s hard right communism served as a background for such unaccountability, and that he knew or should have known from his long experience with the local yokels that something was amiss, and that his pretended lack of knowledge is a false pretense. Mao did suffer some lack of resolution in how to go about feeding his populace while at the same time meeting one of the goals of The Great Leap Forward – EXPORT of farm products!

A communiqué recently found at a Shanghai party meeting during this time suggests that Mao was so blinded by politics that he could not envision the implications of his own policies. At that meeting he remarked that “It is better to leave half the people to starve to death so that the other half can eat their fill.” Consider the implications of that statement against his more pragmatic and well known view (even while taking away food from the farmers for export) that there was “a need to leave sufficient supplies to avoid peasant revolt.” Being a revolutionary, it is apparent from the latter quote above that he understood the potential for counter-revolution. Indeed, I join historians in wondering why there was not an anti-Mao revolution. I suppose it helps to be in charge of an army.

Famine, of course, was not unknown to China long before communism ever existed, and may not be unknown in our future of food politics on this hot and overcrowded and disorderly planet. In my opinion, we are now setting up the conditions for such a future disaster. Some of it will be attributable to global warming, though (in what passes for political dialogue these days) we cannot even agree on that. Those in the Pentagon know that trouble is brewing in the future when billions more people will need  more food than ever, but this is not its job. Its job is to keep us safe to live our high-carbon lives on a disorderly globe as we chase the buck and flit from one crisis to another.

I will have more on the personal side of the effects of the Chinese famine which came out of totalitarianism and not bad weather, including cannibalism, which is nothing new during famines (see Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” published in 1931). One such report from 1870 cites a woodblock which tells of a man’s sale of his daughter to avoid eating her. Reports from the Mao-induced famine of some 50-odd years ago included some which involved peasants digging up the corpses of the recently deceased for ingestion. The ultimate irony is that the very peasants who were providing food for Mao were starving for lack of it. I will have more on this depressing story in Part II. Stay tuned.  GERALD  E


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