Bryan Caplan  

Why the Great Leap Forward Was Murder

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Even scholars well familiar with the horrors of the Great Leap Forward occasionally refuse to call Mao Zedong a murderer.  Why not?  Because Mao didn't know.  People kept telling him that his crazy agricultural schemes were working wonders.  What does he supposed to do?  But the great Tacitus answers all these doubts in a typically wisdom-packed sentence:
Fear is not in the habit of speaking truth; when perfect sincerity is expected, perfect freedom must be allowed; nor has anyone who is apt to be angry when he hears the truth any cause to wonder that he does not hear it.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Hyena writes:

Because murder requires intent or at least foreknowledge of consequences plus disregard for them.

Mao might be more accurately guilty of mass negligent homicide.

Les writes:

When so many millions perished, how can a leader possibly not have been aware of the murdered millions?

hanmeng writes:

Frank Dikötter, author of “Mao’s Great Famine”, recently wrote of Mao,

At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
It sounds like he knew but didn't give a damn.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

You have to be locked up in your ivory tower pretty deep not to notice the starvation of a substantial percentage of your population.

Kurbla writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. --Econlib Ed.]

Lori writes:

Honest communication is possible only between equals.

Kurbla: ??????????????????

Chandran writes:

Rummel originally categorized the GLF as negligence and so as NOT an example of government killing its own citizens. However, when evidence came to light that Mao refused to send relief to areas where there was famine, Rummel revised his assessment and now categorizes the GLF as another example of governments killing their own citizens. To my mind Mao was guilty of mass-murder, whether or not he was guilty of genocide. See R.J.Rummel, Death by Government. Rummel uses the term "democide" to describe Mao's actions.

Mike Rulle writes:

Okay, for the sake of argument he did not know. So he was an idiot and Mao was not the true leader---but some other group of people were the actual leaders. What difference does it make? So Mao must have been a figurehead. Is that the level of argument to which Mao apologists have been reduced; that he was a moronic figurehead used by the true leaders?

John K writes:

Mao ordered things which he knew would not maximize the number of people who live in the coming year, or whatever time period, but those decisions could be necessary if it's your view that the whole economy must be micro-managed. Mao could have been right that's it's better for one person to die, for one to eat more (and thereby be more productive.) Is every post-Mao starvation a murder?

I think the libertarian view would be that any government action is violative, so if death results any way it's murder, as in the case of a robbery. Intent doesn't matter except intent to violate property.

And Mike Rulle: Actually I think that's sort of important. I don't know, but I suspect the # of people murdered by, or who suffered any violence directly from Hitler, Stalin, and Mao combined is probably close enough to zero. Aren't the multitudes of people who chose to participate in violence in those societies the ones responsible?

Mr. Econotarian writes:


In 1959, Minister of Defence Marshal Peng Dehuai wrote a 10,000 character letter to Mao about what he had seen in a tour of the country. At the Party meeting in Lushan that year, Peng accused Mao publicly of acting like Stalin and sacrificing humans on the altar of intractable production targets, and that his troops were getting letters from home that told of terrible food shortages.

For this, Peng was accused of being a "rightist", stripped of all offices, and arrested.

In 1962, the Panhen Lama wrote Mao about the great loss of life in Tibet, and he too was arrested. Tremendous starvation (and the collective kitchens) continued in Tibet until 1964.

I find it difficult to believe that "Mao did not know", however even if he didn't, it was only because the totalitarian state of fear he set up made it impossible for anyone to speak the truth to power.

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