Good piece on the two largest famines

  • Thread starter BWV
  • Start date
In summary, the conversation discusses the devastating famines in the Soviet Union and China, the most documented in history, and the explanations for their causes. It also delves into the differences in political response to the famines, with the Soviet government denying it until the 1980s and viewing it as the fault of peasants, while the Chinese government acknowledged it and initiated the Cultural Revolution. The key cause of the divergence in political response is attributed to the political dynamics and different ideologies of the two governments. However, the conversation also brings up other factors such as historic mistrust of peasants in the Soviet Union and the New Economic Policy.
  • #1
BWV
1,492
1,806
Around 6 to 10 million people died from famine in the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1933, and 22 to 45 million died from famine in China between 1959 and 1961. In terms of total deaths, these are the most devastating famines in the history of human civilization. They are also the most documented. Jasper Becker and Robert Conquest give illuminating accounts of these episodes. Recent books have provided additional, and often very controversial, explanations of the causes of these famines, ranging from bad luck to genocidal intent (see, for example, contributions by Anne Applebaum, R.W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft, Frank Dikötter, Andrea Graziosi, V.V. Kondrashin, and Timothy Snyder).

Most of the evidence in this work relies on personal narratives and descriptive evidence. Without systematic and disaggregated data, one cannot distinguish among competing hypotheses. To address this lapse in knowledge, my co-authors (Xin Meng, Pierre Yared, Andrei Markevich, and Natalya Naumenko) and I have spent the past 15 years piecing together archival data, and combining these data with recently available geospatial data for the U.S.S.R. and China, to understand the root causes of the Soviet and Chinese famines
...
Early Soviet and Chinese communists were ideologically committed to a planned economy, where there were no markets. Instead, the government procured the surplus grain from peasants and distributed it other workers and for export, the profit from which the government kept. Agricultural collectivization was the main policy for achieving this. The procurement grain is the tax in this economy. The ambitious governments of these two countries aimed to have a 100% tax, where all surplus is procured, but peasants are left with ample food to subsist (and stay productive).

Planned and market economies have very different implications for the incentives of the farmer. In a market economy, farmers are paid for their effort, so they are incentivized to exert effort to produce more food. In the planned economies, farmers always get their subsistence level and no more. So, they are incentivized to produce up to what they need to subsist and no more.

Producing no surplus would leave the government with no tax revenue, or with debt if feeding non-agricultural workers is taken into account. To incentivize farmers, the central planners introduced production quotas. These set the amount of grain each region needed to produce. The difference between the quota and subsistence need is the government tax (procurement). This provides a very strong incentive to farmers because if they do not meet the quota, they will be left with too little food for subsistence and starve.

The planned economy depends critically on setting the correct quotas. If the quota is too high, then too much will be taken away and there will be famine. If the quota is too low, then the government is not maximizing revenue.

...
Internally within the leadership, the famine was seen as a mistake on the part of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, who suppressed those, such as Peng Dehuai, who warned of famine in 1958. He was forced to step down as the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China in 1959, the first year of the famine. To regain political power after having lost much of his prestige and support from top leadership, Mao waged a grassroots-powered Cultural Revolution starting in 1966 until his death in 1976.

None of these things happened in the U.S.S.R. The government denied the famine until the 1980s. Stalin viewed the low harvests as the fault of the peasants, whom he believed intentionally used famine to undermine the regime. In 1932, when low production numbers were verified, the government decreed that procurement quotas needed to be fulfilled and non-compliant bureaucrats arrested.
..
The key cause of the divergence in political response to the famine between the Soviets and Chinese was political. The two governments faced the same fundamental tradeoff: obtain the political support of the people versus force them to work and repress resistance. However, their support and political legitimacy differed in relation to the famine.

The Stalin-led Soviet Bolsheviks were a workers’ party. The government could afford to lose the support of the peasants and repress them until they obeyed. The Chinese Communist Party was a peasants’ party. They could not afford to lose the support of the peasants. This ostensibly small difference caused famine political-economic dynamics to play out in very different ways in the U.S.S.R. and China.
https://broadstreet.blog/2021/04/30/a-tale-of-two-famines/
 
Science news on Phys.org
  • #2
I'd hesitate to go so far. Part of the issue may be not that the Soviets thought that they could afford to lose the support of the peasants, but that the mistrust of the peasants was greater in the 20's and 30's in Soviet Union (than in China), for historic reasons. Further, the Soviets needed to acquire machinery from the West in order to further industrialise (as demanded in the 5 year plan of 1928), and were hard strapped for cash; they were still selling grain on the world market, while people were starving. The focus really was on rapidly industrialising.

Killing off all the sparrows to prevent them eating grain, and collecting all the metal in the village to smelt into some useless iron-like sludge to increase iron production for the year is not really industrialising... It could be said to be a fundamental lack of education on the part of the Chinese leadership.

They were two very different regimes.
 
  • #3
Further, I think the article's author glazes over very important sequences in Soviet History. The New Economic Policy (NEP), for one
https://www.britannica.com/event/New-Economic-Policy-Soviet-history

I find it remarkable that as a Professor of Economics she chooses to ignore information (or at least does not even make a passing reference to it) that is widely to known to anyone with an interest in the period and place. That the hoped for improvements in agricultural output with the NEP had not appeared.

I am further critical of the non-mention of the substantial Ukrainian resistance to Russian influence in the period prior to the Holodomor. Or that Ukraine had had a brief period of independence.

"The key cause of the divergence in political response to the famine between the Soviets and Chinese was political."

In other news, water is wet. History, and Culture are not isolated, resonate through the political sphere, and affect responses.

Even relatively free market economies have suffered terrible famines: the Benghal Famine of 1943 cost an estimated 2-3 million lives.
 
  • #4
green slime said:
Further, I think the article's author glazes over very important sequences in Soviet History. The New Economic Policy (NEP), for one
https://www.britannica.com/event/New-Economic-Policy-Soviet-history

I find it remarkable that as a Professor of Economics she chooses to ignore information (or at least does not even make a passing reference to it) that is widely to known to anyone with an interest in the period and place. That the hoped for improvements in agricultural output with the NEP had not appeared.

I am further critical of the non-mention of the substantial Ukrainian resistance to Russian influence in the period prior to the Holodomor. Or that Ukraine had had a brief period of independence.

"The key cause of the divergence in political response to the famine between the Soviets and Chinese was political."

In other news, water is wet. History, and Culture are not isolated, resonate through the political sphere, and affect responses.

Even relatively free market economies have suffered terrible famines: the Benghal Famine of 1943 cost an estimated 2-3 million lives.
Not sure the failure of the NEP is particularly relevant to the argument, other than a partial motivation for Stalin to proceed with the collectivization of agriculture, which then led to the famines. The Ukraine famine was the largest by numbers, but a great percentage of the population died in Kazakhstan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazakh_famine_of_1931–1933), which argues against any particular targeting of Ukraine. It does appear that these famines were unintentional, not as some have argued, a deliberate attempt at genocide. Of course its criminal that the Soviet regime would then cover it up, find scapegoats and continue to pretend that their policies were working.

Bengal was a colony in 1943, not a free market and shipping was disrupted by the war, not to mention Churchill's colonial disregard
 
  • #5
BWV said:
Not sure the failure of the NEP is particularly relevant to the argument, other than a partial motivation for Stalin to proceed with the collectivization of agriculture, which then led to the famines. The Ukraine famine was the largest by numbers, but a great percentage of the population died in Kazakhstan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazakh_famine_of_1931–1933), which argues against any particular targeting of Ukraine. It does appear that these famines were unintentional, not as some have argued, a deliberate attempt at genocide. Of course its criminal that the Soviet regime would then cover it up, find scapegoats and continue to pretend that their policies were working.

Bengal was a colony in 1943, not a free market and shipping was disrupted by the war, not to mention Churchill's colonial disregard
The issue is that the failed NEP fueled the belief that the landed peasants were withholding grain from the central authorities, and that they needed to be brought into heel. That is why it is relevant.

While the poor harvest was not intentional, worse than the failure to alleviate the disaster, exploiting the poor harvest to achieve political goals means that was a deliberate attempt at limited genocide. That the Kazakh's were also suffering (another area of civil unruliness) does not diminish the culpability of the Soviet leadership in Ukraine.

Are you suggesting that none of the colonies actually had free markets? The issue was more the controls implemented for the war, rather than it being a colony per se.
 
  • #6
green slime said:
Are you suggesting that none of the colonies actually had free markets? The issue was more the controls implemented for the war, rather than it being a colony per se.
That is correct, a primary aim of British colonialism was resource exploitation, create captive export markets and protect UK firms from competition. India, for example, was prohibited from manufacturing clothing or steel
 
  • #8
green slime said:
I think we will just agree to disagree.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/94819286

"Before World War I, India was producing about 1 750 000 tons of pig iron and 750 000 tons of steel per annum. Production reached a maximum of 2 million tons of pig iron in 1941 and 1.13 million tons of finished steel in 1943."

http://eprints.nmlindia.org/5558/1/1-7.PDF
If you googled that extensively for that, then you would have certainly seen how the British eradicated the Indian textile industry and generally implemented protectionist policies to favor UK industry (same issues that the American Colonies rebelled over). there were some outright bans on steel during the 18th century under the East India company, but apparently they were relaxed later.
 
  • #9
BWV said:
If you googled that extensively for that, then you would have certainly seen how the British eradicated the Indian textile industry and generally implemented protectionist policies to favor UK industry (same issues that the American Colonies rebelled over). there were some outright bans on steel during the 18th century under the East India company, but apparently they were relaxed later.

I suppose it was pragmatism. I don't see how the UK could have shipped a million tons of steel per annum to India and make a profit.
 
  • Like
Likes BWV
  • #10
Hornbein said:
I suppose it was pragmatism. I don't see how the UK could have shipped a million tons of steel per annum to India and make a profit.
That makes sense, would have made it hard to build the railroads. Tata Steel was founded in 1907 and today is India’s largest industrial conglomerate
 
  • #11
BWV said:
Tata Steel was founded in 1907 and today is India’s largest industrial conglomerate
Bodacious!
 
  • #12
BWV said:
If you googled that extensively for that, then you would have certainly seen how the British eradicated the Indian textile industry and generally implemented protectionist policies to favor UK industry (same issues that the American Colonies rebelled over). there were some outright bans on steel during the 18th century under the East India company, but apparently they were relaxed later.
LOL.

It's not exactly "googling extensively." It is actually recognising that the 18th century India under the East Indian Company, and India of 1930's -1940s are two very different eras.

The travails of textile industry of India in the 1800s has very little to do with crop production and food security in Benghal 1943.

Regardless, waaay off topic.
 

Related to Good piece on the two largest famines

1. What are the two largest famines mentioned in the article?

The two largest famines mentioned in the article are the Great Chinese Famine and the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933.

2. What caused these famines?

The Great Chinese Famine was caused by a combination of factors including natural disasters, government policies, and economic mismanagement. The Soviet Famine of 1932-1933 was primarily caused by the forced collectivization of agriculture under Stalin's regime.

3. How many people died in these famines?

It is estimated that between 20-45 million people died during the Great Chinese Famine and between 6-8 million people died during the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933.

4. What long-term effects did these famines have?

The Great Chinese Famine had a significant impact on China's economy and society, leading to political and social upheaval. The Soviet Famine of 1932-1933 had lasting effects on the Soviet Union, including a decline in agricultural production and a loss of trust in the government.

5. How can we prevent future famines?

To prevent future famines, it is important to address the root causes such as poverty, political instability, and environmental factors. Additionally, implementing effective agricultural policies and investing in sustainable farming practices can help prevent food shortages and famines.

Similar threads

  • General Discussion
Replies
29
Views
9K
Replies
6
Views
3K
Replies
2
Views
4K
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
Replies
17
Views
4K
  • General Discussion
2
Replies
43
Views
5K
Back
Top