If there is ever a contest for the greatest mass murderer, Adolf Hitler won’t win. He wouldn’t even come in second. For the deaths of 12-15 million non-combatants sacrificed to Nazism, Hitler rates a measly third place.
In second place, we find Josef Stalin. During his life he staged purges, held rigged trials, and sent thousands to die in the Gulag. Unlike Hitler, all of these crimes were in the open and often with the news cameras rolling. Bad enough. But what really moved him into the top ranks of monsters was something he began for yet another -ism: Marxism. In 1929 he collectivized the Soviet Union’s agriculture.
Before the First World War Russia was the breadbasket of Europe. Even more than that from America, it was the grain from Russia, particularly the Ukraine, that fed industrial Europe. Russian peasant farming might have been cruder than the United States, but they knew their land and how to make it yield a rich bounty.
The backbone of Ukrainian agriculture was the rich peasant group called Kulaks. Stalin introduced a system where the state set the grain prices artificially low. The Kulaks thought this was a bad idea and tried to withhold their grain in protest. So Stalin decreed that the Kulaks were exploiting the poor peasants and therefore were class enemies. His solution was to purchase their land at fire sale prices (set by the state) and roll them into the giant Marxist collectives. These agricultural factories would then produce miracles of production and would be egalitarian paradises where the Kulaks would work like everyone else.
The Kulaks resisted collectivization. So Stalin declared war on them and began simply confiscating their farms. The Kulaks responded by destroying their own crops and killing their own animals. At last Stalin declared them all saboteurs and simply wiped them out.
Now political theory combined with bureaucracy to produce disaster. Sure that his new collectives would deliver massive improvements in crop yields, Stalin assessed heavy new taxes in grain so that they could ship it abroad for heavy industrial equipment for the Five Year Plan.
But all the chaos in the countryside was bound to reduce crop yields. Then too, Stalin was replacing farmer-owners who knew their land with factory farmers who couldn’t care less about the land or its yield. Not very surprisingly, that yield plummeted.
Ah, but those grain taxes still had to be paid. Calculated on the fantastic expected yield, once paid there was not enough left for the farmers to live on.
So they starved. In the midst of bounty, they starved. For four years they starved. 8 million of them starved to death. Something over 3.5 million more died in the labor camps. Soviet agriculture never recovered. What is worse, it is pretty clear that Stalin saw what was happening and let it go on in the name of Marxism and to destroy Ukrainian nationalism.
Added to all the others he killed, this feat raises him to the second place among murderers.
One of the nice things about humanity is how well we learn from our mistakes. Despite these “minor problems” of collectivization, Soviet propaganda said it was a great success. Even after the 1956 Khrushchev denunciation of Stalin, there were still some who thought collectivizing agriculture was the way to go.
Like…Mao Zedong, for instance.
Along about 1959 Mao was feeling that his ten-year-old revolution had stalled. Growth rates were down, self-interest was up, and it looked like they might never catch the West. Then he had an inspiration: Now was the magic time to mobilize the peasants, collectivize the agriculture, and create a Great Leap Forward that would leapfrog China right past those capitalists out west.
He had some more ideas. China was behind in steel production? Fine. Let the peasants melt down their cooking pots and any other iron they could find in millions of back-yard furnaces. Let each furnace make only a few pounds of steel and – Presto! – they would outstrip the west.
The westerners had bred special wheat that would grow more densely? They used deeper plowing? No problem! Our peasants can dig as deep as anyone. And our Chinese grains can surely be sown as densely as any western product. Just let those collectives, with their uncounted millions of peasants, get going, and they would breeze past the west in food production, too.
If this sounds familiar, it is. But China added a new wrinkle. China has a rigid tradition of never contradicting those above…and Mao had become almost a demigod.
And the word went out. The peasants were collectivized. They built millions of backyard furnaces and melted down their pots, pans, ornamental fences, and even their tools. They chopped down millions of trees to feed the furnaces. They dug furrows deeper and deeper. They sowed their seeds more and more densely.
So millions of trees were gone. The pots and pans were melted. Unfortunately, it is tricky to make steel and all the newly melted metal was completely useless. Many of those seeds were plowed so deep they couldn’t germinate. Those that did were often strangled by their neighbors as they were sown too close together. Of course that wasn’t too important as the peasants were often too busy cutting down trees and melting pots to weed or water or even harvest the grain that survived.
As in the Ukraine, grain production plummeted. Then that special Chinese problem entered in. Instead of reported the catastrophic crop losses, the local party cadres reported that Chairman Mao was completely correct and the crops were 50, 70, 100 per cent bigger than last year. Anyone who told the truth was punished as a “deviationist.”
So, even worse than in the Soviet Union, the state taxed the grain on what the cadres reported instead of what was in the field. They shipped it to the cities and they exported millions of tons.
The cities survived, the state grain elevators became full, but the peasants began to die.
The next year it was the same. And the year after that. Less grain was produced by starving farmers. The cadres reported bigger crops. The taxes went up again. More peasants starved. With the grain elevators still full and in a land of bounty, something between 30 and 50 million people starved to death. Mao was told the truth and he ruthlessly punished the reporters.
So, if there was a murderer contest, Mao would win it hands down. He persecuted his enemies, slaughtered the landowning class, set up huge labor camps, and led his people into the Korean War. But by far his greatest achievement was managing, through completely artificial and purely political means, to starve tens of millions of his people in the midst of bounty…all for a theory.
So while we are being thankful, let’s remember that it is not enough to live in a land of plenty. You must also live in a land with a respect for common sense.