When the Family Is Abolished, People Starve

Sophie Lewis wants to Abolish the Family. In her sympathetic review of Lewis’s book, Erin Maglaque traces through the “utopian” views of the anti-family movement. She tells of the 19th Century Fournier communes that “freed” women of the “drudgery” of cooking for their families. Lewis wants to expand on the idea of kitchenless households to include collective childcare. Maglaque writes,

The family, Lewis and other abolitionists and feminists argue, privatises care. The legal and economic structure of the nuclear household warps love and intimacy into abuse, ownership, scarcity. Children are private property, legally owned and fully economically dependent on their parents. The hard work of care – looking after children, cooking and cleaning – is hidden away and devalued, performed for free by women or for scandalously low pay by domestic workers. 

“If we abolish the family,” Magaque writes, “we abolish the most fundamental unit of privatization and scarcity in our society. More care, more love, for all.”

Family abolitionists see themselves as liberators, but their dreams are dystopian. Only through force can the family be abolished as a crucial foundation of society.  There is no love in force; the utopian hope of “more love” really means more hate for all. 

“More love for all” was not how it worked out when Mao sought to abolish the family during his Great Leap Forward. Like the Chinese communists, Lewis sees no need for every family to cook, wash clothes, and raise children. For the Chinese, instead of paradise, the outcome was the worst man-made famine in history. 

In his meticulously researched book Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng reports, in harrowing detail, the totalitarian-induced famine that killed 36 million Chinese. The toll of Mao’s famine exceeds, by many times, the toll of Stalin’s death by starvation of Ukrainians.  

Mao and other Chinese communists, according to Jisheng, saw  “the family as the social foundation of the private ownership system and a major impediment to communism.” In a 1958 speech Mao said: “In socialism, private property still exists, factions still exist, families still exist. Families are the product of the last stage of primitive communism, and every last trace of them will be eliminated in the future.” Mao continued, “in the future, the family will no longer be beneficial to the development of productivity … Many of our comrades don’t dare to consider problems of this nature because their thinking is too narrow.” 

Jisheng took a deep dive into the Chinese Communist Party archives. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai believed “thorough liberation required liberating women from their household duties.” Enlai “promoted communal kitchens and communal nurseries as the sprouts of communism.” Vice-chair of the Communist Party Liu Shaoqi observed: that “by eliminating families it would be possible to eliminate private property.” 

The intent was to make the Chinese population more controllable and China more productive. A 1959 party report laid out the results: 

People eat together in the canteens and go out to work together … Before the canteens, commune members could only work for seven to eight hours a day; now they work an average of ten hours a day … At breakfast, as soon as the bowls are pushed away, the section heads lead people out to work … Before and after meals, commune members read newspapers and listen to radio broadcasts together, improving their education in communism. 

Food is usually cooked by families because it is efficient that they do so. During the Great Leap Forward, communal kitchens were rapidly established, some feeding up to 800 people. Jisheng reports, “The communal kitchens were a major reason so many starved to death. Home stoves were dismantled, and cooking implements, tables and chairs, foodstuffs, and firewood were handed over to the communal kitchen, as were livestock, poultry, and any edible plants harvested by commune members. In some places, no chimneys were allowed to be lit outside the communal kitchen.” In short, households lost even the ability to boil water. 

The consequences were catastrophic. Jisheng writes, “Eliminating the family as a basic living unit reduced its capacity to combat famine.”  

Introducing communal kitchens meant people had to go to a kitchen to be fed. Jisheng observes, “In the mountain regions, people had to tramp over hill and dale for a bowl of gruel.” The details reflect the mad arrogance of the planners: 

In the spring of 1960 the newly appointed first secretary of Yunnan Province went to the countryside for an inspection. In the hill country he saw an old woman, covered from head to toe in mud, lugging a basket up a slope during a rainstorm on her way to the kitchen. Some villagers told him that this elderly woman had to cover only two hills and seven-plus kilometers, which was not so bad; some had to travel fifteen kilometers on their donkeys to reach the communal kitchen, spending a good part of a day fetching two meals. 

The abolition of the family meant families couldn’t divide labor as they cared for the young, elderly, and infirm. Individuals can see through the eyes of love, but all that mattered to the communists was productivity. A party official proclaimed: “Even the old and feeble cannot be allowed to eat for free, but must contribute their effort. If they can’t carry a double load, they can share a load with someone else, and if they can’t use their shoulders, they can use their hands; even crawling to the field with a bowl of dirt in one hand contributes more than lying in bed.”

The communists seized homes. Jisheng reports, “Kindergartens, nurseries, and facilities for the elderly were established with resources seized from families without compensation, and homes were vacated to house the facilities.” 

Of course, none of this was voluntary. Jisheng explains that “Cadres and militia ransacked homes and sometimes beat and detained occupants. When villagers handed over their assets, it was in an atmosphere of extreme political pressure. The campaign against private property rendered many families destitute and homeless.”

Jisheng describes, how initially, with “free” food, commune members gorged themselves:

The communal kitchens were most damaging in their waste. During the first two or three months that the canteens operated in the autumn of 1958, members feasted. Believing that food supply problems had been completely resolved, Mao and other central leaders worried about “what to do with the extra food,” which in turn led villagers to believe that the state had access to vast stores of food to supplement local supplies when they ran out. The slogan was, “With meals supplied communally, there is never any fear of eating too much.”

Of course, as food ran out, not all were equal. Jisheng reports on how the cadres [officials charged with managing communist party affairs] “helped themselves to white rice, steamed rolls, stuffed buns, steamed buns, and meat and vegetable dishes, while ordinary commune members ate watery gruel.” The gruel “was often execrable. Boiling cauldrons of congee might contain rat droppings and sheep dung.”

Operating in a totalitarian hierarchy, the cadres lost their humanity. Jisheng continued to explain how a cadre member “needed only to gain the confidence of his direct superior to become a ‘local despot’ with utter impunity. Corruption eroded already inadequate food supplies and intensified the famine.” They were slaves “facing upward and a dictator facing downward.” Jisheng graphically reveals the brutality of the cadres:

Cadres inflicted brutal punishment on villagers, who had mixed feelings about the communization process, who furtively consumed the collectives’ seedlings out of hunger, or who had no strength for the massive irrigation projects, and on some conscientious cadres. Punishments included being beaten while suspended in midair, forced into protracted kneeling, paraded through the streets, deprived of food, exposed to the cold or the sun, and having one’s ears or fingers cut off. In the villages, the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat was in fact the dictatorship of the cadres, and those with the greatest power were able to inflict the greatest amount of arbitrary abuse.

Jisheng’s book is not an academic from-a-distance analysis, but an up-close, visceral account. Looking at the specific evils of totalitarianism is instructive:

On October 15, 1959, Zhang Zhirong of the Xiongwan production team, upon failing to hand over any grain, was bound and beaten to death with kindling and poles. The brigade’s cadre used tongs to insert rice and soya beans into the deceased’s anus while shouting, “Now you can grow grain out of your corpse!” Zhang left behind children aged eight and ten who subsequently died of starvation. 

On October 19, 1959, Chenwan production team member Chen Xiaojia and his son Chen Guihou were hung from the beam of the communal dining hall when they failed to hand over any grain. They were beaten and doused with cold water, both dying within seven days. Two small children who survived them eventually died of starvation.

On November 8, 1959, Zhong Xingjian of the Yanwan production team was accused of “defying the leadership,” and a cadre hacked him to death with an ax.

According to Jisheng, the few officials “who spoke the truth were labeled ‘deniers of achievement’ and ‘right deviationists,’ and were subjected to merciless struggle.” When one party secretary admitted, “there was no food and that the procurement quota could not be met, he was lifted by his arms and legs and hurled like a battering ram against the floor.”

Do not assume these examples reflect a few bad seeds. In Tombstone, Jisheng reports that over 50 percent of the cadres participated in crimes against humanity. The cycle of violence is revealed in this account of a cadre member: “If you didn’t beat others, you would be beaten. The more harshly you beat someone, the more firmly you established your position and your loyalty to the Communist Party. If you didn’t beat others, you were a right deviationist and would soon be beaten by others.” 

Jisheng sums up what families experienced during the Great Leap Forward: “Families were scattered to the winds, children abandoned, and corpses left along the roadside to rot.”

How Totalitarianism Created the Famine

Jisheng is blunt; the cause of death by starvation was totalitarianism:  

The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism. While totalitarianism does not inevitably result in disasters on such a massive scale, it facilitates the development of extremely flawed policies and impedes their correction. Even more important is that in this kind of system, the government monopolizes all production and life-sustaining resources, so that once a calamity occurs, ordinary people have no means of saving themselves.

The historical evidence links famine to tyranny. In “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen wrote,

In the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. We cannot find exceptions to this rule, no matter where we look: the recent famines of Ethiopia, Somalia, or other dictatorial regimes; famines in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; China’s 1958-61 famine with the failure of the Great Leap Forward; or earlier still, the famines in Ireland or India under alien rule. China, although it was in many ways doing much better economically than India, still managed (unlike India) to have a famine, indeed the largest recorded famine in world history: Nearly 30 million people died in the famine of 1958-61, while faulty governmental policies remained uncorrected for three full years. The policies went uncriticized because there were no opposition parties in parliament, no free press, and no multiparty elections. Indeed, it is precisely this lack of challenge that allowed the deeply defective policies to continue even though they were killing millions each year. The same can be said about the world’s two contemporary famines, occurring right now in North Korea and Sudan.

In Jisheng’s view, Mao and his minions “considered no cost or coercion too great in making the realization of Communist ideals the supreme goal of the entire populace.”

The totalitarian hierarchy meant the 1958 goals set by Mao of surpassing the United Kingdom in steel production in two years would be carried out by the cadres, no matter what the cost. Yet, as Jisheng writes, “The steel furnaces didn’t actually smelt any iron; rather, the woks and cooking utensils of the peasants, the door knockers from their homes, and the bells from temples were all melted down in order to report success.”

Mao’s goal of rapid industrialization meant impossible demands were placed on the peasant farmers. The records and testimony Jisheng reviewed are clear. Party officials “met” those demands by lying about crop yields. With inflated crop yields came “high state procurement quotas.” Most counties met their quota “by taking every kernel of grain ration and seed grain from the peasants:”

If farmers were unable to hand over the required amount, the government would accuse production teams of concealing grain. A “struggle between the two roads” (of socialism and capitalism) was launched to counteract the alleged withholding of grain. This campaign used political pressure, mental torture, and ruthless violence to extort every last kernel of grain or seed from the peasants. Anyone who uttered the slightest protest was beaten, sometimes fatally.

The result was the “prolonged agony” of starvation. Jisheng writes:

The grain was gone, the wild herbs had all been eaten, even the bark had been stripped from the trees, and bird droppings, rats, and cotton batting were used to fill stomachs. In the kaolin clay fields, starving people chewed on the clay as they dug it. The corpses of the dead, famine victims seeking refuge from other villages, even one’s own family members, became food for the desperate.

Out of fear and faith, Jisheng describes, “People sat alongside storage depots waiting for the government to release grain, crying out, ‘Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us!’ Some people starved to death sitting next to the grain depots.”

Graphically, Jisheng recounts, “Commune members first lost weight, then swelled with edema, then wasted away until they vomited fluid and died.” One father “was afraid that his sons, ages three and four, would be left with no one to care for them, so he drowned them in a pit just before he died.”

When nothing else was left, some ate their own or exchanged children to be eaten. In a memoir, official Yu Dehong wrote: “There were cases of cannibalism in nearly every village, and many incidents so tragic that I cannot bear to speak of them.”

Jisheng, echoing Sen, writes, “It is 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.” 

Had Mao and his cadres learned from Stalin’s playbook? Jisheng’s reporting echoes the Holodomor

To prevent starving people from fleeing and spreading news of the disaster, county party committees deployed armed guards to patrol borders and access roads. Sentry posts were set up on roadways, and checkpoints at every village. Bus stops were manned by police officers, and long-distance buses could be driven only by party members. Anyone discovered trying to leave had all his belongings confiscated and was beaten. Xinyang’s rail depots were monitored by the railway public security bureau. The peasants could only stay home and await death.

The peasants “were swollen with starvation, while the cadres were swollen with overeating.” The destruction of the family in China didn’t mean “more care, more love.” 

Mao knew. Communist Party Vice-Chair, Liu Shaoqi told Mao, “History will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized!”

None of this is what family abolitionists, like Lewis, have in mind. Despite all his horrific crimes, Mao didn’t have mass starvation in mind when he set out to abolish the family. Mao blamed the unfathomable millions of dead “on political and class enemies.” As always, with totalitarians, “mistakes were made, but not by me.”

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