New York Times Review Repeats Lies About Mao and Great Leap Forward: An Answer and Another Reason for People to Check Out the "Set the Record Straight" Website

October 28, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |
Updated October 29, 2012


The October 14 issue of the The New York Times Book Review contains a review by Isaac Chotiner of The Graves Are Walking, a new book by John Kelly on the Irish potato famine of 1845-46. The book appears to be a moving and valuable account of this famine. The immediate cause of this famine was a potato blight or disease. But the horrific scale of deaths had everything to do with British colonial domination and control over Ireland. And the reviewer seems to recognize the importance of fact-based analysis, as applied to this historical event.

But Chotiner ends his review with a completely baseless, but pervasively repeated, slander of the experience of socialism in the 20th century. He tells readers that the British took some steps to moderate the famine but also withheld food at crucial times. And thus, "this may not put the Irish famine up there with Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward or some of history's other all-time-worst policies." The clear implication is that the Great Leap Forward was this awful event and Mao was responsible for the famine deaths that took place in revolutionary China in 1959-60.

Setting the Record Straight

There's no history, no analysis, here—just unsubstantiated assertion. Let's make a few salient points to set the record straight:  

1) The Chinese revolution in 1949 overthrew a political and economic system dominated by a few imperial powers and in which peasants were subjected to despotic landlord rule and exploitation. Famine and hunger were widespread. The Great Leap Forward of 1958-60 was aimed at creating a sustainable agriculture, bringing masses of peasants into the running of administrative and political affairs, bringing women out of the household and into the swirl of the battle to create a new society, and overcoming unequal development between the cities and countryside. The commune system that created new forms of social cooperation and social support was a great innovation of the Great Leap Forward.

Compare that with the lot of Irish peasants: subjugated by British landowners, forced to scrounge out an existence on small and inferior plots of land, totally reliant on the potato (because it was profitable for the British), and stripped of basic political and social rights.

2) The famine that struck China in 1959-60 was the result of unprecedented droughts and flooding. There was a very difficult and complex situation involving a food crisis, social and political struggle, China's encirclement by Western imperialism, and the Soviet Union trying to punish China, including by withdrawing aid, for challenging and breaking with the Soviet economic and political model.

The Chinese government and state, upholding and protecting the interests of workers, peasants, and the great majority of society, took measures to cope with the food crisis. These included emergency deliveries of grain and other assistance and changes in the structure of the communes so that they could better deal with economic matters, and scaling back exports to make more grain available.

Compare this with the Irish potato famine. In Ireland, British capital and wealthy absentee landowners set policy and responded savagely to the situation. Tenant-farmers ruined by the potato crisis were evicted from the land, with many of the displaced forced into overcrowded slums and so-called "workhouses" to earn starvation wages. In these conditions, disease rapidly spread. And some two million people were forced to emigrate. One of the chief architects of British emergency measures stated that God "had sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson" and it "must not be too much mitigated." 

3) By 1970, China had overcome its historic food problem. The socialist system was able to provide for the basic nutritional needs of the population. By 1911, the population of Ireland had declined to 4.4 million from 8 million in the early 1840s, the result of the potato famine and mass emigration.

To learn more about the Great Leap Forward in China...and to learn the truth about socialism in the Soviet Union (1917-1956) and in China (1949-1976), readers should go to the Set The Record Straight website,

This site has been newly redesigned and contains new research and documentary material.   


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