Oliver Kamm: Famine? What famine?

Roundup: Talking About History

[ABOUT KAMM: I am an author, columnist and banker. I write regularly for The Times, and have written also for The Guardian, Prospect, The New Republic, Index on Censorship and The Jewish Chronicle. I am an advisory editor of Democratiya. My book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy was published in 2005. I was a contributor to Britain's Bomb: What Next?, edited by Brian Wicker and General Sir Hugh Beach, in 2006. I have worked at the Bank of England, HSBC Securities and Commerzbank Securities, and am a founder of an asset management and advisory firm, WMG Advisors LLP, based in London.]

I'm unfazed to report that my litigiously minded correspondent, Joseph Ball, author of the grotesque Monthly Review article "Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?", has continued to scramble back from his initial threats. Ball writes to me once more:

This is my last email to you until I draft a public response to your allegations. Your comments about me are rude, ill-informed and offensive. It is also libellous to compare me to a Nazi. However, marxists like myself do not use capitalist courts to fight such allegations, as I made clear in my first email. We fight for our line among the people. I will fight your ill-informed comments publicly, as I have said. If you don't want to respond to what I have to say, it doesn't matter really-you will be given a chance to look what I have to say about your line before I publish it in any case. If you don't reply, it just makes it slightly easier for us to achieve the success of our line in this dispute. That's all. Anyway, maybe you need all your time to tell the world about the triumph of your cherished neo-con ideals in Iraq.

I have replied, asking if he might possibly have it in his heart to make this one his last email to me, period. We shall see.

In the meantime, one of my readers has pointed me to a pseudo-scholarly variant of Ball's own argument, which my correspondent aptly calls"Great Leap Forward denial". The author of the piece is one Henry Liu, writing for Asia Times Online, who appears to be an investment manager. Liu's article is entitled - without even the Webb-like ruse of the question mark attached to Ball's title - "The Great Leap Forward not all bad". Brace yourself:

Most of the mass movements initiated by Mao Zedong were successful in changing old ideas and reshaping Chinese society. Even the Great Leap Forward, for which Mao is vilified, was successful in important areas, and estimates of 30 million deaths are wildly exaggerated. Bad weather, famines and the US trade embargo caused most of the deaths. Today's neo-liberal globalization has inflicted far more death and suffering than the Great Leap.

You shouldn't pass by that chilling euphemism"reshaping Chinese society" too quickly. There will be plenty of opportunity still to consider the disrepute of the author's simultaneously denying the human costs of Mao's despotism and then blaming these costs that didn't happen on someone or something else. Note incidentally, that according to Jasper Becker's harrowing and definitive, Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine, 1996, p. 268:

During the Great Leap Forward, the [Chinese] Central Meteorological Office continued to function accurately but the information it produced was restricted to senior levels of the Party. The meteorologists reported that there was no unusually bad weather or natural disasters in 1959, 1960 or 1961.; indeed the weather was rather good. However, the official media reported claims by Mao and others that China had in the period experienced the worst natural disasters for a century. Official news reports even quoted experts as saying that China's climate had changed. In fact, the worst years since 1949 have been 1954 and 1980-1 when there was neither a severe grain shortage nor a nationwide famine.

Once you've dealt with that article of Liu's, you can try its predecessor, which argues:

Chairman Mao Zedong, the greatest revolutionary in modern Chinese history, has been unfairly vilified by the neo-liberal West, but he set a decaying China on the path to renewed greatness and provided a vision for a new China that will survive for centuries to come. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is deified, while Mao is demonized.

Lincoln's assault on due process was decidedly more violent than Mao's alleged autocratic leadership style. The difference between Lincoln and Mao is that Lincoln's high-minded quest for equality in practice allowed a few to monopolize the resultant national wealth, while Mao tried to distribute it to all equally.

This may be the digital age, but it remains extraordinary how some people get published. What I fear is not extraordinary at all (or at least not to me), but ought to be, is that Liu's article is cited as a source for Wikipedia's entry for the Great Leap Forward.

UPDATE: This, however, did surprise me, and I've noticed it only after publishing the post. The Wikipedia article on the Great Leap Forward also cites, as an "external link", my dogged correspondent Joseph Ball's article whitewashing Mao from Monthly Review. I've just checked Wikipedia's entry for the Holocaust, but suprisingly - given the precedent in Ball's work - it doesn't cite the output of David Irving as a scholarly source. Nor does the Wikipedia entry for The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion draw in any respect on the analyses of David Duke. Curiouser and curiouser.

UPDATE II: Got it. I was certain that"Joseph Ball" was a carefully chosen nom de keyboard; the reason for its adoption must have been somewhere in my subconscious. The real Joseph Ball was an MI5 officer implicated in the affair of the Zinoviev letter. As Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook commissioned the FCO's historians to write a report on this scandal. The documents are on the FCO's website, here, and are fascinating. My correspondent (who I sincerely hope has now stopped)"Joseph Ball" presumably regards manufacturing an alias as a noble revolutionary activity because his hero Stalin did it.

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