When the Family Is Abolished, People Starve

When the Family Is Abolished, People Starve

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!”

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 1958-1962Chinese 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.”

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