David Harsanyi, in this twitter post and accompanying article, makes this claim:

The 10 worst famines of the 20th century weren’t caused by the excesses of capitalism or by environmental disasters but by collectivists trying to control the economy.

He cites as his source.

Is this claim true?

  • 6
    I'm tempted to downvote because this is trivially answered by reading the linked article. – F1Krazy Feb 9 '19 at 15:40
  • 8
    The cited source clearly contradicts the claim. – Mark Feb 9 '19 at 16:46

The source Harsanyi cites says:

  1. China 1958-62
    Between 10 and 30 million people died as a result of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. His plan involved modernising agriculture and increasing grain production. Farmers were collectivised into communes of about 25,000 people and had to give the state a large percentage of their crops. Officials often exaggerated the size of harvests, and in many places the entire grain harvest was seized together with livestock, vegetables and cash crops. China's leaders appeared to have been unaware of the severity of the famine - from 1958 until 1961 China doubled its grain exports and cut imports of food.

  2. Soviet Union 1921-22
    Nine million people died. Massive crop failures due to drought were largely ignored by Vladimir Lenin's government, which did not respond until it was too late.

  3. Soviet Union (Ukraine) 1932-34
    Between seven and eight million people died as a result of Josef Stalin's massive industrialisation programme in which the government seized grain for exports. It needed the hard currency to buy industrial equipment. When people in the Ukraine reported a famine, Stalin punished them by refusing to send them food aid.

  4. North-west China 1927
    Between three and six million people died. The famine was triggered by drought but made worse by local warlords and harsh taxes.

  5. China (Henan) 1943
    Five million people died as a result of a combination of invasion by Japan and grain seizures by the Chinese army to feed its troops and finance the war.

  6. North Korea 1995-99
    Between 2.8 million and 3.5 million people died because of a combination of flooding and government policy.

  7. India (Bengal) 1943
    Between 2.1 and three million people died as a result of crop failure, the exporting of foods by India's British administration to Allied soldiers fighting in World War Two, the end of rice imports from Burma following Japanese invasion and a lack of food price controls by the British administration.

  8. China (Hunan) 1929
    Two million people died because of drought and conflict.

  9. Soviet Union (Ukraine and Belorussia) 1946-47
    Two million died because of drought and government policy - the re-enforcement of agricultural collectivisation policies after World War Two. This was the last famine in the Soviet Union.

  10. Cambodia 1979
    Between 1.5 and two million died of famine following a decade of conflict - first during the civil war from 1970 to 1975, then during the brutal Khmer Rouge era until 1978 and finally in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion that ended Khmer Rouge rule in 1979.

Now it might be seen as a matter of opinion, but the British rule over India and the end of price controls can hardly be attributed to collectivists. Imperial Japan and Churchill's policy are seldom accused of collectivist agendas.

In fact, reading that source with less ideology, one might conclude that Harsanyi is right after all as in every single case there was not enough collectivism and solidarity. In every case there was enough food around globally ,but it wasn't distributed fairly and according to needs. But in a way that is like saying wars are caused by too passive pacifism.

In this case it seems more likely that Harsanyi either counts on ideologically motivated readers to not follow up on links to sources, cannot read properly himself all the way through the list of famines and stopped satisfied after Red China made the top spot, or he just lies.

The main cause for famine in the 20th century was distribution failure, in other words unwillingness to share.

Steven Devereux: "Famine in the Twentieth Century" IDS, 2000. (PDF)

What makes famine analysis particularly warranted, however, is the extreme nature of famine coupled with its preventability. Famine is the most extreme manifestation of the existence of poverty, inequality and political apathy or downright malicious intent. It painfully reminds us of the absurdity of having people en masse dying of starvation in the midst of the world’s abundance of food and calories. This brings us to yet another interesting feature of famine: whereas poverty, hunger and diseases are not easily eradicated in the world today, famines are often perceived as being relatively simple to avert. Amartya Sen has repeatedly pointed to the fact that modern famines are “in fact, extremely easy to prevent” (Sen 1995: 7). The basic intuition is that preventing people from dying of starvation demands such a limited redistribution effort that even the poorest of countries are able to carry the burden. “For almost a century there has been no excuse for famine” ponders another scholar of famine studies, De Waal, in the introduction to his book entitled Famine Crimes (1997). In his monograph on famine, Ó Gráda (2009: 10) agrees: “Today, given goodwill on all sides, famine prevention should be straightforward, even in the poorest corners of the globe.” Eradicating poverty, or even starvation-induced deaths, is indeed a massive task, but an obvious starting point would be the elimination of famine. (p7–8)

While the famines analyzed in Sen’s famous 1981 monograph Poverty and Famines were all arguably (some would beg to differ) caused by market failures (whether in the form of boom or slump famines), contemporary famines are more directly linked to civil war, the absence or outright breakdown of legal structures, and political dynamics. (p97)

Olivier Rubin: "Contemporary Famine Analysis", SpringerBriefs in Political Science, Springer: Basel, 2016.

In short, when political systems were to blame then they had in common that they hindered opposition and critique, and were powerful enough to be able to think it affordable to ignore the suffering. "Collectivist" is just not the same word and meaning to reconstruct this as the only form of "bad government".

In the context of Britain’s war in Asia, the Bengal Famine cannot be understood merely as the story of a particularly grotesque form of “collateral damage” (as it sometimes has been); it must also be understood, less euphemistically, as the direct outcome of intentional policies and priorities that many, including high officials in the colonial government, fully recognized would bring dire hardship (and even starvation) to the people of India. In their fight against imperial Japan, Britain and its allies were willing to sacrifice Bengal in order to pursue war elsewhere, as well as to regain their lost supremacy in Asia. There is a long record that supports this blunt conclusion. The Bengal famine was no “accident” of war-time “bungling”, but rather was the direct product of colonial and war-time ideologies and calculations that (knowingly) exposed the poor of Bengal to annihilation through deprivation.

Calls for economic justice that go against the flow of the war economy will be silenced. Any further accusations of injustice against the great power will be grouped in the ever-expanding category of “threat”. The next step is “enemy”, and enemies will be destroyed, burnt alive if necessary. War masks sanity. One will not even be allowed to stand apart—“you are either with us or against us.” War masks calls for equality, making of them the insignificant carping of a discontented class. War masks individuality. The counting of bodies becomes monotonous. Put them all together in a single pit. War masks beauty. Although they say that owers grow— even in the fields of Hungry Bengal.

Janam Mukherjee: "Hungry Bengal. War, Famine and the End of Empire", Oxford University Press: Oxord, New York, 2015.

  • Given that some of these were deliberate policies of communist governments, I don't think you can safely conclude that. Although I think you are on somewhat firmer ground on collectivism. I think what Harsanyi is stipulating is command and control economies, of which all communist countries are by definition. But not vice versa. – K Dog Feb 9 '19 at 18:27
  • @KDog Not entirely wrong. It seems quite important that the "deliberate policy" is not applicable to all examples of famine under communist rule. And the "not vice-versa" is key to conclude that blaming "collectivist" policy is a distraction and unhelpful. Looking at the decisions taken, in most cases it should be better described as quite selfish opportunism of individuals in power of partially dysfunctional hierarchies. That explains much better how officially non-collectivist regimes make the list of famines after 1900? – LаngLаngС Feb 9 '19 at 18:56
  • True, sometimes the communist governments were simply incompetent or didn't care or had other priorities than feeding their people. – K Dog Feb 9 '19 at 19:00
  • And I think it very helpful because it clarifies the OP. One can generalize that all communist societies are command and control and despotic (selfish opportunism) and dysfunctional hierarchies. And that it the centralization that leads to that dysfunction. – K Dog Feb 9 '19 at 19:03

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