Famine as Governmental Policy Tool

April 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, I was teaching the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Great Chinese Famine in my Modern China course.  One thing that struck my students was that this wasn’t really a famine, it was a manufactured crisis.  The granaries of the People’s Republic of China were full, and yet, Mao and his underlings refused to open them up.  Rather, this was an attempt by Mao Zedong to remake the Chinese countryside and peasantry, to increase industrial output, and to modernize the nation.  This came in the wake of a purification campaign in the country in the early 1950s, as the Communists attempted to stamp their imprint on the nation.

As we discussed the  manufactured nature of this famine, and we discussed Mao’s insistence on ideological reform of China, something struck me.  Famines are rarely just that, famines.  They are often manufactured crisis.  One of my students is a interested in the Soviet Union and Russian history in general, and he noted that the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 was a man-made one, too.

This led to a discussion about ideology, reform, and the costs of absolutism, though both of our examples were communist.  But then I thought of the Irish Famine.  Like China and the Ukraine, the Great Hunger was a manufactured crisis.  And, of course, the United Kingdom was, in the mid-19th century, the most powerful nation the world had ever seen.

In both China and the Ukraine, famine was the result of collectivization, but this was not the case in Ireland.  There, famine came because the potato crop failed for several years, beginning in 1845, due to a fungal infection.  But the failure of the crop became a humanitarian crisis due to the policies of the British government.

Charles Trevelyan, the assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was very clear in his response to the Famine  He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’  But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’

And thus, as a devotee of laissez-faire liberalism, Trevelyan was slow to respond to the Irish crisis, seeing it as a gift from the Almighty.  And while he was only a civil servant, ultimately, he was backed by his political bosses.  That this was so was acknowledged by Tony Blair when he was the British Prime Minister in the late 90s.  On the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Famine, he issued an apology for the role of the British government in the Famine.

The Great Hunger of Ireland was a manufactured crisis, and as Irish food continued to be exported to Great Britain, the Irish starved.  The United Kingdom, thus, is no different than Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union.

And so, famine is often used as a political tool, as a means of forcing reform on a recalcitrant population.

And Sir Charles Trevelyan, knighted for his ‘services’ to Ireland, along with the leadership of the UK at the time, most notably Lord John Russell and even Queen Victoria, fit right in there with Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.

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