FAQ U: Why Read Stalin and Mao?

Let’s just tally everything up. The most liberal estimates attribute about 8 million deaths to the Holodomor, the famine from 1932-3 in Soviet Ukraine under Stalin’s government. Just under thirty years later from 1958-62, the Great Chinese Famine under Mao is said to have resulted in up to 55 million deaths (although counts from 35 to 45 million seem more common). Later, during the Cultural Revolution, the consensus among Western and Chinese historians seems to be that 2 million people had died. How about we combine all these for a nice, round number—like 65 million? Would anyone be mad if I said that the governments of the USSR and China under Stalin and Mao respectively resulted in the deaths of about 65 million people, give or take? Can we work with that?

Simulated Knave asked a great question (I mean this sincerely), one which might be in the minds of many who come here for the D&D discussion and are then put off by the freaky communist shit:

I’ve got to ask, as someone who showed up for the D&D content, how’re you getting past the piles of bodies in the foundations of a lot of these works? “I’m reading Stalin and Mao for the theory” feels a lot like “I’m reading Playboy for the articles” - even if it’s true, there’s definitely some associations one might want to address.

If nothing else, you seem much less worried with “let’s try to make sure it doesn’t end in millions dead next time” than I would expect.

Let’s rephrase their question in light of our above, liberal figure: why read Stalin and Mao when they have a combined 65 million deaths under their belts? I’ve said before that I’m trying not to knock anything before I try it, but that’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek excuse meant to sidestep any inside baseball about their legacy and focus more on the text itself. The topic is contentious even among self-identified communists, and I didn’t want to get pulled into a discussion with them, much less with liberals or (God forbid) fascists. While we’re outside the domain of a particular text, though, it’s a good opportunity to pull some teeth on my end and just reflect on why I chose to read Stalin and Mao anyway.

The main reason is to address, for myself, a question that many people ask while reading those posts: if Stalin and Mao identified as communists, why did they kill so many people? Does it reflect on Marxist thought that they did so? Were they “really” communists, or is mass death what communism necessarily turns into? More simply, how does one square communism (or Marxism in particular) with an apparent death toll of 65 million? You don’t read Marx and come out of it thinking you need to launch a famine to build communism. The Communist Manifesto, in fact, suggests that the best plan of action is to liquidate large firms, centralize capital under the state, and replace money relations with direct social relations—all assuming that society is already sufficiently developed to support the shift towards communal relations. What gives?

Stalin & Mao’s Governments

My opinion on Stalin and Mao is that, whatever their individual beliefs or ideology, their governments functioned mostly to industrialize a semi-feudal country. When they tried to accomplish this via central planning, they lacked the technological and organizational infrastructure necessary in order to do so. The famines in both countries were in no small part due to an overestimation of yields, resulting in a virtual surplus being extracted from communities that was much greater than what surplus they actually yielded.

This poor performance was not helped by pre-modern techniques of agriculture. Keep in mind that the Green Revolution did not occur in the developed world until the 1960s, and only then was the agriculture industry able to centralize capital to a similar extent as non-agriculture industries already had. Marx could only anticipate the Green Revolution, but indeed he did. Whereas in his time, agriculture was mostly an industry of small proprietors, he predicted that the improvement of agricultural technology would result in agriculture finally becoming profitable on a large scale, gradually replacing the peasantry (small farm owners) with a rural proletariat employed on large farms by large firms. Marx saw it start to occur in America, and Lenin saw it start to occur in Russia, but in neither country did it fully develop to the extent it would decades later.

Meanwhile, only while the USSR and China liberalized the agriculture industry (among others) did their economy’s development boom—where by economy, I mean the national organization of production and distribution. This sort of occurred at different points during the two countries’ history. Stalin started off trying to collectivize agriculture and persecuting those accused of being ‘kulaks’ (big-time peasants), before seeming to change his tune by the publication of Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR where he says that commodity exchange is both trans-historical and an effective way of distributing goods, and also that the proletariat and the peasantry enjoy friendship under socialism. Mao basically agreed with Stalin’s assessment at the time, while adding that peasants are more interested in owning their own property than collectivizing that of the landlords. The Chinese government’s later collectivization attempt, from 1958-62, obviously did not work, and then China liberalized under Deng Xiaoping’s government from 1978 onward.

That’s where I stand on Stalin and Mao, politically and historically. Their governments’ attempts to collectivize agriculture (inter alia) necessarily failed because developing countries do not have the same degree of social organization and technology as do highly developed countries, and while in that position one cannot just will an economic system into existence. Once they did liberalize the economy, they were acting in the same scope as bourgeois revolutionaries did during the previous century. The former strategy caused the deaths of millions of people due to poor timing, poor organization, and poor methods, not to mention the political grudge that the USSR was said to have held towards Ukraine. The latter strategy is just developing capitalist relations with red paint slathered on top. Who could have seen it coming, that liberalization is more effective than collectivization to build an advanced economy? Marx, for one. (At least, one could build an argument via Marx’s own analysis of capitalism and development.)

This is all to say, finally, that I don’t think that either of their governments are worthy of emulation—both because our current situation is so different from theirs, and also since neither of their attempted approaches even really worked for their situation. So cross that off the list.

Oiled-Up Death Contest: Who’s Winning?

Stalin and Mao’s governments were quite bad. They were so bad that they killed millions of people in collateral. Yet, the same can be said for European colonists in the Americas, who could not even claim to be motivated by a collectivist desire. During just the first century of the European conquest of the New World, settlers killed 56 million indigenous Americans. Thereafter, 15 million African slaves were carried across the Atlantic, and of them about 1.25 million died in transit. That puts our tally at 71 million casualties, just for those two particular atrocities, not counting the indigenous Americans who died after the sixteenth century or the 10 million Black slaves who were born on American plantations. Then, there’s the Congolese genocide from 1885 to 1908 under Belgium (8 million), the Bengal Famine in 1943 under Britain (3 million), and the Great Irish Famine from 1845-52 under Britain (1 million). If it’s one thing that capital is good at, it’s making numbers bigger.

I point all this out not to say that one set of atrocities was more atrocious than the other. “They are both worse!” You’ve fucked up when your death count has six zeroes suffixed. That shouldn’t need to be said. Rather, I think that it’s very important to read about these events and the people who were responsible for them, because otherwise you can’t understand why and how they happened. Only after reading Stalin and Mao do I feel like I can better describe, if only to myself, what their aims were and if they even met those aims. If all I could do about either of them was shrug and say they killed millions of people, that’s not a productive critique—especially as a Marxist, where I have to answer for belonging to a school of thought whose figureheads in the public eye are Stalin and Mao.

Who’s Responsible?

There’s also another, related question that popped up in my head, to which I felt like Stalin and Mao were relevant: what is the relationship between dictatorships (i.e., one person in charge of the state), mass movements of people, and historical atrocities? It’s not an uncommon criticism that Stalin and Mao are talked about as if Marxist thought or personal 'madness' was to blame for their governments' massive shortcomings, whereas the capitalist atrocities are talked about as incidental to their being capitalist. The common retort is that all such mass atrocities are systemic, and one cannot place the blame on any individual, but that feels less interesting to me than the corollary: are dictators even real?

Like, sure, Stalin and Mao were at the top of their command chain, but any decision they made out of stupidity or malice was carried out by masses of people. On the flip side, there were no dictators behind the genocide of indigenous Americans or behind the slave trade; as it were, it was the invisible hand of the market. Doesn’t it take a million to kill a million? Or, at least, a lot of people? Does ideology produce history? Do great leaders? Or is history produced by masses of people who have a vested, aggregate interest to act as a class? What good is a dictator or ideology without people to see either through, and what motivates those people? This to me is the only angle of critique that is historically sound, and this angle necessitates a material analysis of a society, its constituent classes, and the economic interests that define those classes. It also means seeing through dictators and ideologies, to see what social mechanisms underlie them.


I think, all in all, I’ve counted five major reasons for why I decided to read Stalin and Mao despite not… endorsing their governments’ platforms, so to speak:

  1. To better understand the relationship between Marxism and those two figures.
  2. To better understand how their governments resulted in such widespread death.
  3. To better understand how they understood what they were doing, and why.
  4. To better understand the material and social circumstances of their countries.
  5. To better understand the development of history as it relates to conscious ideology or unconscious (class) desire, the latter being the former’s basis.

As a result, I feel like I have a much better understanding of all those things. Instead of having a vague attitude like, “Who knows what happened?”, now I feel like at least the social factors that produced those leaders and their associated governments are much clearer. Reading political theory is like reading through the lens of an unreliable narrator, since the author may be totally blind to their own interests. This is the angle by which I wanted to approach these texts, and it’s a lot more productive than just taking the author at their word. They just know not what they do.

At the same time, it's worth saying that capitalism (in general or Western/liberal capitalism in particular) is not trans-historical, it is not natural, and it is not any more squeaky clean than Stalin's USSR or Mao's China. My mom is Puerto Rican, and I grew up (and never grew out of) seeing the American flag as that of a violent imperialist force. I always saw retaliatory bombings and police brutality and imperialist colonialism between the white stripes. And that's all just due to my family's personal experience, which pales in light of the 71 million people who perished for this country (and others) to exist.

Since I have no qualms learning about American history to better understand it, neither should I have qualms learning about so-called "actually existing socialism" to better understand why and how it happened, or see what there is to learn from their mistakes. The point of reading is to learn, synthesize, and criticize.

Thank you to Emmy Verte, Cosmic Orrery, and Zedeck Siew for chitchatting with me about this! I was nervous about writing about such a contentious topic, or coming off as too opinionated about it.


  1. Replies
    1. i can't speak to how the DPRK actually functions, but the ideology seems pretty idealist (centering human willpower over material conditions) and structured specifically to endow the kim family with extraordinary significance and right to rule. as always, though, that's just a reflection of the economic and political situation that developed there.

    2. come for the dnd, stay for the book reviews

  2. A good answer. Thank you for it.

    The question of "are dictators real" is an interesting one, which I think says a lot about human psychology. One of the things I have found depressingly common in government and the criminal justice system is people having a serious unwillingness to take responsibility for a course of action. People follow orders because it's easier than not following orders or trying to change things - even if those orders have horrible results. And that's in a low-stakes environment where no one's going to a gulag or getting shot if they don't follow orders well enough. So I would say yes, dictators are real - they are the ones who take responsibility and provide impetus, and who they are matters. I think it is notable that a lot of other leaders of the USSR conducted things very differently than Stalin. And that they waited til he was dead. Same thing with Mao. Also, there's tons of monarchs to point at for a similar situation - the individual character of the leader definitely does matter, and different men in those spots might result in different histories.

    I mean, really, the problem is that many theories of history are correct, they're just not exhaustive. History is big sweeping social movements where individuals don't matter AND a series of actions by individuals whose characters matter AND a big pile of human impulses we cannot control AND everyone just getting together and organizing so they can militaristically take resources away from others better. So dictators are both important individuals who are solely responsible for what happens AND mere creatures of the system and society around them who are wholly dependent on that society to do anything and who may be interchangeable with any number of other people to some extent.

    And contentious topics are the only ones worth having heavy-duty opinions about.

    1. i super agree, and appreciate the nuance on the dictator question! :) thank you!

  3. This would probably be my favorite blog if it were just your analysis of TTRPG mechanics and theory, but it is WITHOUT A DOUBT my favorite blog because you also have posts like this
    A++ breakdown; I especially love the question "are dictators real", as this is a concept I've been mulling over lately, though not with such precise and defined language.


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