Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine firmly supports a simple but shocking theory of Communism: It was the largest cargo cult the world has ever seen.  Communist revolutionaries were great at seizing power, but if power were their sole aim, the horror would have ended once they were firmly in charge.  Alas, the Communists saw absolute power as a mere stepping stone to their true goal: Mimicking a few random characteristics of advanced economies, no matter how many lives it cost.

Take steel.  Since modern countries have lots of steel and backwards countries have none, the Communists strove to make a big pile of steel – or at least something that vaguely looked like steel.  As Dikötter explains:

Steel was the sacred ingredient in the alchemy of socialism… Steel output magically distilled all the complex dimensions of human activity into a single, precise figure that indicated where a country stood on the scale of evolution.  Mao may not have been an expert on industry, but he seemed able to rattle off the steel output of virtually every country at the drop of a hat.

During the Great Leap Forward, the result was a system where hundreds of millions of peasants were forced to throw their perfectly serviceable iron utensils and tools into backyard furnaces to make worthless pseudo-steel sludge.  Who needs knives?  Modern countries have steel!

Under Mao, bolts of cloth became another Communist fetish:

[C]lothes became the battlefield where communist supremacy had to be asserted, as products from grey sheeting to cotton prints flooded the market… By the end of the year, as poor farmers in the countryside were facing a winter without cotton-padded clothes, some 14 million bolts had been sold abroad below cost.  All that was done in order for China to be able to claim the title of the world’s third largest exporter of cloth – instead of being fifth.

I’ve been reading up on the history of Communism for over two decades.  But even now, I find it hard to wrap my mind around its absurdity.  If the first-generation Communists had grown up in a culture where people had worshiped steel and cotton cloth for centuries, I could chalk their crusades up to intellectual laziness.  What staggers the imagination is that these pseudo-intellectuals actually originated their own nonsense.