What Went Wrong with Communism?

Definition of terms:

socialism – an economic system characterized by worker control of the means of production. See the following posted earlier on this blog for a full introduction.

Communism with a capital “C” – countries run by Communist Parties who claim to have an interest in moving to lower case communism.

communism with a lower case “c” – A stateless, classless, and moneyless society with the means of production held in common under a post-scarcity economy after socialism has been established. This is the Marxist definition of the term.

Marxism – The mode of analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels centered upon a materialist understanding of society and history and later developed/modified by many intellectuals.

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Whether conservative or liberal, many if not most Americans find it easy to proclaim that the 20th century experience with leftism has definitively proven that socialism, communism, or Marxism are “failed” systems. A wide variety of arguments are used by these critics when this is discussed, but many all seem to deal with an alternate economic system different from capitalism being impossible to materialize itself without considerable tyranny or democide. Human nature, it is said, is much too egoistic and selfish to pull off a system as selfless as socialism or communism. It is also said that great evil men like Joseph Stalin had further contributed to the disaster and fanned the flames of totalitarianism. In this post I will propose a significantly different explanation for the root cause of Communism’s problems that will be new to most general readers but is familiar in certain sociological and Marxist circles.

When analyzing history and attempting to find explanatory power for what and why something happens, it is impossible to do so satisfactorily without some kind of theoretical framework. In the United States for example, laypeople are quick to subscribe to the Great Man theory popularized by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. The theory is well familiar to us – what happened in Nazi Germany can mostly be attributed to the vicious yet influential Adolf Hitler and likewise the same with Stalin in the Soviet Union. If some other political figures had simply been in place instead of them, history may not have been so painful for so many Germans and Russians.

I will not seek to do a philosophical refutation of this theory alone in this particular post, but rather to propose Marx’s own historical materialism as a satisfying alternative framework for understanding what happened with Communism. This gives us the radical result that Marx’s very own theories can explain the failure of the many societies that claimed to be inspired by Marx. I believe the end result will be persuasive for many readers.

In Marx’s theory of history, called historical materialism, society moves forward to new states, cultures, economic systems, etc. through a conflict between economic classes. A wealthy exploiting class, possessing property while the rest of the society use it but do not own it, is overthrown by the exploited class, creating a completely different socio-economic system. Marx’s definition of class is not based on things like income level, but whether or not one has any ownership of the means of production (factories, restaurants, stores, etc. and all other businesses). In one very critical phase of Marx’s historical timeline, capitalism has the function of modernizing and industrializing a society. This consequently creates a very huge sum total of wealth in a society despite the fact that the majority of the wealth is owned only by a very small section of the business-owning population. Socialism would follow capitalism as Marx argued, and it would improve upon the society by having the entire working class democratically control businesses allowing for a more equitable distribution of wealth (although not a perfect equality and not without material incentives for us to still pursue1)

Milovan Djilas, a Marxist critic of Communism from Yugoslavia, published The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System in 1957. Djilas used Marx’s theory and progression of history to underline a fundamental problem: most or all of the societies that underwent leftist revolutions were not fully capitalist and even to a great extent feudalistic like Russia. As a result, Marx had been wrong on a key point of predicting that the advanced capitalist regions like North America or Western Europe were to be the first movers to socialism. In many of these new Communist countries the leaders themselves understood that their society was too backward and impoverished for socialism and so they developed their nation through an economic system called state capitalism – a term many believe best describes the nations we falsely call “Communist” whether past or present.2 The attempt to rush through this phase of Marxist history had failed as Djilas argued, and a new bureaucratic class had formed signifying a lack of democracy and socialism.

Russia experienced a left-wing revolution on an economically backward society

Russia experienced a left-wing revolution on an economically backward society. (A Peasant Leaving His Landlord on Yuriev Day by Sergei V. Ivanov)

Djilas goes in great detail to solidify his description of the “new class,” which involves them doing everything from using Marxism as a form of religious dogma to inflating their personal wages like CEOs in capitalist countries. As mentioned, the new class had formed because these societies based themselves on state capitalism to industrialize and modernize themselves. One critical aspect of this involved highly centralized planning to industrialize a nation more quickly than a market could, especially during Stalin’s rule and regardless of how much death and suffering was involved. Djilas explains that such intense centralization and capitalist behavior in the society gave birth to a bureaucratic and oligarchic class unaccountable to the vast majority of citizens living in Communist nations, a ruling class just like the slaveholders in ancient Rome, the land barons in medieval Europe, or capitalists in the United States.

Whether they rule Communist or capitalist nations, this historical theory would entail we view political leaders as products of their economic and social time rather than intrinsically good or evil persons who intend to improve or damage societies. Had they been born in and ruled a different society in a different period of time, Communist rulers like Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot would have taken extremely different actions and consequently been viewed very differently. Historical materialism then remains a potent tool in the present day to understand the limitations political leaders have with their personal agency. Rather than viewing them as the exclusive carvers and landscapers of history, they are deeply limited by their social systems and in fact directly influenced by them. It is also important to understand that historical materialism is not an ethical framework, and it neither praises leaders we see as good nor excuse the tyrants we see as bad. It is purely a descriptive methodology that does not excuse the actions of Stalin or lionize the braveries of Martin Luther King.

If we assume this historical theory to be true, relentless critics of socialism and communism will find their arguments about post-capitalist systems being eternally impossible to materialize themselves to hold much less weight. A left-wing revolution built on an extremely developed capitalist society like the United States for example would occupy a different trajectory on a historical materialist timeline. Far from the book being closed on post-capitalism, it is more than ever open and with blank pages.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)

References:

1. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm

2. http://rdwolff.com/sites/default/files/attachment/4/State%20Capitalism%20versus%20Communism%20CS%202008.pdf

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12 comments

  1. your real name (@fortheswarmz) · August 26, 2014

    I’m most likely just stupid, but I think I missed the point of your article. I don’t see what went wrong with communism besides having crappy leaders? Would you be able to clarify?

    • Random Name · August 26, 2014

      Essentially, communism was implemented in countries in which Marx’s timeline of events was not complete. Implementing communism into a country in which the economy is serfdom does not work. Instead, a highly aristocratic capitalist society is ideal.

  2. vaticanlies · August 26, 2014

    Not entirely sure, but I think his point was that these nations had tried to accelerate the process and skipped the steps necessary for making communism work. Had they been in a more developed state they would have gone about it differently (like some nations are starting to dO now) the results would have been much different.

  3. Ed Venables · August 26, 2014

    To give this claim proof, I think you’d need an example of a state where:

    – The state was previously a pre-capitalist society
    – There was a failed attempt to move straight into [c]ommunism.
    – The leader wasn’t an asshole.

    Sadly no such example exists. It would be interesting to know how the USSR would have turned out had Trotsky succeeded Lenin, rather than Stalin.

    • Arjun · August 28, 2014

      If Trotsky had taken over the USSR instead of Stalin, the results probably would have been more or less the same, given that Stalin implemented policies advocated by Trotsky in the first place (i.e. forced collectivization), unless I’m terribly mistaken.

      • Ed Venables · September 9, 2014

        I think Trotsky would have been a lot less likely to purge his political opponents, kill off the kulaks and force millions from their homes, causing them to die of starvation. The enormous death toll associated with Stalin’s reign resulted more from his sociopathic, paranoid personality than any political beliefs. I think the results under Trotsky would have been very different – the USSR may not have succeeded in the economic long-term, but the regime would have been less oppressive and more (c)ommunist, rather than an autocratic police state that visited misery on millions.

  4. Robyrt · August 26, 2014

    Historical materialism predicts that socialist revolutions would happen where capitalism was fully established, or where state capitalism had re-created the capitalist class structure, because those systems have developed both an industrial base and a ruling oligarchy. But in real life, socialist revolutions do not happen in those countries, but in semi-feudal countries where the oligarchy is present without an industrial base. So as countries industrialize, shouldn’t the door become closed on post-capitalist structures?

    • ledpup · August 26, 2014

      You’ve mixing-up what has happened with what will happen in the future.

      “socialist revolutions do not happen in [capitalist] countries”

      Instead, what you should say is: socialist revolutions have not happen in capitalist countries. If you said that, I could partly agree with you. But does the past really inform the future? No. It’s an indicator, but no one really knows what’s coming next, so we can’t really say. In tens years from now, there may be a massive global anti-capitalist revolution. Maybe 100 years. Maybe never. We don’t know.

      Unfortunately, even if you try to say that social revolution does not happen in capitalist countries, I would disagree. The Spanish revolution/war in 1936-39 is a revolution that occurred in a capitalist country. It wasn’t as industrially advanced as many countries, but it was very much capitalist.

  5. ledpup · August 26, 2014

    The main problem with this article is that you attribute historical materialism to Marx, rather than it being a modern notion that is difficult to find justification for if you actually read Marx. If Marx really believed in historical materialism, why did he see such revolutionary potential in Russia towards the end of his life? If he believed in your historical materialism, he would have to think that revolution would only occur in Western Europe or the US. And yet he didn’t.

    Try reading Capital. Then try matching up what you read in Capital with historical materialism. They don’t match up very well.

  6. Lex Solo · September 8, 2014

    very interesting perspective on communism.

  7. John Brown · December 8, 2014

    If this article is saying that communism is a gorgeous dish when well made, but that it got a little too much or not enough salt, or that is was a little over or under-baked, I couldn’t agree less. Communism has a fatal flaw that, no matter how well it is prepared and baked, will result in an unpalatable plate of acrid fare. It has no genuine recognition of the basic notion of man’s innate right to life and corresponding corollary rights. Instead, it honors so called “acquired” rights which are no more than concealed, limitless attacks on inalienable rights … which, btw, are the foundation and only basis of determining the proper, civil interaction between men. Rather than defending a man’s rights, Communism and Socialism unendingly attack them! By definition, capitalism can only be laissez-faire. So world history, at best, might know only 10 or 15 years of it at a time so long ago it is remembered by no one. (One cannot fault the world’s first experiment at this to be 100% without flaws!) The managed mess we live with today is neither Capitalism, or free. It is an allied force of government and business packs of back-biting dogs working voraciously to herd all the sheep toward a new feudal land. A good article to write would be “What went wrong with Capitalism?” Just try to keep the tears off the paper.

    • random words · August 5, 2015

      Capitalism is defined by capital accumulation. China comes to mind. The government is heavily involved in the economy.

      I view governments as big businesses that have a lot more power than other businesses. Governments can set the rules of the game. They can create monopolies by using law to force out competition. The thing that contrasts governments from other businesses is that people elect the government.

      Having State control of the economy does not solve the contradictions between capitalists and workers. The State becomes the capitalist class, just as we saw in the Soviet Union. That is why a communist who understands Marxism doesn’t advocate for State control of the means of production. The period between capitalism and socialism/communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, is a worldwide civil war between capitalists and workers. Once the workers win, private property is “abolished” not because of will, but because the institution of private property is inefficient to a communist society. It is as if practicing feudal relations in a capitalist society. Such a thing is crazy.

      Capitalism has not come to that point though. The “undeveloped” world does not have the material basis for a communist society. Globalization should, if we don’t destroy the environment, help connect the productive forces of the world. A globalized world is conductive for global revolution.

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