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.


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)


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


Click to access State%20Capitalism%20versus%20Communism%20CS%202008.pdf