Dilettantes like to use breezy rhetoric of the type “we all know what happened under communism” to cover up the lack of actual knowledge, but their carefully constructed world view quickly collapses under the slightest prodding. Because of my dislike of ignorant arrogant people, I rarely leave this opportunity alone. The following check-mate in three steps never fails: I ask them to give a single example — they will say something like Russia or China, but it doesn’t really matter — then I point out they were never communist. If they resist, I clarify the definition (something like “a system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs”). Clearly nothing like China or Russia, or any country — game over. The mental pain etched on the faces at this point is a familiar, easily repeatable sight.
At this stage, I like to slip in a bit of education. Take a step back, I ask, and consider which countries hosted communist revolutions? The answer is quite clear: undeveloped countries with oppressive, autocratic, incompetent monarchs or dictators, tormenting the nation with poverty and/or serving foreign rulers. The only major exception to this rule “wretched states give rise to home-grown popular Communism” rule is moderately developed Eastern Europe that fell under external communist power during the upheaval of WWII, when Red Army drove Axis occupiers out — quite a special circumstance. In general, people have been suffering oppression before they became communist just as much or even more so as after that time. Freedoms were curtailed and life was cheap there before communists came to power, got more curtailed and cheaper — as they do in all wars — during the power struggles and subsequent purges, but then started to go up, especially if the place managed to eke out some economic progress, just like it does everywhere where economic progress is made. The reverse is also true: developed (and therefore democratic — causation only goes this one way, as we shall see below) countries never converted to Communism. The consequences of free votes, like food on the table and a touch of social mobility immunise societies against Communism (but democrats, stay aware: Democracy can lead to Fascism unless vigilant about it).
As a rule, Communist states do not start foreign aggression — starting, or at least provoking faraway international wars is a speciality of Capitalist and Nationalist/Fascist countries. And wars are much more deadly than oppressive regimes. So much for the Western “reds under beds” scare campaigns and their useless domino-theory.
It is impossible to overplay the violence and suffering during changes of order, whether instigated by Fascists, Colonialist/Capitalist or Communists. Communist revolutions were actually relatively clean, but eradicating the powerful capitalist class is always a mammoth task. Their aftermaths of revolutions were very cruel and bloody as reactionaries gave it all to hang onto the perks and got plenty of help internationally. Even the widely publicised famines like Mao’s “great leap” shouldn’t confuse us: instead of bumbling naivete of clueless leadership we are led to believe, they were cynical political actions using food as weapon, tail-end of the warfare on previous depositories of power like peasants (in Russia) and landlords (in China).
All this bitter fighting tended to establish only slightly less oppressive, autocratic and incompetent state leadership than what was before. But if given a decade or two, after the red mist caused by the centuries of injustice and exploitation has subsided, after the last vestiges of the old powers were fully removed and stability was achieved, the new administrations actually tended to improve these wretched countries, as they improved their governance also. The gains were typically (despite stories of self-serving party cadres) actually widely shared: illiteracy (often as high as 90%+ in places before) dropped to almost nothing, typical calorie intake has gone up, new housing stock replaced old, run-down and overcrowded accommodation, roads, bridges, hospitals, schools were built at great rate, factories had plenty of employment. Nothing to rival the developed countries, but still: Communist regimes often made 100 year’s worth of progress in 30. On the whole the revolutionary governments were really not bad at the early steps required on the road to economic development, and their gains would have been even greater if instead of ratcheting up the cold war, NATO countries would have “lived and let live”: peacefully traded and otherwise generally stayed out of the internal business of the other sphere as much as possible instead of being involved as much as possible.
These regimes were often quite incompetent later when it came to higher levels of development, but where enough time passed and enough economic progress happened, the ruling group did start to lose their sharp edges and brought out their internal reformers, taking on reasonably willingly aspects of democracy and allowing market forces in selected areas to get to work. So when viewed that way, what is called Communism in the west (but really isn’t, see below), when compared with the likely counterfactual, actually improved living conditions and future outlook for many — even with the tremendous initial cost of the power struggle.
The next point may sound like pedantic semantics but is actually really important. At this stage I tend to mention to the disoriented fellows that utopias like state-wide communism was never a plan by anyone in position to make it a reality. I couldn’t have been, because state-enforced communism can never exist: the “state” and “commune” are diametrically opposed to each other. Ideas for communes, popping up at various times in various (usually monarchist or capitalist) countries around the world were only ever proposed and realised on small scales, hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteering people at most. The dilettante will not likely know about the success or otherwise of small communes, like the kibbutzim of Israel, the German Kommune groups, UK Bruderhof groups (inspired by early Christians — maybe Jesus was a communist?), US hippy agricultural communities, rural Mir communities of Russia and monastic communities around the world, to list just a few — had he had any idea, the dilettante wouldn’t have been so glib to begin with. Ask the French about their very own, the world’s most influential one (the Paris commune), and you are likely to get blanks stares or at most, a couple of very confused thought-snippets. So no, we don’t all know what happened under communism — in fact, only very few do.
Finally and optionally, we can stretch our unhappy disciples a bit by pointing out that actually, the nominally communist parties familiar to us all are the most anti-communist of all: because they rely on monopoly of centralised hierarchical power, when they come to power, they always dismantle previously formed, small, egalitarian and anti-bureaucratic communes. Communist parties actually extinguish communism! Incredulous dude says “whaaat?”
If time allows, the dilettante, after coming to his senses to an extent, may offer a defence that they just misspoke (they tend not be students of semantics), and really meant a comparison of models of economy: autocratic central planning underpinned by social egalitarian values as opposed to the western democratic/open market-based/private-capital-dominant recipe. Problem is, this defence only makes the argument worse. As discussed before, autocratic (usually nominally communist, sometimes nationalist/fascist) parties with their central plans come to power only amidst great hardships, usually in the least developed countries or countries that are sliding backwards. When sampling only these troubled countries, the picture emerging is unnaturally clear: all undeveloped countries that actually showed rapid economic development used the central planning model (say, South Korea, China, Vietnam), and undeveloped countries that took the open democratic western model (think India, Philippines) early on are showing decidedly inferior development. Overdone central planning may induce complacency in more developed economies (hello, Europe!), but there is no danger of that when you are fighting for your survival. When it is obvious what needs to be done, central planning is simply more efficient. It is hard to be more incorrect than our dilettante imagining western model as source of development.
Of course, as a country develops, the central model needs to partially give way to the more de-centralised market model. But this is obvious to all leaderships, and (unless placed under duress, usually by self-righteous foreign powers or domestic nationalistic/religious groups) this is inevitably happening. Details matter, and some countries take too long before opening, partly because dictators who lose their power have very short life expectancy, but inertia and human conservatism are also part of the problem. Keep your eyes on the important issues though: the incontrovertible historical facts are that central planning is the best starter motor, and by the time a country like South Korea arrives to the club of developed countries, economic policy it is slowly being overtaken by market interactions and the modus operandi are barely distinguishable from the open, outwardly laissez-faires (but really, still more planned than most think) West.
Economies and politics open up as level of development increases, but this works in reverse too — if the country experiences existential shocks, command-economy and dictator-like leaderships necessarily reappears. The coronavirus shock of 2020 starkly illustrates this. Faced with shortages and economic destruction, western economics writers (who, due to having been spared by wars, enjoyed better living standards, and due to that were always in awe of their own insights) write of their amazement that in a few short weeks their countries went from the very familiar open system to one they used to make disparaging jokes about: price controls, suspension of safety legislations and environmental protections, talk of nationalisation of companies and centrally compelled economic production, export controls, government subsidising struggling companies and ignoring intellectual property laws. Anti-trust regulators direct previously competing businesses to coordinate their activities and share resources because “coordination is efficient”? Good heavens. Government planning and coordination required to avoid distortions and “collective action problems”? Anathema just a few weeks before, accepted to be so necessary on the day. And that’s just economics. More broadly, during this Covid crisis the western liberal society was quickly changing in even more surprising and fundamental ways. Western leaders used unheard rhetoric that centres on need, not entitlement. Harsh rules quickly materialised ($1,600 fine for eating a kebab on a park bench, real estate agents go to jail just for suggesting distressed renters can use pension fund to pay rent).
Citizens (at least initially) accepted that in these hard times dissent is not tolerated, civil liberties are curtailed, democracy is suspended, public messaging is carefully controlled, and police and military are more prominent in the streets and lives of citizens. If haven’t before, this time the thinking citizen had to realise that freedoms and democracy are the end result, not the cause of our economic well-being. But then…have we re-evaluated our preconceived notions about those other godless savage communists? Because these same type of measures were derided as core features of those horrible autocratic rules and their command-economies for a century. The West even started massive wars to stop strong-man implement command-economies in “misguided” foreign countries. To right those wrongs, maybe we could imagine a group-chant, maybe in a muddy US army boot camp:
Drill Sergeant: “why do now most liberalised economies in the world, who briefly find themselves in some of the hardships experienced by those “communist” countries, turn themselves into similar command-economies and controlled societies, so quickly and so willingly?
Running trainee soldiers, in unison: “because in a crisis those precious freedoms are a luxury they can’t afford. We, the developed West demonised and attacked those that are down for doing exactly what was necessary to get up from the ground”.
At this stage, the exercise for our dilettante may finally be over. A skewed worldview turned on its head, social service performed, even if by a bit of mental pain handed out, for the betterment of all.