Warning: If you aren’t ready to change a lot, or maybe everything you thought you know about Communism, you probably won’t enjoy this article, nor be able to stick with it until the end.
I find the moment discussions turn a tiny bit nuanced and include ideas like planning the economy or taking social outcomes into the calculations, dilettante ideologues like to dismiss them using breezy rhetoric of the type “we all know what happened under communism”. While that arrogantly breezy style is good most of the time for covering up lack of actual knowledge, it is an automatic red flag to me: I find that their carefully constructed world view quickly collapses almost always under the slightest prodding. Because of my dislike of ignorant and 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 say 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, if possible, I like to slip in a bit of education — I don’t like to remain arrogant myself if I can help it. Take a step back, I plead, and consider which countries hosted so called “communist” revolutions (did you notice how Communists always come to power through a popular revolt)? The answer is quite clear: difficult, 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 “wretched states give rise to home-grown popular Communism” rule (think Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1980) are from moderately developed Middle Europe that fell under external, nominally communist power during the upheaval of WWII, when Red Army drove Axis occupiers out —but that’s quite a special circumstance. In general, people have been suffering oppression before they set out to revolt even more so than after that time. In all other instances, freedoms were severely curtailed and life was cheap before the “Communists” (or Nationalists, or maybe a faith-group that rode the discontentment and managed to take control) came to and centralised 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 way) countries don’t do revolutions and never converted to authoritarian powers, Communist or otherwise. The consequences of free votes, like food on the table, reasonable levels of home ownership, and a touch of social mobility perfectly immunise societies against autocrats in general. But democrats, stay aware: Democracy can still lead to Fascism unless vigilant about it, something a la “A Clockwork Orange”.
But aren’t Communist rulers, as a rule, cruel and inhumane, I’m asked? Yes, as are all leaders arising in these undeveloped countries, whether Fascists, Colonialist/Capitalist, Nationalist or Communists. All changes of order will be violent and cruel. Communist revolutions were actually relatively clean, but fully eradicating the power of the existing capitalist class required a mammoth ideological war. Westerners should be familiar how western nations were “lustrating” out Communists inside their countries (just think of the contradiction in “McCarthyism in the land of free”). The same warfare went on on the other side of the ideological divide in the opposing direction, crueler and bloodier only because the winning side was weaker, stakes were higher and life has been cheap in those societies for centuries anyway.
So yes, Communists, inheriting difficult countries and major power struggles had implemented more internal oppression than western democracies (although not more than dictators backed by those said democracies in other countries). But it is worth keeping in mind that nominally Communist states as a rule do not start foreign aggression and NOTHING is as cruel and inhumane as a war. When it comes to war, Communists will support allies and interfere in some low-heat conflicts — but provoking and starting hot economic and kinetic wars, especially faraway international wars is a speciality of Capitalist and Nationalist countries. Historically, wars (generally created by western powers) have been about four times as deadly as internally oppressive policies — so much for the Western “reds under beds” scare campaigns and their useless domino-theory.
The weaker the leading side, less decided the ideological war, requires more oppressive measures. This is true whether conducted by the Capitalists or the Communists, inside their borders or outside. The late convulsions in the Communist revolutions were dramatic and protracted because reactionaries being lustrated out were well established, giving it their all to hang onto the considerable perks and the international “help” they got from the powerful capitalist countries to prolong this fight was about as effective and unhelpful to the revolutions as it could be. The widely publicised famines like Stalin’s “botched” agrarian reforms or Mao’s “great leap/cultural revolution” combo shouldn’t confuse us: instead of fighting imaginary enemy or examples of bumbling, counterproductive naivete of clueless leadership we are led to believe, they were the tail-end of the warfare in already marginal societies on previous depositories of power like peasants (in Russia) and landlords (in China), often using food as weapon. Yes, they damaged themselves and their societies in the process, but they damaged the ideological enemy more. That’s game theory. That’s what you try to do in war.
But back to the typical origin story of Communist power centres. The bitter fighting of new Communist power centers tends to establish only slightly less oppressive, autocratic and incompetent state leadership than what was before — that is true. But the West makes us believe this inherited backwardness and oppression is an inherent trait of Communism, conveniently forgetting what the previous situation was. Also, 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 tend to improve these wretched countries, as well as their own governance. The gains were typically (despite western PR 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, the poor got new housing stock to live in instead of the 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.
The Communist 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 more than that. 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. Communism can exist under the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, like co-operatives instead of nationalisation, “order without power” instead of central authority, etc. Communes, popping up at various times in various (usually monarchist or capitalist) countries around the world all operated on these principles and 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 largest and 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.
So, we can stretch our unhappy disciples to a breaking point by explaining 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 occupy that seat of power, they always dismantle previously formed, small, egalitarian and anti-bureaucratic communes. Incredulous dude says “whaaat?” Communist parties actually extinguish communism?
If time allows, the dilettante, after coming to his senses to an extent, may offer a defence that they just misspoke (in my experience 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/individual-focused/open market-based/private-capital-dominant recipe. But this defence only makes the argument worse. As we discovered before, autocratic (usually nominally communist, sometimes nationalist/fascist) parties with their invasive governments and central plans come to power only amidst division, corruption and 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 the troubled countries that showed rapid economic development used the central planning model (say, South Korea, China, Vietnam), and undeveloped countries that took the open democratic western model (to stay in similar area, 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 you are poor, it is obvious what first steps need to be done, and when you know 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 low-end development Communists typically face.
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 like timing and degree/areas of liberalisation matter, and some countries do take too long before opening, partly because dictators who lose their power may 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 development from the low levels is fiendishly difficult, that central planning is the best starter motor, and by the time a once-undeveloped country like South Korea arrives to the club of developed countries, its economic policy is 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.
To help cement the idea of how closely the openness of economies and politics are linked with order and development, I like to show how it works in reverse too — if the country experiences existential shocks, command-economy and dictator-like leaderships necessarily reappears. When Roosevelt, faced with the great depression, needed privately held gold to finance his New Deal, he simply made owning gold privately illegal. Not very nice in the home of free market, but necessary. The coronavirus shock of 2020 illustrates this even more starkly. 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, quickly 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).
So what happened there? Citizens (at least initially) accepted, as a matter of common sense, 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. This is a perfect opportunity for many a thinking citizen 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 for a century for causing misery, instead of existing because of them. We imagined draconian rules as inherent features of those horrible autocratic rules and their command-economies so much so that the West even started massive wars to stop strong-man implement command-economies in “misguided” foreign countries.
To right those wrongs, maybe we could implement a group-chant in those 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.