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Home > Opinion > A Response to “Why did Communism Fail?” Part Addendum, Part Rebuttal

A Response to “Why did Communism Fail?” Part Addendum, Part Rebuttal

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My colleague in the NWYJ, Neil Chowdhury, has written an article regarding the “failure” of Communism. I find this article inherently flawed as both a product of its presupposition and its argumentation, and thus I shall respond to several of his points and elaborate on his interpretations of Marx by providing historical evidence and contextualization. I will refer often to Professor Terry Eagleton’s book Why Marx was Right, as it gives good responses to not only several of my opponent’s points, but many general criticisms of Marxist doctrine as well. Throughout this response, I will be referring to a few key ideas. First, I make the point that Marx’s doctrines have been misunderstood, second that my opponent provides several false historical points, and third that the other historical examples my opponent provides actually demonstrate the veracity and accuracy of Marx through an explanation of the actual reasons behind Chinese and Soviet totalitarianism.

I would also like to clarify that this in no way should be construed as a support of the USSR or Maoist China in any sense. I am fully willing to note and attack these two states for their failure to adhere to Communist principles, as well as their totalitarian and dictatorial governments. However, no matter what side of the political spectrum we fall on, we should all advocate clarity and rationality for debate on all sides. Having established this, I will move on to addressing some of the key points and mistakes my colleague makes.

First, my colleague states that the USSR and Maoist China were communist. However, this is false, according to characteristics of communism given by writers like Engels, later central committee members Preobrazhensky and Bukharin, and even Anarchists such as Kropotkin. While the Marxists, Anarchists, and Trotskyists (Preobrazhensky was aligned with the left-opposition) have different means to getting to the end goal of Communism, they can all broadly agree on a few things. Kropotkin wrote, “In common with all socialists, the anarchists hold that the private ownership of land, capital, and machinery has had its time; that it is condemned to disappear; and that all requisites for production must, and will, become the common property of society, and be managed in common by the producers of wealth…they maintain that the ideal of the political organization of society is a condition of things where the functions of government are reduced to a minimum…”[5]. Simply put, Communism is composed of a few main tenets; abolition of private ownership and common ownership by the workers, abolition of the government, abolition of wage labor, and thus the elimination of economic hierarchies. The USSR for instance, had none of these measures; the workers had little control over the means of production, the central government was still in power, wage labor continued to exist, and economic hierarchies with it too. The “failure of communism” is a misnomer – the only historical examples are better described as a failure of two semi-transition-period countries which are in fact, emblematic of the accuracy of Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism.

Secondly, in giving an un-nuanced analysis of the history of the socialist movement in the 20th century, my colleague ignores examples where communist principles did work to produce a better society. The best example of this is in Revolutionary Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War era. Following the anarchist path, Catalonia established a group of hundreds of independent communes. George Orwell praised this in Homage to Catalonia, writing “… I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for…so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gipsies [sic]. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine” (Orwell, 6-7). [9] Of course, Revolutionary Catalonia would collapse in a few short years, but my point is not that a large-scale state existed, merely that Communist principles have created far better societies than contemporaries. Nor is my point that the USSR and China did not “fail”, only that to title a piece like this “Why did Communism fail” is disingenuous and represents a completely unnuanced and historically indefensible description of leftist movements in the 20th century.

My colleague’s third point I will address is that after WWII, imperialist expansion of communism into the West caused backlash from the U.S. and Great Britain. Thus, eventually the rulers of China and Russia realized that they needed to become capitalist to thrive, marking the fall of communism. Firstly, while the USSR did expand into Eastern Europe, it would be a mischaracterization to say that western policy was merely a defensive rebuke and establishment of a non-hegemonic buffer against a USSR described as “imperialist”, and it would also be incorrect to state that the US was merely concerned with third-world self-determination. The Monroe Doctrine, as it was applied during the Cold War, required a western – meaning US – friendly Latin America. The US accomplished this through covert, but often direct action in military coups and overthrows, often of democratically elected governments. Oddly for a country so theoretically concerned with human rights, many of the governments which the US installed were totalitarian, and they were often military dictatorships. Notable examples include the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, the 1954 Guatemalan Coup which resulted in the replacement of a progressive and democratic government with yet another military dictatorship, the illicit Iran-Contra affair, or the larger Condor network. [10][11][12]

Overall, the USSR’s Latin American foreign involvement existed on a far smaller scale than that from the west. Dominguez continues in her article The Soviet Union and Latin America, based on interviews with Soviet military officials and analysis of historical occurrences, “…Soviet foreign policy was relatively haphazard…[and] a sort of “geographic fatalism” led the USSR to believe that American hegemony made it impossible for any revolution to succeed in Latin America…efforts to develop political and trade relations with larger countries such as Argentina and Brazil generally failed, undercut by Soviet ideological support to local communist groups or by the suspicion that such support existed…Ideological solidarity with Allende’s Chile was very limited and, in the case of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, such solidarity disappeared after negotiations with the United States.” [8] Thus, the Soviet expansion was in no way “imperialist”, and efforts at expansion were small-scale, especially when compared to American efforts. The sole manifestation of Soviet hegemony – the Warsaw pact – was smaller in scale than global US containment efforts and was roughly correlative to NATO in western Europe. In any case, its geographic extent was largely limited to eastern Europe, and my colleague focuses more on Latin America. Even though the Soviet Union maintained friendly relations with several African states, there was little concerted military involvement around the globe, nor was there anything which could be construed as “imperialist expansion”, especially directly into the west. Although direct military insertion was obviously in no way absent (nuclear standoff vis a vis Cuba), it was rare. Soviet-Latin foreign policy was best summarized by this very paper’s abstract; “The Soviet Union’s penetration and influence in Latin America is a result more of accidental events than of a conscious strategy. Saying nothing about the impact of US intervention, western fears were simply mostly unfounded”.

This is paradigmatic of the fact that Soviet foreign policy was mainly a factor of self-defense as opposed to expansion. Firstly, Stephen R. David writes, “More importantly, the overall strategy towards Third World coups is designed to preserve Soviet gains rather than expand Soviet influence. As all of these cases illustrate, the Soviet Union attempts to affect the outcome of coups only among states that are within its sphere of influence or that have left the Soviet sphere of influence” [15]. The Soviet Union’s doctrine was reflective of the fact that it was an attempt to maintain power, not to expand into the third world. As a broad continuation of Stalin’s “socialism in one country” policy, the USSR’s policy aimed to deter war and preserve the USSR. Addressing the threats of Soviet military buildup and expansion, Soviet military policy was based upon self-defense. British international relations specialist Michael MccGwire writes in his book Military Objectives in Soviet Foreign Policy, “Take for example, the frequent claim that Soviet communism seems military domination of the world. How does that explanation account for…Soviet behavior at the end of World War II…relinquishing military bases…and failing to occupy Afghanistan, even when the formation of the [CTO] in 1958 linked Iran and Pakistan in an anti-Soviet alliance…how does one account for the structure and deployment of their forces since World War II?” [16] MccGwire concludes this from a detailed analysis of Soviet military action and deployment. Their deployment of nuclear weapons was aimed at deterrence, their deployment of forces in Eastern Europe was for defense of western Russia, naval expansion was due to a assuaging of nuclear escalation, and their foreign interventions were viewed as a way of maintaining the Soviet bloc, not expanding it. These facts are simply incompatible with a theory of Soviet expansion, and thus my colleague firstly mischaracterizes Soviet policy as imperialist expansion, and secondly fails to recognize the degree to which Soviet expansion was impossible.

Secondly, regarding the necessity to turn capitalist, Marx never predicted that a single Communist country would be self-sufficient, nor did he support a direct feudal-communist transition. The individual failures of China and Russia have nothing to do with a doctrinal issue, and the realities of these two states are in fact, paradigmatic of the fact that Marx’s analysis of the revolution was correct. Engels wrote in The Principles of Communism, “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone? No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that… [no country] is independent of what happens to the others… the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries” [6]. Without the global resources to abolish scarcity, the country attempting a transition period will inevitably twist itself into an authoritarian, poverty-stricken state; this is especially the case given that the USSR and China had nothing to draw upon themselves. China was mostly unindustrialized, the USSR was semi-feudal, agrarian, and mostly un-developed. These issues were further exacerbated – in the USSR – by WWII; the industrial destruction wreaked on the populated regions of the central European plain and human cost – both in soldiers and civilian – were unheard of for any combatant country in World War II, with estimates ranging from twenty to thirty-million dead. [14] Out of these backwards, largely agrarian, and war-devastated regions came two regimes – totalitarian to be sure, but with vastly industrialized economies and modernized states.

The roles that Stalin and Mao served to their respective countries were much like the roles capitalism served in the early industrial revolution; rapid development and technological progression, but a tremendous human cost. Stalin and Mao’s casualty totals of twenty and forty-million, respectively, cannot be ignored, but at the same time we must realize that the “industrialized west” was brought up with its own vices of child labor, horrid environmental destruction, genocide and slavery in the developing world, and more. Eagleton continues, ““The USSR was forced into modernization directly from Feudalism. With little capital base, and in Russia’s situation after contemporary socio-political affairs, Russia was marooned in a sea of hostile nations with no means but the forceful centralization of wealth” (Eagleton 19). The lack of context and failure of analysis is especially poignant given his characterization of these failures as “inherent issues” of Communism. To judge the entirety of Marxist doctrine on the failures of these two transition states is purely farcical, especially when the circumstances they existed in and transformed only serve to prove the accuracy of Marx’s analysis of a future Communist revolution and transition state.

Of course, none of this is to say that what happened in the USSR and China was in any way morally good. Marx would never have stated that it was; as Eagleton writes, for him, industrialization would likely have involved a bloody and inequality-filled capitalist stage. This does not mean that Marx views capitalism positively, merely that he understands its role in his theory of Dialectical Materialism as a development of history. Eagleton further remarks on this as a “tragic element” of Marxist theory. It is a shame that throughout historical development billions of people must live wretched lives, but this is simply a fact of the world that can only be overcome through abolishment of capitalism as an end-stage of history.

My opponent’s fourth point is that the Marxist plan to use political supremacy to centralize wealth leads to authoritarianism and accounts for many failures of communism. In trying to prove inherent flaws in communism, he only refers to several quotes from Marx. Thus, I will also only refer to quotes from Marx in order to engage with his point.

To wrest away the means of production from the bourgeoisie requires political supremacy. If the bourgeoisie are willing to surrender control of the means of production and emancipate the workers without revolution, then perhaps “political supremacy” would not be needed. However, looking along the course of history and with a quick look to the politically corrupted governments of today, it is plain to see that those in power rarely surrender their power; most changes in government, whether a change into early-Neolithic kingdom, feudalistic monarchy, or liberal democracy, must involve violence. Eagleton writes, “If socialist revolutions have generally involved violence, it is largely because propertied classes will rarely surrender their privileges without a struggle…revolutions are not just attempts to bring down the state…revolutions come about only when one social class overthrows the rule of another and replaces it with its own power” (Eagleton, 187). Eagleton goes on to explain that random attacks do not constitute a revolution; when a socialist or communist revolution arises, it must necessarily require political supremacy to seize the means of production and to implement communism. Marx’s conception of revolution is where a new class or authority rises to take the place of old powers. This politico-economic control is what Marx speaks of when he writes of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

However, while the phrase uses the word dictatorship, it in no way implies authoritarian, totalitarian, and centralized rule by one person. Once again referring to Eagleton, “What took place in [the Paris Commune] was what Marx described…what he meant…was nothing more than popular democracy…the word “dictatorship” in Marx’s time did not necessarily suggest what it meant today…Marx himself used to mean government by [the proletariat]” (Eagleton, 205). To further correct, the term “dictatorship” referenced merely the control of government from certain authority. For instance, a military dictatorship would be a dictatorship with the military in power. Thus, a dictatorship merely means control of the government by the proletariat. As the proletariat are the non-landowning masses and must necessarily be a majority, Marx is referencing only the common-folks’ control of politics.

Marx’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat was demonstrated in the Paris Commune, which involved a representative democracy with delegates under strict regulation and subject to immediate recall. [2] Marx wrote positively of the Commune in an Internationale-supported pamphlet, writing, “The Paris Commune was, of course, to serve as a model to all the great industrial [centers] of France. The communal regime once established in Paris and the secondary [centers], the old centralized government would in the provinces, too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers…The Commune was perfectly right in telling the peasants that “its victory was their only hope.” [13] The Paris Commune was in fact, heavily influenced by anarchist ideals, and received input and support from prominent Anarchists, such as Courbet and Michel. [3] The Paris Commune was wholly democratic and featured the involvement of large parts of the radicalized Paris proletariat. On this point, referring to the Soviet Union and China as a cop-out post-hoc excuse does not even begin to comprise a coherent argument, because my opponent specifically references that there are “intrinsic issues” with Communism. The failure of the revolution in the USSR and China was due to specific contemporary issues that Marx foresaw; their failure is in fact, paradigmatic of the accuracy of Marxist doctrine, as I addressed by quoting Eagleton in an earlier section.

Marx, in fact, was an opponent of the centralized state and the bureaucracy which characterized the Soviet Union. Eagleton writes that Marx was a staunch opponent of the state as a means of class-specific, partisan behavior, and believed that the state was roughly controlled by the propertied interests of the day (Eagleton, 197). As demonstrated by Marx’s conception of the proletariat’s dictatorship, he believed that, “[democracy] had to be local, popular and spread across all the institutions of civil society. It had to extend to economic as well as political life. It had to mean actual self-government…” (Eagleton, 201). Referring to Marx’s day, Democracies were, overall simply not the idealized rational and skeptic point-counterpoint universal-suffrage that the term “democracy” implies”. Any metric taken will show that suffrage was less common, public power was weaker, and that the nobility’s exercise of power was more overt even when compared to the centralized control of the media and government we see today. If Marx states that democracy or republic was to be overtaken, it must be contextualized in order to understand that local democracy was to take its place.

All in all, historical developments of the twentieth-century precluded the use of such a blanket phrase as “Communism’s Failure”. Marxist theory would well have predicted the human atrocities that state-imposed collectivizatio attempts resulted in, and it in fact gives a far better explanation of how to avoid these atrocities in the future. This is because Marxist theory is in fact, far more complicated than a simple blanket statement of the atrocities of capitalism and accompanying remarks about how executing kulaks would be a welcome development. Marx – and Engels alongside him – wrote out numerous theorems on the cold economic realities of capitalism and a complex theory of historical development among others, and succeeding thinkers would morph his ideas into numerous doctrines, including Bolshevism, Anarcho-Communism and Syndicalism, Trotskyism, and the Imperialist Theories of Marxist-Leninism. Such a nuanced view cannot seriously be summarized in a short and surface-level analysis that my colleague provides, and this is reflected in the numerous interpretive inaccuracies and failures to provide historical context.


[2] Rougerie, Jacques, La Commune de Paris, pp. 58-60

[3] Woodcock, George (1962). Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. The World Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0140168211.

[4] Milza, 2009a, pp. 118–119





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