Why communism failed

According to Marx and Lenin, the primary objective of a socialist government is the creation of a communist society; that is, a society where everyone contributes according to their ability and receives according to their need. Once achieved, the willing participation of all involved should result in such a dramatic improvement in productivity that a governing authority would no longer be required and the government would be dissolved – or disappear of its own accord. That was the dream, if their testimony is to be believed, and indeed in 1959, First Secretary Krushchev proclaimed that the Soviet Union was ready to make the transition and would “in the main” have achieved full communism by 1980 (Evans, 1993, p. 60). However, Krushchev had no plans to dissolve the state. Rather he was making the claim that, by the 1980s, economic productivity in the Soviet Union would have overtaken that of the United States, and so demonstrated the superiority of the socialist model.

The reality, of course, was to prove very different. The socialist governments of China and Russia were born into emergency conditions following protracted conflict. Industrial production had been devastated and much of the population faced starvation. Against such a background their creed meant that the state had to take control of the means of production, and quickly. The end game may be dissolution, but the initial phase entailed substantial expansion as the necessary bureaucratic and legal framework was installed and expanded. This was done on behalf of the people, but there was little time for niceties: property had to be seized, factories wrested from their owners’ control, and anyone who resisted branded a traitor and treated as such. The government was conducting a war against the bourgeoisie and those who indulged in entrepreneurial activities or colluded with foreign capitalists. Police powers were extended and new laws hastily drafted to criminalise any activity that could threaten state control.

It was therefore inevitable that the Rule of Law would be an early casualty. At its most basic, the Rule of Law asserts that everyone in the land, including its rulers and their representatives, be subject to the law. In England it was first iterated in the Magna Carta in 1215, formally restricting the powers of the King, and extended through statutes such as the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 and the Bill of Rights in 1689. It is the reason that the Lady of Justice is usually depicted wearing a blindfold, indicating that justice should be blind to the status of those judged. In its broader sense The Rule of Law is manifest in a set of principles such as the assumption of innocence until proven guilty in open court; the right to hold those in authority accountable for their actions; and the need for clear delineation between government, judiciary and police. These are principles that most in the First World now take for granted, and are suitably outraged when they are threatened (as they have been by recent attempts to combat terrorism).

Under socialism, such principles quickly disappear. The distinction between government, judiciary and police becomes blurred as all become Party members. The laws introduced to criminalise entrepreneurial activity in both China and the Soviet Union were hopelessly ambiguous, while the monolithic nature of the state meant that any checks and balances which might have held those in authority to account ceased to function. The police found themselves in a position to arrest, prosecute, punish, confiscate and even execute with increasing impunity. Bribery and other forms of corruption became first commonplace and then institutionalised. Those who had not secured themselves sufficiently powerful positions within the hierarchy of the Party became increasingly insecure, unwilling to speak out or show initiative for fear of crossing the path of someone with the power to harm them or their family.

In such an atmosphere, any possibility of creating an economic plan that could function in a remotely efficient manner quickly disappears. No such plan has a hope of succeeding unless it receives accurate information concerning the situation in the real world. However, if those responsible for managing the factories and farms fear reprisal if their performance does not match the targets they have been set, then the information they return is likely to match the expectations of the planners, rather than the actual production achieved. When reprisal might mean summary execution, possibly after a lengthy period of torture, it is unlikely that anyone would be inclined to point out even major discrepancies until they became so obvious that they could no longer be hidden, by which time it is far too late for anyone to do anything about it.

Although the intention was to create a classless society, increasing levels of corruption and the inevitably bureaucratic nature of the state fostered a new hierarchy. From early on, Party members in both China and the Soviet Union had access to a higher standard of housing and special shops where the shelves were better stocked and the queues shorter. Lenin’s April Theses may have stipulated, “The salaries of all officials … not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker.” However official Russian sources quoted in 1937 suggest a ratio of 50:1 between the salaries of the richest and the poorest, which was comparable with that existing in the United States at the time (Hayek, 1944, p. 107).

In the end there is little to distinguish a communist regime from any other totalitarian government. Lenin, Stalin and Mao were idolised by their subjects with much the same enthusiasm as Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany or Benito Mussolini in Italy, which was certainly not Marx’ intention. However they would have agreed with Hitler, writing in 1925, “The effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.” (Hitler, 1925) For Hitler the common enemy was the Jew. For Lenin, Stalin and Mao it was the bourgeoisie and the entrepreneur. For the right-wing regimes established in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s with United States backing, the enemy was communism.

What they all have in common is the erosion of the Rule of Law, the systematic imprisonment, torture and execution of large numbers of civilians, and an increasing division between reality and the perception of the leadership. As Albert Speer put it, describing his time as Minister of Armaments within the Third Reich:

“The departure from reality, which was visibly spreading like a contagion, was no peculiarity of the National Socialist regime. But in normal circumstances people who turn their backs on reality are soon set straight by the mockery and criticism of those around them, which makes them aware they have lost credibility. In the Third Reich there were no such correctives, especially for those who belonged to the upper stratum. On the contrary, every self-deception was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world which no longer bore any relationship to the grim outside world … in Hitler’s system, as in every totalitarian regime, when a man’s position rises, his isolation increases and he is therefore more sheltered from harsh reality.” (Speer, 1970)

One country where the course of communism may appear to have been a little different is Cuba, where Fidel Castro has been in power since 1959 – a reign that has overlapped those of ten US presidents. As in the Soviet Union and in Mao’s China, Castro put a high priority on healthcare and education, to the extent that by 1980 life expectancy exceeded 70 while infant mortality was less than 20 per 1,000 births – figures comparable with those of the United States and Western Europe. Cuba spends over 10 per cent of GDP on education, with the result that literacy extends to nearly 98 per cent of its population.

Furthermore, according to a 2003 survey carried out by Global Footprint Network, Cuba is the only country able to boast Western levels of life expectancy and literacy while living within its means. By contrast, we would require three planet Earths to sustain the global population at the same standard of living as is found in the United Kingdom, and over five to maintain us all at the standard that the United States enjoys. (Fanelli, 2007)

Cuba’s record on human rights is not so promising.

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