Growing up as a child I didn’t know much about Communism except that it was bad. I knew that it was atheistic from what I had heard at the mosque… but early on I knew I was quite atheistic, so that was not a major issue to me. There was a period when I was eight or nine when I was interested in military history and armaments. It was immediately obvious that the Soviet Union seemed to be maintaining parity with the United States of America, which impressed me a great deal (MiG-29‘s are still around!). Though I also read that it expended a much larger proportion of its GDP on that than the USA.
Even then, it was clear to me that the Soviet Union was an authoritarian regime, but it wasn’t dramatically emphasized in the same way that the evils of Nazi Germany were. The Nazis had become dramatic legends even in my youth, but I’m old enough that in the 1980s and 1990s I also met survivors of the concentration camps, whether personally or during tours of schools. And then there was Schindler’s List. The Holocaust and Nazism, and the bravery of the “Greatest Generation,” were all prominent in our minds.
In the wake of the Brezhnev era, the Soviets were more sinister than evil, while with the rise to power of Mikhael Gorbachev they also seemed to be turning a new leaf.
Even after the fall of the Communist bloc in the early 1990s I did have later encounters with the ideology. One of my roommates (and friend) at university was an avowed Communist. Now, I knew of other self-identified Communists, but she was the real deal. She flew to Cuba to listen to a six-hour speech given by Fidel Castro at one point, even though she didn’t have the money for it. And, she seemed genuinely saddened by the shift of China toward a mixed economy. It wasn’t just a pose. But I didn’t give it much thought. In the 1990s Communism had no future, so her ideological fervor struck me as a harmless affectation.
It was only later that that I understood the true impact of Communist ideology, especially earlier in the 20th century. Stalin’s and Mao’s political purges, and the tens of millions who died in famines. The death toll under Communist regimes is of incredible magnitude; without compare (though with parallel, alas).
And yet whenever I dismiss and attack Communism for being an evil ideology I get a serious number of rebuttals. Often they take the same forms as the arguments I read in Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism back in 1990s, which initially led me down the path of exploring Communism more deeply (despite being supportive of the Communist project in general, even Parenti couldn’t deny the atrocities, even as he tried to mitigate its effects).
One argument I often get is that they meant well. This is in contrast to the National Socialists in Germany, who were exterminationists. To a first approximation, this seems clear… but as someone who is personally from rural “landlord” background, I doubt that Communists meant well to everyone! The dictatorship of the proletariat was going to overturn the old order, and the losers were not going to be happy about it. Not only were they going to be dispossessed, but they were often targeted and killed. They were class enemies, and it was clear early on that revolutionary Marxists were not going to be gentle with those class enemies. They would liquidate them.
But whatever their intent, with Communism we have several repeated instances of massive death counts of the very people that the revolutions were supposed to help. The famine in Ukraine, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cambodian Genocide are clear examples. Then there is the North Korean famine in the late 1990s. And the greatest decline in poverty the world has ever seen has occurred after the Chinese Communist state veered away from the regnant Marxist-Leninist economic orthodoxy of the 20th century.
Today we face a new dilemma. Since 1970 the wage gap between skilled workers and the unskilled has been growing in the developed world. The egalitarian society of mass affluence seems to be fading away, as a new era of inequality and immiseration is facing us. At least in prosperous mature societies.
I do not see any plausible solution on the left or right on the horizon. The populist energies that have been unleashed in democratic societies reflect this lack of an answer from the elites. They have no fix which will present opportunities for broad-based prosperity. And, to be frank, populists are correct in suggesting that the elites partake extensively in crony capitalism and enforce policies which are self-serving.
Into this vacuum are stepping radical firebrands on the right and the left. On the left journals such as Jacobin are taking a “fresh look” at Marxism. As the above indicates I see where the impulse comes from. But this experiment has been done, disastrously, multiple times. There is no way any major state should risk this sort of radical socialism.I know that people like Bill Ayers call themselves “Anarchist Communists,” but in practice, they praise states like Venezuela which do not practice anarchism from what I can tell. All reasonable alternatives are better, even muddling along through a mixed economy.
Despite the empirical record of Communism, academics, in particular, seem to have a warm and fuzzy spot for the Marxists. They “meant well.” And, not only are there abstract Marxists in academia, there are literal self-identified Communists in the professoriate who egg on violent agitation. Obviously, there are no Nazi professors. And yet Communism is given a latitude, despite its 100 million person body count!
And the body count issue is interesting because apologists for Communism regularly suggest that these numbers may be exaggerated. Refutations of the statistics for the Chinese famine suggest that it was closer to 10 million, rather than 45 million. This is like saying the Nazi regime has been slandered, because they killed 2 million, as opposed to 6 million, Jews. Quibbling over numbers in a passionate manner like this is the domain of Holocaust deniers, and yet with Communism, I encounter this regularly.
In conclusion, I don’t ever want to hear about how “true socialism has never been done.” The only socialism which is acceptable are the “less true” socialisms, the inept French kind with all its regulations, the high taxation Scandinavian variety, and those states which dabble but don’t fully commit. Gale force socialism too often leads to genocide and makes as much sense in practice as crazy libertarianism which attempts to privatize all sidewalks.
Finally, granting that Communists had their hearts in the right places, what did they end up accomplishing? Yes, perhaps one hundred million died, but that was in the past. But what are post-Communist countries like today? The Russian state is now a right-wing nationalist authoritarian regime. The Communists were famously anti-racist, and I believe sincerely so. But sixty years of enforced anti-racism led to a populace which is notoriously racist against colored people once given freedom to make up their own mind (Moscow is considered a dangerous place for non-white people to travel without caution). North Korea is constitutionally racist at this point, and China’s authoritarianism is probably one of the major reasons that its populist nationalism is kept in check. And similar things might be said about gender egalitarianism and the subordinate relationships of women to men in post-Communist regimes. The Communist orders were long on rhetoric, but short on actually figuring out a way to change hearts and minds
And yet here we are when many proudly boast their sympathies with Communism and Communist regimes of yore. It doesn’t matter how many “mistakes” those regimes committed, it was just an “experiment” which is too good to not try again.
As an aside, I recommend the New York Times series “Red Century.” I do think a detailed ethnographic portrait of Communists is warranted and interesting. But I also do think too many of the pieces see the movement and period through a rose-tinted filter.
You can read more of Razib Khan’s writing here.