Can Communism Work?
In 1991, this question was easy to answer. The Soviet Union had just come to an end, the other Communist states in Eastern Europe were no more. There had been major protests against Communism in China, which the government could only stop by using tanks on its own people. Images of Germans smashing the Berlin Wall with hammers seemed a fitting picture of the destruction of the failed ideology of Communism.
Since then, the remarkable growth of China has made the question more complicated. In 1991, the average person in China lived on US $360 a year. Now, the figure is US $8,500. Over that time, China has experienced the greatest poverty reduction in history: more than 700 million have escaped destitution. When America’s capitalist economy dived into recession in 2008 and China’s didn’t, Chinese officials were quick to argue that their system was superior.
So can Communism work? Westerners who grew up during the Cold War will shudder at the thought. For them, Communism means repression, food shortages, labour camps, and the threat of nuclear war. But even for these people (and I am one of them) there’s likely some appeal in the Communist idea that the world should be more equal. Is there a way to run the world that’s better than the current one, where the richest 63 people have more than the poorest 3.5 billion combined? And does the evidence from China suggest that Communism might be the way forward?
No, not really. China may still be Communist in its politics but its economy is capitalist. Karl Marx called for equality and the abolition of private property, but modern China doesn’t believe in or practice either. Freedom, competition, and trade have powered China’s economy and reduced poverty, not Marxism.
Surprisingly, you can make a better argument for the success of Communism from Soviet Russia. We may picture it as a land of deprivation but that’s not the whole story. Incomes rose and inequality fell. The government built hospitals and health clinics across the country. It established Russia’s first nationwide public education system—which was excellent in mathematics and science. Soviet engineers designed and produced the tanks, rifles, and aircraft that defeated Hitler’s armies, and then put the first man in space. The country became a superpower. Life expectancy almost doubled, from 36 to 69 years of age. On many measures, the Soviet Union was a success.
However, there are two problems with the argument that Communism was good for Russia. One, Russia might have done even better if it had continued to be the democracy that it was ever so briefly in 1917 before the Communist party took over. Russia’s increased life expectancy looks great, but it was very similar to what was happening in most of the rest of the world. Vaccinations and antibiotics are why people lived longer, not Communism. Two, the rosy picture in the previous paragraph overlooks the millions of unnecessary and often violent deaths in the Soviet Union, whether from famine, a firing squad, or the frigid temperatures of the prison camps.
The truth is that Communism has fatal flaws. Start with the economy. Letting the state decide what factories produce can be great when your country’s existence is threatened—think of all the T-34 tanks the Soviets built during the Second World War—but in more normal times it’s a bad idea. In the 1930’s it was all but impossible to buy a new pair of shoes because the government didn’t prioritize their production. You couldn’t find oil lamps or kettles. Or needles and thread to mend your clothes. There were chronic food shortages.
The result was corruption. To get your hands on material goods you had to know the right people. This sort of corruption seems unavoidable in Communist societies. Restrictions on free speech lead to a lack of transparency and accountability at every level of society. The results were unequal access not only to food but also to jobs and the chance to do well.
An argument against Communism that is true but usually overstated is that it removed people’s incentive to work hard. If everyone is equal, why bother? That’s a pretty bleak view of human nature. The truth is that many worked hard as bakers, doctors, taxi drivers, and teachers in Communist societies because they believed they had good work to do. The lack of financial incentive was an obstacle to innovation, but thankfully human beings are motivated by more than money.
A more fundamental problem is that Communist societies have struggled to provide their people with meaning. That sounds vague, but it’s important. At the outset, Communist states told everyone to put their trust in the new government, which would bring peace and prosperity for all. They suppressed old religions. Many people believed the new faith for a while but when disappointment came they didn’t have the option of throwing out the people in charge, as you do in a democracy.
Eventually, most people became cynical. They watched the people at the top cling to power and get rich. They saw that Communism was very capable of destroying life as well as nourishing it, whether through repression, misinformation, or hunger. Some returned to trusted old faiths, such as Christianity, others found new ones. But many were left with nothing.
China’s government now sees the moral emptiness of its society as a major problem. It’s trying to resurrect Confucian values for their increasingly amoral society.
One of the most insightful commentators on communism was Sir Thomas More. In 1516 he published a book that told of a country where people lived in unlocked houses, worked hard, ate well, and shared everything. However, the title of the book was Utopia, meaning “Nowhere.” More thought his imaginary place could inspire social improvement but he didn’t believe the whole ideal could work in practice. As a Christian humanist, More believed that people were sinful by nature. He knew that sharing property didn’t work out even in the small and eager community of the early church described in the Bible. The same would be true in the Israeli communes of the twentieth century.
Communism doesn’t work. But that does not mean that we are left with the survival of the fittest. Moderate forms of socialism have been much more successful, and they are compatible with democracy. Social Security and Medicare are American examples, the NHS is a British one. Are there flaws? Yes. Do we need creative thinking on how to improve democratic socialism, or social democracy, in an age of growing inequality? Absolutely. But social democracy has served many countries very well over the past century. China would be doing even better if it switched.