The Theory and Practice of Communism

 Posted by on 7 April 2004 at 10:14 am  Uncategorized
Apr 072004

David Frum has some interesting observations about the theory and practice of communism in a flashback commentary on Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History. He writes:

…Applebaum is ultimately interested less in the Gulag’s horror than its creators’ motives. We today may look back on the camp era and see only waste: Stalin’s “preposterous public-works projects,” as Remnick calls them. But that’s not how it seemed to many at the time. At the time, many Westerners paid tribute to the Soviet Union’s achievements — its mighty dams and railways, its cities in the Arctic circle and vast farms of irrigated grain. Even anti-Communists like Richard Crossman, editor of The God That Failed, paid tribute to the “terrifying efficiency” of the Soviet economy: Liberated from petty concerns like profit and loss and cost-accounting, the Soviets could do things that no capitalist society would ever dare attempt. Andrei Amalrik, in his Notes of a Revolutionary, recalls Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s visit to the Siberian city of Norilsk. Trudeau lamented that Canada had never succeeded in building so large a city so far north — unaware, or unconcerned, that Norilsk had been built by prisoners.

Any decent person can recognize the inhumanity and cruelty of the Gulag (though as a matter of record, a remarkable number of people who considered themselves decent managed to avoid recognizing it when it counted). But what Applebaum emphasizes, as nobody before her has done, is the Gulag’s sheer stupid pointlessness.

Who would set prisoners to work digging an unnecessary canal from the White Sea to the Baltic using only hand tools? How could anybody imagine that starving slaves could outproduce American factories? Were the Soviets crazy?

Applebaum does not answer this question directly — but she provides the evidence for the reader to find the answer for himself. The Soviets were not crazy. They believed that society’s wealth consisted in something called the “surplus value” of the worker’s labor. In a capitalist society, the capitalist stole that surplus value. In the Communist fairyland of tomorrow, the worker would keep the surplus for his own benefit. In the meantime, Marxian theory suggested, the emerging socialist state could develop by appropriating for itself the surplus value that had previously enriched the capitalist. And if the worker could be forced to eat less, to live in a barracks instead of a house, to wear rags rather than clothes — why then the surplus would be even bigger, and the state would advance even faster, and the Communist fairyland would arrive even sooner.

It all made a terrible sense — that is, if you accepted the crackpot economics on which the plan rested. In other words, just as Solzhenitsyn traced the responsibility for the creation of the Gulag back from Stalin to Lenin, so Applebaum follows the path all the way back to Das Kapital. She shows us that the Gulag is not just an incident in the history of Russia. It is the culmination of the history of socialism.

Given that so many people laud communist theory while decrying communist practice, such arguments logically connecting the theory to the practice seem particularly important to develop and advance. Yet in my readings on communism so far, they seem quite rare. I’m not entirely certain why, although I suspect a lack of deep interest in and/or understanding of Marx’s dialectical materialism, as well as the commonality between the altruism of communism and that of its oftentimes Christian critics.

Of course, communist countries do vary somewhat in their theory… and thus in their practice. Based upon Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, Mao’s communism seemed to take on more of an idealist flair. Soldiers in the Red Army, for example, were expected to achieve victory on the basis of will alone, despite being poorly equipped. To suggest otherwise was cause for a prison term. Nor would I deny that, for example, Stalin’s extreme paranoia substantially impacted the particulars of Soviet policy. But these are merely minor variations upon the major themes.

At the end of his book Communism: A History, Richard Pipes has an interesting discussion of the connection between communist theory and practice. While I don’t agree with some aspects of his analysis — and none of it goes deep enough — it is quite interesting. Let me quote at length from the chapter “Looking Back”:

We are now in a position to address the question posed in the Preface: whether the failure of communism “was due to human error or to flaws inherent in its very nature.” The record of history strongly suggests the latter to be the case. Communism was not a good idea that went wrong; it was a bad idea.

Marxism, the theoretical foundation of Communism, carried within it the seeds of its own destruction, such as Marx and Engels had wrongly attributed to capitalism. It rested on a faulty philosophy of history as well as an unrealistic psychological doctrine.

Marxism’s basic contention that private property, which it strives to abolish, is a transient historical phenomenon–an interlude between primitive and advanced Communism–is plainly false. All evidence indicates that land, the main source of wealth in premodern times, unless monopolized by monarchs, had always belonged to tribes, families, or individuals. Livestock as well as commerce and the capital to which it gives rise were always and everywhere in private hands. From which it follows that private property is not a transient phenomenon but a permanent feature of social life, and, as such, indestructible.

No less flawed is Marxism’s notion that human nature is infinitely malleable, and hence that a combination of coercion and education can produce beings purged of acquisitiveness and willing to dissolve in society at large, a society where, as envisioned by Plato, “the private and individual is altogether banished from life.” Even if the immense pressures exerted by Communist regimes to this end were to succeed, their success would at best be ephemeral: as animal trainers have discovered, after being subjected to intensive drilling to perform tricks, animals, freed from training, after a while forget what they have learned and revert to their instinctive behavior. Furthermore, given that acquired characteristics are not heritable, each new generation will bring into the world non-Communist attitudes, among which acquisitiveness is certainly not the least powerful. Communism ultimately was defeated by its inability to refashion human nature…

Such realities have forced Communist regimes to resort to violence as a routine means of governance. To compel people to give up what they own and to surrender their private interests to the state requires that public authority dispose of boundless authority. This is what Lenin meant when he defined the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as “power that is limited by nothing, by no laws, that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion.”

Experience indicates that such a regime is, indeed, feasible: it has been imposed on Russia and its dependencies, on China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia, as well as on a variety of countries in Africa and Latin America. But its price is not only enormous human suffering, it is also the destruction of the very objective for which such regimes are established, namely equality.

In advocating a regime resting on coercion, Lenin assumed that it would be temporary; its mussion accomplished, the coercive state would wither away. He ignored, however, that the abstraction called “state” is made up of individuals who, whatever their historical mission, attend also to their private interests. Although in Marxist sociology the state serves only the owners of property and has no stake of its own, in reality the stewards quickly evolve into a new class. The “vanguard part” meant to usher in a new era becomes an end in itself.

The state–or more precisely, the Communist Party–has no choice but to accommodate this new class because it depends upon it to stay in power. And under Communism, the officialdom grows by leaps and bounds for the simple reason that inasmuch as all aspects of national life, the economy very much included, are taken over by the state, it requires a large bureaucracy to administer it. This bureaucracy is the favorite scapegoat of every Communist regime, yet none can manage without it. In the Soviet Union, within a few years of the Bolshevik coup d’etat, the regime began to offer unique rewards to its leading cadres, which in time evolved into the nomenklatura, a hereditary privileged class. This spelled the end of the ideal of equality. Thus to enforce the equality of possessions it is necessary to institutionalize inequality of rights. The contradiction between ends and means is built into Communism and into every country where the state owns all the productive wealth.

True, periodic attempts have been made to shake off the grip that the Communist officialdom secured on the state and society. Lenin and Stalin tried purges, which under Stalin led to mass murder. Mao launched his “Cultural Revolution” to destroy entrenched party interests. None of these attempts succeeded. In the end, the nomenklaturas won out because without them nothing would work.

Attempts to introduce Communism by democratic means also failed. As the experience of Allende’s Chile demonstrates, the assault on private property in the presence of a relatively free press, an independent judiciary, and an elected legislature cannot succeed because the opposition, which under a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is ruthlessly crushed, here has the opportunity to organize resistance. As its numbers swelled, it easily toppled the revolutionary regime. In Nicaragua, where in 1990 the Communist Sandinistas felt enough confidence in their popularity to submit themselves to a popular vote, the people swept them out of power.

The bureaucratization inherent in Communist regimes was also responsible for the economic failures that either contributed to their downfall or else compelled them to abandon Communism in all but name. The nationalization of productive assets let to the transfer of their management to officials who had neither the competence nor the motivation to operate them efficiently. The inevitable result was declining productivity. Furthermore, the rigidity inherent in centralized management made Communist economies unresponsive to technological innovation, which explains why the Soviet Union, despite its high level of science, missed out on some of the most important technological discoveries of recent times. As Friedrich Hayek has pointed out, only the free market has the ability to sense and respond to shifts in the economy. And only the prospect of enrichment motivates people to exert themselves beyond their immediate needs. Under Communism, effective incentives were lacking: indeed, diligence at work was punished, in that meeting one’s productivity quotas resulted in these quotas being raised.

Nor is the inability to provide abundance and enforce equality, its alleged objectives, the only contradiction inherent in Communism. Another is the lack of freedom, which along with equality and abundance was for Marx the ultimate objective of a Communist society. The nationalization of all productive resources turns all citizens into state employees–in other words, dependents of the government. Under such conditions, there are no effective limits to state power. In the words of Trotsky: “In a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means slow starvation. The old principle, who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” Only the recognition by the state of right of its citizens to their belongings–and respect shown to this right–ensures freedom. And inasmuch as property is a legal concept, enforced by the courts, it also signifies that the state is bound by law. This means that the goal of Communism, the abolition of property, inevitably leads to the abolition of liberty and legality. The nationalization of productive resources, far from liberating men from enslavement by things, as Marx and Engels had envisioned, converts them into slaves of their rulers and, because of endemic shortages, makes them more materialistic than ever.

These inherent flaws were acknowledged by many Communists, leading to various “revisionisms.” To the true believers, however, the failures proved not that the doctrine was wrong but that it had not been applied with sufficient ruthlessness. Confirming Santayana’s definition of fanatics as people who redouble their efforts after forgetting their aim, they went on killing sprees of mounting savagery. Thus Communism generated ever greater oceans of blood as it progressed from Lenin to Stalin, and from Stalin to Mao and Pol Pot.

So does anyone know of a deep analysis of the connections between the theory and practice of communism? Oh, and a how about a good introductory text on Marxism? (Is Thomas Sowell’s worth reading? Any others?)

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