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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Does communism work?—Does capitalism?

We on the left have a tendency to assume that everyone know what we know. We often assume everyone knows our arguments against the system. We know why capitalism doesn’t work.
So when a cynic says to us “Where has communism worked?” We have to question whether that is a rhetorical question or whether they seriously want to know “where has it worked?”
The first question from us is “what do you mean by worked?” Does that mean it worked well enough to survive? Or does it mean where has it worked better than capitalism? It’s not a simple question.
But the first and most important answer is “where does capitalism work?” We all know it works for the upper classes. Most of the time it works for the middle classes—but not always. Probably the most extreme test of capitalism was the Great Depression of the 1930s. As with then and some of our later time periods the upper classes have cut much of the middle class lose and adrift. Then there are the lower classes. When is the last time Barack Obama or any other politician talked about the lower classes and their needs? They are completely left out of the American dream and anything resembling it. For those on welfare—homeless or just plain down on their luck—this system has no need for them. They are the refuse of capitalism. So for those at the bottom, capitalism hasn’t worked, doesn’t work now and never will work.
For those in the upper classes, unless they have a really well developed conscious and many do not, they will never believe that our system doesn’t work. Only factions of the middle-class and the bottom classes will agree that capitalism just doesn’t work. Now that we have established what DOESN’T work, let’s look at what DOES work.
When people say that communism never worked they may be talking about the economy or they may be taking about the lack of basic freedoms they perceive these systems of having or not having.
An important part of the socialist experience was their economies. An important program for the Soviet Union was “socialism in one country” the slogan that Joseph Stalin devised for his economic policy after the death of VI Lenin. The policy worked. The Soviet Union went from being a backward third world country to becoming the world’s only other superpower, after the US and to a lesser extent, China. By time Stalin died, it had become a major industrialized nation. According to Time Magazine:
In fact socialism did work at one period in history: during the 1930s and again in the ‘50s and ‘60s, socialist economies like that of the U.S.S.R. grew faster than their capitalist counterparts. But they stopped working sometime during the 1970s and’80s, just as the Western capitalist societies were beginning to enter what we now call the information age.[1]
While many of us on the left never cared for the Soviet Union as a style of socialism, we can look to their economy and see evidence that it worked. The Soviets had a space program. No other nation on Earth, except the US had such a program nor could afford to have such a program.
The Soviets developed an empire, including weapons and development aid to East Europe, Cuba, Nicaragua, Viet Nam, Laos and some African countries. They were a superpower both economically and militarily. In Egypt they helped build the Aswan Damn, proving they could provide advanced development aid.
Unlike a lot of small third world countries, the Soviet Union and China had the resources, land and people to industrialize their own countries. Both the Soviets and the Chinese are the only countries to build a sizable nuclear arsenal and had developed the rockets that could deliver those bombs. Today North (Democratic People's Republic of) Korea is having trouble developing a system of rockets that can deliver their few atomic bombs.
So the US Bourgeoisie tries to portray the Soviet Union as a complete failure. Their attitude is “we tried socialism and it proved to be a failure. So now we can go on (with capitalism).” ‘We won the cold war we are the superior system—ours works, theirs didn’t.’ The reality is that the Soviet Union did work for many years. We know that a socialist economy is possible because it has been tried. The Soviet Union was probably brought down by the information age as the Time article said. The USSR could not successfully adapt to it, so it collapsed. It is easy to imagine that a socialist system, of some kind, can work again today or in the future.
It is also quite probable that capitalism, as with all systems, will die out some day. Capitalism is dependent on growth—growth of the economy, growth of the population and expansion of technology. The problem with growth is that it requires the continual and burgeoning use of resources. Those resources include land, fuels (such as fossil fuels) water and food. It also requires increasing the population and that taxes all of our resources. All that is needed is to do the math. Expansion requires more resources which are limited on this planet. It is like a ponzi scheme. Eventually everything runs out and the system can’t maintain itself. It will then collapse.
Conservatives try to say that the ideology of Marxism has led to tyranny. They claim that is an inherent part of Marxism and that this development is just part of the nature of Marxism. Their favorite examples are Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin[2]. Supposedly these are examples of the millions of people who have died under attempts to build socialism.
The first things they overlook are those Marxist who tried to develop regimes with western style human rights guarantees and liberties.
 One of the first such regimes was that of Alexander Dubček leader of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. He and his followers tried to create “socialism with a human face." This idea was totally internal and completely the idea of those Marxist leaders. Dubček wanted to reform his system to end the more rigid forms of Marxism and the rigid aspects of a dictatorship. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. 
The end of Czechoslovakia’s Marxist experiment came from the Soviet Union. The Soviets seem to feel they couldn’t trust this new system, but they also may have felt they didn’t want to have to compete with ‘a third way.’ It is possible that the US government also didn’t want the competition as they made no effort to defend Czechoslovakia. 
In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) won a revolutionary war and came to power creating a western style Marxist regime that had freedom of speech, freedom of religion and a multi-party parliamentary system. They banned capital punishment, so the only rights violations of the regime were some mild cases of press censorship. So even by western standards this revolutionary government respected political liberties. And all of this was the design of its Marxist leaders.
This time then President Ronald Reagan was obsessed with getting rid of this regime. He seemed more concerned with getting rid of this democratic form of Marxism than that of Cuba. Again it is possible, even plausible that Reagan didn’t want the development of a ‘third way’ of Marxism to compete with capitalism.
One of the first Marxists to win a democratic election was Salvador Allende of Chile, in 1970. He was elected in a western style system. He never changed the structure of Chile’s parliament and he respected all of Chile’s people’s rights and liberties.
The same cannot be said of his replacement Augusto Pinochet who took over in a military coup in 1973. He restored capitalism under a dictatorship in which he banned all political parties and got rid of all western liberties that capitalist governments are supposed to respect. Such capitalists have existed at different times in different countries which could just as easily imply that tyrants and dictators are the logical result of capitalist governments. The fascist movements of Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Italy, Germany and Spain, came from capitalist governments.
The three Marxist governments above were small countries that could easily be overtaken by a large imperialist power. However China, while not being a parliamentary democracy, still has and had some aspects of democracy and political liberties. 
Many people are familiar with Mao’s campaign: On “Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend.”[3] Many conservatives have claimed that Mao was trying to draw out his critics. But many of these people have tended to draw conclusions that just reinforce their opinions. More than likely Mao did not realize the depths of criticism his campaign would bring out. So he put a stop to it. Mao tried often to democratize China. During the Cultural Revolution he tried to introduce contested elections for members of China’s higher offices. The ruling Communist Party actually had two factions and both were legal and tolerated. In some ways China used to be similar to a two-party system.
As communists we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. We don’t want to recreate the Soviet Union. We want to create something new and different from the past. The advantage we have is that we can learn from the mistakes of the past. We can combine those things that worked, such as various aspects of the Soviet economy and combine it with a multi-party system that we know can work when combined with a working Marxist system. The future is not set in stone. It can and will change.
The future is ours!
-សតិវ អតុ

Pix from

[1] Francis Fukuyama, Time, vol. 155 no. 21, May 22, 2000, 110 – 112.
[2] I don’t agree with the usual gross exaggerations on the millions killed by Stalin. One author who looks at the other side and suggestions on further reading can be found at and

[3] Mao Tsetung, On “Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend,” (Foreign Language Press, Peking) 1977, pp. 113 – 122.

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