Economics, History, Politics

A Hundred Years of Communism

We must give the Bolsheviks their due. Their success in gaining power was astonishing. A ragtag gang of activists and intellectuals, they seized control of Russia in October, 1917, and defended their rule in a vicious, bloody civil war. No one can deny the force of their conviction, or the scale of their courage, or the keenness of their talents.

Bolshevik forces marching on the Red Square, 1917

But wielding power was a different matter. Revolutionaries dream that crops will grow out of their fire but in most cases it leaves scarred and arid earth instead. Collectivisation, with its monstrous violence and inefficiency, left millions dead in Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus. Paranoia and persecution, all too evident in Lenin’s “cleansing” of “harmful insects” — landowners, dissidents and priests the Bolsheviks interned, starved, tortured and killed — reached its absurd apotheosis in Stalin’s purges.

Stalin killed so many people in the Great Purge that it is remarkable that anyone was left to do the killing. Former comrades, artists and intellectuals, military officers, clergymen, dissidents, outcasts and normal Russian men and women were slaughtered in a tidal wave of blood. What is striking is not just who Stalin killed but who he spared. While hundreds of thousands of innocents were massacred, Lavrentiy Beria, who was not just a bloody killer but a known rapist, received generous promotion.

Partial view of a plaque with photos of victims of the Great Purge who were shot in the Butovo firing range near Moscow. The photos were taken after the arrest of each victim.

Having carved up Eastern Europe with Adolf Hitler, and oppressed its beleaguered inhabitants with such atrocities as the Katyn massacre, where 22,000 men from the Polish officer corps and intelligensia were shot in cold blood, Stalin was himself subjected to invasion. The Red Army fought with startling courage and conviction to prevail, but as the West looked on they became embarrassed. A storm of rape and murder followed the Soviets, carried out by callous and vengeful soldiers. The Nazis in Eastern Europe were replaced with cruel and subservient Stalinist officials. Bierut in Poland, Hoxha in Albania, Rákosi in Hungary and Gottwald in Czechoslovakia kept their people mired in poverty and persecution.

Skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

The Soviets inspired others. Mao took power in China and launched a sweeping campaign of modernisation that left millions of expendable victims starved or killed. Juche arose in North Korea, wrapping itself around the country in a chokehold that has persisted to the present day. Pol Pot butchered almost a quarter of Cambodians. Mariam mass-murdered in Ethiopia. Perhaps the most successful of the communist states was Cuba, where, at least, there was not large-scale killing or famine.

As the years dragged on, and Marxists alternately identified with and then disassociated themselves from regimes which took power and promptly used that power to wicked and foolish ends, their search for an impressive Marxist state became a kind of force. The great red hope of the 21st Century was Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez gained popular support and some economic success. Any achievements were undone as the economy shrank, inflation sky-rocketed and violent crime left tens of thousands of people dead. Now, a statue of Chavez has been pulled to the ground as Venezualans, sick of queuing for hours to pay thousands of bolívares for bread and toilet paper, have marched in the streets.

It would be simplistic to blame all of these events on ideology. We live in an imperfect world and those imperfections have been unequally distributed. No conceivable government of Russia, or China, or Venezuela would have left no citizens impoverished or oppressed. Nonetheless, a hundred years of communism has presented us with an intimidating record of catastrophe, in a moral, political, and economic sense. Time and again, ambition has exceeded potential. Time and again, coercion has encouraged conflict. Time and again, violence has perpetuated itself. Time and again, absolute power has hardened into tyranny.

These disasters were concealed, excused and exacerbated by Western apologists and traitors. Walter Duranty of the New York Times lied to America about the scale of the Soviet famine. Intellectuals from George Bernard Shaw to Jean Paul Sartre to Eric Hobsbawm rationalised atrocities. Spies in British and American institutions betrayed military and intelligence secrets. As Europe reeled from the horrors of world war, and as the West endured the austerity of the depression, the impulse towards radicalism was understandable. But as the reality of communism was exposed even dull-minded apologists ran out of excuses.

A recent article in the New York Times offers a nostalgic account of growing up as a communist. Its author implies that the reality of Stalinism was made clear by Kruschev in 1956. But two decades earlier, Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge had exposed widespread starvation in the Soviet Union. The show trials had been reported across America and Europe. The Madden Committee had revealed the truth of Katyn. Orwell had published Animal Farm, and Koestler Darkness at Noon. By 1956, ignorance was abominable.

As well as exposing the truth of communist regimes, writers were unravelling communist ideology. As early as 1920 Bertrand Russell was concerned about the utopianism and vindictiveness of Bolshevik thought. By the 1980s, Leszek Kołakowski’s magisterial analysis of Marxist irrationalism, Main Currents of Marxism, had made communist ideology indefensible in all but its most watered down or futurist forms.

Now, outright communists have become rare beasts. Some of them are academics, like the charmless Drexel University Assistant Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, who was passingly infamous for advocating “white genocide” in a tongue-in-cheek tweet last year. (He followed this up by promoting a photograph of degenerate left-wing activists brandishing their middle fingers in front of Washington’s Victims of Communism Memorial). Others are propping up Britain’s Labour Party, though even there they are qualified and evasive. The success of Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélenchon shows that there is a future for the redistributionist left, but all signs point towards that future being socially democratic and not communist.

Marxists grew less interested in their native working classes as communism failed in Russia and China and failed to materialise in Europe and the US. They began to focus on culture and internationalism. The term “cultural Marxism” is unhelpful and demagogic — suggesting that Marx had more to do with it than he did and wrongly implying conspiratorial intent — but it remains true that radical progressivism took hold in Western academic and cultural institutions as conservatives and liberals looked out for communists.

Capitalist states, meanwhile, have had significant achievements. Western Europe and the U.S. have remained prosperous. Japan and South Korea recovered from their post-war devastation to build thriving, innovative economies. India, for all its dysfunction, has become a superpower with a space programme. Communist states have profited from concessions to capitalism. China liberalised its markets after the death of Mao and is one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world.

Still, a hundred years after the Russian revolution, Westerners should not feel complacent. For one thing, anti-communism has its own record of failure; considerably less substantial than that of its opponents but daunting nonetheless. There was the disastrous Vietnam War, and the bombing of Cambodia that inadvertently enabled Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. There was the support of genocidal anti-communist regimes in Guatemala and Indonesia. There was the lamentable short-sighted backing of jihadists, who, having beaten the Soviets, founded the Taliban.

More importantly, Westerners should not feel complacent because, while the Soviet Union died a graceless death, we know liberal capitalism is ageing as well. “End of history” optimism died almost as soon it was born. We live in an age of financial insecurity, environmental devastation, demographic chaos, jihadist violence and popular discontent. Some of our problems will be resolved by technological and managerial innovation but as Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote in The Ingenuity Gap, it would be reckless to put one’s faith in this.

Beyond this, we face an odd kind of existential crisis. While anti-communism was all well and good, it is not enough to just be “against” things. One must also stand for something. In an age of materialism, deconstruction and the rise of solipsistic individualism, Westerners have been divided on their animating principles of citizenship and cultural meaning.

In an interview after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Kołakowski, the great Polish philosopher, might have been expected to sound optimistic, he was bleak. There was no liberal triumphalism. “The need to belong to a tribe…is as strong as ever,” he declared, “Secularization hasn’t eradicated religious needs”. Kołakowski was concerned about the “disappearance of the sacred”, by which he meant “religious heritage or historical tradition”:

The only way to ensure the endurance of civilization is to ensure that there are always people who think of the price paid for every step of what we call “progress.” The order of the sacred is also a sensitivity to evil—the only system of reference that allows us to contemplate that price and forces us to ask whether it is exorbitant.

The values whose vigor is so vital to culture cannot survive without being rooted in the realm of the sacred.

As we reach a hundred years since the October Revolution we should think back to a time when the Tsar governed Russia, and the Kaiser ruled in Germany, and the British Empire was alive and well. An awful lot can change in a hundred years and an awful lot will change in the years ahead. We have to prepare for the changes to come, and know what we value, as well as what we oppose.

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website: bsixsmith.wixsite.com and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.
Ben Sixsmith

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Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website: bsixsmith.wixsite.com and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.

39 Comments

  1. “It would be simplistic to blame all of these events on ideology. ” and the paragraph that follows …

    That is your evasion. Clearly, ideology is to blame, and it is simple: the deep core of Communism is at fault. Evil at the core. Since you shun blaming it, you are doomed to repeat.

    Then, you touch on the logical next thought: “While anti-communism was all well and good, it is not enough to just be “against” things. One must also stand for something.”

    Then, the payoff: a tribute to “the tribe,” a swipe at “materialism” and “solipsistic individualism”, and a hint, shuffled off to another (Kołakowski) that The Sacred is the answer.

    In the list of those who called out Communism, you conspicuously omit two of the central players. In other words, there are two elephants in the living room.

    I’ll gladly dialog on that, if anyone responds to this post.

    • Your leap from “Communism isn’t ENTIRELY to blame” to “Communism isn’t to blame” is absurd and insulting. Any fair-minded reader can see that I hold largely responsible – and, yes, that I consider it evil. My point is merely that there would have been famine and persecution whatever government took hold in these giant, often impoverished, often backwards countries. I can say that while maintaining that Marxists inflicted famine and persecution on a horrifying and unnecessary scale.

      I have no idea what you are implying at the end so perhaps you can elaborate if you are so inclined.

      • If I may. No, there would not have been famine or mass murders if a free market and free society would have been in charge in Russia, China or any other country. We have great examples, India for what is Worth. Indira Gandhi killed thousands, and made the largest sterilization campaign in history. Now, India embracing -but not fully, it is steal a socialist country- a market economy, has made a forward leap, as yourself recognize in your piece.

        We have the example of South Korea, or Hong Kong. And we have the example of Slovenia.

        “My point is merely that there would have been famine and persecution whatever government took hold in these giant, often impoverished, often backwards countries”. No. Your point is wrong. Very wrong.

        Socialism, in its lightest form (social democracy) or heaviest form (communism), does not work in theory nor in practice. It can not work. I suggest the works of Misses and Hazlitt.

        Any way, I do like your piece. I think it is too soft with the socialism and Lenin. But I do like and appreciate your piece nevertheless. Oh, also I suggest Solzhenitsyn´s Gulag Archipelago.

        Cheers from South America, Perú.

  2. Before I elaborate, clarification, please of what you just wrote… What is my leap from “Communism isn’t ENTIRELY to blame” to “Communism isn’t to blame”

    To add to my claim. I’m saying that you go to great lengths to show the abject failure of Communism, then make a statement ‘letting it off the hook’ at it’s roots: ideology. So, I’m not saying you don’t think it’s evil, etc., only that you pull you punch when you say “It would be simplistic to blame all of these events on ideology.”

    That’s what an apologist would say … ‘well, don’t blame ideology, there’s nothing wrong with Communism’s core, it just gets taken over by autocrats, but that’s not really communism.’

    Why isn’t ideology the root of the evil?

    • Surely the issue is the basic principles of Communism compared to the practice. It seemed like a good idea at the time has applied and continues to apply to many human attempts to improve the lot of people.

      Multiculturalism is a classic example. It sounds great in theory but is an absolute disaster in practice.

      Perhaps anything with ‘ism’ at the end is doomed to be a disaster.

  3. I wish I had italicised all (or perhaps phrased it differently, something like “It would be simplistic to blame these events solely on ideology”). That would, I admit, have been more clear. But I didn’t say “it would be simplistic to blame these events on ideology” so it is clear that I am not letting Marx off the hook. Yes, Marxism itself was in large part responsible. I call it indefensible after I mention Main Currents in Marxism. I allude to its utopianism, vindictiveness and grotesque faith in violence and coercion. But my point is that there would have been some level of starvation and persecution in Russia and China anyway, whatever ideas were in vogue, because they were not sufficiently advanced civilisations to exist without them.

    That is by no means to excuse Marxism for exacerbating the potential for suffering that this nations had. I hope that clears it up.

    • Thanks. I won’t belabor the point.

      Here’s my point: it IS about the idea. Pragmatists don’t think so, but the core idea of any system drives events. Thus the abject failure of communism is due to its foundation principle: collectivism. You used that word yourself.

      The two important anti-communists you did not mention, conspicuously, are: Whittaker Chambers and Ayn Rand. Chambers followed a path remarkably similar to that of Kołakowski, at first an ardent atheist and communist, then apparently turned to Christianity. Ayn Rand became atheistic and anti-collectivist prior to the Russian Revolution, only to witness its horrors first hand during her teenage years.

      I would suggest that both fought their battle knowing that the core fight was over the root idea.

      • I think after our hostile start we must violently agree John. Ideas emerge to some extent from historical circumstances but I wholly agree that those ideas then shape the circumstances of the future. Chambers and Rand (much as I disagree with the latter on a great deal) were right that the influence of communism was startlingly negative.

  4. EK says

    You both are dancing around the point that the New World Order of the West, introduced by GHW Bush and vigorously pursued by the next three US administrations and the EU, is also a totalitarian effort to collectivize the world.

    The NWO’s over-riding political theory seems to be Maoist Third Worldism complete with Red Guard like SJWs and and iconoclasm directed at the “Four Olds” of any existing culture the NWO encounters.

    The old Reds are long gone but they do seem have won.

    • Interesting. I’ve heard people talk about the NWO before but I’d never heard that it was founded by George Bush. Was Jeb’s defeat a kind of reverse psychology?

    • @EK
      You are seeing a Red behind every tree, and surely there’s some truth to that. However, the collectivization is less colorful: cartel corporatism. It is not “capitalism,” it is not “communism” it is just consolidation of power, period.

      If it is “of the West” it is fully aided and abetted by “the East,” in China, whose citizens have been schooled in duty for millennia.

      • EK says

        First, what you two are talking about is not communism, per se, but rather the Stalinist and Maoist expression of Marxist Leninism that developed after 1924.

        Communism has quite ancient roots and, in the Anglo-sphere, it was first clearly expressed in England by Gerard Winstanley in the 1640-50s.

        The first expression of the famous Petrograd Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet of 1917 was, in fact, Cromwell’s New Model Army of 1647-49. Their understanding of right liberal (i.e. nationalist) constitutional democratic republicanism is simply not tied to any economic theory but rather to a republican form of government. This is clearly demonstrated by the exchange between Col. Rainborowe and Gen. Ireton at the Putney Debates in 1647.

        The communism you condemn is left (i.e. internationalist) economic and cultural totalitarianism. But the over-riding point is that the NWO, Globalism, Cosmopolitanism, whatever you want to call it, has no effective constitution, it has no place for popular representation, it has no constituency beyond humanity at large and has no culture beyond enriching its nomenklatura of experts and commissars and their associated appratachiks. It is simply an oligarchy with totalitarian impulses. Clearly, the EU looks like nothing so much as Stalinism with a Smiley Face that turns vicious when opposed.

      • TBlakely says

        It is statism. Communism, Fascism and Socialism all worship the state. Free-market capitalism is the opposite of statism. Oh, and corporatism is a function of Fascism and Socialism and has nothing to do with free-market capitalism.

  5. James says

    Communism strives to create a “Workers’ Paradise”, which sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, Marx grossly misunderstood human nature and communism doesn’t create a paradise at all.

    More often than not, communists get the idea that the problem is just a few Kulaks and if the Kulaks were re-educated or eliminated, then communism would work. When it still doesn’t work, then obviously, they didn’t eliminate enough Kulaks. Eventually, you’ve murdered thousands and communism still doesn’t work.

    • Communism was only good at creating oppression, endemic poverty, and mass graves. But it did create some pretty good communist jokes along the way, especially in Eastern Europe.

      “Mommy, when we achieve true socialism, will we still have money?”
      “No dear. We won’t have any of that, either.”

      As the former head of the American Communist Youth League put it, after looking back at the abject failures of communism, “How could so many people believe something so stupid for so long?”

      At heart, it’s just a crazy conspiracy theory. Its pitch is that it’s letting you in on a great secret, kept long hidden for workers by rich and powerful interests who silence and oppress you, then “psst. pass it on.”

      Reagan’s CIA director finally came to understand communism by likening it to an organized crime ring, and with that knowledge he saw how to collapse the Soviet Union by cutting it off from Western hard currency.

  6. John Wilson says

    Hi Ben,

    I wanted to thank you for your article. I came across it via a tweet from Christina Hoff Summers. I thought is was an insightful explanation of the history of the spread of communism and it’s influence throughout the world. This coming from a 35 year old middle to poor class white male from the Midwest, in the USA. I’ll be checking out your bio soon after this, but I think I saw you are located in Poland. I’ve learned to trust people not from the USA for proper history lessons about the world. At least my education growing up was so focused on US history, plus most of global history is from the perspective of the western progressives.

    Actually, your article did explain key points in history that paint a clear picture as to why those events are linked, the Bolsheviks, and Stalin, the spread to India and China, all the way to the American educational system, which I do see as corrupt and controlled by a hostile left ideology. I graduated from University of Califonia San Diego in 2016, and I hated that school. Granted, there were benefits, but overall, that campus is an anti-white and anti-isreal structure for progressive ideology. The free speech there is social and academic punishment for anything said or written in the conservative or pro religion realm.

    After reading the conversation above, my question is, could you re-explain your thoughts on Communism NOT being an ideology? I’m not sure I understood your rebuttle. Thoughtfully, I think John Donahue has the stronger case. Or were you agreeing in your later post about violently agreeing?

    • Hi John,

      Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comment. I’m sorry your university experience was a bad one – and I’m sure you’re not alone!

      Yes, I do agree with John Donahue. He just understood me to be absolving the ideology from blame when I was not attributing all blame (but still a great deal!).

      The address is a little wrong. My website is bsixsmith.wix.com/home

  7. John Wilson says

    ps. I think your website is down.

  8. Jon says

    I’m not sure what you mean by “liberal capitalism is ageing as well”. It has lifted, and continues to lift, millions of people out of poverty every year. And the problems of ‘our age’ that you list are really problems of all time, and have little or nothing to do with liberal democracy. Some of them are only considered serious problems now because the really serious problems that have dogged the human race throughout history are largely solved.

    As Churchill is alleged to have said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Bashing liberal democracy is a time-honoured practice among the left, and a fine way of signalling your virtue. Finding a better alternative, however, is beyond our capacity so far, and may always remain so.

    • I am not on the left. I am a conservative. If I wished to signal virtue to my audience I would be likelier to praise free markets than to warn of their excesses. For I do not think these problems have little or nothing to do with liberal capitalism. A lack of regulation has contributed to environmental woes (such as in the practice of feeding livestock antibiotics). Immigration has exacerbated demographic problems. Liberal interventionism has enabled jihadists. No, this does not mean the system must be replaced but it does mean that it has problems that need addressing.

      • Jon says

        ‘Environmental woes’ were and remain far worse in the non-capitalist nations. Immigration has provided us with vast numbers of workers when and where they are needed, and housed, clothed and fed many people who would otherwise be adding to the unemployment statistics in their home states. It has also arguably relieved population pressures which would otherwise have resulted in civil or international wars. And if by ‘interventionism’ you mean military adventures, then again that has little to do with ideology and everything to do with maintaining a balance of power. The Soviets showed a considerable enthusiasm for these, as I recall, as did the early Chinese communists, and the Japanese under an Imperial government. Most authorities agree there has been a proportional decline in military activities over the same period that many states have become democratic.

        Any system involving human beings will always have problems that need addressing, but I don’t see any reason to think that the problems you list are unique to liberal democracies.

        • ‘Environmental woes’ were and remain far worse in the non-capitalist nations.

          Illiberal capitalist nations, perhaps, but non-capitalist nations? Such as?

          Immigration has provided us…

          Immigration has had benefits, of course, but in some forms it has also endangered national security, social cohesion and social trust.

          …again that has little to do with ideology and everything to do with maintaining a balance of power…

          Would you deny that Western efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria were fuelled, in part, but a desire for democratisation and humanitarian intervention?

  9. Marxism has been quite harmless to everyone except villagers, landowners, homosexuals, cossacks, native Americans, political prisoners, union members, or the religious. And of these, only 85 million or so were killed. (see communiststats.com for a wrenching overview… R.J. Rummel also condensed it VERY nicely: https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/COM.TAB1.GIF. )

  10. Terrible things are done in the name of many belief systems. People today do not realise the impact the Russian horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution had on laying the foundation of many events in the Second World War.

    Communism was and is like many things including Capitalism, Religion, Multiculturalism and no doubt Democracy and more – it is a great idea in principle but it comes unstuck because it does not take human nature into account.

    And then there are the other Isms like Fascism and Zionism which have no redeeming qualities in principle. It was ever thus.

  11. Nathan says

    I’ve been really enjoying Thomas Sowell’s books after learning about him in YouTube videos. I highly recommend him. He is a clear thinker who arrives at conclusions based on facts and articulates his views well. I think the future will be better if more people read Sowell.

    Thanks,
    Nathan
    Northern California

    • Thank you, Nathan. Yes, Sowell was a great commentator. I particularly value his distinction between constrained and unconstrained visions.

  12. Victor Rivera says

    Hi Ben,

    Nice job. This part seemed to be concerning, in a “Meditations on Moloch” kind of way:

    “While anti-communism was all well and good, it is not enough to just be “against” things. One must also stand for something. In an age of materialism, deconstruction and the rise of solipsistic individualism, Westerners have been divided on their animating principles of citizenship and cultural meaning.”

    Where do you see us heading? What “Other Gods” do you see on the horizon? It certainly seems like technology will save us, but I suspect we’ve become too atomized to get to a Star Trek future of sorts.

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  15. Elfaygo says

    Thanks for a very solid essay. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” as a history of Communist (and Nazi) atrocities in Central Europe from 1933-45, when at least 12 million non-combatants were murdered. Even though I was a history major in college with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe, Snyder’s account includes information that surprised me.

    FWIW, one of my grandfather’s cousins was killed at Katyn. so my interest in the area’s history — and loathing of Communism — is personal.

    • Thank you. Yes, Bloodlands is excellent – and very sobering for those of us who grew up with stories of the more civilised conflict on the Western front.

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