On criticising communism

I think that communism is a bad system in theory and in practice. But why exactly?

People usually offer pretty poor critiques of communism[1]. Perhaps it is because the still lingering conception of communism as a system that would work – or perhaps, the best possible social system if it was able to work – but that because we are fallible men, it ended up leading to the Great Purge, the Holodomor, the Katyn massacre and so on, events that are infamously unforgettable.

So when people think of critiques of communism they think of famines, democide, poverty, and that sort of stuff.

Of course, communists then reply with famines, democide, and poverty under non-communist systems, or under colonialism. Or compulsory sterilization in the United States. We then enter the usually pointless game of ‘but that was not communism/but that’s not an intrinsic feature of capitalism’.

If we take the Soviet Union[2] as our case study (the one I know better), we find out that after Stalin, there were no mass killings, standards of living were rising, and after 1947, there were no more famines. Not only you can have peaceful communism: it actually existed for a few decades.

So what are good critiques of the ‘nice’ versions of actually existing communism then?

Morally, it tramples over the economic rights of people: free trade, free association, freedom of enterprise, etc. Surely at some points (especially during the NEP period and the late Gorbachev period) in Soviet history people could own some private very small businesses like restaurants or barbershops, but if you wanted to create a startup and grow it until it becomes a huge empire, you can’t. Some people dream with becoming good actors, good writers, or win a Nobel Prize. Other people want to run businesses. Furthermore, social rights often depend on economic rights to be protected. If you have a right to free speech, but newspapers, the internet, cinemas, radios, publishing houses, and other culture outlets are owned by the State (a single entity that does not allow competition), it is only by State permission that you will ever be able to get your ideas to reach to a wider public.

Economically, it produces a worse standard of living compared to a modern capitalist system. This includes the poor and workers. Central planning was able to increase the living standards of Soviets for decades. But it ended up leading to stagnation. Of course, some people argue that central planning can be made to work. Perhaps I’ll write a post explaining why it can’t work as well as a market economy.

Some Marxist philosophers like G.A. Cohen argue that communism (as in a classless stateless society) is desirable, so some form of socialism is needed to get there. Just because something is utopian (think about ending war or crime) doesn’t mean something is bad. It just means one has to think hard about to get close to it. Cohen accepts that central planning failed, but that perhaps market socialism will work. As long as communism is seen as an ideal, there will be people wanting to make it work. And surely ideal communism is better than actually existing socialism or capitalism. But ideal capitalism is even better.

Given this, why are there communists around? Here I wrote some reasons that lead people to communism. Point 13 is perhaps the most compelling.


[1] Communism here means actually existing socialism, as in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, etc. In Marxist parlance, these regimes are known instead as socialist, and their aim is to build a stateless, classless society: communism.

[2] This stacks the deck in favour of communism, as the USSR was arguably the one of the best or the best performing of the centrally planned economies. There were a few socialist economies that were and are far less successful, like North Korea, Cuba, Bulgaria, Congo, Zimbabwe, or Somalia. (Kornai, J. (1992). The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism. Oxford University Press, UK. )

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15 Responses to On criticising communism

  1. akarlin says:

    Furthermore, social rights often depend on economic rights to be protected. If you have a right to free speech, but newspapers, the internet, cinemas, radios, publishing houses, and other culture outlets are owned by the State (a single entity that does not allow competition), it is only by State permission that you will ever be able to get your ideas to reach to a wider public.

    In my opinion the USSR c.1988-1991 had the freest free speech in all history. You could say whatever you wanted to, but critically, unlike the US and other capitalist countries you could not be fired from your job for doing so (which in practice greatly limits actually existing free speech in the West).

    Here I wrote some reasons that lead people to communism. Point 13 is perhaps the most compelling.

    I think Emmanuel Todd has by far the best explanation.

    Incidentally, I laid out my thoughts (though more specifically on the USSR than Communism per se) here.

    • Artir says:

      *Free speech in the Soviet Union. Good point. We are living now years of extreme political correction, and a few cases of people being fired just for saying what they were not supposed to say come to mind. But still, people like Charles Murray, Nicholas Wade or, more recently, Adam Perkins, have published work that is highly controversial, and it has reached quite a lot of people. It could also be said that, technically, governments in democratic governments can also curtail freedom of expression, but in practise they seem to do it less than communist governments, perhaps because it’s harder to do if the means of production and diffusion (of information) are in separate hands.

      *Emmanuel Todd: He seems to explain why communism tended to develop in certain areas, and not others. I wanted to explain why people in western democracies like communism. The total number of communists in the west is low, but perhaps, there are quite many people with proto-communist feelings.

      *Your thoughts on USSR and communism: I agree with them. I add that, funnily, present day communists tend to be ‘Russophobes’. Downplaying Tsarist and post-Yeltsin achievements is a way of making the communist era look better.

  2. pithom says:

    China at 19.5 in 1985? It only surpassed that a few years ago!

    • Artir says:

      Yup. Maddison puts it at 7.9% in 1985 19.5 in 2006.
      Kornai gets that figure from Summers, Robert, and Alan Heston. 1988. “A New Set of International Comparisons of Real Product and Price Levels: Estimates for 130 Countries, 1950-1985,” Review of Income and Wealth, March, 34 (1), pp. 1-43.

      If you divide, it does give 19.5. But that’s dividing China’s GNP by USA’s GDP, perhaps the problem comes from there. Or perhaps it’s just the adjustments they used.

  3. Glossy says:

    I think that Communism is bad in theory, early Soviet Communism was terrible in practice, post-WWII Soviet Communism was very good in practice, and the second half of the 1930s was a difficult transition period between those two extremes.

    A lot of the nostalgia for post-WWII Communism in the FSU is social, not economic. There were no drugs, no gambling, no prostitution, no advertising of any sort anywhere, no scamming of the cheesy you-could-win-millions sort, or of any other sort, no porn, no degenerate “art”. The educational system was very good. Scientific progress was being made. And of course there’s nostalgia for being one of the two global superpowers.

    Top officials, including Khruschev and Brezhnev, lived approximately like successful dentists live in the West, meaning that they didn’t steal and that the system looked fair.

    Economically it wasn’t as bad as the anti-Soviet crowd describes it, but certainly the material standard of living was below the Western European and North American ones. But in the minds of many people this is balanced out by the social stuff that I mentioned above.

    • Artir says:

      Nice comment, thanks.

      But, as far as I know, there were high rates of alcoholism, Gorbachev even had to launch a campaign against it. Perhaps it’s also that not only a more open society allows for more of that things, but also that the stress and poverty that followed from the transition led people to feeling unease with Russia as it is today, although it is improving (at which pace? There are conflicting views on that!)

      • Glossy says:

        Yes, there was too much alcoholism.

        My theory about why the USSR collapsed is this:

        Gorbachev is a very vane man. He wanted to be praised for being a reformer, a hip, modern leader. He wanted to contrast himself in this way with his predecessors.

        And his first reform – the anti-alcohol campaign – actually did a lot of good. But he got bored with that after two or three years.

        The West had a ready-made image of what’s hip, modern and trendy, and unfortunately Gorbachev fell for that image in the late 80s.

        I’m sure that he did not want the country to fall apart and for the standard of living to fall precipitously, but once he accepted the Western media’s definition of what was cool, hip, free and progressive, things started quickly moving in that direction.

        The people who created this image of what’s cool, hip and democratic weren’t trying to help him or the USSR. They weren’t his well wishers. Quite the opposite. You know how the left always tells the right what it should do, and vice versa? Gorbachev fell for something like that.

        The loosening of the internal media and political system reanimated dormant ethnic rivalries, an economic system that was working was replaced by massive looting.

        The Chinese leadership took all the right lessons from that disaster, from Gorbachev’s mistakes, which is one of the reasons why China is flying so high now.

      • Glossy says:

        To develop this further, I think that if the Chinese leadership accepted Western prescriptions for China, a similar disaster could occur.

        The non-Han regions would secede, expelling all the Han. Core China could split into North and South or along dialectal lines. There could be civil war. A single, working economy could be broken up into several chunks that aren’t used to functioning without each other.

        A system that’s managed for the benefit of the Chinese could be seized by looters.

        And unfortunately it IS possible to imagine a Chinese Gorbachev in the future. No people is immune to vanity.

        • akarlin says:

          The non-Han regions would secede, expelling all the Han.

          The Han are 90% of the Chinese population versus 50% Russians for the USSR. Major difference. Also no constitutional grounds on which to effect a breakup.

          The Soviet economy collapsed as catastrophically as it did because once you dismantled central planning there was no alternative to take its place (capitalist institutions take time to develop). Also of course the reinstatement of borders didn’t help. China won’t face the first problem and likely won’t face the second either (see above). I think if anything there is a greater chance the US will collapse than China.

      • Glossy says:

        Perhaps it’s also that not only a more open society allows for more of that things,

        The word open has positive connotations, and there was nothing positive in what happened in the FSU in the 1990s. I think of it this way:

        Why does Soros use the words “open society” in the names of his organizations? The more open, the more exploitable, and he likes to exploit. And obviously, he’s not alone in this.

        So the term “exploitable society” seems more appropriate to me.

      • akarlin says:

        The rates of alcoholism were not just high but they were literally unprecedented for any major country in world history.

        There are various theories why that is the case. But I do think the drudgery of everyday life, the impossibility of being definitively fired, and yes the lack of openness (Goskomstat actually started concealing mortality statistics in the 1970s once they realized they have gone in the wrong direction for the longterm with the amazing – and damning – result that Soviet policymakers without the highest clearances had to rely on the work of American academics like Murray Feshbach to get some idea of what was going on in terms of child mortality and alcoholism) were all contributory factors.

        The only Western region with a comparable alcoholism problem to Russia was Finnish Lappland in the 1970s – a very cold, remote place populated by people with extremely high hunter-gatherer ancestry (with all that it entails for risk of alcoholization). However, they solved their problems during the 1980s with a mix of counter-advertising, excise tax increases, and modern medicine. Russia only began systemically tackling its alcohol problems around the mid-2000s.

        • Glossy says:

          I think that the Soviet alcoholism rate should be compared not to other countries’ alcoholism rates but to other countries’ drug addiction + alcoholism rates. If a Soviet person wanted to get wasted, alcohol was his only choice.

  4. Glossy says:

    “Morally, it tramples over the economic rights of people: free trade, free association, freedom of enterprise, etc.”

    There is no freedom of association anywhere in the West right now. For example, it’s illegal in the US for a business to refuse to serve people of a particular race or ethnicity. I’d like to have a right not to be bothered by advertising everywhere I go. That right existed in the USSR.

    “Some people dream with becoming good actors, good writers, or win a Nobel Prize. Other people want to run businesses.”

    It was easier for a smart person to become a scientist in the USSR than in any of its successor states. The USSR heavily funded science.

    My thoughts on the morality of the state stopping people from realizing their dreams of becoming business moguls:

    Some types of businesses help the common good and some types hurt it. All modern capitalist states agree that some types of businesses should not be allowed to exist. If someone wants to create a drug cartel or a slaving company or start hunting people for their organs, all modern capitalist states are going to try to arrest him.

    My conception of what types of businesses are harmful to a society, and therefore shouldn’t exist, happens to be broader than that of most people who grew up in capitalist states. I’ve seen a society without advertising, gambling, credit or scamming of any sort. I know that a complex economy can work without debt. If something can’t be paid for now, it probably shouldn’t exist. Notice that the world’s biggest religions agree with that. I’m an atheist, but these ancient moral codes represent the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

    Is someone can create a large business which makes useful things (cars, for example) or provides a useful service, and if that person can do it without debt and without annoying passersby with his ads, I don’t see anything wrong with him getting rich off that.

    If someone wants to create a banking or a gambling empire, I look at that more negatively.

  5. Glossy says:

    Economically, it produces a worse standard of living compared to a modern capitalist system.

    I don’t know about that. Once central planning was removed, the standard of living collapsed in all the affected states. It still hasn’t recovered in some of them. One should strive to make ceteris paribus comparisons. A comparison of the USSR in 1980 with the UK in 1980 is not ceteris paribus for HBD and other reasons. A comparison of Russia’s lag behind the West in 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 is fairer. And here the central planning system doesn’t look so bad.

  6. kaleberg says:

    The free speech argument only goes so far. In a market economy, your right to speech is limited by how much money you already have or how much you can make from your media activities. When money controls the government, the disadvantages of communism have their echo in the free market. As we’ve seen for the last forty years, our media in the west is more limited than we tend to believe. There’s a reason Sanders, Trump and Brexit were such big surprises.

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