COMMUNISM - What Went Wrong?

John Halford May/June 1990

Karl Marx thought communism would bring prosperity to the oppressed. Instead it brought even more terror and tyranny.

Communism, (or the way of collective market control) was the way that seemed right to him. Yet Karl Marx died a pauper's death—sick, bankrupt and disillusioned. The system he founded seems destined for the same fate.

It is still too early to announce the death of the communist system. At the time of writing, one quarter of the human race still lives under at least a nominal communist government.

But almost everywhere Marxist governments are abandoning, or at least modifying their hard-line platforms.

So, is the world really now safe for democracy? And will democracy make it a safe place?

Maybe not. Communism was destined to fail, and not just because it pursued economic policies that do not work. It had a fatal flaw, and any system that has this flaw cannot produce a just and peaceful society, however right it seems to be.

So, we need to understand why the communist system failed the people in Eastern Europe.

You may be very firmly against communism, but how much do you really know about it? What was Karl Marx trying to do?

Marx was born in Germany in 1818. He was of Jewish ancestry, but his parents converted to Christianity.

Marx grew up with a strong sense of social justice and became deeply concerned for the plight of the poor. He lived about a century into the Industrial Revolution, when the situation of the working classes in the first industrial states—England, Germany and France — was desperate.

They were forced to work for low wages under inhuman and dangerous conditions. They lived crowded together in squalid slums on the edge of new industrial centers. Landless, and with nothing to offer but their labor, men, women and children were exploited, while the wealthy landowners and the new captains of industry became ever richer at their expense.

As a young man, Karl Marx was influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel saw history as a "dialectic"— a process of ceaseless change brought about by the inevitable clash of opposing ideas.

According to this theory, the tension between conflicting ways of thinking caused a struggle for power. Out of this struggle came new ideas, new solutions, and the process began again.

Marx modified Hegel's dialectic concept. He reasoned that the "dialectic" was not because of opposing ideas, but rather mankind's ceaseless desire to improve his material well being. The "dialectic" was actually a struggle to possess control of material goods and the means of producing them.

History was the record of this struggle.

It had progressed from the slave states of antiquity, through the feudalism of the Middle Ages, to the exploitation in Marx's day of the working classes by the rich.

Karl Marx developed an obscure and ambiguous concept to describe his theory of history, which he called "dialectical materialism." Scholars — communist and others — are still debating what he meant by it.

Marx saw that as the world became more industrialized, the power to produce material goods fell more and more under the control of the ruling classes — the capitalists.

The poor who had no resources but their labor were doomed to be exploited and become progressively poorer and more miserable.

Marx designed his theories to put this situation right. He reasoned that for a fair and equitable society, the means of production needed to be taken away from the "capitalists," and put in the hands of the workers — or proletariat.

Since the rich obviously would not give up their power easily, there would have to be a revolution in which the entrenched ruling class could be overthrown.

Marx felt that such revolution would begin in England, France or Germany, where the oppression of the workers was harshest. Ironically, he saw little potential for genuine revolution in Russia.

Marxist theory calls for a period of "dictatorship of the proletariat" after the revolution, during which the workers would reorganize society into the socialist state, along more equitable lines.

Private property would be abolished, and all resources and means of production—industry, natural resources and agriculture—would belong to the people. Free at last, the workers of the world would first build step-by-step a socialist and finally a communist society that was just and fair. Eventually, reasoned Marx, the concept of the individual state would wither away, and  mankind would enter a golden age of peace and It sufficiency for all. It would be  the long awaited Utopia — a "workers paradise." Under communism everyone would produce according to his ability. Each would receive according to his need.

The process was inevitable, but Utopia could be hastened if the working people could be encouraged to rise up and overthrow their masters. And so Marx concluded his Communist Manifesto:"The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have the whole world to gain. Workers of the world, unite!"

Marx was perhaps a ruthless man, but he was not a cruel one. (He was a devoted, if somewhat inept, husband and father.) He would have been horrified to see what has arisen under the various dictatorships of the proletariat that have arisen since his death. In the bloody purges of Stalin, the excesses of the Great Cultural revolution, and the killing fields of Cambodia, Marxist governments relentlessly exploited, persecuted and executed their fellow workers.

Even before he died, Marx was concerned that his disciples were misinterpreting his ideas. He once said, "I am not a Marxist." It has been wryly noted that if Marx had lived in most Marxist countries, he would not have lived long.

There are many places in the world today where people are still oppressed and exploited by a greedy and corrupt minority. Communism may seem even yet to be a way out of their misery.

Everywhere the communist system has been imposed, it has in greater or lesser measure failed.

In other places, where people have had communism imposed on them, they risk their lives to flee from their "workers' paradises."

Why? Because the communist system does not — cannot live up to its promise. As a way of organizing society and providing it with goods and services, it has been a dismal failure.

Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms have attempted to knock some sense into Soviet affairs. But not before the Soviet Union had bankrupted itself and beggared its neighbors.

Nowhere has communism been able to accomplish the most elementary duty of any economic system — to provide people with the things they need and want at prices they can afford. Rather, Soviet communism led to a sullen and inefficient work force that produces an unsteady supply of shoddy goods.

But communism's failure is not just an economic one. Karl Marx totally misunderstood the nature of man. Because he did, his road to Utopia had a fatal flaw.

According to His Greed Marx believed that  once the means of production was safely in the hands of the workers, an innate brotherhood of man would assert itself.

But once in power, the proletariat have proven to be little different than those they replaced. As has so often happened in history, the exploited soon become exploiters.

Greed, ambition and hunger for power are not vices exclusive to the ruling classes. They are the common failings of human beings.

The workers of Eastern Europe have been enraged to learn just how much more equal their ex-leaders thought themselves to be. The opulent palaces, hunting lodges and special stores where the elite could buy the consumer goods their system could not produce, showed that greed and selfishness do not disappear once capitalism is abolished.

And far from a brotherhood of man asserting itself, communist states have shown themselves quite capable of going to war among themselves. The state has not withered away.

Nationalism remains a powerful force in the communist world, and there are many places where Marxists glare suspiciously at fellow Marxists across fortified frontiers or where a people's army has fired on the people.

No system of government can produce a totally just and fair society, unless its subjects are willing to suppress and control greed, ruthless ambition and selfishness.

These are ingrained characteristics of human nature — you can't blame them on the previous political system.

Overthrowing the system won't necessarily cause the people to be less self-centered.

No government can effectively legislate against them or banish them by decree. Getting rid of the ruling classes and abolishing private ownership won't do it. Neither will getting rid of communism.

Actually, communism does seem to suppress these tendencies in the masses for awhile. When China first opened its doors to the West, visitors were impressed with the cooperative and unselfish attitude of the people.

But, it is easy to seem unselfish if you have nothing to be selfish about. As the government began to relax its tight control of the economy, the people showed they could be just as greedy and self-centered as others.

It was to be expected. A free market economy makes no attempt to abolish greed and competition. Adam Smith (1723-1790), considered to be the founder of modern economic theory, recognized that self-interest was the dominant motive in human beings. A successful economic system must recognize this.

He reasoned that greed and competitiveness are to be considered virtues in a capitalist society, and those who manipulate them effectively are rewarded the most. As most of the people most of the time can also share in the rising expectations, such a society can flourish, as indeed it has in many areas of Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim.

That goes a long way in explaining why it is the way that "seems right" to much of the world.

While communist states stagnated, the Free World became awash with material goods. Yet both the communist world and the West are up to their necks in garbage and toxic waste and both have consumed the earth's nonrenewable resources at an alarming rate.

The West, which produces so much, is sometimes shortsighted. There is a tendency to sacrifice the future for short-term profits, and the high standard of living achieved by the capitalist democracies has been bought at a price.

The great showplace of capitalism is the United States. It is still enjoying the longest period of sustained economic growth in its history, but it is showing signs of strain.

There is a growing gap between the incomes of the rich and poor, the middle class is treading water, and the banking system is in trouble. Some statistics indicate that 25 percent of American children are being raised in poverty.

That poverty is not yet the bone jarring destitution of Calcutta's slums or the suburbs of Sao Paulo, but one eighth of Americans are being left behind economically.

There is a Third World population growing in the bosom of the world's richest nations. How long can we ignore their plight?

We must not let the failures of communism blind us to the weaknesses inherent in our own way of life. So far, only a small percentage of humanity has lived the way of the Free World.

Now, many more nations may be about to join in the race for prosperity—Western style.

About 50 years ago Mahatma Gandhi cautioned that if India with its then 300 million people ever decided to industrialize, the world could not handle the consequences. Now India has a population approaching 850 million.

Nearly 80 percent of the world's population live in what we call the developing world. More and more of the developing nations have chosen to pursue a free market economy, no matter what the cost.

It is all very well for the rich nations to call for caution and "sustainable development" and to point frantically to the dwindling resources and spoiled environment. Nations tend to get very self-righteous about this after they have become rich.

Voices of reason are warning that we must all —rich and poor— cooperate in a global effort to clean up our planet.

That means working together on an unprecedented scale.

Rich nations may have to opt for less. The well off may have to learn to do with less, so that their poorer neighbors can have a slice of the dwindling pie. National and personal aspirations will have to be sacrificed for the good of the whole.

What was that? Have less? Do without? Sacrifice? These are not words we like to hear. That is not what free market capitalism is all about.

Aspirations for greater personal wealth and the law of the marketplace will not alone dictate the concern necessary to protect the environment, or care for the elderly or handicapped.

So, even though the threat of a confrontation with communism is receding, we aren't out of the woods yet. If the future belongs to capitalism, we all need be very careful. If more and more join, and the prosperous continue in, the giddy race to produce and consume, without regard for the consequences, we are in for a very rough ride.