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Tuesday, 7 November 2017

On the Ash Heap of History

On The Ash Heap of History


On The Ash Heap of History

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 07 November, 2017


Abstract

November 7, 2017, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, should be a day of celebration — because the communist movement has not lasted 100 years. Every country that has experimented with communism has today effectively abandoned it.

Communism failed as a movement because it was accompanied by totalitarianism, oppression, large-scale murder, and suppression of all freedoms. The promise of a workers’ paradise was betrayed and replaced by a totalitarian dictatorship. This result is not the result of a faulty implementation of communism, but the inevitable result of a system where there are no corrective forces such as a democratic government, rule of law, freedom of speech, transparency, and accountability. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Capitalism has its faults, too, but these can be remedied as long as capitalism is accompanied by democracy, rule of law, and freedom of speech and expression. The nature of human beings cannot be changed, but if there is sufficient oversight and control over free-market capitalism, we can prevent abuse. Such mechanisms are absent in communism, and so it failed.

Even though communism failed as a form of government, the debate on the ideals on which it was founded and the threat it posed to capitalism have led to improvements in working conditions, safety in the workplace, and living wages for workers.

Indian communists need to start understanding that the dream they believe in is a failed ideology and has miserably flopped wherever it has been tried in the last 100 years. They need to realize that the very things they do in a free country like India would be impossible in the “utopia” they are recommending for others — a communist state. The people of India have realized the hollowness of communism and have steadily been rejecting communist parties at the polls.

Communism, truly, has been left on the ash heap of history.


A Historic Anniversary

Today, November 7, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution — the movement that brought the first communist government into power as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

It should come as a tremendous relief to all of us that today, 100 years after that historic day, practically no country in the world actually follows communism in its original avatar.

The USSR was followed by several other countries. At its height, communism or some variant of it infected more than 27 countries for many years, including Afghanistan (14 years), Albania (47), Angola (17), Belarus (as part of the USSR) (71), Benin (14), Bulgaria (44), Cambodia (14), Congo-Brazzaville (22), Czechoslovakia (42), Ethiopia (17), East Germany (41), Hungary (41), Mongolia (67), Mozambique (15), Poland (44), Romania (42), Somalia (21), Russia (as part of the USSR) (74), Ukraine (as part of the USSR) (72), North Vietnam (31), South Yemen (22), and Yugoslavia (48 years). Today, the only countries that call themselves communist are China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea – but these are all communist in name alone, with varying levels of market economics having penetrated into them. (Note that I do not discuss “socialist” countries like India in this discussion - that would require a separate article. They fall in a different category, because they are not totalitarian, as pure communist countries invariably are, and usually have features alien to communism, such as democratic elections, freedom of speech and expression, and a rule of law.)

It should come as a tremendous relief to all of us that today, 100 years after that historic day, practically no country in the world actually follows communism in its original avatar.

“It does not matter whether the cat is black or white. So long as it catches the mouse, it is a good cat.”

— Deng Xiaoping

Today, Russia is an emerging market economy. China stopped being true to the ideals of communism in 1979 itself, when Deng Xiaoping took over the country and put into practice what would be known as his “cat theory”: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white. So long as it catches the mouse, it is a good cat.” This was a philosophy of economic pragmatism that placed progress at the centre and pushed ideology to the side. China's prosperity today is not because of communism, but the economic liberalization started by Deng and continued by his successors.

Admirers of communism love to say that Cuba has the best healthcare system in the world. It does, but two things need to be kept in mind. First, for 50 years the USSR bankrolled Cuba; so Cuba’s achievements are not an example of what a Communist country can do on its own. Second, while health care is great in Cuba, the average standard of living in Cuba is not one most people would like. Cubans cannot afford luxuries such as eating out. Restaurants exist only to feed tourists. (Source: Personal account from a friend who has visited Cuba.)

This hollow, unsustainable, and morally-repugnant philosophy has justly been consigned to the ash heap of history …

Communism could not even last a century — and just as well. This hollow, unsustainable, and morally-repugnant system has justly been consigned to the ash heap of history, to use the memorable turn of phrase that was created by the late US President Ronald Reagan in 1982. And this fact is particularly worthy of celebration when you consider that this outcome was certainly not obvious 50 years ago.

Why Communism Failed

In every country that ever called itself a communist country, inequality and enslavement were the norms.

Communism was founded with the promise of an egalitarian society. “Workers of the world, unite!” said Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. “You have nothing to lose but your chains,” they proclaimed triumphantly. But in every country that ever called itself a communist country, inequality and enslavement were the norm. As George Orwell so aptly put it in “Animal Farm,” “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Communist governments called themselves the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In practice, they only retained the first part of that description: dictatorship. The proletariat was conveniently forgotten. Every communist government ended up, in practice, as a totalitarian dictatorship headed either by a single person (e.g., Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng, Castro, etc.) or a committee of a few powerful people (e.g., the USSR during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras).

Communist governments called themselves the dictatorship of the proletariat. In practice, they only retained the first part of that description: dictatorship. The proletariat was conveniently forgotten.

Why do all communist regimes deteriorate into totalitarian regimes? Because greed is part of the fundamental nature of human beings and, therefore, in a system that does not have checks and balances, as a democracy does, might becomes right.

Due to this, one of the most abhorrent aspects of any communist government is that there is no personal freedom. Just look at Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ai Weiwei, Andrei Sakharov, Liu Xiaobo, and many more to know what the consequences of free speech in communist countries are. When Lenin and Stalin decided to collectivize Soviet agriculture, they did not bother to ask the “proletariat,” whose “dictatorship” a communist government ostensibly was, whether they were agreeable to collectivization. Instead, the move was brutally enforced on the proletariat from above — with death as the penalty for disobedience.

Communism revealed its darkest face during the reigns of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Stalin is said to have been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Soviet citizens by forced rigorous labour in the death camps (gulags) of Siberia, aka the “Gulag Archipelago.” The “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-1962, initiated by Mao, caused the death of between 23 and 55 million people. The subsequent “Cultural Revolution” of 1962-1976 is said to have caused the deaths of about 5 million people — for no fault except of suspected disloyalty to Mao. Thousands of Cubans were executed for opposing Castro. Pol Pot killed 25% of the entire Cambodian population — about 2 million people. These are the attendant evils of a communist system.

The Berlin Wall was unique in history as a wall built by a regime to keep its own citizens from leaving it. It was, in effect, a prison wall for its citizens. That a state felt the need to create such a wall is clearly an admission of its failure and intellectual bankruptcy.

The Soviet Union and its network of satellite states came crumbling down in 1991, but their death warrant was written much earlier — in 1961, to be precise, when the Berlin Wall was built. Until this time, countries had always built walls to keep foreign enemies out — such as the Great Wall of China, which was built to keep the Mongols out. But the Berlin Wall was unique in history as a wall built by a regime to keep its own citizens from leaving it. It was, in effect, a prison wall for its citizens. That a state felt the need to create such a wall is clearly an admission of its failure and intellectual bankruptcy.

What About Capitalism’s Faults?

The solution to these defects of capitalism is not to replace it by a discredited system such as communism, but to have controls above it to prevent the otherwise inevitable abuse of the system to benefit a wealthy few.

Some of those reading this will instinctively think in binary terms: “But what about the evils of capitalism?” they will ask. The answer is that it is not a binary choice. Saying communism was a terrible system does not imply that capitalism is a great system.

Capitalism has its faults. Evil can happen when monopolies and cartels operate. Just as there is a difference between theoretical communism (a lovely ideal) and practical communism (a miserable failure), there is a big difference between theoretical capitalism (a completely free market) and practical capitalism (all kinds of distortions of the market, such as monopolies and political interference).

The solution to these defects of capitalism is not to replace it by a discredited system such as communism, but to have controls above it to prevent the otherwise inevitable abuse of the system to benefit a wealthy few. But the controls cannot be so stifling that they effectively kill enterprise. There is a balance to be aimed at.

But communist regimes do not allow for internal change at all, because communism is inevitably accompanied by curbs on freedom of speech and expression – there is no freedom to protest or criticize the government or the ruler in power. Having no internal corrective mechanisms, they are doomed to failure.

Capitalism is not synonymous with freedom and democracy. Some of history’s worst tyrants have been free-market capitalists. So it is not enough to have a free market and freedom of economic enterprise. It is also important to have a democratic system of government, freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to criticize those in power, and the rule of law.

The problem is that communist regimes offered none of the above. Capitalism can be corrected by imposing a few controls on it; by ensuring that democratic freedoms are maintained; and by agitating for greater personal freedoms (as was done in the United States with regard to civil rights.)

But communist regimes do not allow for internal change at all, because communism is inevitably accompanied by curbs on freedom of speech and expression – there is no freedom to protest or criticize the government or the ruler in power. Having no internal corrective mechanisms, they are doomed to failure.

We should recognize that communism has had its benefits – in improving capitalism.

But even as we should celebrate the decline and death of communism as a form of government, we should recognize that communism has had its benefits – in improving capitalism. The threat of communism forced capitalism to have a more humane face, in order to avoid losing adherents to its rival. Before the advent of communism, American factories (as parodied in the timeless Charlie Chaplin classic, “Modern Times”) were soulless, exploitative operations where workers, often immigrants from places like Ireland, were made to work like slaves for very little wages in horrendous working conditions. The labour movement forced capitalists to create more tolerable working conditions and focus on things like minimum wage and the safety of workers, which was completely ignored in the several initial decades of the industrial revolution, both in Europe and the USA. One should also credit communism for the rise of socialist democracies and welfare states in Europe, such as in the Scandinavian countries, and France and Germany to a lesser extent.

There is no excuse today for believing in communism because of its ideals, because we now have 100 years of practical experience that inform us in no uncertain terms that those ideals are unrealistic and impractical.

Communism is very seductive for a young, impressionable student in an academy because of its idealism. But the days of being seduced by communism because of its rosy ideals, such as an egalitarian society, are long over – or, rather, they should be long over. There is no excuse today for believing in communism because of its ideals, because we now have 100 years of practical experience that inform us in no uncertain terms that those ideals are unrealistic and impractical; that, in practice, communism will suck the life force out of a people, stunt their creativity, kill their natural curiosity, and replace all these wonderful natural reactions with fear – fear of the government and the system.

Communist Sympathizers in India

In spite of these powerful practical examples of the failure and unsustainability of communism, there are misguided souls in many countries who still believe in this failed ideology, including in our own India, especially in the states of West Bengal and Kerala, and in some elite Universities in India, such as JNU. India has had two major communist parties in mainstream politics for a long time – the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M). The CPI has been one of the main political parties that has won elections repeatedly in the state of Kerala, and the CPI-M held power for three decades in the state of West Bengal, before its power was broken by the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee in 2011. The CPI-M is now on the fast track to oblivion, with a steady decrease in the number of seats held, both at the state and national levels.

Politicians from India’s communist parties love to participate in India’s electoral politics and publicly criticize the government of the day in newspaper articles and television interviews, without realizing the irony that they would never have these privileges in the regimes of the men they claim to revere and in the system they would like to institute in India.

A look inside any of the offices of communist parties reveals walls covered by huge portraits of the heroes of these parties – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others. While Marx and Engels are understandable because these theoreticians were the founders of the communist philosophy, inclusion of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, is abhorrent. These people have been responsible for the deaths of so many; to glorify them by displaying their portraits in your office is to insult the memory of the millions who were murdered for no fault of theirs.

But the incongruity does not end there. Politicians from India’s communist parties love to participate in India’s electoral politics and publicly criticize the government of the day in newspaper articles and television interviews, without realizing the irony that they would never have these privileges in the regimes of the men they claim to revere and in the system they would like to institute in India. If a Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M Member of Parliament) or a Kanhaiya Kumar (communist student leader) had been living in Stalin’s USSR and had made a public speech critical of “Comrade Stalin,” he would have found himself inside the Lubyanka before the end of the day and in a train bound for a Siberian gulag by the end of the week, where he would have spent the remainder of his short, miserable life working 18 hours a day in hard labour, with extremely limited rations, until he died of exhaustion.

It is probably a recognition of the hypocrisy of these Indian communist parties and the worthlessness of their philosophy that is responsible for their decimation in Indian politics. On this historic day, this fact, too, needs to be celebrated.



Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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