Sunday, November 23, 2008

Misunderstanding Communism

db0 has begun a good series correcting many misunderstandings about communism.

Misunderstanding Communism I: It’s not USSR
Misunderstanding Communism II: It’s not a religion

There are some who would dispute db0 and say that Stalin (and Mao) really were communists, and place the fall of communism at Khrushchev & Deng. Personally, my opinion of both leaders is so deeply colored by Western propaganda that I'm agnostic awaiting further investigation.

Be that as it may, there are several things that one must keep in mind that we do know. Both pre-revolutionary Russia and China were desperately poor in a purely material sense. Both Russia and China had been profoundly authoritarian societies for millennia; neither had very much connection with the philosophical and political tradition of Western Enlightenment. Marx noted that all societies inherit from the past not only the means of production but also the political superstructure. Any western communist society would likely be very different from the USSR & China because we would be inheriting very different economic and political traditions.

Both countries (but especially the USSR) were threatened with imminent attack; the Soviet Union was in fact attacked by Germany because the USSR was communist. The USSR had to recover from WW-I (the classic internecine imperialist war), the civil war (with the rebels provoked, aided and abetted by anti-communist capitalist, imperialist countries) and WW-II (a nakedly imperialist war of aggression). The Soviet Union could not have looked on Patton's desire to keep rolling into Moscow, nor the obvious hostility of the West towards the USSR during the Cold War, with anything other than the best-justified paranoia; just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

The historical record seem crystal clear on Hitler: he intentionally and deliberately murdered millions of people simply because he didn't like them. The historical record is much less clear on Stalin and Mao: Did millions of people die? Probably. But the question is: Did they die because Stalin or Mao simply didn't like them? Or did the people die because the leaders made blunders trying to recapitulate in a couple of generations (with their very survival at stake) the economic and political developments that took the West centuries to achieve? And, especially in Maoist China, did many of those people die simply because people had been dying from natural causes (famine, drought, flood, etc.) by the millions from time to time in China for millennia? Mobo Gao (The Battle for China's Past) notes that four million people fewer people died in China during the time of the Cultural Revolution than in India during the same period.

Keep in mind too that the West has had its share of blunders causing the deaths of millions. Even excluding the almost continuous warfare, just the Spanish Flu — in no small part a consequence of the massive, rapid urbanization of the Western population — killed 20 million people. If communism must be called to account for its blunders (and it must), capitalism does not deserve a free pass.

To what degree are the people who died under Stalin or Mao (especially Mao) offset by those that were saved? Compared to both societies before their revolutions, what was the improvement in material standards of living and medical care, both of which profoundly expect both life expectancy and quality of life? Yes, many people lived in grim, poorly constructed apartment buildings after the revolution, but many were living in mud huts before the revolutions.

Too many people, I think, fault the USSR and the PRC for not catching all the way up to the West, for not achieving in 50 years what the West achieved in 500 years.

6 comments:

  1. You make an interesting point. I became fairly anti-communist after living for two years in Russia, but I never thought about where the infrastructure had started compared to the Western world. It is food for thought. One rather funny phrase that I remember a Russian friend of ours saying was, "When we were the USSR, everyone had money but there was nothing to buy. Now that we are capitalist, there is everything to buy but no one has money."

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  2. Too many people, I think, fault the USSR and the PRC for not catching all the way up to the West, for not achieving in 50 years what the West achieved in 500 years.


    And I would add, that the west achieved it through shameless imperialism. The 3rd world is "3rd" because of the wealth was stolen from the 1st world.

    The people who show the achievements of the western capitalist society conveniently ignore how capitalism has failed to work in the majority of the world who did not have others to exploit.

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  3. Also, think of the tsarist Russia from the point of view of women. I'd go for a bloody revolution!

    A propagandist introduction (for those who need to educate themselves in this matter):

    http://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/pichugina/women.html

    - dont forget half the population

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  4. Thank you, Anon. The issue of women, communism and revolution has been on my mind; I hope I'll soon have an opportunity to write more on the subject.

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  5. It seems to me that you're confusing deliberate, incidental and accidental deaths. Hitler was deliberate in wanting to eliminate Jews - it was an aim in itself. For Stalin, the deaths of Russians was incidental to achieving specific aims - take away those aims and he wouldn't have been killing people. The deaths from Spanish flu didn't just affect capitalist countries, and wasn't their responsibility, and can reasonably be called accidental.

    Irrelevant of whether some people's lives improved is the question of what were the relative levels of excess mortality in each of these societies. On this metric, it seems likely that capitalism has performed better, as well as delivering signficantly greater and more sustainable improvements in living standards.

    I take the point about capitalism's growth being at the expense of poorer countries around the world, however. I think the most interesting - and overlooked - factor here is the continuity between Russia and China's historical modes of government and their specific implementations of "communism". Of course, the same is true of America's implementation of "democracy" - these cultural factors are far stronger than most people recognise.

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  6. Paul: The historical question is whether the famines under Stalin and Mao were incidental (I assume you mean foreseen or reasonably foreseeable) or accidental.

    Whether the Spanish Flu affected capitalist countries is irrelevant to whether those deaths should be attributed to capitalism. It's clearly at least an accidental consequence of capitalism, which requires urbanization. Whether it was foreseeable is, again, an historical question.

    Irrelevant of whether some people's lives improved is the question of what were the relative levels of excess mortality in each of these societies. On this metric, it seems likely that capitalism has performed better, as well as delivering signficantly greater and more sustainable improvements in living standards.

    I don't know that we can draw such a conclusion with confidence. Keep in mind that capitalism has been from its inception colonial and imperialistic; we would have to account for the excess deaths not only in the colonizing countries, but also their colonies.

    We also have the baseline question: What precisely constitutes a zero rate of excess deaths? Should we rate the USSR and PRC against contemporary capitalist countries? Should we rate the USSR against Tsarist Russia? The PRC against Imperial China? Sun Yat Sen? Chiang Kaishek? [sorry, not looking up proper spellings here]

    How do we account for the open and active hostility of the west towards communist countries? Suppose there were excess deaths in, say, Cuba. What proportion of those excess deaths would be due to Castro, and what proportion would be due to the US blockade and embargo?

    AFAIK, no "capitalist" country (i.e. an imperial subject country) — however "authoritarian" (especially in Latin America) — has ever been under a long-term embargo.

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