Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Does communism work?

Allen Small demands that I "show [him] an example where [communism] has worked or even partially worked now or in the past." It's pretty much a stupid demand; at the very least it condemns any sort of novelty or progress. But it got me thinking.

Of course, we have to be a little more explicit about what we mean by "communism", "working" and "partially".

There are three good definitions of communism. First, the "minimal" definition that I use: the social ownership of the means of production. The second is the "Marxian" definition: socialization of capital, participatory democratic government of enfranchised workers (a la the Paris Commune), and central planning of the consumer economy. The third is the "Soviet/Chinese" definition, oligarchical rule of the Communist Party to own and administer the means of production and implement central planning. I personally endorse only minimal communism, but both Marxian and Soviet/Chinese communism include minimal communism.

It's a little more difficult to define "working". Allen has, of course, set me a task that I suspect he considers impossible. He condemns all of Western civilization as "statist" and appears to consider them the moral equivalent of communism and fascism; presumably does not believe that any civilization, society or government actually works or has worked. But of course Allen is that curious rarity, a complete idiot; most sensible people I think will have somewhat less dogmatic and more pragmatic standards of what works and what doesn't work.

I think we can take Fascism — defined as the political-economic and social systems actually in place in Italy, Japan and Germany from the early 20th century until the end of the Second Imperialist War — as near-ideal exemplars of "not working": they ended in the economic ruin, military defeat and unconditional surrender of their respective countries and criminal prosecution and near-complete discredit of Fascist politics and politicians. (Political parties and movements in the West may include elements of Fascism, a worrying phenomenon, but they also fail to include some essential features. And the more features of Fascism present-day political movements include, the more marginal they appear to be.)

I think we can take "Western capitalism" — loosely defined as the international system pioneered in England in the 17th and 18th centuries and finding common expression in most European, North American, (to some extent) Central and South American countries as well as Southeast Asia and (to some extent) the Indian subcontinent — as an exemplar of "working". Which is not to say that I endorse Western capitalism, but it has certainly done the opposite of the catastrophic failures of Fascism.

Taking these as our examples, it is important to note that the presence or absence of horrific atrocity doesn't really distinguish between "working" and "not working". The litany of horrific atrocity in Western capitalism is depressingly long: chattel slavery, genocide, wars of aggression, millions killed in the First and Second Imperialist wars, epidemics and famines caused or exacerbated by societal incompetence and indifference, etc. ad nauseam. Again, to say that horrific atrocity is not a component of "working" or "not working" is not to say that I endorse or even excuse atrocity; I'm saying only that it is not a particularly useful criteria for historical comparison. (Indeed I share to no small extent Allen's disdain for all human civilization. And, like Allen, I think our near-universal history of really stupendous atrocity calls for truly radical societal change. Allen and I disagree only on what kind of radical change to implement.)

If we adopt the minimal criteria necessary to call Western capitalism as working, it straightforwardly follows that communism has at least partially worked in a couple of ways.

First, the Soviet Union and Communist China lasted a lot longer than the Fascist countries. Although communism fell — definitely in the Soviet Union and arguably in China — these countries did not fail in the spectacularly catastrophic fashion as did the Fascist countries. Furthermore, both the Soviet Union and China transformed backwards, illiterate, agrarian countries that were manifestly subservient to Western imperialism into industrialized, nuclear-armed world powers. And they did so in considerably less time than did the Western nations. This is not a stunning success — neither the Soviet Union nor China achieved their greater goal of exporting communism to the world, and they achieved what they did at a staggering cost in human suffering — but I think we are justified in considering them at least partially working, by the minimal standards we must adopt to label Western capitalism as "working".

Second, and perhaps more importantly, all Western democracies have partially implemented components of minimal communism. Almost all features of "welfare capitalism" are direct consequences of communist and communist-inspired political activism in the early and middle 20th century. These features include a dramatic de facto and de jure increase in the political franchise, substantial regulation of the capitalist ruling class, workers' political and economic empowerment through unions, heavily progressive taxation, and one or two orders of magnitude increase in direct government economic participation. And the historical record is crystal clear: The more Western capitalism has adopted communist elements, the better it has performed by every metric — economic, social and political — except the privilege and absolute power of the capitalist ruling; the more Western capitalism has abandoned communist elements, the worse it has done.

If we are going to condemn all human civilization — an exercise I have a lot of sympathy for — historical comparison is irrelevant: We must rely on purely theoretical comparison. If, however, we are going to employ historical comparison, communism seems to come out at least as well as — and on some accounts considerably better than &mdash its antinomy of laissez faire capitalism.

16 comments:

  1. I'm an atheist and I've been reading this texts on communism through Planet Atheism rss for a time. Never commented because english isn't my native language and it wouldn't be a fair fight, expressing myself in such a high level debate in a language that isn't native. But, here it goes...

    "participatory democratic government"?!

    There's no such thing as a defense of democracy in the basis of communism. Not in Marx writings, not in Lenin's, not int Trotsky's. Democratic government, according to this loons, is a concept created by the dominant classes to mantain the status quo.

    Lenin himself said once that he had no patience to talk when he had weapons and bullets at hand. He was a mass murderer... If "capitalism" made some effort not to repeat the errors of fascism, Lenin, Stalin and Mao sure made effort to MAGNIFY it, as they've killed far more people in the name of their deturbed sense of justice and humanism then Hitler or Mussilini.

    (And I don't agree with this link fascim-capitalism... Nazism and Fascism are much more related to Communism, as Hitler himself once told, and as the initial truce between Germany and USSR during WW2 can demonstrate).

    This is the inheritance left by Robespierre, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky: eliminating your adversaries is form of humanism, social and historical progress.

    As we all know that communism never worked and never will, I have a different chalenge for you, my friend: find me in any of the defining literacy of communism (Marx, Lenin's, Trotsky's books, your choice) any defense of democracy, individual liberties, free speech etc etc. I sure can find many attacks on that concept, but I'd like to see you try.

    That said, I don't think it is good to post about communism in a site like Planet Atheism, as it works to further stereotypes. Atheism in communist countries was all about repressing individual liberties. Religion was supressed because nothing could be bigger than the Party (as defined by Gramsci).

    You are free to think what you want about communism (because you live in a Western Democracy. I wouldn't be free to say this stuff in USRR or China, for example), but it's a completly different cause, one that is not related to Atheism necessarily. Posting about it in a self-proclaimed Atheist webportal isn't helping at all.

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  2. Welcome, Knux. Prepare for the treatment I give to liars, idiots and assholes. Not only have you completely missed the point of the entire essay, but you're lying about the

    There's no such thing as a defense of democracy in the basis of communism. Not in Marx writings, not in Lenin's, not int Trotsky's. Democratic government, according to this loons, is a concept created by the dominant classes to mantain the status quo. ... I have a different chalenge for you, my friend: find me in any of the defining literacy of communism (Marx, Lenin's, Trotsky's books, your choice) any defense of democracy, individual liberties, free speech etc etc.

    Marx on The Paris Commune

    Lenin, The Democratic Tasks of the Revolutionary Proletariat and “Democracy” and Dictatorship.

    Mao, On New Democracy.

    I win. You lose. You're an idiot. Go away. My blog is not a platform for your bullshit, even in comments.

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  3. if you want to know what "works" you just need to follow the migrations. People will vote with their feet, and they always vote for more freedom. Communist countries have to keep their populations from fleeing, by the point of the gun, and people risk their lives to leave. Countries with free markets and socialized policies have quite a bit of immigration, and the freest countries such as US, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. have to closely watch their borders to keep the flood from coming in. The pattern is very clear.

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  4. Sigh... Another idiot who can't read English.

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  5. you don't need to insult anyone, this is what you wrote and it is what my post was about: "And the historical record is crystal clear: The more Western capitalism has adopted communist elements, the better it has performed by every metric — economic, social and political — "

    I am an economist and I can tell you that the countries that have adopted these measures have dug graves for themselves. You can see it today in the crumbling Europe, they have spent their children's wages. The only economists that defend this nonsense are the ones that receive government money, and have cushy subsidized jobs at universities.

    You say that Allen's dislike for government equates to a dislike for society and civilization. There are many examples of stateless societies in history, and they were very peaceful.

    Somalia is a very poor country and with many problems, we cannot compare it to the rich west. Having said that, Somalia has not had a central government since 1990, and the UN "peace" keeping troops left in 1995. Well, for the fist time in generations Somalia is making progress, and the statistical data comes from the United Nations Development Project, World Bank, CIA, and World Health Organization.

    Somalia could not make progress before BECAUSE of the state, and we are making progress IN SPITE of the state.

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  6. these are two links about Somalia that look at the data without prejudice:

    http://www.independent.org/pdf/working_papers/64_somalia.pdf

    http://mises.org/daily/2701

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  7. I am an economist...

    I generally consider assertions of credentials without substantiation to be at least suspect. If you want to lend professional or academic expertise to your opinions, you have to divulge your full name and professional or academic credentials. Otherwise, you're an "economist" just like I'm an "economist": someone who writes about economic topics.

    ...the countries that have adopted these measures have dug graves for themselves.

    I'm generally not particularly interested that other people have opinions that differ from my own. I'm much more interested in either questions that elicit deeper arguments for my own positions, or actual arguments (such as your invocation of Somalia) that challenge my own positions.

    There are many examples of stateless societies in history, and they were very peaceful.

    An interesting assertion. More examples would be helpful.

    Somalia has not had a central government since 1990, and the UN "peace" keeping troops left in 1995. ... Somalia could not make progress before BECAUSE of the state, and we are making progress IN SPITE of the state.

    I'm not sure what you mean here. You (I assume you're Somali?) are making progress in spite of what state? And what's the evidence for the causal connection you assert? Why should we exclude correlation without causation or a post hoc fallacy?

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  8. you wrote "I'm not sure what you mean here. You (I assume you're Somali?) are making progress in spite of what state? And what's the evidence for the causal connection you assert? Why should we exclude correlation without causation or a post hoc fallacy?"

    If you read my two previous posts you will realize that I provided you with a link to a pdf study using data from United Nations Development Project, World Bank, CIA, and World Health Organization.

    I don't really understand what pleasure you get in trying to reduce or discredit people that disagree with you, but I don't need to be a Somali to read data.

    The data from the study compares the last five years of the state regime with the most recent five years of anarchy at the time of the study, which would be 2000 to 2005. And if finds the following:

    Life expectancy increased from 46 to 48.5 years. This is a poor expectancy as compared with developed countries. But in any measurement of welfare, what is important to observe is not where a population stands at a given time, but what is the trend. Is the trend positive, or is it the reverse?

    Number of one-year-olds fully immunized against measles rose from 30 to 40 percent.

    Number of physicians per 100,000 population rose from 3.4 to 4.

    Number of infants with low birth weight fell from 16 per thousand to 0.3 — almost none.

    Infant mortality per 1,000 births fell from 152 to 114.9.

    Maternal mortality per 100,000 births fell from 1,600 to 1,100.

    Percent of population with access to sanitation rose from 18 to 26.

    Percent of population with access to at least one health facility rose from 28 to 54.8.

    Percent of population in extreme poverty (i.e., less than $1 per day) fell from 60 to 43.2.

    Radios per thousand population rose from 4 to 98.5.

    Telephones per thousand population rose from 1.9 to 14.9.

    TVs per 1,000 population rose from 1.2 to 3.7.

    Fatalities due to measles fell from 8,000 to 5,600.


    And the biggest test of all is that Somalis are moving back to Somalia.

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  9. These are examples of stateless, peaceful societies where security, law and order were provided by private, competing organizations. No coercive taxation involved.

    all primitive Aboriginal societies

    present day Somalia

    Icelandic Commonwealth (930 - 1262, CE)

    Gaelic Ireland

    Libertatia (late 17th century)

    The Free Territory in the Ukraine (January 1919 – August 1921)

    Shinmin Free Province (1929–1932)

    Anarchist Catalonia, Spain, (July 21, 1936 – June 14, 1937)

    Anarchist Aragon (October 6, 1936 – August 10, 1937)

    Freetown Christiania, Denmark, (September 26, 1971–2004)

    and to a certain extend the so called "Wild West" which wasn't wild at all, with crime statistics lower than present US.

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  10. I don't really understand what pleasure you get in trying to reduce or discredit people that disagree with you, but I don't need to be a Somali to read data.

    Get down off your cross, we need the wood, asshole.

    There's nothing at all discreditable about being Somali; I wondered because and only because you said "we are making progress."

    I'm certainly pleased Somalia is doing better, but you haven't at all shown why they're doing better.

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  11. ... and I'm not at all convinced that it's worth trying to study your statements in any depth, because you seem stupid and pretty much a gigantic asshole.

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  12. you wrote: "I'm certainly pleased Somalia is doing better, but you haven't at all shown why they're doing better."

    my second to last post has your answer: a list of improving welfare conditions in Somalia

    Even life expectancy, which was in decline at the end of the dictatorship, has risen by 5 years. Only three other African countries have done better.

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  13. "I'm certainly pleased Somalia is doing better, but you haven't at all shown why they're doing better."

    my second to last post has your answer: a list of improving welfare conditions in Somalia


    You disclaim Somali identity, but is English your first language? If I can't count on subtleties of understanding appropriate to a native, educated speaker, it's better to let me know sooner rather than later if I have to take extra pains to be precise.

    You've told me that they're doing better and how they're doing better. (I have no particular reason to doubt your word.) You have not, however, shown — i.e. made not just an assertion but also an evidentiary argument — why they are doing better; you have not demonstrated the cause of their improvement.

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  14. Sorry about that, English is not my first language.


    Some examples of why they are doing better could be:

    1. Law: Somalis previously had a corrupt government run system. Presently, judges and arbitrators that are unfair or partisan will loose business and not be patronized.

    2. Business and Trade: Government generated regulation and trade restrictions used to benefit big companies or powerful interest groups to the detriment of the small and medium entrepreneur. Today the unshackled economy of Somalia has allowed businesses of all sizes to do well, only when and if they serve their customers. Political clout no longer buys you preferential treatment.

    3. Taxation: in spite of having to pay relatively high security costs, these pale in comparison to the taxes and bribes that the government used to charge. This burden has been lifted from the shoulders of the population.

    4. Peace: Now that war is paid privately out of the pockets of the warlords, instead of from taxation, inflation and debt, somebody is actually worried about the costs of war. Somalia is finally enjoying long lasting peace (in relative terms) because a 6 hour war will cost the warlord $100K.

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  15. Interesting stuff, Rod. Obviously, you can't give a full sociological/political thesis in a comment, but you've offered enough to pique my interest. I'll have to investigate further.

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