Unlearning the History of Communism
On the Pieria magazine website there has been an exchange of views on capitalism and socialism. I guess it is my fault; on 28 June I contributed a summary of some remarks on the subject. I concluded:
Liberal capitalism isn’t perfect, but it has done far more for human welfare than communism. It has been the solution more often than the problem. Last time capitalism experienced some difficulties, many countries went off on a search for alternatives. That search for alternatives led nowhere. It wasn’t just unproductive. It was a terrible mistake that cost many tens of millions of lives. Lots of people have forgotten this history. Now is a good time to remember it.
On 31 July, the blogger UnlearningEconomics responded:
In my opinion, this view rests on a highly selective interpretation of events. It requires that we gloss over two major historical points: first, the historical circumstances of existing communism; second, the history of capitalist countries. It fails to acknowledge the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones. It ignores the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states, a process comprehensively documented by US foreign policy critic William Blum (Blum, 2003). It also requires that we define past and present abuses of capitalist states as somehow 'outside' capitalism, in order to place ourselves above the (real or imagined) abuses of the communists.
I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates. In any case, my main aim is to show two things: first, the abuses of existing socialist states are better explained by their political circumstances than their innate evils of the ideology; second, capitalist countries have a similarly abhorrent record, one which is not so easily explained by political necessities. My rendition will definitely annoy capitalists and anti-communists by being too sympathetic toward communism, which is a dirty word for many. It will also potentially annoy communists and socialists by not being sympathetic enough and repeating some of the more simplistic mainstream narratives. However, the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.
UnlearningEconomics (below I'll call him or her "UE") goes on to present "brief" (but, for a blog, quite lengthy) histories of both communism and capitalism. The general story is that if communism has had a bloody history it is mainly because communist revolutions occurred under unfavourable circumstances and had to struggle against the encirclement and aggression of the surrounding capitalist states; as for capitalism, it has its own bloody history, which is too often ignored.
What is there here that we can agree on? Perhaps we might agree that twentieth century warfare was terrible enough that it could damage social norms and other institutions of a relatively poor country like Russia or China; in such conditions organized minorities with unscrupulous leaders could seize power and use it to do terrible things. The efforts of other countries to intervene and prevent this, then as now, were largely fruitless or even counterproductive; perhaps they should not have tried, although politicians are not generally selected for lack of ambition and public opinion too often demands that something must be done.
UE goes beyond this to suggest that somehow history has been unfair to those same minorities and psychopathic leaders by allowing them to seize power only under terribly adverse circumstances. We owe it to them (the argument seems to go) to compensate them for their disadvantage; we should allow them at least a few decades of unchallenged power, so that they have a fair chance to show what they can achieve. But this seems completely unhinged.
In bringing up my children, I tried to teach them that people show their inner qualities when things go badly. It is easy to look good when things go well. Only good people will still be good when things go badly; adversity reveals character. I believe this rule can also be applied to politics. It is when things go badly that we see political leaders and their programmes and ideals put to the test.
Can systems be blamed for atrocities of whatever kind? It is not systems that take food from the mouths of the hungry or put bullets into the back of anyone’s head. People do this. But the system matters, nonetheless. What the system does is to leave more or less scope for the concentration of power in the hands of people who are inclined to exploit it without restraint. Liberal capitalism at least allows the separation of economic power from politics and decentralizes decisions to firms and households in markets. This is because, in the words of North, Wallis, and Weingast (2011), it is an “open-access order.” Communism is a “closed-access” order that restricts who may exercise political power and concentrates control of the economy in the hands of that privileged elite. Given that, ask which of these systems is more likely to permit the abuse of power and allow abuses to be hidden from the public gaze?
When general outlooks clash, it is not always enough to stay with generalities. Sometimes we have to get down with the particular facts. History is full of good stories, and UE tells some of them well. The problem is that not all good stories are true, but this becomes evident only when they are confronted with the detail. So, I will confront some of UE's history with the detail. I will not cover everything; I will focus for the most part on the "brief history" of communism, where I think I have more to offer.
- UE says: Unfavourable views of communism ignore “the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones.”
This is seriously incomplete. Existing socialism occurred in relatively few undeveloped countries, and generally only in those weakened by war (Russia, China, Korea, and Indochina). Central Europe would scarcely have counted as undeveloped; there the precondition was war followed by military occupation. Cuba may be the only example of a country that had a communist revolution without a foreign war. In 1945 in several places the boundary of “existing socialism” was laid down in the middle of a region that was previously economically and ethnolinguistically integrated. As well as showing that warfare counted for more than lack of development, these examples also provide natural experiments for the long run consequences of system change. Think of Estonia versus Finland, East versus West Germany, and North versus South Korea. For discussion see Harrison (2013).
- UE says: Unfavourable views of communism also ignore “the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states” (citing William Blum).
Again, seriously incomplete. The UE view of postwar history rests on selection, overstatement of the capacity of outsiders to intervene in Russia and Eastern Europe, exaggeration of popular support for communism (the most popular communist party in Europe at the end of the war was probably the French party with no more than a quarter of the popular vote), and ignorance of the documented process whereby Stalin’s secret police entered Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945 “embedded” with the Red Army and armed with a template for dictatorship that they began to apply immediately, regardless of whether or not communists were in the government (Applebaum 2012). Far from resenting western "sabotage," millions of Central and East Europeans felt abandoned by the West as Stalin crushed their hopes for national self-determination. Finally, it forgets that the one American initiative that could have decisively altered the trajectory of Eastern Europe was not “destruction and sabotage” but Marshall Aid, which Stalin instructed his allies to reject.
- UE says: The unfavourable conditions of the Russian Revolution are shown by the fact that “Russia had suffered the worst losses out of any country during the war.”
No. It is hard to imagine that Russia would have suffered the Revolution without three years of world war, and it is true that battle and non-battle deaths of Russian soldiers up to 1917 were heavy (1.8 million). At the same time Russia's losses were fewer than Germany’s absolutely, and (given Russia’s large population) were proportionately fewer than of those of Britain, France, Italy, Serbia, Rumania, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (Broadberry and Harrison 2005). Russia’s economic loss of GDP per head up to 1917 was less than that of Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Turkey (Markevich and Harrison 2011). The latter conclude: “We have seen that the economic decline up to 1917 was not more severe in Russia than elsewhere. In short, we will probably not be able to explain why Russia was the first to descend into revolution and civil war without reference to historical factors that were unique to that country and period.”
- UE says: “By the time Joseph Stalin took (absolute) power in 1929, many – including, perhaps, himself – believed the threats the USSR faced were justifications for his purges and the Gulags.”
Seriously incomplete. There is no “perhaps” here: Stalin had a precise understanding that is now well documented (e.g. Khlevniuk 1995; Simonov 1996; Davies et al. 2003; Harrison 2008; Velikanova 2013). In 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1929 there was no foreign threat. But rumours of war were frequent, because the Soviet Union’s strategy of inciting revolution and mutiny abroad kept Soviet foreign relations in a state of continual tension. In domestic society, Stalin's secret police told him, every rumour was destabilizing; peasants and workers started to wonder when the chance would come to get rid of the Bolsheviks. Stalin was aware that above all he had to secure the regime internally and externally and that drift could only weaken him. This is why he launched Soviet society simultaneously on the courses of forced industrialization, mass collectivization of the peasantry, and political violence. Justification? Yes, of course, if taking power and holding it are sufficient motivations. Not otherwise. Khrushchev was personally responsible for tens of thousands of killings under Stalin, and this left him with a bad conscience. In trying to come to terms with it he blamed Stalin many times but not Hitler, the CIA, or anyone else outside the country.
- UE says: “The country did face a very real Nazi threat that, failing industrialisation, it would not have been able to overcome.”
No. Stalin changed course towards industrialization, collectivization, and mass violence in 1929, when there was no significant external threat. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and no European leader (including Stalin) recognized the threat from Hitler before 1935. Before Hitler, a threat to Siberia appeared from the East in 1931 with the Japanese annexation of Manchuria. These threats came after, not before, Stalin’s “revolution from above.” As for whether the Nazi threat justified Stalin’s policies after the event, I have written about this in many places (most recently Harrison 2010).
- UE says: “This reasoning is consistent with the fact that once Stalin died and the more immediate western threats disappeared, ‘de-Stalinisation’ took place: the Gulags were softened and reduced in size; the cult of personality was dismantled … things certainly improved once the Nazi threat had been eliminated.”
No. The Nazi threat was eliminated in 1945. The softening of the Soviet regime after 1953 had everything to do with Stalin’s death and nothing to do with the disappearance of “immediate western threats.” De-Stalinization took place not because of the disappearance of western threats but because the entire Soviet leadership was tired of living in fear of their own lives, and then went further because Khrushchev and Mikoyan had bad consciences about their own responsibility for past mass killings. The Gulag was dismantled immediately, not because of the disappearance of western threats but because Lavrentii Beriia had long before determined that it was an economic drain and a source of social contagion but Stalin had prevented him from acting on his findings. There was bitter resistance to dismantling the cult of Stalin from other communist leaders (especially Mao), not because of western threats but because it threatened their own legitimacy (and their own cults). The cult of Stalin was dismantled but was soon replaced by the cult of Khrushchev.
- UE says: “The Great Leap Forward (GLF) … undoubtedly caused a large degree of famine, surely because of the over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy.”
Seriously incomplete. A centralized, inflexible policy was enough to start a famine, but it does not begin to explain explain how the famine proceeded, nor does it explain the secrecy that then shrouded it for decades.
Think about what is required for an act of policy to cause millions of famine deaths. Here is the problem: When people starve to death, they do not die suddenly and unexpectedly. It takes them months, even many months to weaken, become sick, and die. Some die before others. Some die of hunger; some are carried off by diseases to which they lose immunity. Some die at home; some drop dead in the street. Some die passively; some steal or even kill for food; a few turn to cannibalism. In other words, a policy that causes millions of famine deaths (such as in the USSR in 1932 to 1934) or tens of millions (in China in 1958 to 1960) cannot go unnoticed by those carrying out the policy.
In fact, in both the USSR and China, the famine process worked like this (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004; Chen and Kung 2011). First, the leaders issued quotas for the collection of food, province by province. They also gave the provincial leaders to understand that their future depended on meeting the quota. The provincial leaders competed to raise more grain than their neighbours in order to show loyalty and to save their own lives and the lives of their families. And they passed these incentives down the line to their subordinates charged with doing the actual work. When some people reported that the quotas were too heavy, or they resisted or dragged their feet, they were arrested and others took their place. Food collections began and the first people started to die. When some people reported that other people were dying, they were told that this was just “simulation or provocation”: enemies were maliciously withholding food and starving their own children to cause trouble (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004, p. 206).
While the first ones were dying, the people responsible for extracting grain from the villages had to go deeper and deeper into the countryside to find food and take it by force. On every journey along all the different routes they took, they had to go past the people from whom they had already taken food, who were now dead or dying, to find more food that they could take. In China, the provincial leaders of lower rank had more to prove and Chen and Kung (2011) show these people tried harder, so that more grain was collected and more people died in their provinces. Returning from every journey past the already dying and dead people, they sometimes reported what they had seen (although it was sometimes “forbidden to keep an official record”) but in public they had to remain absolutely silent about, not just at the time but for the rest of their lives. The same applied to everyone with business that required them to move around the countryside. While they were doing this, others had to be ordered to stop some of the dying people who were not dead yet from moving out in search of food elsewhere. They had to be ordered to stop them because the food that had been collected and stored elsewhere was destined for others; if the dying people were allowed to eat it, it would not be available to feed Stalin’s Great Breakthrough or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. A particular reason for these orders is that when hungry people are allowed to mix with people that have enough to eat, it is extraordinary difficult to stop kind people from giving some of their food to starving families; the Germans found this in occupied Europe when they tried to cut Jewish communities off from food, and this is one reason why they first herded Jews into ghettoes and later decided to accelerate the Holocaust (Collingham 2010, pp. 205 ff). Finally, both at the time and later, the surviving victims and perpetrators alike learned never to talk about it, perhaps not even to their children. As a result, witnesses of terrible things (such as Yang 2012) often concluded the events they had seen were isolated and exceptional.
In other words, the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy” was enough to start a famine, but further deliberate actions were required to ensure government priorities for food supplies when millions of people were dying of hunger. All this must be read into the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy,” and it suggests why those words do not begin to provide a full explanation.
- UE says: “It is also worth noting that the remaining Cold War paranoia was certainly not a USSR-only phenomenon, with McCarthyism and the red scare in the US reaching levels which now seem ridiculous to most.”
No. McCarthyism was ridiculous and, partly as a result of it, the FBI missed many Soviet agents that were actually at work in American government and society after the war (Moynihan Commission 1997).
- UE says: “In Poland, the popular party Solidarity wanted some form of worker ownership – in other words, socialism – until, in desperation, they had to turn to the IMF, who made capitalist policies a condition for any aid. In Russia, Boris Yeltin’s ‘free market’ reforms were resisted, which was met with force; similarly, in China, the Tienanmen Square massacres were not made in favour of capitalism but in favour of democracy and worker control” (citing Naomi Klein).
No. None of us can possibly know what demonstrators in China or elsewhere “really” wanted. Politics is the art of the possible, and for this reason people tend to express their choices strategically, in the light of the constraints they perceive and the choices they expect others to make. I saw this myself in Russia: As long as the communist party was in full control, many dissenters preferred to limit their demands by appealing to rights guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, asking for a return to “true” Leninism, calling to rehabilitate Old Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Bukharin, and so forth. Only when the communist monopoly gave way did it become politically and psychologically possible for free thinkers to go further; some didn't but many did. UE refers to IMF conditionality in a disparaging way; but why would a responsible aid donor give aid without wishing to rule out uses of its resources that would be damaging or counterproductive? UE relies on Klein’s Shock Doctrine as a source; on its use of evidence see Harrison (2009).
- UE says: “While estimates of deaths from Mao’s GLF are exaggerated using dubious estimation techniques (which effectively allow the demographers to pick the number arbitrarily), little to no cover has been given to the increase in Russian deaths during the ‘transition’ to capitalism, which, by a reasonable estimation method of simply counting the increase in death rates, claimed 4 million lives between 1990 and 1996” (citing Utsa Patnaik).
No. UE (or perhaps Utsa Patnaik) seems to confuse demographic studies with the literary and journalistic accounts written by people who do not have a good understanding of error margins. Demographers know that when people die in numbers so large that they are not recorded individually there is always an error margin. The error margin has several sources: mismeasurement of the population before and after the shock, imputation of normal mortality during the shock (required to infer excess mortality), and correctly apportioning the birth deficit between babies not born (or miscarried) and babies born and died within the famine period. In other words the best available estimation techniques give rise to ranges rather than point estimates, and it is from these ranges that nonspecialists feel entitled to pick and choose.
As for the cause of Russia’s mortality spike in the transition years, the research attributing it to mass privatization (Stuckler and McKee 2009) has been widely disseminated; less well known is that it has also been thoroughly criticized (Earle 2009; Earle and Gehlbach 2010; Brown, Earle, and Telegdy 2010; Battacharya, Gathmann, and Miller 2013; see also reply by Stuckler and McKee 2010). In the last years of the Soviet Union Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign temporarily prevented millions of Russians from drinking themselves to death. However, it did not alter their desire to drink. Their deaths were postponed and so stored up and waiting to happen when alcohol became cheaper again and more easily available. Thus, the increase in Russian deaths during transition is more plausibly attributed to an increase in the availability and collapse in the price of alcohol.
I’ll conclude on the subject of atrocity. UE writes: “I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates … the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.” I noticed that the UE blog goes further, wishing to move debate on from “disingenuous ‘Black Book of Communism’-style kill count porn” (the "Black Book" reference is to Courtois et al. 1999).
This shocked me. Is there room for debate over the scale, causes, and significance of the excess deaths that arose around the world from communist policies? Absolutely. Should any figure in the Black Book of Communism be above discussion? Of course not. But kill count porn? The demand for these people to be remembered and their suffering acknowledged comes from the victims themselves. “We were forgotten. For our broken lives. For our executed fathers. No one apologized. If we don’t preserve the historical memory, we shall continue to make the same mistakes” (Fekla Andreeva, resettled as a child with her “kulak” family, whose father was executed in the Great Terror, cited by Reshetova 2013; see also Gregory 2013).
- Applebaum, Anne. 2012. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. London: Allen Lane.
- Bhattacharya, Jay, Christina Gathmann, and Grant Miller. 2013. Gorbachev’s Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia's Mortality Crisis. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5(2): 232-60.
- Broadberry, Stephen, and Mark Harrison. 2005. The Economics of World War I: an Overview. In The Economics of World War I: 3-40. Edited by Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Brown, J. David, John S. Earle, and Álmos Telegdy. 2010. Employment and Wage Effects of Privatisation: Evidence from Hungary, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.”Economic Journal 120, no. 545: 683-708.
- Chen, S. and Kung, J. (2011), ‘The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career Incentives and Political Radicalism during China’s Great Leap Famine’, American Political Science Review, 105(1): 27-45.
- Collingham, Lizzie. 2010. The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. London: Allen Lane.
- Courtois, Stephane, Mark Kramer, Jonathan Murphy, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. 1999. The Black Book of Communism. Ed Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Davies, R. W., and Stephen Wheatcroft. 2003. The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, vol. 5: The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Davies, R. W., Oleg Khlevniuk, E. A. Rees, Liudmila P. Kosheleva, and Larisa A. Rogovaia, eds. 2003. The Stalin-Kaganovich Correspondence, 1931-36. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Earle, John S. 2009. Mass Privatisation and Mortality. The Lancet 373 (April 11), p. 1247
- Earle, John S., and Scott Gehlbach. 2010. Did Mass Privatisation Really Increase Post-Communist Mortality? The Lancet 375 (January 30), p. 372.
- Gregory, Paul R. 2013. Women of the Gulag. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.
- Harrison, Mark. 2008. The Dictator and Defense. In Guns and Rubles: the Defense Industry in the Stalinist State, pp. 1-30. Edited by Mark Harrison. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
- Harrison, Mark. 2009. Credibility Crunch: A Comment on The Shock Doctrine. University of Warwick. Department of Economics.
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- Harrison, Mark. 2013. Communism and Economic Modernization. In The Oxford Handbook in the History of Communism. Edited by Stephen A. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Khlevniuk, Oleg. 1995. The Objectives of the Great Terror, 1937-38. In Soviet History, 1917-1953: Essays in Honour of R. W. Davies: 158-76. Edited by J. M. Cooper, Maureen Perrie, and E. A. Rees. New York, NY: St Martin's.
- Markevich, Andrei, and Mark Harrison. 2011. Great War, Civil War, and Recovery: Russia’s National Income, 1913 to 1928. Journal of Economic History 71:3, pp. 672-703.
- Moynihan Commission. 1997. Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Senate Document 105-2 Pursuant to Public Law 236, 103rd Congress. Washington, United States Government Printing Office.
- North, Douglass C., John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast. 2011. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
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- Simonov, Nikolai S. 1996. "Strengthen the Defence of the Land of the Soviets: the 1927 War Alarm and its Consequences." Europe-Asia Studies 48(8): 1355-64.
- Stuckler, David, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee. 2009. Mass Privatisation and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis: a Cross-National Analysis. The Lancet no. 373 (January 31, 2009): 399-407.
- Stuckler, David, Lawrence King, and Martin McKee. 2010. Did Mass Privatisation Really Increase Post-Communist Mortality? – Authors’ Reply. The Lancet 375 (January 30, 2010), pp 372-74.
- Velikanova, Olga. 2013. Popular Perceptions of Soviet Politics in the 1920s: Disenchantment of the Dreamers. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
- Yang Jisheng. 2012. Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine. London: Allen Lane.