the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
Communism is a movement, we are told, which is dead. I agree that it is hard to envision the name ever attracting widespread support after the events of the last century. But communists, as the name suggests, were originally those who did not believe in private property ― rather that all property was held “en commun”. The perversion of their creed by the revolutionaries and dictators who built the totalitarian states was not something they would have recognized. They were not fascists, not totalitarians. And the economic failures of these states had little to do with communist theory. The states involved all abandoned their traditional agricultural base for a program of megalomaniacal industrialization and the construction of mechanized militaries. Eventually they fell into self-deception, doctoring figures and forging economic reports, to further please their dictators. Communism on a large scale has never failed, because it has never been tried. The original communists wanted economic fairness, an end to poverty, a sharing of resources. They were natural cosmopolitans and the very picture of charity. They deserve our admiration, not our scorn. ― from ‘World Unity’
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not invent communism. Their Communist Manifesto was an attempt to give voice to a movement that was already, in their words, “haunting Europe”, and “acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power”. The Manifesto endeavored both to describe the movement as it existed and to shape its future. In describing communism, the Manifesto stated that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” This was indeed accurate, as was its analysis of the status of property rights: “The abolition of existing property relations is not at all a distinctive feature of communism. All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions.”
Some may object on these grounds alone, but the objection is based on faith, on the unexamined belief in private property, that it is real, that it, unlike other property relations, has an indubious origin and logic and represents freedom, justice, and divine truth. This notion cannot be disputed rationally, for it has no rational basis; but for those who are not so attached to what is “theirs” that they will no longer think, a picture of communism, of exactly what capitalists have been fighting all these years, might serve the purpose of understanding.
Due to the events of the last century, it becomes necessary to distinguish between the actual ideology of Karl Marx (and for the most part Friedrich Engels as well), and the perversions of his thought by followers, particularly beginning with Lenin. The latter I will call ‘Marxist’, and the former, of necessity, ‘Marxian’. The belief that Marxism could be installed by revolution rather than through Marxian evolution is ‘Leninist’. ‘Communism’ is left to describe that very simple state in which there is no private property, in which the material resources of the world are held en commun.
The most eloquent attack on private property comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The second part of his ‘Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men’ begins thus:
The first one who, having enclosed a plot of land, presumed to say This belongs to me and found people simple enough to believe it, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors, would the one not have spared the human race who, pulling out the posts or filling in the ditch, cried to its fellows: Be careful not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits belong to all, and that the earth belongs to no one.The same essay ends thus:
... it is manifestly against the Law of Nature, by whatever manner one defines it, that a child command an elder, that an idiot lead a wise man, and that a handful of people gorge on superfluities, while the starving multitude lacks what is necessary.
Marxism in practice
Marx laid out a careful system of progression through economic stages of which communism was the very last. Sine qva non of the beginning of the progression was an industrial capitalist state of the sort Marx was familiar with in western Europe. Russia and China in particular were agrarian feudalist states, and not eligible. They had not “progressed” to the point where Marxian theory could yet apply. Marxists, including Lenin, originally recognized this, and Leninism was born, which posited the new theory of revolutionary imposition. It would have made more sense if these revolutionaries had dropped references to Marx altogether, but they were too influenced by his thinking and his system. They believed that they could adapt Marxian theory to their situations, and keep the basic portion.
Even so, there was never a claim on the part of the Leninist parties, in Russia or China or elsewhere, to have achieved Marxian communism. They went through the motions, loyally, speaking of communism as a future ideal. The temptation to aggrandizement was too great, though, so we repeatedly see quasi-Marxian elements in the description of the Marxist economies. Brezhnev ordered a falsification of numbers to justify a proclamation that Russia had advanced a stage. Mao put China through the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in an attempt to skip a stage altogether. These were perversions of Marxian theory. And yet neither of these dictators, nor any of their cohorts, described what they had achieved as communism.
Stalin and Mao in particular took their states through crash programs of industrialization and mechanization. This certainly had less to do with qualifying for communism than with the evident desire of each of them to be on equal footing with the industrial capitalist states. And it was not Russia and China that they wished to be equal to the democracies of the west. It was Stalin and Mao. They personally had to be glorified through industrial capacity and modernized military prowess. In doing so, they did enormous damage to the agricultural base that had so well served these two countries up to that point. Liberal education and, certainly, an end to serfdom, were clearly in the interests of the peasantry specifically and the population generally. But the neglect and near-destruction of the traditional agrarian economy in Russia and China was not in the interests of the peasants, or the population, or the world, or the cause of communism.
The failure economically of Russia and China can be attributed to a number of things. First, and dearest, is the lack of social and civil liberty, which, much more than the lack of economic liberty or property, deprived the masses of a stake in the outcome, of the will to participate. Second is the corruption of the states involved, which was not a function of communist economics but of totalitarian politics, and which is present to some degree or other in all systems, capitalist democracy included. Third is the abandonment of the crucial economy of agriculture for the needless economy of manufacturing. Only last is the abolition of private property. It must be acknowledged that this played a factor in the unwillingness of individuals to contribute to the state economy. “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” It may be that there will never be democratic consent to an altruistic system according to the communist principle “from each according to its abilities, to each according to its needs”. But that does not argue against a hybrid offering economic incentives while denying individuals an absolute right to dispose of common resources. And perhaps in time attitudes will change.
“Existing property relations”
The United States is young, and as such gives the best insight into the origin of private property. Europeans, predominantly English, settled on the eastern coast of North America, and began expanding their settlements westward, carrying their concept of private property into lands that were already occupied. After the Revolutionary War, the expansion of territory came almost exclusively at the hands, and by the guns, of the federal army.
At present we find the United States giving away public land use to private commercial interests, and picking up the bill for any long-term damage. The users treat their exploitation of public lands as an entitlement. This despite their self-congratulatory claims to rugged individualism. The Wild West is and was a myth, standing against the reality of conquest and colonialism. The truth of the West is that it was conquered from the aboriginals and the mexicanos by the federal government. The aboriginals thus conquered and displaced ended up on ever-shrinking ghetto reservations, and the mexicanos were driven across the rivers, while much of the new federal land was essentially donated to white settlers in a deliberate colonization program. Still, a great deal of the land remains in the public domain. This refers, naturally, to the public of the entire United States. But the westerners want the rest of the public to go away, and leave them to dispose of the great interior of the continent as best suits them, the white settlers. Those same conservatives who hate taxes and government expect taxes from the rest of the country to support their destruction of the wilderness and depletion of natural resources.
The idea, finally, that the US or any other advanced capitalist democratic state has real private property is nonsense. The US is a democracy, and the electorate reigns supreme. The military and police, the enforcement wing of the democracy, is subordinate de facto to the electorate, presumably out of civic virtue, out of an ideological commitment to the state in its present form. That subordination of state power to the voters gives them the ability to do as they wish with the material property within the sovereignty. The electorate retains all property, as the complex system of taxes, subsidies, and regulations demonstrates. And obviously the electorate serves as guarantor of that property, by providing the armed bodies that protect it. Those individuals labelled ‘owners’ under the current system are in fact nothing more than managers. They serve in their managerial capacity for as long as it pleases the electorate. If, under the rules of the current ‘laisser-faire’ system, they manage well, they are rewarded with a large portion of the profits. If they manage ill, the state will shield them from creditors, and auction off the management franchise to someone else. The electorate micromanages in some cases, backs off in others, acts capriciously with rewards and penalties and rules. And it always, in the end, is burdened with ultimate responsibility for the health of the land. It always cleans up, after the “owners”, so to speak, clean up.
This is a completely realistic view of the situation. It describes the situation as it truly is. That being the case, it is necessary for the electorate to ask itself: Is it hiring these managers wisely? Is its current system of disposing of the resources under its control truly serving its interests?
The Evil Empire
A list of the self-described communist states conjures some of the worst deeds to humanity’s discredit: Russia, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Romania, Cuba, Vietnam, Albania, Poland, East Germany. But consider a few non-communist and even anti-communist states in the same century: Germany, Japan, Iraq, Italy, Chile, Nigeria, Spain, South Africa, Iran.
Similarly, the roster of self-styled communist leaders in this century is a parade of tyrants: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Kim, Hoxha, Castro, Lenin, Brezhnev. But again there are numerous counterexamples: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, Amin, Batista, Mobutu, Khomeini, Suharto, Saddam.
What made Stalin and the Khmer Rouge reprehensible was the same thing exact that made Hitler and Apartheid reprehensible. There is absolutely no economic component to it.
Islamic fundamentalism is the current bogey of the west. But the west supported this in Afghanistan as part of its anti-communist crusade, and now it ― to say nothing of Afghanistan ― is paying the price. Its support for a repressive regime brought fundamentalists to power in Iran, and has done much the same thing in Chechnya. This is radicalization. It is the response of desperate persons who find no moderate alternative.
The United States and its allies supported the right-wing dictators in Cuba and Nicaragua, and for that matter in Russia and China, who were overthrown by Marxist revolutionaries. In one case, Chile, it helped overthrow an elected Marxist in favor of a right-wing dictator. Augusto Pinochet is still considered a hero by that capitalist icon, Margaret Thatcher. It took another Marxist state, Vietnam, to overthrow the Khmer Rouge.
The anti-Marxist opposition won the first democratic elections in Nicaragua, seemingly vindicating the Reagan doctrine, and the long-standing cold-war policy of containing and resisting the spread of communism. But the Marxists won the first democratic elections in Mozambique, where the anti-Marxist guerrilleros were backed by, among others, South Africa, whose motives to undermine black governments are well understood.
And so the cold war and its policies may now appear somewhat compromised. In fact, the entire era was a tragedy, in the Shakespearean sense. It need never have happened. If truth and justice had guided the west in the first half of the century, the second half would have been vastly different for the east. Vietnam was perhaps the purest example of cold-war policy laid bare. It is not properly understood that Ho Chi Minh was first a patriot, not a Marxist. If there had been a liberal democratic, or even capitalist, alternative opposition to imperialism, it seems likely that he, and Vietnam, would have taken it. If the United States had supported democracy and independence for Vietnam (as its rhetoric suggested), instead of the oppressive colonial power of France, Ho would have brought Vietnam into the western bloc. But far from abandoning a backwards power clinging to shades of the past, the United States actually took over, became the colonial power itself. This was the model for democracy. Naturally Vietnam turned elsewhere.
The rise and fall of Marxism has been a disaster for the world, and it has been a disaster for the idea of communism. True communists are now in the worst position, for they genuinely care about the world, and they genuinely believe that the world would best be served by communism. And so not only do they have the knowledge that such atrocities were committed in their name, they have also the sure knowledge that true communism is now much further from happening, since it has been discredited in the eyes of so many.
True communists are now, as they have always been, predominantly idealistic, well-intentioned progressives. It is their very decency that leads them to the altruistic ideal of communism. To accuse them of the crimes committed by fanatical Marxists who never truly understood anything but perpetual revolution and lust for power is staggeringly unjust. They are, if anything, more inclined to support civil liberties and democracy than capitalists are.
And communism is now, as it has always been, the future. Eventually the world’s electorates, or its one electorate, will dispense with the fiction of private property and call a thing by its name. Dominion over land is still dominion. And it does not work. All beings in the world are dependent on the world for their existence within it, of course. They must learn that the only rational standpoint for them to take towards the world is one of cooperative stewardship, to preserve the world in a state which allows each individual, and any communities the individuals choose to form, to pursue what peaceful activities give meaning to their existence.
To deny the virtues of a system because of corrupt and brutal systems created in its name is foolish. To allow wealthy individuals armed with sophistic arguments to maintain their self-enriching dominion is foolish. To allow them to continue laying waste the land which could otherwise feed the many is utterly, utterly foolish. Let us hope that there is wisdom in our future.
© O.T. FORD
Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford