Ch. 16. Communism and Why It Has Been So Misunderstood

Post War Dilemma

    At the end of World War II, there were two things that were happening, and one thing that was not happening, all of which were very important. First, the United States decided to maintain a large military capability that could stop evil dictators. More specifically, it was determined to stop communism. 1

    Second, the Age of Imperialism was breaking up. A hundred new nation states in Asia, Africa, and Islands around the world were in the process of achieving independence. All of these countries immediately began the modern transformation, mostly from the beginning. Few of the newly emerging nations had monarchs who could help lead the early stage of the revolutionary process. Most of their royal dynasties had not survived the colonial era. 2

    Only a very few of the emerging states were able to quickly organize elected governments that could rule successfully. Americans believed that the only thing necessary to have democracy was to hold an election. This was just not true. It was a myth. Anarchy or authoritarian rule were the only options for most of the newly independent nations, and many had a series of dictators. At the same time, the modern transformation was unchanged since it had first begun in western Europe four and a half centuries earlier. There were a lot of identity cleansings, civil wars, national rebellions, border wars, social revolution, nationalism, socialism, and communism. 3

    So, there were dictators, some of them communist, in control of the new nations, and they were doing all of the nasty, violent things that are part of the modern transformation. The United States was pledged to stop this kind of rogue violence, especially communism. Clearly, there was going to be trouble. 4

    The third important thing, the one that was not happening, is that historians and social scientists were not able to identify the modern transformation. In 1946, there were no fully-modern democratic-market societies. Scholars knew that the world was changing, but they could not yet identify the complete process, analyze, and understand it. 5

The Real Reason for Communism

    The 20/20 hindsight of history was not available in 1946. They could not know that communism was just an overreaction against the oligarchic ruling class, its form of command economy was incapable of success, and it could only have a limited lifetime. Now we have the historical perspective that is necessary in order to understand what happened. 6

    The Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and a few other countries used communism as part of their modern revolutions to help overthrow their ancien régimes, imperial masters, oligarchs, class systems, religious aristocrats, and a tremendous amount of baggage left over from their traditional societies. These are exactly the same jobs that the modern transformation performs in every country, communist or not. 7

What Was Understood

    It would be useful here to look back and see where scholarship went off track. I am referring primarily to American academy, but also to a lesser extent, all English language scholarship. Toward the end of the 19th century, many historians had a pretty good grasp of the modern transformation up to that time. They understood that western Europe had changed away from medieval society, which featured monarchs, aristocrats, and peasants. They had developed a new form of capitalist market-economy nation state. 8

    Western Europe was also moving toward democratic government. It was believed that the Americans had gotten the jump on them in this regard. Because it never had aristocrats, the United States developed democracy much faster than Europe and used the unspoiled natural wealth of an entire continent to perfect the new form of capitalist-democratic society. 9

What Was Not Understood

    As far as American scholars were concerned, that was it, end of story. You could not get any more modern than a capitalist market economy and a democratic government. The problem was that the Europeans were going on and on about this socialism stuff. It had a terrible sounding rhetoric about the evils of capitalism and the expropriation of the means of production. Americans had the mildest oligarchic experience of any major country. They were proud of their capitalists and did not want to expropriate anything from any of them. The United States did not understand this socialism “thing” that was happening in Europe. 10

    At the beginning of the 20th century, it was getting worse. Extreme socialists were turning into hardline revolutionary communists, who demanded the overthrow of capitalism, democracy, and the entire new form of modern society. After World War I, communists seized control of Russia and were waging pitched battles in the streets of Europe. Americans were horrified. They did not understand this atheist-socialist-communist conspiracy to destroy modern society. Some thought that it was the “spawn of Satan.” 11

The Explanation

    With 20/20 hindsight, it is much easier to see what was going on. Most of Europe had a far more difficult oligarchic experience than the USA. The capitalist exploitation of workers was much more severe, especially in central and eastern Europe. When the workers complained, they were often hammered into the ground by the state security forces under the command of the same oligarchic ruling class that owned the factories and everything else. The modern transformation had turned into class war. When a war starts, some people are more gung-ho and eager to fight than others. This was the group of workers who became communists. They were being killed in the streets by the overwhelming power of the oligarchs and the state police, and they were ready to escalate the class war. 12

World War II and the Illusion of Strength

    Americans consoled themselves with the belief that communism would not work very well and would probably die a natural death. Then, during World War II, the Soviet communist economy produced more and better tanks than the United States. Everyone thought that the Russians were beaten, but they came roaring back with a brand new army and crushed the might of the Wehrmacht. It was great that the Soviets were able to contribute so much toward defeating Germany. Americans, however, were horrified that communism had turned out to be so capable and productive, and that it was spreading to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 13

The Reality of Weakness

    The problem with all communist economies is a lack of incentive. Under capitalism, if you produce something, you get to sell it. Under communism, if you produce something, you get to share it. This is very crippling for production, and it pretty much ensures that communist countries will not become wealthy consumer societies. There is no incentive for anyone to work hard to produce quality merchandize. 14

    In 1941, lack of incentive was not a problem for the Soviet Union. The entire German army had attacked and was killing Russians by the millions. The Russian people had no choice but to produce guns, ammunition, and tanks as fast as they could. The German army provided all of the incentive that was needed. Between 1939 and 1945, the Soviet Union performed almost as great a miracle of production as the American "arsenal of democracy." The German blitzkrieg was coming straight at them, and the Soviet population produced an amazing sixty-five thousand main-battle tanks under the most difficult conditions imaginable. At Stalingrad in 1942, T34s were driven off the factory floor and straight into combat. 15

    The incredible wartime achievements of the Soviet economy were much more a testament to the hard work and determination of the people than to the efficiency of the economic system. Communist industry peaked in World War II. No communist economy would ever be that productive again. The problem was, in 1946, nobody knew it. No one had the slightest idea. A hundred emerging and developing nations were in awe of the mighty Soviet economy that could accomplish such miracles. The United States and many other countries were in fear of such an amazing performance. The truth was that it only happened because of the war, and it would never happen again. 16

Post-War Communism in Central Europe

    The Soviet army ended World War II in Europe by taking Berlin in May 1945. This left the Russians in occupation of all of central and eastern Europe. The countries that had been part of the Czarist Empire were reabsorbed into the Soviet Union. The Slavic nations of central Europe had communist governments imposed on them by the Soviet occupying army, which silenced any form of dissent or free political expression. 17

    The United States and the Western alliance were outraged and convinced themselves that Soviet communism was an aggressive force that was intent on conquering the world for totalitarian dictatorship. This assumption was not true. The Soviets were certainly guilty of much bad behavior. They took sever revenge on Germans and every Slavic country and company that had done business with the Germans during the war. 18

    The charge of trying to conquer Europe and the world for communism, however, was not true. We have to remember that this was still the same central Europe that had been a cauldron of nationalism, socialism, communism, and fascism before the war. The Germans had failed to impose their solutions, but the Slavic countries still had numerous border disputes and serious political problems of their own. 19

    In 1945, half or nearly half of the Slavic central-European population favored communist government. Half or nearly half of the people were violently opposed to communist government. These kinds of political issues combined with ethnic conflict, border disputes, and large piles of surplus weapons were a recipe for disaster. These were the same problems that had caused World War II in the first place. Without some kind of extremely strong deterrent, more violence would have broken out. 20

    The Soviets new full well just how dangerous the political situation in central Europe was. The last thing they wanted was to have communist versus anti-communist political violence and civil war. They clamped down hard. Every country had to have a communist government. No country could rebel against their communist government, and no borders could be changed. That was the prime directive, and the Soviets enforced it absolutely for over forty years. The result was peace. 21

    From 1945 to 1989 the Slavic nations of central Europe were forced to live next to each other in peace. During that time, they got used to their borders and grew more comfortable with their ethnic minority populations. After the inevitable collapse of communism, most of the countries in central Europe were able to continue living in peace with each other. The exception was Yugoslavia, which came apart in a brutal civil war in the 1990s. 22


    English language scholars did not understand the modern transformation, and they did not understand communism and its role in the modern transformation. This was part of the reason for the Cold War. Beyond that, in 1946, the American and Soviet military commands remained stuck in war mode. They each saw an enemy in front of them and were determined to prevail. Central Europe, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, and many other countries paid most of the price. 23

    The modern transformation requires many different kinds of revolution. One of them is social revolution to reduce the power of the oligarchic ruling class. Using communism to wipe out the oligarchs entirely may have been overkill, but no one has ever known how to do the modern revolution just right. Paranoia, overreaction, and the use of too much violence have always been very common. Communism was the strongest form of revolution available. That is why some countries used it as part of their modern transformation. When it ceased to be useful to them, they had market reforms and brought back capitalism. 24

    In October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was playing on television screens across America, everyone thought that the fight between the "free world" and communism was the same thing as the eternal struggle between good and evil. Communism and capitalist democracy were clearly opposites. If one was right, the other had to be wrong. It turns out that there was right and wrong on both sides. 25

    In the study of history, it has often been my experience that forces which seem to be contradictory to each other are actually working in cooperation. Socialism and communism existed to oppose the monopoly of political and economic power enjoyed by the oligarchic ruling class and to bolster the political power of the working class. From the beginning, communism was a temporary solution to a temporary problem. It was part of the modern transformation that would eventually lead to democratic-market society. 26

The Modern Transformation in China

     The Chinese imperial bureaucratic system of government went back over two thousand years. It was the most successful aristocrat-peasant state known to history. It was very large, very old, and had a huge resistance to change. Chinese traditional culture used an aristocrat-peasant command economy. It also had a powerful imperial bureaucratic government. The modern transformation in China would continue to use both of these traditional economic and political institutions in a somewhat modified form. 27

    When the rude European upstarts first appeared on their shores, the Chinese tried to ignore them. With the Anglo-Chinese “Opium War” of 1840, this was no longer possible. The war was a disaster, and the Chinese wound up paying the British to stop attacking them. This was not a good idea. Europe was just arriving at the peak period of imperialism. Soon, the French appeared on the Chinese coast to join the English in pillage and ransom. By the end of the century—German, Russian, Austrian, Italian, American, and Japanese armies had appeared. Most of them acquired loot, payoffs, and commercial concessions. Attacking China had become the world’s favorite outdoor sport. 28

    The imperial dynasty was unable to resist and incapable of reform, but finally in the last quarter of the 19th century, China was stirring. Intellectuals and independent reformers began to address the problems, but the country was so large, with so much inertia, that nothing could be achieved quickly. Sun Yat-sen and the other reformers were swamped by the magnitude of the job, and China descended into the Warlord Period. In the 1930s, the Japanese made it a major focus for imperial conquest. 29

    After World War II and a full century of degradation, the Chinese people had had enough. It was time for China to rebuild itself as a powerful modern nation state, capable of self-defense. The Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek had proven itself to be incapable of fighting the Japanese and defending China. They were thrown out. The communists had fought the Japanese more effectively. They were put in charge. Most foreigners were expelled. 30

    The communists began a complete redesign and rebuild of the entire Chinese society. Mao Zedong became the new emperor and used that authority to dismantle the old imperial system. Landlordism was ended with more than enough violence to ensure that it would never rise again. The peasants were regimented into communes that had both farmland and factories, along with schools and clinics. They were taught modern ways, and anyone who showed talent was given extra training. 31

    The cities had industrial communes. Everyone worked very hard. The top down method of organization gave Mao and the communist authorities a high degree of control over the direction of the revolution, but it also had its problems. There were failures, inefficiencies, and famines. The Chinese people buried their dead, learned many lessons, and pressed onward. They were determined to become a fully-capable modern nation. 32

    In the 1960s, Mao became disappointed with intellectuals, teachers, party officials, and bureaucrats. They reminded him of the ancient and venerated “scholar-official class,” who were exempt from physical labor and put themselves above the people. The “Cultural Revolution” was instigated to deal with that. China now has a new generation of intellectuals, engineers, and research scientists with different training. Their poetry and calligraphy are not much, but they are willing to get their hands dirty in the fields and factories helping to develop new technology for agriculture and industry. 33

    By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, the “old China” was a thing of the past, but the “new China” was not yet anything special. In 1979, as an experiment, Deng Shao-ping and the communist leadership tried some market reforms. Production increased. They tried some more market reforms. Production increased again, and companies began developing new technology. The communists figured they were on to something. The rest is history, or is becoming history. 34

    Forward progress through the modern transformation is often accomplished by trial and error. There are many requirements that have to be completed during the transition from traditional to modern society. It is very common for this work to be done either one way, or another. The Chinese use the expression: "crossing the river by feeling the stones." The communist command economy could accomplish only so much, so the Chinese moved on to a capitalist market economy. Eventually they will also require a democratic government. 35

    Of about two dozen countries that experimented with communism, China seems to have gotten the most benefit from the experience. It was an extreme and violent revolutionary strategy, but the Chinese were in a hurry. They used communism to unify the nation, destroy the aristocratic landlord class, and humble the aristocratic scholar-official class. While doing this, they were also preparing the common people for modern development. After raising a new generation of modern workers, they began switching to a market economy in 1979. Since then their progress has been extremely rapid, although there is much left to do. 36

    Since the communists took over in 1949, China has had the fastest and most organized modern transformation of any large country. The communists worked hard and deserve much credit, but it was really the Chinese people who accomplished this amazing performance. I do not know of any other population who could have done it. In the 1950s and 60s, the Americans were bitterly arguing with each other over who lost China. The argument was silly. The Chinese were not lost. They were finding their own path to democratic-market society. 37

    When the Communist Dynasty in China loses the “Mandate of Heaven,” legitimacy will pass to a Democratic Dynasty. I do not know when or how, but it will happen. The fully-modern pattern of society demands it. The Chinese people will decide how and when the change to democracy takes place. The rest of the world does not need to worry about it. After the completion of the modern transformation sometime around the middle of this century, it will still be Chinese culture and Oriental Civilization, but it will also be fully-modern democratic-market society. When the last communist dictator hands power to the first elected president, it will be clear that communism was a revolutionary tool used by China as a legitimate part of the modern transformation. 38

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