Hasn’t Communism Already Failed? (More from The Communist Manifesto Project)

There is a lot to be done on the democratic front. This includes:

supporting freedom of speech and assembly, government transparency, right to due process and freedom from government harassment and surveillance;

helping neutralize any emerging fascists trends;

struggling for a democratic political culture within the communist movement that effectively deals with controlling personalities, sycophants and attempts to close down critical thinking;

being better than others at exposing the folly of professional politicians;

proposing changes to the constitution and system of representation that would open up politics to greater scrutiny and participation;

and showing how vested economic interests under capitalism have a corrupting effect on government.

(More from The Communist Manifesto Project)


There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. There was indeed a failure. However, it was not of communism, but of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and China in 1949 were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership. There was little modern industry and thinking was medieval. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is required for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that is supposed to supersede it.

This peculiar state of affairs arose because the bourgeoisie was too weak, cowardly or treacherous to carry out its own tasks. Instead, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation. The Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union was joined after World War II by a host of other countries in what became ‘the socialist camp’. It included China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia that had taken power with their own revolutionary forces, and eastern and central Europe and northern Korea where regimes were established by virtue of Soviet military occupation in the aftermath of the defeat of Germany and Japan. So, by historical accident communists found themselves burdened with the task of raising their societies out of social and economic backwardness. They had to perform the work of capitalism. They had to create an industrial base and trained work force virtually from scratch. The “failure of communism” was a consequence of the failure of capitalism.

Under these conditions the move in a communist direction could only be quite limited and proved unsustainable. They took important preliminary measures but did not achieve the real substance. Industry was placed under state ownership which meant that capitalist industry was expropriated and the new accumulation of private wealth prevented. At the same time there was a degree of economic security for workers. The system was described as socialism, the first stage on the road to communism. However, the weakness of the proletariat placed severe limits on what could be achieved. With some minor exceptions in Europe, it only began to become a significant section of society with the industrialization that followed the revolution. Proletarians were former peasants engaged mainly in the low paid toil that you would expect at this stage of development. They were simply not ready to be a ruling class. There was not the basis for a society based on mutual regard. Enthusiasm and unprompted initiative was limited in the harsh conditions and so there was a heavy reliance on material incentives and top down command with all kinds of perverse results. The freedom and democracy required for the full development of the proletariat was not possible given the intensity of external and internal opposition and the weakness of the revolutionary forces. Conditions also dictated a heavy reliance on a “revolutionary vanguard”.

Because most work was arduous and repetitive manual labor, and the education level and background of typical workers left them ill-equipped for involvement in the mental aspects of production, there was a minority who did the thinking and deciding. These were the managers, engineers and officials – generally referred to as ‘cadres’. Members of this elite had a vested interest in entrenching their privileged position and were unlikely to encourage an invasion of their domain as workers became more skilled and educated, and industry more mechanized, nor to willingly start to take upon themselves a share of the more routine forms of labor.

Once career, income and position are the primary impulse, economic results take a second place to empire building, undermining rivals, promoting loyal followers, scamming the system and concealing one’s poor performance from superiors. The opportunity for workers to resist these developments was limited by the lack of freedom and the culture of subordination which drains away confidence and the courage to act. This can be very strong even in the absence of political tyranny as we can see in any liberal capitalist society. At the same time, one can imagine that any rank and file worker with special abilities or talents would tend to be more interested in escaping the workers’ lot by becoming one of the privileged rather than struggling against them.

Mao Zedong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party until his death in 1976, referred to this process, once fully entrenched and endorsed at the top, as capitalist restoration and those encouraging it as revisionists and capitalist roaders. The Chinese Cultural Revolution that he led in the late 1960s is the only attempt to beat back this trend. However, that revolution was sabotaged and defeated, and the capitalist roaders were able to seize supreme power in China after his death.

The Soviet Union and like regimes in Eastern Europe represented a distinctive type of dead-end economically, politically and socially, and their demise in 1989-90 is one of the celebrated events of the late 20th centuries. By discarding much of the empty and dysfunctional formal shell of socialism and operating more like normal capitalist economies both China and Vietnam have managed to achieve considerable economic development in recent decades. Cuba is now beginning to take this route. The monstrosity in North Korea relies on mass terror and the support of the Chinese. All these regimes are an affront to freedom and democracy, and must be overthrown.

Notwithstanding this grim picture, there were still some significant achievements. In a large part of the world landlords and feudal relations were swept from the countryside. Industrialization was raised from a very low base and generally outperformed the backward countries in the capitalist camp. Most importantly, after a crash industrialization in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was able to defeat Nazi Germany. This is something for which the world should be eternally grateful.

The dilemma faced by 20th century communists was anticipated by Engels in the following passage from chapter 6 of The Peasant War in Germany, published in 1850:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost.

What is to be Done?

At the moment when inquiring minds seek to learn about communism they will encounter a range of appalling nonsense from various tiny groups claiming to be communist or Marxist. Some support the regimes in Cuba and China, and there are even the occasional North Korea supporters. The absurd regime in Venezuela inspires many of them. They all cling onto the once true but now outdated view that US imperialism is the main problem in the world today, and for this reason some even see a good side to Daesh, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They all share the mainstream view that regime change in Iraq has been a disaster and the fascist Baath Party should have been left in power. These groups never talk about how capitalism is creating the conditions for communism but simply whine about how terrible the system is, and often do this in a reactionary way particularly in their opposition to “globalization” and acceptance of green views on virtually everything. They rarely talk about and scarcely understand communism, and they simply see it as something in never-never land rather than their real purpose.

It will be up to the now very young or yet to be born to rediscover communism. For older people it would require too much of a break from their entrenched ways of thinking. Only then can we expect to see the beginnings of a communist movement.

As well as understanding and conveying the ultimate aims of communism and social ownership, with its elimination of market relations and the full development of the individual, they will also need to come to grips with how we get there. This has a number of phases. Listing them in reverse chronological order they are: the period of revolutionary transition when we shake off all the “muck of the ages”; the initial phase of the revolution, day one so to speak; and the here and now.

On the transition phase it will be particularly important to understand the tenacity of the bourgeoisie and old bad habits and thinking, and the need for the proletariat to transforms itself in the struggle. The new society cannot be created overnight. A vigorous mass movement will be critical for the transition because a passive population means certain defeat at the hands of a new bourgeoisie. In this context there would need to be a firm rebuttal to any idea of ‘socialism’ that is not seen as a revolutionary transition stage on the road to communism. There has to be a fundamental change in human behavior and the way society operates. It is that or capitalism. Any halfway stage has to proceed to communism or revert to capitalism.

During the initial phase, one of the first tasks of the revolution will be the neutralization of the bourgeoisie by expropriating their assets. This could be done fairly quickly and would not have to await more fundamental changes in economic arrangements. It could be achieved with a 100 per cent wealth tax on all wealth over a certain level. All the company stock, bonds, bank deposits and other income earning assets belonging to the bourgeoisie would become the property of the state. This would in an instant drastically reduce their economic and political power. People in executive positions would simply be instructed to keep doing their job under threat of dismissal. Some capable executives are indeed capitalists so some concessions may need to be made to them if they are prepared to cooperate.

During the pre-revolutionary period there are many matters that the communist movement will need to deal with. It is important to connect with those resisting the various symptoms of the existing order because they would be among the more amenable to communist ideas and there is much to be achieved in the here and now that is necessary for communism.

There is a lot to be done on the democratic front. This includes: supporting freedom of speech and assembly, government transparency, right to due process and freedom from government harassment and surveillance; helping neutralize any emerging fascists trends; struggling for a democratic political culture within the communist movement that effectively deals with controlling personalities, sycophants and attempts to close down critical thinking; being better than others at exposing the folly of professional politicians; proposing changes to the constitution and system of representation that would open up politics to greater scrutiny and participation; and showing how vested economic interests under capitalism have a corrupting effect on government.

People are seeking remedies to the various ills of the present system. They seek the alleviation of poverty, better healthcare and education. While helping to pursue improvements in the here and now communists would be there explaining the limitations of what can be achieved under the system. They would not simply be demanding the same things but in a more militant in tone. Their central focus would not be on denouncing governments for under-spending in these areas or for pursuing this policy or that. Rather, they would stress that only communism can ensure jobs and economic security and explain how it would lead to better healthcare and education through the fundamental changes in human behavior.

Communists must advocate rapid scientific advance and denounce capitalism for its tardiness in this area. It is critical to both our ability to thrive on this planet and to create the material conditions for communism. In the process they will have to lock horns with the green opponents of “technofix” who think that science just creates new problems. For the greens, the “solution” is less consumption and a population collapse.

Communists will need to be vocally demanding that the international bourgeoisie do far more to further what Marx called the bourgeois democratic revolution. Their tardiness in this area is legendary. For example, if a communist movement existed at this very moment it would be vigorously demanding that the powers that be quickly sort out the appalling situation in Syria and Iraq. Their failure to give effective assistance to the legitimate rebel forces in Syria meant that Daesh was able to thrive with appalling results. US President Barak Obama’s inaction in the early phase of the Syrian civil war should be condemned as should that country’s ongoing underwriting of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Generally we should be demanding that our rulers do everything possible to re-spark the Arab Spring.

Part of the problem is a prevailing pacifism both within the ruling class and society at large. A communist movement would be particularly concerned that the liberal democracies retain their military supremacy and stay well ahead of Russia and China. A large defense reserve should play a role, and would ensure that professionals are not the only ones with military training.

5 thoughts on “Hasn’t Communism Already Failed? (More from The Communist Manifesto Project)

  1. “There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. There was indeed a failure. However, it was not of communism, but of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and China in 1949 were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies.”

    This was Kautsky’s view as well:

    “The absolutism of the old bureaucracy has come again to life in a new but, as we have seen, by no means improved form; and also alongside of this absolutism are being formed the seeds of a new capitalism, which is responsible for direct criminal practices, and which in reality stands on a much lower level than the industrial capitalism of former days. It is only the ancient feudal land estate which exists no more. For its abolition conditions in Russia were ripe. But they were not ripe for the abolition of capitalism. This latter system is now undergoing resuscitation, nevertheless in forms which, for the proletariat, are more oppressive and more harmful than those of yore. Private capitalism has now taken on, in place of the higher industrial forms, the most wretched and corrupt form of smuggling, of profiteering, and of money speculation. Industrial capitalism, from being a private system, has now become a State capitalism. Formerly the bureaucrats of the State and those of private capital were often very critical, if not directly hostile, towards one another. In consequence the working-man found advantage sometimes with the one, and sometimes with the other. To-day, however, both State and capitalist bureaucracy have merged into one system. That is the final result of the great Socialist upheaval, which the Bolsheviks have introduced. It represents the most oppressive of all forms of despotism that Russia has ever had. The substitution of democracy by the arbitrary rule of the Workmen’s Council, which was to serve for the ‘expropriation of the expropriators,’ has now given place to the arbitrary rule of a new form of bureaucracy. Thus it has been made possible for this latter to render democracy for the workmen a complete dead letter; since the working-class community has, at the same time, been driven into greater economic dependence than it ever had to endure before.”


    I think the emphasis at the end of this essay on measures necessary in a socialist revolution are too specific to be useful and not at all grounded in a specific context and actually-existing material, political, cultural, social, and economic conditions. If you want to revive Marxian communism as a distinct political trend, one has to begin where Marx and Engels began, with an emphasis on material conditions, their inherent contradictions, and the range of possible outcomes those contradictions create.


    • Kautsky supported the Mensheviks — actually, no, he didn’t. He supported the Bolshevik-led insurrection that created the Soviet government in late 1917 but broke with the Bolsheviks once they decided to destroy democracy and all its trappings by dispersing the Constituent Assembly (C.A.) and refusing to hold new elections for the C.A.

      Would the Mensheviks have done better? Since the Bolsheviks annulled the election results in 19/30 provincial soviets where the Mensheviks won in spring of 1918 and used force to close down these soviets, we’ll never know. I tend to think that a coalition government of Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and Left SRs with the Left SRs being in the majority (inevitable in any reasonably democratic government given Russia’s peasant preponderance) would have commanded a lot more popular support and required a lot less state repression than the Chekist bureaucratic one-party monstrosity the Bolsheviks erected instead. The author of this post is quite right to complain about left support or ‘softness’ towards the Taliban and Ba’ath regimes but that problem has very old roots that go back to left support and justification for the one-party state that emerged out of the decisions the Bolsheviks made in early-mid 1918.

      Communists who want to revive their movement as a living political trend that strongly supports bourgeois-democratic revolutions in places like Syria have to be willing to go back to this history, study it in an all-sided manner, and admit that our predecessors made egregious and even criminal errors since people calling themselves communists are the ones who invented the one-party states dominated by mukhabarats in the first place. We may want to forget that or gloss over it but what the world chooses to remember is not entirely up to us.


  2. socialist governments have failed and in the future may also fail. The reasons were and will be different. Capitalism failed many times before it took root and after 400 years still hasn’t established itself in every country in the world.
    To say the pre conditions weren’t there or the one party system was responsible is just a little simplistic. It would be very improbable that socialism could be successful at the first attempt. There are many lessons to be learnt form the failures and the development of a program requires more emphasis on the current conditions and what is required than a backward look at what may have worked better 100 years ago


  3. Interesting discussion. I agree with PW that the connection between bolshevik one party states and the subsequent desertions to social fascism cannot be ignored and must be studied, But I also agree that historical circumstances left little option.

    The same dilemma presented by Engels in 1850 in “The Peasant War in France” was later expressed more positively by in a letter to Weydemyer of April 13, 1853:

    “All this, of course, relates merely to theory; in practice we shall, as always, be reduced to insisting above all on resolute measures and absolute ruthlessness. And that’s the pity of it. I have a feeling that one fine day, thanks to the helplessness and spinelessness of all the others, our party will find itself forced into power, whereupon it will have to enact things that are not immediately in our own, but rather in the general, revolutionary and specifically petty-bourgeois interest; in which event, spurred on by the proletarian populus and bound by our own published statements and plans — more or less wrongly interpreted and more or less impulsively pushed through in the midst of party strife — we shall find ourselves compelled to make communist experiments and leaps which no-one knows better than ourselves to be untimely. One then proceeds to lose one’s head — only physique parlant I hope — , a reaction sets in and, until such time as the world is capable of passing historical judgment of this kind of thing, one will be regarded, not only as a brute beast, which wouldn’t matter a rap, but, also as bête, and that’s far worse. I don’t very well see how it could happen otherwise. In a backward country such as Germany which possesses an advanced party and which, together with an advanced country such as France, becomes involved in an advanced revolution, at the first serious conflict, and as soon as there is real danger, the turn of the advanced party will inevitably come, and this in any case will be before its normal time. However, none of this matters a rap; the main thing is that, should this happen, our party’s rehabilitation in history will already have been substantiated in advance in its literature.”

    http://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1853/letters/53_04_12.htm MECW v39 p303

    There is no obvious reason to believe that a Menshevik/SR government would have led to a more progressive democratic development and avoidance of social fascism, The bolshevik claim that the alternative to their one party state was white guard counter revolution and continuation of the imperialist war seems well founded. Although often waving red flags, the social fascists came to power as direct opponents, not natural successors of their revolutionary predecessors. In the Soviet Union this was obscured but in China it was quite vivid. As for the Arab autocracies, parties like the Baathists were “socialist” only in the same sense as Mussolini and the “National Socialists” having been openly fascist rather than “social fascist” from the 1930s. As in Indonesia the fascists were generally assisted by the CIA in smashing “communist” opposition to suppression of democracy.

    Earlier in the English bourgeois revolution both the suppression of the parliament in whose name the monarchy was overthrown with consequent military dictatorship and rule by the Major Generals and subsequent restoration seem in retrospect to have been unavoidable. Clearlry the subsequent restoration

    But that too did pass and despite restoration they did move a century or so ahead of the Continent let alone the rest of the world. Could they have done it any other way? Did India do better than China? Cromwell, Lenin, Stalin and Mao are commemorated by both revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries for reasons that are both contradictory and make sense.


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