Hasn’t communism already failed?

There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent.

Another section from Rescuing the message of The Communist Manifesto

* * * *

There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century 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 more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary 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 aims 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, in the first half of the 20th century, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation.

After World War II, the Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union was joined  by a host of other countries in what became ‘the socialist camp’. It included China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia where their own revolutionary forces had taken power, 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 a trained workforce virtually from scratch. The “failure of communism” was a consequence of the tardiness, perhaps even failure, of capitalism.


“It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent.”


Under these conditions the move in a communist direction could only be quite limited and eventually proved unsustainable. They took important preliminary steps 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 thwarted. 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 a couple of exceptions in central 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 these 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.

Because most work was arduous and repetitive manual labor, and the education level and background of the typical worker 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 culture 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, under these conditions, rank and file workers with special abilities or talents would tend to be more interested in escaping the workers’ lot by becoming one of the privileged rather than in struggling against it.


“… after a crash industrialization in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was able to defeat the fascist Axis powers through the largest military mobilization in human history. This is something for which the world should be eternally grateful.”


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 was an 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 similar regimes in Eastern Europe ended up as a distinctive type of dead-end economically, politically and socially, and their demise in 1989-90 is one of the celebrated advances of the late 20th century. At the same time, 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 survives throught mass terror and the support of the Chinese. All these regimes are an affront to freedom and democracy, and will share the same fate as those in other countries where the capitalist “Communist Parties” have already been overthrown.


“This peculiar state of affairs arose because the bourgeoisie was too weak, cowardly or treacherous to carry out its own tasks. Instead, in the first half of the 20th century, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation.”


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 the fascist Axis powers through the largest military mobilization in human history. 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.


This discussion of the “failure of communism” in backward countries certainly does not imply that the process of communist revolution would be easy in countries that have reached the developed stage of capitalism. While capitalism has created conditions that make communism possible, there is nothing automatic about it. Indeed it will require an entire epoch of struggle to make the transition to a society based on mutual regard rather than profit. There cannot be any notion of ‘socialism’ that does not see it as a revolutionary transition that is prone to capitalist restoration. The initial threat from the old bourgeoisie is followed by a threat from a new bourgeoisie emerging among cadres, who wave the red flag in order to oppose it.

The initial period of the revolution will have many problems. A large number of people will  be hostile, neutral or lukewarm in their support. New revolutionary governments will be far less experienced than their opponents, and will face many difficulties getting into power and holding onto it. The old management cannot be dispensed with overnight and will be in a position to sabotage output and efforts to change things. Defeat could result from revolutionaries making mistakes or the counter-revolution recovering from temporary disarray.

There has to be a fundamental change in human behavior and the way society operates. The bourgeoisie, and the habits and ways of thinking of its society will prove tenacious, and the proletariat will have to transform itself in the struggle against them.

We will have to learn new ways and cast off old ones. We will have to unlearn passive, submissive and weak-spirited habits engendered by capitalism, and develop the new morality of mutual regard and steadfast resistance to the old forms of behavior. Mutual regard is enlightened self-interest where everyone does the right thing knowing that a large and increasing section of society is doing the same. It will be the basis of morality and what is honorable. We will all share in the ‘pool’ of greater prosperity and good-will that results. Such a culture is totally at odds with capitalism where the rich exploit everyone else and a large number of people are simply thrown on the scrap heap.

Critical for success is the emergence of a large and increasing number of people who see the revolutionary transformation of the conditions around them as a prime mission in life.

Marx Supported Capitalist Globalization

Even the most rabid anti-communists acknowledge that Karl Marx got it right in his understanding and prediction of ‘globalization’, how the economies of the world would industrialise and become increasingly integrated.




“All that is solid melts into air” applies to the nation state as much as to the old feudal system that was overturned by the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Then, as now, reactionaries fought hard to keep things ‘solid’ but leftists welcome the globalizing changes that bring human beings closer together through amazing technological advances in transport and telecommunications.

There is an Index that follows the patterns of globalisation in our time: DHL Global Connectedness Index.

David McMullen has just added a new article to the Communist Manifesto Project that shows how Marx supported globalisation. Thanks to David for permission to republish it here.


Today’s “Marxists” share with the rest of the pseudo left an opposition to capitalist, indeed any, globalization. This puts them totally at odds with Marx. The following quote from The Communist Manifesto leaves no doubt about Marx’s pro position:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Then in a letter to Engels of October 8 1858 he wrote:

The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process.

In his other writings, Marx supported Europe’s colonial conquests, the “process” that got globalization going. In his view Europe was the only source of capitalism which in turn was the necessary precursor of communism. Support for this historical necessity did not prevent him from expressing his disgust at the barbarity and hypocrisy of the Europeans as they went about this conquest nor was he impressed with the tardy pace at which the old societies were being replaced by the new. What he was doing was recognizing that capitalism has a dialectical or contradictory nature. Only capitalism can create the conditions for its own demise. You have to support it in order to oppose it. In “The British Rule in India” New York Daily News of June 25, 1853, he wrote:

These small stereotype forms of social organism [autonomous villages] have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

In “The Future Results of British Rule in India” New York Daily News of August 8, 1853, he wrote:

England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia.

He expressed a similar view when writing about Britain’s beastly treatment of China. So that in “Revolution in China and In Europe”, New York Daily News, June 14, 1853 we read:

It is almost needless to observe that, in the same measure in which opium has obtained the sovereignty over the Chinese, the Emperor and his staff of pedantic mandarins have become dispossessed of their own sovereignty. It would seem as though history had first to make this whole people drunk before it could rouse them out of their hereditary stupidity.

and then:

All these dissolving agencies acting together on the finances, the morals, the industry, and political structure of China, received their full development under the English cannon in 1840, which broke down the authority of the Emperor, and forced the Celestial Empire into contact with the terrestrial world. Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of Old China. That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.

In an article published in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung No. 7, January 23, 1848, Engels expressed his delight at America’s victory in the war with Mexico and the conquest of California, Texas and areas in between. In their footnotes the editors at Progress Press in Moscow try to make out that both Engels and Marx later took a different view. They cite an 1861 article by Marx called “The Civil War in North America”. Here Marx mentions how expansionism at the time was driven by the slave owners. Although he makes no actual mention of the Mexican-American War. In hindsight we can see that one good thing about the annexations was that they contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War which the slave-owners went on to lose. Their attempt to spread slavery to the new territories was the last straw. And we can now say without fear of contradiction that capitalist development greatly benefited from the switch in sovereignty. Here is a link to the 1861 article. It is no use on the Mexican-American War but it is a very illuminating exposition of the expansionist threat posed by the slave states and a very good argument against British “neutrality”.

Marx was quite unsupportive of rebellions by reactionary or backward elements in colonial societies. These included the Taiping Rebellion in China and the Indian Mutiny.

In “Chinese Affairs” Die Presse, No. 185, July 7, 1862, Marx has nothing positive to say about the Taiping Rebellion that rocked southern China from 1850 to 1864

They have no slogans. They are an even greater abomination for the masses of the people than for the old rulers. They seem to have no other vocation than, as opposed to conservative stagnation, to produce destruction in grotesquely detestable forms, destruction without any nucleus of new construction.

“Marxists” have tried to tell a different tale. Over at The Marx and Engels Internet Archive they have a section entitled Articles on China 1853 – 1860. It has other articles that deal with rebellion but not the Die Presse article for copyright reasons. In their introduction they paint the Taiping in glowing colors:

At the same time, the Taiping rebellion broke out in 1850 and attacked the status quo Confucianist Manchu Dynasty — which had ruled since 1644. The rebellion was based in social revolutionary ideas of equality and was popular among the masses. It abolished private property, established sexual equality, and banned drugs (from alcohol to opium). By 1853, it dominated much of SE China. It would not be until 1864 that the Taiping capital of Nanking was captured by the imperial Manchu government.

Progress Press also have this rather gratuitous footnote in Volume I of Capital:

In 1850-64, China was swept by an anti-feudal liberation movement in the form of a large-scale peasant war, the Taiping Revolt.

The fairly uncontroversial Wikipedia entry on the Taiping Rebellion gives a far less flattering picture.

There is also an attempt to paint the Indian Mutiny as a national liberation movement. The Soviet Foreign Languages Publishing House in 1959 brought out a collection of articles by Marx on the Indian Mutiny entitled The First Indian War of Independence, 1857-1859. Also the The Marx and Engels Internet Archive has a web page entitled The First Indian War of Independence (1857-1858)
Marx does not explicitly repudiate the Mutiny in the way that he did in the case of the Taiping Rebellion. However, the total absence of any explicit statement of support is just as telling. He is very concerned to expose British military incompetence and brutality. He is also pleased by the financial and political strain it is placing on Britain. But that is as far as it goes. It is hard to imagine him supporting a pack of princes who wanted to reinstate the Mogul empire after what we know about his view on the role of the British in India.

The editors of Progress Press were also embarrassed by an article by Engels called “French Rule in Algeria” (The Northern Star January 22 1848). Here he wrote:

Upon the whole it is, in our opinion, very fortunate that the Arabian chief has been taken. The struggle of the Bedouins was a hopeless one, and though the manner in which brutal soldiers, like Bugeaud, have carried on the war is highly blameable, the conquest of Algeria is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation. The piracies of the Barbaresque states, never interfered with by the English government as long as they did not disturb their ships, could not be put down but by the conquest of one of these states. And the conquest of Algeria has already forced the Beys of Tunis and Tripoli, and even the Emperor of Morocco, to enter upon the road of civilisation. They were obliged to find other employment for their people than piracy, and other means of filling their exchequer than tributes paid to them by the smaller states of Europe. And if we may regret that the liberty of the Bedouins of the desert has been destroyed, we must not forget that these same Bedouins were a nation of robbers,—whose principal means of living consisted of making excursions either upon each other, or upon the settled villagers, taking what they found, slaughtering all those who resisted, and selling the remaining prisoners as slaves. All these nations of free barbarians look very proud, noble and glorious at a distance, but only come near them and you will find that they, as well as the more civilised nations, are ruled by the lust of gain, and only employ ruder and more cruel means. And after all, the modern bourgeois, with civilisation, industry, order, and at least relative enlightenment following him, is preferable to the feudal lord or to the marauding robber, with the barbarian state of society to which they belong.

Progress Press in its footnotes refers to this resistance as a liberation struggle. They also then claim that in an 1844 article Engels had made commendable noises about the resistance and that an article “Algeria” written for the New American Encyclopaedia in 1857 reverses the position expressed in the 1848 article. There is nothing in either article that can be construed in this way. An editor’s footnote to the latter article claims that the relevant material was left out by the encylcopaedia editors and this is conformed by a letter from Engels to Marx on 22 September 1857. The letter shows nothing of the sort. The reader is invited to read those three pieces to make up their own mind.

These views of Marx are not at odds with support by communists for the 20th century anti-colonial movement. By that stage the movement was primarily lead by western educated elements who sought to modernize their countries rather than take them backwards. Although there were some oddities such as Mahatma Gandhi, and independence brought many monsters like Idi Amin in Uganda and Mobutu in Zaire, and the whole process was badly affected by the Cold War.