Thursday, February 25, 2010



During the Cold War, America faced a serious intellectual challenge. It fought several wars and invested its entire economy into proving that its free market economic system was superior to communism.

Between 1945 and 1990, communism appeared a viable alternative to the free market. In both theory and practice, the Soviet Union and China loomed as proof that major world powers could function under communist governments. During this era, America did what it could to demonize communist countries: They were repressive; they did not allow free expression; they made it hard to earn a living; they were gray, forbidding places; they did not offer limitless opportunities for wealth; you couldn't own a home. Yet until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, America did not have really tangible arguments to show that communism was ineffective. After 1991, it gained a valuable new rhetorical weapon. From then on, free market defenders could say: "See? Communism doesn't work. Look what happened in Russia. Our system is better. I told you so."

Many Americans accept this argument without further thought. If educational and social indoctrination did not suffice to bias them against communism, the "Soviet example" put the nail in the coffin. "Our system is better," goes the argument, "because the Russians lost and we won."

But why exactly did the Soviet Union "fail?" And why do Americans use the Soviet failure to claim that "communism does not work?" In my view, the answers are not so simple. To the contrary, the Soviet failure does not reflect that communism is theoretically flawed. It merely reflects that communism did not work in practice in Russia. More vexingly, Americans base their conclusion that the free market is "superior" to communism only after making some embarrassing assumptions about human nature. In a word, capitalist defenders must admit that human beings are greedy, rapacious, egotistical scoundrels in order to sustain their argument that "the free market is better" than communism.

Think about how Americans craft their traditional responses to the Soviet failure. They say: "Well, communism might be great in theory, but it doesn't work because of human nature." What exactly does that mean? After all, in theory, Marxism posits that every human being is equal and that every human being deserves dignity and respect. It warns against the divisive influence of private property on human relationships. It also posits that labor is free and that no man should exploit another for profit. Further, Marxism posits that government has a responsibility to care for people because government is essentially humanitarian. From a Marxist perspective, the people deserve care, not merely the freedom to exploit one another for money. Moreover, Marxism supports these principles by assuming that human beings are naturally good. It also places great emphasis on individual worth as opposed to economic "instrumentalization" that sacrifices individual identity for "usefulness."

Are these bad principles? Do they reflect a vicious attitude toward our fellow man? Certainly not. If anything, Marxism espouses an extremely positive--even brotherly--approach to human nature. Yet according to the capitalist defenders, this approach fails because it misapprehends what humans are "actually like." To defeat the Marxist vision, the capitalist defender must say: "No, this system does not work because humans are not brotherly. Rather, they are conniving rascals who seek at all times to enrich themselves, even if that means backstabbing and betraying their brothers. Individuality is only useful to the extent that some individuals can reduce other individuals to economic servitude. Additionally, this system does not work because humans do not live for equality and dignity, but rather for crass personal gain, even if that means oppressing and exploiting their fellow man. Finally, government does not exist to care for these rascals, but rather to allow them to engage freely in rascalry, because self-interested rascalry leads to economic prosperity."

In a word, the American response to communism confesses that human beings are ruthless, savage, insensate exploiters who have no duty to their fellow man. In a sense, it admits that the communist vision is admirable. But it discounts that vision by sighing: "We are not so noble." In a strangely depressing way, capitalist defenders take solace in the recognition that human beings are brutal competitors without decency or compassion. After all, that brutality and competitive spirit keep the shelves stocked and the children fed. Who cares about theoretical appeal when merciless self-interest gives you all the shaving creams, sneakers, steak varieties and breakfast cereals you could possibly desire?

In this light, I do not believe that the Soviet failure theoretically debunks communism. No historical event will ever discount Marx's hopeful vision of human society, nor will any one State's experience tarnish the communist ideal in theory. Perhaps communism will never escape its theoretical constraints. Perhaps no State will ever live up to its high theoretical ideals. Perhaps we are just not good enough.

But sometimes ideas are beautiful, even if they are not realizable in present circumstances. I think communism fits in that category. We can all dream about utopia, even if utopia is not attainable given our limitations. Still, that does not detract from the dream. If anything, it merely shows that we are not capable of living the dream. And that is not something to be proud of. It is just an embarrassing confession that highlights our weaknesses.

Maybe human beings will never successfully practice communism. But that does not prove that communism is "bad in theory." It merely proves that we are weak, selfish, fungible, vicious creatures. Non-communist governments accommodate that weakness and harness it to good effect. Yet I would argue that there is nothing laudable about our natural weakness. The sad truth is that free market prosperity depends on inequality, exploitation and savagery. Although the benefits might outweigh the burdens, it does not change the fact that it is an ugly business. And the individual only matters to the extent that he can use other individuals to enrich himself. That is pretty bleak.

But this is what makes America strong. What a strange business. In the end, the question is: "Who am I? What am I worth? Does anyone care about me?" The communist says: "You are a valuable individual. Everyone cares about you. If you are in need, you will receive help." The capitalist says: "You are nothing unless you make something of yourself. And if you don't, that's your fucking problem, because no one is going to help you, pal. So get out there and start earning."

Guess which perspective won? So much for humanity.


SteveW said...

I'll pound on Communism as much as the next guy. However, the Soviet Union was no Communism. It was top-down, brutal management by a very small elite.

An interesting thing about Communism is that, when you step away from it just a little, you get as far from it as you can be. In theory, in Communism, everyone has X. When a very small slice of people get 1,000X, and almost everyone else has X, then what you have LOOKS like Communism but is in fact the opposite. You have an upper class that is so far distant from the lower classes that the lower classes look equal. That is a sort of uber-capitalism.

Back to your post - it is perhaps sad that Communism can't work. However, the fact is utterly undeniable.

Capitalism motivates people with the most reliable force we have found - self interest. Is that bad? I guess, but there is no question that it's extremely effective. Happily, we have progressed to the point where motivated people can make enough for all, so the formula becomes one where balance motivation versus distribution of the excess.

Do we have the formula worked out yet? No - of course not. But we're pretty darn close. True poverty is close to as low as it has ever been, and I'm optimistic we will continue to push it lower.

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Capitalism isn't without its weaknesses either (see TARP)