Has Communism Actually Always Failed?

Has Communism Actually Always Failed?

It's often said that communism "has always failed", but is this argument historically accurate?

Whenever some scare piece warning as all about the dangers of communism for this, or that, contemporary political reason pops up the inevitable line is always condescendingly repeated, chapter and verse. "Communism has always failed!" It's funny, if not alarming, that such empty catch phrases are what passes for historical analysis of a movement that has existed since the 19th century. Usually the only basis for this claim is presenting some of the number of terrors and errors committed by regimes ruled by communists.

This line of argument, despite being repeated enough to make one nauseous, ignores, or begs a number of key questions. What does "fail" mean? Communists were hugely successful in taking state power around the world in the 20th century, many of them still holding it today. What is communism? Surely communism isn't simply the rule of communists in a state apparatus. It must be a specific kind of social vision, one that we can identify the successful implementation of. Given these questions, was communism ever actually successfully put into practice? If communism has so obviously failed on it's own merits then it must have been coherently carried out in the real world.

Again, none of these questions are ever answered by our condescending right wing Paul Reveres. The only analysis they ever cough up amounts to pointing out the terrors and errors committed by communists in power and thus axiomatically assuming that from these terrors and errors we can infer that communism is evil. Again, this isn't analytically rigorous. Capitalist states have committed vast amounts more terrors and errors than communist states, and the professed ideology of those in power means little to nothing in terms of the actual socio-political project they embarked upon.

Here we will try to answer this question about communism's historical record. We will answer all of the questions asked above and do the historical analysis deliberately ignored by the right wing anti-communists. From this analysis we will discern whether communism really belongs in the dust bin of history.

What is communism?

We can only determine what communism is by evaluating the historical social and political movement which took up the term and the social vision it denotes. Specifically we have to take stock of what vision it's members espoused. The communist movement always included a wide range of sub-movements which competed with each other. It and it's constituent movements are "antisystemic" social forces. This means that they opposed the existing world social, political, and economic system of capitalism.

They were also "social movements" in the sense that their particular form of antisystemic thought and practice identified the power of capital over labor as the source of the lack of democracy and equality in modern society. Subsequently they argued for and sought the overthrow of capital by labor. This is in contrast to nationalist antisystemic movements which saw the main problem of modern society as the domination of minority national and ethnic groups by dominant ones and the solution the creation of independent nation states for the former.

Among the communists the main split was between the Anarchists and the Marxists. Despite the stock idea of communism in most people's heads as the result of party dictatorships in "communist countries", the idea of communism never had anything to do with a strong state apparatus. Thus Anarchists, who were anti-state communists, argued with Marxists over whether antisystemic movements should use state power to change society.

The society they wished to replace capitalism, their social vision, can be described as such using the works of various influential communists; from Marxists to Anarchists. By reviewing these works the common social vision advanced by both Anarchists and Marxists is seen to be; a society which, unlike our own, is not based on capital accumulation, is not organized through oppression and exploitation, has no divisions of people into classes, and no coercive political institutions. It operates through the freely associated cooperation of producers. These producers collectively control the tools of social production and use democratic decision making to distribute the products of the social labor process.

We can sum this up with a short form definition. Communism is a vision for a post-capitalist society organized through cooperation, collective ownership, and free association, without any forms of social dominance, control, or inequality. Despite it's varied use today "socialism" in the historic communist movement was a synonym for communism.
Did Communists Implement Communism In Power?
Before and after WW2 communists took power in states around the world. With this power they assumed that they would make social change in the direction of a post-capitalist, communist society. Did they? Well it should be obvious that a cooperative, egalitarian society wasn't achieved, but why? What did the communists actually do in power?

There are a number of requirements for successfully holding state power. They can be encapsulated by two major imperatives; the need to enter the interstate hierarchy of world capitalism and the need to compete in it's world economy. Subsequently when the communists took power they then marshaled the state's force to eliminate their opposition and constrain class struggle (conflict between labor, capital, and the state). Then they sought and achieved diplomatic recognition by the other states of the world system.

At the same time these new states needed to accumulate capital. All states need to do this because they occupy a capitalist world system where the survival of institutions rests specifically on their ability to. This means becoming part of the capitalist world economy with it's world wide division of labor and world market. To achieve this the communists carried out projects of economic development, including industrialization, in order to compete with the west.

Essentially the role of state power in world capitalism forced the communists to transform their states, as all states are, into political units of the capitalist world economy. Initially the communists were simply responding to the requirements of holding state power in the world system, despite these requirements essentially dictating that they ignore their revolutionary goals. However, since there was no point at which these requirements ceased the communists morphed into "communists" only in name. They became, in reality, capitalists.

The Soviet Union, at this point in it's development, had synthesized a conception of "socialism" as entirely different from what people like Marx and his Anarchist opponents conceived of. Instead of being essentially a synonym for the goal of communism, "socialism" now meant that the communist party was in control of the state which itself controlled the economy, and subsequently had eliminated class divisions and begun guiding society through a period of economic development which would create the abundance required for communism's eventual achievement. The USSR declared itself socialist on this basis in 1936.

This idea of "socialism in one country" essentially defined "socialism", not by a revolutionary break from capitalism, but by capitalist accumulation that would ostensibly pave the way for a communist future. This was the strange manner in which the communists in control of the USSR, by now having nothing, but, every intention to prosper within the capitalist world system rather than change it, reconciled their revolutionary past with their assimilated present.Socialism in one country was then adopted near universally by the communists that came to power elsewhere. The only real exceptions were the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution starting in the late 60s. In both these instances, despite modifications of the socialism in one country ideology, these modifications always served the purpose of capitalist practice. In Cambodia the regime sought to achieve total independence from the rest of the world, none the less, through the sale of rice on the world market. In China Chairmen Mao was anxious about the possibility for confrontation between peasants and workers on one side, and the bureaucracy of the socialist state representing the control and exploitation of labor for accumulation on the other. This lead him to unleash a wave of unrest against the bureaucracy that was quashed once it got out of hand.
Was it communism that failed?
The short answer from the above provided evidence is "no". The communists indeed thought they could use state power in order to change society from capitalism to communism. However, once they took state power the task of social change became impossible. The requirement of state power was the integration of the new regime into the capitalist world system.

Once this process began there was no stopping it. A "third revolution", as Anarchist G.P. Maximoff called it, where the communists were overthrown, would have been required to renew the communist/socialist revolutionary project. As a result the communists were transformed into capitalists. Their states were not "communist", or "socialist", but capitalist states, no less capitalist than their western "competitors".

The completion of the communist project would have required the replacement of the mechanism of capital accumulation; the employment of means of production, raw materials, money, commodities, and labor to acquire ever more of these things with a mechanism of collaborative social enrichment where means of production, raw materials, finished goods, and labor are employed directly to provide each person with a quality existence. Instead the communists carried out capital accumulation, ratcheting up the duration and intensity of work to extract as much as possible.

There was no "communism" in these societies to "fail" on it's own merits. The terrors and errors such as the Cambodian genocide, Russian and Chinese famines, the brutal excess of the cultural revolution, political repression, the purges of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the late 30s, ect., were the direct result of the recuperation of the communist revolutionary struggle into the capitalist world system. To put it another way, the horrors of the communist regimes are no different than the horrors of traditionally "capitalist" nations, because they were the result of capitalism's triumph and communism's defeat.

Of course we can't blame everything on the strength of capitalism. It was the communists who concluded that the task was to take state power despite available alternatives, such as those proposed by the Anarchists. This strategy allowed the forces of capital to recuperate the antisystemic movement. However, the anti-communist analysis remains untenable. The problems with the communist regimes were that they failed to carry out the process of social change, not they they achieved it.
"Look at the Soviet Union", "Look at China", "Look at North Korea", are not valid arguments against antisystemic politics. In reality all that is pointed out by a look at these societies is that past antisystemic efforts have failed and capitalism, much to the dismay of those who want a decent society, has triumphed. These experiences are reminders that we need to reckon with the mistakes of the past in order to do better in the future. This is rather than being valid arguments for the preservation of the status quo. Communism hasn't always failed, antisystemic movements have failed in a particular time and place, and capitalism has won....for now...
In this article I lay out the basic conclusions of a book which I am currently writing. It's title is "The Communist States In The Capitalist World System". In this book my main argument will be fleshed out in much detail via going through the histories of the communist regimes that cropped up in the last century and addressing various analyses of them in order to provide my own.
It will not only deal with the falsification of this history presented by anti-communists, but will also address the ideas of the regimes themselves about what they did/are doing and those of their supporters. If you are interested in such a project you can support it by visiting my Patreon and becoming a donor. Perks of doing this include public acknowledgements and the right to request content for this blog, or my YouTube. Thank you for reading.
Dilemmas of The Global Left, Wallerstein
Critique of The Gotha Program,Marx
The Erfurt Program 1891
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels
Stateless Socialism: Anarchism, Bakunin
Communism and Anarchy, Kropotkin
Libertarian Communism, Puente
Marx, Marxism Leninism, and Socialist Experiences In The Modern World System, Wallerstein
Socialist States, Wallersein
Cultural Revolution At The Margins, Yiching Wu
Violence, Surplus Production, and The Transformation Of Nature During The Cambodian Genocide, Tyner

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Feb 11 2020 06:28


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