How successful was the 20th century communism experiment?

During the course of the 20th century, virtually every nation in the world was affected, either directly or indirectly, by the "red tide" of communism. Beginning with the Russian revolution in 1917, and ostensibly ending with the close of the Cold War in 1991 (but actually not having any clear end, because several communist regimes remain on the scene to this day), communism was and is the single biggest political and economic phenomenon of modern times.

Communism – or, to be more precise, Marxism – made sweeping promises of a rosy utopian world society: all people are equal; from each according to his ability, to each according to his need; the end of the bourgeoisie, the rise of the proletariat; and the end of poverty. In reality, the nature of the communist societies that emerged during the 20th century was far from this grandiose vision.

Communism obviously was not successful in terms of the most obvious measure: namely, its own longevity. The world's first and its longest-lived communist regime, the Soviet Union, well and truly collapsed. The world's most populous country, the People's Republic of China, is stronger than ever, but effectively remains communist in name only (as does its southern neighbour, Vietnam).

However, this article does not seek to measure communism's success based on the survival rate of particular governments; nor does it seek to analyse (in any great detail) why particular regimes failed (and there's no shortage of other articles that do analyse just that). More important than whether the regimes themselves prospered or met their demise, is their legacy and their long-term impact on the societies that they presided over. So, how successful was the communism experiment, in actually improving the economic, political, and cultural conditions of the populations that experienced it?

Communism: at least the party leaders had fun!

Communism: at least the party leaders had fun!

Image source: FunnyJunk.



Dudes, don't leave a comrade hanging.

Dudes, don't leave a comrade hanging.

Image source: FunnyJunk.

Closing remarks

Personally, I have always considered myself quite a "leftie": I'm a supporter of socially progressive causes, and in particular, I've always been involved with environmental movements. However, I've never considered myself a socialist or a communist, and I hope that this brief article on communism reflects what I believe are my fairly balanced and objective views on the topic.

Based on my list of pros and cons above, I would quite strongly tend to conclude that, overall, the communism experiment of the 20th century was not successful at improving the economic, political, and cultural conditions of the populations that experienced it.

I'm reluctant to draw comparisons, because I feel that it's a case of apples and oranges, and also because I feel that a pure analysis should judge communist regimes on their merits and faults, and on theirs alone. However, the fact is that, based on the items in my lists above, much more success has been achieved, and much less failure has occurred, in capitalist democracies, than has been the case in communist states (and the pinnacle has really been achieved in the world's socialist democracies). The Nordic Model – and indeed the model of my own home country, Australia – demonstrates that a high quality of life and a high level of equality are attainable without going down the path of Marxist Communism; indeed, arguably those things are attainable only if Marxist Communism is avoided.

I hope you appreciate what I have endeavoured to do in this article: that is, to avoid the question of whether or not communist theory is fundamentally flawed; to avoid a religious rant about the "evils" of communism or of capitalism; and to avoid judging communism based on its means, and to instead concentrate on what ends it achieved. And I humbly hope that I have stuck to that plan laudably. Because if one thing is needed more than anything else in the arena of analyses of communism, it's clear-sightedness, and a focus on the hard facts, rather than religious zeal and ideological ranting.

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