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?
- Health care in Cuba (internationally recognised as being one of the world's best and most accessible public health care systems)
- The arts (Soviet theatre and Soviet ballet received funding and support for many years, as Cuban theatre still does; despite severely limiting artistic freedom, most communist regimes did actually make the arts thrive with subsidies)
- Education (despite the heavy dose of propaganda in schools, almost all communist regimes have massively improved their populations' literacy rates, and have invested heavily in more schools and universities, and in universal access to them)
- Infrastructure (for example, the USSR built an impressive railway network, a glorious metro in Moscow, and numerous power stations, although not all of amazing quality; and PR China has built an excellent highway network, among many other things)
- Womens' rights (the USSR strongly promoted women in the workforce, as does China and Cuba; the Soviet Union was also a pioneer in legalised abortion)
- Industrialisation (putting aside for a moment the enormous sacrifices made to achieve it, the fact is that the USSR, China, and Vietnam transformed rapidly from agrarian economies into industrial powerhouses under communism, and they remain world industrial heavyweights today)
- Health care in general (Soviet health care was particularly infamous for its appalling state, and apparently not much has changed in Russia today; China's public health care system is generally considered adequate, but it's hardly an exemplary model either)
- Housing (for the vast majority, Soviet housing and Mao-era Chinese housing were of terrible quality, were overcrowded, and suffered from chronic shortages, and it continues to be this way in Cuba; although the Soviet residences can't be all bad, because Russians are now protesting their demolition)
- Environment (communist regimes, especially the USSR and PR China, have been directly responsible for some of the world's worst environmental catastrophes, the effects of which are expected to linger on for centuries)
- Food security (the communist practice of collectivisation of agriculture has almost always had disastrous results – the USSR experienced food shortages throughout its existence, Maoist China suffered one of the worst famines in human history, and North Korea has endured such acute food scarcity that its population has on occasion resorted to cannibalism)
- Freedom (all communist states so far in history have been totalitarian regimes, and have severely curtailed all freedoms – of speech, of movement, of artistic expression, of religion – and that oppressive legacy lives on to this day)
- Culture and heritage (communist regimes have waged war against their peoples' traditions, religions, and icons, and they have also physically destroyed numerous historic artifacts and monuments; this has resulted in cultural vacuums that may never fully heal)
- Propaganda (truth has invariably taken a back seat to propaganda in communist states – supposedly, the government is perfect, foreign powers are evil, and history can be re-written)
- Corruption (far from the Marxist ideal of universal equality, it has most definitely been a case of some are more equal than others in communist states – communism has engendered endemic bribery and nepotism every time)
- Morale (as the old communist joke goes: "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us" – nobody has any motivation to work hard, so productivity nationwide plummets; as well as work morale, the oppressive atmosphere of communist regimes has resulted in ongoing social malaise – modern Russia, for example, has one of the world's highest alcoholism and suicide rates)
- Human damage (rather than making everyone a winner, communism has generally made almost everyone a victim – as well as the huge number of people murdered, imprisoned, and tortured as enemies of a communist state, almost all citizens other than Party elites have endured prolonged suffering due to the states' constant intrusion into their lives)
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.