The Communist Challenge
Part 4: The Communist Challenge
“The golf links lie so near the mill/ That almost every day/ The laboring children can look out/ And see the men at play”
Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn, who wrote this short poem in 1915, was a reform-minded Quaker, pacifist and socialist in the rapidly industrializing, capitalistic, democratic new world of the United States of America.
One source of her inspiration was the work of a pair of intellectual revolutionaries in England more than half a century earlier, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. They concluded a short 1848 pamphlet called the Communist Manifesto with these words.
“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Proletarians of all countries, unite!”
Cleghorn, Marx and Engels were in agreement that capitalism and what they called bourgeois democracy were powerful in the creation of wealth but inhumane and destructive in its distribution and use. They differed on how to remedy the defects. Cleghorn (and like-minded social activists before and after her) worked to reform the systems of democracy and capitalism. Marx and Engels worked to abolish them and to put in their place a radically new way of organizing society called communism.
By the beginning of the 19th century new ideas fostered by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were shaking up western European and North American societies. These new enduring ideas said things like: experience and reason are better foundations for government and for society than divine rights and feudal privileges. The best hope for future human progress was in science and technology. Every individual person should be free to pursue happiness in his or her own way. There are no limits to the growth of wealth in a free-market industrial society.
The reality of free-market liberal democracy in the 19th century left much to be desired however.
If you could go back in a time capsule to 1848 for instance and walk the streets of London or Paris or New York or Berlin you would be shocked. And if you ventured into the countryside around these booming cities you would be appalled.
In the cities you would have found a few islands of great splendor and wealth. And in these same cities you would have found oceans of overwhelming poverty. Beggars in rags. Children who had never seen the inside of a school, nor known the luxury of a pair of shoes. Men, women and children working 12 hours a day in dirty, dangerous shops, factories and mines. Right next door sometimes to the palaces where the new rich wined, dined and played.
In short very much like many third world countries today in the beginning of the 21st century.
The poverty and inequality of wealth in earlier generations in these same cities and countries had been worse, it is true. But now in the birth of the new enlightenment-inspired, industrially-booming societies of the west people were no longer content to accept the way things used to be. They expected more. Much more.
In addition, the new supposed-to-be enlightened and industrially advanced countries of Europe and North America were periodically plagued with booms and busts when their capitalistic economies would stutter forward, then falter and sink into depression, throwing people out of work and destroying the life savings of many citizens. Native Americans, African-Americans and one-half the entire populations of these countries, women that is, were still being denied equal rights and opportunities. Until the American Civil War African-Americans were still being kept as slaves in the southern part of the United States. Women did not get the right to vote in the United States until the early 20th century.
In addition, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries western nations aggressively expanded by economically exploiting and often physically colonizing large areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean Islands and South America that were still in agricultural or hunter/gathering stages of development.
Ideas and ideals of reason and science and business and democracy were supposed to be bringing a new hope and prosperity to the world? What was going wrong?
Many thinkers and social activists promoted plausible answers and possible solutions. Some of the most powerful and influential of these ideas and possible solutions were given by a poor German-born scholar who lived here in this apartment in London with his wife and four children in the 19th century. His name was Karl Marx. Every day Marx would go to one of the world’s largest libraries here in the British Museum. Every day he found evidence to support radical new ideas about wealth and poverty.
As a young man Marx had studied philosophy and then economics and politics. As a young man, too, he met and became a life-long friend with a like-minded young man from England, Frederick Engels. Unlike Marx, Engels was rich, the son of a textile mill owner in Manchester, the very center of the Industrial Revolution.
Marx and Engels collaborated on many scholarly projects and both became active in revolutionary groups of the day. In 1848 together they wrote a popular summary of their ideas that was destined to become one of the most powerful single pamphlets ever published—the Communist Manifesto.
This Communist Manifesto, along with other scholarly and polemic works, especially Marx’s monumental work, Das Capital, soon became the Bibles of a worldwide communist movement, the inspiration and guide for generations of revolutionaries to come. And, unfortunately, as radically amended by the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, the blueprints for some of the world’s most brutal and totalitarian states.
Like most earthshaking ideas, the idea that Marx, Engels and Lenin promoted was clear and simple. All past history, they said, was the history of class struggle. A history of one class exploiting and enslaving another. Just as capitalists had destroyed the feudal classes, now it was time for another class, the working class, the proletariat as they were called, to destroy the capitalists.
In his day and age (and in ours, say modern communists) it was this business class, the bourgeoisie, who had the money and the power, and it was the working class, the proletariat, who had the misery, the wage slavery.
The solution was simple. Abolish the business class, the bourgeoisie, and let the working class, the proletariat, take the money and the power and run things. Then, and only then, when you have a society, indeed, a whole world, without classes will you have a true democracy. In fact, much more than that, you will have a new man, a new woman, a veritable heaven on earth. For indeed, communism came to be a new secular religion as well as a new economic and political system. It also fostered the first totalitarian states, States, that is, that would try for the first time in human history to control not just economic and political activities, but all human activities.
Marxist-Leninism was—and is—very appealing to many people. Especially to many young intellectuals who often rebel and reject traditional religions and authorities and yearn to find new meaning in their lives.
Unfortunately in the places where communism triumphed it did not work out as Marx and Engels imagined. Rather than leading to classless societies of true democracy, it led to totalitarian societies of unspeakable horror. It led to dictatorships of ruthless minorities over the working classes and all other classes. It led to “People’s” democracies that brutally destroyed from 50 to 100 million people pursuing dreams of a classless society.
How could it happen? How could ideas of a few intellectuals lead to such tyranny and brutality?
One answer is, they didn’t. All of the ideas, that is, of Marx and other reformers and revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries did not lead to tyranny and brutality. Only some branches of Marxist theory led to totalitarian states. Others offshoots led to social-democratic reform movements that are still active in reforming and improving capitalistic and democratic states today.
In both the 19th and the 20th centuries, for instance, socialist and social democratic parties and movements (influenced by Marxist theory) made significant changes in the industrialized countries of western Europe and North America. Reformers like the Quaker poet and feminist leader Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn, union leaders like Samuel Gompers, politicians like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, African-American leaders like Martin Luther King brought to democratic practice ideas some of which were originally proposed by Marx and Engels.
Ideas like the trade union movement, universal suffrage, progressive taxation systems, free education, unemployment insurance, social security, civil rights laws and indeed much of the modern welfare state.
The Leninist branch of Marxism however—Bolsheviks they were called in the early days, communists today—did lead to totalitarian tyranny. How did this happen?
Part of the reason was the culturally traumatic collapse of the industrializing nation-states of Europe caused by World War 1. In 1914 the Crown Prince of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo and in a catastrophic failure of decision-making, almost all the countries of Europe were suddenly engaged in a four-year long war that turned out to be the most destructive war in world history up to that time. This war also opened doors that led to both of the world’s first totalitarian states, Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.
Marx and Engels always predicted that the breakthrough from capitalism to communism would happen in the most advanced industrial societies, most likely Germany or Great Britain. It didn’t happen that way. Instead the breakthrough took place in 1917 in one of the most backward of industrial societies, here in the capital city of Imperial Russia, St. Petersburg.
The Bolsheviks at the time were a very small revolutionary political party in Russia, led by two fiery intellectuals, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Both Lenin and Trotsky were born in Russia, but spent most of their adult lives living in exile in grubby rented rooms in Paris, London, Brussels, Zurich and New York. Living the life of professional revolutionaries—working, reading, writing, organizing, robbing banks, publishing newspapers, fomenting strikes and courting violence. Waiting for the right moment.
Trotsky was carrying on all these activities from this broken-down building in New York one spring day in 1917 when news came of such a moment in Russia. Imperial Czarist Russia was lurching toward chaos. Its armies were in retreat before the Germans in the First World War. There were severe shortages of food, of medicine, of clothing and shelter.
The chaos created opportunities for the revolutionaries, and they took advantages of them. In March of 1917 riots broke out here in front of the Czar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg. People were sick and tired of the war. Many were hungry and many were blaming the Czar and all the wealthy aristocrats for their plight.
Here at the Tauride Palace a provisional revolutionary government stepped in and took the reins of power from the Czar. This provisional government was the first democratic government the Russian people had ever known. But it did not last long.
When they heard of the riots and the new revolutionary democratic government, both Trotsky and Lenin moved heaven and earth to come out of exile in New York and Zurich. Lenin was able to persuade the German government to transport him and some followers in a sealed train through the front lines of the war to Finland Station here in St Petersburg. He arrived April 3, 1917 and addressed the waiting crowd as “the vanguard of the world proletarian army!”
Lenin and his followers overthrew the new democratic government by force six months later in October of 1917. After their successful coup, Lenin stepped to the front of the first Supreme Soviet and calmly announced “We will now proceed to construct the Socialist society.”
Marx had never been very clear what “dictatorship of the proletariat” might mean. From the beginning, Lenin was clear, cold-blooded and decisive.
“The scientific term dictatorship,” Lenin wrote, “means nothing more or less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unstructured by any rules whatsoever, based directly on violence.”
In a perhaps unconscious echo of the radical revolutionaries who launched the French Revolution 130 years earlier, Lenin’s second-in-command, Trotsky, laughed with Lenin at the “Kantian, priestly, and vegetarian Quaker prattle about the sacredness of human life,” as together they began a Bolshevik Terror they hoped would indeed “wipe the bourgeoisie off the face of the earth.”
In the beginning the new government faced a sea of troubles, not the least of which was a raging civil war. They had to fight not only against remnants of the Czarist regime, but also social democrats and foreign armies opposed to the Bolshevik power grab. Among these foreign armies was a small force from the United States.
One of Lenin’s first appointments was to make Felix Dzerzhinsky head of the Cheka, the bureau of internal security, ancestor of the KGB. Dzerzhinsky himself said of his job and his government, “we stand for organized terror.” And he proceeded to prove he meant business by ordering the murder of thousands of dissident citizens, and the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands more.
Trotsky, a superb orator and brilliant tactician, performed miracles with the new Red Army. Against all odds, within two years the Bolsheviks had won the civil wars and attained their goal of near-total power over Soviet society.
The trauma of the revolution and the civil wars had left the economy in chaos, however For the most part, factories were not operating, and the peasants were so disgruntled over the government stealing their harvests, they all but stopped working and began eating their seeds rather than work for the state. The result was a severe famine throughout Russia in 1921 and 1922.
Humanitarian relief aid came from America and other western countries to help save lives. Lenin realized that some change would have to be made inside Russia or the government could not survive. So he retreated from his ideological program and began what came to be known as the New Economic Policy, NEP, a kind of state capitalism, designed to create some incentives for the peasants to produce food again, allowing them to sell some of their products on the open market.
There was still a modicum of dissent in Leninist Russia and some members of the party criticized the NEP, but as always Lenin prevailed. When Lenin died prematurely in 1922, the way was open for an even more ruthless dictator to take the reins of power and stifle all forms of dissent.
That man was Joseph Stalin, the Bolshevik’s bank robbing specialist of pre-revolutionary days. Within a few years of Lenin’s death, Stalin consolidated his power to a degree unequalled in history anywhere, anytime. And he proceeded to use it mercilessly.
Stalin abolished NEP and set in motion a forced collectivization of the farms of Russia, an inhuman speed-up of industrialization, a crackdown on all forms of civil rights and liberties and an enormous increase in slave-labor camps, executions and forced starvation. It is difficult still today to appreciate the horror of the Stalin era.
Scholars debate whether the total number of humans liquidated was 30 million or 80 million—or more. Stalin killed peasants, workers, bourgeoisie, artists, scientists, writers, democrats, socialists, liberals, and most especially and most completely, almost all of his former comrades in the Bolshevik party itself, including Trotsky.
At the same time this horror was going on in the 1930s, other western nations including the United States were experiencing a severe economic depression, the worst depression the new democratic systems had ever had. Many intellectual leaders in the Western countries began blaming the depression on the capitalistic system itself and many sincere, humane and otherwise intelligent people in the west were now looking to and praising the Soviet Union as a model for the future of a more egalitarian and enlightened democracy.
Joseph Davies, the American ambassador to Moscow during the height of Stalin’s reign of terror in the late 1930s said of the sadistic dictator: “If Stalin had been born in America, my guess is that Stalin would have gone into public life because of his sympathy for the underprivileged and his desire to bring about a better life for the masses.”
The famous American photographer Margaret Bourke-White went into rhapsodies of praise for the greater freedom for artists under Stalin. “This freedom to experiment—and the opportunity to experiment without worrying about the rent and the grocery bill,” she wrote, “points up, more sharply than anything else I can think of, the tremendous difference between the opportunities of the artist under a system like that in the Soviet Union and the situation here in America.”
History often takes unexpected turns. During that same depression of the 1930s another totalitarian country was created that soon posed a more immediate and direct military threat to western democratic governments. That threat was Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler. (The full story of Hitler’s rise to power is told in Part 5 of this series, THE FASCISM CHALLENGE.)
Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. Two years later Hitler went back on his word and invaded the Soviet Union as part of his war on the west and on the east. This new war, World War II, brought together strange bedfellows--the democratic countries of England, France, and the United States were allied with the totalitarian state of the Soviet Union--against three totalitarian states of a right-wing fascist variety, Germany, Italy and Japan. As the war-time leader of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, said “I would ally myself with the devil himself to defeat Hitler.”
The Second World War, even more bloody and devastating than World War I, ended in the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy and Japan. This allied victory meant the end of tyranny in Germany, Italy and Japan but it also gave renewed prestige and power to the communist ideology of the Soviet Union.
After the war Stalin’s armies imposed communist systems on all of the countries of Eastern Europe, including the eastern half of Germany and all of Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Winston Churchill, war-time leader of Great Britain, in a famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 told the sad story.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
In Berlin an ugly but effective wall was constructed almost overnight in 1961 to separate the communist soviet-occupied East German sectors from the free West German sectors still occupied by Great Britain, France and the United States. Over the next 30 years thousands of East Germans would die attempting to scale that wall and escape to freedom in West Berlin.
After the war in the Pacific, communists in China led by Mao Tse-Tung took power in a civil war. Mao proceeded to use his power much as Stalin had, starving and murdering millions of Chinese peasants and intellectuals as well as destroying the economy and much of the centuries-old Chinese culture in a series of ill-fated Great Leaps Forward and Cultural Revolutions.
Later in the 1970s communist-led insurgencies took power in Vietnam and in Cambodia with equally brutal outcomes. In Cambodia the communists led by a Parisian-educated Buddhist named Pol Pot went to extremes even Stalin or Mao did not consider. The communists, Khmer Rouge as they were called, literally forced all human beings to leave the cities and eliminated as much as one-fourth of the entire population of this small country in killing fields like this one.
Communists, supported and financed by the Soviet Union, also took power in other countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South America during the second half of the 20th century with similar results. Despite the brutality, some intellectuals and political leaders in the east and in the west, however, continued to see communism as the wave of the future.
Most political leaders in the United States, democrats and republicans, did not. Learning from the mistakes after World War I, instead of imposing reparations on the defeated countries, the United States after World War II rushed economic aid to a devastated western Europe under the Marshall Plan. They occupied Japan, helped rebuild its industry and infrastructures, and imposed a democratic constitution on the country. They also sent aid and supported democratic political movements in Greece, in Korea, in Central and South America and other trouble spots around the world that were threatened by communist rebels. And they pursued a policy of military buildup to contain the communist challenge everywhere.
Countries of western Europe including a newly democratic West Germany did recover and prosper in the post-war period. So too countries of Asia, including a newly democratic Japan and South Korea, recovered and prospered. All of them relied on some variation of free-market capitalist economies and democratic political systems..
The Cold War between communism and democracy smoldered for over 40 years and was punctuated by two savage hot wars first in Korea and later in Vietnam. The war in Vietnam was unpopular and led to serious divisions and conflicts in America and in other western European countries. Some of the bitter divisions from this war have still not healed in the 21st century.
Most people in the western world during the last half of the 20th century thought the cold war would never end. But it did. And in surprisingly sudden fashion.
Toward the end of the 20th century communication by new electronic systems was more than ever before making the world into a global village. It was becoming clear in the communist countries themselves that the supposed successes of communist states were almost all illusory, the products of staged media, phony statistics, rigid press control and wishful thinking on the part of sympathetic intellectuals. After 50 years of communist “progress” the reality of life in the Soviet Union and other communist countries still surviving at the end of the 20th century (like North Korea and Cuba) was not a heaven on earth. In fact it was almost uniformly dirty, dismal and depressing. The communist system, it was becoming clear to everyone, was a colossal failure.
Food, clothing and appliance stores had chronically empty shelves. A popular joke in Cuba today is that under Castro there are three problems: breakfast, lunch and dinner.. Education was free but students learned to read only propaganda. Factories had antiquated equipment and belched out pollution far worse than anything in the west. Health care was free, but hospitals sometimes did not even have running water. Newsstands had plenty of magazines and newspapers but they were all government issue. Most obvious of all to even casual visitors, endless rows of dreary apartment buildings had doors with hinges broken, elevators that didn’t work, facing bricks falling off, with nary a flower on vacant balconies. And for those living inside, behind the doors of those falling-down buildings, native writers told of unprecedented crime, poverty and prostitution.
Three men played especially prominent roles in the final collapse of communism.
A new Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985. Gorbachev knew that the system was not working and he tried to bring “glasnost” (openness) and perestroika (reform). But it was too little and too late.
A former Catholic bishop of Krakow in Poland, Karol Wojtyla, knew the reality of life behind the Iron Curtain and when he became Pope in 1978 he used his new power and prestige to help destroy that Curtain. As Pope John Paul II he returned to Poland just 8 months after becoming Pope, to celebrate Mass in Warsaw and Krakow. Crowds of over a million people heard him preach “You are men. You have dignity. Don’t crawl on your bellies.” The people of Poland took heart, supported his call for freedom, and joined with the free trade union Solidarity to change the course of history.
And finally, a much-maligned president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, turned out to be right in both his policies and in his predictions. “It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history,” he said in one of his many speeches on the subject. “[It is] the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxist-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”
In 1989, the Berlin Wall that had separated East and West Berlin for almost 30 years, was torn down in a few weeks. Within the next few years all of the countries of eastern Europe—from Poland to Hungary, from Estonia to Slovakia--countries that had been communist-controlled for over 30 years, turned to variations of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy. And then in 1991, the mother country of communism, the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union itself, collapsed and quickly disappeared.
The other major country that remained communist through the last half of the 20th century was China. China today is still under the political control of the communist party. 21st century China, however, has made an about face from the days of Mao Tse-Tung. Instead of a controlled communist economy it has embarked on a unique and potentially risky course. It has turned dramatically free-market capitalist in its economy while remaining communist in its political control. How this contradiction will work out in the next decades of the 21st century remains to be seen.
What is clear is that as the 21st century unfolds, free-market capitalism and liberal democracy survived the challenge from the far-left communist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the next chapter of DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY we will look at the challenge in the 20th century from far-right, fascist movements.