Recently, I came across a letter that Estonian Justice Minister Urmas Reinsalu sent to his Greek counterpart, Stavros Kontonis. The letter was prompted by the Greek politician’s refusal to attend a conference on the crimes of communism that Reinsalu had organized and by his observation that communist rule had some “positive aspects.”
After thanking Kontonis, a communist deputy for the island of Zakynthos, for responding to the invite, Reinsalu’s letter recounts the crimes of communism, especially those committed by the Soviets in Estonia.
He notes that, as Justice Ministers, the two share a duty to defend human rights and asserts that it “makes no difference to a victim if he is murdered in the name of a better future for the Aryan race or because he belongs to a social class that has no place in a communist society.” While I agree with much in Reinsalu’s letter and assume that it will convince most people, I wonder if those kinds of arguments are convincing to self-declared communists, like Stavros Kontonis.
Why, for example, should Reinsalu expect a communist to agree that capitalists ought to enjoy the same rights as everyone else? It is a central part of Marxist thought that capitalists are parasitic oppressors of the working class and, as such, the main cause of social problems. Their very existence, therefore, is incompatible with the ideals of a communist society.
Lenin, who was the first man to succeed in implementing Marx’s ideas in practice, saw the need for extermination of the enemies of communism clearly. The French revolutionaries, he wrote of the Communards in 1908, were guilty of excessive generosity. They should have “exterminated” their enemies. In Lessons of the Commune, he committed himself to “cleansing of Russia’s soil of all harmful insects, of scoundrel fleas, of bedbugs.” Hitler would echo those sentiments in Mein Kampf two decades later.
Being a libertarian, I abhor violence and put a high value on liberty. Furthermore, having spent my childhood in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, I am instinctively drawn to Reinsalu’s side. Unfortunately, evaluating communism from liberal precepts, like Reinsalu does, is insufficient, because people’s ethics differ. The British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was attracted to equality. He felt that the killing of 20 million people in the pursuit of a classless society was a price worth paying. Put differently, arguing about communism from first principles does not get us very far.
To make matters even more complicated, it is difficult to think of any political and economic system that did not, in the words of the Greek Justice Minister, also have some “positive aspects”. European imperialism, for example, introduced modern technologies and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa. Italian fascism is often credited with making the trains run on time. German National Socialists tackled high unemployment and built fabulous motorways. Soviet communism industrialised a peasant society.
To be crystal clear, I am not suggesting that the “positive aspects” of imperialism, fascism, National Socialism and communism justify human suffering. I am merely recognizing that such “positive aspects” exist.
So, again, how do we evaluate political and economic systems in the absence of agreement on the principles that should underpin an ideal human society? I am not sure that it can be done, but two intellectual exercises can, perhaps, help us to think these issues through. We can evaluate political and economic systems on the basis of their declared objectives and on the basis of opportunity costs.
One of the chief goals of communism, for example, was the creation of a classless society. It was to that end that Soviets killed millions of industrialists, financiers, shop owners, successful peasants and other “parasites.” But, as the New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith observed in his, in my view unsurpassed, examination of the Soviet Union, Russia under communism was a highly stratified society.
In his 1974 bestseller The Russians, Smith noted that members of the Soviet politburo and their families occupied the highest perch in the Soviet society, enjoying access to special shops, schools and hospitals, as well as virtual immunity from persecution, unsupervised trips abroad and free access to Western publications. Other high-value citizens, including, by his own admission, the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, enjoyed perks that ordinary Russians could only dream about.
The old class divisions may have been eliminated, but a new class structure – one based on the perceived usefulness of the individual to the survival of the communist regime – replaced it. Thus, communism was a failure not only according to the moral precept of non-violence and respect for human rights that Reinsalu and I share, but also according to the objectives that communists had set for themselves.
(Incidentally, the social stratification that Smith observed in the USSR emerged in all communist societies. Milovan Djilas found it in Tito’s Yugoslavia and Vaclav Havel described it in Husak’s Czechoslovakia. Today, social stratification can be observed first hand in Castro’s Cuba and, in its most extreme form, in Kim’s North Korea.)
Communism can also be evaluated on the basis of opportunity costs or actual outcomes of competing political and economic arrangements in divided societies, such as East and West Germany, North and South Korea, and, to a large extent, Hong Kong and China.
In all those cases, people of the same ethnicity, culture and history found themselves living under two diametrically opposed systems – capitalism and communism. To my knowledge, there is not a single indicator of human wellbeing where communism achieved superior outcomes to capitalism.
Put differently, had communist societies not been communist, but capitalist, they would have been further ahead on such measures of human wellbeing as life expectancy, advanced medical care, personal income, nutrition, tertiary education, etc. Ah, but I can hear Stavros Kontonis and his fellow travelers object, what about income inequality?
Let us, for the sake of argument, grant that income equality is a desirable social goal – even if it leads to stunted growth and, consequently, lower incomes in the long run. That still does not mean that communism succeeded, where capitalism had failed. Related to my point about stratification of communist societies, top members of the communist party in all communist countries enjoyed salaries, perks and privileges that ordinary people did not. Again, one only needs to look at the vastly differing lifestyles of Kim Jong-Un and his acolytes, as opposed to the vast multitude of ordinary North Koreans, to see that.
In conclusion, in the absence of a shared moral framework, evaluation of differing political and economic systems is more complex than it may first appear. That said, communism was a failure even by the standards that communists set for themselves.