When Karl Marx formulated his communist manifesto in the 1700s, it was meant as an egalitarian system where all men would be treated and valued equally, while enlightened leaders used state resources to achieve maximum good. It was at the height of the industrial revolution when trade unions were banned and employees worked and lived in appalling conditions. Many of the thinkers and philosophers at that time supported the concept of socialism. After all, did not Plato himself propose such a system in his famous ‘The Republic’?
Karl Marx had envisaged three stages in the evolution of political systems. Capitalism as practiced during his times was to be replaced first by Socialism. Socialism is commonly regarded as an economic system that seeks to achieve equality among members of the society. The people themselves would decide, through communes or popularly elected councils, on how the economy should work.
Communism was supposed to be the next and ultimate stage of the evolution – an economic system that seeks equality among members of society and a political ideology that advocates a classless and stateless society. We all know in hindsight, that communism as practiced was a horrible and complete failure
What went wrong?
First, was in the methods used. Instead of a gradual evolution to a classless society, the communist regimes in Russia and China were born in bursts of revolutionary fervor. Russia’s form of communism was urban and factory-based while China’s was an agrarian one. The end result was the same – genocide.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau formulates the basic proposition of Communism, Fascism and all other totalitarian orders, namely that if one is sure that one has the correct solution to the questions ‘How should men live?’ and ‘How should society be organized?’ one can, in the name of reason, impose it ruthlessly on others, since if they are rational they will agree freely; if they do not agree, they are not rational
Under Lenin and then notably Stalin, the Russian revolution caused the death of at least 3 million. In China, Mao’s revolution caused widespread famine, some say deliberately condoned. The numbers in the so called communist regime of the Khmer Rouge were much lower than this at 2 million dead but a frightening 28 percent of the total population of Cambodia at that time. The first to die were the educated and the intelligentsia.
The second problem lies in human nature.
Mankind has developed its civilization through team work and co-operation, right from early man hunting together to bring down a mastodon. This communism ideal of working together and sharing everything equally would have taken this concept to its ultimate limits. This did not work in practice as it went against another important facet of human nature – self worth and commensurate reward. Despite what we have been taught throughout school, college and religious education – we are NOT all equal. Each of us is unique and has our own strengths and weakness. The best system would allow the freedom to realize one’s potential but at the same time, safeguard an individual’s rights. Democracy, however imperfect it may be, seems to do just that.
So, is communism a totally failed ideology? Can it work at all in a democracy? Practical examples of successful communism models are rare in the developed modern world. China is now just a totalitarian state pursuing capitalist goals while Russia is a regulated anarchy – both far removed from Marxist theories and practice.
Wait, there is still a place where communism has flourished in a democracy; where Marx and Mao are still worshiped; where the mindset of the politburo have resisted the winds of change and still cling to Marxist ideals.
Where else but in India! These are the two states in India – West Bengal and Kerala – where elected communist governments have held sway for decades. The rise and decline (in my view) of communism in these two states will be the subject of another post.