The Disappearance of Communism from Modern Europe
The Red scare, McCarthyism, the Iron Curtain and the original wall discussion; Communism, through the east and the west, was largely what defined the 20th century. Though it is now heard in the context of Africa, Asia and, especially recently, South America, the Marxist ideology has its roots in Europe. After taking over the former Russian Empire -- becoming the Soviet Union -- it spread Westbound, infiltrating many post-World War 2 nations. Nevertheless, communism has been, in any powerful capacity, eradicated from Europe. With the end of the Cold War, the “Spectre of Communism” finally seemed to rest in peace and now, in the early 21st century, only five self-proclaimed Communist states remain, none of which are in Europe. Intense economic pressures, internal tyranny with an advertent disregard for human rights and, quite simply, the nature of the adoption of communism as a reaction to unsavoury situations, were the main catalysts of the aforementioned continental erasure.
As will become clear very soon, many of the collapses were the result of the Soviet Union and its intrinsic link to the other communist nations in Europe; many Westerners considering the smaller, weaker states something akin to vassals of the Russian superpower. Ergo, any major hit to the Russian state would spell disaster for most all of the other communist states in Europe. Such was the resulting effect of the Cold War, a so-called “bloodless war” fought by the Americans and Soviets. This Cold War, which lasted from the late 40s until the early 90s and ending with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, put extreme pressure on the USSR.
By the end of the “war”, the Soviets had backed themselves into a corner geo-politically; the lines in the sand were drawn, and then drawn once again in concrete just for good measure. One KGB general is quoted as saying “First there was a visible decline in the rate of growth, then its complete stagnation. There was a drawn-out, deepening and almost insurmountable crisis in agriculture. It was a frightening and truly terrifying sign of crisis. It was these factors that were crucial in the transition to perestroika.” (Watkins)
The USSR sustained itself mainly off of internal production or imports from its “allies”. Such a limited supply network meant two things: firstly, in the short term, the Russian economy would be relatively immune to import/export sanctions, because all necessary goods are manufactured internally, and secondly, the economy would stagnate once it reached a critical mass and slowly begin to crumble, especially if the workers were unmotivated -- as they were in the Soviet Union. This economic stagnation led to “perestroika”, coming from the Russian word for restructuring. Perestroika was a period of economic reform, attempting to introduce market elements into the Soviet command economy; it is credited with spelling the end for the Soviet Union and being the final death knell of the crumbling state. However, perestroika is only a manifestation of a larger problem which overtook many of the “People’s Republics”; the introduction of market, non-command, economic policies which inherently contradicted Marx’s ideals -- on which these nations were based. Communistic systems, especially in their European form, are unsustainable and eventually, when growth halts, they turn to capitalist principles. Depending on the application of these principles, growth can either return, as it did in China, or become an even more distant memory. In most cases, though, “attempts to decentralize planned economies have tended to worsen financial instability”. (Lipton & Sachs, 1990).
Ironically, the natural movement away from the ultra-centralized command economy creates further turbulence, which leads to the collapse of the system entirely; as it did for Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. These states only went through such turmoil because of one underlying factor: Soviet interference. The USSR controlled, either directly or indirectly, the economies of all other communist and socialist nations in Europe -- and Asia, for the most part. They did so by demanding that all other communist nations shut down trade with non-communist states. This was coupled with massive sanctions by the capitalistic countries, entering a situation where neither was willing to move toward better trade relations. Still, these communist countries required non-local supplies, oil, for example, something abundant in the USSR, but not in, say, Poland. Thus, Comecon -- or Council for Mutual Economic Assistance -- was established, bringing to the table all Soviet allies in the Eastern Bloc in an economic union similar to the EU.
Only, the problem with Comecon was that it functioned horrifically, an inefficient bureaucratic mess. Even the Soviets recognized this, in fact, in 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev was noted by his foreign-policy adviser as saying “We look at [Poland and Hungary] askance when they walk away toward the West, but we cannot replace [Western goods] with anything. In COMECON we almost have no trade. Only primitive exchange.” (Chernyaev & Gorbachev, 1988) It is, therefore, no wonder these communist states succumbed to capitalist inclinations, there only viable trade partners were capitalists; one cannot sustain an entire nation off of crude oil commerce, as the USSR attempted to do -- a lesson being learned by modern-day Venezuela. Matters were only made worse when not too long after Gorbachev lambasted the economic union of which his country was the figurehead, he began pulling support from Comecon, citing, funnily enough, the economy.
Unfortunately, economics is just one piece to the puzzle, there exists yet another factor which pushed communism out of Europe: the egregious disregard for human nature and rights. Despite claiming to fight for the rights of the workers -- or proletariat, as they called it -- the rights of the common worker seemed to get curtailed more and more every day. Eventually, enough was enough, and it all came tumbling down. The most well-known example such rights violations occurred in the USSR under the Gulag system, which lasted from 1930 until circa 1956. Though these labour camps did not immediately signal the death of the USSR, it did contribute greatly to the Union’s eventual demise. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years in the Gulag system, won a Nobel Prize in literature for his book The Gulag Archipelago; the publication forced the true nature of the camps into the limelight and gave the term Gulag the notoriety it sees today. In part III of his book, Solzhenitsyn states quite bluntly, “The whole raison d'etre of serfdom and the Archipelago is one and the same: these are the social structures for the ruthless enforced utilisation of the free-of-cost work of millions of slaves.” (Solzhenitsyn, 1973)
The Russian revolutionaries who campaigned on ending archaic practices like serfdom, saw them return in an arguably more gruesome form. This sort of abuse and enslavement did not go unnoticed, even after the camps were dismantled in the “Khrushchev Thaw” of the 1950s. Millions of people lost their lives to the camps, which were ominously called “the zone” in colloquial Russian. In the end, the slaves will always revolt, if their masters do not free them before they do, and the Soviets knew this well; this sort of backlash is one of the founding truths of Marxism.
Furthermore, even those who were not placed in the Gulag were faced with the daunting, inefficient beast that was the Soviet work system. Mines and factories in the USSR could do little to incentivize work because such practices would be considered capitalistic and anti-communist. As the old Soviet joke goes, “So long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work.” The failure of a Communist or Socialist system is inevitable in its most pure state, as “socialism, by its very nature, rewards sloth and indolence and penalizes diligence and hard work. ” (Osterfeld, 1986) Unless there is a dictator with a massive cult of personality -- akin to Stalin or Mao Zedong -- the people will be unmotivated to complete any hard work. The lack of reward for material success equates to less risk-taking in business, which means much less innovation and eventual stagnation. Despite what may be written in the Communist Manifesto or any other piece of Communist literature, the working class will not improve production upon the abolition of profit; the opposite seems to be true.
Finally, within the Marxist text itself lies obvious naive flaws which explain why the system had failed so many times in Europe. To put it bluntly, the Communist system attracts -- or perhaps even invites -- dictators. These dictators prove to be brutal and can end up decimating entire populations and perpetuating genocides -- as was the case for Mao and Stalin. Simply look to Marx’s own Critique of the Gotha Programme for clear evidence of this; Marx writes, “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Marx, 1891)
Marx himself believed that a dictatorship of enlightened individuals was necessary to guide a nation in transition from capitalism to communism. Otherwise, the revolution would fail because of the capitalistic psychology of the workers due to their upbringing under the old system. Thus, in Marx’s opinion it is both just and necessary to have such a temporary, intermediary government. In practice, however, these dictatorships never seem to fade, no matter how long it has been nor how many reforms have been passed. Once one is allowed a taste of such pure, raw power, it is nearly impossible that they will willingly give it up. Not only will a state be stuck with their increasingly more despotic ruler once they have “enthroned” them, but they invited such a person when they called for revolution. Power-hungry and psychopathic people will be drawn to this opportunity to gain absolute power and do whatever it takes to beat out the, perhaps, well-meaning contenders. Revolution spawns radicalism which breeds even further extremism, a cycle which ends only with a dictator when applied to Marxism.
A look down any list of formerly Communist states will yield an interesting result; the vast majority of these nations, recognized and unrecognized, were formed directly following a massive war. It is the nature of Communism to be only viable in or following times of crisis, seldom have we seen peaceful Communist takeovers in prospering countries. And for good reason, why rid yourself of capitalism when it is showing itself to be a functional and advantageous system? However, this leaves communism is a precarious place, where the ire of the people is the only factor propping up their state.
So, many of these Communist states fall very soon after they are created for, among other reasons, their existence is predicated on the united fury of a massive group of people; these groups do not last, they dissipate and their anger fades. Most notably, is the case of Yugoslavia, a socialist state which existed from 1945 until 1992 (though continuing in a “democratic” form until 2003) -- though one may contest just how alive this state was in its latter years. In order to establish Communism in the Balkans, Tito, the “leader” of the Communist movement in Yugoslavia, had to unify a great many disparate peoples. According to the US Department of History, “The varied reasons for the country’s breakup ranged from the cultural and religious divisions between the ethnic groups making up the nation, to the memories of WWII atrocities committed by all sides, to centrifugal nationalist forces.” (Office of the Historian)
Once the original excitement of revolution began to fade from Yugoslavia and the monster which had united them revealed itself as no more than a shadow in their closet, old scars re-emerged, culminating in an atrocious genocide of the Bosnians in 1993. This is not to say Communism will lead to genocide necessarily, but Yugoslavia’s fall exemplifies, in their most potent state, the problems which wracked all communist nations.
Another reason for the fall of Communist states lies with the philosophy of one of Marx’s predecessors, ironically. The German philosopher Hegel spoke of the dialectic in which two conflicting ideas, a thesis and an antithesis, would necessarily create one another until they meet, combat, and create a synthesis. With the rise of far-right ideology, notably fascism, in the 20s to 40s, came the rise of far-leftism, usually in the form of Marxism. This occurred in the Weimar Republic (successor state to the German Empire following WWI) with clearly disastrous effect, in the form of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. In the south, was a small autonomous state of Weimar called the People`s Republic of Bavaria, a more moderate and progressive state, but not communist. At the head of this state was a man by the name of Kurt Eisner, however, he was assassinated not even a year into his reign by a right-wing extremist named Anton Arco auf Valley. Valley is quoted as saying, before murdering Eisner, “Eisner is a Bolshevist, a Jew; he isn't German, he doesn't feel German, he subverts all patriotic thoughts and feelings. He is a traitor to this land.” (Simkin, 2014) The populace was outraged, and following Eisner’s death, put into place a Communist regime which would reform the progressive state into the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Unsurprisingly, this backlash did not last, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic fell after just one month, succumbing to pressure from the German para-military, the Freikorps, and lacking the public support to resist annexation.
Lastly, it is imperative to discuss one final faulty adoption/implementation method, that being the one and only home of the Cosmonauts, the Soviet Union. Even though the Soviets constantly berated the US for their “Western imperialism” (perhaps for good reason at times), they displayed identical, if not worse, behaviours in the region of Eastern Europe. Through pressured signings of treaty documents, e.g, the Warsaw Pact, the USSR had control of over half a dozen nation-states; going so far as to install puppet governments in many of them. As a Professor of Political Science at the University of Tulsa put it, “Communist ideology is not the main menace. Rather, Soviet imperialism --backed by military might and using ideology as a tool-- is the ultimate danger.” (Ader, 1963)
It was not as if the idea of collectivization became immensely more alluring after the Soviet Union rolled through your borders; the government either accepted Communism or it fell to the massive military might of the USSR. In this fashion, the Soviets took over the East of Europe and the Iron Curtain was cast over these nations. Notwithstanding any military suppression or forced silence, the people did not enjoy being subjugated in this manner. Ergo, these occupations were only temporary and the natives fought back even harder against their Communist oppressors. Most of these nations came to abhor the ideology even after it was pushed out, simply due to the sour taste left in their mouth after occupation, and who can blame them?
Any and all ideologies are imperfect and malformed, for they are created by humans, and humanity is itself flawed in many regards. Nevertheless, some systems fare much worse than others, when applied to real-world situations. Communism, while a shiny and alluring idea on paper, cannot be transcribed onto the canvas of applied politics. This is clearly seen in Europe where, after numerous attempts throughout the 20th century, spanning from 1903 to 1992, the Red Scare is no more than a sour, distant memory. Diving deep into the complex geo-political history of Europe, it is possible to discover a myriad of forces which led to Communism’s general extinction from Europe; however, three elements stand out as the most influential. The problems which infected European Communist economies, both internally and externally. A complete misinterpretation of human nature and horrid abuses to human rights. And, to finish it off, the faulty pretenses under which Communism was adopted and enforced. As the West enters another uncertain age, where political extremes are the norm and partisanship is lauded, it is imperative to take a look back to what has come before. Though Europe was able to rid itself of what seems to be one failed ideology, keep in mind, the siren never sleeps.
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