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Socialist movements inspired by Karl Marx in late-nineteenth-century industrialized Europe sought to end class struggle and distribute goods evenly among the people. Communist parties forming in the early twentieth century in Russia and China argued that the key to industrialization was state ownership and planning. By the 1980s, the economies of major Communist countries were stagnating, clearly unable to compete effectively with more dynamic economies of the capitalist West.
An ancient vision of an ideal human community characterized by abundance, equality, freedom, cooperation, and harmony lies at the core of modern socialism and communism. Elements of this vision have surfaced repeatedly—in the message of the Hebrew prophets, in millenarian movements in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, and in the small utopian communities of early-nineteenth-century Europe and America. (In general terms, communism refers to a political system that abolishes private property, and socialism to a system of collective ownership of the means of production and distribution.)
Modern socialism took shape in the industrializing societies of western Europe during the nineteenth century. As a set of ideas, this socialism is forever connected to the writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883). Having witnessed industrial capitalism during its early and harshest phase, Marx set out to analyze that phenomenon and to chart its future development. Through the wonders of modern technology, Marx argued, industrial capitalist societies had potentially solved the ancient problems of scarcity and poverty. They could now produce more than enough to meet the material needs of their citizens. In this sense, industrial capitalism was an enormously progressive development in human affairs, and he praised its achievements lavishly. But this vast potential was blocked by the fatal flaws of capitalism—private property, growing inequalities, bitter class conflict, worsening cycles of economic expansion and recession, competitive and individualistic values. Such societies, Marx believed, would self-destruct in a vast revolutionary upheaval, led by the factory working class (the proletariat), which was impoverished and exploited by the capitalist system. Then the vast productive possibilities of modern economies would be placed in service to the whole of society in a rationally planned and egalitarian community, bringing an end to class conflict, to national rivalries, and to the endemic poverty and inequalities of the past. This was socialism, and to Marx it marked the end of the sorry history of endless class struggle and opened the way to a bright and creative future for humankind.
Marx’s ideas inspired socialist movements of workers and intellectuals amid the grim harshness of Europe’s industrialization in the second half of the nineteenth century. Socialists established political parties in most European states and linked them together in international organizations. These parties recruited members, contested elections as they gained the right to vote, agitated for reforms, and in some cases plotted revolution. While established elites felt enormously threatened by socialist movements, nowhere in the most advanced capitalist countries of England, Germany, France, or the United States did Marx’s predicted revolution occur. Through democratic pressures and trade unions, workers gradually raised their standard of living while the beginnings of “welfare state” reforms softened the harsh edges of capitalism. Marx had not appreciated this capacity of capitalist societies to reform themselves. Furthermore, nationalism drew the loyalties of workers to their own countries rather than to the international working class, as Marx had imagined.
Socialist revolutions did occur in the twentieth century, but in places where Marx would have least expected them—in a Russian Empire just beginning to industrialize when the Communist regime came to power in 1917, in backward and impoverished China (1949), in a Cuba dependent on sugar production in 1959, and in Vietnam, which was emerging from French, Japanese, and American imperialism at the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s. In these countries, revolutionaries called themselves “Communists,” to distinguish themselves from “social democrats” in the West who still continued to struggle peacefully through political processes. After seizing power, these Communist revolutionaries sought to “build socialism,” which meant creating modern societies that were distinctly different from their capitalist counterparts. The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (ruled 1929–1953) and China under Mao Zedong (ruled 1949–1976) represent by far the most important examples of this process.
Putting Marxism into Practice
The first step involved the ending of old inequalities. Wealthy landowners had their property expropriated and distributed to the peasants. In China, teams of young revolutionaries were sent to the country’s many villages, where they mobilized local peasants to confront landlords, to seize their property, and, not infrequently, to kill them. Privately owned industries were nationalized without compensation to their owners. Communist governments in both countries took immediate steps to guarantee equal rights for women within marriage and in public life, ending the legal disabilities that they had long suffered.
Since the Soviet Union and China were overwhelmingly agricultural societies, creating socialism in the countryside was a priority for both of them. The distribution of land to the peasants, although revolutionary, was hardly socialist because it left both countries with large numbers of small privately owned family farms. To Communist leaders, this was neither modern nor efficient, and it opened the door to a revival of capitalism and rural inequality as some farmers prospered while others became impoverished. The solution in both the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s and China during the 1950s lay in large collective farms in which land, animals, and tools were held in common. The process of enlisting peasants into these collective farms unfolded with great violence and amid much resistance in the Soviet Union and was accompanied by a horrific famine caused by the heavy demands of state authorities for grain. The Chinese Communist Party, with deep roots in the rural areas, accomplished basic collectivization much more peacefully, though there too an enormous famine broke out in the late 1950s, when Mao Zedong pushed for even larger collective farms, known as communes, and for a more complete social equality. In both countries, the agricultural sector grew only slowly as it served to subsidize massive industrialization programs.
Communists everywhere were modernizers, intent on creating industrial societies. Furthermore, they argued that they had found a superior path to industrialization that would avoid the exploitation, instability, and inequalities of capitalism. The key to Communist industrialization was state ownership and planning. Under a series of five year plans, Communist planners decided where factories and mines would be located, what they would produce and in what quantities, where they would find their supplies, to whom they would sell their products, and at what price. After a fashion, it worked! Industrial growth rates in both the Soviet Union (1930s) and China (1950s) were extremely rapid. The USSR in particular became a fully industrialized society in little more than a decade, strong enough to out-produce and defeat the Nazis in World War II.
But Communist industrialization also created a new elite of managers, bureaucrats, and technical experts who gained privileged positions in society, thus undercutting the supposed egalitarianism of socialist societies. While Stalin largely accepted these inequalities as temporarily necessary for modern development, Mao Zedong was increasingly troubled by them and launched repeated campaigns to root out materialism, self-seeking, and feelings of superiority in China’s official elites.
Among the unique features of Communist societies was the extent to which party and state authorities penetrated and controlled the society. Since agriculture was collectivized and industry nationalized, virtually everyone was employed by state. Furthermore, the leaders of the Communist Party established the policies that the state bureaucracy was supposed to implement. Education served as a major vehicle for inculcating the party doctrines and Marxist thinking into the population. Organizations catering to the interests of students, women, workers, and various professional groups were all controlled by the party. The multitude of private voluntary organizations that characterize democratic capitalist societies had no counterpart in Communist countries.
The Search for Enemies
But the Communist societies of the Soviet Union and China were laced with conflict. Under both Stalin and Mao, those conflicts erupted into a search for enemies that disfigured both societies. In the Soviet Union that process culminated in what became known as the Terror of the late 1930s, which affected tens of thousands of prominent Communists, including virtually all of Lenin’s top associates, and millions of more ordinary people. Based on suspicious associations in the past, denunciations by colleagues, connections to foreign countries, or simply bad luck, these people were arrested, usually in the dead of night, then tried and sentenced either to death or to long years in harsh and remote labor camps know as the Gulag. Close to a million people were executed between 1936 and 1941. Perhaps four or five million more were sent to the Gulag, where they were forced to work in horrendous conditions and died in appalling numbers. Victimizers too were numerous as the Terror consumed the energies of a huge corps of officials, investigators, interrogators, informers, guards, and executioners.
While the search for enemies in the Soviet Union occurred largely in secret and under the clear control of the state, in China it became a much more public process, particularly during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1969. Mao became convinced that many within the Chinese Communist Party itself had been seduced by capitalist values of self-seeking and materialism and were no longer animated by the idealistic revolutionary vision of earlier times. And so, he called for rebellion against the Communist Party itself. Millions of young people responded and, organized as Red Guards, set out to rid the country of those who were “taking the capitalist road.” The outcome was chaos and violence that came to the edge of civil war, and Mao found himself forced to call in the military to restore order and Communist Party control. Both the Soviet Terror and the Chinese Cultural Revolution badly discredited the very idea of socialism and contributed to the ultimate collapse of the Communist experiment at the end of the century.
The End of the Communist Experiment
The demise of world Communism was both rapid and largely unexpected, and it occurred in various ways. In Eastern European countries, where Communist governments had been imposed by Soviet military force after World War II, popular movements in 1989 swept away despised governments with stunning rapidity. The dramatic breaching of the Berlin Wall, which had long separated East and West Berlin, became the enduring symbol of these movements. In the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform Communism (1985–1991), reducing state control over the economy and permitting unprecedented freedom of expression, backfired badly. His reforms sent the economy spiraling downward and stimulated nationalist and anti-Communist movements that led to the complete disintegration of the country itself in 1991 and the repudiation of its Communist Party. In China, the Chinese Communist Party retained power but abandoned many Communist economic policies during the 1980s and 1990s, such as ending collectivized agriculture, and began to permit massive foreign investment and allow many private or semiprivate businesses to operate freely. These reforms sparked an enormous boom in the Chinese economy that contrasted sharply with the economic disasters that accompanied the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Scholars continue to debate the reasons for the quite sudden end of the Communist era in world history. In large measure, the fundamental failure of Communism was economic. By the 1980s, it was apparent that the economies of major Communist countries were stagnating, clearly unable to compete effectively with the more dynamic economies of the capitalist West. This perception drove the reform process in both the Soviet Union and China. A further factor was the erosion of belief. An earlier idealism about the potential for building socialism had largely vanished amid the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, replaced, especially in the USSR, by a self-seeking cynicism.
The collapse of Communism, like its revolutionary beginnings, had global implications. It marked the end of the Cold War, which had dominated international life in the second half of the twentieth century and had threatened a nuclear holocaust. As the bipolar structure of the Cold War era faded away, the United States emerged as the world’s single superpower, bringing with it new charges of an American global empire in the making. Furthermore, the end of Communism signaled the closure of a century-long global debate about socialism and capitalism as distinct and rival systems. Market economies and capitalist ideologies had triumphed, at least temporarily. In Eastern Europe and more tentatively in the former Soviet Union, the demise of Communism also allowed the flowering of more democratic political systems. Despite the continued dominance of Communist parties in China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea, expectations of a socialist future had largely disappeared everywhere and the Communist phenomenon in world history had ended.
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