People often make an equivalency between communism and nazism as evil ideologies. Many think Antifa is as bad as the alt-right. Others fear anyone with socialist ideas more than those adhering to a far right ideology.
I will make the case that it is misguided in western democracies to paint communism as the main bogeyman, and create an equivalency with nazism and fascism.
Putting the Horribleness of Stalin into Context
The classic case made to expose the horribleness of communism is to point to Stalin’s Soviet Union. As proof of how horrible communism people frequently to compare the US with the USSR. The implication is that the US is prosperous and free society due to capitalism while the USSR under Stalin was a totalitarian and backwards country due to socialism. This is often used to discredit anyone advocating socialist policies, but not necessarily Soviet style command economy totalitarian socialism. Implicitly one is trying to sell the idea that free-wheeling capitalism means freedom and prosperity while any attempt at doing any wealth redistribution is just stepping stone towards tyranny and poverty.
This idea does not hold up to scrutiny on closer examination. The first logical fallacy is to compare the USSR to the US. These are countries with completely different histories, traditions, cultures and levels of economic and technological development.
Russia before and after communism have never been beacons of freedom and democracy. In fact Russia has a history with centuries of tyrannical rule, poverty and technological backwardness. With rulers such as Ivan the terrible, it is clear that it was not socialism or communism which brought tyranny to Russia. It was already there.
Gulags and Serfdom
It is frequent to mention the Gulags as an example of the horrors of Communism. The Gulags were sort of like a prison. They initially put criminals there. However Stalin wished to use the Gulags as a way of settling and building up Siberia, so to get enough people they started rounding up people at random. Essentially it was a slave institution masquerading as a prison system.
As bad as this sounds, it was actually worse in Czar Russia for centuries. Essentially the whole population apart from the nobility lived in one big Gulag, due to the Serfdom. The whole Russian population was essentially enslaved. In this regard the horrors of the Stalin regime was an actual improvement, since most people were free. I use free in a relative sense here. Of course the citizens were not free in western sense. They could not vote and own property. However they were free relative to serfs. They had more flexibility in choice of profession and where they lived. People could rise the the top. You were not permanently locked to a specific class by birth.
So the gulag system can’t be attributed to socialism directly. In fact capitalist America had a similar system, except it was race based. This follows naturally from that fact that slavery in the US was always race based unlike Russia. When Russians were freed, Stalin came up with the Gulags. Likewise when African-Americans were freed in the US, American states changed the prison system and laws to create de-facto Gulags for blacks using the convict lease system. Minor crimes got long sentences which allowed the perpetuation of slavery, as these laws were designed to primarily affect blacks. Many blacks were thus sent back to pick cotton, except this time around it was labeled prison labour rather than slave labour.
The state of Louisiana leased out convicts as early as 1844, but the system expanded all through the South with the emancipation of slaves at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It could be lucrative for the states: in 1898 some 73% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing.
Improvements under Soviet Socialism
While Russians under socialism were far poorer than Americans, they were non the less significantly better off than under Czar rule. People forget that Russia until the 1800s was almost a medieval society. It was extremely backwards. During communist rule industrial production rose at a very rapid pace. We see this clearly when we compare Czar Russia fighting Germany during WWI. They collapsed quickly and surrendered. They were extremely poorly equipped. Soldiers were sent to the front without guns.
Poor equipment was also an issue during WWII, but Soviet Union managed to produce tanks, rifles and airplanes at a staggering rate. In fact despite having access to less manpower, resources and factories than Nazi Germany during the war, the Soviet Union managed to completely out produce Nazi Germany.
In Czarist Russia literacy rates were 28.4%, by 1937 literacy rates had reached 75%.
Comparing an alternative history with Czar Russia is pretty difficult. I’ve seen all sorts of discussions of that. However there it is clear that socialist Soviet Union was not stagnant. When it collapsed it was a much more humane, better educated and richer country that the Czar Russia that preceded it.
We can’t know whether Czar Russia would have done better, but we do see that Soviet style socialism was capable of significant economic growth and progress. The clearest difference however is likely how inequality was much lower than in the period before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poverty expanded rapidly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Revolutions are Bloody
A lot of violence and suppression associated with communism is primarily caused by the fact that a revolution took place. That is a major reason why it was a bloody mess in Russia, China and other places.
However if we are to attribute the violence and killings of these revolutions to socialist and communist ideology, then we must also do so for other revolutions championing other ideologies.
Are we to dismiss independence and democracy because the American war of independence was violent?
What about the American civil war? Should we label the idea of ending slavery a violent and terrible idea, because so many people died in the American civil war because of it?
For onlookers of the French revolution, the idea of democracy might have seemed like a barbaric and violent idea, given how violent the French revolution ended up being. Robespierre of the French revolution is famous for his reign of terror. What naturally happens in any revolution which significantly alters established power structures is that there is a struggle for power and the leader of a revolution see a need to destroy counter-revolutionaries.
We can’t from this determine that a liberal constitutional democracy, which the French revolution aimed for, is a bloody ideology. Yet people frequently make that conclusion with respect to communism.
The argument I am trying to make is that you have to separate different ideological components. The idea of socialism or democracy isn’t inherently violent. What is violent in pushing for radical change through revolutions rather than aiming for reforms.
Both Britain and France turned into democracies eventually. The reason why Britain did so mostly without violence was because it happened gradually through reforms. It was violent in France because it happened through a revolution.
Why do some countries have bloody revolutions and others reforms?
A lack of social change pent up will eventually lead to revolutions. Britain avoided this because they had established a parliamentary system hundreds of years earlier. Of course this did not happen without violence. Just as the Romans had not acquired their congress without violent conflict.
The problem for France, was that no such intermediate steps had happened in the past which could provide a gradual path towards democracy. In Russia it was even worse. Serfdom had been abolished centuries earlier in most of western Europe, and parliamentary systems established. Yet by 1900, Russia had none of this. The country thus turned into a pressure cooker of anger over lack of social and economic justice.
The problem was hence not socialist or communist ideas, but rather the utter lack of progress towards a freer and more equal society. This inspired radical and violent action.
Communism Without Revolution
If the problem with socialism or communism is down to the manner in which transitions happen, then what does communism without a revolution look like? Or is there even such a thing?
We actually have some ideas of what this looks like. In my native Norway, before World War II, the Norwegian labour party was established. It was a communist party. Its leaders were admirers of the Soviet Union and took a lot of trips to the Soviet Union to learn from them about the Soviet Communist system.
Through WWII and much of the post war period, the labour party ruled Norway. So why is not Norway today a communist country? Where are the Gulags? Where is the systematic oppression, stagnant economic growth and mass murders or the old ruling class?
None of the Soviet terror regime happened in Norway for the simple reason that Norway was already a democracy, and the labour party gained power through democratic elections. Hence there was no need for killing political opponents and a reign of terror.
But more importantly labour party members visiting the Soviet Union got horrified by what they saw there. They might agree with the ideas of economic equality, but unlike their Russian counterparts they came from a country with long democratic traditions, and totalitarianism of the Soviet Union was a complete turnoff for them. Norwegian communists believed in communism but not in totalitarianism and dictatorship.
This lead to the Norwegian labour party cutting ties with Soviet Union, and decided the Soviet model could not be followed. What follows when you combine socialism with a belief in democracy is that you get social democracy. What this meant in practice is that the Norwegian labour party followed many communist ideas such as having plans similar to the 5 year plans. They bought private enterprises or built state run enterprises. They created state run banks and house building systems.
In essence what we got was a parallell socialist universe next to a capitalist economy. Inside this world, regular free market rules no longer applied. Subdivisions were built and own by housing cooperatives, where people could buy the right to use an appartment or row house. In socialist fashion the price of ownership of such a right to use an an appartment and sell that right was regulated by the government. Market prices were not used.
Capital was also strictly controlled to channel it into building factories over consumption. E.g. people had to apply to the government to buy a car or a telephone. In some ways this was similar to the Chinese system which forced a high savings rate which allows a lot of investment into industrial enterprises.
I am not writing about this because I admire it or favor it. Quite the contrary, I am not a fan of a socialist style economics, but it is to make the point that Norway was socialist for decades in a manner similar to the Soviet Union. However this was achieved without appropriating through the use of force people’s property. It was also accomplished through a democratic system.
This meant that the socialist policies done peacefully by the labour party, could also later be undone easily and peacefully by a conservative government in the 80s. Since then the labour party mostly abandoned their command economy style socialism. Prices would primarily be set in the market. The exception was for health care services, education and childcare.
Why Nazism and the Alt-Right is More Dangerous
What I wanted to show you with the previous examples is that communism has been bloody and totalitarian when the transitioned happened through revolutions in poor and backwards countries. While when it happened in developed western democracies such as in Scandinavia it did not lead to totalitarianism, violence and mass murder.
This is a very important fact to keep in mind when people try to make an equivalency between Nazism and Communism. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy saw power transitions primarily through democratic elections not through a bloody civil war. Axis powers started the worst war even, and engaged in genocide of entire ethnicities through an industrial process. The Soviets killed people they deemed a threat to their rule since they had just grabbed power in a bloody revolution. Hitler in contrast was not primarily murdering opponents to his rule. He murdered millions who posed no threat, such as disabled children.
Stalin did not murder people simply for the crime of existing. He murdered people standing in the way of implementing his socialist command economy. Which meant after this government was secured there would be no more large scale murder. As we can see after Stalin, the Soviet Union was not perpetually murdering in its citizens in large numbers, nor was China after Mao.
Nazi ideology however suggested that no matter how secure your power was, no matter how peaceful the country was. As long as there was people who were of the “wrong” type:
- Mentally disabled
People would get murdered.
This is why we in the west ought to be concerned mainly about the far right and not the far left. There is simply no historical precedence of the far left taking over power in prosperous democracies through violent revolutions. When they have secured power through democratic means, it has not led to genocide and tyranny. However we do have several historical accounts of rich democracies falling prey to Nazism and fascism and seeing this turn into mass violence and tyranny.
The point is that supporting socialist policies such as free health care of education is not a slippery slope towards Stalinist brutality. There is zero historical proof of that.
Nativism and racism however have far scarier historical outcomes.
Capitalism Does not Guarantee Human Rights and Peace
We don’t even need to look towards Hitler, Mussolini or Franco for examples of bad guys. If one was to apply the same logic used to claim that socialism/communism is inherently evil and bloody, then one could easily make the claim about capitalism and democracy.
Great Britain, a capitalist and mostly democratic country, subjugated hundreds of millions of people compromising 25% of the planet to form the British empire. Millions died at their hands. The British empire saw many famines in India alone killing millions. The Britain enforced shipping out grain to global markets during famines at gunpoint causing the death of millions. Which is not all that different from the famine deaths caused by Stalin’s policies in the USSR.
This is not isolated cases. It applies to many capitalist democracies. The USA has a pretty long list of atrocities too. The cases are too many to numerate. Often there are so many you don’t know about them even. Only recently did I learn e.g. of how native Americans in California was massacred through a bounty system. Basically the US government paid money for every native American killed. We think of the Rwanda genocide as horrible, but that never involved a democracy paying its citizens to murder another ethnicity.
Yet we seldom see people argue that these atrocities should be associated with capitalism and democracy. Had communists done the same, we would surely have seen the atrocities being explained as being caused by communist ideology.
This is however the outcome of an ideology shared with Nazism. In fact Hitler describe his inspiration in Mein Kampf from the American treatment of native Americans and blacks. Hitler argued that colonizing and taking over Russia was no different than American expansion into native American lands. Just as the native population was exterminated to make way for Americans, Hitler believed Russians should be exterminated to make way for Germans. To him it was the same as German manifest destiny. Slavs he believed, like blacks in America should be enslaved and serve Germans.
In essence America at the time was run on alt-right ideology. They might not have a totalitarian Nazi state, but the results for native Americans and blacks was not very different than the outcome for Jews and Slavs in Nazi Germany.
Again this is why I believe far right ideology is much more dangerous for a democracy than socialism or communism. No democracy with socialist polices has ever murdered at scale. Yet we have seen well developed democracies do exactly that with far right racist ideology.
Am I a Communist or Socialist?
People have a tendency to believe that people are whatever they argue in favor of. E.g. I favor legalization of Marijuana as well, but I am still against smoking it both personally and for others. So just because I criticize capitalism and defend socialism doesn’t mean I am against capitalism or favor socialism.
Personally I favor a regulated free market economy. Meaning I want most of the economy to run as private companies competing in a market selling their products and services at market prices. However to me the market is just a tool. I place no inherent value in it. If the market is failing in some way I favor regulations, taxes or subsidies to fix it.
What I do place value on is liberal ideas such as democracy, free speech and private property ownership. I think taking away people’s right to own property and utilize it as they see fit was a very bad part of Soviet Socialism.
However I do also favor many policies which may be considered socialist such as free universal education and health care for the population.
This should not be seen in absolute completely literal terms. Not every aspect of health care has to be publicly run or outside of the market. Medication, medical instruments would normally be better produced in the market. Elective surgery can often be done in the market with the public sector paying.
First and foremost I would probably consider myself a liberal rather than libertarian or socialist, because democracy, free press etc is really only my core beliefs. I favor a public sector health care, education etc for practical reasons. I don’t see a problem with it being privately operated if it is able to provide high quality education and health care to the whole population.
Likewise I am not ideologically bound to most of the economy being free market operated. The way our technology and society works today, it is a sensible arrangement. Nobody has demonstrated another method of efficiently producing goods and services for the population. However the does not mean that we may not get into a different situation in the future. The rise of AI and very high levels of automation, may change the industrial relationships in society.
If the entities developing, designing and producing products and services are machines rather than humans, a capital system is unlikely to be the optimal organization of the economy. Capitalism is a sensible system based on human psychology. Our natural altruism does not extend beyond a limited sized group, which means communist like societies have only ever functioned on a small scale. However machines could easily be programmed with a different mentality, which makes other economic systems sensible.