The Myth of Monolithic Communism

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This originally
appeared in Libertarian Review in February 1979.

For decades
it was an axiom of conservative faith that international Communism
was and must be a monolith, that Communism in all its aspects and
manifestations was simply pure evil (because it was “atheistic”
and/or totalitarian by definition), and that therefore all Communism
was necessarily the same.

For one thing,
this meant that all Communist parties everywhere were of necessity
simply "agents of Moscow." It took conservatives years
to disabuse themselves of this mythology (which was true only during
the 1930s and most of the 1940s). Tito’s courageous break with Stalin
and world Communism in 1948 was considered a trivial exception;
and for many years after the bitter China-Russia split, conservatives
clung to the fond hope that this split must be a hoax designed to
deceive the West. However, now that China has shifted from attacking
Russia for not being opposed enough to U.S. imperialism, to urging
the U.S. ever onward to a war with Russia; and now that the Vietnamese
Communists have crushed the Cambodian Communist regime in a lightning
thrust, this myth of a world Communist monolith has at last had
to be abandoned.

Why should
all Communist parties and groups necessarily form a monolith?
The standard conservative answer is that Communists all have the
same ideology, that they are all Marxist-Leninists, and that therefore
they should necessarily be united. In the first place, this is an
embarrassingly nave view of ideological movements. Christians,
too, are supposed to have the same religion and therefore should
be united, but the historical record of inter-Christian warfare
has been all too clear. Secondly, Marx, while eager enough to criticize
feudalist and "capitalist" society, was almost ludicrously
vague on what the future Communist society was supposed to look
like, and what Communist regimes were supposed to do once their
revolution had triumphed. If the same Bible has been used to support
an enormous and discordant variety of interpretations and creeds,
the paucity of details in Marx has allowed for an even wider range
of strategies and actions by Communist regimes.

Moreover, ideology
is not all. As libertarians should be aware, whenever any group,
regardless of ideology, takes over a State, it immediately constitutes
a ruling class over the people and the land governed by that State.
It immediately acquires interests of State, which can readily clash
with the interests of other State ruling classes, regardless of
ideology. The splits between Yugoslavia and Russia, China and Russia,
and now Vietnam and Cambodia, were mixtures in varying proportions
of inter-State and ideological clashes. And generally when one of
these conflicts launched the fray, the other soon caught up.

But if everyone
must now concede that there can be and are clashes and even bitter
warfare between Communist states, libertarians have been slow to
realize that Communism is not a monolith in yet another sense —
in the sort of “domestic” or internal regime that Communist rulers
will impose. There are now vast differences among the various Communist
regimes throughout the globe, divergences that literally spell the
difference between life and death for a large part of their subject
populations. If we want to find out about the world we live in,
therefore, it is no longer enough for libertarians to simply equate
Communism with badness, and let it go at that.

This necessity
for grasping distinctions is particularly vital for libertarians:
For our ultimate aim is to bring freedom to the entire world, and
therefore it makes an enormous difference to us in which direction
various countries are moving, whether toward liberty or toward
slavery. If, in short, we consider a simplified spectrum of countries
or societies, with total freedom at one end and total slavery at
the other, different varieties of Communist regimes will range over
a considerable length of that spectrum, from the horrifying slave
state of Pol Pot’s Cambodia all the way to the quasi-free system
of Yugoslavia.

Until World
War II, Soviet Russia was the only example of a Communist regime.
And even it had gone through remarkable changes. When the Bolsheviks
assumed power in late 1917, they tried to leap into full "communism"
by abolishing money and prices, an experiment so disastrous (it
was later dubbed "War Communism") that Lenin, always the
supreme realist, beat a hasty retreat to a mere semi-socialist system
in the New Economic Policy (NEP). During the mid and late 1920s,
the ruling Communist apparatus debated within itself what path to
pursue in the future. Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin’s favorite theoretician,
advocated moving forward to a free-market economy, with peasants
allowed to develop their land voluntarily and to purchase manufactured
goods from abroad. For a while it looked as if Bukharinism would
win out, but then Stalin seized power in the late 1920s and early
1930s and brutally collectivized the peasantry and the rest of the
economy, ushering in two decades of the classic Stalinist model:
collectivized economy, forced industrialization and political terror.

The Case
of Yugoslavia

The first break
from the Stalinist model was that of Tito, who followed his 1948
political break two years later with a remarkably rapid shift away
from the collectivized economy and toward the market. By the late
1960s, Yugoslavia, which had never dared to collectivize agriculture,
allowed numerous small private businesses, while the "socially
owned sector" had been shifted to producers' coops, owned by
the workers in each particular firm. Among these firms, a roughly
free-price and free-market system was allowed to operate, and taxes
were drastically lowered so that each worker-controlled firm controlled
its investments out of its own profits. Along with the shift to
the market came the welcoming of foreign investment, the freedom
of emigration and return, extreme decentralization for the nationalities
within Yugoslavia, and even limited contested elections and limited
check by parliament upon the executive.

Even philosophically,
the Yugoslavs began to stress the primacy of the individual over
the collective; and while political prisoners continue to exist
there and free speech is feeble, the contrast with Stalinism is
enormous. The Titoites have even decided to take seriously the long-forgotten
Marxian promise of the "withering away of the State";
the way to do it, they have concluded, is to start withering. All
observers remark that Belgrade and especially Croatian Zagreb are
the only Communist cities in the world where the spirit of the people
is happy, consumer goods are diverse and plentiful, and life is
not simply a dim gray haze of shortages, queueing up, rationing,
and enforced silence.

Following Yugoslavia’s
lead, the rest of Eastern Europe has also gone far along the path
to free markets and a price system, although not nearly as far as
pioneering Yugoslavia. The least degree of liberalization has occurred
in Russia, although even here the status of dissidents today is
far better than under Stalin.

This does not
mean, of course, that Yugoslavia is "libertarian," or
that the free-market has been fully established there. But it does
mean that there is hope for freedom and for the human spirit when
Eastern Europe has come so far in a relatively short time from collectivized
misery to at least a semi-free system. Conservatives have always
believed that once a nation goes Communist it is irrevocably doomed,
that collectivism, once adopted, is irreversible. Yugoslavia, and
to some extent the remainder of Eastern Europe, have shown that
this is not true, that the spirit of freedom can never be extinguished.

The Liberalization
of China

For a long
while it looked as if China would never be liberalized, that it
would remain locked in the super-Stalinism of Maoism. For nearly
a decade after their takeover, the Chinese Communists did retain
a semi-free market system, only to extirpate it in two savage thrusts
into totalitarianism: the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s (which
featured such disastrous economic experiments in self-sufficiency
as a steel plant in every rural commune’s backyard), and the Great
Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s (in which the
division of labor was crippled, education was stifled, economic
incentives were eliminated, and compulsory communes were strengthened
with a repressive apparatus extending into each urban block and
rural village). Art, literature, and speech were all brutally suppressed.

It all came
apart with the death in 1976 of the founding absolute despot himself,
Mao Tse-tung. The "Gang of Four," led by Mao’s widow Chiang
Ching and leaders of the radical left, were arrested, to the tune
of spontaneous outpourings of joy by the Chinese populace, even
in "red" Shanghai. Mao’s successors, led clearly over
the last year by the twice-disgraced Teng Hsiao-p'ing, have moved
with remarkable speed to dismantle totalitarian Maoism and to shift
rapidly toward a far freer economy and society. Western culture
is now permitted and encouraged. Wall posters are allowed which
call for ever-greater democracy and human rights, one even quoting
from the American Declaration of Independence. And consumers are
permitted to escape the compulsory anthill uniformity of clothing
and to buy a variety of consumer goods. Workers are allowed to respond
to economic incentives to produce and consume (instead of the "moral"
incentives imposed by the bayonet and by Communist Party snoops).
A far greater interplay of small-scale private property and free
markets is permitted. A rule of law is soon to replace arbitrary
whim by ad hoc military and party committees. And particularly
important is that the Chinese are now telling their people that
Mao, and even Marx himself, were not always right, that even Marxism
must pass judgment before the bar of truth (now called, in Tengianjargon,
"the Norm of Truth"). Foreign investment and trade is
being encouraged.

In a sense,
China has only now gone as far as Stalinism, although even that
is a great improvement over Mao. But there are signs that it will
go much further toward the Eastern European system. When Chinese
Premier Hua Kung-fo visited Yugoslavia last year, he clapped his
hands with glee when he heard that worker-owned firms there can
actually go bankrupt. In the October 6, 1978 issue of China’s major
journal, the People's Daily, the veteran economist and historian
Hu Chiao-mu, once a secretary to Mao, dumped during the Cultural
Revolution, and now President of the new Tengian Academy of Social
Sciences, published a highly significant article charting the nation’s
new economic course — "Observe Economic Laws and Speed Up the
Four Modernizations." (People’s Daily, Oct. 6,1978.
For an analysis, see China News Analysis, #1139, Nov. 10,

called for radical reorganization of the Chinese system, and for
"rule by contracts instead of mandatory rule of the economy,
with minimum government interference, which would also entail the
withdrawal of the Party from running the economy. He advocated division
of labor, freer trade, and putting economics above political power.
Hu’s statement that "experience has shown that socialism cannot
guarantee that political power will not do immense damage to
economic development" is a remarkable one, considering the
source. China News Analysis concludes that:

What Hu describes
is a free economy in which the workers sign a contract with the
enterprise, the enterprise makes its own decision in the form
of contracts with other enterprises or with the State, and the
implementation of the contracts is controlled by the judiciary.
What Hu envisages is, though this is not stated explicitly, an
independent judiciary competent to adjudicate on contracts not
only between individuals but also between the State and individual
firms. Similarly the villages are to be left free to decide what
to sow, and they are not to come under the authoritative rule
of officials.

Again, no one
is saying that China is or will soon become a libertarian Paradise,
but the contrast with ant-hill Maoism is staggering.

Toward Liberty
in Southeast Asia

This brings
us finally to Vietnam and Cambodia. With its unfortunate and vicious
nationalization of the merchants in the South last year, Vietnam
has now taken its place as a typical Stalinist country. But Cambodia
("Democratic Kampuchea") was something else again. It
was undoubtedly the most horrendous regime of this century anywhere
in the world. Not only did the Cambodian Communists quickly murder
millions after taking power, and forcibly evacuate the cities at
one blow; not only was death the penalty for the slightest infraction
or disobedience to the regime: the key to its diabolic control was
its abolition of all money, abolition it also enforced through murder
and terror. Even Stalin, even Mao, retained the use of money; and
so long as money exists, there is some sort of price system, and
people are able to buy goods of their choice and move from place
to place, even if in black markets or in disobedience to government
regulations. But if money is abolished, then everyone is helpless,
dependent for his very subsistence on the meager rations grudgingly
handed to him by the regime in power. From the abolition of money
came compulsory rural communalism, including the abolition of private
eating, the institution of compulsory marriages, and the eradication
of learning, culture, the family, religion, etc. Cambodia was horror

The Vietnamese
lightning thrust that smashed the Cambodian regime was not solely
or even primarily caused by ideological considerations. Undoubtedly
uppermost were ancient ethnic hostility between the more prosperous
Vietnamese and the more backward Khmers (inhabitants of Cambodia);
the desire of the Vietnamese rulers to dominate all of Indochina;
anger at long-repeated border incursions by Cambodian troops; and
the Vietnamese fear of growing encirclement by the combined forces
of the U.S. and China, supporting Cambodia on its southwestern flank.
But there is no denying the horror that even the Vietnamese Stalinists
felt for the Cambodian monstrosity. When they entered the Cambodian
capital of Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese described the desolation of
that city, and spoke of the deliberate mass murders, the forced
evacuations. A top Vietnamese Communist official, Phan Trong Tue,
spoke of the late Cambodian regime as having killed masses of people
"with hammers, knives, sticks and hoes, like killing wee insects."

And then Tue
rose to a pitch of eloquence:

The whole
country was reduced to nil; no freedom of movement, no freedom
of association, no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion,
no freedom to study, no freedom of marriage, no currency, no business,
no trade, no more pagodas, and no more tears to shed over the
people’s sufferings. (D.P.I. dispatch, January 12, 1979)

We may contrast
this to the shameful whitewashing of Cambodia by the American media
after Cambodia’s mentor China drew closer to the United States,
and to the United States defense of Cambodia against Vietnam before
the United Nations, coupled with the barest slap on the wrist for
its “possible” violations of human rights.

hasten to add — for the benefit of attentive readers — that I do
not condone the Vietnamese violation of the principle of non-intervention,
and that if I were a Vietnamese, and in the unlikely event that
I could express my dissent freely, I would have opposed the invasion.
But now that the invasion has been concluded, we can all surely
be permitted to rejoice at the death of the most monstrous, bizarre,
and evil State in many centuries. As I tried to make clear about
the collapse of the Thieu dictatorship in South Vietnam, one can
hail the death of a State without implying approval of
the State that replaces it. The new Vietnamese-backed Salvation
Front regime of Heng Samrin has already restored money, freedom
of religion, freedom of marriage, freedom to return to cities, and
freedom to cook and eat in one’s own home (symbolized by the new
regime’s restoring a cooking pot to each family previously dragooned
into communal kitchens). The new Salvation Front regime is indeed
a haven of freedom for the individual Cambodian compared to the
previous slavery under Pol Pot. But this by no means implies that
the new regime is libertarian or that its own statism should not
be opposed and combated by the Cambodian people.

But for the
people of China and Cambodia, recent events have meant a leap toward
freedom that can only bring rejoicing to the hearts of libertarians

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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