13 February 2014

The Brief Blip of Communism

Cultures and political-economic systems that pervasively influence those cultures are subject to selective pressure.  Many aspects of a society aren't strongly subject to selective pressure because those aspects of the society don't influence its ability to survive.  But, a significant shortcoming in any critical feature of a society, relative to its competitors, will make that kind of society short lived.

Sometimes, a society's flaws are obvious.  The Shaker movement's prohibition against having children doomed it at the outset.  At other times, for example in the case of communism, it may take a generation, or two, or three, for it to become clear that some fundamental premise of that society is so flawed that the society can't survive without compromising principles that go to its very core.

Communism is a good example.  On one hand, it has features that make it very attractive in the early days of regime trying to establish a stable, workable system of government.  The one party system helps revolutionaries consolidate power and mute potentially schismatic disputes over the movement's ideology, while providing many patronage positions with which to reward even minor supporters.  The ideology itself aligns itself with the numerous poor masses with the promise of more resources, while providing a justification for stripping power and property from the few of the elites who benefit from the current regime. For the communist, revolution is a premise and something that will inevitably happen sometime, rather than an affront to well established truths from the people's heritage.  The ideology also provides a way to defang threats from religious leaders.

But, in practice, it doesn't work.  Not a single communist system lasted a century before liberalizing so fully that its economics, at least, had become merely a mixed economy socialist system with private property and somewhat regulated marketplaces.  Only a few lasted a full half century.  Communism persists as a full fledged economic system only in two small countries: Cuba and North Korea.  Recent reforms in Cuba suggest that it too will leave that short list.

The last stalwart, more so even than the collapse of the Soviet Union, is the perfect controlled experiment that shows that at some point, a choice of economic systems and policies and political systems and policies, can matter profoundly.

In 1945, Korea was a unified, homogeneous nation and to the extent that one part of the country was more prosperous, it was probably the North.  But, since it was divided into North and South Korea in 1948, the two nations, each with a Cold War superpower patron, have taken radically different paths driven by their policy choices.

 In 2014, South Korea is a fully developed country with a finally fairly functional Western style parliamentary system and prosperous market economy with considerable individual freedoms that is a play in the international arena on an equal footing with its peers.

Meanwhile, in 2014, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia, despite the fact that it does not have a third world birthrate, a legacy of costly recent wars, or political instability.  Satellite imagery of the Korean Peninsula at night shows South Korea aglow with electric lights and North Korea almost completely dark.  North Korea's regime is the most totalitarian in the world, and it is isolated internationally, in part as a consequence of the regime's desire to isolate it.  At times, North Korea has even refused foreign aid while its people starved in large numbers from a bad harvest.  Only a lunatic would argue in hindsight that North Korea chose the better system back in 1948 when its independence was restored to it after 35 years of Japanese occupation and 3 years of Allied forces occupation.

There are no clear signals that North Korea is actually on the verge of collapse.  It's system works well enough that it does not fear dissent from within, that its military discourages outsiders from trying to change its regime by force, and that it can continue its meager and grey existence year after year.  But, nobody free to choose a new political system in a newly independent state, or some other political vacuum would willingly choose to follow its path.  And, if someday the current pseudo-monarchy collapses, perhaps at the hands of the few insiders who are aware of how badly it is faring relative to the rest of the world, the need for change will be obvious.

Communism, one of the most profound social experiments of the 20th century, failed and failed profoundly and definitively in less than a century, and in most cases, in less than half a century.  Any new candidate to become a leading political and economic system and overall culture of whole peoples that falls short in some way critical to an important part of its functionality will meet a similar fate.

The Rise and Fall of Communism In Europe and North Asia.

Soviet style Communism existed in Russia (which had expanded across North Asia to the Pacific Coast in the imperial era) starting in 1917 (the Russian Revolution) and soon spread across Eastern Europe.  Soviet style Communism persist until about 1993, just seventy-six years.  Even the most extreme and isolated version of Soviet style communism, in Albania had adopted a more or less Western style market economy by 1993.  There are people who were born before the Russian Revolution who outlived all of the communist systems in Europe.

There were ongoing developments including a war in Bosnia that officially ended in 1995, later separations of Montenegro and Kosovo from Serbia including military activity in Kosovo, the Chechen wars in Russia, ongoing fights over the nature of successor states in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova.  But, in each of those cases all sides in the conflicts had abandoned Soviet style communism.  Even recalcitrant Belarus has been more inclined to focus on aligning itself with Russia than maintaining a communist economic system.  Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continue to have regimes quite similar politically and economically to the late Soviet system, but Turkmenistan purported to end its one party regime in 2012 and Uzbekistan is still more of a market economy now than it was in the Soviet era despite its authoritarian political regime.

The regimes that followed the Soviet style systems in Russia and Eastern Europe are not models of modern capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.  But, all have converted to non-centrally planned economies to some extent and have committed, at least in principle, to democratic constitutions with more than one political party.


Mongolia is squeezed geographically between the Soviet Union and China, the only neighbors with which it shares boundaries, so it is little surprise that it adopted a Communist political system for a time.  But, historically, Mongolia system more closely followed the lead of the Soviets than of Maoist China.  Mongolia declared independence from China with Imperial Russian backing in 1911, and followed the lead of its 1917 Revolution to establish a Soviet style Communist regime in 1921.  In concert with other Communist nations in the Soviet sphere of influence, it disavowed its one party Communist system of government in 1990 like its East European peers and adopted a new multiparty parliamentary system under a new constitution in 1992.  Much like formerly Communist peers in Hungary and the Ukraine, Mongolia has had vigorous political fights between Communist leaning and reform minded candidates that have spilled over into riots and protests, but have done so within the framework of a Western style parliamentary political system.

The Rise and Fall of Communism in Asia


The People's Republic of China under Mao was declared in 1949, but to be generous, some parts of China were under Maoist Communist rule starting much earlier, sometime after 1937 when Japan invaded the Chinese mainland and chaos reigned.  But, the tide started to turn in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao as paramount leader of China.  By the mid-1980s, China has already started implementing market economy oriented reforms that have gradually expanded to the point where modern China cannot be fairly described as a Maoist Communist economic system, although it isn't quite a Western style capitalist or mixed economy style system either.

China had an economic system that could legitimately be called fully communist for only about half as long as the Soviet style communist states of Europe.

The evolution of China's political system has been more subtle.  China's communist party still has a monopoly over all significant political offices.  It continues to have a policies suppressing political autonomy and actively diluting regional ethnic identities in its historically non-Han Chinese interior provinces and regions, most famously including Tibet.  Essentially all legitimate major media outlets are censored with a heavy hand.  Religion is suppressed and personal freedoms are highly constrained in a wide variety of circumstances compared to the world's most democratic capitalist developed and developing countries.  Life as a dissenter from Communist party and government policies remains fraught with personal risk and all dissenting political and religious movements must operate on a covert basis.

But, China is gradually growing less totalitarian and more democratic.  China has free and fair democratic, non-partisan local elections in a large share of its territory.  The internal party processes by which the Communist party chooses which personalities who be chosen to be elected officials and leaders in Communist party positions and Communist party controlled elected offices in large municipalities and regional governments, while not necessarily "free and fair" by the standards of international political observers, are also not foregone conclusions and require candidates to marshal significant support from politically active individuals.  The "party line" within the Communist party has grown fuzzy enough that a wide array of policies can be advanced so long as this is done within the language and processes of the one party regime.  The prospect of revolutionary political reforms in response to the Tianamen Square protests in 1989 were put down and met with retrenchment rather than reform.  But, it is also true that even senior level Chinese political leaders are not indifferent to public opinion in modern China.

China's widespread use of politically driven executions for non-homicide crimes has been dramatically curtailed over the last decade or so.  It has become a practical impossible in such a vast, reasonably viable, mostly market driven economy to be as totalitarian as it could in the Maoist period from 1949 through the 1960s.  Rather than being impervious to outside ideas, China has developed a rich, demimond of bootleg Western entertainment, tech savvy young people who know how to circumvent official government censorship of the Internet, and skilled professionals who received higher education in the West.

Like the Soviet Union, a number of China's smaller neighbors followed its economic lead.  In particular, its Southeast Asian neighbors Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and its East Asian neighbor, North Korea, were all significantly influenced by China's political and economic model and adopted communist regimes.  But, as China eased away from a strict Maoist system, so did most of its neighbors.


North Vietnam adopted Communism after World War II.  Both North and South Vietnam first found common cause in defeating French efforts to reassert colonial rule, which they managed by 1954.   Then with Russian and Chinese support, a North Vietnamese communist state was formed, and this government promptly sought to gain control over capitalist, U.S. backed South Vietnam.  The North Vietnamese were successful and reunited the country under Communist rule at the end of the Vietnam War in 1976.

Like China, Vietnam continues to be a Communist state, but it began to liberalize its economy in 1987 and is far less totalitarian now than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s.  By 1995, trade and diplomatic relations with the United States (and the rest of the world) were restored.  Foreigners now regularly visit and conduct business in Vietnam.  Also, while Vietnam is a one party state, the Communist party has allowed a reasonable regular rotations of political leaders to take place.  Vietnam's current President took office in 2011 and its current prime minister took office in 2006.

Thus Vietnam's political and economic history, closely parallels that of China.  Vietnam too had a truly communist regime for only about half as long as European nations in Soviet sphere did.


The current situation is Laos is similar to that of Vietnam, but its hard core communist regime was shorter lived.  After World War II, Laos was a constitutional monarchy on a French model.  Armed conflict began in 1960 and eventually after diplomatic maneuvering and a long civil war a regime supported by the North Vietnamese government declared a Communist regime in 1975.

Laos opened its doors to foreign ties with countries other than Vietnam in 1988, normalized trade relations with the United States in 2004, and symbolically crowned its adoption of a market economy by opening a stock market in 2011.

Laos had a truly communist economic model for only about half of a generation.


Cambodia's story was bloodier.  King Norodom Sihanouk tried to maintain a neutral stance for Cambodia between the West and the Communists, but a civil war with the Communist Khmer Rouge broke out in 1970 seeking the overthrow of a pro-U.S. Premier, culminating with the Khmer Rouge forces taking control in 1975.  Four years of Khmer Rouge rule depopulated cities and left 1.7 million people dead, mostly for being bourgeois in social class, or being opposed to Khmer Rouge rule.  Vietnam stepped into the chaos and effectively occupied Cambodia as a colonial ruler molding local political institutions in its own image and putting down Khmer Rouge resistance from 1979 to 1989.

After 1989, a constitutional monarchy was restored, first under King Sihanouk and then his successor son, the Khmer Rouge insurgency was put down in just a few more years, and a multiparty electoral system was instituted in 1993.  Those elections were promptly undone in a 1997 coup by a co-prime minister who first took office in 1985 and has continued to rule since then with the mandate of subsequent flawed elections.

Like Laos, Cambodia was only under full fledged communist rule for about fifteen years.  It was just ten years, if one does not stretch the definition of a Communist regime to include the nominally Communist Khmer Rouge whose core policy for four years was to kill off their betters and return to the stone age.  While Cambodia's democratic institutions are flawed, unlike China, Vietnam and Laos, it has shed not just Communist economic policy, but also the single party, Communist political system that they have formally retained but have modestly liberalized.

North Korea

Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945.  When World War II ended the allies agreed that Russia would fill the political vacuum in the North and that the United States would do so in the South, until Korea could be granted its independence.  A Soviet style post-war regime was established in the North and a Western style democratic capitalist regime was established in the South, beginning in 1948.  The Korean War followed from 1950 to 1953, until it ended in a stalemate at the 38th parallel of latitude formalized in an armistice that was not even a full fledged peace treaty.

Today, of course, North Korea is the only country in the world with a full fledged Communist economic system and a one party political system as rigid and totalitarian as that of the early Stalinists and Maoists.  The vast majority of North Korean are more isolated from outside world than any other peoples in the world with the exception of isolated "tribal" peoples in the interior Papua New Guinea, the depths of the Amazon jungle, a handful of tribes in the Congo, and indigenous populations in the Andaman Islands.

While the rest of the world has moved on, the 24.7 million people of North Korea had experienced disciplined suffering for 69 years of a strict Soviet style Communist economic system and totalitarian political regime that seems frozen in 1953 apart from its subsequent acquisition of a few nuclear weapons and related ballistic missile technology.  Over time, however, isolated North Korea's one party system has mutated into a de facto monarchy, it was ruled from its formation by Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994.   Then, North Korea was ruled by his son Kim Jong Il, until his death in 2011.  Finally, Kim Jong Un took over the reigns of the country when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011.

North Korea has not undergone any of the economic or political liberalization that every communist country, except Soviet era Albania, experienced.

Communism In The Rest of The World

The Classic Political Economy Progression Of Newly Independent Countries

In the rest of Southeast Asia, West and Southwest Asia, Latin America and Africa, a monotonous pattern emerges.  This pattern is shared in its essentials by a number of European countries (e.g. Russia, Germany, Greece, Portugal).  Indeed, in some ways, Russia's political experience is a template for newly independent nations everywhere.

First, the country is either a political dependency, either of a European political power or the Ottoman Empire, or a decadent monarchy.

Then, the country is granted or declares its independence and adopts a Western style multiparty democratic constitution and a first election is held.

Within just a few months or years, the democratically elected regime elected under the new constitution is either ousted in a coup, or subverts the system from the inside. Generally, the successor justifies the power grab with claimed faults of the democratically elected civilians: the election that put them in place was unfair, they are incompetent, they are corrupt, they are ignoring the will of the people in the streets, they have violated human rights, or perhaps they are not committed to a democratic form of government and are in the process of establishing an authoritarian regime worse than the one that it replaced.

The people who depose the regime elected under the Western style constitution (which rarely lasts until a second election and almost never makes it to a third one) establish a non-democratic regimes that takes one of several similar forms.  The new regime may adopt a one party system, it may rule as a military dictatorship, it may be a theocracy, it may maintain the pretense of a multiparty democracy while vigorously suppressing dissent and rigging elections, in a few cases it may even be simply a legitimate "dominant party system" in which the mere power of incumbency and artful measures to co-opt dissenters is enough to keep one dominant party that played a critical role in the formative process of the current political culture is securely in control of all parts of the government for multiple generations without having to cheat in the electoral process.

This regime remains in place for at least a generation or two, sometimes interrupted by coups that simply put a new dictator in power, and sometimes briefly reinstating a Western style democracy similar to the kind present at the outset for a similarly brief period before reverting to a non-democratic mode under a new or old strongman.

In many cases, either in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, or the early period of the 21st century that we are in today, the existing autocrat either voluntarily liberalizes the political and economic system, or new elections are held in one of those brief interludes between dictatorial regimes and the democratically elected political leaders somehow managed to hold onto power.

A less common variant on this sequence involve independent countries that start as monarchies, rather than adopting Western style constitutions.  Some of these countries have maintained totalitarian monarchy regimes ever since then (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Morocco, and Cambodia).  Others have tried to liberalize into constitutional monarchies, often only to fall into the same pattern as nations that try to form Western style political systems at the outset.

Are Non-Democratic Governments That Nationalize Major Industries Really Communist?

Why is all of this relevant to considering the almost past era of communism?

Because, for the most part, authoritarian or dominant party systems have exerted more state control over the economy than developed Western style democratic capitalist states.  Natural resources and key industries where there are economies of scale are nationalized or controlled by a small oligarchy of cronies linked to the ruling regime.  Price controls and rationing, and politically motivated use of welfare state resources are typical.  International trade is often tightly controlled.

Popular peace is secured with state welfare distributions, a reasonably functional law enforcement regime to maintain domestic order (although not always uniformly, particularly if some local illegitimate figure can maintain control in a way that is subordinate to the ruling regime), and by taking draconian steps to put down dissent.

But, in the vast majority of cases, even those where formally, the state is declared to be a one party Communist regime in the image of Soviet or Maoist regimes, the ideological and practical commitment of the new regime to a communist form of economic management is very shallow.  References to Communist ideology are for them more window dressing than they are the driving motivations for the practical solutions that they feel are necessary to stay in power and manage their countries.  The famines that killed millions under Stalin and Mao's experiments with agricultural reforms and the mass slaughter of the Khmer Rouge, taught dictators following in their footsteps not to repeat those mistakes.

As a result, for the most part, authoritarian or dominant party regimes in places like Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Indonesia, Venezuela, or Mexico are not fairly characterized as having ever been true communist economies.  They haven't been doctrinaire free market economies either, but are more accurately described as non-ideological state control leaning authoritarian socialist economies, than as expressly anti-market systems sincerely seeking to replicate Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideals on a comprehensive basis.

A few Latin American countries, and perhaps a few African and Southeast Asian countries did briefly cross the line into the realm of genuine ideological communism for brief periods in the 20th century, but for the most part with less of a pervasive societal impact than in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Soviet sphere.


The one exception to that rule is Cuba where Fidel Castro has quite consciously attempted to establish a state with a Communist political-economy in the Soviet sense, and that regime remains in place.  Interestingly, however, like North Korea, this regime also seems to be evolving into what amounts to a monarchy.

In 1959, Fidel Castro led a successful communist revolution against a Cuban dictator who had dispensed with democratic institutions in 1952.  He ruled for 46 years until 2006 when he turned over power to his 75 year old brother Raul Castro.  This small island country (it now has 11 million people) in the Caribbean adopted a quite complete Communist system and has maintained it since then, although starting in 2011, Raul Castro did institute significant market and private property oriented economic reforms that have arguably converted Cuba to a state leaning socialist mixed economy, and Cuba has become more open to outsiders in the last two decades or so with the end of the Cold War.

While the one party political system under Fidel Castro soon evolved into a somewhat benign dictatorship, Casto's regime was never as totalitarian as 1950s and 1960s China, as the Soviet Union in its early and middle years, or as regimes like the Khmer Rouge.  Certainly, Casto imprisoned people for political purposes and suppressed dissent, although it was less repressive than many of its peers.  But, Cuba always maintained active international dealings (particularly with the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc in Europe, and China, which helped support it when it needed international assistance of one kind or another), pretty much always honored its commitment to the economic well being of the common man, did not conduct indiscriminate executions, and wasn't nearly as corrupt as many faux communist regimes masking mere dictatorships.  The carrot that encouraged Cuba to take this approach was the fact that tourism and a favorable international image have always been important to its economic survival.  The other tool available to Cuba is that rather than imprisoning or executing dissenters, it could allow them to simply sail away into the Caribbean, providing it with a safety valve for dealing with serious dissent that did not create martyrs or heroes for dissenters to rally around.

Cuba's half century old experiment with communism is still probably more communist in its economic practice than any other communist regime in the world today except for North Korea.  But, its recent liberalization of its economic policies makes it unlikely that this will persist more than a decade or two more.

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