Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please"

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The ongoing financial crisis has reignited debates about the legitimacy of capitalism as a system, and the possibility of alternatives – generally some form of Marxism and socialism – has been raised. However, these possibilities are usually dismissed, as many people believe that the fall of the Berlin wall marked the final collapse of the argument for socialism and communism. Mark Harrisson made such an argument on Pieria recently: capitalism, for all its faults, delivers the goods, and ‘liberal democracies’ combine both higher living standards and a much greater degree of justice than existing communism.

In my opinion, this view rests on a highly selective interpretation of events. It requires that we gloss over two major historical points: first, the historical circumstances of existing communism; second, the history of capitalist countries. It fails to acknowledge the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones. It ignores the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states, a process comprehensively documented by US foreign policy critic William Blum (Blum, 2003). It also requires that we define past and present abuses of capitalist states as somehow 'outside' capitalism, in order to place ourselves above the (real or imagined) abuses of the communists.

I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates. In any case, my main aim is to show two things: first, the abuses of existing socialist states are better explained by their political circumstances than the innate evils of the ideology; second, capitalist countries have a similarly abhorrent record, one which is not so easily explained by political necessities. My rendition will definitely annoy capitalists and anti-communists by being too sympathetic toward communism, which is a dirty word for many. It will also potentially annoy communists and socialists by not being sympathetic enough and repeating some of the more simplistic mainstream narratives. However, the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.

A brief history of existing communism

The world’s first socialist state, the USSR, was established in 1917 in the middle of World War 1. Russia had suffered the worst losses out of any country during the war, and withdrew when Vladimir Lenin came to power. As this devastated, largely agrarian economy struggled to rebuild itself, it faced imperial threats as the USA and other allied forces sent troops to “strangle [the socialist state] at its birth”, greatly exacerbating the civil war. Even once the foreign troops had been expelled, the USSR faced the continued hostility of the west, followed by the rise of Hitler on its doorstep (Blum, 2003, pp. 1-20).

Economic and physical devastation, political upheaval, the threat of war and continued foreign interference have a propensity to give rise to dictators and national paranoia, no matter the system in place, and this is what happened in the USSR. To be sure, the Bolsheviks had never been averse to a degree of collateral damage in what they saw as a war, but the enemies of the USSR became a justification for their more ruthless policies. By the time Joseph Stalin took (absolute) power in 1929, many - including, perhaps, himself - believed the threats the USSR faced were justifications for his purges and the Gulags. While there is little doubt that Stalin was a ruthless sociopath, and that many of these threats existed only in his head, the country did face a very real Nazi threat that, failing industrialisation, it would not have been able to overcome (McDermott, 2006).

My point is simply that Stalin’s rise to power, and his behaviour, are better explained (not justified, I stress) by the geopolitics of the USSR’s first few decades than the innate evils of communism. While the communist ideology was used to legitimize his actions, this has been done with ideologies across history: religions, democracy and, yes, the capitalist idea of 'just doing business'. This reasoning is consistent with the fact that once Stalin died and the more immediate western threats disappeared, ‘de-Stalinisation’ took place: the Gulags were softened and reduced in size; the cult of personality was dismantled.  This didn't mean rainbows and unicorns post-1953, but things certainly improved once the Nazi threat had been eliminated. It is also worth noting that the remaining Cold War paranoia was certainly not a USSR-only phenomenon, with McCarthyism and the red scare in the US reaching levels which now seem ridiculous to most.

In China, Mao Zedong’s leadership followed an analogous, though less extreme path. Mao became the leader of the communists in the face of the oppressive nationalists, as well as the imperial Japanese and a degree of US intervention (Blum, 2003, pp. 21-27). Mao was an excellent general – he would have to have been in order to succeed – but once the communists took power, his military mindset proved less fruitful when translated into peacetime policies. This was demonstrated by the disastrous rush to industrialise with the Great Leap Forward (GLF), which undoubtedly caused a large degree of famine, surely because of the over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy. After this, Mao’s leadership deteriorated somewhat as many of his policies were similarly over centralised, and the communist party’s oppressive power began to resemble the class structures which they had fought so hard against (Williams, 2000; Meisner, 2006). While some of these tensions, including the need to industrialise, can be attributed to real or perceived external pressures, it is also undoubtedly true that top-down control over an area as large as China is bound to create problems.

I expect that, at best, opponents of socialism might consider one or two examples of ‘bad eggs’ explainable, but would ask why existing communism almost inevitably gave rise to such flawed leaders and states. Surely, the repeated ‘laboratory tests’ of communism have time and time again shown the ideology to be a failure - after all, on top of Stalin and Mao, we have leaders such as Pol PotKim-Il Sung and Ho Chi-Minhoften accompanied by cults of personality, ruthless enforcement of ideology and mass killings. How can we excuse these as unrelated to communist ideologies?

I would in turn respond: given the way the communist ‘laboratory test’ was constructed, how could it have been any other way? After all, the USA’s policy of “strangling” socialist states was not limited to the USSR but extended across the globe, taking place in dozens of countries: Italy, Guatemala, the Congo and Uruguay, to name a few (Blum, 2003). Bearing this in mind, what would you expect those who managed to fend off these attacks to look like? Would you expect them to be soft, peaceful and democratically minded, or to be dictatorial, uncompromising and military-minded? The leaders and regimes which were not ruthless - such as Patrice Lumumba, the PKIJacobo Arbenz and Salvador Allende - paid a price for their humanity: they were killed or exiled, and their countries were taken over by west-friendly dictatorships. For this reason, evaluating communism or socialism based only on the regimes which survived is essentially a sampling bias.

There is one further nuance that is often lost in the capitalism-communism debate. This is the idea that the fall of the Berlin Wall represented populations lovingly embracing the western way and rejecting anything to do with socialism. This idea is simply wrong. For example, in Poland, the popular party Solidarity wanted some form of worker ownership – in other words, socialism – until, in desperation, they had to turn to the IMF, who made capitalist policies a condition for any aid. In Russia, Boris Yeltin’s ‘free market’ reforms were resisted, which was met with force; similarly, in China, the Tienanmen Square massacres were not made in favour of capitalism but in favour of democracy and worker control (Klein, 2007, pp. 171-193, 246-262). In Albania and Bulgaria, the communists were actually re-elected in what were widely regarded as legitimate elections, until the USA mounted numerous destabilisation efforts and they eventually lost power (Blum, 2003, pp. 314-319).

What’s more, a large number of people in former communist countries report that they were ‘better off under communism’. These findings may be partly dismissed as rose-tinted nostalgia, but surely if capitalism were truly delivering the goods for these people, we wouldn't see such responses. These complaints also place inappropriate comparisons between Western and Eastern Europe in context: they have never been, and are still not, on par, whatever the system in place. Overall, it seems that people in former communist countries simply wanted democracy, not capitalism, but they got the latter more than they got the former. We in the west are prone to using these two terms interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

A brief history of existing capitalism

It is, in my opinion, a remarkable display of double standards that economists tend to dismiss colonialism, slavery and 'third world' famine as unfortunate footnotes in our history - which nevertheless remain outside and unrelated to our current system of capitalism - while simultaneously condemning the miserable conditions of industrialising communism as key to its existence. This lofty position on colonialism dates back as far as Adam Smith, who, though he did not approve of colonialism due to the costs it brought to the colonisers, thought that the process could be beneficial for the colonies. He also considered colonialism as extraneous to capitalism overall, despite admitting that they were highly profitable for some, and generally glossed over the more barbaric aspects of their existence (Smith, quoted in Perelman, 2000, pp. 230-232, 247-249).

It is common for supporters of capitalism to insist that we contrast ‘true capitalism’, which has never really existed, with ‘corporatism’ and ‘crony capitalism’. However, I tend to agree with Chris Dillow's arguments: capitalism is about making money, and those who make money will naturally lobby for political privileges in order to make more money. In other words, crony capitalism is the only capitalism. In any case, were supporters of capitalism to apply their restrictive definitions to communism, including existing communist regimes in their evaluation would be a non-starter. None of these countries fitted the definition of communism or even socialism: the workers did not own production and the state certainly didn't ‘wither away’.

In my opinion, if we are to judge a system we must judge it based on its actual history rather than an abstract ideal which has never existed, and this is true in both cases. Though communist countries did not fit the definition of communism, they were created in the name of establishing it, and their ‘transitional’ path toward it should not be regarded as outside communism. Similarly, though capitalism in its purest form (wage labour, profit, markets) does not necessitate violence, the drive for profits all too often results in it. Arguing that when capitalism does something we don’t like it is no longer capitalism is to employ a circular, ever-changing definition of capitalism that renders the concept meaningless.

I therefore find it difficult – offensive, in fact – to try and separate the genocide of the Native American people and the enslavement of West Africans from the development of the USA and western capitalism. After all, the cheap, resource heavy land accrued in the conquest of the ‘new world’ was undoubtedly a factor in the growth of the US economy (after all, it had to have the land in order to exist at all). Furthermore, slave-labour was highly profitable and regarded as essential to commerce before the civil war, fuelling the US' massive cotton sales to Britain. These events are often glossed over in mainstream discussions of US history, which focuses on how the magic of free enterprise did magical things, but the reality is far more stark: resource-rich land was acquired by conquest, and initially production was essentially done for free. Australia has an analogous history with the extermination of the aboriginals.

The US are not the only capitalist power guilty of such atrocities. As historian Mike Davis has documented, the ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ saw mass starvation in India, China, Brazil and much of Indochina as the British established capitalism in the region (Davis, 2000). Far from being an unfortunate but unnecessary excess, these famines were a direct result of traditional production methods being destroyed in favour of wage-labour and the ‘market system’, and were done in the interests of merchants and large corporations such as the EIC. Large food grains were exported or even simply held in storage as local peasants starved. Furthermore, these starvations were regarded as at best unimportant and at worst actually essential to discipline the newly acquired workforces.

Nor have such abuses been confined to foreign lands. Capitalism’s inception in the UK saw the rise of the foreclosure movements and game laws, which sought to make peasants dependent on wage labour for subsistence, both by seizing their land and by forcibly limiting the amount they were allowed to hunt, respectively. Those who resisted were often hung, while those who didn’t either starved or ‘chose’ to work for longer hours, lower pay and in worse conditions than they had previously (Perelman, 2000, pp. 38-58). Capitalism also has a long history of anti-labour violence, domestically and abroad, both in the form of private companies themselves executing it, or police and armies on their behalf.

More recently, economist Utsa Patnaik has disputed the “ideological” nature of how famine is covered in the west. She notes that while estimates of deaths from Mao’s GLF are exaggerated using dubious estimation techniques (which effectively allow the demographers to pick the number arbitrarily), little to no cover has been given to the increase in Russian deaths during the ‘transition’ to capitalism, which, by a reasonable estimation method of simply counting the increase in death rates, claimed 4 million lives between 1990 and 1996. Patnaik goes on to note that increasing starvation and malnutrition in India’s recent history - under what would commonly be termed a ‘neoliberal’ government - are reported as ‘voluntary’ consumption decisions, a ridiculous proposition if there ever was one (Patnaik, 2004).

Finally, a contentious point might be to consider the role of US foreign policy and institutions such as the IMF, and their links to capitalist interests. I do not find many people from anywhere on the political spectrum who approve of the excesses of these institutions - or even their existence - but I also do not find many who consider them an integral part of capitalism. However, the simple fact is that these activities have been highly profitable for some: financial institutions profited immensely from events such as the collapse of communism and the Asian financial crisis (Stiglitz, 2002, pp. 89-165); arms and security companies have made a lot from wars - most recently Iraq (Klein, 2007, 341-359). More generally, authors such as John Perkins have detailed how closely the economic pillaging of countries across the globe is linked to corporate interests and the 'Economic Hitmen' they employ to engage in a sort of international loan sharking. Perkins details how he cooked the numbers in order to get countries such as Indonesia to accept enormous loans against their best interests (Perkins, 2004, pp.31-35).

I appreciate many regard these things as excessive to capitalism’s existence, and possible to resist politically, but regarding them as entirely unrelated to a system which is based around private accumulation of profit seems to be an act of cognitive dissonance. I refuse to believe that ‘capitalism’ can be fully absolved of responsibility for these events, as they seem to me to be a direct result of profit-seeking companies, well, seeking profits. Such companies are not bothered about whether they cross an ideological wall between ‘government’ and ‘market’, a construction which to me only seems to serve as a legitimatisation of capitalism despite these depressing facts.


I expect my supposed defences of brutal dictatorships will incense supporters of capitalism (if they have managed to read this far). But I have not defended anyone’s atrocities; I have merely defended the idea of socialism against the idea that it inevitably gives rise to such atrocities. Supporters of capitalism would not expect me to accuse them of defending the El Nino famines, or the excesses of anti-communism or colonialism simply because they advocate capitalism, and rightly so – I am well aware that many vehement supporters of capitalism denounce institutions such as the IMF, as well as colonialism and imperialism in general.

What is necessary is a discussion about under which system such atrocities are paradigmatic, and under which system they were one-off policy mistakes or the result of historical circumstances. I have my reasons that they are paradigmatic under capitalism but not under socialism, which are surely implicit in this post. However, that debate is for another time – my point in this article is merely to suggest that these, rather than context-free talking points about existing communism, are the grounds upon which the ‘capitalism versus socialism‘ debate should be conducted.


Blum, William. 2003. Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press

McDermott, Kevin. 2006. Stalin: Revolutionary in an Era of War, Palgrave Macmillan

Williams, Sue. 2000. China: A Century of Revolution, Zeitgeist Films

Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Free Press

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Knopf Canada

Perelman, Michael. 2000. The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation, Duke University Press

Davis, Mike. 2000. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, Verso Books

Patnaik, Utsa. 2004. The Republic of Hunger, Public Lecture on the occasion of the 50th Birthday of Safdar Hashmi, organized by SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust)

Stiglitz, Joseph. 2002. Globalisation and its Discontents, W.W. Norton & Company

Perkins, John. 2004. Confessions of an Economic Hitman: The Shocking Story of How America Really Took Over the World, Berrett-Koehler Publishers


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