Unlearning the History of Capitalism

Unlearning the History of Capitalism

Add to Reading List
Add to Reading List
Imagine if every time somebody expressed support for capitalism, they were immediately screamed down with death tolls from Colonial India, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the worst of US foreign policy. Those who argued against them, rather than engaging any of their arguments directly, informed them that they were "psychotic", heartless apologists for some of the worst crimes in history, then proceeded to catalogue these crimes as if that settled the debate. Perhaps the incredulous anti-capitalists would go so far as to tell the capitalist that they were insulting the victims of these crimes, and even that if they ever met those victims, they'd probably get beaten up or something. Sound stupid? Well, this is where debates about communism lie today.

Jesse Myerson recently ran a piece in Salon entitled "Why you’re wrong about communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism)". Among the misconceptions were "Only communist economies rely on state violence", "Communism killed 110 million people for resisting dispossession" and "Capitalist governments don’t commit human rights atrocities". As Myerson points out, there really is nothing historically special about countries having abhorrent histories - particularly during industrialisation and wartime - and so merely pointing out (and exaggerating) the atrocities committed by nominally communist governments is not sufficient to discredit communism as an idea (or at least if it is, it's sufficient to discredit capitalism, too). Predictably, Myerson's piece had so-called Cold War Warriors up in arms, reminding us of all that was bad about 20th century communism. 

Debating when there's no debate

Once communism is mentioned, the blinders come down. People don't want to listen to your arguments because in most peoples' eyes the debate is settled: communism is evil and to see why one has to look no further than the crimes of existing communist governments. This argument actually follows a familiar script for me, since I wrote a similar piece similar to Myerson's on Pieria a short while ago (which, to my delight, Myerson leans on in places). At the time, my article sparked a similarly themed, incredulous response from Mark Harrison, who suggested I had been "unlearning the history of communism" (see what he did there?) As the title of this post implies, this could be interpreted as a belated response to Harrison, although I really want to make a more general point.

In the interests of grounding this debate, it's worth clearing up on a couple of conceptual difficulties surrounding both capitalism and communism. First, this debate seems crazy to libertarians (and conservatives who have adopted their framework). Yes, communist governments did horrible things, and so have capitalist governments. What's the common denominator here? Government! Why can't everybody just agree to reduce the power/size of government, since everybody is so agreed about how states can do horrible things? This impasse arises because those on the (far) left tend to see states as a reflection of the economic, ideological and social forces in a given society, while (in my experience) libertarians tend to see them as standalone, monolithic entities in their own right. I'm not going to argue that either view of states is 'right' or 'wrong' here - they can both be useful - but it's helpful for libertarians to know that this is the angle from which I'm approaching the debate.

The second problem is the idea of what socialism is or should be. Socialism and communism are typically associated with state ownership or central planning, and while many existing socialist countries have used a centralised economic system, this needn't be the case - just as there are different types of capitalism, there can be different types of socialism (communism itself is one form of socialism). Central planning - both the Maoist and Stalinist forms - were explicitly adopted to catch up with the industrialised countries as quickly as possible (particularly in the face of military threats), and in no way were what communism or socialism was intended to be. This doesn't mean they are irrelevant to the debate: I wouldn't argue socialists don't have lessons to learn from the undoubted flaws these systems had. However, it's helpful for critics to know that for many socialists the ultimate goal is worker, not state ownership, and this is generally what we have in mind when we advocate socialism now.

With this in mind, it is entirely possible for somebody to support communism or socialism as an idea but not support specific governments or movements that carry its banner. Which supporter of capitalism supports every (or any) capitalist politician, country, business leader, political party or other major capitalist institution? Presumably none, and for good reason: there are significant differences within movements and systems as well as between them; there are bad policies or mistakes; there are harsh historical circumstances from which we should be careful of drawing general inferences about a system. Endorsing an idea doesn't mean you endorse any interpretation of it, or everything done in its name, under any circumstance. People understand this when they're talking about capitalism: we have social democracy, both left and right neoliberalism, anarcho-capitalism, minarchist libertarianism, European union-business alliance capitalism, and many more specific iterations of these. Yet when Myerson defended communism in general, he was immediately accused of arguing the USSR was a "utopia", despite doing nothing of the sort.

Now, some might interpret my appeal to an ideal of socialism or communism as special pleading or wishful thinking. We have examples of capitalism failing, but also examples of it working - are there any examples of socialist countries working? Yet, as my previous piece pointed out, there was an concerted effort by the US to undermine any regime that declared itself socialist (or even independent) whether through sanctions, embargoes, covert and overt military operations and funding/arming the opposition. No socialist country has ever been left alone to develop (let alone assisted by the international community, as many capitalist countries were by the Marshall Plan), so it's rather unfair to compare them directly to countries which have received such treatment. 

Nevertheless, there are some qualified successes socialists can point to: central planning was actually far more efficient than is commonly accepted; Yugoslavia's industrialisation was probably the most successful in history, from both an economic and humanitarian perspective; even Cuba has achieved a lot when you place it in proper context andyou compare it to similar neighbouring countries, rather than the world's biggest superpower (at least, according to statistics gathered by those communists at the CIA); the worker-run video game company Valve is quite a socialist success story. In fact, many institutions in capitalist countries are run according to the kind of airy-fairy principles that non-socialists might consider naive if appealed to by socialists: organisational or group loyalty, intrinsic motivation to do a 'good job', etcetera. There's less reason to place as much prevalence on material incentives as supporters of capitalism tend to do, implicitly or explicitly, and plenty of real world examples of people and institutions working well without them in mind.

Young fools?

One particularly lazy tactic anti-communists use to dismiss those who try to hammer some perspective into this debate is dubbing them "young fools" who just didn't experience the Cold War enough to know what they're talking about. (We get a similar things when young people comment on the Thatcher era. I presume nobody, anywhere, is allowed to comment on Genghis Khan, since nobody alive actually experienced him?) The strange thing is that this argument doesn't work in the anti-communists' favour, even on its own terms. The newer generation have the benefit of having grown up without being subject to the absurdities of McCarthyism, the tension of a possible nuclear holocaust (by the way, which is the only country ever to actually drop a nuclear bomb on a civilian population?) and all the associated commie-hating fear that brings. This means that their minds are not filled with nonsense when they look at the historical record, and subsequently they can see something wrong with the conventional narrative. 

Of course, this historical record is incredibly well obfuscated by the victors of the Cold War. I have a friend - a conservative, for what it's worth - who recently visited Vietnam. In a subsequent conversation we were having about the United States, he commented that he was  "unable to respect the US" since seeing museums in Vietnam detailing what the Americans had done there during  the war. "They're just so good at hiding it", he concluded. Something similar could be said about Korea, Guatemala, Chile, Indonesia, Iran, and most of their neighbouring countries, yet few people really seem to know about this stuff or draw it together. While one of Myerson's critics happily rattled off Angola and Afghanistan as examples of USSR aggression, he failed to note that there are about 10 examples of US aggression for every example of USSR aggression. This doesn't somehow make the USSR's aggression OK, but if this is sufficient to discredit the USSR as a state and communism as an idea, then both capitalism and the USA's reputation should be in tatters.

Aside from trying to compartmentalise them, there are two tactics commonly used to evade the grizzly reality of US foreign policy, and the corporate interests so often behind it. The first is to argue that said interventions were OK, because the US was combating communism. But this is an empty, question-begging statement, because we've assumed what we want to prove: that communism is bad. I presume the 'defence' that the USSR was just "containing" capitalism (or the USA) in Afghanistan would strikes anti-communists as similarly question-begging, and for good reason. Interestingly, the 'communism!!!' argument falls apart even on its own terms, as many US interventions were in places like the Congo where neither communism as an ideology nor the USSR had significant leverage (except in the mind of John Foster Dulles). What's more, the fact that the US had and has no trouble supporting brutal governments that cooperated with them belies the idea that they were unilaterally committed to combating some sort of evil.

The second tactic is to claim that attacks on US foreign policy are just 'conspiracy theories'. This is pretty weak for two reasons: number one, we are talking about things the US government itself acknowledges it has done, either with some delay - such as the coup in Iran - or simply (relatively) out in the open from the beginning, such as Nicaragua or Vietnam. Hence, not 'believing' these things happened is more akin to sticking your fingers in your ears than a healthy skepticism. Number two, these events do not require a conspiracy, only certain actors who are wealthy or powerful enough to shape foreign policy toward their interests. Funnily enough, all too often the same people dismissing these 'conspiracy theories' are willing to assert in the next breath that communists, presumably backed by the USSR, were responsible for some sort of conspiracy that stretched from Iran through Moscow and Greece to Guatemala, without substantial evidence other than that said country didn't want to kowtow to the interests of the US. Bearing these points in mind, which group are really the 'conspiracy theorists', and which group is just accepting a grim reality? 


Whichever arguments are put forward for communism, those who oppose it just can't resist falling back on the tried and tested tactic of "name the atrocity" ('I see your Gulags and raise you a slavery'). Mark Harrison's aforementioned rebuttal of my article was a case in point: the major part of his piece is devoted gory details of Stalin and Mao's reign, presumably because...why? I didn't deny any of this - I called Stalin a "ruthless sociopath" and Mao's Great Leap Forward (GLF) "disastrous". I gave a brief overview of their regimes, and I made clear that my major point was not to defend Mao or Stalin per se, but to argue that what they did was not paradigmatic of socialism or communism. None of the historical accounts Harrison gives substantially contradict my narrative - that hostile conditions and backwardness in existing communist countries resulted in oppression and forced industrialisation - if anything, they serve as a more in depth elaboration of my point. But for some reason Harrison seems to think that merely stating these details constitutes a refutation of my argument.

Most interesting is that, despite his fascination with historical atrocities, Harrison completely dodges difficult questions about the history of capitalism, save perhaps for some vague hand waving about how systems themselves can't be blamed for such things, which is strange given how willing he is to draw broad inferences about communism as a system. He insists capitalism "separates economics and politics", which is simply a false statement - companies are, after all, political creations and always have been, while contemporary political parties are closely associated with major economic entities. The creation of capitalist private property was a (violent) political choice; the basics of capitalism require political decisions about property rights, contracts and the rule of law; on top of this, capitalist economies are and always have been actively managed by decisions about immigration, limited liability, money and other key institutions. I suppose one could respond to all this with the 'crony capitalism' dodge, but then it just becomes a game of shifting definitions and imaginary realities that is as weak and fruitless as when communists appeal to 'true communism'.

Despite Harrison's lack of engagement, his response will be deemed by many to be a sound rebuttal to my arguments, simply because the more words one devotes to detailing communist atrocities, the more points one gets back at anti-communist HQ. Yet I could easily respond to Harrison - or any supporter of capitalism - in a similar style, detailing crimes that I would (loosely speaking) consider part and parcel of capitalism: the 200-300 thousand people murdered under Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt; the colonial dismantling of traditional production structures in British Colonies, resulting in mass starvation even though food was abundant; the Irish Potato Famine; the still-existing 20 million or so slaves across the world, many working for corporations; the continued prevalence of global starvation; disastrous foreign wars, past and present. I could do all of this with an overtone that implied all supporters of capitalism condoned these things or were at best ignorant of them, and that if they only found out, they'd be an anti-capitalist just like me! And then I could top it off with a specious denial that the USSR or Maoist China represented 'true communism', that we've never seen true communism, and hence that appealing to them as examples was moot in the face of my ideal.

The fact is that anti-communists face a tension in their reasoning. Many of them, even if they require some pushing, will tell you they don't support (for example) foreign wars, the intrusive US government, and certainly not slavery or colonialism. Since these occurrences are undisputed parts of the history and present of capitalist countries, they have to come up with some way to say the two are unrelated. This inevitably results in some form of 'no true scotsman' defence of existing capitalist countries - whether convincing or otherwise- but if you try this kind of argument with communism, they will not accept it. Anti-communism defends capitalism as an ideal rather than as existing, but all too often only considers existing communism rather than the ideas behind it.

What we get, then, is not what the anti-communists like to make out the debate is - one side defending atrocities and one side unilaterally condemning them - but both sides condemning certain atrocities whilst downplaying, contextualising and ignoring others. Again, Harrison's piece provides a good example of this. While I argued that the rise in mortality rates in Russia post-USSR suggests capitalism has been disastrous for the country, he denies this and attributes the rise to Gorbachev's alcohol reforms. Unsurprisingly, I disagree: while the reforms were undoubtedly a factor, post-communist Russia was afflicted by a number of ills, including increases in violence, starvation, lack of access to healthcare and poverty. The rise in alcoholism does not account for all of the rise in mortality, and neither can the rise in alcoholism itself be solely explained by Gorbachev's reforms - for example, the badly managed transition had major psychological impacts on the population, which increased alcoholism.

However, my point here is not to settle this particular debate; instead, what I want to point out is that this is precisely the type of debate that we need to have in more detail. Sadly, historical atrocities are 2 a penny, and what we need to understand is under which system atrocities were the inevitable outcome of the system in question, and under which system they were a result of harsh historical circumstances, bad luck/coincidence (for example, the ethnic tensions surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia were hardly just 'communism'), or simply mistakes from which we can learn (in my opinion, you could make a case that the Iraq War fits this description, rather than simply being attributable to 'capitalism'). 

To this end, I would ask anti-communists like Harrison if - since they are willing to be 'apologists' for events such as the Russian transition to capitalism - they would be willing to discuss events within communist countries in this kind of detail, without blithely attributing every single event to 'communism'? Such events include but are not limited to: the role of the Kulaks destroying livestock (which is actually uncontroversial as a standalone fact), as well as natural disasters, in the Ukrainian famine; the dubiousness of many of the higher estimates of deaths from Mao's GLF; the historical context surrounding what happened with the Khmer Rouge regime (the 'death march' was undeniably necessarily due to the effects of the bombing campaign by the US). In fairness to Harrison himself, he seems perfectly willing to have these debates, and if he dropped the Cold War Warrior rhetoric I'm sure we could make significant headway. Myerson's critics - who were decidedly more shrill and less informed - should take note.


In my experience, it's difficult to overcome the agnotology of aligning yourself with socialism even if you want to, which makes this debate virtually impossible when most people are resistant to socialism from the start. Nevertheless, I believe (or hope) there is a scope for broadening this debate so that we can move past the kind of context-free talking points and shouting down that so often accompany the word "communism". This is a necessity regardless of which system is superior: if we can only defend our preferred system against challengers by using shifting definitions and listing atrocities, we obviously don't have a good positive case for that system. A more comprehensive and nuanced debate over how to build a system that can overcome the ongoing problems in the world - whether by reform or revolution - is the surest way to understand the ideas behind both capitalism and communism.


Keep up to date with the latest thinking on some of the day's biggest issues and get instant access to our members-only features, such as the News DashboardReading ListBookshelf & Newsletter. It's completely free.


Please read our Community Guidelines before posting

An excellent essay. The problem with any political economic system is the recruitment pool of its adherents-the human species.

Twitter Feed

RT @johnvanreenen: The high cost of breaking up the UK me in @PieriaView #ScotlandDecides #indyref