Today marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution that set off the long global reign of terror of Communism. (For obscure reasons having to do with the outdated calendar used in Russia at the time, the October Revolution actually happened in November, and the Soviet Union traditionally celebrated it on November 7.) A century of Communism achieved four main results for the people who suffered under it: poverty, oppression, war, and mass death.
Countries taken over by Communists, from China and Russia to Cuba and Venezuela, were either plunged from relative prosperity into starvation or walled off for decades from the growing prosperity of capitalist countries—often right next door, enjoying all the same benefits of geography and culture. Think of the contrast between East and West Berlin, between Cuba and Chile, between mainland China and Hong Kong, between North and South Korea.
Communist countries have imposed oppressive regimes telling everyone what to read, think, and say. Scientists could be sent to the gulag for teaching unapproved ideas about genetics. Dissidents have been sent to prison camps, tortured, harassed, locked in psychiatric wards, and simply murdered outright. Artists and intellectuals have fled by the hundreds, when they could, seeking asylum in non-Communist countries in search of the freedom to do their work.
Communism fueled dozens of brutal civil wars and insurgencies across the world. A list of countries synonymous with endless warfare during the late twentieth century—Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and so on—all have one big thing in common: Communism. As a consequence, the end of the Cold War saw the biggest drop in the number of wars and deaths from war since the end of World War II, along with the creation of dozens of new democracies.
Above all else, the history of Communism is a history of mass-scale horrors: the terror-famine in Ukraine, Stalin’s show trials and gulags, the mass starvation of China’s Great Leap Forward, followed by the anarchic terror of the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields of Cambodia—those are just the low points in a list that can go on and on. It is estimated that in the past 100 years, Communist regimes killed as many as 100 million people.
What’s With Our Mental Block on History?
So why won’t the nightmare dream of Communism die? A recent poll shows that a majority of millennials prefer socialism or Communism to capitalism, and we know exactly where they’re getting their woozy, idealized version of these systems. The New York Times, for example, has been celebrating 100 years of Communism—”celebrating” seems the only word for it—with a series of gauzy retrospectives about the idealism, sense of purpose, optimism, intellectuality, and downright sexiness of life under Communism.
Does anybody do this with the Spanish Inquisition? Would anyone in polite society be permitted to gush about the supposed “idealism” of the Holocaust or of Ku Klux Klan lynchings?
A key to the problem can be seen even in critiques of this Communist hagiography by conservatives, who remind everyone that Communism “doesn’t work.” That seems a funny kind of understatement, like saying that dousing yourself with gasoline and setting yourself on fire “doesn’t work.” It implies some kind of idealistic goal for which the adherents of Communism choose unrealistic means. But the bloody, grinding history of Communism—and most especially the fact that it went on and on and continues even today, many decades after no one can have any illusions—suggests that oppression and murder is the goal.
So why does anybody still think this is “idealistic”? The allure of Communism is that it promises to put into practice, as a comprehensive social system, two moral ideas that most people regard as good and noble. You, dear reader, probably regard them as good and noble, too—but maybe you had better re-examine that assumption.
The first moral idea is that self-interest is bad and that it is not only good but the very definition of morality itself to sacrifice your own interests to others. That’s why profit and money-making are supposed to be bad. That’s why anything you have that somebody else doesn’t think they have is supposed to be some kind of unconscionable “privilege.” That’s why capitalism has to be expunged, because it’s a whole system built on self-interest.
The second idea, which is the political consequence of the first, is that private interests are bad and need to be subordinated to the collective “public good.” That’s why everything private is bad, from private companies to private schools, and everything “public” is automatically good. That’s why celebrated authors hatch schemes to abolish private education, something only totalitarian regimes have ever done, in order to make sure everybody is “eating out of the same pot.”
Communism Took These Bad Ideas Seriously
The problem with Communism is not that it twisted these ideals or implemented them badly. The crime of Communism is that it took them seriously and implemented them fully, all the way to their logical conclusion. That is what people don’t want to face up to in the history of Communism.
In the strictly scientific sense, the Communist “experiment” didn’t fail. It produced a clear result. It took basic ideas about morality and politics and tested what happens when they are implemented with ruthless consistency. It tested them in one country after another, in different cultures and under different conditions, and it produced the same result every time.
Here is what we learned, or at least what we should have learned. We learned that a system based on attempting to eliminate self-interest doesn’t lead to happiness. It leads to everyone being equally miserable. When you demand that people sacrifice their well-being and happiness, how could they end up any other way? Communism is based on the logic of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” It tries to build collective happiness on the foundation of individual suffering.
But of course under Communism there are still a small number of elites who take advantage of the system to live in luxury while everyone else lives in squalor. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro just reminded us of this when the chubby strongman went on national TV to scarf down an empanada while his countrymen are starving. But the luxuries of the elites are made possible by propagandizing for selfless work and belt-tightening and sacrifices for the greater good—to be done by everyone else. If people are told not to expect to be happy and prosperous and secure in their private possessions, this disarms them against exploitation by predators like Stalin or Maduro.
That leads us to another big lesson of Communism: without individualism, there is no basis for individual rights or any other guarantee of human dignity. The big mistake people make about Communism is to think that it’s just about collectivizing property. It’s actually about collectivizing people. Communist countries impose oppressive systems of censorship and interfere deeply with the personal lives of their subjects precisely because they take seriously this idea of the subordination of the individual to the collective good. They apply it to everything, including the very thoughts in your head, which they also treat as public property.
The next big lesson of Communism is that without individual freedom, there is no creativity, just mindless conformity. I can’t remember who cited the ultimate example of the spirit of Communism: a Soviet shop with the sign “Beauty Parlor #38.” Everything is made drab and impersonal, built with an indifference to the actual needs and wants of individual human beings. Partly, this is a product of its economic system, in which all decisions are made by a distant and uncaring bureaucracy, a system with no prices or profit motive to align the goods and services offered by businesses with the preferences of their customers. More deeply, though, all of that is missing because in principle the needs, desires, and preferences of the individual are not supposed to matter.
That leads us to the deepest lesson of the history of Communism. Self-interest and individualism are just ways of saying that the life and happiness of the individual human being has value. Throw out these principles, and the life of the individual can be sacrificed, in whole or in part, with no limit. If an individual needs to be tortured for the good of the system, or worked to death in the gulags, or shot in the back of the head and tossed into a ditch—well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, right? And the more eggs you break, the less each one matters. A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. No one knows for sure if Comrade Stalin really said that, but we know he acted on it.
What Communism taught us is that a system that doesn’t value the individual human life does not value human life at all. And you cannot value the individual human life without valuing its happiness, its freedom, and its private interests.
The Counterpoint to Communism
The only person who fully grasped these lessons was the Russian émigré Ayn Rand. She escaped the Soviet Union and set out to revive individualism and build a philosophy that redefined the meaning and moral status of individual self-interest. She would later explain: “Stalin did not corrupt a noble ideal…. If service and self-sacrifice are a moral ideal, and if the ‘selfishness’ of human nature prevents men from leaping into sacrificial furnaces, there is no reason…why a dictator should not push them in at the point of bayonets—for their own good, or the good of humanity, or the good of posterity, or the good of the latest bureaucrat’s latest five-year plan. There is no reason that they can name to oppose any atrocity. The value of a man’s life? His right to exist? His right to pursue his own happiness? These are concepts that belong to individualism and capitalism.”
If Communism represents the full implementation of a commonly accepted view of morality, we can understand the compulsion to make excuses for it, to claim it’s never really been tried, to forget its disasters and atrocities, to allow only a gauzy airbrushed version of its history, and to desperately wish that if we just tried it one more time and really did it right, we would finally reach the promised paradise.
We’ve done that for a full century, and even longer. After all, Communism was tried on a small scale, in voluntary utopian communities, for more than a century before it failed upward and took over entire countries. It’s time to start grasping the moral lessons before we’re forced to live once more through the nightmare of chasing the Communist dream.
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