Saturday, 4 August 2012

Communist Countries: Crisis, Contradiction and Collapse

Introduction: A Beautiful Idea, Really?
I've often had people claim to me that communism would be a great idea, if only human nature let it work. But I don't think that Marxist communism in particular would work on even a theoretical level- the idea of a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' ever seeding power is beyond comprehension. Were then communist systems always doomed to fail, or might they have survived if not for a few historical quirks?

Marx claimed in Das Kapital that “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation”. His argument was that because capitalist societies relied on social production to create wealth but private appropriation to obtain wealth, they were fated to collapse. However, communist systems also suffered systemic crises, from the failure of the New Economic Policy to the USSR’s fall. Indeed, communist systems suffered from the same internal contradiction as capitalist systems, notably an exclusive extractive class which took profits away from socially productive workers. Communist systems in fact fared worse than capitalist economies from this because they entrenched party apparatchiks at the head of their economies and lacked the 'creative destruction' of capitalism. As a consequence,   they suffered systemic crises, to which unlike capitalist democracies, they could not adapt. I want to make two points in this post: first, that the autocratic nature of communist parties lead to the creation of a new extractive class, that of autocratic party bureaucrats and second, that this internal contradiction lead to crises in communist nations, leading to their eventual collapse. Thus, it will be proven that not only did communist systems contain internal contradictions; they suffered worse from them than capitalist systems.

Party Bureaucrats: The World's Best Rent-Seekers
Communist systems lead to the substitution of Marx and Engel’s bourgeois class who aimed for the “accumulation of wealth in private hands” for a group of party bureaucrats who were equally extractive, thus leading to an inherent contradiction. Official Soviet propaganda espoused that the regime was leading the USSR to a “brilliant future… one of liberty, equality, fraternity, guaranteed employment”. However, because of the inherent vagueness in Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which he claimed would lead to the “abolition of all classes” after a transition phase of socialist rule, all communist systems in reality did not transition out of bureaucratic socialism. As Olson notes, under Stalin this meant that the party expropriated all natural resources and capital to add to its yield to its tax collections and also directly controlled consumption and investment for its own benefit. 

Party members were rewarded from this expropriation with special stores, health care facilities and vacation spas in return for loyalty to the party. CPSU members were paid 127 per cent of the average wage of a government worker and their pay was one third of the government administration budget. Further, there was systemic soliciting of in-kind payments and direct stealing. They also engaged in what Verdery terms “political capitalism”, that is bureaucrats used the shortages inherent to the system to make a profit from selling scarce goods. Party “apparatchiks” thus became the class of rent-seekers that Marx railed against because the command economy allowed them to do so. They constituted a class both in terms of political power, economic capital and the ability to consume both more goods and those of a higher quality. Communist systems became a form of what Clark and Wildavsky call “vulgar capitalism” or “profit-making without competition… based on corrupt personal relations”. Simultaneously, bureaucrats were rhetorically devoted to “large-scale heroic means of production”, production based around work done cooperatively. Therefore, so-called communist systems suffered from the same internal contradiction as capitalist systems: while production was (at least initially- black markets eventually flourished) social and cooperative, the accumulation of wealth was private and worked by class expropriation.

Tear Down That Wall!
Further, this inherent contradiction led to inevitable crises in communist systems, to which they could not adjust unlike capitalist systems, which led to their collapse.  Marx believed that the inherent contradiction in the expropriation of workers by the bourgeoisie would eventually lead to a decline in the “rate of exploitation” because “vampire-like, the capitalist only lives by sucking labor”. His argument was that eventually this would lead to recessions and the awakening of class-consciousness. This problem was also present in the Soviet Union, where the extraction of wealth by members of the CPSU helped to slow economic growth to the point where in 1967 the GNP of West Germany was larger than the entire Soviet Bloc. In particular as Maier outlines the extractive process of the communist system hampered the social production of the workers on which it depended. 

Somewhat fittingly, this led to the class conflict that Marx had predicted capitalism falling prey to, especially the rise of the Polish trade union Solidarity that was integral in the USSR’s collapse. This was worsened by the chronic shortages of basic goods which led to worse recessions than those experienced in capitalist systems. Capitalist systems did not suffer as badly because, as Marx was unable to foresee, the welfare state was developed, which redistributed profits to the working class because it was in the bourgeois political class’ interest to avoid class conflict. In contrast, the extractive behaviours of communist party members were only possible through continued coercion of those they were apparently serving. As soon as communist regimes faced crises they could not adapt except by further coercion and entrenchment of expropriation behaviours. Thus, as soon as communist regimes were opened to partial openness such as under Gorbachev’s glasnost in order to create more profits to expropriate, they began to collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions. This has occurred not just in the Soviet Union, but also in the fall of Yugoslavia, the transformation of the People’s Republic of China and recent partial reforms in the collapsing Cuban economy. Thus, the inherent contradiction in communist systems and their inability to adapt to the crises resulting from it led to their eventual total collapse. 

Conclusion and Consequences
In conclusion, contrary to Marx’s predictions, this essay has shown that the autocratic nature of communist “dictatorships of the proletariat” created the same inherent contradiction between the social production and private extraction and accumulation of wealth inherent in capitalism. Further, it has shown that this led to crisis and eventual collapse of communist systems because the extractive class in the communist system could not allow for it to be adapted unlike the capitalist bourgeois class. Thus, Marx’s proposed solution to capitalism became self-defeating in practice for precisely the reasons Marx felt that capitalism would fail.

Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.


  1. You should also read Marx's 'Critique of the Gotha Program' where you will find Marx makes a very similar argument to yours

  2. I should also note that Dave commented: "This piece has really nothing to do with Marx's actual work and confuses the nature of 'real existing socialism' with Marx's critique of political economy. I suggest you read GM Tamas' work and/or Michael Heinrich's new book 'An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's "Capital"". For some reason this didn't post properly (I am not particularly good at the actual blog architecture).

  3. In reply to your comments Dave, what I mean to convey is that going beyond Marx's critique he does propose (an admittedly very light on details sketch) of what communism would look like, namely the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. Now I realise Marx did criticise the use of entrenched parties in that this dictatorship is meant to fall away, however because unlike Gramsci etc he didn't propose an actual solution to this problem (and I think even Gramsci's solution is inadequate- I think all Marxian socialism is doomed to the same party problems) I think the critique is still valid. While obviously realising that the USSR was by no means perfectly Marxist (and at times arguably Marxist at all), it is a good illustration of the problems with communism that I outlined.

  4. a) Marx has no clear theory of the party( except in a historical sense as a faction of society)
    b) the dictatorship of the proletariat refers to a whole class and not a political formation, and refers to a situation before communism/ yet communism is also seen as movement
    c) You are overplaying the role of ideas in determing the nature of 'real existing socialism'

  5. Good essay on the subject

  6. Also while we are at it, apart from a habit of making statues of him, and constant references to his name, there is no real link between the USSR and Marx's work.

  7. Hmmm...seems if I do multiple comments they eat each other.
    But a) check this out
    b)You are really misreading core concepts of Marx's work, indeed the whole idea that you can find anything really programmatic in his writing ( beyond a few pamphlets) is just way off base
    c) You are reading back a critique of the party-state in 'real existing socialism' into Marx which is anachronistic and poor methodology. Marx's idea of the party is at best a 'faction' of the society