Book report: Jasper Becker, Why communism failed (London, 2022) ISBN 9781787388062; price € 28.99
By Patrick van Schie
Wherever Communism has been tried, everywhere it has led to impoverishment – except for the party elite and the associated leadership of the “security” apparatuses (army and intelligence services) – and often famine, with many tens of millions dead in all countries combined resulting in casualties. Strangely enough, awareness of this is limited. In many Western countries, the starvation deaths that have occurred in communist countries in the past, if they are discussed at all, are often attributed to external factors rather than to the economic policies that have always been imposed by the communist regimes themselves. And even at the time, many people in the West believed that the Soviet Union, China under Mao, the GDR and so on were doing better economically than the ‘capitalist’ countries.
Jasper Becker, a journalist who has published for years in the South China Morning Post (a newspaper that appears in Hong Kong) but also in British magazines such as The Guardian, The Economist and The Spectator, expresses surprise in his book entitled: ‘’Why communism failed’’. That a communist economy could not work well was predicted early on by economists of the Austrian school. The author who particularly mentions this matter is Ludwig von Mises who, in his book Die Gemeinwirtschaft, published in 1922, translated into English as Socialism, indicated why a planned economy cannot work. Very briefly summarized, Von Mises’ thesis was that without price signals – because communist regimes did not allow prices to be freely determined by supply and demand, but were set arbitrarily centrally – no one knows what and in what quantities of goods (and in so far as there services under communism were applicable) must be produced.
Paper growth figures
Arbitrarily pricking production targets from above not only led to a focus on quantity, often with complete neglect of product quality, and an emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods, it led to a huge fiddling with the figures. No one dared to tell the communist leaders at the top that the often unrealistically high targets set there had fallen far short of being met, so it was assumed that they had been met or even exceeded. On-the-spot checks by the party leadership resorted to temporarily borrowing goods from a neighboring region to ostensibly boost production; that neighboring region could count on a favor in return if the party leadership paid a visit there.
On paper, for example, the Soviet Union in the 1930s (when the Great Depression wreaked havoc in the West) and the 1950s or Mao’s China in the same 1950s produced spectacular growth rates of around 10% per year. They seemed to be doing much better than the Western ‘capitalist’ countries. But what were these growth figures based on? To the made-up figures from the communist bureaucracies themselves! The astonishing thing is that these figures were unquestioningly taken for granted in the West.
Western fellow travellers
This happened partly under the influence of left-wing intellectuals who went on propaganda tours through communist countries en masse and reported to the home front exactly what the communist leaders wanted them to see; even worse: they were deliberately silent about the queues in front of the shops and the poverty that could not be hidden during such trips and during which the intellectuals were pampered.
Before World War II alone, about 20,000 Western writers allowed themselves to be pampered by Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union, and then returned home to tell in books, articles and radio interviews how wonderful life in the Soviet Union was. They included (to name only a few English speakers) the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the economist Harold Laski, and the writers George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice Webb, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.For example, the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, after one such trip, stated in a BBC radio broadcasting in October 1931, while millions of people in the Soviet Union were dying of starvation as a direct result of the collectivization of agriculture, that the harvest there had doubled, that the Soviet rulers ruled with extraordinary efficiency and that for the poor in the “workers’ paradise” there was hope and security unprecedented anywhere.
The Webbs wrote in those years that Ukraine (where the famine hit hardest) had great harvests and full shops. Yes queues could be seen in front of the stores, but those, the Webbs wrote, would not indicate shortages at all. When her cousin Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in The Guardian after such a trip to Ukraine that the famine there was “The most terrible thing I have ever seen”, Aunt Beatrice Webb went to visit the Soviet ambassador Maisky in London. Immediately afterwards she stated about her cousin: “I realize that he’s got it absolutely wrong.”
Such narratives serving the communist regimes were trumpeted by various left-wing economists and other would-be intellectuals until the very end of the Soviet empire. For example, the almost universally celebrated economist John Kenneth Galbraith (author of The Affluent Society, among others) praised Mao’s economic performance in 1972 after a trip through Maoist China. And after a trip through the Soviet Union in 1984, he wrote that the great progress was not only reflected in the statistics, but also clearly visible in the cities. A look from the Berlin Wall taught Galbraith: “Looking in either direction it really makes no great difference.”
Wrong calculation models from the CIA
The Western governments also massively misjudged the alleged achievements of the communist countries. That was not even mainly due to the influence of the fellow travelers, a pernicious influence that they exerted partly through education. Astonishingly, after World War II, the CIA played a major role in overestimating the strength of the economies of the Soviet Union, Red China, and other communist countries. The American security service relied on the models of Abram Bergson, an economist of Jewish-Russian origin. He had no sympathy for socialism as such, but confidently trusted that the production figures published by the communist countries themselves reflected reality.
With its extensive intelligence apparatus, the CIA thus failed to assess properly the economic strength – or rather weakness – of the communist countries. Smaller intelligence services from other Western countries also missed the mark, because they lacked the capacity for their own analyzes and therefore simply adopted the CIA figures. Defectors from communist countries who painted a more realistic picture of the “socialist economy” were not believed. The few Western scientists who have questioned Bergson’s and the CIA’s models over the years have been deliberately thwarted, to the point of blocking their careers.
This led to a serious overestimation of the strength of the economies of the Soviet Union, Maoist China and other communist countries and a huge underestimation of what these countries spent on their military apparatus. It was thought in the West, based on figures provided by the Soviet Union itself, that the Soviet Union spent 3 to 4% of its economy on defense. In fact, the Soviet military-industrial complex absorbed about one-third of the economy; a completely unsustainable situation and a main cause of the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s.
Indifference to human suffering
Quite a lot of figures pass through Why communism failed, both made-up figures and figures from an attempt to reconstruct reality. In addition, as said, Becker is surprised that there is still so little attention for why a planned socialist economy cannot work and why those guilty of all the human suffering it has caused have not or hardly been punished. That hard-line Marxists in the West who not only were mistaken but strongly denied or even condoned communist crimes can still push their way into leadership positions – Becker cites former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (who in the 1980s, as a Working Group of Young Socialists- Juso chairman, maintained close contacts with the GDR top, called for the overthrow of capitalism and the undermining of NATO) – clearly surprises and annoys him.Becker’s book contains several passages highlighting the untold suffering of the population under communist regimes. These facts are not new, but they remain staggering because of the inhumanity and utter indifference of the communists to all the suffering they inflicted in the name of their so-called good cause.
Communism: systemic slavery
With all the contemporary attention under the influence of the Woke activists for the slavery past of some Western countries a century and a half or much longer ago, it is remarkable that all this indignation completely ignores the fact that much less recently more than twice as many people in the Soviet Union were forced into slave labor in prisons and camps: at least 25 million against 10 to 12 million slaves from Africa. In some of these camps, more than one-third of those enslaved by the communist regime died during transport or in the first year of captivity due to the hard labor combined with poor nutrition, hygiene and lack of medical facilities. The fact that the Gulag was significantly slimmed down after Stalin’s death was not because of the fact that the communist rulers suddenly become compassionate. They simply discovered that it was not economically viable.
In Red China, the system of slave camps – laogai – was even more massive. There (just think of the Uyghurs) and in countries like North Korea, slave camps exist to this day. You don’t hear about that from the Woke activists; no apologies or reparations are demanded from the communists and their followers. While if there was and is systemic slavery anywhere, it is in any case most widespread in countries where communists hold power.