Coincidentally I have been stimulated to think about communism over the last few days. Firstly I was reading something about the origins of the term Molotov cocktail which detailed some of the horrors committed by Molotov e.g. the bombing of Finland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact where he claimed they were dropping food parcels on the starving Fins, the murder of the Polish officers, various Russians etc. Then a few days later someone remarked that one wouldn’t dare hang a portrait of Hitler on your office wall but having a bust of Lenin on your desk seems to pass without comment. This is especially strange if you recall that Nazism was a form of socialism – the word Nazi means ‘national socialism’
I knew that both Stalin and Mao were responsible for many more deaths than Hitler i.e. 15-20 million and 20-65 million versus 6 million. This doesn’t count the deaths caused by Lenin and communists after Stalin and Mao. I wondered what that was as a percentage of their populations. It turns out the Nazis exterminated 7.44% of their population and Stalin 8.9% and Mao 7% (best estimate). The Khmer Rouge managed to cause the deaths of 12.5% of their population. To put that into perspective Russia lost 15% (and the UK 13.3%) of its mobilized soldiers during WW I, so living under communism is somewhere between 50-80% as dangerous as being on one of the most deadly battlefields in history.
So much for the actual outcomes of Communism versus Nazism, but what about differences in justification? Mass murder was routine. Stalin was known to mutter “Who will remember or care about these people in a few years?” as he signed execution orders for lists containing thousands. Bertrand Russell remarked that Lenin had laughed when he confronted him on the ethics of large scale state killings. He regarded terror as an essential aspect of maintaining Communism in the face of its unpopularity and not as an aberration of Marxism at all. Apart from mass executions starvation was the main tool, and they went to great lengths to justify it. Consider this quote from Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.
As Stalin interpreted the disaster of collectivization in the last weeks of 1932, he achieved a new height of ideological daring. The famine in Ukraine, whose existence he had admitted earlier, when it was far less severe, was now a "fairy tale," a slanderous rumor spread by enemies. Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat...
Stalin never personally witnessed the starvations that he so interpreted, but comrades in Soviet Ukraine did... Forced to interpret distended bellies as political opposition, they produced the utterly tortured conclusion that the saboteurs hated socialism so much that they intentionally let their families die... Even the starving themselves were sometimes presented as enemy propagandists with a conscious plan to undermine socialism. Young Ukrainian communists in the cities were taught that the starving were enemies of the people "who risked their lives to spoil our optimism."
Similar things happened in China. Ethically, how far away from Hitler’s justification of The Final Solution is that?
Communists were every bit as murderous as the Nazis and their justifications were just as revolting. Let’s look at other aspects of welfare. How about freedom? Both the Nazis and communist regimes condemned large numbers of people to slavery – only as a means of production they were now not privately owned. I suppose that made it OK then.
There was a complete lack of freedom of thought or conscience in both the Nazi and communist states. Compare the disowning of Jewish science by the Nazis with the suppression of bourgeois science (especially genetics) by the Soviets and the killing of educated people (or even just those wearing glasses) because they were bourgeois by the Chinese and Cambodian communists. The Nazis burnt books and the communists would punish those who owned western books. Religion, which is intimately related to morality, was suppressed or controlled by both Nazis and communists.
How about eking out a living? If we define communism as collective (or state) ownership of the means of production - so as to distinguish it from various varieties of socialism or welfare state where the means of production are still private - maybe communism is as productive as capitalism. Um no! Everywhere in the world where communism was tried the economies have been sluggish at best or simply contracted. Many have experienced periodic famines where other countries didn’t – even in Africa and Asia. One could blame that on accidents of climate or culture or IQ differences. However two interesting natural experiments control for just about everything that could be confounding variables – IQ differences, cultural differences, climate, conscientiousness etc. These were East and West Germany and North and South Korea. I looked up the real GDP per capita of these countries throughout their different paths.
East and West Germany started with a GDP per capita of $14987 (2009 dollars) in 1949 and ended up with $34116 and $19685 in 1990 for West and East Germany respectively. East Germany only managed to increase its productive capacity by 31% in 41 years while West Germany added 128% - 4.07 times as much. Over the full 41 year communist period East Germany produced 41.2% of the income per capita that West Germany did. The difference amounted to $370210.6 per person. In Germany that is the equivalent of 2.11 new houses per person.
North and South Korea adopted more hardcore communist and capitalist systems than East and West Germany respectively, so the difference is even more dramatic. In 1972 the two Korea’s had the same GDP per capita of $5818 (in 2009 dollars), but a mere 7 years later North Korea had dropped to $2645 - a contraction rate of 10.6% per year. North Korea’s economy has continued to contract ever since -at a rate of 1.28% per year - to only $1800 today. Communism has destroyed 69% of North Koreas productive capacity so far. They are less than 1/3 as well of as they would have been with no changes at all. Meanwhile capitalism increased South Korea’s productive capacity more than 5 fold over the same period. As a result North Korea is only 6% as productive as South Korea today. It has produced 18% as much as South Korea over 37 years. That amounts to a difference of $436656.2 per person – enough for every family of 5 to buy a 3 room house in Seoul’s super high price housing market.
While the rest of the world industrialized on the back of increased agricultural productivity which freed farming labor for industry the communist world often tried to industrialize while their collective farms reduced in productivity. They also did silly things like tear up existing railways. Often they adopted a sort of cargo cult mentality where for example they noticed that developed nations had steel so they embarked on large scale steel production, often melting down perfectly usable implements to do so, whether or not it was needed. Some economists have argued that it is impossible to allocate resources efficiently by central planning rather than unregulated prices. No central planner could possibly take into account all local conditions or opportunities and the diversity of values and needs, no matter how smart or how many super computers it has. Uncontrolled prices on the other hand balance all these things automatically and very quickly. The result was that a great deal of communist production was of stuff that nobody really wanted and there was a huge amount of waste. It’s unsurprising that communism turns out to be so relatively unproductive.
Communists were as murderous, as anti-freedom and as bad for material welfare as the Nazis ever were. Why then are communism and communists not as vilified as the Nazis and Hitler? Oddly enough those who think income and wealth ought to be redistributed by government are no more pro communist than those who are opposed to redistribution. Neither are lower classes more so than upper classes. If we were rational we would react with the same degree of disapproval or outrage at a Lenin bust or Maoist tattoo as we would to a swastika or Hitler portrait, and to a communist apologist as we would to a holocaust denier – there is plenty of obvious evidence to back us up.