Even decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of other communist states, the old canard that communism is a great idea that has never really been tried refuses to be thrown into the dustbin of history along with its failed regimes. Sympathizers with Marxist views cling to this belief despite all contrary evidence over the past century.
To give the view its due, however, the belief rests upon the presupposition that communism has only been introduced into largely agrarian societies rather than the advanced industrial societies rife with the class conflict and consciousness envisioned by German philosopher and communist Karl Marx. Therefore, orthodox Marxism has never truly been introduced by a violent revolution of the oppressed proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, this is because Marx’s progressive view of history and scientific socialism was simply wrong on several points and his theory had numerous flaws, particularly in its understanding of human nature.
The communists who followed Marxism believed that human nature is good and perfectible, and that human beings were capable of building utopias once oppressive institutions were destroyed and the internal contradictions of capitalism resulted in revolution. The Greek etymology of the word utopia means “no place.”
The American Founders were influenced by ancient and Christian thought that understood human nature to be imperfect (due to vice or sin) but capable of virtue. They consequently established a republican United States Constitution that controlled the government as well as the governed while protecting liberty. Separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, bicameralism, and regular elections are proof that the Founders sought to limit the vagaries of human nature.
The other mistake of communism is the belief that humans are only shaped by an economic determinism and class conflict. This is an absurd reductionism. Human beings are much more complex creatures and are driven by politics, culture, religion, community, ties of kith and kin, and providing for their families rather than just economic inequality and alienation.
In Federalist #10, James Madison acknowledged that factions formed as a result of differences over property. The divisions over property were based upon “the diversity in the faculties of men” and their passions. He understood therefore that they would always exist. Madison noted that a zeal for political opinions, religious views, and a host of other things in society also divided people.
Madison stated, “There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”
The answer was that neither of these was desirable. So, Madison offered the alternative of controlling or mitigating the effects of factions by expanding the sphere of the republic and allowing differing views to flourish. Communists instead chose to destroy liberty and sought to force the people to have the same opinions through cult of personalities, cultural revolutions, reeducation and indoctrination, and rewritten history.
Communism has always been imposed by a small revolutionary intellectual vanguard upon a mostly unwilling peasantry. The Russian Revolution, for example, occurred when only perhaps two percent of the population was employed in industry, and Russian Marxist Vladimir Lenin himself was frustrated that the peasantry did not demonstrate any class consciousness. They were often strongly attached to the Tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church. Widespread opposition to the Bolshevik regime in the wake of the Russian Revolution resulted in a bloody civil war that left millions dead and the opposition summarily crushed.
Moreover, communism has never been led by the proletariat after the state “withered away” in Marx’s terminology. Instead, the communists formed one-party dictatorships and police states with unlimited power that were much more oppressive than the regimes they overthrew. Indeed, they unleashed unimaginably horrific genocides. Perceived enemies of the state and their families were executed and thrown into the gulag. Communist states starved people to death by the millions.
Contrarily, one of the main principles of the American Revolution was the transformative concept of popular sovereignty where the people rule. Elites certainly comprised the leadership of the American Revolution in the halls of legislatures and conventions and one cannot ignore slavery, but Founders created a republic in which the people elected representatives and could serve in different levels of government themselves. The Declaration of Independence was anchored in the principle of popular rule and right to overthrow a tyrannical government that violated their rights.
Marxism also got several things spectacularly wrong about humans as economic actors. Most fundamentally, people want to enjoy a higher standard of living and consumer goods rather than wanting to overthrow the free enterprise system. The massive food lines experienced by the people living under communism while party apparatchiks ate caviar in their summer dachas bred a lot more resentment than capitalist inequality.
In advanced capitalist societies, workers have generally enjoyed the protections of the social safety net—such as pensions, 401(K)s, Social Security, unemployment, health benefits—provided by employers and tax-supported welfare states. While these government programs expanded the purposes and scope of government beyond that envisioned by the Founders, they are much less intrusive than communist states. Moreover, industrial regulations have provided workers with numerous safety and health protections. Workers have also organized into labor unions to bargain or strike for better wages, hours, and working conditions or control over the shop floor. All these developments have negated scientific socialism.
Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto during some of the worst ravages of early industrialization including oppressed workers, unsafe and unhealthy conditions in factories and mines, great danger of mutilation and death, widespread environmental degradation, and great poverty and squalor in industrializing societies. In the twentieth century, those problems characterized communist regimes instead of modern capitalist societies. Meanwhile, capitalism has plainly lifted billions out of poverty through dynamic growth, innovation, and widespread prosperity.
Communism was responsible for an estimated 100 million deaths. It suppressed human flourishing in the arts and sciences by extinguishing liberty, created widespread suffering with decrepit economic systems, imposed crushing police states, and destroyed the institutions of civil society. Most of the American Founders understood that such utopian schemes were doomed by their flawed understanding of human nature, self-governance, and civil society. The American founding vision built a constitutional order with self-governance and a healthy civil society that allowed individuals to thrive.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.