As usual at the start of a new year, it is the season of change. But sometimes, the change we hope for, the ideals we crave, never come to be. We instead get very different outcomes. Let us go back a bit into history.
A hundred years ago, Russia went through a revolution that brought to an end its monarchy, which had lasted for about 10 centuries. The revolution was the culmination of Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels dream, that one day communism would replace capitalism. In their near utopian dream, workers would own the means of production, then owned mostly by the upper class from nobles to monarchy.
It was a very enticing dream, with statements like “workers have nothing to lose except their chains”. Like all other revolutions and counter revolutions, few knew what was coming.
Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin after him failed to actualise the utopian dream, which lasted for another 70 years. The workers’ ownership was an illusion. Instead, the party leaders owned and controlled everything, including the thinking. As a Form One student, I recall reading a newspaper in my school library called “Moscow Echo”. It was a stale publication, even for a young mind.
The control over citizens’ thoughts was the worst part of communism, which was satirised by George Orwell’s book, oddly titled “1984”. It was a reversal of 48, the year it was published. Those schooled in the former Soviet Union still bear the hallmarks of that subjugation of the thought process to this day.
The linchpin of communism was bad economics not politics, contrary to popular belief. Though there was no voting by hoi polloi, the factors of production were under-utilised, which planted the seeds of communism’s end.
Land was owned by the state, meaning that it was never put to the best use. The profit motive was never there. No wonder famines were common.
Capital was never put to the best use. Who got loans? Labour was never used optimumly, with the state deciding what you would study and where you would work.
The worst casualty of communism was entrepreneurship. Creativity and innovation, the hallmarks of capitalism and entrepreneurship, were curtailed. Ever wondered why Google was founded by a Russian immigrant?
Surprisingly, communism came to Russia in 1917, about 142 years after publication of Adams Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”, a copy of which I bought last week for Sh1,000 in a supermarket in Nakuru just before Christmas. In it, Smith saw the invisible hand of the market as the catalyst of economic growth.
Communism called for the visible hand of the government - read communist party. Why did this happen? Had Engels and Marx not read Smith’s work?
I am not sure if they read, but the socio-economic circumstances of that time did not allow Adam Smith’s reasoning. The French Revolution had made Europe ripe for change. Like any other change, citizens and intellectuals romanticised it, longed for the golden age. Marx and Engels were the intellectual leaders, their writing mimicking religion.
In addition, the excesses of monarchies made Russian society yearn for change. When Marx and Engels suggested, “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”, they were probably serious.
The “Manifesto of the Communist Party” by the two scholars published in February 1848 makes an interesting read, just for curiosity.
The Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1917 but Vladimir Lenin did not last long after fathering the revolution. By 1924, he was dead. Joseph Stalin took over till 1953. There was then Nikita Khrushchev, leader from 1953-1964, then Leonid Brezhnev from 1964-1982.
And finally, after some rapid churning of leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev took over from 1985 to 1991. He opened up the Soviet Union; and we found the hollowness.
Unable to handle change, the Soviet Union collapsed. We found the Union was held together by force and terror. Remember the gulags? In the same way colonialism held its empires by force and fear. After the fall of the Soviet Union, we suddenly heard of Uzbeks, Chechens, Tartars and other nationalities, some which were Muslims. For 70 years till 1991, Marx’s dream held, but we realised it was a nightmare holding 15 republics together.
Today, the dream remains in North Korea and China. The Chinese dream has been tempered by Adams Smith’s invisible hand. China quickly realised that economics can be the best linchpin of communism - they have let capitalism thrive. One wonders what Marx would say about China if he woke up.
Will communism ever return? What will balance the excesses of capitalism, which Donald Trump rode on to win power in the US? Unions have been weakened in most Western democracies. Remember the miners going on strike in UK for 11 months during Margaret Thatcher’s reign? Recall Ronald Reagan sacking air traffic controllers?
Did communism stop the excesses of capitalism? Maybe. Today, voters might tame the excesses of capitalism as Trump showed. My only concern is how many voters are enlightened enough to stand up against excesses of capitalism without being co-opted.
While Marx predicted that capitalism would collapse under its own contradictions, we do not have enough contradictions to bring it down. The truth seems to be that capitalism will save itself by self corrections. Who thought Trump would become the president?
Other countervailing forces to the excesses of capitalism include civil society, laws and regulations, religion and our conscience. Why else do the very affluent start foundations to help the disadvantaged?
Hard reality, more than romanticism, will save capitalism. After all, the excesses of communism are still too fresh in our minds to attract enough adherents. Capitalism, though moderated, will be with us for some time to come. Its longevity will be aided by its ally democracy, whatever its form.
In another 100 years, we shall celebrate the triumph of capitalism with a human face, popular in Scandinavia, rather than its replacement.
Or do you have a better alternative?