Communism's Milestones of Failure

FROM Oct. 1 through Nov. 7, the world recalls the founding of communist systems in China and Germany in 1949, and Russia in 1917. Leaders of these regimes have long been hard pressed to find reasons for good cheer; this year things have gone from bad to worse. What went wrong? The People's Republic of China celebrated its founding by cleaning the blood of protesters from Tiananmen Square and cutting wages of urban workers by one-third to two-thirds. Unemployment looms for millions of youths.

The German Democratic Republic can employ all available workers, but thousands have fled. East Germans' discontent has swelled as their leaders buck the liberalizing tides east and west.

The Soviet revolutionary celebrations this year are also more muted than before. The sheen has gone from perestroika. Living standards have declined since 1985. There is more freedom of expression and association, but also more crime - including murder; more unemployment; and more ethnic antagonism.

A Viennese newspaper summed up the situation with a cartoon showing a large matrushka doll - Mother Russia - spewing out smaller dolls, some fighting one another (Azerbaijan and Armenia), while others run away.

Even Yugoslavia, until recently the least oppressed communist state, collapses in ethnic strife and economic chaos.

Why has communism failed? The root problem is the Marxist axiom that class struggle is inevitable and even progressive. The basic question of politics, Lenin taught, is ``Kto kovo? - Who will destroy?''

Leninists believe that they cannot trust other parties, other classes, other governments - not even other factions within their own party. Nor can they trust their own proletariat and peasantry, because the masses are not enlightened and can easily be diverted from class struggle. The kto kovo attitude said that long-term cooperation between classes or among nations (unless they are communist) is impossible, because each side seeks to devour the other. Since experience shows that even communist regimes fight each other, the true communists' scope for mutual trust is low indeed.

The dynamics of kto kovo were reinforced by the power-hungry personalities of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Walter Ulbricht, and Tito. Their drives fed upon the dictatorial traditions and hostile neighbors each communist regime inherited. The poor resource base of the communist states may add to their militant ideology. Yet countries such as Spain and Taiwan have overcome such handicaps.

The class-struggle world view provides a very different starting point from Adam Smith. His ``The Wealth of Nations'' posited a natural harmony of interests among individuals, groups, and whole nations. Let each do what he or she does best, Smith argued, and all will prosper. Smith's outlook, if accepted by a society, presses for maximum freedom: It liberates individuals but it also facilitates cooperation and trust.

Social and economic advance depend upon cooperation and trust - rare commodities in communist societies. Students of evolution now see that higher forms of life depend upon cooperation within and even among species, but communist ideology still resonates social Darwinism - a kind of rugged egotism.

Because communist regimes do not trust even their own people, they take actions that impede not only liberty but economic progress. The Tiananmen massacre, for example, makes Chinese resent even moderate austerity measures. The head of China's most successful enterprise now wanders France and the United States, somewhat like Sun Yat-sen, looking for ways and means to overthrow China's present government.

The manifest failure of communist systems and the shift toward multiparty democracy in some Eastern European countries does not attenuate kto kovo thinking in Moscow, Beijing, or East Berlin. Instead it presents Soviet, Chinese, and other communist rulers with painful choices.

Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and other cases point toward the same conclusion: If given a free choice, the people of communist countries are likely to vote against the party that has tortured them and put them behind living standards of freer neighbors.

It may be, as Lenin argued, that things need to get worse before they get better. If so, conditions in most communist countries must become still more difficult before their rulers surrender their power monopolies. It is a long way from kto kovo to trust in natural harmony grounded in complementary exchange and freedom of choice.

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