Millions more were killed in the gulag or by the secret police. Meanwhile, forced labor was an official part of the plans for the industrialization of communist countries such as the Soviet Union or Bulgaria.
Perhaps some of the worst crimes can be blamed on particular sociopathic leaders—figures like Stalin or Causescu. But the potential for such crimes was not alien to the political system in whose name they were committed. Stalin may have been a monster, but communism was a system that had the potential to breed such monsters, in country after country. Even setting aside the mass killings and the forced labor system, communist countries were police states that abolished or restricted their citizens’ basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement (either internally or internationally), and the freedoms of speech and association. As recently as a year ago Cubans needed special police permits (exit visas) to travel outside their own country.
The experience of communism means that the left has to abandon the idea of a centralized, state-run economy. In the absence of any alternative, the left has to endorse a role for markets
Workers in capitalist economies experience oppression and exploitation from their bosses. But the bosses’ power in a capitalist economy is limited: your boss can fire you, but he cannot throw you in jail. In state-run economies, your boss also runs the police, the justice system, and owns the house that you live in. The Leninist idea was that, since the Party controls the state, and the Party represents the workers, the communist economy would have no bosses. In reality, of course, the Party and its apparatchiks proved to be as greedy and ruthless as any capitalist boss.
Moreover, the idea of a centrally planned economy proved to be a fantasy. Even setting aside disastrous experiments like Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”—which led to the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-162 that killed around 30 million people—communist economies were spectacularly inefficient, leading to chronic shortages of basic goods. There is simply no way for a bureaucracy to collect and process the information required to run the economy of a country effectively (not even with fancy computers).
The lesson for the left here is that there are no grounds for nostalgia for communism as a political system. The failures of communism are not historical accidents that could have been avoided, if only Stalin had lost out in the struggle to succeed Lenin, or if only Germany had had a successful revolution in the 1920s. There is no way that communism in the 20th century could have succeeded.
The experience of communism means that the left has to abandon the idea of a centralized, state-run economy. In the absence of any alternative, the left has to endorse a role for markets. But this does not mean that the communist or Marxist tradition has nothing to offer to the contemporary left. The mainstream social-democratic left tends to focus exclusively on defending and expanding the welfare state. What is missing is an examination of the structures of power in contemporary capitalist societies, including not only corporations but the state itself. This is where the Marxist tradition can help.
To begin with, as Marxists point out, political power is inseparable from economic power, and economic power is measured primarily not in monetary income, but in ownership of the means of production. It is not that capitalists have political power because they have money; rather, they have money because they have control over crucial parts of the economy, and can use that control to earn income. And their control over parts of the economy is also what gives them political power: no politician is willing to go against the whims of the “job creators”, after all.
For this reason, a society in which ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of few capitalists is not likely to be a politically equal society, or a real democracy. So it should still be a goal of the left to make ownership of the means of production as wide as possible. Asserting state control over the entire economy is not the answer to this, because—as the experience of state-run economies in the 20th century showed—it merely replaces one set of bosses with another. But there are other ideas: for example, forms of collective ownership such as cooperatives or worker-owned companies are possibilities.
Furthermore, as Marxists point out, wage labor is itself a power relation, which, especially at times of high unemployment, is heavily tilted against the worker. Workers often experience their workplaces as alienating and oppressive, but have no realistic option of quitting their jobs.
Moreover, as technology advances, society does not need so much human labor: the excess supply of human labor only serves to lower wages and boost corporate profits. At the same time, as technology makes our societies more productive, we can more easily afford to make sure that people have the freedom to choose whether to continue working in their oppressive work environments or not. The left should promote alternatives to wage labor—most obviously, by pushing for a universal guaranteed income.
These proposals are certainly much less ambitious than the utopian dreams of 20th Century communism. But they are enough to keep us busy.