All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1963

Corruption: A Matter of Definition

“Yes,” said the student, “but Batista was corrupt.” 

The statement, delivered with an air of assurance, was a variation on a familiar theme. Fifteen years ago it was Chiang Kai-shek who was “corrupt.” And before that it was the government of the Czar.

Well, one can hardly deny that the followers of Batista made a good thing for themselves out of Cuba, or that Chiang’s officials had their methods of exacting “squeeze,” or that Rasputin had an unholy influence at the Russian Imperial court. But the truly in­teresting thing about the student’s pronouncement on Batista was its implied narrow definition of the word “corruption.”

In almost any older dictionary you will find that “corruption” means (a) decay, or (b) depravity, or (c) impurity, or (d) bribery.

But modern political usage has pretty much eliminated the first, second, and third meanings of the word. To the present-day student of political science, “corruption” means only one thing: it is what happens in capitalist countries when insiders use bribery or pres­sure to feather their own nests. It is never—or hardly ever—used to describe what happens in a na­tion once Marxist or totalitarian statists of one sort or another get control of a government in the name of the “people.”

The student who took off on the subject of Batista’s “corruption” was by no means a supporter of “Fidelismo.” But it had obviously never occurred to him that, under the older, wider definition of cor­ruption, Castro is far more re­prehensible than the dictator he has supplanted. When the Cuban Information Service reports that Castro’s firing squads have killed 6,000 since last August, it is cer­tainly “corruption” in the sense that it represents “depravity” and “impurity.” That is, it represents “depravity” if the Mosaic injunc­tion against murder has the same force as the other prohibitions enumerated in the Ten Command­ments. It also represents “decay,” for the nation that can’t handle political dissidents without killing them has suffered an egregious lapse from all civilized standards of debate.

In Mao Tse-tung’s China, the corruption of bribery may no longer be an issue. But when peasant families are deprived of their bits of land and herded into agricultural communes, it cer­tainly comes under the heading of theft. Again, this is corruption in the sense that it represents a decay of civilized standards. More­over, Mao Tse-tung’s government has not been sparing of human life. Artificially induced starvation is surely a form of murder, and this comes under the heading of “depravity” or “impurity.”

The popular image of dictators like Castro and Mao Tse-tung is that, whatever else you may say about them, they are puritanical when it comes to rejecting bribes. But so was that bloody monster of the French revolutionary epoch, Robespierre, who was called the “sea-green incorruptible” by Thomas Carlyle. Robespierre climbed to power over mountain­ous piles of corpses. He was just about as depraved and impure a political monster as the world has ever known. Thus he was “cor­rupt” in the wider, older meaning of the term, even though he may have been a Puritan when it came to money temptations. Castro and Mao Tse-tung are Robespierres of the modern age—and in compari­son to them the “corrupt” Batista and the “corrupt” Chiang Kai-shek are almost lily-white.

In the annals of the Russian Revolution you will not find de­scriptions of a “corrupt” Stalin. Yet this man who robbed banks to raise money for the communist revolutionary cause was corrupt under every meaning of the word. When he ordered the elimination of three million peasants in order to saddle the Soviet nation with a collectivized agriculture, he was acting in a “depraved” and “im­pure” manner. Corruption? The business stank to high heaven.

The moral is: let’s not shrink the usage of perfectly good words. It keeps us from making valid moral and political judgments about a host of corrupt enemies who have sworn to bury us.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.