All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1989

A Reviewers Notebook: The Poverty of Communism

Nick Eberstadt calls his challenging book The Poverty of Communism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 315 pages, $29.95 cloth). For the most part he trains his spotlight on China, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the satellite countries of eastern Europe, all of which have been under Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist rule for decades. There are, however, plenty of references to countries such as Panama, Chile, Uruguay, Jamaica, and Guyana that have been brushed by Marxist doctrine. This is a wide-ranging book that realizes ideologies go beyond physical boundaries, and it is the better for it.

But Eberstadt is confusing in the way he jumps from eyewitness evidence of poverty in Communist nations to the statistical averages of mortality tables. The eyewitness stuff, which takes us to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, is dramatic and irrefutable. But the statistical evidence, to my mind, is unreliable.

To do Eberstadt justice, he himself is careful to indicate his skepticism about reliance on official numbers. He says the official Soviet life expectancy figure of 69 years would be lower than the most recent numbers quoted by the World Bank. Moreover, the countries that Eberstadt concentrates on are definitely not above playing politics with health and literacy figures. The Castro regime in Cuba is concerned with AIDS, the incurable disease that has jumped boundaries in sub-Saharan Africa. Since some 300,000 to 400,000 Cubans have been rotated through Africa between 1975 and 1985, there must have been considerable contact between Cubans and blacks in Ethiopia, Angola, and elsewhere. Eberstadt says that for “reasons of state” the Castro regime “might well wish to downplay AIDS’ source of contagion . . . .”

While Eberstadt is to be commended for his distrust of the Communist use of mortality statistics, there are ironies that he ignores. One irony is posed by the arbitrary notion that fetuses are not living human beings. This allows governments that run their economic systems by topdown planning to exclude abortions from their figures bearing on life expectancy. The Chinese, at the moment, have decreed that their women must be limited to one child per family. Forced abortions are common, much to the dismay of the women. Dismaying or not, they enable the Peking government to make a good stab at controlling the population.

What population control of this drastic sort does is to make the life expectancy figures practically meaningless. If only one child per family is allowed to live, that child might easily have a favored life expectancy. He will get the best available nutrition. If he hits 70 years it will be no surprise. The average of such favored life expectancies would be high. But if the abortions of unnumbered fetuses were to be included in the averages, we would be dealing in negatives.

Skipping to the Soviet Union, Eberstadt says Russian women have an average of six to seven abortions. If these were to be factored into the general statistics, we would get minus-quantity life expectancies.

Despite the prevalence of epidemic diseases in Cuba, the mortality statistics offered in Havana seem to be in line with the general figures for the Caribbean region. But who should get the credit for this? As Eberstadt knows, the conquest of yellow fever and malaria was a hard-earned by-product of the efforts to make it possible for the U.S. to build the Panama Canal. The French had been defeated by yellow fever. But President Theodore Roosevelt and George Goethals persisted in fighting the yellow fever and malaria mosquitos as the French had been unable to do. Once the scientific knowledge of mosquito control had become common, it was easy for local Havana hospital authorities to move in. Actual credit for finding the cause of malaria belongs to an English physician named Ronald Ross, who had addressed the problem of mosquito control in Secunderabad, India. The “poverty” of Cas-troite Communism would have been far greater if British and North American capitalism hadn’t cleaned up the Canal Zone first.

Eberstadt is chary of making foreign policy recommendations beyond a broad caution that the West must stop “subsidizing the Soviet imperium.” He is worried by the fact that “Japanese, European, and even American corporations and government bodies make the Soviet task of controlling its allies far easier than it might otherwise be by granting Moscow financial room to maneuver.”

Eberstadt singles out Angola, where Soviet proxies are making “the jungles safe for . . . ‘socialism.’ This is an expensive task: by some estimates, it costs as much as $3 million per day. The U.S.S.R. has been spared the necessity of footing this bill. Instead, Gulf Oil has stepped smartly into the breach, and is currently paying $5 million a day in royalties to the Luanda government.” Cuba, in short, has been allowed to spread itself in Africa by a capitalist American concern.

The Poverty of Communism is a combination of essays written at different periods for publication in a variety of magazines. While this gives a disjointed quality to the whole, the general tonal effect is not unduly impaired. The inevitable repetitions are acceptable in their various contexts.

Overall, the book is reassuring to the West. The “poverty” of Communism, described in detail by Eberstadt when he gets away from analysis of statistics that he himself distrusts, is so obvious that one can be sure that Gorbachev in the U.S.S.R. and Deng in China will continue with their cautions, meanwhile allowing capitalistic motivations and incentives to creep in.

  • 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.