All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1967

Communism After Fifty Years


Mr. Chamberlin, Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor from 1922 to 1934, is author of the definitive two-volume history of the Russian Revolution and numer­ous other books and articles on world affairs.

The year 1967 marks the fiftieth anniversary of two events of world importance, the consequences of which are still very much with us. One event was the United States decision to intervene in World War I, following the German declara­tion of unlimited submarine war­fare. The other was the seizure of power in the vast Russian Empire by a small disciplined band of ex­treme revolutionaries, then known as Bolsheviks, now more descrip­tively designated as communists. The first put the United States on a merry-go-round of European and world power politics, easy enough to mount, but costly to ride and hard to get off. The second re­placed the authoritarian, traditional rule of the Czars by a much more ruthless, scientifically or­ganized dictatorship of a single political party — more accurately, by the top leadership of that party. Russian communism has experi­enced many changes in methods of administration and in governing personnel. Most of its founding fathers perished in Stalin’s para­noid purges. However, two basic principles have survived intact. Lenin is supposed to have said that there could be any number of po­litical parties in Russia — provided that the Communist party was in power and all the other parties in jail. This is an excellent descrip­tion of how the Soviet Union is governed. Stalin, writing in the of­ficial party newspaper, Pravda, on November 26, 1936, spelled it out plainly:

In the Soviet Union there is no basis for the existence of several parties or, consequently, for the free­dom of parties. In the Soviet Union there is a basis only for the Commu­nist party.

There is no toleration for oppo­sition parties; and organized dis­senting groups within the Commu­nist party are also strictly forbid­den. The consequence is that ef­fective decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of a very few men, sometimes one man, at the head of the party organization.

Total Control

The other permanent principle of communism in practice is that the government, in one form or an­other, undertakes to manage the whole economic life of the country. In the first phase of the Revolution all private property, except for personal belongings, was confiscat­ed and nationalized. After an early period of chaos, all factories, mines, railways, public utilities, and stores were placed in charge of a host of state bureaucrats.

At first the peasants were left more or less undisturbed on their small twenty-acre farms, following the confiscation and dividing of the estates of the large and medium landowners. But 1929 marked the beginning of a process lasting over several years and carried on with the utmost brutality. Peasants were subjected to such measures as wholesale deportations to forced labor and one politically organized great famine. They found their in­dividual possession of land abol­ished and themselves regimented in collective farms; what they raised and what they received for their produce were determined by the government.

Communism was an outgrowth of World War I. And world war led to an extension of the area under its control. By 1945, communist power prevailed in a large number of formerly independent states in Eastern and Central Europe. Stalin had once declared: “We do not want a foot of foreign soil; we shall not yield an inch of our own.” But he might more accurately have said: “We do not want a foot of foreign soil, except Estonia, Latvia, Lithu­ania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslo­vakia, Bulgaria, Roumania, Yugo­slavia, parts of Finland, East Ger­many.”

At least, this was how the polit­ical map of Europe looked shortly after the end of World War II. Yugoslavia, to be sure, broke away to the status of an independent state in foreign relations, although it retained the one-party system and a somewhat modified form of state control of the economy. These were not, as the Russian had been, spontaneous revolutions, arising out of the miseries and dislocation of war. Communism was imposed on Eastern and Central Europe from without, by the tanks and bayonets of the Red Army.

China, on the other hand, experi­enced pretty much what happened in Russia in 1917. Eight years of exhausting war with Japan, accom­panied by Japanese occupation of the largest Chinese cities, had cre­ated a situation in which the power and authority of the nationalist government, under Chiang Kai-shek, were gravely undermined. In­flation had almost destroyed the value of the Chinese currency and many Chinese — mistakenly, as they realized too late — believed that communism could be no worse than existing conditions and might bring some improvement.

In the first years of the Soviet state, created by the communist revolution of November, 1917, the system was so new, so untried, that there could be the widest differ­ences of opinion about its future prospects. Majority opinion in the West was most impressed by stor­ies of terror, violence, hunger, and general misery. But a minority clung to the hope that communism would provide an answer to the problems and frustrations of mod­ern society. So varied were reports of observers returning from Rus­sia that it was hard to believe they were speaking about the same country.

There are still pronounced dif­ferences of opinion, judgment, and emphasis in writings about the Soviet Union. But the facts are now well established, and some broad conclusions may be stated with confidence.

Endurance of the System

First, communism, as it has de­veloped in Russia, is a tough, dur­able system, which cannot easily be overthrown, either by a palace coup or by erosion from within. One need only look at the historical record. The governing system set up by Lenin has survived numer­ous threats:

Prolonged civil war;

Allied intervention, although on a halfhearted and ineffective scale;

Two major famines;

A German invasion that led at one time to the occupation of a large part of European Russia;

The savage struggle to bring the peasants under the yoke of the collective farm;

Several periods of distress and general shortage and misery un­common even by Russian stand­ards (the years of civil war and economic collapse, 1917-1921, the time of forced collectivization, 1929-1933, the years of war with Germany and postwar recon­struction).

This was due to the formula of government worked out, con­sciously or unconsciously, under Lenin. It was further modified by Stalin and was imitated to a con­siderable extent by the fascist dic­tators, Mussolini and Hitler. What this amounted to was rule by a combination of unlimited terror and unlimited propaganda. The people who were not convinced by the propaganda were intimidated by the terror, by the knowledge that there was no means of organ­ized effective resistance.

Free men who are accustomed to the expression of diverse views find it difficult to understand, even to imagine, the power concentrated in the hands of the Soviet totali­tarian state. Suppose the govern­ment in this or any Western coun­try controlled every printed or pub­licly spoken word, directed the policy of every newspaper and magazine, used the theater, the movies, the youth organizations as instruments of propaganda, dic­tated what should be taught from kindergarten to university, em­ployed radio and television as its mouthpieces, forbade the importa­tion of foreign newspapers and politically questionable books from abroad. Suppose, in addition, that anyone suspected of disloyalty was liable to arrest and banishment to hard and disagreeable work in some remote part of the country.

The chances are there would be few open dissenters.

Survival Depends on Use of Some Capitalistic Practices

Second, communism has only been able to function as a going concern by adopting some of the methods which its advocates vio­lently denounced in what they called the capitalist system. The old communist ideal, “From each according to his ability, to each ac­cording to his need,” has been con­signed to the mothballs. Extensive­ly copied are the incentives of a wage and salary system, with higher pay for higher skills. Dif­ferences in food, dress, and stand­ards of living are sharper in the Soviet Union than in the West, es­pecially so because there is much less to go around.

Such egalitarian experiments as equality of wages and the limita­tion of the pay of communists to the standard of a skilled worker have been discarded as impractical. In recent years there has even been an attempt, with little success, to gain some of the recognized ad­vantages of the free market system without instituting its essential component, private ownership. De­spite communist propaganda to the contrary, the transfer of economic ownership has been, not to the workers, but to bureaucrats who are less concerned with the interests of the workers than in mak­ing a profit for the state.

No Proof of Superiority

Third, after fifty years, commu­nism has emphatically failed to prove itself a superior productive system in comparison with an econ­omy based on individual ownership. Lenin and his followers took over a huge country, so rich in natural resources as to be almost self-suffi­cient. Five decades later, the Soviet living standard is one of the lowest in Europe, much lower than in the United States and Western Europe, even lower than in such satellite states as East Germany and Czech­oslovakia.

Nor is there any reason to be­lieve that in the foreseeable future the Soviet Union and other com­munist-ruled countries will achieve or approach the ideal proclaimed by Stalin and Khrushchev: to over­take and outstrip America. The agricultural record of the country under collective farming is a dis­grace. Quite recently the Soviet government found it necessary to make large purchases of grain in the United States and other for­eign countries, whereas prerevolu­tionary Russia had been a large ex­porter of wheat. Removing the au­tomatic incentive of private owner­ship from Russian farming was like taking an irreplaceable dy­namo from a machine.

The consequences of national­izing all shops and service indus­tries have been equally disastrous: indifference to the customer, poor quality, absence of initiative in making improvements. To be sure, there have been striking advances in the quantity of industrial out­put, in scientific accomplishment, and especially in the exploration of space, in the spread of education, in certain modernizing changes in urban life.

But Russia under any system would have achieved substantial progress over half a century. It was experiencing a rapid economic growth in the decade before the outbreak of World War I. Many projects of which Soviet publicists like to boast were on engineers’ drawing boards before the Revolu­tion. The Soviet Union should be compared, not with Russia in 1917, but with Russia as it might other­wise have been in 1967. Judging from pre-Revolutionary trends, the noncommunist Russia of 1967 would have shown substantial econ­omic and social progress, less spec­tacular than the Soviet in some fields, but better balanced and more conducive to the comfort of the average citizen.

Maintained by Force

After fifty years, there is no in­dication that communism could win majority support in any country without the use of force, vio­lence, and terrorism. Voluntary movement is almost always away from, not toward, communist-ruled countries. There have been two waves of migration from Soviet Russia, involving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of peo­ple. One was immediately after the Revolution; the other was after World War II when many Russians who had been forcibly or volun­tarily evacuated from the Soviet Union during the time of German invasion chose not to go home. The part of Germany under Soviet oc­cupation, quaintly called the Ger­man Democratic Republic, lost some four million of its citizens to prospering, free enterprise West Germany. Then the communists set up a penitentiary wall in the di­vided city of Berlin and an elabo­rate, closely guarded system of barbed wire entanglements and booby-traps along its entire fron­tier to prevent this continuous wholesale flight.

Hong Kong is packed with refu­gees from communist China. In the divided countries of East Asia, Korea, and Vietnam, it is the same story: a stampede to get away from communist rule. There has also been a large exodus of voluntary exiles from Poland and other satellite lands of Eastern Europe.

Among millions of “defectors,” refugees from communism in many lands, one recent case arrests at­tention. It is the flight from the Soviet Union, first to India, then to Switzerland, of Svetlana Alli­luyeva, daughter of the formidable dictator, Josef Stalin, and her later appearance in the United States. Seeking the freedom of expression she was denied at home was a dra­matic blow to the Soviet system in world public opinion.

The wheel, in her case, had come full circle. In April, 1917, Lenin left Switzerland, where he had found political asylum, to lead the communist revolution in Russia. Exactly fifty years later Stalin’s daughter had returned to Switzer­land — a refugee from the regime founded by Lenin and consoli­dated, built up, shaped in every detail by her own father.

Serious Problems Persist

Fifth, the United States and other noncommunist countries have their problems, big and small, political, economic, and so­cial. But it would be an error to imagine that, merely because they have devised effective means of suppressing open criticism and discussion, the rulers of commu­nist countries face no difficulties and problems of their own.

In China, there has for months been an obscure but evidently bit­ter state of near civil war be­tween supreme dictator Mao Tse‑tung (whose “thought” is recom­mended as the panacea for all ills) and some of his closest asso­ciates. The consequences are still uncertain. There is more outward appearance of stability in the So­viet Union. But Lenin’s and Sta­lin’s heirs have not found the answers to two questions of para­mount importance.

They have not found a means of tranferring political power in peaceful and legitimate fashion. The quiet, unquestioning handing over of supreme authority from a President or Prime Minister to the representative of another party that has been victorious at the polls would be ludicrously impos­sible under Soviet conditions. As a result there is constant rivalry, tension, intrigue, in-fighting among the few men at the sources of political and economic power.

And, as the Soviet economy gets out of the primitive stage of try­ing to produce as much as pos­sible and faces the need to make investment choices, even to pay some attention to consumer tastes, the lack of a substitute for the free market system becomes more and more painfully apparent. The free market presupposes free en­terprise and private ownership; and efforts to obtain its benefits where these elements are lacking are foredoomed to failure.

Our Danger from Within

Sixth, what does communism, half a century after it was launched as a system of govern­ment in a large country, mean for the United States? If the United States will hold to the principles of economic individual­ism, communism is not and never will be a challenge in the sense of providing a better life for more people. Nor is there any serious threat of military conquest; the predictable suicidal consequences of a nuclear clash are the best as­surance that such a clash will not take place.

The danger to the advanced in­dustrial societies of the United States, Canada, Japan, and West­ern Europe is from within, not from without. Intensification of the trend toward omnicompetent government, drying up of the sources of future investment through excessive taxation, throw­ing more and more of the burden of supporting the unfit and the unproductive on the producing part of the population threatens to erode and finally destroy the incentives to hard work which help to make an individualist economy so superior to a collec­tivist. If America will live up to its better historic ideals, it can face the challenge of communism undaunted and unafraid.


  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.