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100 years of communism - why it was a Utopian ideal

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A 100 years after the Bolshevik revolution in Russian and the political, social and economical landslide that followed, it still seems quite unnerving to talk about communism.

Whenever the theme is brought up, one has the uneasy feeling that opinions on the subject dangerously gravitate towards either a devoted and fearless support or complete rejection and abolishment. Perhaps the time has come to look back and assess calmly the chaotic past of this idealized or fiercely hated social order, and attempt to understand why it didn’t work and why it never will.

A certain amount of historical background is in order if we are to discuss communism properly. Leading their way from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s ideology, I would like to present three movements, all interconnected and relevant to understanding the rise and fall of the Soviet Union: communism, socialism, and anarchism.

All movements concern themselves with the notions of distribution of power, ownership, and social class, among various other ideological and economic debates.

Like every revolution, the October Revolution in Russia aimed to bring down Tsarist autocracy and establish a new social order, which unfortunately turned rather sinister with the arrival of Stalin. However, in theoretical terms communism sought a universal economic and social equality among its citizens, as did socialism.

The general difference between the two movements, excluding defining details which are rather extensive and deserve a separate article, is that communism is viewed as rather definitive and hard-left on the political spectrum, originating from ideas in “The Communist Manifesto” pamphlet of 1848, and essentially having a firm belief in the populous collective ownership of means of production.

Socialism, on the other hand, predates communism in its origins, can be seen as rather broadly defined and thus more liberal and can be either pro or anti-marked in connection with a rather egalitarian wealth distribution among citizens.

Having established a very brief account of theory, it is sufficient to say that the ideological merits of these political movements were never truly achieved in practice, judging from historical accounts of mass genocide, extreme limitation of human freedoms, and numerous other atrocities in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

However any account of what being part of the USSR felt like both in a social and individual sense is rather difficult to achieve, especially since my generation was born in the years following its dissolution. We can listen to the stories and viewpoints of our parents and grandparents, but will never truly understand the glimmering hope for a significant ideological change and its devastating and cruel grotesque actuality.

Every system can be beneficial for some and harmful to others, but the more perspective question we should be asking is if communism ameliorated humanity and if its expression in social terms was inspiring. According to a fairly large amount of communist survivors, the answer is no, it didn’t, as in its ideology, it so eloquently promises to.

The regime destroyed human relations by employing social surveillance tactics and rewarded the citizens who reported to the state their neighbors, friends, and acquaintances who expressed an opinion which was politically or socially controversial.

Stating that communism is a diabolical consuming regime will be as inaccurate as it will be to say it was a socially and economically constructed Eden. What we can perhaps assume from communism’s history and the effect it had is that being founded on the ideological concept of a socioeconomic order involving the absence of money, government, class segregation and aspiring to achieve common ownership of production means, it was a utopian hope for the future, which unfortunately proved abusive and dysfunctional due to the basic characteristics of the universal human nature- lust for power, egocentrism, duplicity, and others.

Anarchism specifically deals with the philosophical dimension of communist theory and the issues arising from it. According to Ruth Kinna, anarchism is a movement of revolutionaries, who rebel with everyday human against the social order, consumerist values, and possess universal apathy.

As in communist accounts, Fredy Perlman, a primitivism writer, views the state as the source of these malevolent characteristics, describing it as an all-consuming Leviathan, who is “a monstrous body…without any life of its own…a dead thing, a huge cadaver”.

Thus, even though the present social and economic order of capitalism is somewhat malicious, to say the least, it is the only model humanity presently has. Yes, communism employed mass control, propaganda and ridiculous media narratives and witch-hunts, but isn’t neo-liberalism attempting the same through the prism of consumerism?

After all, every political and socioeconomic order will have leaders that abuse their power for personal interests and sick purposes, because the human mind and soul haven’t yet achieved a wiser and superior understanding about human connections and mass organization.

Perhaps it is necessary to mention that every country that was either part of the Soviet Union or a satellite state developed in very different ways and at different rates.

As stated by Sten Berglund, certain satellite states like Romania had a slower transition into an effective market and political stability, because the new ruling power was a successor of an oppressive regime, which essentially trained citizens into subservience.

Regardless of how the end of communism was portrayed in western media, as in the victory of democracy over socialism, the fall of the Berlin Wall certainly wasn’t an easy and instant solution. As Stjepan Gabriel Mestrovic, Slaven Letica, Miroslav Goreta point out in their extensive study on the fall of communism, 1989 was a cathartic moment for all nations on the other side of the Iron Curtain filled with social cataclysms and political revolts (the breakup of Yugoslavia, a coup in Georgia, a coup against Gorbachev in Moscow, and others). The issue was that after arising from such a limiting system of government control, social and political stability was practically impossible to achieve and master straight away.

According to some political historians like Charles S. Maier, communism was unsuccessful for mostly economic reasons tied in with ideological ones.

Since communism rejected the notion of the bourgeoisie, mass production manual labor (otherwise described as the bread and butter of the industrial era working class, which represented the majority of the population) was highly encouraged and needless to say brought about immense developments both for the East and the West.

However, as the West was evolving into services and technology-driven economy, the Soviet Union found it hard to keep up with these changes. A major shift in the economic model meant an influential shift in the social construction of society from which unions and social movements arose, slowly taking down the pillars of both communist economy and ideology alike. Thus, communism as both an economic system and a philosophy was unprepared for drastic changes and moreover: the rise of communal support and social solidarity, which ironically comprise the essence of communist utopian ideology.

An article in The Economist explores the viewpoint that Marx’s initial ideology in the manifesto was intended to be more of an educated commentary on the political and social issues at the time, than a textbook for future political leaders.

Therefore, it is inherently utopian and therefore understandably flawed when put into practice. Marx created a source of faith, which was simply misinterpreted heavily by the ruling class. Whoever is in power used the faith of the masses in the ideal of the future, to manipulate society smoothly into submission and then feed off its production. One perfect example of this twisted practice is the overwhelming corruption rates in Soviet and satellite states during the regime and even after it.  

John Stuart Mill states that the main reason for totalitarian regimes’ deterioration is the lack of basic understanding of the human nature.

I believe this to be a major catalyst for communism’s fall on an ideological and by extension-social and political level. The regime suppressed and demanded without ever really rewarding its citizens. One was expected to abide the rules and keep silent, while a hand-full of individuals were actually enjoying the privileged treatment. The difference from other political systems it, that communism actively punished and limited members of society with no specific reason other than to sustain the belief in the state ideology. 

As human beings, we require praise or at least some sort of recognition for our work, instead of a life in relative poverty and cultural and spiritual vacuum. Marx and Engels’s imagined community never truly existed, because people can’t be, and perhaps at this stage of human evolution shouldn’t be required to be, absolutely selfless and emotionless, living in what is essentially an extended community of equals.

The hope was for a better future where no one owns anything and thus everything belongs to everyone, but this abstract notion became impossible when faced with inborn human selfishness. Thus, trying to escape a life of misery and doomed dreams, human nature deteriorated even further into the lowest forms of individual behavior like overt forceful manipulation, betrayal, hypocrisy, mass homicides, and abuse of power.

Communism laid its foundation on a structured and profound futuristic ideal. Many held a firm and pure belief in the image of a bright egalitarian future, only to have this ideology smothered and twisted by its practical implications.

The foreseen bright future of the communist society was a utopian dream, which in itself implies the impossibility of its authentic existence.

What the USSR and its satellite-states were left with resembled a bleak reminder of Huxley’s bone-chilling and forewarning brave new world, then Marx and Engels’s egalitarian harmony. Perhaps communism didn’t work, because it was an abusive and unrewarding system of mass control, while what is the horror of the future is quite similar, but with an essentially different touch.

Future oppressive regimes will not bring their citizens into submission through the use of violence, but by making them truly and authentically love their state of slavery.  The doom of communism, either for economic or ideological reasons, or maybe both, even from its early stages and its subsequent demise serves to show present society, Europe and the world in general perhaps, that humanity is prepared for a socioeconomic order of equality and universal dispersal of power and means only in theory, but unfortunately not in practice.

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