Communism vs. Capitalism

Communism vs. Capitalism: Issues-Centered Social Studies with a Human Face


As a child of the Cold War, I think the conflict between liberal democratic and communist ideologies tells much of the unfinished story of the 20th century. The so-called “triumph” of capitalism, which has now become global in a particularly hegemonic way – though often not to the benefit of the majority – cries out, it seems to me, for a fresh look at Marxist theory. The issues I see as central here are:

  • What was the importance and relevance of Marxism in the 20th century?
  • Why did it appeal to so many people?
  • Why was the practical application of it resisted so fiercely by others?
  • How did that application affect the Russian and Chinese peoples?
  • Was dictatorship necessary to establish and preserve these communist systems?
  • How did these systems depart from “pure” Marxism?
  • Do the failures of the Russian and Chinese communist systems mean Marxist theory is flawed, or does it still have something to offer a world plagued by poverty and inequitable distribution of resources?

I think these are important questions for us, considering the negative effects capitalism appears to be having on less privileged groups in the United States, Europe, former communist countries, and the “Third” or “developing” world. Since 2008, the issue of capitalism’s viability has also arisen, along with even greater gaps between rich and poor between and within countries. Questions about whether capitalism “works” and whether it’s an appropriate economic system for a world with finite resources, especially considering the threat of global warming and “peak oil,” are also appropriate, and have been addressed elsewhere on this website.

We need to broaden our discourse on comparative politico-economic systems and become able to critique our own and other societies, according to our preferred values. What would our ideal political/economic system look like, and how could it be put into practice, given the current world situation? I think it’s important not to accept any system at face value and to recognize that, historically, each system has involved power dynamics favoring one or more groups over others. The only major and notable exception to this is the hunter-gatherer system by which we humans supported ourselves for 90% of our life on this earth.

I also want to emphasize that, although this paper is a comparison of laissez-faire capitalism, a system that so favors the wealthy that they end up dominating the government, and a communist “command economy” on the model of the Soviet Union or Maoist China in which an elite-run government calls all the shots, there are many other alternatives, both Marxist and non-Marxist. PROUT and Ted Trainer’s “Simpler Way” are two excellent examples of equitable non-Marxist systems.

I would open a discussion about the relevance of Marxism by asking participants to consider whether they see “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” as a good basis for a socio-economic system. (Only after the discussion was over would I ask how many recognized that phrase as Marx’s!) Of course, in order to talk about this subject, working definitions of terms like capitalism, democracy, totalitarianism, fascism, anarchism, free trade, and command economy have to be agreed upon. Discussion participants should also note the bias in all writing on and discussion of this subject. As in any dialogue, we should be as conscious as possible of our own biases, and make them explicit to others.

The Communist Manifesto is a good introduction to the thinking of Karl Marx, who lived during the industrial revolution and experienced the social and political upheavals of 1848. Key Marxian terms like bourgeoisie, proletariat, and class struggle beg for definition, but the main thing is to understand that for Marx the mode of economic production is the foundation of any socio-political system. He also believed, as he wrote in the conclusion of the Manifesto, that communist “ends can only be obtained by forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling class tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”

This quotation brings up the question: Does force have to be used to separate wealthy owners from their property in order to put it under the control of the people or their leaders? What property should be communally controlled, if such a system is being considered?

Questions like this lead us to the ethical or social values issue at the heart of this discussion: Which is more important – the individual’s right to own property and do with it as he wills, or his right to a fair share of the product of or profit from his labor? Do these rights inevitably conflict? Included here is the question of who should make decisions about the use of resources. What are some likely effects of the major alternatives? Is it right for individuals to own large quantities of land, or should resources like that be held in trust for the group as a whole? Can we say we have a democracy when we don’t have a say in pivotal economic decisions? What about privatization of the commons (another term to be defined)? What reward should people have for their work? Should specialized intellectual workers receive more than manual laborers? Stalin, Mao, and the Knights of Labor (an early American workers’ organization) all stressed the nobility of labor for the common good.

Behind all these questions is the fundamental dichotomy between Western and non-Western or traditional/tribal ways of thinking on the needs and rights of the individual vs. the needs and rights of the group. Does the group meet the individual’s true basic needs better than he can on his own? Can too much individualism destroy the group? Of course, when the “group” is the modern state, the terms of discussion are changed significantly.

The concept and practice of the state as an entity also plays into the question of whether violence is necessarily a part of “revolution.” The state as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only as far as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. But so far most revolutionaries agree that it must be taken over – most believe violently – in order to “change the system.” The problems inherent in using violent means are many, but they won’t be discussed here – except to say that  many believe that simple systems like Ted Trainer’s can be implemented nonviolently on a grassroots level, as the inherently violent system of the state gradually breaks down. (Read Escape from the Matrix by Richard Moore and The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk for some ideas on how this could take place.) Even Marx hoped the state would “wither away” eventually. Unfortunately, he was quite vague about how it would happen.

Contrary to popular opinion, Marx wasn’t in favor of political tyranny, intending that socialist politics be representative and that government be “open and accessible.” (Gottlieb, Marxism, 1844-1990) However, he saw the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the initial “coercive force necessary to end…the domination by the small minority who wished to continue in the old relations of exploitation.” (Ibid)

Many have also criticized Marx for not seeing the need for a “countervailing force to the state after the revolution and independent sources of working-class organization before it.” (Ibid)

In China and the Soviet Union, a degree of political tyranny over certain groups was probably necessary to implement and preserve the massive changes in the social order that took place and seemed desirable to most. In addition, both of these regimes needed to modernize and industrialize rapidly in order to be economically and politically viable as modern states. Issues of the needs of the state and the needs and rights of the individual and local group come into play here. How well can the state fulfill the needs of the individual and groups within it? Do we need the nation-state system? Could there be a world system – or anarchism (no government) – instead?

Western European socialism was dominated by Marxist theory from 1890 to 1914, but became increasingly more reformist and less revolutionary as workers gained political rights, higher wages, and better working conditions. Eventually, a preponderance of workers had gained enough to have something to lose, and the working class started to become stratified. Lenin’s theory of imperialism also connected European capitalism with the exploitation of workers and resources in Africa and Asia.

Rosa Luxemburg noted that at this time the power of western European workers was split between the labor union and the ballot box, in contrast to the unified pressure of Russian workers’ soviets’ mass strikes. Finally, Western socialists had taken pride in being an international workers’ movement opposed to nationalism and war, but in 1914 most European socialist leaders endorsed their countries’ entry into war. Most American socialists were opposed to U.S. participation in World War I, correctly seeing it as being waged primarily for the benefit of business interests. Their opposition to the war led to their political persecution. The anarcho-syndicalist International Workers of the World (I.W.W., or “Wobblies”) were destroyed by imprisonment and vigilante actions organized and encouraged by federal and state governments. American socialists were discredited and associated with foreigners and Bolsheviks, and socialist Eugene Debs, a five-time strong minor party candidate for president, was charged with sedition and imprisoned for several years because of his opposition to the war. American socialists were discredited and associated with foreigners and Bolsheviks.

The tendency of the American government to “red-bait” when faced with labor unrest or any other kind of political opposition partially explains the difference between American and European attitudes toward socialism and communism, though such persecution occurred in Europe, too, particularly with the postwar development of fascism in Germany and Italy. During the post-World War II Cold War, Americans also learned to associate socialism and communism with the Soviet Union and China, countries their government insisted were enemies. Currently, American socialist and communist parties, still seen as an alien fringe element, are so small and weak they aren’t even on the ballot in most states.

The Russian revolution was strongly influenced by Lenin’s emphasis on the vanguard, as opposed to the mass political party. Perhaps only a “small, tightly organized, and secret” (Gottlieb, op cit.) party could have taken power in a country like Russia – still largely feudal, autocratic, and repressive. The novel Dr. Zhivago and the film based on it give the feel of these times in Russia, including the civil war, the breakdown of the economy, and the beginning of forced collectivization of the peasantry (two-thirds of the population).

Since this paper was originally written as a plan for teaching an issues-based social studies unit in middle or high school, I looked for book and film resources that would bring issues of capitalism versus communism alive for students. I was specifically looking for people who, by sharing their experience, real or fictional, could put a “human face” on the subject.

I couldn’t find an autobiography, novel, or film about the Soviet Union under Stalin that I like as well as those I found for China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These are periods of great hardship for the Russians and Chinese that it would be interesting to compare.

The two communist systems can also be compared with the supposedly democratic capitalist system in the United States by looking at two books by American women who chose to live in communist countries: Margaret Wettin in Russia (Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman’s Life in the Soviet Union) and Agnes Smedley, the feminist-socialist journalist who organized medical aid for the Red Army and civilians in China while reporting on their fight against the Japanese during World War II. Smedley has much to offer, both in her autobiographical novel, Daughter of Earth, and her other writing and private letters, quoted at length in Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of An American Radical by Janice and Stephen MacKinnon. Growing up in the U.S., Wettin and Smedley both suffered from poverty and connected their experience with the American capitalist system.

The material I found on China is what put the most life into this project, particularly the book Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng, which describes the author’s childhood and adolescence in China in the ’60s and ’70s. Liang’s family’s suffering before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution appears to be representative of that of the Chinese people as a whole. The Liang family are – or were – urban intellectuals, but a peasant face also emerges strongly in the book: that of Guo Lao-da, a worker on a rural work team where Liang and his father were sent for “re-education.” At least for a while, Guo stands up to the cadres who call him a “capitalist roader” for raising five geese to sell as he tries to save enough money to get married.

My Russian “face” is that of Alexander Sergeevich Ganshin, Stalin’s movie projectionist. A character based on Ganshin is the hero of the film “The Inner Circle,” which highlights the psychological helplessness of the Russian people during Stalin’s purges. Ganshin was never arrested and to this day will hear no criticism of Stalin. Like many other Russians, he believed or chose to believe Stalinist propaganda, much of which – like the emphasis on the threat of “foreign encirclement” – was based, at least in part, on truth.

I looked for stories of the victims of Stalin’s purges, but the novels I found – The Deserted House by Lydia Chukovskaya and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzenitsyn – weren’t as vivid or reliable as I would have liked. The Deserted House, purportedly written in Leningrad in the winter of 1939-40, is the story of Olga Petrovna Lipatov, a widow who lives for two things: her job as the head of the typing pool in a government publishing house and her son Kolya, an engineering student, who, like his mother, is dedicated to fulfilling the Soviet dream. When Kolya is arrested, Olga is sure a mistake has been made, but after standing in lines for months to try to discover his whereabouts, she finally learns that he’s been sent to a labor camp for ten years on a charge of terrorist activity. Kolya’s colleague and best friend, Alik, and Olga’s co-worker and only friend, Natasha, fall under suspicion as well. Just before committing suicide, Natasha convinces Olga, who has defended her at work, to resign before she attracts the attention of the authorities. Olga spends several years hoping for Kolya’s return and hoarding tins of food to send him when she finds out where he is. Finally, a letter is delivered (without benefit of postage) in which Kolya explains that he was implicated by another student, who was probably tortured, as he himself was. Kolya begs his mother to appeal his case, but an acquaintance reminds Olga that this would alert the authorities to the fact that they’ve forgotten to deport her, a relative of an “enemy of the people.” Olga burns Kolya’s letter. Thus were innocent families destroyed by Stalin’s paranoia.

Ivan Denisovitch Shukhov, the hero of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, is sentenced to ten years in the labor camps for having been captured by the Germans during World War II. Apparently, Stalin feared that prisoners-of-war might have been turned into spies for the enemy.

Margaret Wettin bears witness to this system of terror, having lived in the Soviet Union from 1932 to 1979 with her Russian husband and two children. She says, “The Soviets’ internal system of informants sowed distrust. Wife distrusted husband; brother, brother; neighbor, neighbor.” Wettin herself worked as an informant for the KGB for a while after World War II, having been convinced that it was her patriotic duty. But when an acquaintance she had been reporting on was arrested, despite what Wettin knew to be her innocence, she had the courage to refuse further cooperation.

Nadezhda Mandelstam is quoted in the book The Inner Circle: An Inside View of Soviet Life under Stalin: “There had been a time when, terrified of chaos, we had all prayed for a strong system, for a powerful hand that would stem the angry human river overflowing its banks. This fear of chaos is passed on from one generation to another. ‘We should be the first to be hanged from a lamppost’ is the constantly repeated phrase. What we wanted was for the course of history to be made smooth, all the ruts and potholes to be removed, so there should never again be any unforeseen events and everything should flow along evenly and according to plan. Either by silence or consent we ourselves helped the system gain in strength.”

After World War I, the Revolution, and the civil war, which left Russia in a shambles, with millions dead from fighting and starvation, 26 million Russians died in World War II – far more than in any other country – and a commensurate level of material destruction was also experienced. So, it’s no wonder Russians craved order and peace, despite the price.

Another film on the Stalin era is “Burnt by the Sun” about an army colonel and hero of the revolution who’s purged after World War II. The acting, photography, and atmosphere of the film are excellent, especially the last scene, in which a banner with Stalin’s huge, falsely benign face on it, floats serenely on the breeze as the hero is beaten by KGB thugs.

“To Live!,” the first of two films I found for China, shows the life of a Chinese family from the 1940s through the 1970s, with one segment per decade. In the first part, the young father has just gambled away the family fortune, and he and his wife and children are put out on the street with nothing but a trunk full of puppets used for Chinese shadow theater. The father learns to give puppet shows, and, traveling about, ends up between the Nationalist and Communist armies. The second part depicts the Great Leap Forward during the 1950s, in which Mao tried to get the peasants to engage in decentralized industrial production, resulting in widespread famine. The family’s little boy, exhausted from lack of sleep as his town tries to keep up with production quotas, falls asleep behind a wall. A visiting party official knocks down the wall with his jeep, and the boy is crushed to death. The third part shows the Cultural Revolution. The family’s daughter, now a young wife, has a fatal hemorrhage giving birth to her first child. The doctor who could have saved her is being tortured by youthful Red Guards, who’ve taken over the hospital, and the young medical students left in charge don’t know what to do. In the last part the mother and father visit their children’s graves with their son-in-law and young grandson. This is an excellent film, giving a lot of information about Chinese history and culture and the lives of ordinary people in difficult times. Despite its sadness, it has humorous moments and conveys a sense of continuity, human endurance, and family devotion against all odds. The film also shows the strategies a typical family may have had to employ to stay in political favor as requirements changed in China.

“The Blue Kite” tells the story of a Chinese family in Beijing just before and during the Cultural Revolution. It focuses on the relationship of a young mother and her little boy, showing how they cope when the boy’s father dies in a labor camp. In a few years, the boy’s stepfather dies, too, from ill health brought on by political tensions. The mother finally marries a high party official she doesn’t love to ensure her son’s welfare, but at the end of the film he, too, is brought down by the Cultural Revolution. When the mother pleads with the Red Guards arresting her husband, they take her away as well. The boy, now about 12, whose headstrong nature the mother has indulged, tries to stop the Guards. They shrug him off, but when he starts throwing stones at them, they turn around and beat him to death. A tree towers over his dead body, as it lies in the street. In its branches are the tattered remnants of the kite the boy made for his second stepfather’s granddaughter, in memory of the kite his father once flew with him. As the credits roll, we hear his baby voice singing a Chinese lullaby his mother taught him as a toddler in which the little child is a baby bird who trusts his mother to bring him food.

In Son of the Revolution Liang Heng tells how his mother was sent to a labor camp for being a rightist when he was four years old. She had been encouraged to make criticisms during Mao’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign. “Mother didn’t know what to do. She really loved the Party and didn’t have any criticisms to make; the Party had given her a job and saved her from the most abject poverty.” When his mother returns home after two or three years away, Liang’s father divorces her and tells the children to avoid her for political reasons. “I came to resent my mother for making my life so miserable. I began to believe that she really had done something wrong. My father and teachers said so, and my classmates hated me for her supposed crimes. At last, I no longer wished to visit her, despite my loneliness, and when I saw her at a distance I didn’t even call out to her. I cut her out of my life just as I had been told to do. The Party had made us strangers to the woman who loved us more than anyone else in the world.”

Liang’s father tells him, “I was lucky if I could get one bowl of rice to eat every day. Then I met some Party members working underground. They taught me about revolution and gave me books to read. I gradually understood how important socialism was for our people. The Party saved me, and I have always believed the Party understands far more than we ordinary people ever can about what is right for our country. My greatest dream is that someday I’ll be accepted as a Party member.” Soon, however, Liang’s father is denounced by the Cultural Revolution. Red Guards come to the family’s home and humiliate this intelligent, thoughtful man, so loyal to the Party, who has worked hard for Communism all his adult life, including being deprived of a wife and mother for his children.

As punishment, Liang, his father, and two sisters are each sent to different rural areas to work with the peasants. Liang finally returns to school in a country town, still despised as the child of disgraced parents. At the age of 15, he’s arrested for corresponding with a friend in Beijing who’s been denounced. Interrogated and held in solitary confinement for several days and nights, he contemplates suicide. Then he becomes angry, and vows to live. “Why should two good people like my parents be forced to divorce each other?” he asks. “Why should Liang Fang [his older sister] raise a machine gun against her fellow teenagers? Why did the peasants fear the cadres so if they were representatives of our great Communist Party? Why were people so determined to make me and Peng Ming look like counterrevolutionaries, when we wanted only to make a contribution to our country? Why had the Revolution given us all so little when we had sacrificed everything for it? That night I resolved I would seek the answer to these questions. If I was to live, it would no longer be numbly and aimlessly. I would not be like Father, denying the facts and fooling himself, nor like Pockmark Liu, disillusioned and cynical. I would go to prison, but I would study so that I could understand why my country had produced such tragedies.”

Later in the book Liang’s father has a stroke and can no longer work. “His mind no longer seemed clear. He relived his pre-Liberation days with the Communist underground and his life as a newspaper reporter. When he was too tired to talk, he stared past the newspaper-covered walls out the window at the sky. Sometimes he’d break suddenly into song, always the same graceful song he’d written in his youth, tuneful and melancholy:

Why are you leaning on the temple door? Why are you so silent?

What is the trouble that locks the door of your heart?

On a fair day, I look at the white clouds in the blue sky;

On a foul day, I listen to the wind whistling around the points of the eaves –

Waiting and waiting for the dawn in the East,

Waiting and waiting for the light over the great land.

The cuckoo calls, the cuckoo calls.

The swallow returns, looking for the garden of his old home.

It is empty, it is barren; the dream, it ended long ago.

Father was saddest of all when he limped trembling to the window and looked out on the street where the purposeful working people passed. Then he wept, and I had to urge him gently back into his chair. ‘Never mind, Father. Never mind.’”

Agnes Smedley, my American “face,” tells a story of suffering from economic deprivation and ignorance as a child in the United States, and provides an American view of both Russian and Chinese communism. Preserving her independence of thought as she did made Smedley unwelcome in the Chinese Communist Party, which she wished to join in the 1930s, and persona non grata at home in the anti-communist 1950s.

As Alice Walker says in her forward to the latest edition of Smedley’s autobiographical novel: “Daughter of Earth is a precious, priceless book. In it Agnes Smedley lays bare her heart and soul in an effort to understand and heal her life. In the process, she – poor, white, nearly slave class in the ‘free,’ ‘democratic’ United States where all whites at least are alleged to have an equal chance of ‘making it’ – connects herself to people of her class and vision, regardless of color or sex. It is a remarkably rare affirmation…Smedley was born in northern Missouri to parents who no matter how hard they worked, remained desperately poor. She never forgot the hungers and humiliations of her childhood, the oppression of her parents, or the snuffing out of her brothers by the exploitation of the American capitalist system…Poverty in Chinese or Hindi or black folk speech was recognized as the same language by her; she spoke and understood it fluently…She was a citizen of the planet.”

In China Smedley identified with General Zhu De of the Red Army, who also grew up in poverty and oppression. The following quotation from her biography of Zhu, The Great Road, is quoted in the MacKinnons’ biography of Smedley: “Sometimes when General Zhu talked about his parents, I would be unable to go on, and he would regard me with curious and questioning eyes. ‘Sometimes,’ I would explain, ‘you seem to be describing my mother. We didn’t work for a feudal landlord, but my mother washed clothes for rich people and worked in their kitchens on holidays. She would sometimes sneak food out to us children. Her hands were almost black from work.’ ‘And your father?’ he asked in wonderment. ‘In my early childhood he was a poor farmer who plowed the fields in his bare feet. He ran away periodically, leaving my mother alone, because he hated our lives. Then he became an unskilled laborer, and we never had enough to eat.’ ‘The poor of the world are one big family,’ Zhu said in his hoarse voice, and we sat for a long time in silence.”

Smedley was alert to the plight of ordinary people around the world and criticized any group or party that used people’s suffering to further its own ends. Living in Germany in the 1920s, she wrote in an article for The Nation: “The Communists smile cynically when they read of the frightful increase in the cost of living, and say, ‘It hasn’t gone far enough. It must be worse still before the masses realize the mistake they’ve made in establishing a republic. We shall wait a bit longer.’ Most of the townspeople are so weary, so destroyed by uncertainty and long years of nervous strain, that they don’t care what happens – they’re tired of it all.”

Shortly before her death in 1950, Smedley wrote in a letter to a friend: “God of gods, but the human animal is savage! On every hand, everywhere, the human being can look on the most appalling injustice, the most blatant poverty due to the ownership of the earth by a few, without rising in their wrath. I can never understand that, and it fills me with despair.”

In China, Smedley’s sympathy was for the peasants, the workers, and the Chinese Communists, whom she saw as bringing great benefits to an oppressed people. A friend said, “She had forsaken the comforts of what we regard as civilization for a primitive life among an alien people. Her one desire was to remain with these people who were making such a valiant effort to realize the ideals for which she had consistently fought.” Smedley spent 18 months, starting in October 1938, with the New Fourth Army, a new section of the People’s Liberation Army, recruited and led by Communist veterans of the Long March. This was, as the MacKinnons say, the “longest sustained tour of a Chinese war zone by any foreign correspondent, [and] the high point of her career as a journalist.” Smedley’s Battle Hymn of China (1943) is acknowledged to be one of the best works of war reporting to come out of World War II.

Smedley returned to the United States for health reasons before the outbreak of the World War II. At first, she was able to publicize the needs of the Chinese, now united as to Nationalists and Communists, for U.S. help against the Japanese. Later, especially after China “fell” to the Communists, Smedley was persecuted politically, charged in a U.S. Army report with having been a spy for the Soviets since the ’30s. Unable to get a job or be published, Smedley went to England, awaiting an opportunity to return to China. She died there after an operation for ulcers at the age of 58. In her will Smedley left the income from her books to “General Zhu De, Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army of China, to do with as he wishes.” She also asked that she be cremated and that her ashes be “sent to General Zhu De to be buried in China.” Due to political complications, this couldn’t be done until a year after Smedley’s death. Her remains were then placed in the Cemetery for Revolutionaries in a suburb of Beijing. According to the MacKinnons, “The Chinese characters inscribed on the gravestone are in Zhu De’s hand: ‘In memory of Agnes Smedley, American Revolutionary Writer and Friend of the Chinese People.’”

Given all of Smedley’s sacrifices for and despair over political causes related to human suffering, it may be fortunate that she died before she could see the changes in the Chinese Revolution and the effects those changes had on the Chinese people she had taken to her heart. Still, it would be interesting to see what she would have made of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and events since Mao’s death.

Another literary resource that could be used to compare the oppression of the American system with conditions in Russia and/or China would be John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

What were/are the “operating myths” of these societies – Russian, Chinese, and American? Both the Soviet Union and China propagated the myth that the people were ruling through the Communist Party. An American myth, as I see it, is the belief in equality of economic opportunity. Also, how politically democratic has the U.S. been over time? With all the furor in this country over the Chinese government’s bloody suppression of political protest in Tiananmen Square, the point was almost overlooked that, on a smaller scale, the U.S. government also killed students protesting its policies at Kent, Jackson, and Orange State Universities during the Vietnam War. It has also suppressed and persecuted other dissident groups: socialists, communists, the Black Panthers, and the American Indian movement, going so far as to have the FBI murder Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as he lay in his bed asleep (among other incidents).

The cult of the leader could also be examined in these three countries by comparing the regimes of Stalin, Mao, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What did these leaders do for and to their countries? What personal qualities and popular psychological needs enabled them to stay in power as long as they did? In both Russia and China, the people lacked any experience with democracy and had a history of depending on strong leaders associated with tradition and religion. The Chinese emperor was the Son of Heaven, the Russian tsar his people’s “little father,” their “star of salvation” who would establish or reestablish justice in the world.

During the Chinese Great Leap Forward campaign of 1958, “the rural communization movement aroused chiliastic expectations of the more or less immediate advent of a communist utopia.” (Meisner, Marxism, Maoism, and Utopianism) During this period, as in the later Cultural Revolution, Mao bypassed the Party and bureaucracy with direct appeals to the masses. This “was accompanied by an unprecedented glorification of his person and thought.” (Ibid) During the Cultural Revolution, “the cult was infused with traditional religious symbolism.” (Ibid) The cult of Mao still persists in the Chinese countryside.

In contrast to Mao, Stalin had a minor role in the Russian revolution and depended on the Soviet bureaucracy and Communist Party, though he purged both repeatedly. Alexander Ganshin, his projectionist, says other people started the ‘cult of personality’ of Stalin, then accused him of using it against the people. Ganshin tells stories of Stalin’s humility, concern, and respect for others, though he himself didn’t often have occasion to speak to him. Stalin is reputed to have had a good sense of humor and the common touch with ordinary people.

While many Marxists today believe that a radical politics should be multicultural and account for gender and race as well as class, they still emphasize Marxist economic analysis, which they believe can “demonstrate the problems with unrestrained capitalism and justify regulation and social control of capital.” (Douglas Kellner, “The End of Orthodox Marxism” in Marxism and the Postmodern Age) Kellner believes that representative democracy in the classical liberal sense is easily dominated by ruling class interests. He says, “The question arises as to whether the vast majority of the population are really free in capitalist societies that don’t provide the economic basis to live a free life. How can one be said to be ‘free’ when one is suffering constant anxiety about employment, homelessness, health care, the environment, and the possibility of economic collapse?”

Ralph Miliband, in his article, “Reclaiming the Alternative” in the same collection, agrees, saying that capitalism is “unable, because its organizing principle is private profit, to provide a materially secure and morally satisfying life for all. This is not simply a matter of deprived minorities in the inner cities, but of the majority, who, despite access to consumer durables, live in the shadow of unemployment, insecurity, poor social services,” and a deteriorating environment. Miliband sees all wage earners as the “main constituency” for socialists. He concludes that Marxism “locates daily struggles within a larger framework,” making “a comprehensive and systematic critique of the social order possible.”

In his article “Beyond Democracy: The Politics of Empowerment” in Marxism and the Postmodern Age, Richard Levins agrees that “the traditional radical criticism of bourgeois democracy remains valid.” He notes, however, that “socialist movements have generally had a poor record of support for indigenous peoples’ struggles.” In “The New World Order” (same collection), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls for “genuine sustainable development through local self-management.” These issues are taken up at greater length in Marxism and Native Americans by Ward Churchill, a collection of essays by Native Americans and Marxists, in which the Native Americans say that Marxism, being as European a point of view as Christianity or capitalism, can’t relate to their world view or care about the environment, since it depends on offering the masses material advancement. As Russell Means says in his article “The Same Old Song,” European ways of thinking despiritualize the universe and dehumanize people. Marxists are as much a part of this culture as capitalists, Means says. They just offer to redistribute the results of economic development, which for Means is equivalent to the destruction of the natural world.

Michael Parenti notes in his book on communism that critiques of past and present communist regimes stating that they did or do not represent “pure socialism” are “ahistorical and cannot be tested.” These critics, he says, “imagine what socialism would be like in a world far better than this one, where no strong state structure or security force is required, and where none of the value produced by workers needs to be expropriated to rebuild society or defend it from invasion or internal sabotage.” Parenti quotes Tony Febbo, who wrote in The Guardian 11-13-91: “When people as smart, different, dedicated, and heroic as Lenin, Mao, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Ho Chi Minh, and Robert Mugabe – and the tens of millions of heroic people who followed and fought with them – all end up in more or less the same place, then something bigger is at work than who made what decision at what meeting. These leaders weren’t in a vacuum. They were in a whirlwind, and the suction, the force, the power that was twirling them around has spun and left this globe mangled for more than 900 years. To blame this theory or that leader is a simple-minded substitute for the kind of analysis Marxists should make.”

Parenti goes on to say that “decentralized parochial autonomy [what I would call revolution from the bottom up] is the graveyard of insurgency – which may be one reason why there has never been a successful anarcho-syndicalist revolution. Local, self-directed worker participation with minimal bureaucracy, police, and military could only be the development of socialism were it allowed to develop unhindered by counterrevolution, subversion, and attack.”

Roger Gottlieb concludes his book on Marxism by saying that “any comprehensive attempt to understand and overcome the social problems of today’s world must contain – though it need not and should not be limited to – elements of Marxist analysis.” Michael Parenti ends his book on the subject with these words: “The only countervailing force that might eventually turn things in a better direction is an informed and mobilized citizenry.”



Callari, Antonio; Cullenberg, Stephen; and Biewener, Carole, eds.: Marxism in the Postmodern Age: Confronting the New World Order, New York: Guilford Press, 1995.

Gottlieb, Roger: Marxism, 1844-1990: Origins, Betrayal, Rebirth, New York: Routledge, 1992.

Parenti, Michael: Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997.

Marxism in China

Meisner, Maurice: Marxism, Maoism, and Utopianism, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.

Marxism in relation to specific groups

Churchill, Ward: Marxism and Native Americans, Boston: South End Press, 1983.


Grenville, J.A.S.: A History of the World in the 20th Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Moise, Edwin: Modern China: A History, New York: Longman, 1994.

Materials on the Soviet Union

Wettin, Margaret: Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman’s Life in the Soviet Union, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

Chukovskaya, Lydia: The Deserted House, 1967

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.

Konchalovsky, Andrei and Lipkov, Alexander: The Inner Circle: An Inside View of Soviet Life under Stalin, New York: Newmarket Press, 1991.

Mikhalkov, Nikita: “Burnt by the Sun,” Culver City, CA: Tristar Home Video, 1995.

Materials on China

Liang, Heng, Son of the Revolution, New York: Random House, 1983.

MacKinnon, Janice and MacKinnon, Stephen: Agnes Smedley, the Life and Times of an American Radical, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988.

Yu, Hua, “To Live!,” Hallmark Home Entertainment, 1995.

Xiao, Mao: “The Blue Kite,” New York: Longwich Production, 1994.

Materials on the United States

Smedley, Agnes: Daughter of Earth, Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1976.

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  3. Not sure what you mean by an “interview,” but am potentially open to the idea.

  4. Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence [including the genocidal seizure of indigenous lands], have been at the very core of the history of capitalism.

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