As global unrest spreads and long-running systems come into question, critical ideologies are once more on the rise. Communism, once declared dead with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, is once more haunting the Western world specter-like with its persistently relevant critique of capitalism. In the United States, once the bastion of contemporary neoliberalism, young people are increasingly identifying with the “socialist” political label. In the United Kingdom, the British activist Ash Sarkar received a surge in popular support when she proclaimed she was “literally a communist” after an attempt to mischaracterize her as a garden-variety Obama-supporting leftist. These developments have sparked a flurry of editorials across the mainstream Western media reiterating the Cold War-era censures of communism as a “murderous creed,” accountable for much of the human suffering in the 20th century.
As a case in point, the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute recently tweeted a link to a July 2018 article by Richard Ebeling, a professor of economics at Northwood University and a former president for the Foundation of Economic Education. In his article, Ebeling writes: “Historians of the communist experience around the world have estimated that as many as 200 million people—innocent men, women, and children—may have been killed in the socialist meat grinders: 64 million in the Soviet Union and up to 80 million in China, with millions more in the other socialist societies around the global.” As a source, he links to another article of his, where he claims (without a source) that “historians” believe as many as 68 million people were killed by the Soviet state in the 75 years of its existence. This is much more than the 20 million deaths ascribed to the Soviet Union in 1997’s The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Without citing actual sources (an odd choice for an academic), it’s impossible to know from where Ebeling gets his numbers, but it is hardly important. The most obfuscating influence on knowing the true number of people killed is not the murkiness or limits of the Soviet archives but the ideological compulsion by researchers to hold the Soviet Union and other communist regimes directly culpable for as many deaths as possible.
Far more people have wallowed in anguish under the terror and repression of capitalist countries than have ever done in communist countries. The reason for this is obvious: those countries have forcibly been exerting global hegemony since roughly the 16th century, their advanced development itself a product of their shameless looting of their conquered colonies. The underdevelopment of many contemporary low-income countries was not a reflection of the divide between “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples, but the outcome of global hegemons securing access to rare and valuable resources at the end of a Maxim gun. Communist states, the first not established until 1917, would have been relative newcomers to the domination and repression practiced from Latin America to Southeast Asia ever since Columbus first “discovered” the New World.
It is not enough, however, to say that capitalist countries also have blood on their hands. It must also be stressed that the circumstances that produced state-directed violence also differed. Communist countries have always been thrust into precarious existences in highly polarized societies surrounded by intensely hostile and more industrialized enemies. It was necessary to establish order internally as well as rapidly develop economically while simultaneously navigating international relations in an unfriendly world. While this has produced authoritarian, unaccountable governments, it also nevertheless produced high levels of human development and standards of living now acutely missed in parts of the post-Soviet world. Indeed, they would be appreciated in much of the modern United States, the paragon of capitalist powers, where a terminal illness diagnosis can only be afforded through crowdfunding Web sites. Friedrich Hayek once said about Pinochet’s Chile that he preferred “a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.” For the vulnerable and repressed, a communist dictator could be preferable to a democratic government lacking basic social services and support. Importantly, whereas communist states have all made documented efforts to improve the quality of life in their countries, life in the center of capitalist hegemony is still decided by intersecting hierarchies of class, sex, race, and more determined by the lottery of birth. Obviously, no communist state has achieved utopia, but one must wonder what sort of society would be created if the wealth and power of the United States promoted social welfare instead of seeking to eliminate it. Additionally, what would the world look like if the colonial legacy in underdeveloped countries was not one of clientelism and corruption, but of communal uplift, shared prosperity, and the eventual abolition of all social and economic distinctions? We do not (and may never) know such a world, because we only have the one history has given us.
That history has a very selective existence in Western minds. While many people can identify Joseph Stalin as one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century, often put on par with Adolf Hitler, virtually none know Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, the British viceroy of India in 1876. Faced with a severe drought and famine in southern India that year, Lytton adopted a laissez-faire approach, directing crops back toward England rather than contributing to relief efforts. Over five million people died in the famine, made the worse by colonial administrators who simply valued the lucre of imperialist accumulation more than native lives. By the Malthusian logic of the day, the Indian population had a “tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil” (in Lytton’s words), and therefore high mortality was a “natural” consequence of “overpopulation” by the poorest stratum of what was already considered a “backwards” society. Just as liberal philosophers centuries prior had conceived of private property as a “natural” right, thereby legitimating its legal protection, so too did Victorian colonizers conceive themselves as mere bystanders to “natural selection.” Over five million people died in the Great Famine between 1876 and 1878. In India, it would inspire some of the earliest Indian nationalists, but in the West, its memory soon died after the initial public outcry. Instead, the West remembers imperialism as regrettable morally, but beneficial in its long-term “modernization” of the underdeveloped world.
The historian Niall Ferguson is perhaps the quintessential author of imperialist apologia. Imperialism, he claims, “pioneered free trade, free capital movements, and, with the abolition of slavery, free labor.” The lasting positive imperial legacy for him was the integration of India into a global capitalist economy, while overlooking that this integration served the colonizer far more than the colonized. In terms of quality of life, as the 1876 famine illustrates, the economic benefits of free trade were actively denied to the colonized, the colonizer deliberately permitting a catastrophe to worsen in the name of unfettered “market forces.” It is doubtful that the men, women, and children who starved to death in Madras expressed gratitude in their final thoughts for their status as “free labor” when they received rations with less caloric value than that issued to inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. In Western scholarship, the claim that the creation of a classless, stateless society was worth those killed by the Soviet state under Joseph Stalin would be met with scathing mockery; yet Ferguson and scholars like him can claim that the germination of capitalism validates millions murdered by by imperialist governments, and they are taken seriously.
It could be argued that 1876 is too far in the past, a reflection of the worst excesses of imperialism. Yet in 1943 another famine in India, this time in Bengal and Orissa, left around two to three million dead. Scholars like Cormac Ó Gráda have shown how the British government chose policies that placed their own military decisions over the welfare of the Indian people, such as by using shipping for war purposes rather than transporting food. In the recent films lionizing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, how much reel time is spent on his decision to allow millions of Indian families to widespread misery and impoverishment, which persists to this day? Mortality in India, especially for children, remains very high. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, if mortality is to be used as a measure of tyranny and repression, as the authors of the Black Book of Communism, India would be the bedrock indictment against the Western world, whose legacy in that subcontinent are more disgraceful than noble. Yet, the West would prefer Ferguson’s version, to hang on to the myth of the humanizing mission of empire, the “white man’s burden” to spread “civilized” (i.e. Western) institutions and beliefs. Today, this perspective continues to guide Western development efforts, with international financial institutions and government aid agencies facilitating “good governance” (i.e. Western institutions and values).
For all the major changes done to the political and economic architecture of non-Western countries by Western powers and their affiliated institutions, we are no closer to reaching a capitalist utopia. In a sense, that is the more damning impeachment of capitalism; even after achieving worldwide dominance, to the extent that its tenets have so saturated Western knowledge to be categorized with laws of nature, the wealth has not trickled down, raising all boats. Instead, wealth continues to be concentrated into the hands of a global ruling class that completely isolates large chunks of the human population from meaningful agenda-setting and decision-making. The accumulated deaths of human history weigh less on a person’s mind today as to how they go on living and laboring under a system that deprives them of a decent quality of life, for themselves and for their families. Increasingly, we will also have to make capitalism reckon not just for the damage done in the past, but how it has destroyed our future through the massive climate change triggered by centuries of unchecked pollution, deforestation, and other environmental ills that threaten the health of our planet.
Davis, Mike. 2017. Late Victorian Holocausts. Verso Books
Dirks, Nicholas B. 2009. Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. Harvard University Press.
Ó Gráda, Cormac. 2015. “‘Sufficiency and Sufficiency and Sufficiency’: Revisiting the Great Bengal Famine of 1943–44”. Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future. Princeton University Press. pp. 38–91.