Human beings can be remarkably dense. The practice of bloodletting, as a medical treatment, persisted despite centuries of abundant evidence that it did more harm than good.
The practice of communism, or political bloodletting as it should perhaps be known, whose centenary in the Bolshevik revolution is reached this year, likewise needs no more tests. It does more harm than good every time. Nationalised, planned, one-party rule benefits nobody, let alone the poor.
The diseases that Marxism-Leninism was intended to treat, poverty and inequality, were ancient scourges just beginning to fade, even in Russia. Higher living standards were starting to reach ordinary people, rather than just the feudal elite, for the first time. Radicals had long seen government as the problem, not the solution: that to enrich the masses required liberating people from kings and priests.
Along came Karl Marx with essentially the opposite suggestion: a powerful state creating wealth, distributed from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, as a result of which classes would disappear and with them, eventually, the state itself.
The progressive left rather suddenly fell in love with the idea of expanding, rather than limiting, state power. It was in such a good cause. Unfortunately, the wealth never materialised and the state, far from withering way, became tyrannical.
Russia’s Bolsheviks, seizing power in a coup after the fall of the tsar, set a pattern that would be repeated again and again during the following century. A communist party takes power on behalf of the people, outlaws all other parties, holds no elections and after a sanguineous power struggle is soon dominated by one man. Famine results from the destruction of incentives inherent in the collectivisation of agriculture. Millions die. The nationalisation of all commerce and the cessation of most foreign trade result in shortages of consumer goods.
The leader becomes paranoid and kills a lot of people, especially independently minded ones, in purges. More are imprisoned without trial or charge. A secret police grows powerful. The regime destroys free speech, but is excused and praised by left-leaning sympathisers in western democracies. Living standards stagnate or fall, except for those of the elite, who live a privileged existence. Many people try to flee.
Communism was not unique in ruling through violence. Fascism, founded by an ardent socialist, Benito Mussolini, and German National Socialism, pursuing racial rather than class-based collectivism, were at least as bad, though they ended up killing fewer — not for lack of trying.
But from this distance they are all manifestations of the same phenomenon: centrally planned dictatorship justified as popular rule. Hitler’s bombers over London in 1940 burnt Soviet fuel.
In 1949 China repeated the Russian experiment with the same result. Mao Zedong managed to kill even more people, probably 45 million in the four years of the Great Leap Forward, through forced collectivisation and selling food to Russia in exchange for nuclear technology. When that did not work and he began to lose his grip on power he embarked on a purge of the entire country, called the Cultural Revolution, plunging his people into abject poverty while himself living like an emperor.
In 1959 Cuba tried Marxism-Leninism with a similar outcome: 5,000 people executed, an unknown number imprisoned for dissent and tens of thousands dead after trying to escape on makeshift rafts. Cuba’s GDP per capita was about the same as South Korea’s in 1959. Today South Korea’s is five times higher.
In 1962 Burma followed suit when Ne Win seized power and set out to create a “socialist state”. He introduced one-party rule, nationalised business and isolated the country from world trade, while imprisoning and executing perceived rivals. He impoverished the country while its neighbours prospered.
In 1974, it was Benin’s turn for the purges and oppression. The economy stagnated for a quarter of a century. Elsewhere in Africa, the Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe also tried communism, Robert Mugabe having come to power (lest we forget) as an enthusiastic Marxist-Leninist.
East Germany had to build a wall to stop people escaping. Vietnam, like Cuba, sent thousands to sea in leaky boats. Cambodia deserves special mention for the thoroughness with which it stuck to Marx’s plan of “sweeping aside” the bourgeoisie. As head of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot enslaved the entire population on collective farms, his thugs clubbing or starving any who showed less than total obedience, so that from 1975 to 1979 approximately 1.7 million people were killed.
North Korea managed to turn communism into a feudal dynasty of unparalleled paranoia, which not only executes supposed dissidents in unusually gruesome ways but managed to starve millions of its citizens during the 1990s, a time when the rest of the world was feeding itself ever more abundantly.
Oil-rich Venezuela has ruined itself through socialism, creating shortages of loo paper and soap. It’s been said that if they tried communism in the Sahara there would soon be a shortage of sand.
Those communist countries that discovered economic growth, notably Vietnam and China after Mao, did so by abandoning nationalisation of the means of production, the very core of the Marxist prescription. They were exceptions that proved the rule.
Need I go on? Communism has killed on average a million people a year for a century, far more than any other ism, let alone what Marxists call “capitalism”, and the rest of us call freedom.
And yet in large chunks of the media and the Labour Party, including the troika of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Seumas Milne, Marxism is still excused and admired while free enterprise is despised.
The first communists meant well. Their crime was to bet the farm on an untried idea and then, when it failed (as Lenin’s half-hearted New Economic Policy conceded), to be pig-headedly insensitive to the negative empirical data coming back from the experiment.
Like bloodletting medics, they elevated a principle into a dogma, with no regard to human suffering, in spite of overwhelming evidence.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.