A History of Communism: From Idealism to Tyranny

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The idea of Communism means many things to many people, and has evolved considerably since it was first developed by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto of 1848.  Marx saw Communism as a solution to the mass poverty and class structure which the capitalist system had created.  Most significantly, and this is where he parted from various socialist and liberal ideas, Marx believed the implementation of Communism had to be revolutionary.

I’m not an expert on his beliefs, and I’ll confess I’ve never read The Communist Manifesto – though it’s definitely high on my list of books to read.  However, I believe he advocated a state which would possess supreme power over the people in order to liberate the workers from extreme poverty and their ‘bourgeoisie’, upper class rulers.  To do this it would be necessary, if not desirable, to create a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would, in essence, follow the idea of a ‘benign dictator’.  Communism would not follow immediately, but this dictatorship would work towards the world revolution and eventually develop a stateless, classless world.  This is what Marx perceived to be true Communism.

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A depiction of revolutionary chaos in Berlin.

However, despite being formed in the euphoric hope of the doomed 1848 Revolutions, Marx’s ideas gained little traction during his lifetime.  He died in 1883 with the cause making little headway, though Marx maintained his belief that socialism was an inevitable stage in human development.  As the Europeans carved up Africa and created alliances, the ideas of Communism must have seemed fanatical.

Then, in the worldwide chaos caused by the First World War, everything changed.  In February 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed after centuries of power in a complex series of events which, I will again admit, I have not deeply studied.  As German and Austrian soldiers advanced further and further into Russian territory, the people and soldiers protested and mutinied in what became a mass uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate.  This was not a Communist revolution; Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Communist party, lived in exile and returned upon hearing the news.  It was in a second revolution during October 1917 when the Communists took advantage of the power vacuum which followed Tsar rule and seized power in a coup.  Not, as future Russian propaganda would have you believe, in a united empowerment of the proletariat demanding Communist rule.

Lenin worked to introduce Marx’s ideas and established a Dictatorship of the Proletariat – with himself as chairman, of course.  A bloody civil war ensued, as the Communists (‘reds’) fought European-backed reactionary forces (‘whites’), resulting in a red victory.  The formation of the Soviet Union was complete, and the world’s first Communist State entered the world stage.  Half of Europe had been set ablaze during the First World War – in addition to the Russian Empire, the war saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.  Dozens of new states were created and in this revolutionary chaos thrived many short-lived Communist governments, but as the dust settled Russia stood the only country in which Communists had managed to keep their grip on power.  (There was also a Communist government in Mongolia, which achieved independence with the help of the ‘Reds’ during the Russian Civil War, though this had very little influence).

So the Soviet Union stood alone.  Lenin died in 1924 and, after a struggle for power, Joseph Stalin became leader.  This struggle fractured a split in the Communist Party, as two sides formed led by Stalin and a man called Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky believed that socialist policies could not work alone in Russia, that Marx’s doctrine clearly stated a worldwide revolutionary was necessary to create Communism.  Stalin, in contrast, was throughout his life an extreme paranoiac and believed the Soviet Union vulnerable against its capitalist enemies, so felt the focus should be on building defences.  Stalin won and Trotsky was sent into exile, eventually to be assassinated on Stalin’s command in 1940.

Stalin’s Soviet Union saw unprecedented industrial, technological and demographic development.  The Soviet Union became the first state to lead an organised Industrial Revolution, in which the country worked by ‘Five Year Plans’ to determine the focus of development.  This led to a much faster development than the random and uncontrolled forces of capitalism which had driven development elsewhere in the world.

More significantly, in my opinion, Stalin’s rule marked the transition between idealism and tyranny in Communist belief.  This need not have happened.  Stalin’s paranoia led to the creation of a totalitarian state and a cult of personality, in which human rights were non-existent and a level of devotion close to worship was expected for the Communist Party and for Stalin himself.

The rise of Communism coincided with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries fell to the sway of Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, imposing vast military rule upon their people and creating similar cults of personalities for the leaders.  It is said that if you could get Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, in a room together and avoid talk of economics, they would find much in common.  The creation of such brutal Fascist regimes created parallels with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with many critics labeling the Soviet Union as a Fascist regime itself.  There is certainly a strong argument for this claim.  Though not on the scale of The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges of anyone he perceived a threat led to the executions of millions of people.

This was how Communism would be defined during the second half of the century.  Once again it took a world war to make Communism a reality in many countries.  After the fall of Nazi Germany, Europe was carved up between the Allies and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a series of puppet states making up the Eastern block, comprised of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.  To the east, Communists in China had won a bloody civil war after Japanese defeat in the Second World War, and the Korean War split Korea into two states, the north of which became ruled by a Communist government.  Communist also began spreading to the French colonies of southeast Asia, which would lead to the famous Vietnam War.

This spread of Communism led to a ‘Cold War’ forming between the liberal, capitalist forces of ‘The West’ headed by the USA, and the tyrannical, Communist forces of ‘The East’ headed by the Soviet Union.

Communism at its greatest extent in 1983.

The middle classes and landowners in capitalist countries were terrified of a Communist takeover, fearing land repossessions and reprisals, perhaps even threats to their lives.  And so a global war of power spheres, espionage, technological advancement and fear would define the 20th century; a war in every aspect besides the fighting.

And then, suddenly, Communism collapsed.  There are too many reasons for this collapse to go into in this blog, particularly as my understanding will be very limited.  I think the most significant factor was an economic crisis which brought the entire fragile system crashing down.  The Eastern block crumbled, ironically, during mass revolutions, and the Soviet Union split into a series of successor states not long afterwards.  Other than a handful of Communist States which survived in Asia, mostly reliant on China’s growing influence, and also Cuba, Communism has died a swift death.  Even these countries are increasingly accepting capitalism as a road to success.  Occasionally a Communist party will join a coalition government in some small country somewhere in the world, but as a major political force it is utterly spent.

So what are my thoughts on Communism?  If I had lived during the turmoil of the 20s following the First World War, in a period marked by extreme poverty, I would undoubtedly have been a Communist.  However as the totalitarian nature of Communist states became clearer, the Liberal within me must reject Communism.  It is an incredible idea, but human history has shown that whenever an individual is given power, however benevolent the reason, they will become corrupted.  Very often Communist states have exacerbated the poverty they were created to solve, while well-fed dictators think only of war and power.  Left-leaning institutions such as the welfare state have proven an effective means of lifting the majority out of poverty without imposing the extremes of Communism and this, I believe, is the path we ought to continue to follow.  Think of it as a diluted, safer form of Communism, achieving the same goals without the idealistic insanity.

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Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

As you will have no doubt heard – due to the fact that the media has finally cottoned on to the horrors occurring – there is a vicious and bloody civil war being fought in the country of Syria.  Unrest began in March 2011 after demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out as part of the Arab Spring uprisings.  The regime responded in the form of tear gas, bullets, shells, warplanes, and recently, cluster bombs.  Violence spiraled in a series of massacres and resistance from a growing rebellion army, dragging the country into the largest civil conflict in the country’s history.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 after a rebellion was launched by Fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco and aided by the established Fascist dictatorships in Europe, sought to topple the democratic left-wing government.  The war raged for three years between the ‘Republican’ forces and the ‘Nationalist’ forces, and by 1939 the Nationalists had taken control of the country, imposing a military dictatorship which would last for decades.

There are many similarities between the two conflicts in some ways, and differences in others, but enough similarities to be worth commenting on.  Whether Syria will be one of many cases where history is repeated remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will explore where these repetitions may occur.  As ever, I am not an expert and there are merely my own views – as misguided they may possibly be.

Both the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, from a Western Liberal perspective, can be interpreted as a war between freedom and tyranny.  The lines blur, as they always must in wars, but overall this seems to be the case.  In Spain the combatants were the democratic (to begin with) Republican government and the dictatorial, Fascist Nationalists.  There is little doubt that, having seen the atrocities in Spain’s totalitarian government under Franco, which was to follow, the Nationalists were not on the side of freedom.  With the Republican government increasingly becoming a puppet of the Soviet Union, almost entirely dependent on Soviet support, it is debatable whether this side could be considered the side of ‘freedom’, but as the war began the Republicans were certainly fighting in the defence of democracy and freedom.

Syria is more clear cut.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has ruled Syria for nearly four decades.  The government’s rule has been characterised by brutal oppression; Syria is a country where mass imprisonment and torture are commonplace.  An Islamic revolt occurred between 1976 and 1982, culminating in the mostly undocumented Hama massacre which razed the city and killed tens of thousands of people.  In retrospect, this can be seen as a sort of blueprint by the government in handling civil unrest.  Assad’s regime is undeniably on the side of oppression and tyranny.  The rebellion to oust him began as mass protests by hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country, and the rebel army which followed is dedicated to fighting for a free, democratic future.  Yes, there are extreme factions within the rebellion – most worryingly Islamic jihadists – whose growing influence is a cause for concern, but I believe a majority of the fighters would reject their views.

Another similarity, which in my view is the strongest, is how both wars rapidly became a proxy war.  A proxy war is the situation where a major power, or often two major powers, instigate or support sides in a conflict which the power itself if not directly involved in.  I’ve already mentioned how the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war, with the Nationalists supported by the Fascist dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Portugal, and with the Republicans supported by the Communist Soviet Union.  This level of support on the Fascist side extended deeply.  The Guernica bombing is a famous example of German intervention, and over 10,000 German soldiers fought in the war.  Italy’s level of support went further, with over 60,000 Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side, as well as in the form of aid such as warships, ammunition and over 700 warplanes.  The Fascist powers of Europe were desperate for a Nationalist victory as this would further isolate the dwindling democratic powers of Europe – namely Britain and France.

Support for the Republicans came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union, whose motives were more halting the spread of Fascism than to install Communism in Spain.  Its level of support was also large, with many thousand Soviet soldiers fighting for the Republicans and large amounts of aid being sent.  The Republicans also received aid from Mexico, though this was nowhere near comparable to the amount provided by the European dictators.

The attitude of what would today be perceived as ‘The West’ was one of non-intervention.  In fact, many officials in Britain were open about their desire for a Nationalist victory, as this was seen as preferable to a potential spread of Communism.  Britain, France and the USA pledged to not become involved in the war, limiting their role to that of sending humanitarian aid.

This was similar to the situation in Syria in many ways.  Although to not as great a degree or from as many sources, much military and logistical aid is making its way to the opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.  The regime’s most outspoken backer is Iran, which sees its unusual alliance with the secular dictatorship as a way of maintaining influence in the Middle-East and applying pressure onto Israel.  The regime is also, more covertly, receiving aid from Russia – both politically and militarily.  Russia’s political support of Syria, due to its presence on the UN Security Council, has prevented any meaningful international intervention in the conflict, thus giving the Assad regime the opportunity to clamp down on resistance without interference.  Russia is also a large supplier of arms to the regime, despite international condemnation.

Support for the rebellion comes from an even stranger source; the highly oppressive Gulf States – most significantly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The rebellion in Syria is being fought, mostly, for freedom and democracy, so it may at first appear odd that these Islamic Monarchies are supporting the movement, but their motivations are down to politics.  Fiercely opposed to Iran, the Gulf states see this as an opportunity to sever Iranian influence upon the region.  Democracy would be an unfortunate side-effect to this goal.

Dark green shows countries which have recognised Syria’s opposition. Light green shows countries which have officially supported the opposition.

Very much like in the Spanish Civil War, the role of ‘The West’ has been minimal.  Although there is clear vocal support from most democracies towards the rebel movement, most governments are unwilling to become involved without a legally-binding resolution from the UN, which is currently being blocked by Russia and China.  To date France, Turkey, the UK and Spain have recognised the ‘Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and, along with the USA, have been providing non-lethal aid – including communications equipment.  Turkey is also allowing its territory to be used by rebel fighters to organise and supply.

However, although there are many similarities between the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War, there are also many differences.  One significant difference is the root of each conflict.  The Spanish Civil War began as an armed insurgency and coup attempt by the Nationalist Forces, whereas the Syrian Civil War began as a popular uprising against President Assad’s regime and the armed elements followed later.  From my perspective this gives the rebel factions in Syria more legitimacy than those in Spain had, as they are actually fighting for the will of ‘the people’ (but not all).

The forms of warfare are also different.  The war in Spain was fought in trenches, land battles and with heavy aerial capabilities from both sides.  The rebels in Syria are far more disadvantaged: they’re fighting a guerrilla war across the cities and country side of Syria, fighting street by street and making minimal gains against the regime’s artillery and air-power.  The role of warplanes is significant in both conflicts, but in Syria this role is far more one-sided with the air virtually dominated by Assad forces.

The war in Syria has not attracted the number of foreign volunteers to join the rebellion as would be expected.  The most significant volunteer movement from abroad would be the emergence of Islamic Jihadist groups, whose numbers make up over 5,000 fighters.  This pales in comparison to the 32,000 volunteers who joined the Republicans in Spain to fight against Fascism.

And finally, although the most difficult at present to judge, is the direction in which the war is flowing.  The Nationalists made steady gains all throughout the Spanish Civil War and were heading towards a victory from early on.  The situation in Syria, being far from conclusion, can only be predicted.  Although the regime has an upper hand in virtually every respect, it is gradually being pushed back in all areas of the country be rebels.  Despite this, the war is currently in a state of stalemate.  Most analysts and observers do not believe the Assad regime will survive, however, due to the wide opposition to it both domestically and internationally.  It appears likely that both wars will be won by the rebellion and end in revolution, but where in Spain this was a triumph for Fascism, in Syria this will, it is hoped, be a triumph for democracy.

In conclusion, there are both many similarities and differences between the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011-present.  It may be futile to explore the similarities, or it may also give an indication of the direction Syria as a country will go during the war and after.  It is said that history repeats itself, and I believe this is and will increasingly be one of those instances.