Communism after Kim

By Mike Dorf

The death of Kim Jong-Il has understandably led to considerable discussion of the late dictator's eccentricities, along with much speculation about how the succession of power will proceed.  Here I want to use the Dear Leader's demise as the occasion to explore some questions about the demise of communism itself.

By my count, North Korea and Cuba are the only remaining communist countries on the globe.  China, Vietnam, and Laos are nominally communist but each is much better described as a single-party authoritarian state with a substantially market economy.  They officially adhere to communism as a means of justifying the party's monopoly on political power but are not in any meaningful sense communist.  Communist parties participate in electoral politics in some democratic countries, even to the point of endangering their long-term democratic character (as in Venezuela, where the communist party is allied with Hugo Chavez's socialist party), but none of these countries is communist in the sense of being led by a single communist party with a collectivized economy.  And with Cuba under Raul Castro increasingly going the way of China, North Korea may soon be the world's only communist country.

One need not look very far for the reasons for the failure of the formerly communist regimes: 1) Without free markets, such regimes failed to produce a minimally adequate standard of living for their inhabitants, often by a very wide margin (as during the famines induced by collectivization under Lenin and Mao); 2) Such regimes did not honor their own egalitarian ideals, providing comfortable lives for party apparatchiks while the great mass of the people endured severe hardship; and 3) Given the material failure of communist regimes, their denial of civil and political freedom could not remotely be justified as necessary to create the material pre-conditions for the good life.

To be clear, I am not saying that the denial of civil and political freedom would be justified if communism delivered on its material and egalitarian promises.  Because it did not deliver on those promises, one need not even worry about the question whether it could be justified if it did.  I suppose one could argue that the question remains a live one, because we could imagine a communist regime that delivered on criteria 1 and 2, but I tend to think that nearly a century of experience is enough to establish that human nature makes that effectively impossible.

But other questions remain.  One is this: Given that the failure of communist regimes tended to be clear relatively early in each of them, how did they last so long?  E.g., over 70 years in the Soviet Union.  The obvious answer is that tyrannies can last indefinitely so long as those in power are able to back their regimes through force.   If we look to pre-modern history, we can find examples of tyrannical regimes lasting hundreds of years.

That leads me to think that the key question is more nearly the opposite: Why do tyrannies end?  Despite his somewhat nutty conclusion that the triumph of liberal democracy will mean the death of art and philosophy, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History offers what is no doubt an important part of the right answer: Liberal democracy is simply better at satisfying human needs and wants than authoritarianism, and so, once people come to experience or see liberal democracy, they will not let go of it.

But that cannot be the whole of it, for we are all familiar with liberal democracies backsliding into tyranny: Weimar Germany; Latin America for much of the last century; and much of the rest of the world at one point or another experienced liberal democracy, then lost it.  I take heart from the fact that we live in a period in which liberalism has been gaining ground, but that gain is not so inevitable as Fukuyama suggests.

Still, although we can imagine democratic countries backsliding into tyranny, it now seems pretty clear that few or none will backslide into communist tyranny.  The leading anti-liberal forces these days aim to establish theocratic dictatorships.  Whether those regimes will eventually be discredited by their own failures remains to be seen.  Iran's three-decade-plus experiment in theocracy has not been very successful, but the effective crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2009 showed that the regime can survive despite its unpopularity.  There is no reason to think that the regime will last forever, of course, but because theocracies justify their power based on spiritual rather than economic promises, their failures may be less obvious.

As for North Korea, it seems that the best hope is to avoid an all-out confrontation, while waiting for the regime to go the way of China.  Whether China (and other authoritarian regimes with a substantial free market) will eventually transition to liberal democracy depends on whether Milton Friedman was right that economic liberty and political liberty are ultimately inseparable.  Friedman offered his inseparability thesis as a critique of democratic socialism, but today its real test comes from regimes, like China, that aspire to maintain systems of authoritarian capitalism.  For reasons mostly unrelated to those Friedman offered, I hope he proves to have been right.