Issue #2 · 2021-07-07

Communism and the Developmental State

by Chris Bond

A major problem we now have when attempting to understand political thought outside of the Anglo-American liberal tradition is that all of it has been subject to extreme levels of distortion. Obviously these other systems of thought have been approached as enemies by purveyors of liberal thought, and as a result propaganda dominates interpretation. For any serious student of political theory this must be taken into account, and these alternative systems of thought must be approached from a rational and level headed analytical perspective. In this vein, I wish to present the work of Theda Skocpol as a means of gaining less biased insight into "Marxist" revolutions and regimes during the 20th Century.

In her work 'Social Revolutions', Skocpol provides an analysis of the three major revolutions of the modern world; the French, Russian and Chinese. Skocpol approaches these events through a Marxist lens, but what makes the analysis compelling is the unorthodox recognition it offers to the state as a political rather than merely economic entity. This recognition of the political interests of the state is customarily missing in classical Marxist analysis. The state is no longer solely a machine of class oppression, but is also in possession of a set of imperatives driven by geopolitical conflict. This forces Skocpol to go beyond Marxism, as reducing geopolitical concerns to class conflict it is an untenable position to maintain when forced to confront historical reality. As a result, her analysis of the Russian and Chinese experiences with "Communism" reveals the actions of their respective regimes were driven more by the strategic requirements of centralizing state power than by ideology.

Beginning with the Soviets, one the best ways in which we can reassess their actions would be to focus on the issue of land reform, and more specifically the disastrous land collectivization which occurred in the 1920s and 30s. References to kulaks and kulakisation are infamous in discourse critical of the USSR, a process in which the Soviet government specifically targeted a class of farmers labeled as kulaks and declared them class enemies. They were attacked, they had their lands confiscated, and they suffered starvation or deportation. The problem with this narrative is that it is both true and also completely false, and the misleading nature of this narrative can be laid at the feet of the Soviets themselves in the first instance, and then later at the feet of anti-communists. There was a 'kulak' class and they were persecuted, but what is being hidden here by both the soviets and the western anti-communists, is that the kulaks made up a minority of peasant farmers and were not uniquely subject to persecution in this manner. In fact the entire peasantry was subjected to this terror, so to understand how exceptionally misleading this kulak narrative is we need to step back in time briefly and look at the peasant class's development prior to the Russian Revolution.

Prior to being peasants, the peasants were serfs, an institution brought into its mature form in the legal declaration of the Sobornoye Ulozhenie of 1649 enacted by Tsar Alexis. This legal document both implemented strict controls on the movement of this class of people and mandated the enrolment of the nobility in the Tsar's armies. This seems to have been basically a bargain between the nobility and the Tsar. Serfdom was subsequently abolished with the arrival of emancipation led by Tsar Alexander II in 1861 in the wake of the Crimean War debacle, the purpose of which seems to have been to better integrate the peasant class into the mass armies of the time. The key point to note here is that serfdom was introduced to enroll the nobility in the army, and it was repealed to enroll the peasantry in the army. This demonstrates land reform in Russia to be intimately tied to the military and geopolitical requirements of government. It would therefore follow that one could assume that further land reform would be subject to the same dynamic, which is what Skocpol argues is the case with the Soviets and their actions.

One of the major problems which faced both the Soviets and the Tsar before them was that as part of these reforms which empancipated the serfdom, political influence on a local level shifted from the nobility and towards local political centers in the shape of village 'Mirs'. These communal centers of organization held title to the arable land of the area they presided over, and had the right to allot this land to the members of the community under the Mir as it saw fit. This process was not done as an alienation of the land, but was instead a system by which different members were allotted farmland as per their need, and this land would regularly be reallocated as per this need. Outright ownership of land by individuals, such as the kulaks, was not the normal state of affairs and this form of ownership seems to have originated from the Stolypin reforms. These reforms were an attempt to break up the Mirs by encouraging private ownership so as to both increase the productivity of this sector and to assert political control by the central government in the light of the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Following the collapse of the Russia armies in the wake of defeat in World War 1, the peasant conscripts that made up these armies dispersed to the villages from which they had originally come, only they did so now in possession of rifles. It was these Mirs, now augmented by armed men, that formed the backbone of the Russian revolution as they revolted en masse just as they had in 1905. The peasants appropriated the remaining noble land which had not been dispersed in the emancipation process, they also took a great deal of land that the kulaks had obtained from the Stolypin reforms. This land was put back in collective control. The significance of this is that it shows how misleading the kulak narrative is because it conveniently leaves out the peasant segment of the population that formed the vast majority of this class. These peasants themselves were highly communistic and conservative – capitalism was a new phenomenon that the tsar was trying to force upon them, and they rejected it.

When we move forward to the consolidation of the Soviet regime in the 20s and 30s, we find that this collectivized Mir structure was still firmly in place. The Soviets, being an urban based movement, had basically little to no influence in the countryside and this created significant problems. Grain prices dropped so low that these Mir largely withdrew from the monetary system by virtue of refusing to market grain at the price asked at the time. This can be seen when one notes that according to Skocpol less grain was marketed in the 1920s than before 1914 because of this withholding of grain by the Mirs, and often a refusal to even plant the crop in the first place - farmers in non-capitalist environments tend not to grow crops unless they need to. For a state in the process of trying to jump start industrialization due to its precarious geopolitical situation (being flanked by German and Japanese industral powerhouses) this was obviously a major issue. Two general responses to this were apparently considered by the Soviets. The first option was to try and encourage the remonetization of these peasants by producing greater quantities of cheap consumer goods. The second option was to simply send in state agents to collectivize the peasants under state supervised farming organizations which became known as kolkhozes, and to then force them to farm and sell the crops. For multiple reasons the second option was chosen with poor results to say the least.

What should interest us at this point is that not only did the Soviets consider encouraging the peasants to market their grain with consumer incentivization, but that the targets of this state based collectivization were the entire peasant class, not merely the kulaks. Granted the Soviets made a great deal of noise regarding the kulaks being class enemies, but in reality they were also targeting the peasants acting in a communal way. This despite the obvious truth that one would conclude from reading communist literature that this method of organizing production was precisely what communism was supposed to be aiming to achieve. This was why they made such a big issue of singling out the kulaks because their actions were in many ways difficult to reconcile with communist ideology, and so this claim of attacking class enemies acted as a cover for what was really happening. This seems to have led to the term kulak being expanded to cover any peasant who opposed the State collectivization, which would mean the Mir collectivized peasant would be labelled "kulaks". The Soviet state was acting as a state and was forcing the integration of the peasants into the state, but doing so under the façade of communist ideology.

This tendency for fake communist behaviour of post-revolutionary "communist" states is also evident in the development and success of the CCP in China. While it may be the consensus view that China has made a break from it communist past and has dragged it population out of poverty by embracing capitalism, this is not particularly instructive, especially when no clear definition of either capitalism or communism exists. It would seem that the Chinese development is better explained without reference to these ideological categories at all. This development can be better explained by reference to the state's strategic interest to centralize power and its specific geopolitical context generated by circumstances out of its control.

Unlike the Soviets, the CCP was not an urban based movement and were instead based in the peasantry. They of course did not arise from the peasantry, but instead found themselves married to them following a rather tortuous journey. To see how this developed we can again take a brief step back into the history leading up to the land reforms. With the arrival of the Western imperial powers on China's shores, China was beset by an inability to match their technological and organizational capabilities. The Chinese state was centralized, but not in any way as centralized as the Western powers.

There were many vast barriers to the actions of the Emperor and the Chinese state's attempts at reform met multiple problems, culminating in riots in response to attempts to standardize the railway system on a national basis. Local elites who had invested in the railways of their specific region seemingly feared losing their investment and managed to bring the Chinese imperial dynasty to its end as a result. Local government centers which had previously developed their own security apparatus to deal with rebellions became the basis of the Warlords that arose. National unification thus became a goal of many elites, and this is where both the CCP and the KMT derive from. Both parties were revolutionary movements opposed to the existing political order and both sought national unification. Both were also funded and advised by the Soviets and there was apparently significant overlap in their membership.

The initial alliance of the CCP and KMT ceased upon the relative success of Chiang Kai Shek's KMT in establishing some form of order following Shek's Northern Expedition against the warlords, upon which he enacted a purge of the more left wing elements of his own party and the CCP. This purge pushed the remnants of the CCP into the countryside where there was obviously no industrial proletariat. This led to a number of doctrinal changes as the CCP were ultimately forced to tap into the peasantry for support. Blockaded and under attack from the warlords, the KMT, and also the Japanese following their invasion; the CCP's only real source of resources was the peasantry and this fostered the need to develop close and direct support with the villages in order to draw upon the peasantry for manpower and supplies. The combination would turn out to be explosive and the land reforms enacted by the CCP stem from this dependency. In exchange for military service the peasants were promised land, and this according to Skocpol served three functions. First, it rewarded and strengthened the intravillage elite established by the CCP. Secondly, it removed the power and influence of the gentry who could have posed a threat by being supportive of the KMT. And thirdly, it supplied the CCP with a vast pool of infantry recruits.

As Skocpol points out, this supply of recruits for the CCP's guerilla army conditioned the CCP's approach to the peasant class. Unlike with the peasant class in the Soviet context, here the peasant class would prove to be a vital ally to the communist state. There was no desire to enforce improved productivity in this sector to try to drive industrialization. The industries of China were located in urban centers which were either controlled by the Japanese, warlords, or the KMT, and it was not until the very end of the civil war period that the CCP were able to get control of urban China. The CCP were also in a position where they were unable to enforce a draft of the peasants, instead relying on supplying large incentives by reforming land rights in the peasants interest and ideological convincing.

That any of this was even possible was a result of the varied and often mountainous terrain of China which made infantry based guerrilla possible. This allowed the CCP to operate in regions out of the easy reach of aircraft and mechanised divisions. This would prove influential even in the post war period as there remained little impetus to drive industrialisation at an excessive pace, the geopolitical imperative was not as pressing as in Russia during the interwar period. Invading a China that could field inexhaustible armies, even if they could only wield small arms, would be an off putting endeavor for any power. Neither the Soviets nor the USA were up to the task, as would be demonstrated by the Korean war in the 1950s where the Chinese were able to conduct a rather successful offensive campaign with light infantry that had little air cover.

This state of affairs was vastly different to that which faced the Soviets who had no real connection to the peasantry and were in dire need of industrialization in a short time period. Russia, especially the European section, unlike China, is geographically rather flat. It consists of an endless steppe that is ideal for the deployment of mechanised units. In addition, Russia is vast and requires the need to deploy forces to potential fronts massively far from each other which required extensive rail networks, as was demonstrated by the developments of World War Two. Russia also needed naval forces to defend multiple possible invasion points which need multiple fleets that cannot connect together easily. Without industrialization, the soviets would have been far worse off in 1939 as there was no way they could have been able to operate on the basis of a peasant based guerilla army. This explains the urgency of their actions and their botched attempts at quick reform against a farming sector which in effect, as Skocpol notes, became a threat to the state. The Chinese faced no such urgency, and in fact had the peasants as the base of their power, so their actions when it came to land reform did not lead to a catastrophe comparable to the famines unfortunately unleashed by the Soviets. Granted there were still negative outcomes for sections of the population as a result of these land reforms, but relatively speaking the reforms by the CCP were successful.

Obviously, if ideology was the main driving force of both the CCP and the Soviets, we should have been able to see similar if not identical actions from the communist parties of both states in conformity with their ideological beliefs. Instead what we see is relatively pragmatic actions taken by state actors which had different strategic contexts. The Soviets came to power with the help of the industrial workers of Petrograd and ended up overseeing an uncooperative and unproductive farming sector. The CCP came to power on the back of peasants after being cut off from any industrial base, and their subsequent relations with the farming sections of their relative orders were obviously vastly different. There is a great deal we can learn from the experiences of the communists in the 20th century if we refuse to view them through an ideologically liberal lens colored by propaganda designed to discredit communist states.

We must ask how the communists succeeded in not only taking power, but in developing functional and transformative states. One reason for this is that the communists had a very clear focus on the nature of the state and its role due to the Marxist theory of the state as emergent from class conflict. That is, class conflict occasioned the development of a state for use by the dominant class to suppress other classes. Leninists aimed to take over this state, turn its oppressive mechanisms against the dominant class (capitalists), and to then work towards dismantling the state once class was abolished. Regardless of the veracity of this interpretation, the communists had an advantage as a result of this focus on seizing the state through leveraging class antagonism.

Another aspect of the communists' success was that they sought to create alternative bases of power which allowed them to operate without the restrictions placed on power actors by already existing structures. The Bolsheviks worked through their party and the soviets, the CCP worked through their party and the village governance structure they developed. As a result their actions were far more disciplined and focused. We can also use this analysis to level some serious criticisms at liberalism and the liberal claims to offering better solutions to communist policies by noting the developmental nature of the communist states. It is quite well known that Marx's theory of proletarian revolution failed drastically in just those states in which he assumed it would take hold, and instead found success in more backward ones, and it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on this given Skocpol's analysis.

What exactly was it about communism and Marxist-Leninist thought especially which proved to be so well suited as the ideological basis of developing states as opposed to the liberalism promoted by already industrialized states? In both Russia and China, liberals were prominent in the initial revolution but quickly and irrevocably fell by the wayside. The reason for this seems to be that their policy proposals were ineffective, if not basically delusional, and this is curious given that they were in effect trying to imitate the successful Western powers. There were no developmental states that developed by using the precepts of liberalism and this is something which was foreseen by Fredrich List a long time before the soviets and the CCP vindicated him. It was List who famously stated that:

Any nation which by means of protective duties and restrictions on navigation has raised her manufacturing power and her navigation to such a degree of development that no other nation can sustain free competition with her, can do nothing wiser than to throw away these ladders of her greatness, to preach to other nations the benefits of free trade, and to declare in penitent tones that she has hitherto wandered in the paths of error, and has now for the first time succeeded in discovering the truth.

It is just this preaching which the liberals that led the revolutions from which they were subsequently sidelined erroneously believed, and it is just this preaching that forms the basis of liberal anticommunism which is therefore capable of quite sincerely believing that Russia and China could have industrialized if they had allowed the 'free market' to take its course. It is quite clear from Skocpol's work that a close study of the development of communist practice that a reliance on liberal interpretations of economic development would be to fall into grave error which only benefits the purveyors of liberalism and the institutions which they defend.