Why Communism Failed

What went wrong with the Soviet Union and the com­munist revolution can hardly be said to hinge upon the wrongdoings or moral flaws of any single person like Joseph Stalin. Or Vladimir Lenin, for that matter. It’s true that Lenin was a kind of authoritarian dev­iation from mainstream Marxist socialism, but it is also a fact that the only kind of socialist system (in name if nothing else) that has ever existed on any larger scale has been of the authoritarian bent. If you list all of the libertarian socialists, anarchists and left-wing Marxists, these are all theorists and philosophers. If you list the leading authoritarian soc­ialists, these are all real leaders with real power. Coincidence?

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

“Trotsky wouldn’t have saved the communist experiment. Nor would Lenin had his health been better.”

It’s not a coincidence. Some people like to say that “real socialism has never been tried”. But as you’ll see, it has never been tried because it has never been possible in the first place. And this impossibility is exactly what has derailed all real attempts.

Let’s go on with the story. Lenin’s doctrine which guided the 1917 rev­olution (or coup) was an authoritarian dev­iation of the ideals of sociali­sm, effectively banning worker control of factories and other socialist elem­ents, and the other Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky, soon followed this elitist top-down per­spective.

Lenin died in 1924, Stalin took over and from there on it was mounting tot­alitarianism and violent oppression, culminating in the 1937-38 Great Purge. If Stalin hadn’t won the power stru­ggle, other and similar problems had still been likely to occur. Stalin’s con­test­ant Trotsky was even crazier. He was more optimi­stic about a communist revolution in Ger­many (and less opti­mistic about Stalin’s “soc­ial­ism in one country”) and would thus have been likely to have ado­pted a blatantly aggressive foreign policy—more wars, more peo­ple killed. Trotsky also had a more radical vision of the malleability of the human mind; that everyone could become Aristotle—an exceedingly dan­gerous and cult-like idea. Quoting Trotsky himself:

“It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhyth­mic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dyna­mically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Ari­stotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”[i]

There’s an interesting tension here: On the one hand, Trotsky appr­oa­ches some of the metamodern developmental perspectives, seeing the hum­an being as a project of playful self-recreation; on the other hand, he falls into the traps of utopianism (the non-relative kind) and idealizing his own image of what a good human being would be like. He didn’t realize that the only credible form of utopia is relative, and he never referred to any sound theories of psycho­logical devel­opment. He simply believed that once a socialist society had been achieved, then a new and better human­ity would emerge and a just social order would come into being once and for all. Consequently, everything became a means to this impossible end; after all, the zealous revolutionary would think, what’s a few millions deaths if that’s the price of achieving an absolute utopian ideal. This, of course, puts one on a path to totalitarian­ism. We must thus stay clear of the mistakes rep­re­sented by Trotsky and others like him. These are dan­gerous intellectual waters we are cross­ing.

Present-day Marxists often say that critics of Marx have failed to grasp the depth and entirety of Marx’s writings, in particular the three volumes of his magnum opus, Capital. But if you read the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, there can be little doubt that they knew their Marx very well. And if you read e.g. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s bio­graph­ies, it is apparent that even Stalin was very intellectually gifted: rea­ding Dar­win at thirteen in one sitting, becoming an acclaimed poet at 16, master­­minding an impressive bank robbery at 29, and managing an in­credibly large and diverse workload as military leader and head of state—all while producing writings that were not necessarily innovative, but cer­tainly well written and incisive. For instance, you have Dialectical and Historical Materi­alism, in which he relates to not only Marxist doctrine but also a wider philosophical canon including Hegel, Kant, Feuerbach and others. As such, I seriously doubt that a better and more detailed reading of Marx is the solution to the problems of Marxism, communism and soc­ialism.

As you may know, Trotsky was eventually murdered on Stalin’s orders by a Soviet agent with an icepick to the head in Mexico City. But com­munism was doomed to fail long before this. Trotsky wouldn’t have saved the communist experiment. Nor would Lenin had his health been better.

Let’s find out what really went wrong.

“…an appeal to ‘human nature’ and her inn­ate individuality is of course a rom­antic reciting of beliefs rather than a behavioral-scientific explanation.”

The Mainstream/Libertarian Account

What then can account for the structural failure of the communist pro­ject, as viewed altogether? Well, in all places where you see communism (or “socia­list” states claiming to attempt to achieve full communism, which is when the state itself has been made obsolete), there are one-party syst­ems, human rights abuses, limits to civil liberties and severe problems with the eco­n­omy—as recent relapses in Venezuela re­mind us. These socie­ties sim­ply don’t last; their social sustainability is quite limited.

I suppose you’ve heard the common wisdom response? “Communism was not just a nice idea that turned out to be terrible in prac­tice—it was a terrible idea that was consequently (and predictably) terrible in practice!” All mainstream critiques of communism argue along these lines, more or less. This holds true from more sophisticated versions, like in the Polish philo­sopher Leszek Kołakowski’s meticulous studies[ii] of the inherent flaws of Marxism, over Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Ene­mies, to Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s massive, intense literary mas­ter­piece The Gulag Archi­pelago, which derives the horrors of comm­unist forced labor camps directly from Marxist-Leninist doctrines.

This line of argument (often put forth by libertarians and conserva­tives, but increasingly by everyone) holds—more or less explicitly—that comm­unism was a mistake be­cause it failed, morally and intel­lect­ually, to under­stand human nature it­self. This is the case even in Solzhenitsyn’s exist­en­tialist account.

According to the libertarian mainstream account, humans are not coll­ectivist beings who value equal­ity over all—so the argu­ment goes—they are freedom-loving individuals, who need to find their own paths in life in order to find meaning and dignity. As such they must be allowed to com­pete on free markets, serving them­selves first—in fair exchanges with one another, where goods and respect are earned by hard work and good char­acter. They must reap the rewards of ind­ividual action, of innovation, of reason­able and free competition. In this view, the closer you come to a libertarian capitalist standpoint, the farther away you are from Gulag and the secret police knocking on your door.

But concealed beneath the nice-sound­ing libertarian creeds of a “free­dom-loving indiv­idual”, is also a somewhat darker assu­m­ption: that peo­ple are most often rather selfish, and, the reasoning goes, if you try to cre­ate a society in which this truth is not honored, it will backfire seri­ously—be­cause it can ultimately only be built on self-deceit. Instead, the argu­ment goes on, we should build a soc­iety in which people can work for their en­lightened self-interest, which will generally produce more sustain­able rela­tions, more productive behaviors, and a greater abun­dance of goods and ser­vices on the markets (both quality and quan­tity).

As in Adam Smi­th’s classical 1776 notion of “the invi­sible hand”, this arg­­u­ment marries a belief in freedom to a meas­ure of con­servatism; a sober and real­istic look at peo­ple’s moral qualities and real behaviors. It’s true that Smith warned about the corrosive effects of repetitive factory work, but his analysis stopped there. If we let people work self­ishly under controlled cir­cum­stances (policing, rule of law, private property, consu­mer rights, etc.), then they will, on average and over time, do some­thing that is coll­ect­ively good.

Hmm, okay boomer. There may be some truth to these received wisdoms of our day and age. But upon closer inspection, such an appeal to “human nature” and her inn­ate individuality is of course a rom­antic reciting of beliefs rather than a behavioral-scientific explanation. They just make vague assum­p­tions about “human nature” and engineer morally weighted conclusions from there. This mainstream account of why communism failed has pretty weak explanatory power.

But aren’t there yet more general and structural causes for the spect­a­cular failures of communism? I’m glad you asked, because indeed there are.

“The non-moralistic point is important here […] sustainable, fair and dynamic societies are not created by the purity of your soul and its habits of self-flattery.”

A Jammed Information Feedback System

If we’d like to take it one step farther towards a more solid critique, we can look at the issue from the perspective of society’s information pro­cessing.

From this perspective, we can see that economic central planning is often a bad idea. The demand for goods and services is extremely difficult to predict on a large scale, so it is more intelligent to let many different agents make all the small decis­ions, “as if their busin­esses depended upon it”, rather than letting the gov­ernment make a five-year plan and be done with it. Simply because these many agents, working with varying time­frames and perspectives, can pro­cess much more infor­mation, they can make more calibrated, sustain­able and inno­­vative decisions.

Once you have committed to a five-year plan, there is bound to be any number of errors: shortages and unwanted surpluses. People will have enor­mous incen­tives to trade with one another, to remedy the short­ages and do away with the surpluses—hence de facto reopening a free market, a rather innocent version of the “black market”. But for the socialist plan­ning to work, large parts of such free trade need to be illegal.

If there are such strong incentives for doing something that is illegal, the legal system must be stretched out to deal with a lot of people and sit­uations. And for a legal system to realistically do that, it has to perform a lot of quick trials (or go after the “kulak” farmers who insist on producing their own goods). Hence the quality of the rule of law decreases, hence people stop respecting the system altogether, hence corruption becomes ramp­ant—in exactly the kind of system that depends upon the goodwill, mutual trust and soli­darity among citizens.

I am simplifying to a semi-violent extent, but please bear with me; we are looking at some of the basic principles.

And from there on, the legal system spirals out of control and begins punishing people very severely and rather arbit­rarily, and from there on the incentives for everyone are to be very careful and suspicious and to collect as much political power as possible. And the way to do that is by spying on others, and informing, so that you have more information, more juicy thr­eats to make, and more favors to call. All of these things become more impor­tant for your survival (and prosperity) than being an efficient office clerk or entre­preneur. Gain power, don’t rock the boat.

And from there on, the incentive of the political leadership becomes to hide some of the bad stuff that’s going on, because you need the legiti­macy of the system in order to legitimize your power, your power being the only protection from being swallowed as the revolution begins to eat its own children in a spying-reporting slugfest. So you need to control the press and other media, which means people get even less reliable inform­ation to make decisions and regulate their behaviors correctly—which messes up decision making even more, across the board. And people thus fail to coordinate their actions at a large scale and over longer stretches of time, which means more shortages and errors; which means more incen­tives for corrup­tion.

And in order to defend the false positive image conjured up by the con­trolled media that people no longer trust, you have to make parades and celebrations and fake display villages—lots of them—so that people will bel­ieve that things are alright and keep up the enthusiasm. And peo­ple will need to show up and be enthused at such occasions in order not to seem suspect, which in turn makes them start to genuinely insist they live in a fantastic society since the least convinced ones will be view­ed as most suspect. It is a kind of Stockholm syndrome, by which hostages begin to love and admire their captors.

This is classical cognitive dissonance: People will genuinely believe things are awesome because it’s too dangerous not to. And this again mess­es up any hope of self-corrective feedback cycles. As the hist­orian Anne Apple­baum and many other for­eign travelers in the Soviet Union noted, Sov­iet citizens would often—ami­dst obvious drud­ge­ries—empha­tically insist that theirs was a superb soc­iety. Gulag survivor Solzhenitsyn descr­ibed in his books how people would come to the labor camps and insist upon keeping their beliefs in the benevolence of the Soviet Union, even as they were being beaten, starved and degraded.

The social dyn­amics of religious cults come to mind here. It is as though the comm­unist pro­ject, by its inherent dynamics, drew people into a nation­wide cult: a dyn­amic followed even down to gory details like “cult of per­sonality” and the cult-like, or at least extremely sectarian, organi­zation of Trot­skyist org­anizations arou­nd the world.

And indeed, what would a society run by, let’s say, the Scientologists look like? We may have an example in present-day North Korea; a surviv­ing spawn of the Soviet Union. The similarities between Scientology and North Korea are strik­ing, even down to the level of com­portments and de­mean­ors displayed by those who harass deviants from the dogma.

However, once the spell is broken and society collapses, traumas surface and abound. Today’s happ­iness research lays its verdict: Post-communist soc­ieties are the least hap­py (relative to their levels of econo­mic pros­perity), and the longer a coun­try stayed under communist rule, the less happy the pop­ula­tion.

Other measures also suffer a special “communist penalty”: lower inter­personal trust, loneliness, cor­r­­uption and poor public health lingering on for dec­ades. In terms of cultural and political prog­ressivity, these soc­ieties also relapse dra­m­at­ically: Poland turns to tradition and Catholicism, East Ger­many gene­rates more than its fair share of neo-nazis, Russia becomes chauv­inist (and born-again Orthodox) and forgets its former communist cosmo­politanism and dreamy gaze at space colonization, China’s new open­ness is only skin deep, still being pro­foundly author­itarian and nation­alist—and North Korea becomes a down­right patriarch­al, racist caste syst­em on sur­veill­ance steroids, literally worse than any­thing George Or­well could have dreamt up.

Phew. Where were we? So communism is bad, which has to do with a vicious spiral that grows from an inefficient way of organizing the mar­ket, a case of jammed real-time information processing—rather than any rom­antic notion of a violated “human freedom” or vague general spe­c­ul­ations about the nature of humanity. The violations of human rights flow from this jamming of the information system, from a chronic failure to successfully coor­dinate human behavior in the millions.

The non-moralistic point is important here—and obvious, in a way. We all have a tendency of casting our beliefs about humanity and society in moral terms. And we tend to flatter ourselves: If only people “realize” that our own beliefs are the correct ones, if they could only bring them­selves to see the true beauty of what we see, then life would be so much better. But sustainable, fair and dynamic societies are not created by the purity of your soul and its habits of self-flattery. Good societies are created by a) corr­ect analysis, b) smooth inform­ation pro­cessing for the coordina­tion of human agency, c) the dynamic bal­an­­cing of differ­ent powers—and d) the dialectical conflict and mutual interdepen­dence bet­ween diff­erent political interests and ideas.

These features of a good society can be brought about more or less deli­berately; they emer­­­ge either as the result of planned act­ions, or throu­gh blind processes that occur beyond our understandings (but for which we often like to snatch the credit)—and most often as a strange dance be­tween these two: the deliberate and the stumbled-upon.

There was really nothing morally “lower” about the communist experi­ment, compared to the ideas of the American Revolution, (or the French Revolution for that matter). If you look at the “foun­ding fathers”, Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, even got one of them pre­g­nant, and Benjamin Frank­lin fabricated juicy lies about British atro­ci­ties—writing in the pa­pers under several false names and claiming to have witnessed colorful barb­aric acts committed by Indians, pur­portedly orchestrated by the British, in effect relying on racism. Most of the Declar­ation of Indep­endence is not about human rights and equality, but is raging against the cri­mes of the British “tyrant”. After all, this was the writing of fiery revo­lu­tionaries, not human rights activists.

These guys weren’t necess­arily any “nicer” than Lenin and Trotsky; and certainly not nicer than people like Emma Gold­man or Rosa Luxemburg. They just happened to be on the beat with some ideas and societal devel­op­ments that turned out to be highly competitive, hence leading to relati­vely sus­tainable societal structures. The American ideas of 1776 were sim­ply better aligned with the long-term attractors than the Russian ones in 1917.

“the meta-ideology of modernity turned out to be not communism […] not fas­cism, not the night watchman liber­tarian mini­malist state, not anar­chist communes, not even social demo­cracy (nice try, thou­gh)—but Green Social Liberalism.

Marx Had the Wrong Meta-Ideology

Both vers­ions of modern­ity, capitalism and communism, brought great good and great evil. Communism enriches and modernizes society, and it kills lots of people. So does capitalism. But one version still turned out to be preferable to the other and thus won out: capitalism allied with a multi-party system.

A lot of the weaknesses of the purportedly Marxian societies can be ex­plained by the fact that there weren’t several parties (with minor excep­tions, such as the con­tem­porary Chinese tolerance of small oppos­ition parties). This is a major diff­er­ence to liberal democracy. Even in dis­orderly and corrupt Italy, one gov­ernment can always be exchanged for another. This guarantees rudimentary acc­ount­ability.

So why were the comm­unist societies one-party systems? Bec­ause the Marxists believed only they embodied the meta-ideology; that they embod­ied the actual, deep structures of how societies evolve and operate. As such you can legitimize the self-organization of society as a whole: The meta-ideo­logy is not any one position within soc­iety, but it con­stitutes over­arching ideas about the fabric of society itself. So Marxism does not compete with liberalism, but with liberal parliamentary demo­cracy itself. It is not just an ideology, but an attempt at a meta-ideology—like liberal democracy. If communism reaches a certain level of influence, it thus wipes out all competing parties.

If Marxism is a meta-ideology, it makes sense to organize society as a whole within the frame­work of what is anal­ytically true either way to the comm­unist mind. As such, communism was prone to be built on top of formerly autocratic, pre-democratic societies, where it could simply super­sede the earlier form of governance, inheriting the strong state institutions that were not balanced by a strong parliament and division of powers.

But this is not unique to communism. When the Am­er­ican Revol­ution took hold, the elites of the early days also worked to keep a one-party syst­em. This however broke down during the early 19th cen­tury when the vote was extended to non-elite groups and there was a rise of populist politics under President Andrew Jackson, with an electoral base in the southern states. All meta-ideologies set the frame­work for soc­iety as a whole, for its very definition of what society is.

Stop for a second to consider the words “holistic” and “totalita­rian”. They are, in effect, the same word. When you have a theory about the whole of soc­iety, it makes sense to relate to it in a way that tries to grasp, and change, the whole of it. To relate to the “whole”, we must relate to the “totality”, even try to steer and navigate it. A challenge presents itself: How can we be hol­istic without falling into the traps of 20th century totali­tarianism?

In truth, of course, the meta-ideology of modernity turned out to be not communism but rather what I have called Green Social Liberalism, the attractor point modern societies gravitate towards. Not comm­un­­ism, not fas­cism, not the night watchman liber­tarian mini­malist state, not anar­chist communes, not even social demo­cracy (nice try, thou­gh)—but Green Social Liberalism.

The more modernized a society becomes, the more clearly it manifests Green Social Liberalism, something the Nordic countries have become prime examples of as I have written about in The Listening Society. In countries like Swe­den, all parties in effect start to become one version or another of “green social-liberals”.

Much can be said in the analytical (and moral) defense of Marx, but after all, he did not claim that a huge middle class would grow up through the dynamic inter­relation between private enterprise and public welfare, or that these populations would increasingly adopt individualism and cos­mo­politanism, identity politics (gender, ethn­icity, sexuality, youth sub­cult­ures) and eco­logical awareness as the ecological limitations of soc­iety’s grow­th be­came apparent. That’s just not what he wrote, I’m sorry.

Marx tried to identify the meta-ideology, to formulate it clearly, so that people could create political movements around it or otherwise navigate the world with its help. He made some important contributions, but he got some of the funda­mental dynamics wrong. Analytical—not moral—mis­takes that nevertheless cost many mill­ions of lives. Oops.

But still, the very fact that communism was an attempt at a meta-ideo­logy, and that Marx got some important dynamics right (that capitalism is crisis-prone, for example), gave the organization of “The Communist Par­ty” some nearly tran­­­scen­dental qualities in the eyes of its followers; attrac­ting large parts of the 20th century intell­ectuals, apparent per­haps in Fran­ce especially. The party was seen not only as “a party” with some “opin­ions”, but, not unlike the American creed, a kind of manifest dest­iny, of history’s dial­ectics made flesh. That’s of course also what made it so danger­ously seductive, so blinding.

What we tend to forget, however, is that our current political status quo was created by a similar kind of meta-ideology; that of liberal democracy and the Enlightenment. Its structures were brought about by abrupt turns, and the carefully engineered ideas of leading thinkers were instituted under political struggles for mono­polies of violence (like Mont­esquieu, but there were of course many others). A jerky ride of revolution, counter-revolution, conservation and reformation produced the current meta-ideology and its supremacy.

Why then am I saying all this? I want to draw your attention to the fact that communism failed to change the games of everyday life, but other meta-ideologies have been successful in doing so, and future meta-ideologies can do the same.

The conclusion, then, is not to avoid all holistic visions of society, to avoid all meta-ideologies, but to make damn certain you get them right from the beginning.

Again, so if Marx ended up non-linearly killing a hundred million—how many did Mont­es­quieu save? How many instances of torture has he pre­vented? It’s a fair question.

“…the relative failure of the communist experi­ments does not per­manently discredit all attempts to change the games of every­day life, to evolve the dynamics by which we live, love, trade, compete and coop­erate. If anything, the victory of liberal demo­cracy, and its grav­itation towards Green Social Liberalism, shows us that such dev­elopments are in­deed poss­ible.”

Communism Is “Game Denial”

The cen­tral issue of communism’s failure was not that of some eternal, God-given “essence of human­ity” be­ing viol­ated, but something far more mundane: that the games of every­­­­­day life were misunderstood and/or denied.

This led to a serious glitch in the self-organization of society, which—over a period of decades—led to a painful form of social disintegration and resulting opp­ression. Amidst all their atrocities, communist societies were rel­ati­vely functional for a while, but their social sustainability was limited—much more so than lib­eral democracy with capitalism and welfare (the sustain­ability of which is, of course, also limited in time, as all things under the sun). And so they lasted for shorter periods of time.

From this viewpoint, two conclusions become appar­ent. The first one is, again, that the relative failure of the communist experi­ments does not per­manently discredit all attempts to change the games of every­day life, to evolve the dynamics by which we live, love, trade, compete and coop­erate. If anything, the victory of liberal demo­cracy, and its grav­itation towards Green Social Liberalism, shows us that such dev­elopments are in­deed poss­ible.

Rather, the failure of communism serves to underscore that you must make correct assessments of people’s behaviors—in these particu­lar times and places in history—in order to create a sustainable social order. If you make un­realistic assessments about how people function, you set in mo­tion vicious cycles that lead to truly terrible results. But on the other hand, if you fail to understand what attractors lie ahead, you stall hist­orical progress, taking the losing side in history, which in the long run causes even more abrupt chan­ges and catastrophic outcomes—for inst­ance, that we might have global ecological catastrophes.

The second conclusion is that “game change” already has occurred throughout history, and that it is a measure of society’s progress: If, and only if, the games of everyday life become fairer and more forgiving, can “progress” be said to have materialized.

So this leaves us with the under­standing that the rules of the game—in markets, in work life, in governance, in family life, in love and sex and friendship—can and will change and develop. The question is only how, when, and under the auspices of which meta-ideol­ogy.

The basic idea is that the meta-ideology of liberal capitalism is becom­ing less viable in the global­izing information age and that we should look for a new one: My sugg­estion for which is political meta­modernism, a.k.a. the Nordic ideology, leading us towards a listening society and a Green Social Liberalism 2.0—through the method of “co-development”.

The Marxist critique and the failure of communism serve as fruitful starting points for seeing how a metamodern society can evolve from the modern one.

But to be very clear: the Nordic ideology and its metamodern politics is not communism. It’s much smarter than that.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.


[i]. Trotsky, L., 1925/2005. Literature and Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books. p 207.

[ii]. Kołakowski, L., 1976/2008. Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders—The Gold­en Age—The Breakdown. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.