Today we’re taking a look at the final chapters of the Cold War and Communism’s inevitable downfall across Eastern Europe. Despite the largest military alliance in human history and the ever-present threat of nuclear war, in the end, it was not opposing force of arms or nuclear annihilation that defeated the Soviet Union and its allies…so what was it exactly?
First, it’s worth mentioning that Communism and Stalinism, or Stalin’s version of Communism, are not one and the same. In fact, practically no nation on Earth every actually achieved the true ideals of Communism, falling far short and often falling into despotism or fascism. So what exactly is Communism, how is it different from Stalinism, and where did it come from?
Communism’s roots lie in the minds of two German political philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels grew up in the heyday of imperialist Europe, with the great powers jostling for world domination and sparking proxy wars across their vast colonial empires. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing at that time, and workers flocked to the cities to work in factories and industrial plants.
The Industrial Revolution and its many technological advances exponentially increased a worker’s productivity, but as Marx and Engels noted, the worker himself received little of this extra benefit. Though a worker was now ten to twenty times more productive, his wages did not reflect this increase, meaning that the only profiteer of his greatly increased productivity was the factory owner. Marx and Engels saw this deepening economic divide as fundamentally unjust and tyrannical, and in 1848 wrote The Communist Manifesto.
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels proclaimed that the history of mankind was a history of class struggles, outlining how every civilization has existed with an oppressed working majority exploited by the oppressive, wealthy minority. This state of affairs, they said, would inevitably lead to a worker’s revolution as the proletariat, or working class, would eventually realize their own potential and seize the means of production for themselves from the bourgeoisie, or wealthy elite. The Manifesto would go on to lay down the rules of an ideal society, from the abolition of child labour, to free public education, nationalization of credit and banking systems, and a progressive income tax. Thus were the roots of Communism born.
Ultimately the goal of a Communist society is one in which the means of production are equally shared by all. While some extremists would call for complete wealth redistribution, Marx and Engels’ original vision was one where Communism created a classless, wealth-less society, and everyone has equal opportunity to access credit, education, or the physical resources required to prosper.
Though often compared to Socialism, Communism as envisioned by Marx and Engels is an evolution of Socialism, with Socialism itself merely a step in the direction of Communism. By fully automating industry, Karl Marx envisioned a future utopia where everyone was liberated from the actual necessity of “earning a living”, and thus individuals measured their wealth not by money or material possessions, but by the amount of free time they have to pursue their passions.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels would lay out very lofty ideals for their Communist utopia, and though they would fade from popularity for nearly a quarter of a century, their ideas would be resurrected in the late 1800s, where they would help plant the seeds of revolution in the Russian people. Suffering under the yoke of an oppressive and exploitative Tsarist regime, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks would seize power in 1917 and begin to lay the groundwork down for a Marxist government.
But suffering a series of strokes, Lenin would die just a few years later, leaving a power vacuum in Russia with two sides vying for supremacy: Leon Trotsky, close confidant of Lenin and sworn enemy of Joseph Stalin, whom he warned publicly would destroy Lenin’s vision of a truly Communist Russia. Unfortunately for the young Soviet Union, it would be Stalin who would rise to power and Trotsky would see himself removed from post after post until finally being ousted from the Communist Party and exiled from the Soviet Union.
With Joseph Stalin’s rise, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin’s hopes for a truly Communist utopia would die, and the western world would forever reject the idea of Communism as a valid political theory. Rather than reducing government and working towards nearly complete non-governance, Joseph Stalin would instead expand the reach of government as he completely federalized most of the Soviet Union’s industries.
Where Marx and Lenin had envisioned a worker’s utopia that prioritized civil liberties and an open, transparent government, Stalin instead created a society where civil liberties were stripped away while the population was aggressively monitored by secret police for dissent. By creating an oppressive regime, Stalin guaranteed from the day he rose to power that Communism would ultimately fail.
So why did Communism fail exactly? It’s almost impossible to narrow down to any number of specific reasons as the story of the Cold War is one fraught with political nuance, but there were running trends across the entire Soviet Bloc that ensured its downfall.
One of the biggest flaws in Stalinist Communism was the focus on productivity and efficiency. With the dawning of the computer age, technological progress began to increase exponentially, but rather than attempt to innovate, the Soviet Union and its allies instead practiced a doctrine of ‘tried and true’, attempting to make the processes of yesterday as efficient as possible.
Innovation is born of risk, but risk affects production quotas and that was, in Stalin’s Soviet-Bloc, an unacceptable outcome. While many breakthrough technologies that define our modern age actually had their roots in the Soviet Union, such as the laser, Soviet scientists did not know how to properly market new technologies and lacked the open, competitive market system that breeds the innovators and visionaries of a capitalist society.
But such inward focus extended past just efficiency and production quotas- in response to an antagonistic West, the Soviet Union and allies chose to turn their focus inwards and ignore a changing world. This myopic focus on the self attempted to shut the world away, but just past the Soviet-Bloc’s borders the world was changing, quickly, and Eastern Europeans began to yearn for that change themselves.
With freedom of expression severely curtailed, and art discouraged or forced to be approved by committees who judged art’s merits solely on if it served the state’s goals or not, Eastern Europeans were yearning for the rights and social revolutions they saw happening across the Western world. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, many Soviet-Bloc citizens watched on illegal broadcasts or recordings and found more in common than not.
With Eastern Europeans yearning for the right to expression, Stalinist economic policies would inevitably hasten the coming revolutions. Though Stalin was a student of Lenin and Marx, he failed to understand what both men knew already- true Communism was an act of ongoing evolution that would require decades if not centuries of slow, steady change. When Stalin attempted to implement Communism’s fundamental tenet of worker equality, he would completely ignore what Lenin and Marx understood about worker equality.
In Stalin’s eyes, Communism meant that a neurosurgeon and a factory worker should be paid the same wage as equals- and while this is technically true about Communism, what Stalin did not understand was that in Lenin/Marxist Communism, the workers would be equal because they would be liberated from the necessity of earning a living through automation of industry, and thus would be equally free to pursue neurosurgery or work at a factory if that is what either man’s passions were. But Stalin either missed or ignored this crucial step, and by equalizing wages, Stalin ensured that the Soviet Union and allies would exasperate a lack of innovation and ferment dissent amongst the people who would be denied any opportunity at advancing past their lot in life.
Eventually the world’s greatest social experiment would fail and the Communist order around the world would fall. Only nations such as China who practice Communism more in name than actual spirit would continue past the collapse of the Soviet Union. Haunted by a myopic isolationist view of the world, fermenting growing dissent by oppression, and refusing to innovate, Stalinist Communism was doomed from the moment it began, but as some historians have remarked, the inevitable end of the Cold War could already be seen when the first American Pepsi went on sale at Red Square in 1973.
So, what do you think about Stalin’s implementation of Communism? With the dawning of artificial intelligence and smart robotics, is Karl Marx’s and Frederick Engels’ vision of society, freed from the necessity of earning a living by automating industry, finally achievable? If so, would a society where art and education are prioritized and individuals are free to pursue their passions truly be a utopia? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called Russia vs the United States! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!