LONDON — It’s 10 years this month since the failed Communist coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev marked the effective end of the old Soviet Union. The predictable rash of articles lamenting its loss has started showing up on editorial pages, written mostly by the usual suspects. How awful it is there now. Maybe the standard of living in the “motherland of socialism” was low, but at least it was reliable. Russian democracy is a sham, and its capitalism only serves the rich. So it’s time to say it again: the Soviet Union deserved to die.
It deserved to die even though it put the first man into space, guaranteed all of its citizens enough to eat (albeit often only sausages and cabbage) and kept the worst kinds of thuggery under control (more or less) by recruiting the biggest bullies into the party. The miseries that have followed the Soviet Union’s fall have more to do with the nature of the old Communist system than with the nature of market capitalism.
There are as many excuses for communist regimes as there are naive outsiders who want to believe in heaven on earth and cynical insiders who want to hang on to power. A prize example was Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s warning to journalists from the New York Times: “Should China apply the parliamentary democracy of the Western world, the only result will be that 1.2 billion Chinese people will not have enough food to eat. The result will be great chaos, and should that happen, it will not be conducive to world peace and stability.”
Why can’t China be a democracy? Maybe China’s problem is sheer diversity, although India, with a billion people and 14 official languages, has been a democracy for over half a century. Average Indian incomes are below China’s and the gulf between the rich and the poor in India is even wider, but current trends are closing both those gaps. And while India can be a pretty rough place if you’re poor, it has not murdered tens of millions of its own people.
So are the Chinese just so disorganized that they cannot cope with democracy? Of course not. Jiang is simply protecting his own position and that of his fellow Communist bosses by claiming that ordinary Chinese cannot do without them. Oligarchs always talk like that.
Come back to the case of the old Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s aim back in the 1980s was to “reform” Communism in the direction of democracy and fix the economy without destroying the party’s “leading role” in society. In other words, he wanted to turn a fish into a bird and teach it to ride a bicycle — underwater. It couldn’t be done, because the old Soviet system was fundamentally based on force, lies and lawlessness.
What was necessary for democracy, or even for long-term economic growth, was the destruction of the entire communist system. The subsequent decade has been hard on most citizens of ex-communist countries, but that does not mean the change was a bad idea. It just means that after a lifetime of dealing with a brutal and corrupt system, people’s attitudes and habits were not well fitted for dealing with the problems and choices that democracy and a market economy brought them.
It won’t be easy for China to democratize either. Twenty years of market-oriented reforms may have given ordinary Chinese people a better grasp of how free economies work than the Russians had 10 years ago, but there are huge upheavals and great pain ahead as the hundreds of millions who still live in the old command economy are forced into the market one. Moreover, most Chinese are as unfamiliar with the ethics and norms of democracy as Russians were in 1985, before the Gorbachev reforms began.
So it will be a hard transition for China too, but it will come. When a communist party starts seeking capitalist entrepreneurs as members (Jiang’s main ideological innovation), you can safely say that its beneficiaries won’t let it lie down. The notion that some cultures are naturally better at democracy than others is a temporal fallacy. But Jiang can’t admit that, any more than he can admit that the whole half century of Communist rule in China was a horrible waste of time, money and lives, just like the Soviet “experiment.” But then, Mikhail Gorbachev can’t bring himself to admit that even 10 years after the fall of Communism in Russia.