By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong –
Few people would profess to be communists today. As everyone knows, communism brutalized and impoverished nations; perhaps even more importantly as no one likes to fail, it failed. Yet, we would do well to remember that the idea once attracted some of the best and the brightest, both in the East and the West. For example, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby, both highly intelligent and capable members of the British aristocracy, took up communism at Cambridge and willingly spied for the Soviet Union over several decades.
Communism includes many strands of ideas, and out of these, three may be singled out for attention:
1. The element of Marxist Political Economy: Marx hypothesized that the political processes of a society are determined by its underlying economic processes. Technological developments produce changes in the economic structure, and consequently lead to changes in the political and social structures. History is therefore driven by technology and economics.
2. The element of Marxist Social Utopia: Marx forecast that in due course, the proletariat would rise up to implement a new social structure in which the private ownership of capital would be abolished, and eventually there will be a utopian society of plenty in which everyone will, without coercion, work to his best abilities and take only according his needs. Marx was vague about how to achieve this however, and his own organizational efforts were failures.
3. The element of Leninist Party Organization: It was Lenin who invented the practical organizational tactics that allowed a group of Marxists to successfully take over a nation. In this scheme, a tightly knit and highly disciplined party structure is first established, to which members are required to devote their total loyalty – personal loyalties and loyalties to common humanity are not only secondary, but indeed suspect and dangerous. The party organization is superimposed onto the government bureaucracy, military command, legislative bodies, trade unions and other community organizations, so that those in control of the party achieve control of all aspects of society.
Because the party controls the economy, it can then claim to have abolished private ownership of capital and therefore begun to implement a communist society; and because the party controls the important elements of the whole society, it can indeed make an attempt to change all aspects of the society towards its version of utopia. We thus have the curious phenomenon that academic theory and utopian idealism have, in time and with excellent logic, led to totalitarianism.
With both ideological inspiration and organizational techniques, communist parties triumphed, however briefly, in Russia the largest country in the world, and China the most populous, despite the backward development of capitalism in these countries and their weak working classes, while failing to make headway in the more mature capitalist economies that are supposedly more ready to move to the next stage.
The cases of Russia and China demonstrate that, for the purpose of achieving power, the political economy of communism is less important than its organizational technique. If you do the second well, you can succeed despite the low applicability of the first. For over half a century Communism was the favoured ideology of all revolutionary leaders, most of them of middleclass rather than proletariat background, because it provided a ready-made set of propaganda and organizational tools.
So why did it fail? The communist utopia envisaged a society of selfless individuals, who do not own and do not desire private property, and who, without coercion, would work to their best abilities and take only enough to satisfy their needs. The concept of economic incentive is eliminated. The consequence was that, with the suppression of market forces and individual initiatives that encourage the production of food and consumer goods, the old Russia and old China found themselves unable to deliver material wealth to its populace, and hence, unable to provide adequate rewards to enforce conformity.
However, communism might die but Leninism lives on. The ideological buzzwords change, and photos of Yeltsin and Putin replace those of Gorbachev, but the same machinery of control can remain in operation. A Leninist control structure can be imposed on a capitalist society that fully accommodates market forces and individual economic initiatives: you can still build up a network of trusted individuals and place them in the key positions of all major organizations. It simply takes a higher and more refined level of knowledge and skill to carry this out, instead of the crude and brutal methods used by the communists.
In most east asian countries, personal connections play a very important role in all social activities including politics; while formal party structures put forward a public face, the real decisions are often made through behind-the-scene manoeuvres. For example, while a committee is supposed to make collective decisions taking into consideration the views of all members, it is common for everyone to know who is the most important member (not always the chairman), and shape their views according to their guess of what he/she wants so that they end up with a one-person "collective decision".
In such behind-the-scene decision making, personal connections make it much easier to reach consensus, both because of frequency of contact in social settings and the existence of a level of trust, making more frank exchanges possible.
Personal connections arise in many ways, but family relatives, school classmates, national service team members, and past work or business associates are most likely to develop long lasting connections that will operate across different settings including politics. The top echelon of a society can over time build up a very large network of trust through direct and indirect personal connections radiating out from the inner core, and place trusted people in all spheres of the society in much the same way as the Leninist party system. Such a structure may be loosely described as Confucian.
Confucian political philosophy hypothesizes that if leaders exercise moderation and follow procedures, they will be able to make decisions that compromise among various conflicting needs; by setting good examples of behaviour, they earn the respect of their subjects, who will generally behave themselves without constant resort to coercion and punishment. This is rather idealistic, and is criticized and ridiculed by the Legalist school, which believes in governing by specifying rules regulating all the significant activities of a society, and the use of generous rewards and severe penalties to keep people performing well and observing rules.
However, the main problem of the Legalist system is the tendency for rewards and punishments to escalate: if officials making mistakes are severely punished and also stand to lose their rewards, then office holding is a risky proposition, so that only ever more generous rewards can attract people to come on board; further, people who make minor mistakes would try to cover up and avoid the severe punishment, thus committing additional infractions that ultimately lead to even more severe penalties. When China was unified for the first time by Qin Dynasty adopting such a philosophy, its rule very quickly crashed under the weight of of its own harshness. The softer compromise system devised by the Han rulers brought back many of the ideas of Confucius, adding to it a layer of Taoist soft talk, resulting in a political amalgam that managed to hold sway in China for over two millennia until the arrival of western capitalism.
Today's governments need to deal with complex economic issues, and it is a common experience that when a very large part of the economy is under government control, bloated bureaucracy, rampant corruption and gross inefficiency result. However, a computerized society makes it possible to implement a neo-Legalist system: Get a group of people you trust and give them a simple set of rules that cover all situations; however sophisticated and complex the situations might be, and whatever expertise that might be involved, one can always codify the knowledge into a set of rules that even relatively junior officials can apply, with just occasional high level reviews to modify rules to cover new situations and remedy shortcomings.
So the system is, like Mencius's prescription of "those working with their minds rule; those working with their bodies are ruled", made up of those who write the rule book and those who follow it. Such a scheme produces many benefits. The management system is simple, room for corruption is limited, and most of the work can be done by persons with just some limited training: check that conditions X, Y and Z are met, and grant the request. At various levels, the operational structures shuffle papers, move money and grant approvals in simple steps, allowing the country as a whole to tick along.
It is also relatively easy to assess the performance of the officials: the good officials know how to collect the wanted information for a case quickly to allow the relevant rules to be looked up, provide clear and courteous replies and explanations to petitioners, and give superiors the right amount of feedback so that they know what is going on without getting distracted with details.
But to move up, an official need to be more than just a good paper shuffler; he need to demonstrate capabilities and potential for the higher levels. So in addition to the operational networks, one also needs to be plugged into a network of trust: to have the chance to show oneself before higher officials and demonstrate capabilities, receive unofficial information useful for one's work, and to provide informal feedback. Such networks are important everywhere, but particularly so in a society with wide spans of public control over the economy.
To paraphrase a familiar saying,
"old ideas never die; they just stay behind another way".
Leninism, Confucianism and Legalism are staying with us and we have to embrace them, though not necessarily with affection.
Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.