“Is there a greater tragedy imaginable than that, in our endeavor consciously to shape our future in accordance with high ideals, we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving.”- F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom
An examination of Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s ideas can be seen as an examination of Communism itself since it was Lenin’s paradigm that was adopted by most Communist revolutions around the world. The failure of Communism as an ideology is thus the failure of Lenin’s ideas, for it instituted regimes that inherently worked for the detriment of their subjects. By analyzing Lenin’s ideas in relation to the theories of F.A. Hayek, we find that their chief failures arose from the implementation of the one-party state and the institution of centralized planning.
In his works, including the book What Is To Be Done, Lenin outlines his vision for a revolutionary organization that would be able to instigate a revolution and eventually introduce a Communist utopia. This organization would consist of paid revolutionaries that would work to educate the working classes about Communist ideology, inculcate class consciousness in them, and thereby catalyze a revolution against the Bourgeoisie-dominated system. Lenin based the Bolshevik party on these ideas and so did countless others with their own movements. Although this paradigm proved to be successful in bringing Lenin and other to power, it failed as a genuine expression of proletariat will. In fact, the people of Russia remained blandly oblivious while the Bolsheviks took power through a coup. The October Revolution was no act of rousing defiance by the working classes. It was, on the contrary, a well-executed grab for power much less legitimate than the uprising that brought the Provisional Government into power. Thus, even Lenin’s ideas for instigating revolt were never realized in their undiluted form and what little was implemented turned out to be a subordination of the people’s will than an expression of it.
The two main failings of Leninist ideas were in the political and social areas- that is, they perpetuated one-party rule and central planning. The one-party system was instituted in all the Communist countries such as Cambodia, China and Yugoslavia. In Lenin’s opinion, the state is an expression of the inherent attrition between the classes and is used to oppress the Proletariat. His eventual aim was to eliminate it, but not without supplanting it with a new structure for the creation of a new democratic society. He realized that the state possessed immense power, which could be channeled to shape society and mould human nature. His vision of this state was that of a single-party rule, which would be the Bolshevik (later Communist) party in Russia’s case. However, the very existence of this single-party rule meant that the Communist state was susceptible to the same pitfalls that face any kind of single-party rule. As a result, the Communist states would work in detriment of their intended purpose and lead to the discredit and fall of Communism. In order to illustrate this, the advantaged of pluralistic democracy and the cons of single-party rule must be mentioned.
The problem of single-party regimes comes primarily from the people who lead them. These leaders find themselves in positions of enormous power and are able to impose their will on the people in the name of the greater good. Often, they have unquestioned authority and thus lose all accountability for their actions. A good example of this would be Mao in China, who initiated the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward without thinking about the disastrous consequences they could have. Even after the magnitude of these blunders had been felt, Mao did not lose power since he had great authority. The states of Lenin’s makings were lorded over in great part by absolute leaders like Stalin, Pol Pot and Lenin himself. They were greatly convinced that their ideas were ultimately beneficial for the people and felt no hesitation in implementing them. Khrushchev felt free to introduce corn production on a massive scale, without paying much heed to its agricultural viability. Pol Pot butchered the educated elite in his country without feeling remorse for the massive loss of life and human dignity. Actions such as these were consequences of the lack of accountability in single-party states. This came about since there was no viable opposition to these leaders. The upper echelons of the ruling parties consisted of sycophants of these leaders who would act in their own interest and support whatever hair-brained measure that were carried out. People act in self interest and in a single-party state it is not in anyone’s interest to vocalize the aspirations and maladies on the people- on the contrary, the rational and selfish thing to do is to identify as closely with the ruling regime as possible to rise up on the ladder of power. The leaders themselves often become absolutely corrupted, as in the case of Kim Il Sung of North Korea and Ceaucescu of Romania, and feel free to completely subvert the system to their own immediate needs.
Multi-party democracy offers several advantages that single-party Communism doesn’t afford. The most important element is the constant dialogue between various groups that leads to a balanced policy by the state, mainly for the benefit of the people. As F.A. Hayek puts it, “The conception that government should be guided by majority opinion makes sense only if that opinion is independent of government. The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed.” In single-party rule, it is often very hard for these groups to have a say in decision-making and they are even actively silenced from an organization that thinks it knows what is best. An example of this would be the silencing of the Workers’ Opposition in Russia. The group was a genuine voice of the Bolsheviks’ central base- the industrial workers- and yet it was crushed by the party leaders. This, in effect, curtails all dialogue between the leaders and the people to an extent that the leaders lose all touch with grassroots problems. This is perhaps why Communist leaders are so susceptible to grandiose plans that are so far detached from reality that they fail on a huge scale and bring down millions of people with them. The other benefit of multi-party democracy is that the people are able to choose their leaders. In a single-party system, on the other hand, the ruling elite consists of people who managed to work the system best in their favor and who might not have any base among the people. Such people bear no obligation to the people and are amenable to acting without the interest of their countries in mind. It is indeed a very dangerous undertaking to lay power of societal decisions in the hands of those that stand to lose the least by it.
Hayek, wrote in his book, The Road To Serfdom, about the detriments of central planning. In his opinion, centrally-planned economies lead to the subjugation of people’s freedoms and to repressive regimes that act against the welfare of the people- “The effect of the people's agreeing that there must be central planning, without agreeing on the ends, will be rather as if a group of people were to commit themselves to take a journey together without agreeing where they want to go; with the result that they may all have to make a journey which most of them do not want at all.” The first fault of central planning lies in the fact that it is built on the faulty assumption that production can somehow be dictated from a central location. Proponents of central planning like Lenin think that people can spontaneously agree on the type and quantities of products. However, people set their own values for various products and produce accordingly. Mao set the population of China to produce steel in a single-minded national effort. However, this could not be successful since people stood to gain or lose from this to varying degrees and their efforts greatly varied. As a result, most of the steel produced from the effort was of retrograde quality and the loss to the country was immense. In fact, most individuals are planners on their own initiative. When left to individuals, decisions about production are made according to local factors. Farmers in Siberia would, for example, grow their crops as they saw fit according to prevailing conditions, minimizing large-scale planning failures. Central planning cannot customize production to local needs and often makes blunders such as that of Khrushchev.
Planners cannot make assumptions about the economy, set prices and expect the economy to function smoothly. These prices are based on rough estimates and there is little possibility that those planners could take proper account of the complex economic factors that go into the production of every good. In a free market, on the other hand, prices are governed by imbalances in supply and demand. They adjust according to those factors and smoothly regulate production. An economy subject to decentralized prices is able to foster competition. This competition ensures that the participants are always in desperate search for the best tools and methods needed to minimize costs and produce more efficiently. A planned Leninist economy discourages competition in the name of synergy between producers and elimination of private production. As a result, there is little incentive for factories, etc to enhance their methods. All they are inclined to do is to meet targets set for them. In fact, they avoid exceeding those targets since that might raise expectations of the central planners. There is no incentive that Mancur Olson talks about in The Logic Of Collective Action for these members of a centralized economy to compete with others to economize and enhance production. We have to always consider the fact that our societies were formed out of a continual, dynamic process and not by any given design. Thus, any attempt to go against this and artificially create societal structures is misplaced since it will prevent the dynamic optimization of production and markets.
The centrally-planned economy of Lenin’s ideals is itself a threat to individual liberty. This is because the welfare of thousands, if not millions, of people can be ignored in the name of the greater good. This is the spirit in which several schemes were carried out in various Communist countries. The building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the war on rural Russian society, the Cultural Revolution and the curtailment of free expression in Poland are all examples where human dignity and welfare were sacrificed in the name of a supposed lofty ambition for the greater good. The governments in Leninist regimes could use the excuse of economic welfare of the whole as a pretext for almost any type of crime against humanity. Stalin could enforce collectivization for the sake of increasing agricultural production without giving a thought to the drastic effects on the lives of millions of Russians. Hayek says, “Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rates higher and which lower, in short, what men should believe and strive for.” The economic power of the Leninist state is thus the grounds on which it can repress and control the people. It has control over the destinies, will and conscience of the people. This control works on two levels. On the individual level, people are expected to be completely submissive to the state on the pretext that they must act selflessly for the benefit of the whole. In this manner, all freedom is stripped from them and they do not enjoy the democratic utopia that Lenin promised them. On the wider level, entire groups are freely sacrificed in the belief that their detriment would be the welfare of the whole.
The fundamental flaws with Lenin’s ideas are those of the ‘fatal conceit’ and being under the illusion of understanding the complexities of human society. Society is a product of many diverse factors. One cannot look at it from the limited prism of Marx and claim to understand it in its entirety. The flaws in our societies stem from many sources. The concentration of capital in a few hands, exploitation of wage workers and class warfare are only symptoms of deep interacting forces of economics, human nature, psychology, law, etc. Human nature isn’t also as malleable as Lenin thought. Human beings are shown by Biology to be products of both their biological makeup and their upbringing. Economics shows us that people tend to act selfishly and even against their long-term interest. Instances of this are illustrated by the famous Prisoners’ Dilemma, where people are shown to be inherently self-serving. All this weighs against Leninism and makes it an unviable philosophy. When Lenin put his ideas into practice, he often found them to be impracticable and had to revert back to the old order. The most jarring example of this is the fact that after the failure of War Communism, the Communists had no chance but to allow small-scale private ownership and reestablish currency. They could never get rid of the market. The Communist countries still in existence today, such as Vietnam and China, increasingly find themselves opening up their markets and undermining their philosophies in fundamental ways by mixing Communism with Capitalism. Lenin himself quotes in State and Revolutions that, “while the State exists, there can be no freedom. When there is freedom there will be no State.” He consistently undermined the state in his writings and yet he used it as more than a transient tool of the Proletariat classes. More than a Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the Soviet state became a monolithic power structure in constant urgency to ensure its own survival by subverting the people’s welfare. Similarly, the state has not withered away in any of the Leninist states today. It has become an all-corrupt, all-powerful entity in countries such as North Korea, where the people exist for the benefit of the state. Even today China continues its repressive experiment of combining Capitalism with unmitigated state power. In all, it can be said that Lenin’s ideas have been decidedly discredited through the view of history and economics. One only needs to recount the horrific deaths of millions in Leninist states through starvation and torture to obtain evidence of the failure of Leninism to bring about a Workers’ utopia.
"Arguments against the communist system aside, you clearly misunderstand central planning. The USSR (for instance) DID set prices, not a rough estimate. The central planning system does work. It achieves its ends, mainly through quotas (thus, no room for value judgments on the part of the producer). Yes, it works less efficiently than the free market. Also: Lenin in What Is To Be Done merely echoed a movement that had been going on in Russia for the entirety of the nineteenth century ("narodnichestvo"): educated intellectuals going to villages to teach about communism. Yet another also: there is only one place in any totalitarian state where there is no accountability: at the very top. In any other area, accountability is perhaps the defining characteristic of totalitarianism. More points: The Bolshevik party was not known as the Bolshevik party. It was the VKP(b), the Bolshevik wing of the Great Russian Communist Party. This distinction is significant because VKP(m), the Mensheviks, were genuine liberals and social democrats utterly opposed to Leninesque reforms. The trans-Siberian railway was completed during Tsarist rule and before Lenin came to power. Central planning was dictated by Gosplan; there was no 'agreement' or 'disagreement'. "