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Richard Pipes on the relationship between Third World poverty and Communism

I am not really in the market for big, long books about the Cold War, but I do like a good short one from time to time, and Communism by Richard Pipes, is looking good so far. I started by reading the conclusion, and now I am reading the penultimate chapter, “The Third World”.

Here is what Pipes says about the relationship between poverty and Communism:

Conventional wisdom holds that poverty breeds Communism. Reality is different: poor countries do not opt for Communism. Nowhere in the world has a poor majority, or any majority for that matter, voted the Communists into power. Rather, poor countries are less able to resist Communist takeovers because they lack the institutions that in richer, more advanced societies thwart aspiring radical dictators. It is the absence of institutions making for affluence, especially the rights of property and the rule of law, that keeps countries poor and, at the same time, makes them vulnerable to dictatorships, whether of the left or right variety. In the words of a student of the Cambodian Communist regime, the most extreme on record, ‘the absence of effective intermediary structures between the people and their successive leaders predisposed the society to the unrestrained exercise of power.’ Thus, the same factors that keep countries poor – above all, lawlessness – facilitate Communist takeovers.

That rings true. In general, it has always seemed to me that the favourite metaphor of ‘rabid anti-communists’ (i.e. the people who underestimated the true depths of Communist disgustingness only somewhat), to the effect that Communism was like a disease, is dead right. And Pipes is asking: how strong was your country’s immune system?

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13 comments to Richard Pipes on the relationship between Third World poverty and Communism

  • I will disagree with him slightly by noting that Communism is typically most popular in poor countries.

    There’s much, much more that could be said on this topic, as it is both deep and fascinating, but I’ll leave that for later. For now I’ll note that most often the popularity of Communism is due to the hope that it will bring about industrialization and modernization. The irony is that both of these things invariably conflict with and inevitable work to defeat the power centralization of Communism.

  • yelena

    that book was great!

    i thought it was a great book for someone who knows about communism , but wants an overall look at how it worked throughout the history and through out the world.

  • But what about The Voluntary City?
    Worth reading?

  • Shannon Love

    Communism also succeeded in the third world because it dovetailed more easily with existing peasant cultures. In most, if not all, of the world’s peasant cultures people have no real means of saving or investing. As a result one acquires security only through building relationships with other people who can provide assistance when things get rough. This causes peasants to reflexively “spread the wealth” around instead of trying to accumulate it. If a peasant receives some sort of windfall they generally throw a party for their neighbors or otherwise redistribute it.

    Capitalism works by the accumulation of surplus resources in the hands of individuals who make individual decisions on how to use it. Communism, at least in theory, does the opposite. For the vast majority of people in the third world, Communism presented less of a conceptual leap. It seemed more in keeping with their existing values and behaviors.

  • toolkien

    Echoing Shannon Love’s comments, I think there is somewhat of a cycle involved in poorer countries, and which came first the chicken or the egg directly affects how to ‘fix’ it by those who ascribe to Western, classical liberal, thought.

    Which comes first, poverty or the appeal of collectivism, whether it is communism, fascism, or theocracy (and to some extent monarchy)? Does collectivist mentality breed the poverty that plagues them? Those of the left persuasion generally put forth the idea that if we are to end Islamic terrorism (for example) we need to improve the quality of life for the poor folks who follow the vile programs. One can only assume they mean to do so through transfer before any signs of detachment of the rank and file from collectivist mentalities. This to me seems to be paying foxes to eat chickens and then decide whether they can give them up.

    Others choose another approach, what probably can only be described as leading by example. Showing poorer nations how to create and build wealth, emphasize individualism instead of collectivism first, and improvements are likely to follow. End collectivist mindsets first will unleash an improved society which will likely further erode collectivist mentalities.

    Of course leading by example is more of an oblique approach, and simply handing over cash seems simpler and gives the Do Gooders a sense of having done something. But just in domestic transfer systems, they are merely empty of effect.

    A last thought on ‘leading by example’ it therefore makes it imperative that we tear down the collectivist mentalities that we are allowing to erode our cultures. While we dabble in soft collectivism, and allow the ‘haters’ of capitalism and individualism in our midst dictate foreign and domestic policy, we are only weakening ourselves and pointing in the wrong direction for those whom we desire to take direction from us. It also manifests itself in the soft/semi-hard left to tear at our policies which are designed to maintain international markets and capitalism, and in their blind hatred of it, allow those with more diseased collectivist mentalities to flourish.

  • matt

    I’m no political scientist but how can one explain (seriously) the French who vote for Communist mayors and such. This doesn’t just happen in ‘peasant’ type communities.

  • As for the health of our institutions this is worth a read


    Via The Belmont Club.

    When you look around it looks like someone has been beavering away.

  • M. Murcek

    For a good look at the role nukes played in the cold war and the death of the soviet union, see “At the Abyss” by Thomas Reed.

    The world’s ultimate poker game.

  • Communism took hold in parts of the world where peaceful upward mobility was rare to nonexistent. In a nation with a large middle class such as the US or the UK, the job situation is not so desperate that many would consider that the only alternative left is to force the bourgeoisie to surrender its stuff at gunpoint. And even a century ago, long before the “safety nets” of FDR and LBJ, living conditions in the US were far preferable to those in, say, Russia and China. (They swarmed to Ellis Island for a reason.)

  • Jonathan L


    What makes you think that France is not a peasant society?

  • toolkien

    I’m no political scientist but how can one explain (seriously) the French who vote for Communist mayors and such. This doesn’t just happen in ‘peasant’ type communities.-Matt

    What makes you think that France is not a peasant society?-Jonathan L

    Perhaps Jonathan has a point. My previous post went on about those areas that have only known forms of totalitarianism and cannot think of anything different. How much of today’s France is impacted by being the last European nation with a Devine Right of Kings mentality, well into to last part of the 18th century? It is any coincidence that the three major European countries that were against action in Iraq were Russia, Germany, and France, were the latest comers to the Western classical liberal table (if you can include Russia at all)?

    I realize that there were underlying economic realities (i.e. oil) which led them as well, but is there a collectivist gestalt that is appealing to them as well? Countries that foisted Napoleon and Hitler on the World may still have some core cultural paradigms (or meta-contexts as I’ve seen people call it) that lead them. I’m sure their pretty easy to spot, they’re the most collectivist minded in our relative midst.

  • Nate

    Correct me if I’m wrong (because I’ll admit my ignorance of such), but I thought that the peasant farmers of Russia were rather opposed to the Bolsheviks. Were not the early Russian communists plagued by problems when they tried to institute collective farming?

  • “Nowhere in the world has a poor majority, or any majority for that matter, voted the Communists into power.”

    I take Pipes’ bigger point, but he’s wrong on this. The Communist Party of India (CPI) secured 51% of seats in the first election in Kerala (1957). It was later defeated by the Muslim League, but in 1967 it secured more than 80% of parliamentry seats (although this was in alliance with other parties). Since then it’s been in and out of power with the most recent win coming in 2000.