Why Did Communism in Europe Fail?

The year 1989 saw a surprising and swift transformation of Central and Eastern Europe. Where only a few years before the ouster of communism would have been unimaginable, now country after country removed its communist government and embraced some form of democracy. Never in human history has there been such a sweeping governmental change apart from the result of some military engagement (Schopflin 1990, 5). Examining the reasons behind the fall of communism presents… First, the theoretical model of communism itself is flawed. It makes incorrect assumptions about human nature and supports an unsustainable economic matrix. Economic and political pressures in Central and Eastern European economies during the 1980s exposed these inadequacies. Thereafter, an overextension of Soviet resources due to military spending combined with global pressures in regards to human rights initiatives led to one country after another freeing itself from Soviet control.

Communism is a political and social system based on a concept of equal distribution of resources. Ideally, goods and services are owned communally amongst all citizens of a communist state, and distributed equally so as to meet each person’s need (Stokes 1993, 5). The problem comes in the actual application of communism, as it works counter to human nature. First, the system assumes that each worker will work to his or her capacity for the good of all. In reality, workers soon realized they would be paid the same no matter how hard they worked, and without the incentive of personal gain, began producing at the lowest possible level. Famous Russian economist Boris Brutzkus noted that the idea of equal compensation for skilled and unskilled labour undermined productivity and created an economically unsolvable problem (Wilhelm 1993, 346). In addition, any risk related to innovation is transferred wholly to the state, so the worker “loses little in the event of failure and gains nothing in the event of success,” making it impossible to motivate him or her to full productive potential (Wilhelm 1993, 349). “If profits must be handed over to the public treasury, and losses are made up with subsidies, there is no incentive to be innovative and efficient” (Fischer 1991, 12).

The communist model similarly assumes that political leaders will act in the best interests of all the citizens of the state, rather than simply in their own. Fischer notes that power is an extremely corrupting force, and rarely if ever do those with significant power avoid its corrupting influence (Fischer 1991, 12). This was made particularly clear in countries such as Romania, where the communism state became in essence a totalitarian dictatorship under Ceausescu (Hall 2000, 1070). Central and Eastern European countries were by and large governed by a handful of leaders who had enormous control over their fellow citizens, and were often both personally and politically corrupt in their administrations (Fischer 1991, 12).

Because of these misunderstandings of human nature, communism is not designed with the checks and balances common to a democratic government (Fischer 1991, 12). For example, democracies have both secret elections and a free press. Regular elections provide a voice to the citizens of a country in determining its leadership. This forces leaders to listen and be responsive to the citizenry, less they be removed from power. A free press both informs citizens of what is happening in the country and government and exposes corruption. (Wilhelm 1993, 352). Uncensored media similarly forces leaders to act ethically and not mistreat the citizenry. Communist regimes in Europe lacked such systems of accountability, and as such, their leaders did not always act in the best interests of the average citizen.

Economically, there are also serious flaws in the communist model. Production results from the cooperation of labour, capital, and nature (Wilhelm 1993, 347). Communism based its economic model on “directed economic activity according to a unitary state plan based upon statistics, under which categories such as interest, rent and profit lost their significance” (Wilhelm 1993, 346). Markets and the forces that shape them were replaced by a planned system based on labour costs (Wilhelm 1993, 346). This led to further problems, as it oversimplified the economic factors at play in the counties’ industries, which led to incorrect production planning. According to Brutzkus, “the socialist state is not in a position, even with the help of all its scientific theory and immense statistical apparatus, to measure the needs of its citizens or to reduce needs to one level; for this reason it is unable to provide production with the guidance it needs” (Wilhelm 1993, 347).

In short, Brutzkus anticipated what the literature on communist economies calls the success indicator problem. The government was not able to successfully plan for the complexity of the market. “This process is infinitely more complicated than that which takes place under capitalism, where at worst the entrepreneur will have to increase his price to cover this or that means of production” (Wilhelm 1993, 348). The results were Central and Eastern European nations with overly-specialized industry that had no market except the Soviet bloc, fewer than needed consumer products, and an uneven proportion of manufactured products to the demand of the populace (Karatnycky 2002, 57). In contrast, while price liberalization in post-communist Poland “brought an immediate end to the pervasive shortages and queues that had plagued Poland’s centrally-planned economy” (Kramer 2004, 60).

A centrally-planned “command economy” is “an engine for the dissipation of social energy and resources,” that is only effective in mobilizing resources for a short period of time (Wilhelm 1993, 353). After this the communist economic model leads to rapid deterioration and becomes increasingly ineffective as time goes on (Wilhelm 1993, 353). The communist bloc was able to live off the resources it possessed prior to communization, such as surplus rural labour and certain capital resources, through the 1950s (Schopflin 1990, 4). This reinforced the idea to some that the communist economic plan was workable. However, as these resources dwindled and economic indicators declined, the standard of living in communist Europe became noticeably lower than her capitalist counterpart. Wilhelm contends that when statistics are adjusted for their propagandistic distortions, “East Germany was poorer than Mexico… West Germans received a rather nasty shock when they were able to enter East Germany and see the actual state of the East German economy for themselves (Wilhelm 1993, 352). This led to growing unrest amongst the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe, who saw themselves falling farther and farther behind the West.

At this time the Soviet Union, the main customer for Central and Eastern European countries’ exports, was also facing economic difficulties. Some of this was due to the slowing of its own communist economic system and the global pressures also faced by the European communist countries (Stokes 1993, 56). In addition, a heightened arms race with the United States and its long and disastrous engagement in Afghanistan caused the USSR to commit more to its military spending than it could afford (Stokes 1993, 58). This both left less to spend in its satellite countries and fewer military troops to commit to suppressing uprisings in Europe. As the postwar status-quo depended in part on the threat of Soviet military intervention, this added to the growing instability in Central and Eastern Europe (Kramer 2005, 11).

The communist European nations were historically not independently supportive of communism, but had communism imposed upon them unwillingly after World War II (Kramer 2005, 10). From the beginning, Eastern European countries were subjected to and directed in communism “firmly against the wishes of the majority” (Schopflin 1990, 4). One Baltic leader described the events of 1989 by saying “we could finally end the illegal occupation of our country and rejoin the community of free nations” (Kramer 2004, 21). Because the populations of these countries were not ideologically supportive of communism, their governmental leaders had to utilize both force and the threat of force to keep the countries functioning (Kramer 2004, 21). By the 1980s, the Soviet Union did not have the resources to do so, nor did many of the European countries in the Soviet bloc (Stokes 1993, 58). In addition, then leader of the USSR Gorbachev was less quick to turn to a military solution. “Unlike in 1956, when Khrushchev ultimately relied on military force to preserve the Communist bloc, Gorbachev… actively encouraged drastic political changes in Eastern Europe that would defuse the potential for another violent uprising like the one that engulfed Hungary in October-November 1956 (Kramer 2005, 69). The resulting combination of Gorbachev’s reforms, his reluctance towards military force, and his “reorientation of Soviet foreign policy had a profound impact on the politics of Eastern Europe” (Kramer 2005, 69).

Finally, there was a growing emphasis on human rights. This also caused the communist regimes to pause and consider use of military force against civilian uprisings. “The insistence on the introduction of human rights into the Helsinki process resulted in the slow but inexorable diffusion of the principle into Soviet-type politics and contributed qualitatively to weakening the legitimating force of Marxism-Leninism (Schopflin 1990, 16). This provided intellectuals in the Central and Eastern European opposition movements with “an intellectual basis from which to attack and thus erode the official systems” (Schopflin 1990, 16). It also gave workers reasons to organize collectively. When faced with a government that seems fundamentally unchangeable, people will only organize to resist if given some idea or goal of value which they can support (Benda et al. 1988, 228-29). All the major democratic oppositions in Central Europe had as leaders activists that had at one time or another been human rights dissidents (Isaac 1996, 303).

The system was untenable, the citizens were unhappy, and those interested in political reform had a reason to begin organizing. At this point, the next ingredient necessary for communism’s demise was technology. Where in the past a particular government could cover-up or minimize an uprising in one place, preserving the threat of force and fear in its citizens, increased use of technology exposed these attempts and the sometimes blatant lies told by government officials(Kramer 2005, 82) For example, because of technological advances in broadcasting, “West German television broadcasts reached the large majority of households in the GDR, almost all East German citizens were able to watch uncensored coverage of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost (Kramer 2005, 82). As Stokes concludes, the response of Central and Eastern European countries in 1989 “was not a revolution of total innovation, but rather the shucking off of a failed experiment in favor of an already existing model, pluralist democracy” (Stokes 1993, 260). The collapse of communism in Hungary began in 1986, when the country’s intellectuals began to abandon Kadar, who refused to recognize or act upon the country’s economic crisis situation (Schopflin 1990, 7). Similar processes occurred in Poland, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia (Schopflin 1990, 7). Because they were increasingly exposed to the existence of a better system, they were empowered to push for it in their own countries.

In the end, communism failed from a combination of factors, not the least of which was its own internal flaws. It may be that the twentieth century’s experiment in communist Europe was misguided from the start. “According to Marx’s materialistic conception of history, societies pass through four formative stages on their way to becoming communist: asiatic, ancient, feudal, and bourgeois capitalist” (Koranda 1990, 19). However, this was not true for any of the Eastern European countries with communist governments in the twentieth century. Russia forced communism on these countries, rather than it evolving in some natural pattern. “Disregarding Russia, many of the European countries that went through Communism had belonged, in the past, in whole or in part to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire” and had governments closer to a feudal system than any other. (Kovac 2002, 178). Marx might well argue, therefore, that these countries were not ready for communism when it was imposed upon them.

Koranda would contend, however, that in reality Marx got the order wrong. Communism is, in his argument, the guild stage which many Western European countries passed through on the way to capitalism. Since many Eastern European countries were closer to feudal than free-market prior to World War II, from Koranda’s theoretical standpoint, formerly Communist Europe is now progressing “naturally” from communism to capitalism (Koranda 1990, 20). This would explain communism’s initial success, and the need for it to be eventually supplanted by capitalism.


Benda, V, et al. 1988. Parallel Polis, or an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe: An Inquiry. Social Research, Spring-Summer1988, 55:1-2.

Fischer, D. 1991. Why did Communism fail? Social Alternatives, Dec1991, 10:4, 12.

Hall, R.A. 2000. Theories of collective action and revolution: evidence from the Romanian transition of December 1989. Europe-Asia Studies, Sep2000, 52:6, 1069-93.

Isaac, J.C. 1996. The meanings of 1989. Social Research, Summer1996, 63, 291-344.

Karatnycky, A. 2000. Memory Lapse. American Spectator, Feb2000, 33:1, 57-58.

Koranda, Tim. 1990. The God That Failed History. Vital Speeches of the Day, 10/15/90, 57:1, 19-21.

Kováč, L. 2002. The Failure of Communism: A Case for Evolutionary Rationalism and Evolutionary Humanism. Dialogue & Universalism, 12:8/10, 177-197.

Kramer, M. 2003. The Collapse of East European Communism and the Repercussions within the Soviet Union (Part 1). Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall2003, 5:4, 178-256.

Kramer, M. 2004. The Collapse of East European Communism and the Repercussions within the Soviet Union (Part 2). Journal of Cold War Studies, Fall2004, 6:4, 3-64.

Kramer, M. 2005. The Collapse of East European Communism and the Repercussions within the Soviet Union (Part 3). Journal of Cold War Studies, Winter2005, 7:1, 3-96.

Schopflin, G. 1990. The end of communism in Eastern Europe. International Affairs, Jan1990, 66:1, 3-16.

Stokes, G. 1993. The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilhelm, J.H. 1993. The Soviet economic failure: Brutzkus revisited. Europe-Asia Studies, 45:2, 343-57.

Bill Carlson

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