In recent years, it has become common to dismiss the values and achievements of communist states, even as the economic disasters that have occurred in many of the former Soviet Union countries as Communism has been replaced become even more evident. In the interests of balance and accuracy, this article will consider some of the positive aspects of Communist regimes in East and Southeast Asia.
There are numerous books, articles and websites explaining in gory details some of the very many human rights abuses of those Communist states and these evils are of course fully acknowledged here and no attempt is made to forgive or condone them.
The Spread of Communism
The ideology of Communism spread in the early years of the Twentieth Century throughout most countries of East Asia as local people began to obtain more ability to resist colonialism and the rigid authoritarianism of existing regimes. Communism offered a method of organizing a state under independent rule which proved to be a powerful rallying call to the dispossessed people of the region. The alternatives included only a return to the rigid hierarchies of the past or some form of religious authoritarianism, as most commonly represented by the Islam of Southeast Asia. Capitalism did not appear to be a valid alternative until after the Second World War (apart from the US semi-colony of the Philippines) when western-supported semi-dictatorships in for example South Korea and Singapore were able to locate a meaningful alternative to existing forms of rulership. Communism regimes were created in China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and North Vietnam – and ultimately the whole of Vietnam as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. North Korea created the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with alternately, support from the Soviet Union and the PRC. The Pathet Lao created the Lao People’s Democratic Republic while Cambodia suffered under an extraordinarily extreme social experiment under the Khmers Rouges.
Where Communism was strong but defeated, as in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, this was only achieved once a viable alternative ideology was able to become entrenched in the consciousness of the people of the state.
The achievements of Communism may be divided into four broad areas.
1. Universal education provision. As far as resources were permitted (and with the exception of Cambodia and to some extent Laos), a primary goal of Communist regimes was to ensure universal provision of education and a concomitant increase in social mobility. Curricula may have been subject to political realities to various degrees but at least provision was made.
2. Emancipation of women. Bringing both men and women into education and into the workplace has done a great deal to reduce the inequalities that were present in the treatment of the two genders. Much still remains to be done and, unfortunately, most Communist regimes have made the mistake of fostering conservative social attitudes but nevertheless the position of women in society is much improved in those societies than it was before.
3. Land reform. The concept of land reform is still not treated seriously even by such international organizations as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – yet it is absolutely central to the ability of the poor to obtain better social and economic opportunities for themselves and their descendants. Common ownership of the land – although far from perfect in the ways in which this policy was manifested – was still far more equitable an arrangement than ownership by the elite as had been the case.
4. Alternative ideology. Communism offered the opportunity for states to create a state ideology with an independent flavour, without having structures and conditions imposed externally, since it could be managed as a state venture without necessarily having to recognize masters elsewhere in the world.
It is rare to have the opportunity to observe direct counter-factuals in history and so it is not possible to know what would have happened had Communism not had the influence it did. Nevertheless, it is clear that – for many people in the states involved – important aspects of their lifestyles and their economic opportunities were significantly improved as a result of Communism.