Heilbroner: Capitalism vs. Communism

Hi. I came across this article written in 1967 by Robert L. Heilbroner and figured I would share it. It’s a bit outdated, but it has some interesting thoughts. You tell me?

The Revolution of Rising Expectations: Rhetoric and Reality

Is the United States fundamentally opposed to economic development? This question is outrageous.

There is much that is admirable about this well-intentioned popular view of “the revolution of rising expectations.” Unfortunately, there is more that is delusive about it. For the buoyant appeal of its rhetoric conceals or passes over in silence by far the larger part of the spectrum and realities of the development process. One of these is the certainty that the revolutionary aspect of development will not be limited to the realm of ideas, but will vent its fury on institutions social classes and innocent men and women. Another is the great likelihood that the ideas needed to guide the revolution will not only be affirmative and reasonable, but also destructive and fanatic. A third is the realization that revolutionary efforts cannot be made and certainly cannot be sustained by voluntary effort alone but require an iron hand both in the spheres of economic direction and political control. And the fourth and most difficult to face is the probability that the political force most likely to succeed in carrying through the gigantic historical transformation of development is some form of extreme national collectivism or Communism.

In a word, what our rhetoric fails to bring to our attention is the likelihood that development will require policies and programs repugnant to our “way of life” that will bring to the fore governments hostile to our international objectives, and that its regnant ideology will bitterly oppose capitalism as a system of world economic power.

Thus, development is much more than a matter of encouraging economic growth within a given social structure. It is rather the modernization of that structure, a process of ideational, social, economic, and political change that requires the remaking of society and its most intimate as well as its most public attributes.

What is so egregiously lacking in the great majority of the societies that are now attempting to make the Great Ascent is precisely this pervasive modernization. The trouble with India and Pakistan, with Brazil and Ecuador, with the Philippines and Ethiopia, is not nearly that economic growth lags, or proceeds ay some pitiable pace. This is only a symptom of deeper-lying ills. The trouble is that the social physiology of these nations remains so depressingly unchanged despite the flurry of economic planning on top. The all-encompassing ignorance and poverty of the rural regions, the unbridgeable gulf between the peasants and the urban elites, the resistive conservatism of the village elders, the unyielding traditionalism of family life — all these remain of obdurately, maddeningly, disastrously unchanged.

In our concentration on the politics, the betrayals, the successes and failures of the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions, we forget that their central motivation has been just a war a lʼoutrance against the arch enemy of backwardness – not alone the back corners of outmoded social superstructures but even more critically that of private inertia and traditionalism.

I need hardly add that the cost of this modernization process has been and will be horrendous. If communism is the great modernizer, it is certainly not a benign agent of change. Stalin may well have exceeded Hitler as a mass executioner. Free inquiry in china has been supplanted by dogma and catechism; even in Russia nothing like freedom of criticism or of personal expression is allowed. Furthermore, the economic cost of industrialization in both countries has been at least as severe as that imposed by primitive capitalism.

Two questions must be answered when we dared to rest so favorably a verdict on Communism as a modernizing agency. The first is whether the result is worth the cost, whether the possible — by no means are assured — escape from underdevelopment is worth the lives that will be squandered to achieve it.

I do not recommend such a calculus of corpses — indeed I am aware of the license it gives to the unscrupulous — but I raise it to show the one-sidedness of our protestations against the brutality and violence of revolutions. In this regard, it is chastening to recall the multitudes who have been killed or mutilated by the Church which is now the first to protest against the excesses of Communism.

But there is an even more terrible second question to be asked. It is clear beyond a doubt, however backward it may be for our moralizing propensities, that historians excuse horror that succeeds; and that we write accountable books of moral philosophy, seated a top of a mountain of victims – slaves, serfs, laboring men and women, heretics, dissenters — who were crushed in the course of preparing the way for our triumphal entry into existence.

Would not a Communist success in a few backward nations lead to successes in others, and thus by degrees engulf of the entire world, until the United States and perhaps Europe were fortresses besieged on a hostile planet?

I think the answer to this fear is twofold. First, as many besides myself have argued, it is not clear that communism, far from constituting a single unified movement with a common aim and dovetailing interest, is a movement in which similarities of economic and political structure and ideology how more than outweighed by divergencies of national interest in character. Two bloody wars have demonstrated that in the case of capitalism, structural similarities between nations do not prevent mortal combat. As with capitalism, so with Communism. Russian Communist have already been engaged in skirmishes with Polish and Hungarian communist, have nearly come to blows with Yugoslavia, and now stand poised at the threshold of open fighting with China. Only in the mind of the Daily News (and perhaps still in the State Department) does it seem possible, in the face of the spectacle, to refer to the unified machinations of “international Communism” or the “Sino-Soviet bloc”.

Do not talk to me about Communism and capitalism” said a Hungarian economist with whom I had lunch this winter. “Talk to me about rich nations and poor ones.”

I think it is wealth and poverty, and not Communism or capitalism, that establishes much of the tone and tension of international relations.

Nevertheless, there is a threat in the specter of Communist or near-Communist supremacy in the underdeveloped world. It is that the rise of communism would signal the end of capitalism as the dominant world order, and would force the acknowledgment that America no longer constituted the model on with the future of world civilization would be mainly based. In this way, as I have written before, the existence of communism frightens American capitalism as the rise of Protestantism frightened the Catholic Church, or the French revolution the English aristocracy.

It is, I think, the fear of losing our place in the sun, of finding ourselves and being, the motivates a great deal of the anti-Communism language so much of American foreign policy seems to be founded. In this regard I know that the nations of Europe, most of them profoundly more conservative than America in their social and economic dispositions, have made their peace with Communism far more intelligently and easily then we, and I conclude that this is in no small part due to their admission that they are no longer the leaders of the world.

The great question in our own nation is whether we can except a similar scaling down of our position in history. This would entail many profound changes in outlook and policy. It would mean the recognition that Communism, which may indeed represent a retrogressive movement in the west, where it should continue to be resisted with full energies, may nonetheless represent a progressive movement in the backward areas, where its advent may be the only chance these areas have escaping misery.

It would mean in our daily political life the admission that the ideological battle of capitalism and Communism had passed its point of usefulness or relevance, and that the religious diatribe must give way to the pragmatic dialogue of the age of science and technology.

It is the public airing of our consequences of our blind anticommunism for the under developed world. It must be said out loud that are present policy prefers the absence of development to the chance for Communism — which is to say, that we prefer hunger and want and the existing inadequate assaults against the causes of hunger and want to any regime that declares its hostility to capitalism.

Thanks for reading,


Robert L. Heilbroner, “The Revolution of Rising Expectations: Rhetoric and Reality”, in Neal Doyle Houghton, ed., Struggle Against HistoryU.S. Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968)

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