They laughed at me, both of them. They were our tour guides in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I had asked them if Marxism was taught when they were in school. The year was 2006. I was traveling through Vietnam and China with my wife, Alyn.
I was curious to learn if the Vietnamese schools which they attended in the 1990s introduced them to Karl Marx, the cerebral godfather of communism. They hadn’t. I got the impression from their laughter that the only Marx they knew about was Groucho.
As adults, joining the communist party was for them less about ideology and more about economic opportunity. Being a member of the party was required in order to get a shot at the jobs being doled out by the Vietnamese government. Both likened party membership to joining a union in the United States. Neither needed help from the government. They were gainfully employed by a private tour guide company and were more than happy to embrace the fruits of capitalism, tourist cash tips and all.
On a boat cruising up the Yangtze River, I asked a Chinese guide if China believed in capitalism. “Yes,” he replied smiling, but, “with a Chinese face.”
When we got to Shanghai, I saw what he meant. High rise office buildings and luxury condominiums invaded the nighttime skies. Applying Marx’s political theories hadn’t created this thriving megalopolis or produced the fastest growing economy on the planet; international capitalism at the invitation of the Chinese communist government had. It’s the same brand of capitalism employed by China for the last 15 years that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and spawned a new generation of middle class consumers.
When the former Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago, ending the Cold War between East and West dating back to the 1950s, it signaled a resounding victory for capitalism, but certainly not for democracy. Neither Russia nor China today rely upon the economic principles guiding communism to advance their influence on the world stage and in the global marketplace.
You can’t compete against a capitalistic West by exercising government control over the means of production, by ignoring the laws of supply and demand, by prohibiting the ownership of private property, by preventing access to open markets, and by being opposed to personal profit.
Communism as it existed under Stalin and Mao is as dead as the dodo bird. “Workers of the world unite,” the rallying cry in Marx and Friedrich Engels’ 19th century “Communist Manifesto” isn’t a plausible possibility in the 21st century. Hell, workers couldn’t even get an Amazon plant in Alabama to unionize.
The populist socialism once practiced by strong men like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba isn’t about to be exported to this country. We prefer royalist capitalism, trickle down economics which provides pennies from heaven for the poor and dollars from the devil for the rich. The investing classes in this illiberal paradigm always fare better than the wage-earning classes. A rising tide definitely does lift all boats but the ride is infinitely better if you are in a yacht than a rowboat.
Vladimir Putin, the former KGB operative, had no intention of following in the footsteps of Lenin and Stalin when he took over for the seldom sober Boris Yeltsin in 2000. An autopsy of the former Soviet Union’s corpse by a revisionist clique in the Communist Party had pointed to them as the reason for its demise.
Putin didn’t link his ascent to power with bolshevism but with the imperialist reigns of Peter and Catherine. Vladimir the Great had a nice ring to it. Nationalism, not communism was the motivation for Putin annexing Crimea, 60 years after Nikita Khrushchev had gifted it back to Ukraine.
He established Oligarchs Inc. and let the country’s corrupt billionaires know that they could continue to be obscenely wealthy as long as he was firmly established as the HBIC — the head billionaire in charge. His Italianate palatial complex on the Black Sea, derisively referred to as Putin’s Palace, reportedly cost 100 billion rubles ($1.35 billion) to construct.
The Russian people were fed a different brand of propaganda under Putin. Why bother to lie to them about the evils of capitalism (the height of hypocrisy for a billionaire) when you can appeal to their historic comfort with authoritarian rule by shifting the narrative to the horrors of liberal democracy?
None of my arguments in this column are meant to imply that China and Russia aren’t bad actors who put global stability and security in peril. My goodness, President Xi Jinping has been made ruler for life by the Chinese communist party and Putin’s stranglehold over the federal assembly, Russia’s parliament, gives him similar lifetime powers. One of them brutally violates human rights and the other nonchalantly poisons his opponents.
The 21st century version of the Cold War pits the politically autocratic capitalism of China and Russia against the politically democratic capitalism of the United States. Capitalism wasn’t being attacked on Jan. 6 when a violent mob ransacked the Capitol building — only the peaceful transition of presidential power was threatened.
Donald Trump’s celebrity apprenticeship ended in 2020. He convinced us to take seriously the danger that a man with autocratic impulses poses to the longest lasting democracy in the world.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at [email protected]