Marxists: They Love a Man in a Uniform

Marxist regimes have larger military forces-but not for the reason you might think.


There are 27 million men under arms in the world today. All nations combined spend over $700 billion per year on armies and armaments, a figure that averages out to 6 percent of world output and 20 percent of national-government budgets. What causes these great investments in military forces?

To some extent, these expenditures are reflections of each nation's policy purposes. One country may want forces to defend itself against possible attack, another to overrun a neighboring state, and so on. But that's not all there is to it. The military aims of a country do not dictate a precise level of forces—there is no way of knowing how many troops or how many tanks will be required to execute a particular defense or a particular conquest under some hypothetical future circumstances. National leaders can only guess. As a result, the military forces of different countries are not closely tied to their foreign-policy "needs."

Instead, a nation's force level tends to be set by default: it is the result of political and bureaucratic struggling. For those who seek to control armaments in the world, an understanding of this "structural" aspect of militarism is an indispensable starting point. A nation's armed forces are not only, or even primarily, the result of conscious, calculating leadership decisions, as many arms-control theorists would have it. Rather, the size and character of a nation's armed forces are shaped by the structure of the regime and the political processes within it.

I discovered this correlation in a study I conducted comparing the military-force levels of Marxist and non-Marxist countries. I compiled a list of countries adhering to Marxist-Leninist doctrine (see table on page 41), then looked up the "force ratio" of each. A nation's force ratio is the number of its full-time, active-duty military personnel per 1,000 population—one of the best indicators of a nation's commitment to military power. These data are compiled yearly by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (and by the British Institute for Strategic Studies, whose figures are similar). I compared these figures with those for 109 non-Marxist countries.


Overall, the numbers show that Marxist regimes have armed forces more than twice as large as non-Marxist countries. The 32 Marxist countries for which data are available have an average force ratio of 13.3; for the 109 non-Marxist regimes, the average is 6.1.

This broad pattern holds up quite clearly when one compares countries similar in location, culture, and size. Marxist North Korea has a force ratio of 38.0; non-Marxist South Korea, 14.7. Marxist South Yemen has 12.5; non-Marxist North Yemen, 3.9. Marxist East Germany has 14.0; non-Marxist West Germany, 7.8. Nonaligned Marxist Yugoslavia has 10.9; neighboring, neutral, non-Marxist Austria, 5.3.

Europe's eight Marxist countries have an average force ratio of 13.8; the 17 non-Marxist European countries have an average of 7.6. The nine Marxist African countries have an average of 5.9; the 31 non-Marxist African countries, 2.1. The pattern holds for the superpowers as well: the Soviet Union has a force ratio of 16.3; the United States, 9.1.

To test the Marxism-militarism connection further, I looked to see what happens to the size of a nation's armed forces after Marxists come to power. For the 10 countries where this type of comparison is possible, the force ratio under Marxism has increased, on average, 282 percent. Take, for example, Ethiopia, a poignant case of a recent transition to Marxist rule. In 1973, the last year of non-Marxist rule, the force ratio was 1.8; under Marxism, it has increased 355 percent.

I checked the correlation still further by introducing a control for national wealth, because the wealthier a country is, the more it spends on just about everything—hospitals, schools, parks—and this "consumption function" effect also operates upon military forces. The wealthier a country is—everything else being equal—the higher its force ratio. This effect, however, can be statistically controlled for by recalculating each country's force ratio as a "wealth-adjusted force ratio" (listed in the second column of the table). Wealth-adjusted force ratios enable us, then, to compare countries as if each nation had the same amount to spend on military forces.

When I averaged these wealth-adjusted force ratios, the gap between Marxist and non-Marxist countries widened still further, the militaristic bent of Marxist countries becoming even more apparent. Because Marxist countries are, on average, poorer, their higher force ratios are even more remarkable.

What accounts for Marxist countries' pronounced tendency toward larger military forces? At first, I thought it would be easy to explain: Marxist rulers were rationally acquiring these forces to carry out their foreign and domestic aims. But as I looked more closely at each possible reason why Marxist regimes might "need" greater military forces, I had to doubt this initial idea.

For example, we might suppose that the greater aggressiveness of Marxist regimes would explain their higher force ratios. After all, Marxist doctrine urges an ever-expanding world revolution, and many Marxist countries have attacked their neighbors. In order to carry out this expansion of socialism, this theory goes, Marxist countries acquire the needed military forces.

But this theory doesn't account for the consistency of the pattern. A number of Marxist countries aren't, or can't, be aggressive, yet they have high force ratios, too. Look at Mongolia, for instance. Sandwiched between the Soviet Union and China, and thousands of miles from the nearest non-Marxist country, it is necessarily nonaggressive. Yet its force ratio is an extremely high 21.2. Other countries in the same category include Poland, Romania, Albania, and Yugoslavia—they are not particularly aggressive, but all have high force ratios.

Furthermore, if aggressive countries always have high force ratios, then the point should apply to non-Marxist countries as well. But it doesn't. Argentina was clearly the aggressor in the 1982 Falkland Islands War (and also the aggressor in the dispute with Chile over the Beagle Channel Islands). Yet its force ratio was a mere 6.0, half that of Yugoslavia and one-quarter that of Cuba. Guatemala, which has militarily threatened neighboring Belize since 1972, has a force ratio of 2.3. An aggressive orientation, then, will not entirely account for the endemic militarism of Marxist countries, for aggressive non-Marxist countries do not have such consistently high force ratios.

Another suggested explanation of Marxist regimes' large military forces is that they need such forces for defense. The first exhibit for this argument would be Cuba: some say its force ratio of 23.5 reflects the danger of attack by the United States. But even if you agree that Cuba is threatened, its military forces are still abnormally large. Many non-Marxist countries also face threats from big neighbors, but they do not have such large armies. Finland, for example, borders the Soviet Union and was invaded by the Red Army in 1939. Yet its force ratio is 7.5, less than one-third Cuba's. Most non-Marxist countries threatened by the Soviet Union and its satellites have similarly moderate force ratios, including Norway (9.0), Austria (5.3), West Germany (7.8), Pakistan (5.2), and Japan (2.0). And, of course, the defense argument would not account for the high force ratios of Marxist countries not plausibly threatened by Western attack, including Albania (18.9), Bulgaria (19.7), and Laos (15.8).

Marxist countries, it is sometimes said, need large armies to suppress domestic opposition. But this theory, it turns out, is based on a fundamental misconception. In virtually all countries, the management of political opposition is handled by police forces—and by bureaucracies that give and withhold privileges. The regular armed forces are typically employed only when opposition takes a military form. Demonstrations, for example, are almost always controlled by police forces; even terrorist gangs, like the Red Guard in Italy, are mainly a police responsibility. Hence, the repressiveness of Marxist regimes would account for these countries' large internal security forces, but it would not explain their larger regular armies.

A few Marxist countries do have a violent domestic opposition, but here again we find the familiar contrast: non-Marxist countries with a similar problem have much lower force ratios. For example, the Marxist regime in Nicaragua, challenged by the contras, has a force ratio of 27.8. But non-Marxist El Salvador faces the same kind of threat from guerrilla forces in its territory, yet its force ratio is only 5.4.

Comparisons like these finally convinced me that the high force ratios of Marxist countries cannot be explained as a calculated response to a common need, for two reasons. First, Marxist countries don't share a common policy aim consistently enough to explain the consistency of the pattern. And second, when a non-Marxist country has the same apparent need for military forces as a Marxist country—for aggression, for defense, for internal security—its force ratio is typically much lower.

Since the pattern cannot be accounted for by assuming rational policy-making by the Marxist leadership, it must be traced to some institutional characteristic of Marxist regimes that operates to produce an undue expansion of the military sector. What might this characteristic be? Although several possibilities suggest themselves, the one that stands out is the highly dictatorial structure of these systems: Marxist regimes are totalitarian.

Marxist governments control all major activities: the media, economic life, the arts, sports, religion, science, education. Government restrictions on freedom in these realms inhibit the rise of independent centers of innovation, opinion, and influence, and the lack of diversity in these systems encourages the growth of the military sector. After all, any bureaucracy seeks to expand. It develops rationales for what it does and weeds out members who question the virtue of expansion. Military bureaucracies, in particular, are well suited to expansion, because soldiers have a natural edge in arguments: the weapons of war they wield inspire awe, and their mission of defending the homeland promotes respect. Therefore, the military bureaucracy is likely to prevail in disputes affecting its size, unless countervailing forces check it.

In a relatively free, pluralistic country, such forces will be numerous, ranging from commercial and consumer groups to media and academic sectors. But in a totalitarian dictatorship, there are practically no independent voices to contradict proposals for expansion. Hence, military outlays expand to higher levels.

In other words, Marxist regimes have large military forces not because anyone in them is saying "yes" to military expansion with more enthusiasm than elsewhere. The problem is that fewer voices say "no." When a Soviet general proposes yet another military base or yet another generation of missiles, for instance, no one dares to call his proposal foolish or unnecessary—an unlikely event in the United States.

If this theory explains the militarism of Marxist countries, then it should work for non-Marxist nations, as well. Countries with a more dictatorial structure should have larger military forces than freer, pluralistic nations. To test this idea, we need an indicator of the degree of dictatorship in the different non-Marxist countries. One such measure is provided by Freedom House, a New York–based organization that assesses the status of political and social freedom worldwide. Freedom House ranks countries according to the degree to which the government allows freedom in the media and public opinion and respects private rights in education, occupation, religion, residence, and so on.


The Freedom House rankings serve as a rough measure of a country's degree of dictatorship. Nations high in respect for civil liberties (ranks 1 and 2) can be labeled "low" in their degree of dictatorship; nations ranked 3 or 4 can be classified as "medium"; and countries ranked 5–7 can be considered "high" in their degree of dictatorship.

On the graph above, the squares indicate the non-Marxist countries, grouped by their degree of dictatorship—low, medium, and high—and plotted against each group's adjusted average force ratio. As the graph shows, there is a clear effect in the expected direction: the more dictatorial a country, the higher its average force ratio. The "dictatorship effect" is confirmed.

But the graph also reveals an anomaly: Marxist and non-Marxist dictatorships do not come out equal. The Marxist countries, designated by the circle on the graph, have a much higher average force ratio than you would expect, given their level of dictatorship.

What has caused this outcome? Is there some factor, in addition to the dictatorship effect, that makes Marxist countries more militaristic? It could be. But I find another explanation more persuasive—namely, that the Freedom House measurements of dictatorship are distorted. Marxist regimes have actually been given an average score of 6, whereas—my suggested interpretation goes—they should have a much higher score (say around 14). This would place them at point "x," right where the dictatorship theory would put them.

What justifies this interpretation is the bias of the American media in reporting on freedom and civil liberties around the world. The media tend to concentrate on violations of only one type of freedom—the freedom of political opposition. This freedom involves the right to criticize the government in the mass media or before a mass audience. Naturally, journalists report extensively on violations of this freedom, because they involve prominent political leaders or newsworthy mass-protest activities.

The media virtually ignore, however, violations of other freedoms that affect the dreams and daily lives of citizens: the freedom to work, the freedom to buy and sell property, the freedom of non-political expression, the freedom of movement, the freedom to organize non-political groups. These are the "quiet" freedoms. They are rarely noticed by reporters, because ordinary people, not newsmakers, suffer when governments clamp down.

Typically, Marxist countries restrict both the freedom of political opposition and these other "quiet" freedoms. Non-Marxist dictatorships restrict the freedom of political opposition, but they do not so greatly restrict all these less-noticed rights. Consequently, non-Marxist countries are actually much freer than indicated by media reports. But an observer who relies on media reports will tend to equate Marxist and non-Marxist dictatorships as equally repressive. This appears to have happened in the Freedom House tabulations.

In Guatemala, for example, there certainly have been violations of the freedom of political opposition. But in Guatemala—just to take one example—there is a private university, Francisco Marroquin University, that was founded to combat the economic doctrines dominating government policy and the government-run university system. It is unthinkable that such an independent, critical institutional voice would be allowed to exist in any Marxist country. Yet Freedom House gives Guatemala a civil-liberties ranking of 6, precisely the same as it gives Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Vietnam—and a worse ranking than Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia.

The same questionable classification has occurred for many other non-Marxist countries, including South Korea, Chile, Indonesia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. These countries' failure to respect the freedom of political opposition has led the Freedom House writers to rank them with the Marxist countries in their overall level of respect for civil liberties.

It is therefore quite possible that a valid measure of the lack of freedom in Marxist regimes would clear up the anomaly in the graph above and reinforce the dictatorship theory of militarism: the Marxist countries have higher force ratios than non-Marxist dictatorships, because the Marxist regimes are much more thoroughgoing dictatorships.

Regardless how the explanation works out, the underlying finding remains: Marxist regimes have dramatically larger military forces than non-Marxist countries. One cannot address the problem of militarism in the world today without coming to grips with this basic reality.

James Payne has taught political science at Texas A&M University. He is the author of books on Latin America, social science methods, American foreign policy, and political leadership. The complete analysis on which this article is based will be published in the journal Polity in 1986.