Bitter Fruit


The Poverty of Communism, by Nick Eberstadt, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 317 pages, $24.95

"We will bury you," promised Khrushchev during his visit to the United States in 1959. He had in mind not just the growing Soviet nuclear arsenal, but also the supposed productive power that central planning would unleash. Thirty years later, the Soviets have managed to more than hold their own in the arms race, but they have decisively lost the prosperity race. Their economy is barely half the size of the U.S. economy; GNP per capita is 45 percent that of the United States, and economic growth has stalled for most of this decade. Soviet life expectancy has dropped, and infant mortality rates remain at Third World levels.

Things were not supposed to turn out this way. For more than a century, communists the world over have promised that application of their "science" could eliminate social injustice, inequality, and poverty—all evils supposedly peculiar to exploitative capitalist societies. All that communists demand to achieve utopia is that people relinquish their liberty in exchange for economic security.

In this century, a third of the world's people have been forced to take this bargain. Communists have ruled in the Soviet Union for 70 years, in China and Eastern Europe for 40 years, and in Cuba, 30 years. Enough time has passed for Marxist science to bear its fruit. And it is bitter.

Demographer Nick Eberstadt has spent years analyzing statistics and reports issued by these Communist governments. He is a visiting fellow at the Harvard University Center for Population Studies and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. In his collection of scholarly essays, The Poverty of Communism, Eberstadt carefully details the failure of Communist regimes everywhere to meet their citizens' material and health needs. As Eberstadt writes: "It is today fashionable to argue that whereas Communist rule deprives its subject populations of freedom, it nevertheless provides them with bread." In fact, this is not so.

The book has not garnered the attention it deserves. In part, I suspect this is because the publisher is notorious for failing to promote its books. In addition, its message is unwelcome in media precincts dominated by America's left-leaning intelligentsia.

The Poverty of Communism is especially timely because the recent, heartening trend of some Communist governments to admit to error confirms many of its arguments. For example, the Soviet government disclosed just recently that 20 percent of its people live in poverty. In addition, its satellite Hungary has confessed to a 25 percent poverty rate. By contrast, the U.S. official poverty rate is 13.5 percent. A family of four falls below the Soviet poverty line if they live on less than $500 per month. The comparable U.S. figure is $1,007 per month, twice as much. Much to the dismay of Marxist-Leninists everywhere, poverty is clearly not restricted to capitalist societies.

Many of Eberstadt's essays, expose the ongoing health crisis in the Soviet Union. "The U.S.S.R. is the first industrialized nation to experience secular peacetime decline in its life expectancy," he observes. In the early 1980s, life expectancy for Soviet men dropped from 67 years to 62 and for women from 76 to 73, levels not seen since 1964. And the Soviet Union is no longer alone is this respect—the citizens of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary now also are experiencing shortened life expectancies.

Infant mortality is a key measure of the efficacy of a country's health care system. Recent figures put the rate of Soviet infant mortality at 40 per thousand—about four times the U.S. rate—placing the USSR in the same category as Panama and Tonga. A particularly horrific example of substandard Soviet health care came to light recently. More than 10 infants from the Soviet town of Elista were infected with the AIDS virus because the hospital reused unsterilized needles to vaccinate them. This is how AIDS was transmitted so rapidly throughout impoverished sub-Saharan Africa. "The spectacle of an industrial country embarking on a path toward preindustrial standards of health is deeply disturbing," notes a sympathetic Eberstadt.

Another much-ballyhooed claim by Communist dictators is that they have made great strides toward eliminating illiteracy. Literacy campaigns lasting sometimes just months purportedly yield spectacular results. But hold on! If the skills of reading and writing were so easily acquired by the illiterate, the millions of hours in the classroom and the billions of dollars the United States spends on education would surely have borne far better results in our inner cities than they have.

Eberstadt shows that the seemingly enormous strides in literacy made by Cuba, "the socialist showcase," result from careful redefinitions and distortions of data. Castro claims that under his beneficent rule, Cuba's illiteracy rate dropped from 75 percent in 1953 to only 5 percent by 1979. Those figures are fudged. In fact, fully 76 percent of Cuba's population over 15 years old was literate in 1953. And Cuba's 1979 figures actually counted only Cubans between the ages of 15 and 49—the adults most likely to be literate. Adjustment for those left out by Cuba's census yields an illiteracy rate of 7 to 10 percent. This is progress, but Eberstadt points out that "revolutionary Cuba's performance in dealing with illiteracy has, been no better than that of its peers in the Western Hemisphere." Caribbean countries such as the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Trinidad-Tobago all started with rates similar to Cuba's and by 1970 had reduced illiteracy well below Cuba's rate.

Eberstadt also packs in a great deal of information about the failures of other Communist countries. For instance, productivity in China fell by more than a third between 1952 and 1979. "No other economy, be it market-oriented or centrally planned, has been thought to suffer such a profound, and secular, erosion of productivity," concludes Eberstadt. The irony is that Communism took the Chinese people, not on Mao's "Great Leap Forward," but on a "Great Leap Backwards." Only now, when Chinese Communism is being dismantled, is productivity increasing.

Communist regimes have long claimed that "they were building a system whose ability to improve life for the common people could not be equalled, and insisted that other systems of governance less effective in aiding the poor…had no right to survive." Eberstadt conclusively proves that Communist regimes are unsuccessful even on their own terms. Unfortunately for humanity, it is unlikely that these regimes will follow their own prescription and relegate themselves finally to the "dustbin of history."

Ronald Bailey is a staff writer for Forbes.