Tiananmen Square, China 1989
The critics of communism have long pointed out the failure of states like China and the Soviet Union, which all attempted to implement Marxist doctrine. The variety of liberal responses to this is rather interesting, and the shaky nature of the premises used is rather telling. Some contend that China isn't all that bad, and make grand proclamations about how "developed" it is, and how wonderful things supposedly are there. (Obama has made this argument before - see below.) Even the most cursory examination of the actual evidence shows how wrong this is - China is extremely poor, and their standard of living lags far behind anything in the industrialized West. There is economic development in China, it is true; but it seems to do little to raise the standard of living there; and it's not all that it's cracked up to be.
Others admit that China is poor and miserable, but say that it is capitalist, and thus try to put the blame for its failures on capitalism. Again, even the most cursory examination of the evidence shows that this is not the case, and that China is vastly far removed from a capitalist society, possessing no freedom of the market like that found in the West. It's hard to decide which is more lame - the attempt to find a scapegoat, or their odd choice of which one to use; but regardless of the comparison in lameness, there is plenty of lameness to go around; and their attempt to shift the blame is ultimately illegitimate.
Karl Marx, chief founder of Marxism
Friedrich Engels, co-founder of Marxism
Not all communists will offer this alternative description of the economy of China, but the assertion that the states called "communist" are not really communist at all is a common one. Many will even admit that there are no existing communist success stories to point to, but will say that real communism has never been tried - that the ideas put forth by Marx and Engels have never really been put into effect.
Marx and Engels
In fairness to this argument, the fact it's never been done is not itself proof that it can't happen; but it does suggest that some extraordinary evidence is required to prove it can, as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We can't be expected to believe that there really is a Death Star that can destroy planets instantly, if we haven't seen it - the standards of evidence just don't work that way.
"No problem," reply some communists, "just let us perform the experiment, and we'll see who's right." The problem with this argument is not merely that the experiment is fraught with danger, and could cause considerable harm - the problem is also that it really has been tried, and it hasn't worked. The ones who make the "let's try it" argument are only partially correct when they say that the ideas put forth by Marx and Engels have never been implemented - many of them have been implemented; and their result has been the dismal failures in China and the Soviet Union (not to mention a number of other failures that I will give a list for later in this post). Because many ideas have been implemented, the empirical evidence of the experiments with communism can't just be dismissed - they are admissible evidence in the argument about the merits of communism.
Body of Peter Fechter, an East German who died trying to escape from communism, Berlin Wall 1962
A soldier who successfully escaped from communism by leaping over barbed wire, Berlin Wall 1961
Some of the "let's try it" crowd have conceded this point, but point out that others of Marx's ideas have not been implemented, and conclude from this that the experiment has not really been tried after all. One of the problems with this argument is that many of these ideas are the "successful results" that Marxism is after, and explaining a lack of successful results as being evidence itself that the experiment was not tried is not rational. (By analogy to another argument, the ancient alchemists hoped that copper, lead, nickel, and zinc could be converted into gold; and tried many times to convert these metals into gold without successful results. If we were to apply this argument here, it would say that the lack of successful results is itself evidence that it hasn't been tried, or at least that a particular method for doing so hasn't been tried. This argument refuses to even entertain the possibility that it is just flat impossible to do so - a symptom of a closed mind, dogmatically dedicated to false assumptions. I could dwell here on how dangerous it is to think that way, but I will content myself with laughing it off as a cartload of utter nonsense; finding the humor in its sheer irrationality.)
Flag of the Soviet Union
But in fairness to the "let's try it" crowd, not all of Mr. Marx's unrealized ideas are the successful results he is after - some are policies advocated to achieve those goals. I will focus here on the most obvious of them, which is his belief that the state should be given tremendous power to redistribute wealth (not to mention doing other things), and that it should use this power to pursue the goals that he is after. Many a communist will point to the abuses of power under the economies called communist, and claim that this is evidence that the ideas advocated by Marx have not been implemented - that people used the power given for purposes other than the ones intended.
There are problems with this argument stemming from the undesirability of some of the goals themselves, but let's focus for a moment on the more praiseworthy goals, and suppose for the sake of argument that they're all praiseworthy. It is certainly true that no government attempting communism has ever used the power it's given to pursue all of these goals; but the idea that they should be given absolute power first has been implemented more than once, with the result in every case being that the power is abused and abused greatly. Perhaps some of the policies they enable would be desirable if implemented (though even this is a stretch), but step one for each of these policies - namely, giving government the absolute power needed to pursue them - has already been implemented more than once, and the clear and unequivocal evidence from these experiments is that they have all failed in step one. (Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea, and all the former Soviet countries, among others.) Thus, the argument that they haven't been tried doesn't work, because the critical first step has been attempted many times; and it has ended every time in abject failure; proving that these "unimplemented" policies in communism have all failed in actual, real-world practice.
Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, early advocate of a "philosopher-king"
Some of the communists would be willing to admit this evidence, but would reply that if only the system had the right people in charge, the policies would get past step one and be implemented successfully. I would reply that the evidence of the trials themselves shows how unlikely this is; and even if it were to happen once, it would not be likely to happen again. People from Plato onward have suggested that a good ruler, once in power, would be able to ensure continued success in government by the ability to pick their successor, and use their superior wisdom to select another like themselves who would rule well. But experience has suggested that this is not the case; and that in the words of a saying quoted by John Locke in 1689, "The reigns of good princes have always been most dangerous to the liberties of their people." We find a good ruler and give him (or her) greater power; but soon enough, a bad one comes along and puts that power to less desirable uses, even abusing it to a shocking extent; and people have cause to regret that they ever gave the government so much power in the first place.
John Locke, English philosopher who quoted the saying given above
It's happened time and time again, and there's no reason to suppose we can ensure it will stop happening - on the contrary, there is every reason to suppose that it's highly probable it will happen again, and that our society cannot bear the risk of these tremendous abuses being repeated. Perhaps an unbroken chain of good leaders is likely, but I doubt it - experience suggests that a bad one will come along and destroy the system, and generations will pass away before it's repaired. A tyrant can be dethroned only at the expense of much blood; and often even bloodshed produces no results in these matters. The costs of a tyrant are too bitter to contemplate, and giving government absolute power is not worth the risk of a tyranny.
Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which was crushed by the Soviet Union
Prague Spring, a 1968 revolution in Czechoslovakia (also crushed by the Soviets)
In short: There are no examples of communist success stories to point to, and many of Marx's ideas have been implemented in real-world practice and met with failure every time. Having rulers good enough to be trusted with absolute power is shown by experience to be highly unlikely (almost impossible), and one bad ruler coming along can ruin the system in a heartbeat - causing bloodshed, continued tyranny, or both. Communism can never work in the real world, and the great fantasy of Karl Marx should be thrown away on "the ash-heap of history," never to be revived or tried again.
Brandenburg Gate, 1989 (day after Berlin Wall fell)
Evidence that communism causes poverty
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
Why equalizing income is a bad goal
Part of a series about
Communism in theory: Why Marxism can never work
The "Communist Manifesto" (and how Marxism got started)
Marx's "labor theory of value" (and why it doesn't work)
Problems with equalizing income (even in theory)
Problems with rewarding good behavior (under communism)
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
Communism in practice: The results of the experiments
Revolution in Russia: How the madness got started
History's horror stories: The "grand experiments" with communism
Germany and Korea: The experiments that neither side wanted
Civil war in China: How China was divided
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)