The afterlife of communism

Communist language in Google ngrams

How much currency does the language of Marxism and communism still have, thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall? I ask this question for a couple of reasons. One is the claim that Marxism - in particular what critics are calling cultural Marxism - lies behind our current problems with political correctness. The other is teaching students about political economy and not being quite sure how much they know about communist regimes and Marxist ideology. Most of them were born over a decade after the fall of communism.

To give one answer to this question, I created a number of ngrams which show the frequency of particular strings of words in books published in the US each year. I was curious about whether the rhetoric of communism continues to be used and in particular whether 1989 was a turning point, for better or worse. (Here is another attempt focused on academic work.)

The main conclusion from this exercise is that most of the distinctive terms that refer to the communist system declined substantially either starting in the 1970s or after 1989. (Phrases related to repression like Gulag and show trial were some of the few to avoid this decline.) If Marxist thinking were continuing to influence contemporary thought, one would expect this terminology to endure a bit more. This reflects my own anecdotal sense that Marxist thinking has in general become much less popular in the social sciences (I can’t speak for the humanities) and that the fall of regimes based on that ideology played a significant role in this downturn.

Regimes

As the first figure shows, use of the word communism in English books published in the US reached a peak in the 1950s and 60s before entering a free-fall that plateaued around 1980. More surprising is that socialism mirrored this decline with a delay. And even more curiously a good amount of the decline in the use of socialism took place after 1990 when it was freed from its association with communism (or maybe it was too closely associated with communism). In another surprise, today both terms are used about equally in books.

The next figure shows that use of the term Marxism also fits the fall of communism thesis; its decline begins around 1990, though there does seem to be an uptick in the last decade. Leninism’s decline began earlier, in the early 1970s, and it ends at the same level as Stalinism, perhaps vindicating Pipes’s view that Leninism inevitably led to Stalinism. Given continued veneration of Mao in China, it might be surprising that it is used far less frequently than the other terms. Isolating Maoism to see its trend more clearly (not shown), there is a hump in the 1970s, a nadir in the 1990s, and then a gradual increase in the last two decades.

Theoretical terms

One might expect the theoretical apparatus of communism to fare poorly in the absence of a regime promoting it. There does seem to be a long-term decline in the use of “dialectical materialism”, but “historical materialism” has held up better, and “false consciousness” has actually increased over most of the postwar period.

Class

The use of language related to the class focus of communist regimes seems to have been declining since the 1970s with 1989 just the midpoint of its decline. The 1960s and 1970s were highpoints. This includes both the use of communist-tinged terminology like proletariat and bourgeoisie as well as the analysis that forecast class conflict/struggle and related class to the means/mode of production.

Economy

The communist economic system would seem to be something that has long been confined to the dustbin of history. There has been a distinct decline in the use of the terms connected with the communist economy and 1989 stands as a fairly clear inflection point. This includes terms like collectivization, central planning, and the planned economy. (The upward bump in the early 1990s is presumably related to debates about reforms.)

The term nationalization was subject to a longer-term decline (albeit from a much higher level, presumably because it is not as linked to communism). Overall, the language of the communist economy has become much less popular since the end of communism.

Repression

Communist regimes developed a distinctive repressive apparatus. References to these organs have actually increased since 1989 for both show trial and the Gulag (which very clearly took hold after the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s work in 1973). The term enemy of the people, popularized by Stalin, however, had plateaued by the 1980s with only a recent uptick (perhaps related to Trump’s fondness for the phrase). (Note: “show trial” and “enemy of the people” were both multiplied by 5 to fit on the same graph as Gulag.)

Leaders

The foundational leaders of the communist movement have mostly seen better days. Stalin and Mao both peaked towards the end of their rule and then declined. Lenin, by contrast, rose gradually until 1970 and declined with his comrades. Marx, however, avoided this drop off and his mentions are relatively stable since 1990, perhaps because of his theoretical contributions. (Looking at the actual citations, it doesn’t appear that Groucho and his brothers are carrying the team here.)

The main leaders of the satellite states in Eastern Europe saw steep declines after they fell from power. (Tito, who is not included, has a considerably higher rate of mentions and less of a decline; I wonder if his name may have other uses.)

Dissent

Communist regimes not only pioneered a distinct economic and repressive system, but they also gave birth to the idea of the modern dissident. Some of the best-known dissidents had their moment in the sun, for Havel and Walesa soon after the regime fell as both became presidents, but they have declined substantially since then. I added Mandela to this search for comparison and his mentions are both higher and more persistent. He may be the face of dissidence today rather than the Eastern European dissidents.

The term dissident itself also peaks at the fall of the regime, though it still maintains currency.

Conclusion

Overall, the language of communism is used less frequently since 1989 and sometimes the decline started earlier. Among the areas that were hit hardest were regime types (curiously with the exception of communism itself, whose decline came earlier), class-related terminology, descriptors of the economic system, leaders of communist states at the time, and dissidence. Some of the areas that avoided this decline were the repressive organs like the Gulag, Marx himself, and the term false consciousness.

These results provide a slight correction to Klein’s (2013) finding that “since 1880 there has been a rise in mentalities, myths, and practices suited to the governmentalization of social affairs.” In at least one of the more extreme areas of governmentalization, there was a reversal of this trend as the communist system and much that went along with it was found to be bankrupt. It has, however, bequeathed to us a set of terms for referring to political repression that remain popular. If there is a revival of Marxism, cultural or otherwise, it is not readily apparent in the language of English-language books.

Klein, Daniel B. 2013. “Cultural Trends as Seen in Ngrams: Karl Polanyi with a Hayekian Twist.” GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 13-10, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2255246 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2255246