Back to top

Why Communism Failed and Liberal Democracy Prospered


Published: April 2, 2020

Liberal democracy triumphs where communism fails because it limits the government’s ability to make important decisions on behalf of its citizens. Communism undermines individual choice by putting government power before individual rights. Liberal democracy successfully balances individual rights with majority rule. By respecting and protecting equality and fundamental rights, liberal democracy allows humans to thrive.

Discussion Questions

  1. Marx argued that social and political disharmony would vanish under communism. What methods have communist governments used to ensure Marx’s vision of harmony?
  2. Liberal democracy has been criticized for protecting only the interests of the wealthy. In what ways does liberal democracy protect all individuals, regardless of class?

Additional Resources

  • Read “Capitalism, Socialism, and Freedom” by Peter Berkowitz, available here.
  • Listen to "Challenges to Liberal Democracy" with Larry Diamond, available here.
  • Read "Communism's Bloody Century" by Stephen Kotkin, available here.
View Transcript

Karl Marx claimed that communism would inevitably triumph over liberal democracy. Yet during the 20th century, liberal democracies delivered unprecedented freedom and wealth to their citizens, while communist countries decayed into impoverished dictatorships.

Why did communism fail and liberal democracy prosper?

First, unlike communism, liberal democracy successfully balances individual rights with majority rule. This allows liberal democracies to pass laws that reflect the preferences and judgments of the people while preserving individual freedom and equality under the law.

Second, communism tasks government officials with making most decisions about economics, society, and politics. In other words, the government makes decisions on behalf of its people in every major area of life. Liberal democracies, on the other hand, believe that individuals, whatever their flaws, are generally better able to act in their own interests, and gives them the right to make those choices.

Finally, while Marx argued that social and political disharmony would vanish under communism, liberal democracies are grounded in a more pragmatic and realistic understanding of human nature. They recognize that while humanity is capable of cooperation and devotion to justice, human beings also have unique wants and needs, that are bound to lead to conflict. As a consequence, liberal democracies design political institutions to constrain the passions and biases of the people and their elected representatives. Ultimately, liberal democracy begins with the premise that human beings are born equally, with fundamental rights that governments must respect and protect. It is this foundation that allows individuals to thrive personally, politically, and economically.