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One thing I noticed is that many Communist governments are becoming more socially conservative the more they establish themselves.

Be it the USSR from legalizing homosexuality to banning Jazz, Jeans and Jews.

To China, from giving women rights to reviving Confucianism.

Why do regimes with progressive ideologies get rid of them as fast as they implement them?

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  • You need far more examples to justify your premise that Communist governments start off relatively liberal then "turn more socially conservative over time". Here you've merely given for each of two countries, one example of a liberal policy early on. (And the example of legalizing homosexuality in the USSR is dubious given that it lasted little more than 10 years at the beginning of the USSR's turbulent existence.) And for "turning more socially conservative over time", you then give only 3 dubious examples for the USSR and 1 dubious example for China.
    – user103496
    Commented Mar 18 at 8:47

4 Answers 4

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In communist countries, ideology often takes a backseat to practical concerns. In particular, they seek control above all. Jeans and jazz were American cultural exports, and the Soviet Union did not want it's citizens signing, dressing, and talking like Americans. Jews too were persecuted under Stalin on the fear that they were "Western" or "international" influences on the population, and then again when opposition to "Zionism" became the USSR's foreign policy.

China's softening stance on Confucianism likewise seems to be because it's viewed as a cultural counterbalance to Western influence... but also because its a philosophy that stresses obedience to authority.

After 72 years’ rule, today’s Communist Party is no longer the engine of revolution, but of power retention. Preaching the virtues of a harmonious society and respect for authority now suits it very well. And as Mr Xi pushes Chinese political culture as an alternative to Western democracy, anchoring its ideology to a two-millennia-old tradition is a handy way of conferring legitimacy upon it—particularly as it is, unlike Marxism, a homegrown philosophy. Indeed, Mr Xi calls Confucianism “the cultural soil that nourishes the Chinese people”. It is telling that today China’s all-powerful leader is wont to invoke the thinking of a 2,500-year old philosopher as well as that of Mao.

You didn't mention it, but some observers claim too that China's recent souring on homosexuality is tied to the fear that it's a "Western" influence on the country, and because China shot itself in the foot a bit with the one-child policy and they badly need to increase their birth rate.

At the end of the day though it's worth remembering that nearly all Communist countries were deeply conservative countries before Communism. There were practical reasons anti-Semitism reared its head again in the Soviet Union, yes, but you can't discount the fact that a lot of its leaders just never abandoned the beliefs they picked up in Tsarist Russia.

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As practically all self-declared communism-seeking regimes turned out authoritarian, they had less need for internal 'Permanent Revolution' and more need to stamp out destabilizing 'deviationism' (i.e. not agreeing with the supreme leader). Once you have an extensive repressive apparatus in place, it's easy to use it for whatever.

Also, most of these regimes exhibited an increased degree of nationalism over time --true, in part due to wars not always started by themselves, but anyhow these created the need to genuinely appeal to a broader domestic base (despite the lack of true elections, self-motivated bullet catchers were still needed). And since the regimes were repressive in mindset, genuinely appealing to those with a repressive worldview in other matters was a relatively easy social contract. And so was the use of internal scapegoats of all kinds. Even better when they can be easily painted as a 5th column of an external enemy. It should be said here that this scapegoating mechanism also works fairly well in 'illiberal democracies'.

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One thing to note is that revolutionary regimes have often tried a large variety of cockamamie schemes that shortly had to be scrapped.

Mao's backyard furnaces are a prime example of this, since revolutionary regimes often inherit an undeveloped culture and economy, and existing technical experts who could potentially better control policy errors may also be amongst the political opponents of the regime who have to be purged (because the technical experts may be relatively privileged under the old regime, and whose rentier behaviours may be causing its overall backwardness).

In the early stages of the Soviet project, many reforms based on sex equality in the workplace had to be dialled back somewhat, because it upset sexual relationships and caused crisis in reproduction. Instead, the Soviets learned to organise work around motherhood. This was only shortly before they had to spend millions of soldiers' lives fighting off the Nazis.

There were also experiments with 6-day (instead of 7-day) weeks and the abolition of the common weekend and traditional Sunday day of rest. The rationale was to improve the employment of plant and capital machinery, and therefore industrial capacity and labour productivity. But this too was abolished when it made it impossible for couples, families, and friend networks to socialise together properly.

In terms of Soviet anti-semitism, this is often hyped by bourgeois Jews and Jewish identarians who were expropriated from property, whose religious practices were stifled (likewise with Christians), and who often fled to the West with a strong mentality of grievance (much like Cuban exiles, for example). There was also paranoia later in the Stalinist era that those who maintained Jewish identity, or who might be suspected to have such an identity, could be part of an enemy sympathy network.

But in fact, those who were merely Jewish by heritage but were clearly loyal to the Soviet project, were able to do very well. Unlike for example under Hitler, where people deemed Jews were slaughtered on heritage grounds regardless of their politics, sympathies, or genuine self-identity.

So the ultimate answer is simply that regimes learn that many innovations in culture or social organisation do not in fact work properly, and they then reverse or re-adapt the changes.

It would be a mistake to characterise the USSR as "socially conservative" though - in any given year of its existence, it was considerably more enlightened on many social issues than the capitalist West.

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    "in any given year of its existence, it was considerably more enlightened on many social issues than the capitalist West." - This is an awfully big claim to add in a single sentence after everything else, without justification. Commented Mar 18 at 3:30
  • @KarlKnechtel, well I addressed many of the specific points raised by the question author, explaining how communist regimes often started out extremely radical then retrenched as they became more aware of the complexities and limitations. The reason for my final rider is to deny that this relative retrenchment and moderation, amounted to a regression to "social conservatism". I'm not aware of any social issue where USSR policy was behind the times or backward, relative to the West in general at the same point in time.
    – Steve
    Commented Mar 18 at 5:08
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All your examples are authoritarian states (and your observations are common across economic systems among such governments)

So your actual question isn't "why do communist countries [...]" but rather "why do authoritarian countries trend towrads social conservatism".

And the answer to that is quite simple:

Progressive movements are the most likely place to start a revolution or protests (Edit: in a conservative government, which most dictatorships are as they are trying to preserve the status quo).

So in order to maintain the current power structure you do not want progress in any way (as some social progress would encourage asking for more and eventually the people would ask for participation).

Furthermore, as evidenced by the USA, by intentionally keeping the societyl squabble concerning rather inconsequential (for the system, not the people) topics like abortion, homosexuality, etc. you keep the progressive forces in the country too busy to question the system overall and you have room for compromises when conflict emerges.

And in order to put more distance between the "current progressive fight" and your power structures, conservative pushback makes sense and gives you more room to compromise to calm outbreaks of protests etc.

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    Progressive movements are the most likely place to start a revolution While that sounds entirely self-congratulatory, to progressives, I wonder if you could cite us instances of progressive-led - in the modern US sense of the word - revolutions? (No, "protests" in democratic countries do not count. Hardass totalitarian countries like this Q). Here's a list in wiki to get you started: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:20th-century_revolutions Commented Mar 7 at 16:06
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    About the only ones I can think of are some Indigenous-led revolutions in South America, assuming those are actually socially progressive. Commented Mar 7 at 16:12
  • Yes, please add some evidence to support the Progressive movements are the most likely place to start a revolution. I don't see why socially conservative movements would be any less likely. Off the top of my relatively ignorant head, I can think of several rapid and/or violent regime changes that were based on more socially conservative ideas (e.g. nationalism, religion) and not many that were based on what I would call progressive ideas. The French Revolution, perhaps? In any case, your claim would need some support.
    – terdon
    Commented Mar 9 at 15:13
  • @terdon, see my edit. Authoritarian regimes cling to the status quo once established (because they are the status quo), so they become conservative, which reenforces the risk of a progressive rebellion
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Mar 17 at 15:43
  • @terdon You need to be careful grouping religion and nationalism with the socially conservative when it comes to revolutions. Like the establishment of a country is usually more progressive than the nationalistic attempts of an established country to get people in line. Similarly religion is a mixed bag, like if you actually read that stuff, it's often pretty progressive at least for the time, while religions enforced upon others usually have a much different vibe. Also your "conservative revolutions" of the 20th century were usually coups or state terrorism but no bottom up change.
    – haxor789
    Commented May 27 at 11:44

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