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We Lived Better Then

by Stephen Gowans

Over two decades ago Vaclav Havel, the pampered scion of a wealthy Prague family, helped usher in a period of reaction, in which the holdings and estates of former landowners and captains of industry were restored to their previous owners, while unemployment, homelessness, and insecurity—abolished by the Reds– were put back on the agenda. Havel is eulogized by the usual suspects, but not by his numberless victims, who were pushed back into an abyss of exploitation by the Velvet revolution and other retrograde eruptions. With the fall of Communism allowing Havel and his brother to recover their family’s vast holdings, Havel’s life—he worked in a brewery under Communism—became much richer. The same can’t be said for countless others, whose better lives under Communism were swept away by a swindle that will, in the coming days, be lionized in the mass media on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s demolition. The anniversary is no time for celebration, except for the minority that has profited from it. For the bulk of us it ought to be an occasion to reflect on what the bottom 99 percent of humanity was able to achieve for ourselves outside the strictures, instabilities and unnecessary cruelties of capitalism.

Over the seven decades of its existence, and despite having to spend so much time preparing, fighting, and recovering from wars, Soviet socialism managed to create one of the great achievements of human history: a mass industrial society that eliminated most of the inequalities of wealth, income, education and opportunity that plagued what preceded it, what came after it, and what competed with it; a society in which health care and education through university were free (and university students received living stipends); where rent, utilities and public transportation were subsidized, along with books, periodicals and cultural events; where inflation was eliminated, pensions were generous, and child care was subsidized. By 1933, with the capitalist world deeply mired in a devastating economic crisis, unemployment was declared abolished, and remained so for the next five and a half decades, until socialism, itself was abolished. Excluding the war years, from 1928, when socialism was introduced, until Mikhail Gorbachev began to take it apart in the late 1980s, the Soviet system of central planning and public ownership produced unfailing economic growth, without the recessions and downturns that plagued the capitalist economies of North America, Japan and Western Europe. And in most of those years, the Soviet and Eastern European economies grew faster.

The Communists produced economic security as robust (and often more so) than that of the richest countries, but with fewer resources and a lower level of development and in spite of the unflagging efforts of the capitalist world to sabotage socialism. Soviet socialism was, and remains, a model for humanity — of what can be achieved outside the confines and contradictions of capitalism. But by the end of the 1980s, counterrevolution was sweeping Eastern Europe and Mikhail Gorbachev was dismantling the pillars of Soviet socialism. Naively, blindly, stupidly, some expected Gorbachev’s demolition project to lead the way to a prosperous consumer society, in which Soviet citizens, their bank accounts bulging with incomes earned from new jobs landed in a robust market economy, would file into colorful, luxurious shopping malls, to pick clean store shelves bursting with consumer goods. Others imagined a new era of a flowering multiparty democracy and expanded civil liberties, coexisting with public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, a model that seemed to owe more to Utopian blueprints than hard-headed reality.

Of course, none of the great promises of the counterrevolution were kept. While at the time the demise of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was proclaimed as a great victory for humanity, not least by leftist intellectuals in the United States, two decades later there’s little to celebrate. The dismantling of socialism has, in a word, been a catastrophe, a great swindle that has not only delivered none of what it promised, but has wreaked irreparable harm, not only in the former socialist countries, but throughout the Western world, as well. Countless millions have been plunged deep into poverty, imperialism has been given a free hand, and wages and benefits in the West have bowed under the pressure of intensified competition for jobs and industry unleashed by a flood of jobless from the former socialist countries, where joblessness once, rightly, was considered an obscenity. Numberless voices in Russia, Romania, East Germany and elsewhere lament what has been stolen from them — and from humanity as a whole: “We lived better under communism. We had jobs. We had security.” And with the threat of jobs migrating to low-wage, high unemployment countries of Eastern Europe, workers in Western Europe have been forced to accept a longer working day, lower pay, and degraded benefits. Today, they fight a desperate rearguard action, where the victories are few, the defeats many. They too lived better — once.

But that’s only part of the story. For others, for investors and corporations, who’ve found new markets and opportunities for profitable investment, and can reap the benefits of the lower labor costs that attend intensified competition for jobs, the overthrow of socialism has, indeed, been something to celebrate. Equally, it has been welcomed by the landowning and industrial elite of the pre-socialist regimes whose estates and industrial concerns have been recovered and privatized. But they’re a minority. Why should the rest of us celebrate our own mugging?

Prior to the dismantling of socialism, most people in the world were protected from the vicissitudes of the global capitalist market by central planning and high tariff barriers. But once socialism fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and with China having marched resolutely down the capitalist road, the pool of unprotected labor available to transnational corporations expanded many times over. Today, a world labor force many times larger than the domestic pool of US workers — and willing to work dirt cheap — awaits the world’s corporations. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what the implications are for North American workers and their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan: an intense competition of all against all for jobs and industry. Inevitably, incomes fall, benefits are eroded, and working hours extended. Predictably, with labor costs tumbling, profits grow fat, capital surpluses accumulate and create bubbles, financial crises erupt and predatory wars to secure investment opportunities break out.

Growing competition for jobs and industry has forced workers in Western Europe to accept less. They work longer hours, and in some cases, for less pay and without increases in benefits, to keep jobs from moving to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other former socialist countries — which, under the rule of the Reds, once provided jobs for all. More work for less money is a pleasing outcome for the corporate class, and turns out to be exactly the outcome fascists engineered for their countries’ capitalists in the 1930s. The methods, to be sure, were different, but the anti-Communism of Mussolini and Hitler, in other hands, has proved just as useful in securing the same retrograde ends. Nobody who is  subject to the vagaries of the labor market – almost all of us — should be glad Communism was abolished.

Maybe some us don’t know we’ve been mugged. And maybe some of us haven’t been. Take the radical US historian Howard Zinn, for example, who, along with most other prominent Left intellectuals, greeted the overthrow of Communism with glee [1]. I, no less than others, admired Zinn’s books, articles and activism, though I came to expect his ardent anti-Communism as typical of left US intellectuals. To be sure, in a milieu hostile to Communism, it should come as no surprise that conspicuous displays of anti-Communism become a survival strategy for those seeking to establish a rapport, and safeguard their reputations, with a larger (and vehemently anti-Communist) audience.

But there may be another reason for the anti-Communism of those whose political views leave them open to charges of being soft on Communism, and therefore of having horns. As dissidents in their own society, there was always a natural tendency for them to identify with dissidents elsewhere – and the pro-capitalist, anti-socialist propaganda of the West quite naturally elevated dissidents in socialist countries to the status of heroes, especially those who were jailed, muzzled and otherwise repressed by the state. For these people, the abridgement of civil liberties anywhere looms large, for the abridgement of their own civil liberties would be an event of great personal significance. By comparison, the Reds’ achievements in providing a comfortable frugality and economic security to all, while recognized intellectually as an achievement of some note, is less apt to stir the imagination of one who has a comfortable income, the respect of his peers, and plenty of people to read his books and attend his lectures. He doesn’t have to scavenge discarded coal in garbage dumps to eke out a bare, bleak, and unrewarding existence. Some do.

Karol, 14, and his sister Alina, 12, everyday trudge to a dump, where mixed industrial waste is deposited, just outside Swietochlowice, in formerly socialist Poland. There, along with their father, they look for scrap metal and second grade coal, anything to fetch a few dollars to buy a meager supply of groceries. “There was better life in Communism,” says Karol’s father, 49, repeating a refrain heard over and over again, not only in Poland, but also throughout the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. “I was working 25 years for the same company and now I cannot find a job – any job. They only want young and skilled workers.” [2] According to Gustav Molnar, a political analyst with the Laszlo Teleki Institute, “the reality is that when foreign firms come here, they’re only interested in hiring people under 30. It means half the population is out of the game.” [3] That may suit the bottom lines of foreign corporations – and the overthrow of socialism may have been a pleasing intellectual outcome for well-fed, comfortable intellectuals from Boston – but it hardly suits that part of the Polish population that must scramble over mountains of industrial waste – or perish. Maciej Gdula, 34, a founding member of the group, Krytyka Polityczna, or Political Critique, complains that many Poles “are disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises of capitalism. They promised us a world of consumption, stability and freedom. Instead, we got an entire generation of Poles who emigrated to go wash dishes.” [4] Under socialism “there was always work for everybody” [5] – at home. And always a place to live, free schools to go to, and doctors to see, without charge. So why was Howard Zinn glad that Communism was overthrown?

That the overthrow of socialism has failed to deliver anything of benefit to the majority is plain to see. One decade after counterrevolution skittered across Eastern Europe, 17 former socialist countries were immeasurably poorer. In Russia, poverty had tripled. One child in 10 – three million Russian children – lived like animals, ill-fed, dressed in rags, and living, if they were lucky, in dirty, squalid flats. In Moscow alone, 30,000 to 50,000 children slept in the streets. Life expectancy, education, adult-literacy and income declined. A report by the European Children’s Trust, written in 2000, revealed that 40 percent of the population of the former socialist countries – a number equal to one of every two US citizens – lived in poverty. Infant mortality and tuberculosis were on the rise, approaching Third World levels. The situation, according to the UN, was catastrophic. And everywhere the story was the same. [6, 7, 8, 9]

Paul Cockshot points out that:

The restoration of the market mechanism in Russia was a vast controlled experiment. Nation, national character and culture, natural resources and productive potential remained the same, only the economic mechanism changed. If Western economists were right, then we should have expected economic growth and living standards to have leapt forward after the Yeltsin shock therapy. Instead the country became an economic basket-case. Industrial production collapsed, technically advanced industries atrophied, and living standards fell so much that the death rate shot up by over a third leading to some 7.7 million extra deaths.

For many Russians, life became immeasurably worse.

If you were old, if you were a farmer, if you were a manual worker, the market was a great deal worse than even the relatively stagnant Soviet economy of Brezhnev. The recovery under Putin, such as it was, came almost entirely as a side effect of rising world oil prices, the very process that had operated under Brezhnev. [10]

While the return of capitalism made life harsher for some, it proved lethal for others.  From 1991 to 1994, life expectancy in Russia tumbled by five years. By 2008, it had slipped to less than 60 years for Russian men, a full seven years lower than in 1985 when Gorbachev came to power and began to dismantle Soviet socialism. Today “only a little over half of the ex-Communist countries have regained their pretransition life-expectancy levels,” according to a study published in the medical journal, The Lancet. [11]

“Life was better under the Communists,” concludes Aleksandr. “The stores are full of things, but they’re very expensive.” Victor pines for the “stability of an earlier era of affordable health care, free higher education and housing, and the promise of a comfortable retirement – things now beyond his reach.” [12] A 2008 report in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, noted that “many Russians interviewed said they still grieve for their long, lost country.” Among the grievers is Zhanna Sribnaya, 37, a Moscow writer.  Sribnaya remembers “Pioneer camps when everyone could go to the Black Sea for summer vacations. Now, only people with money can take those vacations.” [13]

Ion Vancea, a Romanian who struggles to get by on a picayune $40 per month pension says, “It’s true there was not much to buy back then, but now prices are so high we can’t afford to buy food as well as pay for electricity.” Echoing the words of many Romanians, Vancea adds, “Life was 10 times better under (Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae) Ceausescu.” [14] An opinion poll carried out last year found that Vancea isn’t in the minority. Conducted by the Romanian polling organisation CSOP, the survey found that almost one-half of Romanians thought life was better under Ceauşescu, compared to less than one-quarter who thought life is better today. And while Ceauşescu is remembered in the West as a Red devil, only seven percent said they suffered under Communism.  Why do half of Romanians think life was better under the Reds? They point to full employment, decent living conditions for all, and guaranteed housing – advantages that disappeared with the fall of Communism. [15]

Next door, in Bulgaria, 80 percent say they are worse off now that the country has transitioned to a market economy. Only five percent say their standard of living has improved. [16] Mimi Vitkova, briefly Bulgaria’s health minister for two years in the mid-90s, sums up life after the overthrow of socialism: “We were never a rich country, but when we had socialism our children were healthy and well-fed. They all got immunized. Retired people and the disabled were provided for and got free medicine. Our hospitals were free.” But things have changed, she says. “Today, if a person has no money, they have no right to be cured. And most people have no money. Our economy was ruined.” [17] A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a paltry one in nine Bulgarians believe ordinary people are better off as a result of the transition to capitalism. And few regard the state as representing their interests. Only 16 percent say it is run for the benefit of all people. [18]

In the former East Germany a new phenomenon has arisen: Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the GDR. During the Cold War era, East Germany’s relative poverty was attributed to public ownership and central planning – sawdust in the gears of the economic engine, according to anti-socialist mythology. But the propaganda conveniently ignored the fact that the eastern part of Germany had always been less developed than the west, that it had been plundered of its key human assets at the end of World War II by US occupation forces, that the Soviet Union had carted off everything of value to indemnify itself for its war losses, and that East Germany bore the brunt of Germany’s war reparations to Moscow. [19] On top of that, those who fled East Germany were said to be escaping the repression of a brutal regime, and while some may indeed have been ardent anti-Communists fleeing repression by the state, most were economic refugees, seeking the embrace of a more prosperous West, whose riches depended in large measure on a history of slavery, colonialism, and ongoing imperialism—processes of capital accumulation the Communist countries eschewed and spent precious resources fighting against.

Today, nobody of an unprejudiced mind would say that the riches promised East Germans have been realized. Unemployment, once unheard of, runs in the double digits and rents have skyrocketed. The region’s industrial infrastructure – weaker than West Germany’s during the Cold War, but expanding — has now all but disappeared. And the population is dwindling, as economic refugees, following in the footsteps of Cold War refugees before them, make their way westward in search of jobs and opportunity. [20] “We were taught that capitalism was cruel,” recalls Ralf Caemmerer, who works for Otis Elevator. “You know, it didn’t turn out to be nonsense.” [21] As to the claim that East Germans have “freedom” Heinz Kessler, a former East German defense minister replies tartly, “Millions of people in Eastern Europe are now free from employment, free from safe streets, free from health care, free from social security.” [22] Still, Howard Zinn was glad communism collapsed. But then, he didn’t live in East Germany.

So, who’s doing better? Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright turned president, came from a prominent, vehemently anti-socialist Prague family, which had extensive holdings, “including construction companies, real estate and the Praque Barrandov film studios”. [23] The jewel in the crown of the Havel family holdings was the Lucerna Palace, “a pleasure palace…of arcades, theatres, cinemas, night-clubs, restaurants, and ballrooms,” according to Frommer’s. It became “a popular spot for the city’s nouveaux riches to congregate,” including a young Havel, who, raised in the lap of luxury by a governess, doted on by servants, and chauffeured around town in expensive automobiles, “spent his earliest years on the Lucerna’s polished marble floors.” Then, tragedy struck – at least, from Havel’s point of view. The Reds expropriated Lucerna and the family’s other holdings, and put them to use for the common good, rather than for the purpose of providing the young Havel with more servants. Havel was sent to work in a brewery.

“I was different from my schoolmates whose families did not have domestics, nurses or chauffeurs,” Havel once wrote. “But I experienced these differences as a disadvantage. I felt excluded from the company of my peers.” [24] Yet the company of his peers must not have been to Havel’s tastes, for as president, he was quick to reclaim the silver spoon the Reds had taken from his mouth. Celebrated throughout the West as a hero of intellectual freedom, he was instead a hero of capitalist restoration, presiding over a mass return of nationalized property, including Lucerna and his family’s other holdings.

The Roman Catholic Church is another winner. The pro-capitalist Hungarian government has returned to the Roman Catholic Church much of the property nationalized by the Reds, who placed the property under common ownership for the public good. With recovery of many of the Eastern and Central European properties it once owned, the Church is able to reclaim its pre-socialist role of parasite — raking in vast amounts of unearned wealth in rent, a privilege bestowed for no other reason than it owns title to the land. Hungary also pays the Vatican a US$9.2 million annuity for property it has been unable to return. [25]  (Note that a 2008 survey of 1,000 Hungarians by the Hungarian polling firm Gif Piackutato found that 60 percent described the era of Communist rule under Red leader Janos Kadar as Hungary’s happiest while only 14 percent said the same about the post-Communist era.  [26])

The Church, former landowners, and CEOs aside, most people of the former socialist bloc aren’t pleased that the gains of the socialist revolutions have been reversed. Three-quarters of Russians, according to a 1999 poll [27] regret the demise of the Soviet Union. And their assessment of the status quo is refreshingly clear-sighted. Almost 80 percent recognize liberal democracy as a front for a government controlled by the rich. A majority (correctly) identifies the cause of its impoverishment as an unjust economic system (capitalism), which, according to 80 percent, produces “excessive and illegitimate inequalities.” [28] The solution, in the view of the majority, is to return to socialism, even if it means one-party rule.  Russians, laments the anti-Communist historian Richard Pipes, haven’t Americans’ taste for multiparty democracy, and seem incapable of being cured of their fondness for Soviet leaders. In one poll, Russians were asked to list the 10 greatest people of all time, of all nations. Lenin came in second, Stalin fourth and Peter the Great came first. Pipes seems genuinely distressed they didn’t pick his old boss, Ronald Reagan, and is fed up that after years of anti-socialist, pro-capitalist propaganda, Russians remain committed to the idea that private economic activity should be restricted, and “the government [needs] to be more involved in the country’s economic life.” [29] An opinion poll which asked Russians which socio-economic system they favor, produced these results.

•             State planning and distribution, 58%;

•             Based on private property and distribution, 28%;

•             Hard to say, 14%. [30]

So, if the impoverished peoples of the formerly socialist countries pine for the former attractions of socialism, why don’t they vote the Reds back in? Socialism can’t be turned on with the flick of a switch. The former socialist economies have been privatized and placed under the control of the market. Those who accept the goals and values of capitalism have been recruited to occupy pivotal offices of the state. And economic, legal and political structures have been altered to accommodate private production for profit. True, there are openings for Communist parties to operate within the new multiparty liberal democracies, but Communists now compete with far more generously funded parties in societies in which their enemies have restored their wealth and privileges and use them to tilt the playing field strongly in their favor. They own the media, and therefore are in a position to shape public opinion and give parties of private property critical backing during elections. They spend a king’s ransom on lobbying the state and politicians and running think-tanks which churn out policy recommendations and furnish the media with capitalist-friendly “expert” commentary. They set the agenda in universities through endowments, grants and the funding of special chairs to study questions of interest to their profits. They bring politicians under their sway by doling out generous campaign contributions and promises of lucrative post-political career employment opportunities. Is it any wonder the Reds aren’t simply voted back into power? Capitalist democracy means democracy for the few—the capitalists—not a level-playing field where wealth, private-property and privilege don’t matter.

And anyone who thinks Reds can be elected to office should reacquaint themselves with US foreign policy vis-a-vis Chile circa 1973. The United States engineered a coup to overthrow the socialist Salvador Allende, on the grounds that Chileans couldn’t be allowed to make the ”irresponsible” choice of electing a man Cold Warriors regarded as a Communist. More recently, the United States, European Union and Israel, refused to accept the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, all the while hypocritically presenting themselves as champions and guardians of democracy.

Of course, no forward step will be taken, can be taken, until a decisive part of the population becomes disgusted with and rejects what exists today, and is convinced something better is possible and is willing to tolerate the upheavals of transition. Something better than unceasing economic insecurity, private (and for many, unaffordable) health care and education, and vast inequality, is achievable. The Reds proved that. It was the reality in the Soviet Union, in China (for a time), in Eastern Europe, and today, hangs on in Cuba and North Korea, despite the incessant and far-ranging efforts of the United States to crush it.

It should be no surprise that Vaclav Havel, as others whose economic and political supremacy was, for a time, ended by the Reds, was a tireless fighter against socialism, and that he, and others, who sought to reverse the gains of the revolution, were cracked down on, and sometimes muzzled and jailed by the new regimes. To expect otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the determined struggle that is carried on by the enemies of socialism, even after socialist forces have seized power. The forces of reaction retain their money, their movable property, the advantages of education, and above all, their international connections. To grant them complete freedom is to grant them a free hand to organize the downfall of socialism, to receive material assistance from abroad to reverse the revolution, and to elevate the market and private ownership once again to the regulating principles of the economy. Few champions of civil liberties argue that in the interests of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, that Germans ought to be allowed to hold pro-Nazi rallies, establish a pro-Nazi press, and organize fascist political parties, to return to the days of the Third Reich. To survive, any socialist government, must, of necessity, be repressive toward its enemies, who, like Havel, will seek their overthrow and the return of their privileged positions. This is demonized as totalitarianism by those who have an interest in seeing anti-socialist forces prevail, regard civil and political liberties (as against a world of plenty for all) as the pinnacle of human achievement, or have an unrealistically sanguine view of the possibilities for the survival of socialist islands in a sea of predatory capitalist states.

Where Reds have prevailed, the outcome has been far-reaching material gain for the bulk of the population: full employment, free health care, free education through university, free and subsidized child care, cheap living accommodations and inexpensive public transportation. Life expectancy has soared, illiteracy has been wiped out, and homelessness, unemployment and economic insecurity have been abolished. Racial strife and ethnic tensions have been reduced to almost the vanishing point. And inequalities in wealth, income, opportunity, and education have been greatly reduced. Where Reds have been overthrown, mass unemployment, underdevelopment, hunger, disease, illiteracy, homelessness, and racial conflict have recrudesced, as the estates, holdings and privileges of former fat cats have been restored. Communists produced gains in the interest of all humanity, achieved in the face of very trying conditions, including the unceasing hostility of the West and the unremitting efforts of the former exploiters to restore the status quo ante.

1. Howard Zinn, “Beyond the Soviet Union,” Znet Commentary, September 2, 1999.

2. “Left behind by the luxury train,” The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2000.

3. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.

4. Dan Bilefsky, “Polish left gets transfusion of young blood,” The New York Times, March 12, 2010.

5. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.

6. “An epidemic of street kids overwhelms Russian cities,” The Globe and Mail, April 16, 2002.

7. “UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty,” World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.

8. Associated Press, October 11, 2000.

9. “UN report….

10. Paul Cockshott, “Book review: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford”, Marxism-Leninism Today, http://mltoday.com/en/subject-areas/books-arts-and-literature/book-review-red-plenty-986-2.html

11. David Stuckler,  Lawrence King  and Martin McKee, “Mass Privatization and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis:  A Cross-National Analysis,”   Judy Dempsey, “Study looks at mortality in post-Soviet era,” The New York Times, January 16, 2009.

12. “In Post-U.S.S.R. Russia, Any Job Is a Good Job,” New York Times, January 11, 2004.

13. Globe and Mail (Canada), June 9, 2008.

14. “Disdain for Ceausescu passing as economy worsens,” The Globe and Mail, December 23, 1999.

15. James Cross, “Romanians say communism was better than capitalism”, 21st Century Socialism, October 18, 2010. http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/romanians_say_communism_was_better_than_capitalism_02030.html “Opinion poll: 61% of Romanians consider communism a good idea”, ActMedia Romanian News Agency, September 27, 2010. http://www.actmedia.eu/top+story/opinion+poll%3A+61%25+of+romanians+consider+communism+a+good+idea/29726

16. “Bulgarians feel swindled after 13 years of capitalism,” AFP, December 19, 2002.

17. “Bulgaria tribunal examines NATO war crimes,” Workers World, November 9, 2000.

18. Matthew Brunwasser, “Bulgaria still stuck in trauma of transition,” The New York Times, November 11, 2009.

19. Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2002. p. 232-235.

20. “Warm, Fuzzy Feeling for East Germany’s Grey Old Days,” New York Times, January 13, 2004.

21. “Hard lessons in capitalism for Europe’s unions,” The Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2003.

22. New York Times, July 20, 1996, cited in Michael Parenti, “Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism,” City Light Books, San Francisco, 1997, p. 118.

23. Leos Rousek, “Czech playwright, dissident rose to become president”, The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2011.

24. Dan Bilefsky and Jane Perlez, “Czechs’ dissident conscience, turned president”, The New York Times, December 18, 2011.

25. U.S. Department of State, “Summary of Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe,” September 10, 2003. http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/or/2003/31415.htm

26. “Poll shows majority of Hungarians feel life was better under communism,” May 21, 2008, www.politics.hu

27. Cited in Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. “Russia Nw”, in The Washington Post, March 25, 2009.

30 Comments

  1. To continue with the link to surveys of East European opinion on socialism and the 20+ years of capitalism they’ve had by now:

    http://www.debatingeurope.eu/2015/02/03/have-living-standards-in-eastern-europe-decreased-after-communism/#.WcVfntRrw0o

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/kurt-biray/communist-nostalgia-in-eastern-europe-longing-for-past

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/homesick-for-a-dictatorship-majority-of-eastern-germans-feel-life-better-under-communism-a-634122.html

    And, finally, Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-communism-nostalgia/special-report-in-eastern-europe-people-pine-for-socialism-idUSTRE5A701320091108

    This list doesn’t exhaust the literature on public-opinion surveys in former Eastern Bloc countries showing that only a minority likes the new system. The Czech Republic is quite representative of the region as a whole:

    “According to the poll [done in the autumn of 2014], 18% of Czechs feel that the system in general was better before 1989, while an additional 38% answered that they feel no difference between now and then. Asked whether the revolution was a good thing, 22% of the population said that the Velvet Revolution that led to regime change was not worth it. Finally, in terms of standard of living, 24% of respondents answered that it had become worse.

    Most startling of all, the majority of people polled believed that job opportunities (61%), social security (66%) and personal safety and criminality (60%) were all better regulated in the Czech Republic during the Communist era.”

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  2. I think that it was George Orwell who said that his life and political writings were directed against all forms of totalitarianism and for democratic socialism has he understood it. Moreover, he wasn’t just an armchair militant, having been a member of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unity) militia fighting against the Francoist rebellion and getting shot in the neck by a sniper in the process.

    Very few – including me – would be inclined defend the internal policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy during and shortly after the regime which was established after the revolution of 1917. However, we miss an important geopolitical point here. Firstly the young Soviet republic was immediately under attack both internally by the White Guard forces and externally by imperialist armies of intervention. In a nation under siege which the USSR was establishing a modern pluralist democracy was never going to be on the agenda. Then there was the Great Patriotic War with all of its costs both human and material. Frankly, I find if rather irritating in the manner which self-righteous western intellectuals, who do not have the remotest experience of such conditions, see fit to denigrate the shortcomings which were not of its making and externally imposed on the young Soviet state.

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the existence of a non-capitalist state of a powerful political and military capablity, keep western imperialist hegemonic ambitions in check. Firstly it supplied post war western social democracy with sufficient backbone to take on the worst features of capitalism. Secondly the existence of the USSR gave support – both physical and material – to national liberation struggles throughout the third world, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola and so forth.

    UPon the collapse of the USSR the US imperialist hegemon was off the leash. And all around the world national liberation movements have faced defeats and roll backs by a ruthless imperial juggernaut. Similarly social-democracy has virtually collapsed, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism rule. . These have been the geopolitical consequences of the vacuum left by the ending of the USSR.

    Sometimes we should be careful of what we wiish for.

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  3. Zabastovshchitsa says

    Mikhail Gorbachev began to take [socialism] apart in the late 1980s,

    Gowans needs to have another go, because he cannot support that claim.

    What Mikhail Sergeevich was doing with Perestrojka and Glasnost’, as far as I could determine from the available evidence, was moving from the opaque state-socialist (aka fascist) oligarchy of “v Pravde net izvestii, i v Izvestii net pravdy” [“in Pravda there’s no news, and in News there’s no truth”] toward a genuine, people-centered socialism that was no longer going to be a tit-for-tat arms-race “partnerpponent” collaborating with the US MIC. Whence the sudden coup and his replacement by the eager “poleznyj durak” El’tsin.

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  4. rehmat1 says

    This praising of Soviet Union economic wonders remind me of Nikita Khrushchev’s mother’s observation after staying with her illustrious son for three days in Kremlin Palace.

    “Just wait what the real communists would do to you over your extra-rich life-style,” she warned her son.

    There is no difference between Communism or Capitalism. Both have served the the interests of the 1% of their people.

    Werner Sombart (died 1941), German sociologist and author in his 1911 book, ‘The Jews & Modern Capitalism’, claimed that Jewish elites were the dominant beneficiary of Capitalism.

    https://rehmat1.com/2015/01/22/capitalism-is-jewish/

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    • It’s interesting how people who themselves have no first-hand experience of Soviet-style and Eastern-bloc style socialism feel qualified to tell people who do have such experience — the people polled in the surveys this article cites — how they’re wrong to think socialism better than the capitalism they’ve known for the past 20 years.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Right my thoughts. Those journalists at New York Times and such, I bet don’t have a clue of how is it for a child when you can only have oranges or bananas once a year, before Christmas, and your father has to stand in the line already the night before, in the other end of town, in the only shop where they are allowed to sell them.

        Or when you go to Romania to visit friends and they are the happiest when you bring them any basics like soap, rice…

        Or twelve-year old kids must sing The Internationale and anthems about Lenin and the Reds…

        So great, isn’t it?

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        • You may wish to discuss this with the majority of the people in former Eastern Bloc countries who think otherwise, having seen their standard of living plummet over the last 20+ years.

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          • Thank you for the idea – are you in your comfortable home in Canada, really telling me who grew up and still lives in former Eastern Block countries, what is life like over here…?

            I like and respect lots of great articles on this site, but these kind of comments rather turn me off.

            “We are right and you are wrong/stupid, truth is what WE say” type of attitude is very familiar, from the communist times…

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            • Personal prejudices are dime a dozen. Public opinion research, much of it conducted by Western companies, gives us actual sociological data, and those are absolutely unambiguous: your Eastern Bloc fellow men and women are gravely disillusioned with capitalism and a substantial majority would prefer a return to some form of socialism. As a result, in 2016 the Bulgarians, to take one example, elected as president a candidate supported by the Socialist Party of Bulgaria.

              For those interested in following up on this exchange, here are some useful links:

              https://books.google.ca/books?id=Cx6LBQAAQBAJ&dq=survey+Bulgaria+socialism&source=gbs_navlinks_s

              I’ll include more in subsequent comments.

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              • Fine – I have no more interest to try and make you see other facts than what you have assumed.
                But I am glad that in Hungary, in the past 20+ years after the communist regime, our upcoming elections will be most probably won by the non-socialist parties, with Orbán being the Prime Minister for the 4th time – this shows how much Hungarians “would prefer a return to some form of socialism”…

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  5. Jim Porter says

    The transition to capitalism………. it doesn’t exist anywhere. Just greedy, power hungry/crazed people collecting as much as they are able. Not too much different from the Russian ‘communism’ – just a different external shape to it.

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    • rehmat1 says

      Socialism was practiced under first four Caliphs of Islam over 1400 years ago – but now the Western idiots claim they invented it – just like the so-called “civilized societies”.

      Canadian journalist, war reporter and author, Eric Margolis wrote in his book, “War at the Top of the World” that “in the 13th century when the Muslim Mughal Empire the best civil society in India – London was a city of 15,000 UNWASHED people.”

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  6. I think the nostalgia for the CCCP among people in Russia and the near abroad is rather like the British looking back on the post war welfare state. It had its good points, but was a monolithic bureaucracy which was immovable and served to stripped people often of their individualism and freedom of choice.

    I worked many years ago with pensioners in the North of Moldova and spoke to many, it was similar, it was the lack of freedom and the mindlessness of the soviet state which they hated. The other aspects of socialism they actually appreciated.

    I also worked with the European Children’s Trust shorty after the collapse of the Soviet Union (mentioned in the article) in Tiraspol, Prenestrovia – still billed as a communist state. I lived there for 1 year and loved it. But it was pretty much the same there, people thought the Soviet Union was good for health education and university, but in terms of work, travel and choice (often referred to as life style today) it did not provide well. You were told where to work, where to go and you could not choose.

    More recently I was talking to some working people and pensioners in Nizni Taghil in Sverdlovsk Oblast, in the Russian Urals and they pretty much concurred. I asked what would you say you have now that you didn’t in the CCCP? The answer was choice. I asked, do you look back with fondness and nostalgia to the Communist times and they replied yes. When asked if they would wish to return to those times they said no.

    Anecdotal though this is it serves to illustrate that socialist ideals can work, but state run power systems/structures which serve to control don’t.

    The same with capitalism, it is what you are robbed of that makes you and other people eventually want to rebel (the 99% by the 1%).There was never a perfect transition form feudalism to capitalism. The same maybe the case in the transition from capitalism to socialism. However the existential threat now is so large that this is a big maybe… and the greatest threat.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Even as a dyed in the wool ardent socialist: I find the bias of this article morally repugnant. Sure, Capitalism is destructive: I was born railing against it, and will do till my dying day,,, but Communism (Soviet Socialism) was a nostalgia-inducing viable alternative? Don’t make me puke. Gowans has swallowed the Red Pill.

    I get that Communism compares favourably in his myopic isolated redwashed comparative analysis: but at what cost? He doesn’t give the slightest credence to the Red Terror or the politicidal pogroms… I hesitate to put a figure on the Red Holocaust… I accept that Courtier’s ‘Black Book’ figure of 100 million is too high: so I’m going with the lower estimate of 60-90 million globally… 60-90 million souls so that the lucky survivors had work, and healthcare was free (and Gowans could eulogise about it)??? And don’t even get me started on the environment. Let’s just say that to both Capitalism and Communism: the environment is/was an exploitable externality.

    As historic models: both Capitalism and Communism were epic fails. Better to make the (dialectical) argument that socialism (in a form we have yet to formulate) is the future: unhindered by the past. Capitalism is not compatible with our survival: end of. We need to model future socialism: not on a failed murderous predicate – but on a reinterpreted appraisal of who we are: of our reciprocal interpenetration of being and environment – we are Nature. That realised, we can formulate a socio-economic paradigm that enhances our welfare and that of Nature simultaneously: enhancing, not exploiting the Life Commons. We need to realise the biophysical constraints on our economy, and live well within them: fostering our shared ecological humanity and planetary wellbeing. None of these things have we ever done before as a species: lived in symbiosis with the rest of the world. It’s not that there isn’t an environmental precedent in Marx: that Engels, Luxemborg, Harvey, Clayton and Heinzekehr (to mention a few) have built on [Organic Marxism: ISBN-13: 978-1940447025]. We evolve cooperatively, or face the consequences – which Engel’s euphemistically termed “the revenge of Nature”. Sorry Steven, but turning back the clock to the Soviet era would lead to our ecological extinction. Almost as soon as Capitalism would.

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    • I don’t think you understand how your own perception of what happened under communism has been altered by anti-communist propaganda.

      That is not to say that nothing bad happened under communism, but when considered against the background of human history, nothing extraordinarily evil happened in the Soviet Union (or anywhere else).

      Yes, the scale on which people suffered was enormous, but once you take into account population growth it is really not that striking.

      And many of those ills were direct continuations of what was happening under the tsars.

      Let’s go through the list of the commonly cited items:

      Totalitarian repression and lack of freedom of speech? Guess what, they had that under the tsars too, and they had that under many other kings in the rest of Europe over the centuries too. Church, kings, emperors, etc, all did it, all the time.
      Random executions of political opponents? Ivan IV was the original, Stalin merely copied, and it’s not as if Ivan IV was somehow the only one to do it — in highly enlightened England the 16th century produced figures like Henry VIII who distinguished themselves highly in that department too. And in general, lots of people had their heads chopped off on royal command in England, France, Spain, etc. for no good reason other than being slightly inconvenient.
      Ideologically motivated violence on a mass scale against perceived enemies? Europe spent several centuries doing exactly that prior to the Industrial Revolution, and it left parts of it in a state of utter devastation.
      Genocide? The Soviet Union actually never did that, only politically inconvenient groups of people were targeted, , but not because of their ethnic or racial identity, and not for mass extermination. Meanwhile, several continents would like to have a word regarding what was done to them by capitalist Europe.
      Forced mass resettlements of large groups of people? Yes, that was done, But again, see above, it’s hardly unique.
      Concentration camps? The British did that in Kenya AFTER WWII, and that is only the most recent such example.
      Famines? It is naturally forgotten, but the soviets came into power in no small part because of the unrest among the population that the chronic famines of the Russian Empire were causing. They themselves had three major famines, but two of them were associated with disastrous wars, i.e. not necessarily their fault. And while the Holodomor was indeed horrific, I see no difference between how and why it happened and what happened during the Bengal famine a decade later or during the Irish one in the 19th century. And, of course, another piece of history that is conveniently forgotten, while people were starving in Ukraine and Russia in the 1930s, large numbers of them were also starving in the USA due to the effects of the Great Depression.
      Colonialism? Today the USA uses 25% of the world’s resources while having 4% of the population, and Western European countries also enjoy much more than their fair share of the planet’s wealth. In contrast, the Soviet Union was actually subsidizing its colonies with resources, running the wealth pump in reverse.

      Etc.

      Once you get past the propaganda, you will see that the evils that happened in the Soviet Union were not at all extraordinary, just normal practice over the course of history in the process of establishing political control over a territory. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but the claim is that communism was somehow uniquely evil, which simply does not stand to scrutiny. The only reason that view gets so much traction is the combination of recency bias plus effective anti-communist propaganda. The best cure for which is actually learning about history.

      Those polls cited in the OP are not made up, they very accurately reflect the view of people in Eastern Europe. How is it possible that 80% of people in Bulgaria think they were happier prior to 1989 if they were living in constant fear for their lives during that time and with unspeakable horrors happening around them all the time? It makes no sense. The only way to reconcile that discrepancy is if someone isn’t telling the truth regarding how things actually were.

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      • I accept your points, especially as they unequivocally agree with the essence of what I said. I am not especially anti-Communist: but my broad point, that you augment, is that there has never been a model society that is suited to cope with our rapidly changing world. In fact, between them Capitalism and Communism CAUSED our changing world (the hands down, no need to argue winner as the great destroyer is Capitalism – but Communism doesn’t get a pass for the environmental degradation it caused). In fact, that is the problem of arguments of moral equivalence (such as the one Gowans is making): you dial the brightness up on one side in order to make the other side appear darker in contrast: when in fact, both sides have dark histories … a fact that Gowans completely ignores. [There are very few bright spots in history compared to what could be: if we ever get beyond killing each other over spurious ideologies and greed? ] If we broaden the focus to say that Capitalism is guilty of all the crimes it accuses Communism of (and then some!): whilst true, that’s a morally weak justification. Both are in the wrong is the unequivocal truth. The future is neither and free of both.

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        • Where we disagree is that you complained about the cost that Communism inflicted on people. But Capitalism inflicted no lesser costs, it was just spread out over a longer period of time, and has never been the subject of constant propaganda attacks reminding everyone about them.

          Regarding the environment:

          Both systems assumed infinite growth is not only possible but desirable. Something clearly absurd that can end in only one way — utter disaster

          However, there is a difference here. The combination of capitalism plus democracy makes it completely impossible to address the sustainability crisis, because there is no way to reform that system from within.

          On the other hand, a totalitarian communist system does have at least the theoretical capacity to switch gears and transition to a sustainable state, because it is governed centrally from on top, and it is also, at least in theory, working for an abstract common good. After all the Chinese did do what is completely unthinkable in the West with the one-child policy.

          So from an environmental perspective, the failure of the world revolution that Marxists envisioned might have been the biggest tragedy in the history of the human species — not because global Marxism would have been some sort of paradise on earth, but because it removed what might have been the only chance the planet had to transition to a sustainable state (once the current civilization collapses, most of the scientific knowledge we have, and that very much includes topics of ecology and sustainability, will disappear, never to reappear again, and without it there will be no sustainability), something that might have been possible under a global totalitarian regime but is completely impossible under current conditions.

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          • GM: you have a point, but the eco-Soviets and their green 5 Year Plan? Please??? 🙂

            Again, if you read my comment, I propose a revised Marxist plan – allied with the humanist and environmental concerns of some of those that have developed the green revolutionary exegesis of Marx. But this has never been developed beyond a fringe intellectual perspective; and is certainly not a political ideology, and barely exists beyond a disparate group of academics. As such, it follows that it has never been implemented before.

            Marx was writing in the 1870s, when global population was 1.3 billion, resources were relatively abundant, global debt was relatively low, and the amount of global currency was limited by the gold standard. How the hell could he have foreseen the population explosion and the FUBAR mess we could create in the ensuing 150 years? Or have proposed a solution to problems he could not be expected to foresee???

            The very fundaments of civilisation are now being challenged by a perfect storm of resource depletion, debt, over-finacialisation, social unrest, collapsing biomes, artificial scarcity and famine, drug addiction, mass extinction of species, pollution, etc. The Marxist solution of the workers owning their means of production is fine: but making what, and for whom? Free education is great: but education in what? Organic farming? Getting the trains to run on time is great too: but quite literally – where are we going???

            Humanity needs to take stock, take a real hard look at the very core essence of our collective choices (that the environment is an external and destructible phenomena, that human life and happiness have no intrinsic ‘value’, that growth can occur beyond the biophysical constraints of planetary boundaries, that prosperity (for the few) can be maintained as we lackadaisically transition away from the fundament of artificial wealth (cheap hydrocarbons)…)… then tailor 21st century solutions to 21st century problems. I think the result of that will look like 21st century Marxism?

            But there is no going back to the Soviet Shangri-la: if that is what it was. Time to evolve and move on???

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  8. The dignity of work, free medical care, public housing or affordable housing, free or affordable education to the highest level and decent old age pensions: these ‘invisible’ social infrastructures are the prerequisites of a civilised state….of a state run for its people. As these disappear under today’s rapacious onslaught this becomes clear to everyone – especially in the once comfortable, anti-socialist west.

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  9. We have much to mourn. But the necessity, if we are to avoid a totalitarian dystopia beyond all previous imaginings, is to organise.
    And to learn from the mistakes made in the past. One of which was the complete abandonment, by the socialist movement, of systematic and thorough education programmes.
    Howard Zinn was not the only one: the ‘survival strategy’ of successive generations of anglophone intellectuals included disassociation from the Soviet Union. An Orwellian disassociation which was on a continuum with conscious collaboration with the capitalist class.
    One of the great characteristics of the pre WWI Social Democracy-particularly in Germany- was its comprehensive and successful political education, ranging from intense courses in political economy-taught by the likes of Rosa Luxemburg- to broad, simple, but honest and intellectually reputable, mass agitation in the working class communities and workplaces.
    Socialists should seek to build structures with which to besiege capitalism, structures which minimise the ability of the state to indoctrinate the population. Of course this presumes socialist media. And it is no accident that while every socialist party in the world had its own newspapers and journals in the early C20th, by the C21st social democrats were happy to learn economics from Universities dominated by capitalist ideologists and took The Guardian, the Washington Post or the Toronto Star as their breakfast reading. Twenty or thirty years ago in a period in which socialist parties had access to enormous resources they were spending none of them on education or
    media.
    The challenges that humanity faces in the immediate future include an unprecedented level of surveillance and police powers so all embracing that pretty well every experienced and committed socialist in the world could be jailed within 12 hours
    if the state wished. And we all know that, every day, around the world individuals who have distinguished themselves by their opposition to capitalism are added to the list-tens of millions strong- whose blood has stained the people’s flag.
    The great lesson of the conquest of the Soviet Union, like the smashing of Chile, ought to be that the idea of Venezuela undergoing the same fate is something that “the left” will not contemplate allowing. But I see no sign of that. On the contrary: the power of , for example, the New York Times, the BBC and The Guardian to throw ‘the left ‘ into complete disarray, simply by publishing the most obvious and tendentious lies and aligning themselves with forces which are clearly a witches brew of local fascism allied with imperialist thugs.

    And then there is the Trade Union movement….

    Liked by 1 person

    • A terrific comment, Bevin. Couldn’t agree more with all the points you raise. I moved to Canada in 1982. The first thing I asked of my left-wing and communist grad student peers at the U of T in 1984 was where were their media in North America and why nobody seems to have organized any. They all looked at me as if I’d spoken in tongues.

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      • Jiri Kratochvil says

        I do not know Mr Gowan but I must conclude that he must be either mentally challenged or he is deliberately engaging in the very popular past time of many journalists – spreading fake information. It’s a cheap shot to select the only bits which serve his ideological prejudices. I was born and living in Czechoslovakia until my 23rd year when I managed to get out. I could give Mr Gowan many reasons why life in his socialist vunder-land was morally corrupt and economically idiotic – BUT, I will not. It would like talking to a Christian about non-existence of God – not very satisfying……..

        Ms Vaska appears to be in concord with Mr Gowan and bevin………..
        Time to unsubscribe.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You seem to have trouble accepting facts — which Mr Gowan cites — specifically, those about what the people who’ve known socialism in the former Eastern-bloc countries think about it and about the capitalism they’ve now had some 20+ years of personal experience.

          One such relevant fact not cited by Gowan is that Poland now has 7% of its population living below the UN poverty line, i.e. below $2 dollars a day. Since it hasn’t released the data on what percentage of its citizens live on $3 a day, and $5 a day, and $10 a day, it’s reasonable to suspect that a great many Poles do indeed struggle financially in a way they didn’t have to 25 and 30 years ago. [And let’s keep in mind that today’s Poles are dealing with EU prices….]

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          • Jiri Kratochvil says

            Oh dear, I only hope you do not represent the Left as a whole. A propos to your reply to ‘rehmat1’ I do have a first hand experience of living in the land under the wise leadership of Communist party. To be precise, in, than, Czechoslovakia and I can reassure you that I know very well what life was like before and what life is like now, and please do not use statistics – it’s mugs game. One can ‘prove’ anything which supports ones agenda – as you know. Why do you think those nice socialist countries of Warsaw Pact under the leadership of morally superior Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia? For trying to introduce a bit of democracy? And why do you think there was more or less air proof border (electric barb wire, machine-gun posts etc. between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’? Was it to keep the bad imperialists out or to keep the population in? Have you ever head about the political trials in fifties? (ok, there was McCarthy in USA, but I do not know of anybody being actually hanged!)

            I do not know anything about you but you remind me of one of the most unpleasant experiences I have had since leaving Czechoslovakia. I was invited to a party to a friend’s boat by the Kew bridge.There were quite few peoples but largest group was around rather loud speaking bloke in his, I guess, sixties. The sad person was elaborating on many conspiracies organized by CIA. He did get the desired attention partly claiming to be a leader of Welsh Communist Party. When he started to claim that the invasion of Czechoslovakia did not happen – it was all CIA conspiracy, I began to pay attention and suggested to him that perhaps, in this instant, his ‘information’ is not quite right, that I was there and yes, I did not only see the soldiers but since we all had to learn Russian we tried to reason with them – with not much success. Frank, the dear Welsh Communist Party leader dismissed me as some poor idiot indoctrinated by the imperialist press. So, dear Vaska, whoever you are, Frank have had his ‘statistics’ which made me to have very bad thoughts – yes, I admit it, I imagined Frank slowly sinking into the mud around the boat and me not trying very hard to get him up…………….

            In conclusion I have say that I am disappointed with the offGuardian. I too do not like the Guardian and I was hoping for something a bit more reasonable – and not so ideologically bogged down.

            Liked by 1 person

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