Monday my two summer on line courses start — “The Politics of Russia and Eastern Europe,” and “War and Peace.” Surprisingly the former has more students enrolled than the latter. Usually people find Russia and eastern Europe less interesting than learning about international conflict. Since they are both on line, I know it’s a choice people made rather than the time the class meets or something that might affect a “normal” course.
The course starts with Russian politics and the Communist era. Teaching about communism today is much different than it was 20 years ago. During the Cold War, Communism was seen by most as something evil and dangerous. Some contrarians tried to defend it, or claim that western capitalism was worse, but whether Democrat or Republican, there was unity in the belief that the Cold War was real and Communism was a threat.
In the years that have followed Communism has become something of a mystery to most students. This is made worse by way the right wing throws out “commie” and “socialist” in the political discourse. One student who likes Barack Obama asked me in 2008 “well, if he really is a socialist or a ‘commie’ as Glenn Beck says, then does that mean communism isn’t so bad — because his ideas make sense to me.” Of course, Obama isn’t anything close to a communist or true socialist — carelessly throwing terms like that around to insult ones’ opponents has the side effect of making the terms seem benign.
So what can we learn by looking at the experiences of Russia and Eastern Europe. The first lesson is that horrible things can come from good intent. The early communists were reacting to a system we’d today label as unfair and exploitive. They believed they were bringing not only equality, but true liberty and enlightenment rationality. Marx and the Communists had a well researched objective philosophy behind their effort, proving capitalism to be full of contradictions and doomed for failure. Even Lenin, whose centralization of power both rationalized brutality and later enabled Stalin’s atrocities, truly believed that they were nearing a day when people would be more free than ever before. The road to hell, as they say, can be paved with good intentions.
The second lesson is to beware of ideologies that give you a nice neat read on reality. Marxists could point to contradictions galore that show the irrationality of capitalism — the very principles capitalism rest on contradict each other, and point towards a different way of producing value. The ideology was so appealing, so internally consistent and persuasive that people came to use it as a system through which to interpret reality. When people stop thinking critically about an ideology and become a proponent, they lose their capacity to see their own errors. Rather than critically assessing Marx’s work (or that of similar theorists) they used it as a way to explain reality, treating it almost like a religion. Ideologies are simplistic representations of a complex reality, useful as a starting point, but not something to be believed in as one does an article of faith. Faith in ideology caused socialists and Marxists to become blind to reality, clinging intstead to slogans and interpretations of reality that explained away anomalies. The most dangerous was the idea that communism had never truly been tried because capitalists intervened and obstructed its implementation. “It’s never really been tried” is a very lame way to hold on to something that if it really could work, would have been tried!
Other lessons are more practical: bureaucracies are very conservative and will lead to stagnation without an external force holding them accountable and forcing change. That’s true of every bureaucracy, even ones at big corporations or labor unions. Big corporations have the market to keep them accountable — no moreso than ever. At one point GM, Ford and Chrysler could get lazy because they led the world and pretty much dominated the US car market. They stagnated, and then suddenly found themselves behind Japan and other new comers. That forced change. In Communism such a stagnation was unchecked and continued for decades.
Worse, in communism the bureaucracy was not held accountable to a political system because that system was controlled by the bureaucratic class. Many call Soviet and East European style communism ‘bureaucratic socialism,’ because ultimately the leaders became simply entrenched bureaucrats running a system that benefited the elite nomenklatura and believing that a stagnate status quo would be enough. It was a recipe for rapid decline and failure.
Finally, there is a real lesson in how the so-called “social contract” between the Party and the people led to disaster. Under communism everything was guaranteed: a job, an apartment, health care, a retirement pension, vacation time, education, and complete security. In exchange you were supposed to simply do your part for the country and not oppose the government. This doesn’t sound so bad at first — complete security in exchange for becoming apolitical. Given how apathetic a lot of people are in the US these days, that might seem tolerable.
However, the price was far higher than one might expect. Because of the bureaucratic control, the chance for creative input into society disappeared, and personal ambition was limited. Ambitious folk found the party the only mode of upward mobility, and there adherence to the bureaucratic status quo was the key to success. If you worked in a factory or any “normal” job you learned you went along with the procedures in place; even suggesting a ‘better way to do things’ was dangerous. Maybe it would be seen as a plus and you’d get rewarded, but it was more likely that you’d be seen as a trouble maker.
The cost of this denial of human achievement was spiritual decay. One might think it wouldn’t be such a big deal — in medieval times humans had material stagnation and no social mobility, yet lives were arguably meaningful and full. But that era was built on community and faith. The material world was not the most important aspect of life, close knit communities and belief in an eternal paradise gave a sense of meaning. Under communism that was gone. Since “community” was forced on people, with the secret police causing distrust as anyone could be an informant, people retreated into small circles of family and friends, alienated from the community communists claimed to offer. With faith in nothing but the material, life was dreary. Alcoholism rates skyrocketed, as did depression and apathy. Life was materially better than under the Czars, perhaps, but that might be Communism’s biggest lesson: Materialism isn’t everything.
There are other lessons. But it irks me when people call American “liberals” communist or socialist. “Real existing socialism” was brutal and trivializing it by calling support for a health care system, a mildly progressive tax system or regulations on banks “socialist” dismisses the the true dangers of real socialism. Social welfare states like Sweden are nothing like the Communist states of Eastern Europe; Barack Obama’s ideas are nothing like Communism. Ronald Reagan was right when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire;” despite the allusions to Star Wars, it was an empire that was based on anti-human policies. We need to learn from that, especially how good ideas went so bad, and how ideological thinking can blind one. And don’t forget — Ronald Reagan grew the government and advocated tax rates higher than those being advocated by President Obama!
Finally, communism and capitalism are not opposites where one is good and the other bad. Some fall victim to thinking if they dislike one, the other (sometimes in extreme form) is the only alternative. There are many approaches to politics and economics — dichotomous thinking is a sign of laziness. Or, as I wrote at the end of a poem inspired by seeing the after effects of Communism in Russia ten years ago “reality defies any ideology.”