Happy under Communism?


By D. J. Webb

This is an unusual topic for a libertarian article. Libertarianism is in economic terms diametrically opposed to Communism. I’m not going to argue the Soviet Union was a libertarian paradise. But economic freedom isn’t everything in life. And the wider cultural environment may have something to tell us about the viability of a free society, and indeed the cultural prerequisites for a free society.

I’m on a language-practice holiday in the Ukraine. One thing that is quite striking is that people over a certain age do say that life in the Soviet Union was good—better, even, than what followed. Such statements are liable to provoke cognitive dissonance among Westerners of a certain age. We were told everything about the Soviet Union was bad; people lived in fear of the Gulag; people didn’t have basic human rights.

But you would have to be a libertarian with a bad case of tunnel vision not to recognise that the rhetoric against Soviet Union in the early 1980s was well overblown. It was an unsuccessful economic system, but Soviet society was not terrible in every imaginable way. Classical music, literature, poetry and film were all areas of culture developed with greater distinction in Soviet days.

People throughout the former Soviet Union watch old classic Soviet films with a fond sense of longing. I’m sure they love their iPads and trips abroad, at least those who can afford them, but it is not unusual to find people in these countries who believe that modern books, films, music lack worthwhile content. This of course mirrors similar views in Western countries. England in the 1950s was the land of the carpet sweeper, but who would argue that literary, musical and film productions have not deteriorated in quality since the 1950s?

Another noticeable phenomenon is the post-literate nature of the Ukraine. You often find people rent flats with dusty books on the shelf left by the landlady. Worthy tomes: Gogol, Pushkin and the like. Actually, few people in the Ukraine read books, and there isn’t a single bookshop in the Ukraine equivalent to the Waterstone’s bookshop in Piccadilly on six stories. (England is an unusually literate society; we often fail to note that we are distinguished in this way.) The largest bookshop in Kiev is smaller than bookshops in small provincial towns in England. People used to pride themselves on their knowledge of literature. Nowadays they spend their time on social media.

Another inescapable fact is the ubiquitous nature of “karaoke” in the Ukraine. I take the interest in personally singing meretricious pap to an audience as a tasteless form of culture. The foundation of culture, for me, is Christian humility, and the insistence of young people in all viewing themselves as budding popstars, regardless of talent, is trashy and unpleasant. In the Soviet Union, a certain amount of pride was taken in worthwhile classical music, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

There is greater space for personal freedom in the post-Soviet states, and yet these countries now share in what I term the “anti-culture”, emanating from America. Is there not a conundrum here? Enoch Powell, with considerable libertarian credentials, was an admirer of the Soviet Union in a certain way. He visited the USSR and commented on his return to England that he had visited a country that had pride in itself and wished he had returned to one that did the same.

People in the Ukraine and Russia can appreciate higher standards of living—at least those who do in fact enjoy higher standards of living—while regretting cultural decline. Life, especially social life, is about more than money. Not only is there the loss of high culture, but on the popular level cultural values have deteriorated. Whereas once everyone had a job in the Soviet Union, now people are left to fend for themselves in a society that, unlike England, allows the devil to take the hindmost, and seems determined to forestall any hint of opportunity for the majority of its population. Swindlers and conmen are everywhere here: if you order something online in the Ukraine, there is a good chance your money has disappeared into the ether (unlike Ebay, with strong protections for buyers in the UK); if you buy eau de parfum in the shops here, it is worth checking it has not been diluted before leaving the premises.

The idea that the “good old days” were when people were much poorer, in both the Soviet Union and the UK, is something for libertarians to consider. We ought not to argue that prosperity entailed cultural decline: to have the best of both worlds should be what we advocate.

Yet the problem for us is to explain what the cultural values are that enable a free society, with minimal state interference, to be anything other than a post-Soviet-style race to the bottom. Fears manufactured by the Labour Party that the Conservative “threat” to deregulate and lower taxes would produce a “bargain basement” society reflect a view that liberal economics simply benefit a small stratum at the top of society, a bit like the highly unequal societies of post-Soviet Europe.

It has long seemed to me that the Orthodox countries were little touched by Christianity. Christianity was a spectacle to view in terms of icons and ceremony, with little requirement to change your ways in line with Bible teaching. In the Protestant countries, there was a much more detailed focus on reading the Bible and “putting on the new personality”. In these post-religious times, it is still apparent that English society has a fundamental concern for one’s neighbour not present in even the slightest fashion, not even among a minority of people, in Russia or the Ukraine.

This of course suggests that England is a much better candidate for a free society where the social conscience of the better off could ensure the disadvantaged were not entirely disregarded. An example is that in the 19th century doctors were socially expected to treat their neighbours. Those who had little money gave what they could. Those who had nothing gave nothing. It seems that any viable form of libertarianism assumes the existence of such a Christian framework of values with a sense of patriotism and community. The task for libertarians is to show that economic freedom could be combined with a cultural renaissance, and a sense of nation and community.

Oddly enough, therefore, people did leave happy lives under Communism, with a stronger sense of community and higher cultural and educational standards than in the present day. It would be interesting to know if Dr Gabb knows of any Czechs or Slovaks who were happy under their Communist governments.

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19 comments

  • I agree with the generality of this essay. I don’t know Russia or the Ukraine. But I do know what used to be Czechoslovakia. A recent survey in Slovakia showed that a third of people asked would be happy to have Communism back – even with the attendant police state.

  • I think some of it is the societal safety net that socialist countries have that make people feel more secure. Just a guess.

  • I have heard the view expressed by some residents (probably a small minority) of the former GDR that they preferred the security that the socialist system offered. I suppose that’s ok if you don’t mind the Stasi watching your every move. It wouldn’t suit me at all though. You mentioned Shostakovitch; he certainly didn’t think much of life in Stalin’s Russia – for much of the time he was literally in fear of his life for writing music of which Stalin disapproved. He even slept on the landing at one point so his family wouldn’t be disturbed if they came for him in the night. Having said that, I am a great admirer of Russian culture – in particular Russian music. And never forget that we owe the Russians a tremendous debt for their sacrifice during WWII; 23 million lost their lives – most of them civilians. People always seem to under-estimate the Russian people – no-one more so than Adolf Hitler. And to go off at a tangent, I am greatly encouraged that President Trump is seeking friendly relations with Russia. Putin may not be everybody’s favourite (although I believe he is quite popular), but he is a sane man in an insane world, and I believe we desperately need him as our ally. The last thing we need is a return to the Cold War.

    • Hugo, in my view there is always the possibility of conflict between England and Germany. The euro crisis and the way they treated Ireland and Greece shows the Germans just can’t help themselves – they “overreach” in fact, as they are only the largest economy in Europe, and do not form the majority of the EU economy, and repeatedly in war it has been shown they are not quite large enough to dominate the whole continent. Of course, you could argue that the rise of China and India puts a premium on intra-European co-operation, and I would support this. But in the end, England and Russia are the flanking powers, with no antagonistic interests to divide them. Russia is a natural ally of England in preventing domination of the continent by Germany. I don’t see any reason why we should be anti-Russian, and the Cold War episode was, with hindsight, simply absurd.

      • I was thinking more in terms of the Islamic threat, which is irrational in the sense that it has no negotiable political objectives. Putin comes in for a lot of criticism from all sides, for reasons which are not always clear to me, but he is merely reacting to EU encroachments into ‘his’ territory. The Ukraine has always been Russian, but lately the EU has been trying to suck it into its grasp. How do we expect Putin to react, now that the EU is lapping at his back door?
        I was brought up in the Cold War era – constantly fed propaganda about how the evil Russians were poised to strike at any moment. It came as a bit of a surprise to learn that the Russian people had felt exactly the same way about us. As you say, simply absurd.

  • A most interesting essay.

    First, libertarianism isn’t opposed to communism just in economic terms. Communism was (is) a philosophy that has no concern whatsoever for the individual. Libertarianism looks to allow every individual to do his or her own thing; whatever they think is best for them. And to enjoy the fruits of what they do, whether positive or negative.

    Soviet society may not have been so terrible under Gorbachev. But it surely was terrible under Stalin. Think of the Holodomor. Or what was done to the Crimean Tatars. Communism did that. More generally, any political system that lacks concern for the individual is likely to do things like that.

    And that some, even many, older people think things were better under communism doesn’t surprise me. After all, they are the survivors.

    Lastly, Russia. As I understand, there are two separate issues. The problems in Donetsk and Lugansk are about the Russians wanting a buffer between themselves and the EU. This problem will go away when the EU collapses.

    The Crimean issue is more difficult. Stalin moved many Russians into the area, then deported the original Tatar inhabitants. When Krushchev let the remnant back in, they were a minority in their own land. Add “democracy” to the mix, and you have a major problem. That’s what politics does to people.

    P.S. Hugo Miller is spot on with what he says above about Shostakovich.

  • A well-written and perceptive essay. Your observations in the Ukraine very closely mirror what I observed while living in Russia. It is a difficult thing to comprehend, not having lived through it all, myself, and viewing things through the lens of an outsider in more ways than one.

    The tentative conclusion I have come to is that the leftists, having succeeded in achieving their revolution very early on in what was then the Russian Empire, ceased evolving in a certain sense. Once they obtained power, to deny the perfection of the system would be to undermine its legitimacy. Therefore, the culture (beyond the eradication of religion – and even this was relaxed by the 1940s) was not assaulted, but preserved.

    Furthermore, traditional Marxism is motivated far more by envy than by perversity or disdain for the ‘normal.’ Even quite early in the revolution and what followed, the propaganda was promising something like a universal aristocracy under communism. Everyone would be educated, everyone would have a fine appreciation for the arts, etc. In other words, the peasants would all live as those they most envied at the time of the revolution, if only they could seize the means of production and erase scarcity. Their struggle was an economic one, the cultural aims already taken as a given.

    In the West, traditional Marxism never achieved power. The leftists were denied their revolution. They therefore broadened the front, appealing to a still wider audience of malcontents, or at least welcomed the assistance of revolutionary “fellow travelers” in a way the socialists of the USSR never required. So whereas in the West, whenever men and women of deviant or immoral tastes or who were indeed actively engaged in any manner of moral perversity or socially destructive behavior sought the safety of legitimacy, they knew that they could make common cause with the left by speaking in Marxist terminology and framing the rightful and well-deserved suppression of their behaviors within a revolutionary paradigm characterized by exploitation – cultural, spiritual, or moral, if not economic in their case. And the leftists were very much glad of their support.

    Thus in the West, bit by bit, as one marginalized group after another latched onto the movement, leftism became a multi-fronted, full-on rebellion against nature and an open and conscious denial of nature’s teleology.

    In the Soviet Union, by contrast, the traditional Marxists obtained the levers of power and were satisfied. They had no need of allies, especially unpopular ones. In fact, it was in their interest to suppress non-traditional behavior because it would undermine the official propaganda – that socialism was a one-way street to progress and that society would be better and people more moral at each stage of the transition from socialism to full communism.

    For its part, the Soviet government provided the populace with measurements of its success in terms recognized as such by the people – literacy, scientific, economic, and cultural benchmarks. Precisely because traditional values were widely recognized and accepted they provided a useful standard against which to measure progress along the road to communism. To alter the morals or values of the people beyond the degree to which such was required to first foment and then carry through the revolution would only serve to undermine the stability of the socialist government, thus it was not attempted.

    But the realities of nature cannot be wished away. When we conform our actions and values to reflect those realities, we can make the best out of them. When we act in ways incongruous with those realities we will meet with failure in the same way that a builder who ignores physics and geometry will meet with failure. The Soviets rebelled against scarcity and diversity of talent and intellect. Their project predictably failed and resulted in the murder or starvation of millions and the impoverishment of millions more.

    But our Western strain of leftism has mutated into something far more destructive and deadly. In multiplying the facets of its denial of nature’s constraints, it multiplies the scope and severity of the consequences that are sure to follow. It is therefore imperative, for all our sakes, that they never be allowed to succeed in full and that their many smaller successes each be rolled back as soon as possible. We are already meeting the consequences of their refusal to accept reality. There will likely be more consequences in the near future. But all is not lost, and we have truth on our side.

    • “Furthermore, traditional Marxism is motivated far more by envy than by perversity or disdain for the ‘normal.’”

      Well observed. The form of Marxism that has evolved in the west, which you allude to, is none other than cultural Marxism. It takes quite a different stance to traditional culture and sees it as something to be eradicated. In that sense, the traditional Marxists were the lesser threat in terms of ensuring a long term infection of the host system. That said, it looks like cultural Marxism may also be upended in due course.

  • You tend to forget the annoying and unpleasant personality traits of someone who passed some time ago, and it appears to be just the same with nostalgia for communism. Do not lend too eager of an ear to the silly stuff that people say: if every former eastern block country was somehow torn in half, had a government much like those of the former “glory” days installed in one such half, and whatever each country has now in the other, and as long as there was free and unencumbered travel between the two the socialist half would be devoid of useful people within a couple of years. If they actually had to go back to the “good old days” people would flee in droves. Leave the old to reminisce alone and do not make of their stories more than need be.

    • Agreed on that point. There is always much made of these (I think it is Pew) surveys showing how people prefered live in former communist countries, but this is simply a case of viewing the past with rose-tinted glasses (one wonders if the same happened in Russia following the overthrow of the Czar), that occurs everywhere. In some cases there may be legitimate reasons for doing so, yet I don’t think any of them would seriously want to return to a situation of such deprivation that even one’s basic needs go unfulfilled. Nor did the cultural artefacts he refers to bear any necessary connection to the repressive Soviet economic/societal system. In fact, some of its greatest works came about from a yearning for freedom.

      However, the author’s point, as I understand it, is that a rapid transition from communism to a bastardised form of capitalism isn’t going to mend or replace lost (or perhaps, never extant) civic institutions. We know in the west that the government has done significant damage to erode or completely supplant institutions like friendly or mutual aid societies and is constantly at war with religious organisations, like churches, and is promoting a lifestyle of atomism and dependence on the government. So there may be a void left behind.

      The one thing that is true of Eastern Europe (and to a lesser extent, southern Europe), is that it never succumbed to the same extent to the cultural marxist virus as did western Europe and the US. The renascence of the orthodox church in Russia following years of communist persecution may also in part have helped that.

      On this point:

      “Yet the problem for us is to explain what the cultural values are that enable a free society, with minimal state interference, to be anything other than a post-Soviet-style race to the bottom. Fears manufactured by the Labour Party that the Conservative “threat” to deregulate and lower taxes would produce a “bargain basement” society reflect a view that liberal economics simply benefit a small stratum at the top of society, a bit like the highly unequal societies of post-Soviet Europe.”

      The problem with that line of argument from Labour devotees is that it is precisely the big government policies of Labour which assist in eroding any cultural capital. It is true that to then simply ‘deregulate’ and lower taxes (neither of which the Tories seriously do), will not make up for the damage done by big government policies. However, that does little to vindicate Labour’s claims…

  • A number of commentators ignore the point that people in the ex-Soviet countries experience a cultural decline. It’s not just the lack of an economic safety net. In fact, a sole focus on economics is quite wrong in libertarian analysis. Also, the idea that Marxism was motivated purely by envy is simply incorrect – communism for all its faults was an idealistic project, in much the same way that multiculturalism and political correctness are in the current day.

    Churchill is alleged to have said “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” As I understand it, however, this phrase is attributed to many people, and the quotation would need to be confirmed before stating it as definitely from Churchill. The sentiment in the quote is correct, though, and quite damaging to some commentators above.

    • If someone isn’t a socialist by the time they’re 20, all it tells me is that they may have figured out it is a scam, or are not particularly motivated by egalitarian impulses.

      “In fact, a sole focus on economics is quite wrong in libertarian analysis. ”

      Agreed… but no need to tell a Hoppean that.

      • I for one can never understand why ‘equality’ is deemed desirable. Equality under the law, yes; equality of opportunity, yes. But that is not what they mean, is it? Why should everybody be the same?

        • For what it’s worth, Hugo, my view is that it’s about power. As Hayek said: “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers.”

          Most people don’t seem to realize that political and economic “equality” are incompatible.

        • The thing with equality of opportunity is that they will argue it requires equalisation of outcomes, which is why I don’t have much love for it.

    • I do not know whether Marx was motivated by envy or idealism, but I do know that the modern manifestation of his creed is motivated by the latter. I was at university for one unhappy year. There I learned two things; how to play table football, and socialism. The only other boy from my former grammar school was an ardent socialist/Marxist or whatever. One day we saw a lovely Morgan sports car in the car park. “That’s not fair” the other boy said. “I can’t afford one of those, so he shouldn’t be allowed to have one”. I absorbed those words and thought about them many times since. How would it benefit my friend, I thought, to take away this guy’s car? Of course it would not. My attitude was, and remains, to see if I could learn anything from this person or anyone I came across who was successful, and if possible emulate them. In this particular case the answer was probably to have a rich daddy, but you get my drift. Similarly Huey Long, governor of Louisiana many years ago, won great praise for saying; “Nobody should be allowed to have too little money, and nobody should be allowed to have too much”. Given that most people feel they don’t have enough money, I suppose one can understand the popular appeal of such a statement, but how would it work in practice? Somebody from the government would have to make a decision as to whether you had “too much money”, and if so, they would have to take some of it from you in order to give to those who were ‘too poor’. Personally I have never seen the appeal of such a philosophy, not even when I was in my 20’s.Thankfully somebody put a bullet in Mr Long before he could put his plans into effect.
      Yes, Im sure Communism is idealistic, just as Anarchy is idealistic, but it has never been tried. None of the former ‘Communist’ countries ever achieved full Communism. I once heard a former citizen of the GDR interviewed on tv. He said that when he was a boy, with all the idealism of youth, he asked his teacher when the revolution would be complete, and money would be abolished. I forget what reply he received. The reality, those ghastly little Trabant cars, the Berlin Wall, the Stasi etc, turned out slightly different from the dream, as it always must where human nature is involved.

      • So sorry – I should have proof-read my earlier post about Marxism. I meant of course that the modern variant is motivated by envy, not by idealism!

      • There are things beyond money which can also confer advantages, such as good looks, high intelligence, a propensity to diligence, good verbal ability, etc. I bet they will not content themselves with equalisation of income, even if that were to be achieved (an argument Nozick made in ASU.)

        • Indeed there are. Life is unfair in this respect. Maybe we could sue God?

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