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.