When I ask people in Eastern Europe about communism they are almost all invariably utterly negative. Most however cannot tell you what communism is, how it operated and why it failed. They only mention the negative symptoms of the system they experienced. The ban on travel, the ban on religious freedom, the lack of free speech, the inability to buy products, the inequality between the communist elite and the common people, the hypocrisy of the leaders, the inefficiency of all services and being forced to pretend to be loyal to the party.
But what created those dreadful symptoms?
In an ideal world we would indeed have a communist system. Machines would poop out all the products we need and crave and we would freely and fairly distribute these goodies among the population. Ideally, each individual would contribute to society and would not take more from society than what he needs to lead a basic, comfortable life.
In theory communism is possible. To look at the past to judge communism isn’t entirely fair as communism was only tried in the worst possible countries to start a communist experiment. Russia anno 1917 was a backward, ruined country that would see even more apocalyptic destruction during the horrible Russian civil war which claimed the lives of millions.
The system managed to industrialize Russia and to some extent also neighbouring countries that came under the communist yoke.
Yes, it was a yoke, because for communism to work you need one or two things.
It’s only accomplishment remains the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, but at horrendous cost and thanks to very substantial material aid by the allies. In many ways this victory was a Pyrric victory. The Soviet-Union would collapse a mere 44 years later, because it had bled itself to death against the German war machine, led by the poorest of strategists, Hitler, or the outcome might well have been different.
Because to make communism work blood needs to flow.
For communism to work you definitely need:
- The unwavering good will of all people to work without extracting more from society than that person really needs
- If the requirement above goes unfufilled you need a sophisticated repressive system to violently weed out the people who do want to accumulate too much economic power and to basically enslave the parasites of the people who do not want to work or who suck at pretending they are working
- This collective good will is almost always entirely lacking so the communist ruling class has to turn to violent repression. This is most commonly associated with the Gulag system, or labor camps. It’s uncanny how the end result of communism is so similar to that of fascism, but we will explore the unplanned similarities between these two systems later.
- The most essential problem communism faces is that human beings are inherently selfish, egotistical, self-centered and in their daily actions they cannot push themselves to act for the benefit of the greater good. Not if you do not give them the right rewards or do not cause them to be afraid. The proverbial carrot and stick.
- In our current system people slave away at their jobs to buy necessities, luxury items, to show off, to avoid being labelled lazy, to buy into a scripted way of living: you need this, this and that and that or you do not live a ‘normal’ life. Thanks to marketing we also buy stuff we don’t need, mostly to impress others or because of emotions linked to those products. This is often called keeping up with the Jones’ or ‘conspicuous buying’. People want to be better than others or at least not ‘less’ than others, usually in the form of having material goods or being able to afford expensive experiences. Like I know a woman who only travels to exotic places, not because she could possibly give a shit about the culture or history of these places, but to show her colleages and family that she went there, that she matters, that she ‘made it’.
- Under communism they tried to compensate for the lack of opportunity with medals and ‘honor’. Unfortunately this didn’t work. Most people don’t crave medals if those medals can’t buy them steak and a fancy tuxedo and two cars and a large garden and a trip to Mallorca.
- Under communism the motto was: ‘We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.’
- What does that mean?
- Under communism companies were state owned and did not have to compete. Companies felt no pressure to efficiently manage the number of people they employed. In fact, they wanted to have as many employees as possible. They hoarded employees. Why? Because firms were forced to produce as much as the plan required. They did not operate on the principle of ‘supply and demand’. Each year a planning bureau decided that 500 million pairs of socks needed to be produced. Based on poor analysis usually. The firms went to work and produced those socks. Whether there was real demand for them or not. And to show that they were good communists they produced just a little bit more. For this they needed to hoard resources and employees.
- Because of this poor planning shops were never able to have all products on the shelves. It wasn’t like today when you walk into a shop all products are almost always there, and if not, you know they will be there tomorrow. Under communism it happened that all of a sudden there would be a huge load of chocolate and then for a long time to come, no chocolate at all.
- So when people knew there was chocolate in the store they ran to the store and bought as much as they could. They hoarded products. This gave foreigners the false impression that the people were starving. They saw lots of empty shelves. But the pantries of people, at home, were usually well-supplied. It just took massive efforts to constantly be ready to shop for groceries and stand in line.
- Here in Slovakia where I daily talk a lot to people who lived under communism – something western communists never do – I hear lots of examples of how people spent hours and hours standing in line to get to products. Teachers would send their pupils on errands or they would simply not teach and go to the shops. Clerks would leave their desks to go shopping (=waiting for hours).
- There was also the saying: ‘If you do not steal from the state, you are stealing from your own family.’
- Since firms were state-owned, since the money you earned could not really buy you products or a car or a house, there was a widespread tendency to steal at work.
- I’m not talking about stealing some pens or some paper for the printer, I’m talking about massive theft of expensive items which could be sold on the black market.
- Since the local currency was de facto worthless, it became incredibly important to have the right connections. If you wanted shoes it was best to know somebody who worked at a shoe factory who could pilfer a pair for, perhaps, a chicken in return. If you needed a plumber it was best to have a network to make sure somebody came to fix your toilet. Since plumbers had no incentive to do their job efficiently (they were paid anyway whether they worked hard or not) you had to convince them otherwise. You had to cook them dinner for example, in royal fashion.
- If people become nostalgic about communism here – which rarely happens, I must say – it’s because there was this cameraderie that is now almost non-existent. Today you simply pay for services there’s absolutely no need to befriend all the people who you need to do jobs for you. You do not need to cook dinner for the guy who comes to repair the elevator in your apartment block.
- Of course, the system was always operating on quicksand. You had unmotivated workers who were trying to steal anything but a hot stove at work, people who were constantly on the lookout to raid a shop, a thriving black market that was impossible to control. There was a constant lack of luxury items but also of the items that were considerate mundane in the capitalist west. All communist industries were inefficiently run, too little work was being done by too many employees.
- On top of all this people wanted to emigrate to the west and escape communism. This was pure horror in the minds of the communist elite, because they had given their citizens free education and then these people took their talents elsewhere. No, these people had to stay and build communism. This ensured that communist countries became prisons with citizens who almost couldn’t travel, especially not to capitalist countries.
- All communist countries spied on their own population, people posing as regular citizens worked as informants for intelligence services, anything you said could and would be used against you. Even silly things were seen as dangerous transgressions. If you went to Church you could forget about your career. This is funny, since contemporary communists love to hug muslims and almost pretend to be muslims themselves in order to rally muslim immigrants behind the communist standard. If you look into how communists treated christians this becomes a major symptom of hypocrisy. Communists are atheists. It’s laughable that they pretend to be positive about islam today.
- Communists believe (believe, because communism is not just an economic theory, it’s in many ways an economic perversion of christianity) that it’s the capitalist system that makes people evil. If people could live long enough under a communist system they would develop a collective spirit and would not base their actions purely on what would benefit them individually. They often repeat the claim that in prehistoric times people lived in some ideal form of communism. They were forced to hunt together and share the meat fairly. There’s however no evidence for this. And recent research has pointed out that -proportionally- our ancestors were astronomically more violent than we are today under capitalism.
For those not familiar with communism :: The easiest way to define communism is: a system under which the means of production are owned collectively and not privately, allowing products to be distributed fairly under the population. Companies are not owned privately, by individuals, but collectively, by the state. This should allow fair distribution of goods and services. This is the theory, of course. In practice this approach fails miserably, because it’s entirely incompatible with human nature.