The East Block Communist Experience

That you for sharing you experience, I’ve always been fascinated by the Czech Republic ever since I visited Prague for the first time. It was my first visit to what constituted the old east block. I was not certain about what I would see, but I was utterly blown away by the beauty of Prague. It is like a fairytale city. Odd that it is not more famous.

I stayed with a Czech couple, which told me many things about communist times. Believe me I have no illusions about what life under communist dictatorship was like. We have stories in Norway about Polish people coming in the 80s and believing regular grocery stores were government propaganda stores, because they could not believe an actual normal grocery store would be that fully stocked and with such selection.

The utter irony of that story, is that I remember very well what grocery stores in Norway were like in the early 80s. They were anything but impressive in their selection. Yet somehow our minuscule selection of products was still too much to be believed by the average Pole living under communist dictatorship.

So with respect to trying to convince me that communist dictatorship and a centrally planned economy was bad, you are essentially kicking in open doors. There is no disagreement there. Although I would nuance my assessment of central planning.

Based on my reading, my conclusion has been that central planning worked fairly well in boosting industrial production for poorly developed countries. As the economies got more complex it started failing. Secondly there are no known examples to my knowledge where central planning worked in the agricultural sector. There it was a huge failure from the get go.

In a lot of areas where there is no functioning free market, even in the west, such as production of military equipment and space exploration, the planned economies of the east managed to do quite well. For consumer goods in particular planned economics worked terrible. Bureaucrats could not cope with shifting needs and tastes of consumers.

I remember my Czech friends telling me about soda pop during communist times. You could submit a request for a new flavor with the bureaucrats which would then evaluate the need. It was a comically inflexible system.

I think that also explain why most surviving communist regimes today, such as China, have opened up consumer goods production to the private sector.

Areas of Disagreement

I believe our fundamental disagreement is probably on the fundamental causes of the injustice and oppression your people suffered.

In my mind the cause is simple, it was not socialism but rather dictatorship. The two are not one and the same. The Czech Republic did not have voters choose socialism by democratic elections. Rather it was forced upon people by the military might of the Soviet Union. Unlike a democratic government, it had no legitimacy and thus had to violently suppress people to stay in power.

The socialist ideology itself was not the key problem. Both post war Norway and Czech Republic had socialists running respective governments. Norwegian socialists had the aim of replacing capitalism with a socialist economy just like in the Czech Republic. The key difference is that our socialist were democratic and respected democratic institutions and process. They did not start to just take people companies by force without compensation. They nationalized companies by buying them. They altered the economy by passing one law after the other. Naturally doing it the democratic way was far slower than what happened in the Czech Republic where everything brutally changed over night, and those who opposed where thrown in prison.

However many of the same ideas as employed in the east was adopted in Norway. We did in fact have something similar to five years plans and extensive central planning of the economy. You could e.g. not freely buy a phone or car in Norway in the post war years. A lot of consumer goods were rationed. You had to apply to the government to get permission to get a car or a phone. The background was that government was aiming to tightly control how capital utilized. They wanted like in the wast to push as much as possible into industrialization.

Whether this was a good approach or not I will not judge, however the economy did see major gains in these years. It was not without reason that our socialists kept getting re-elected. They managed to deliver prosperity. In particular the working class saw significant improvements in their standard of living.

In my opinion, the key difference between the Czech Republic and Norway in the post was years was not capitalism vs socialism but rather democracy vs dictatorship.

Yes most likely they would have killed far fewer people too. However there is a fundamental difference. Both would kill people for being potential challengers to the regime. In that regard they were no different.

However communists had one redeeming feature: They did not simply kill people due to genetics. No matter how well established a Nazi regime would have been, and no matter how devoted you were to that regime, you would as a jew, slav, mongoloid, mentally ill, gypsy etc get killed.

Merely having an upper class heritage would not get you killed in communist regimes, except for the very early years after the revolution while they established power.

Democracy: Socialism vs Nazism

This brings us to another point. There are numerous historical cases of socialists winning elections in different countries without that leading to oppression. However it is hard for find cases of Nazis or Fascists gaining power and not turning the country into a dictatorship.

If we are to analyze this question further one may have to expand the definitions. If one says the heart of Nazism is about creating hierarchies of people based on genetics/race/ethnicity whatever one may call it, then it could be argued that milder “democratic” variants of Nazism has existed. South Africa under apartheid had democratic election, except it only applied to whites. Likewise the US, Brazil and many other countries had democracies for whites while blacks where enslaved and indigenous people eradicated through genocide.

Thus even democratic variants of fascism or nazism is pretty nasty, while the same cannot be said about democratic variants of socialism.

Even under socialist dictatorship, few citizens of the old east block experienced the kind of oppression and large mass murder through starvation that e.g. Indian experienced while being governed by a supposedly democratic and capitalist Britain. It is easy to sugarcoat capitalism, because so much of the hardship was experience by people who are not white and lived on the other side of the globe. With socialist dictatorships we could see people looking like ourselves living in similar kind of societies being at the receiving end government oppression.

Dangers of the far left vs far right

My challenge to you is to compare history. In how many instances has radical leftists won elections and instituted dictatorship compared to the far right winning elections and doing the same?

The closest I can think of is Venezuela, which is a complex case because the country has a poor democratic record in general and particular has a history of utter chaos every time oil prices drop, regardless of who is in power.

I would also question, to what degree somebody can be deemed far-left if they are anti-feminist, anti-liberal and pro Putin. Socialists were known from the beginning for being very feminist. It is clear in Marx writing. They did not have conservative social values.

As for Putin, he has made the church far more powerful and actively use them to cement his power. If there is anything socialist are known for, it is being anti-religion.

All this makes me wonder, if these guys are the far-left but go against so many core leftist ideas, what exactly is left? What is it about their platform which is leftist? Government control of the means of production?

What you describe almost sound more like Nazis to me. Nazism stands for National socialists. Nazism had components of racism, nationalism, capitalism but also heavy doses of socialist ideas, such as command economy.

I’ve never met a liberal westerner advocating Soviet style socialism. Then I think you’ve misread what people are saying. We have had communist parties in Norway as in many other western countries ever since the 20s. They are still around. The most notable change with most of these parties the last decades is that they have come to accept the horrors of the Soviet style socialism and accepted that communism should never be pushed through revolution.

The left has had lots of problems in the past, but most of the left today have become firm believers in democracy.

Personal Reflections Upon Socialism

My personal belief is that one cannot have a dogmatic view of how society ought to be run. I think that was significant flaw in how the Soviet Union and East Block was run. It was treated as a religion, where it was heresy to suggest anything reminiscent of capitalism. People with different ideas got thrown in prison. Such an approach can never produce a good economic and political system.

Politics cannot be like religion. It has to be like science, always upon to debate and revision.

I think both socialism and capitalism contains a number of useful ideas which have worked out well. Both also contain bad ideas which have not worked out. My concern today is that the world has tilted too heavily towards capitalism, and there is a value in dusting off and looking at some old socialist ideas.

The way I see it, there are several challenges capitalism has no good answers to:

  1. Global warming and depletion of our natural resources. Capitalism is built upon infinite growth. That will cause us to hit a wall eventually.
  2. The rise of AI and replacement of human workers.
  3. Rising inequality, which has been going on for decades now.

Planned economics could never get right what people needed or wanted. Capitalism in contrast is incapable of saying when enough is enough. Textbook capitalism suggests humans have a plethora of needs and desires, which the marked identify and then respond by making products and services to meet those needs.

However in reality a large part, if not the bulk of our consumption has been created by the producers themselves. Rather than finding out what we need, they figure out how we can be manipulated into buying what they make. This is pathetically easy to do, because our animalistic brains are quite flawed when it comes to emotions. That is why product ads no longer appeals to our reason, but instead try to focus almost entirely on our emotions. It is our achilles heel.

The classic counterpoint to issue number two, is that we still have full employment despite machines already having replaced numerous people. Yet it is not that simple. Replaced workers are usually not able to find new types of jobs quickly. The industrial revolution causes for a period a massive reduction in salaries and conditions for the working class. It was precisely this that led to socialist parties, union movements and revolts which eventually gave workers a bigger piece of the pie. Workers had to fight to get a piece of the pie. It did not happen by magic.

We see the same trends today e.g. in America. One complains about China stealing jobs and depressing wages of American workers. Reality is that most of the jobs were lost to automation. It was automation combined with labour union killing legislation that destroyed the prosperity of working class Americans.

And a lot of the newly created jobs are just a mirage. Various surveysshow that 40% of employees in the west consider their jobs useless. Their job is actually not needed. Anthropologist David Graeber has studied this phenomenon which he labels “bullshit jobs.” Modern day capitalism has in a sense ended up replicating one of the tragic features of Soviet communism: massive amounts of pointless jobs. A key difference is that the Soviet Union did this at the bottom with blue collar workers. Capitalism is instead doing it with white collar workers: often highly educated people paid well to do jobs nobody needs to get done.

In theory it is not supposed to be like this, because why would a company eager to maximize profit pay people to do useless crap? There are lots of theories around this. I’ve written my own piece on it. David Graeber has an interesting take where he makes an analogy with medieval kings and their abundance of useless retainers.

The net effect is that we end up doing pointless jobs to make money to buy stuff we don’t need. That is the sick logic of capitalism. It works okay when society is not very wealthy. However as the wealth growths, the need to keep pushing consumption up despite most needs having been met, leads to downright absurd consumption patterns.

I am not an anti-materialist buddhist monk. I love my IKEA furniture and Apple laptop. However it is plain to see how things are increasingly made to not last. Fashion today have started lasting just months, to keep the sales of clothes growing. Cell phone models keep getting replaced, despite rather insignificant improvements. When stuff breaks, it is so expensive to fix, that you rather buy something new.

That is no accident. That is by design. In the logic of a capitalist economy, companies cannot survive if they sell you durable products you enjoy using for a decade.

We cannot escape this pointless circle unless we accept these inherent flaws of capitalism and perhaps rethink our stance on some socialist ideas. We need to find a way to change incentives so companies don’t consistently try to make us consume things we don’t need. We need to change incentives so people don’t cover up the fact that their job has no purpose. Society needs to stop obsessing that people need to work 9–5 to earn their keep. If automation keeps marching forward and we don’t utilize it to keep increasing consumption, then we will simply not need to work as many hours as we do today.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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