Was life under communism better?

In an interview with The New York Herald in 1921, Lenin says:

Some people in America have come to think of the Bolsheviks as a small clique of very bad men who are tyrannizing over a vast number of highly intelligent people who would form an admirable government among themselves the moment the Bolshevik regime was overthrown (Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 538).

What is remarkable about this anti-communist propaganda is both how boringly similar it has been for about 90 years and how pervasive it remains. Anyway, given that those cliques of ‘very bad men’ have now been overthrown and they have been replaced by ‘admirable governments’ of ‘highly intelligent people’, let’s have a look at the state of play in the ‘post-communist’ countries of Eastern Europe

Then there is this recent survey in Romania:

Only 27 percent of Romanians said communism was “wrong,” while 47 percent answered “it was a good idea, but badly applied” and 14 percent thought it was a “good idea, and well applied.” A striking 78 percent said neither they, nor their families, ever suffered under communism.

All of this took place under that evil, hated ‘dictator’, Nikolai Ceausescu.

Let us now move to Bulgaria, a place I know quite well. In a recent book, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, Kristen Ghodsee notes a growing nostalgia for the communist era. Why, especially in a supposedly Stalinist state? When capitalism was suddenly imposed in 1989, a few well-connected foreigners and a new local class of oligarchs and criminals took over the formerly state-owned assets – those we would call ‘business people’. Ordinary people felt they had been robbed, many lost their jobs just as the state’s social support system was dismantled. Is this unique to Bulgaria? No, it’s called capitalism as usual.

Mind you, these are states that were supposed to be unbearably repressive, paragons of dictatorship. And not, say, Yugoslavia, which was often held up as example of a humane and workable communism. While we are in Yugoslavia: four in five people with whom I speak from the ‘former Y’ tell me that it worked pretty well.

At this point the well-oiled reply of the Right will probably come in: yes, of course, older people can get nostalgic for dictatorships and autocracies, because they had some certainties in their lives, however bad things might have been. But we can dismiss these feeble longings of the old …

Crap. I have met young Russians, born either just before or after 1989, who have together raised toasts to – the USSR! Add to that the fact – as a colleague in Kiev reports after much research – that perhaps one or two countries in the former Eastern Bloc have attained the GDP of 1989 – after more than two decades of capitalism.

Maybe, just maybe people actually value things such as universal health cover, education, full employment, short working days, plenty of time to meet and talk. Maybe, just maybe, planned economies are in fact better. Even the hated (in Eastern Europe) and former anti-communist Zizek seems to think communism was better. As he puts it: we had cradle-to-grave security, never took our rulers seriously and had the mythical West to dream about.

Then again, as a friend from one of these places told me some time ago: when we learnt about capitalism at school, we all thought that it really wasn’t that bad, that our teachers were simply making it up; but now, living under capitalism, I realise that what they said was true.

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23 thoughts on “Was life under communism better?

  1. So 74% of Romanians agree that life under Communism was bad, even though they’re now living under the evils of Capitalism? Sounds to me like both must be pretty shit.

    People just ain’t no good.

    1. All depends how you read stats, isn’t it: 61% of Romanians surveyed are in favour of communism. But your last line suggests we need a robust theory of evil – which Lenin does.

      1. Idea of Evil = Ideal minus Reality. This is thoroughly subjective, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning or pressing for anybody who is not a sociopath. The resulting and more practical question is what societal shape and action does your idea of Evil justify?

        Go on, give me a hint of Lenin’s robust answers to the nature of Evil and how to justify dealing with it, leaving just enough out to make me want to buy your fourth(?) book.

  2. It would be a shame at the climax of the Marxist theology project if you construct a politics of nostalgia to make it all hang together. It’s probably something wrong with me, but I just can’t find the happy Bulgarian peasant idyll destroyed by those businessmen with their false notions of progress any more convincing than the happy English one peddled by the Red Tories.

    1. Your bourgeois cycnism is deeply corrosive, VM … Except that it’s a nostalgia for the future, or rather a place where none of us have been; except that when we get there it will feel extremely familiar.

      1. Yeah, hey, didn’t I see that tractor and that fighter jet in a Bond movie some time?

        At best this is an example of what Hollywood calls re-booting – what they did with Star Trek, the Hulk and X-Men: We don’t know where to go from here so let’s just go back and remake the whole thing from the start, but we’ll set in in a parallel universe…. or the 1960s not the 1990s or we’ll replace Eric Bana with Edward Norton.

  3. This post sort of reminds me of a very nice 2002 Spanish film called Los Lunes al Sol (Mondays in the Sun).
    The script contains the following memorable lines.

    “A Russian story says:
    Two old party comrades meet and one says
    “All that we were told about communism was a lie.”
    The other says, “Yes, but the worst thing is that all we were told about capitalism was true.” ”

    Residing in the vampire halls of Greek capitalism at the moment, where utter destruction of any notion of the so called “Welfare State” is the order of the day not to speak of the rampant unemployment and the consequences that this has on people’s lives, I am pretty damned sure that had the Soviet Union, of say Brezhnev’s time (the so-called stagnation years of the USSR), existed today, at least one third of the Greek population, and I think I am being modest in that estimate, would have started thinking about immigrating over there.

    Yet I am being un-dialectical here because if the Soviet Union continued to exist, then the western notion of Social Democracy would not cease to exist either, as a political force. The two were dialectically intertwined (with the Soviet Union being of course the prime mover of this relation).

    PS: Could you post some of the comparative GDP statistics of your Kiev friend some time in the future?

  4. All my Hungarian relatives (none of them communists), of two generations, say life was better under communism than under capitalism. And just today I was talking with a retired woman, a teacher in Poland but forced to work various demeaning jobs as an immigrant here in Canada, who also told me that life was better under communism, because everyone had a good job, good education, a place to live, roughly equal wealth, and there was much less crime. The only drawback she noted was the inability to freely travel in and out of the country.

  5. I am interested in the last part of your post. Why is Zizek hated in Eastern Europe? Can you talk about this aspect, please? I am genuinely interested to know more about his reception there.

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