Behind the Iron Curtain part 35 – The Elusive Socialism

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

At school we were constantly reminded that we are living in a socialist country that takes great care of its people, and where everything belongs to everybody. However, one of my schoolmates has once said “If you read the definition of socialism in a dictionary, you realize we are not actually living in socialism”. Which is a pretty deep insight for someone under thirteen. But was he right?

The blaring of propaganda was constant, overt as well as covert, and it all was poised to inform us about all the ills the societies to the west of us suffer (most of which were, even in hindsight, spot-on) and all the wondrous technological and social advancements that the USSR has made over its competitors (which were, in hindsight, grossly oversold). But the system never got rid of several things that it has criticized. Like private property and money-based economics. Which has left it with the pesky problem of ownership of the means of productions, which I have addressed partially in the past. I have seen this named “state-run capitalism” in comments on FtB, which is a term that I have always found a bit peculiar.

And this was the base of my schoolmate’s argument. The people do not own the means of production, the state does. The people do not have a say in how the fruits of their labor get distributed and used, the communist party does that. And thus the society is not truly socialist and equal, because there are still social strata, only not divided by the personal wealth, but by the status within the ruling party structure. After which this stratification got, of course, cemented by personal wealth too, since the party top brass were not too shy about accruing for themselves a bigger piece of the pie than the rest has got, as it always happens.

But did this make the country “not socialist”? I personally do not think so. It was still definitively a state whose policies were leftist and, at least on paper, aimed at the common good. But the peons were expected to shut up and work their asses off for their masters under the guise of working for the greater good, with the promise that the socialist paradise is just around the corner, if not for them, then for their children for sure. And its arrival was postponed for nearly two generations before the system finally collapsed. Any and all actual progress, both social and technological, was made only extremely slowly, because every criticism implying that the current course is perhaps not ideal, however mildly stated, could have dire consequences for the person making it.

The people have learned this lesson the hard way before I was even thought of, in spring 1968. That year the Czechoslovak communist party underwent a widely popular reform and started “Socialism with human face” politics, which has kept the socialist part of the party agenda but has intended to make away with authoritarianism. The USSR did not like it and invaded us. The top czechoslovak politicians were forced to sign a treaty literally at gunpoint and that was the end of any and all attempts at making their version of socialism viable in the long term. Because the “socialism” was not what was problematic with the regime’s politics, the “authoritarianism” was.

But since those two were (and arguably still are) inseparable in the minds of the communist parties of greatest socialist states in history, it is no wonder they are inseparable in many people’s minds both in the west and east to this very day too. Thus the leftist politics of the sixties has built an invisible iron curtain in our colective consciousness between socialism and freedom. And tearing that one down seems more difficult than the real one.


  1. voyager says

    I think corruption pollutes all political systems. In theory, socialism seems like a proper system, because of the attitude that all citizens of society are entitled to a good standard of living. We Canadians call our brand of socialism, the social safety net and I can’t imagine living under a system that doesn’t provide health care, disability benefits, etc. as a basic right. I don’t understand why Americans disagree with socialized medicine.

  2. lorn says

    Seems to me that the disconnect between the implicit assumptions of socialism, as practiced in most older Soviet-bloc countries, and the rhetorical ideals of socialism come down to differences between “the people” and “the government”. Ostensibly the “government”, essentially including the extant power structures of the society, is supposed to represent and be an arm of “the people”. To the extent “The people” and “The government” are of a piece the government owning and running things is indeed the idealized socialist norm.

    Unfortunately the portions of the power structures outside the formal government will generally exert influence and, combined with the tendency of people within the government to want to stay and continue to enjoy power and control, will pry the ideal unity of government and people, assuming it can and does exist, apart.

    But this is not a failing of just Socialist systems. Our vaunted “of, for, and by the people” form of representative democracy has pretty much the same problem. The power structures and people with wealth and power outside the government will bribe, blackmail, seduce or otherwise capture the individuals within government and create distance between the bulk of the people and what is ostensibly their government.

    In this Marx was wrong. He wrote about the proletariat exploiting the unique power of their vote within a democratic system to obtain favors. It might have gone that way. Except for the power of media and propaganda to reliably convert money into votes, and/or electoral victory. A legacy of Edward Bernays.

    If you want to get a politician to contact you send them an unsigned check for $100,000.

    This isn’t to say all political/economic systems are the same or that that all politicians are equally corrupt, greedy, addicted to power or prone to ignoring the wider needs of their constituencies. IMHO most politicians can be made to do the right thing if they are closely observed and every move is skeptically examined and publicized. Things in the dark tend to become corrupted. Politicians, like a skittish and lazy horses, need to be ridden with a supple but firm hand and, a readiness to use the spurs. You have to actively and diligently work at keeping them honest and responsive to their constituency.

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