I had recently a get-together with schoolmates from university. Not with my friends from university, who are a diverse bunch of different ages and professions and with whom I meet usually once/twice a year on a hiking trip or New-year celebrations, but with people with whom I studied chemistry. It was a totally depressing experience for multiple reasons, some deeply personal that I am not inclined to discuss with anyone, ever, and some that I shall discuss in this post.
The discussion did get slightly political and at that point I realized that I am the only person in the group who does not think that “socialism” is a dirty word describing an inherently ill-thought-out, dysfunctional, and/or evil political system. Everyone else expressed more or less libertarian or conservative-leaning opinions, although I must say not to the extreme sociopathic extent that can be observed in the US political discourse. After a short debate, I have inadvertently killed it outright with what in retrospect was the nuclear option, although it was not intended as such.
I said, “Correct me if I am wrong, but at this table, I am the only person who actually has worked in the private sector his whole life and is not and was not employed by the state in an in-principle socialistic enterprise.”
What followed was a short awkward silence, re-seating, and a permanent change of subject.
You see, everyone else seated at that table was either an accomplished scientist, a physician, a teacher, a high-ranking military officer, or (usually) a combination of these. Education is free of charge up to a university for anyone willing to take it, even foreigners residing in CZ, as long as they can take the classes in the Czech language. Healthcare is free of charge at the point of receiving, with healthcare insurance being mandatory for the employed and paid for by the state for the unemployed (it could be better by forgoing the middle-man in the form of insurance companies IMO). And the military is entirely financed by our taxes and owned by the state, as it always was.
So, why do these highly educated, highly intelligent, and oftentimes highly accomplished people think that socialism is inherently bad? Probably for the same reasons that I, too, thought so until some fifteen-twelve years ago.
We are the generation who still remembers the times behind the Iron Curtain. And although we did not experience the most brutal phases of that regime, it was still pretty bad at the time we were children. But when I tried to explain that what was wrong with that regime was not the “socialism” part but the “totalitarianism” part, it fell on deaf ears. I have managed to disconnect these terms in my mind, they have not. To them, the association between the two is too strong and they are seen as inherently intertwined.
And this might be, paradoxically, exactly because they never worked for a private company that habitually abuses its employees. They never experienced the disproportionate difference in negotiating power between a non-unionized workforce and an international corporation that feels laws need not be obeyed, if they exist at all in the first place. They had no first-hand experience with high-ranking managers of such corporations and thus did not get insight into their thinking (heck, I even met some who apparently thought that even laws of physics can be circumvented, although in reality that was possibly just a psychological pressure to force employees to commit fraud with plausible deniability). In short, they lack the experience that would show them that not all the propaganda we were shown as children were lies, and not everything that Marx wrote was misguided – a lot of it was, unfortunately, very spot-on and true.
And for this perception of socialism being inherently and unavoidably totalitarian, I blame Russia and the version of socialism it imposed by force on the rest of Eastern Europe. I have already written about this in part 35 of my “Behind the Iron Curtain” series. Only I did not think that this legacy survives that strongly in my generation. Even after the literal Iron Curtain fell, apparently people keep its bad legacy in their minds still. And my conclusion that such mental barriers might be more difficult to remove seems to be, unfortunately, supported by my recent experience with my schoolmates from university.