We Lived Better Then

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We Lived Better Then

Post by chlamor » Mon Dec 25, 2017 3:44 pm

We Lived Better Then
with 20 comments

Over two decades ago Vaclav Havel, the pampered scion of a wealthy Prague family, helped usher in a period of reaction, in which the holdings and estates of former landowners and captains of industry were restored to their previous owners, while unemployment, homelessness, and insecurity—abolished by the Reds– were put back on the agenda. Havel is eulogized by the usual suspects, but not by his numberless victims, who were pushed back into an abyss of exploitation by the Velvet revolution and other retrograde eruptions. With the fall of Communism allowing Havel and his brother to recover their family’s vast holdings, Havel’s life—he worked in a brewery under Communism—became much richer. The same can’t be said for countless others, whose better lives under Communism were swept away by a swindle that will, in the coming days, be lionized in the mass media on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s demolition. The anniversary is no time for celebration, except for the minority that has profited from it. For the bulk of us it ought to be an occasion to reflect on what the bottom 99 percent of humanity was able to achieve for ourselves outside the strictures, instabilities and unnecessary cruelties of capitalism.

Over the seven decades of its existence, and despite having to spend so much time preparing, fighting, and recovering from wars, Soviet socialism managed to create one of the great achievements of human history: a mass industrial society that eliminated most of the inequalities of wealth, income, education and opportunity that plagued what preceded it, what came after it, and what competed with it; a society in which health care and education through university were free (and university students received living stipends); where rent, utilities and public transportation were subsidized, along with books, periodicals and cultural events; where inflation was eliminated, pensions were generous, and child care was subsidized. By 1933, with the capitalist world deeply mired in a devastating economic crisis, unemployment was declared abolished, and remained so for the next five and a half decades, until socialism, itself was abolished. Excluding the war years, from 1928, when socialism was introduced, until Mikhail Gorbachev began to take it apart in the late 1980s, the Soviet system of central planning and public ownership produced unfailing economic growth, without the recessions and downturns that plagued the capitalist economies of North America, Japan and Western Europe. And in most of those years, the Soviet and Eastern European economies grew faster.

The Communists produced economic security as robust (and often more so) than that of the richest countries, but with fewer resources and a lower level of development and in spite of the unflagging efforts of the capitalist world to sabotage socialism. Soviet socialism was, and remains, a model for humanity — of what can be achieved outside the confines and contradictions of capitalism. But by the end of the 1980s, counterrevolution was sweeping Eastern Europe and Mikhail Gorbachev was dismantling the pillars of Soviet socialism. Naively, blindly, stupidly, some expected Gorbachev’s demolition project to lead the way to a prosperous consumer society, in which Soviet citizens, their bank accounts bulging with incomes earned from new jobs landed in a robust market economy, would file into colorful, luxurious shopping malls, to pick clean store shelves bursting with consumer goods. Others imagined a new era of a flowering multiparty democracy and expanded civil liberties, coexisting with public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, a model that seemed to owe more to utopian blueprints than hard-headed reality.

Of course, none of the great promises of the counterrevolution were kept. While at the time the demise of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was proclaimed as a great victory for humanity, not least by leftist intellectuals in the United States, two decades later there’s little to celebrate. The dismantling of socialism has, in a word, been a catastrophe, a great swindle that has not only delivered none of what it promised, but has wreaked irreparable harm, not only in the former socialist countries, but throughout the Western world, as well. Countless millions have been plunged deep into poverty, imperialism has been given a free hand, and wages and benefits in the West have bowed under the pressure of intensified competition for jobs and industry unleashed by a flood of jobless from the former socialist countries, where joblessness once, rightly, was considered an obscenity. Numberless voices in Russia, Romania, East Germany and elsewhere lament what has been stolen from them — and from humanity as a whole: “We lived better under communism. We had jobs. We had security.” And with the threat of jobs migrating to low-wage, high unemployment countries of Eastern Europe, workers in Western Europe have been forced to accept a longer working day, lower pay, and degraded benefits. Today, they fight a desperate rearguard action, where the victories are few, the defeats many. They too lived better — once.

But that’s only part of the story. For others, for investors and corporations, who’ve found new markets and opportunities for profitable investment, and can reap the benefits of the lower labor costs that attend intensified competition for jobs, the overthrow of socialism has, indeed, been something to celebrate. Equally, it has been welcomed by the landowning and industrial elite of the pre-socialist regimes whose estates and industrial concerns have been recovered and privatized. But they’re a minority. Why should the rest of us celebrate our own mugging?

Prior to the dismantling of socialism, most people in the world were protected from the vicissitudes of the global capitalist market by central planning and high tariff barriers. But once socialism fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and with China having marched resolutely down the capitalist road, the pool of unprotected labor available to transnational corporations expanded many times over. Today, a world labor force many times larger than the domestic pool of US workers — and willing to work dirt cheap — awaits the world’s corporations. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what the implications are for North American workers and their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan: an intense competition of all against all for jobs and industry. Inevitably, incomes fall, benefits are eroded, and working hours extended. Predictably, with labor costs tumbling, profits grow fat, capital surpluses accumulate and create bubbles, financial crises erupt and predatory wars to secure investment opportunities break out.

Growing competition for jobs and industry has forced workers in Western Europe to accept less. They work longer hours, and in some cases, for less pay and without increases in benefits, to keep jobs from moving to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other former socialist countries — which, under the rule of the Reds, once provided jobs for all. More work for less money is a pleasing outcome for the corporate class, and turns out to be exactly the outcome fascists engineered for their countries’ capitalists in the 1930s. The methods, to be sure, were different, but the anti-Communism of Mussolini and Hitler, in other hands, has proved just as useful in securing the same retrograde ends. Nobody who is subject to the vagaries of the labor market – almost all of us — should be glad Communism was abolished.

Maybe some us don’t know we’ve been mugged. And maybe some of us haven’t been. Take the radical US historian Howard Zinn, for example, who, along with most other prominent Left intellectuals, greeted the overthrow of Communism with glee [1]. I, no less than others, admired Zinn’s books, articles and activism, though I came to expect his ardent anti-Communism as typical of left US intellectuals. To be sure, in a milieu hostile to Communism, it should come as no surprise that conspicuous displays of anti-Communism become a survival strategy for those seeking to establish a rapport, and safeguard their reputations, with a larger (and vehemently anti-Communist) audience.

But there may be another reason for the anti-Communism of those whose political views leave them open to charges of being soft on Communism, and therefore of having horns. As dissidents in their own society, there was always a natural tendency for them to identify with dissidents elsewhere – and the pro-capitalist, anti-socialist propaganda of the West quite naturally elevated dissidents in socialist countries to the status of heroes, especially those who were jailed, muzzled and otherwise repressed by the state. For these people, the abridgement of civil liberties anywhere looms large, for the abridgement of their own civil liberties would be an event of great personal significance. By comparison, the Reds’ achievements in providing a comfortable frugality and economic security to all, while recognized intellectually as an achievement of some note, is less apt to stir the imagination of one who has a comfortable income, the respect of his peers, and plenty of people to read his books and attend his lectures. He doesn’t have to scavenge discarded coal in garbage dumps to eke out a bare, bleak, and unrewarding existence. Some do.

Karol, 14, and his sister Alina, 12, everyday trudge to a dump, where mixed industrial waste is deposited, just outside Swietochlowice, in formerly socialist Poland. There, along with their father, they look for scrap metal and second grade coal, anything to fetch a few dollars to buy a meager supply of groceries. “There was better life in Communism,” says Karol’s father, 49, repeating a refrain heard over and over again, not only in Poland, but also throughout the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. “I was working 25 years for the same company and now I cannot find a job – any job. They only want young and skilled workers.” [2] According to Gustav Molnar, a political analyst with the Laszlo Teleki Institute, “the reality is that when foreign firms come here, they’re only interested in hiring people under 30. It means half the population is out of the game.” [3] That may suit the bottom lines of foreign corporations – and the overthrow of socialism may have been a pleasing intellectual outcome for well-fed, comfortable intellectuals from Boston – but it hardly suits that part of the Polish population that must scramble over mountains of industrial waste – or perish. Maciej Gdula, 34, a founding member of the group, Krytyka Polityczna, or Political Critique, complains that many Poles “are disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises of capitalism. They promised us a world of consumption, stability and freedom. Instead, we got an entire generation of Poles who emigrated to go wash dishes.” [4] Under socialism “there was always work for everybody” [5] – at home. And always a place to live, free schools to go to, and doctors to see, without charge. So why was Howard Zinn glad that Communism was overthrown?

That the overthrow of socialism has failed to deliver anything of benefit to the majority is plain to see. One decade after counterrevolution skittered across Eastern Europe, 17 former socialist countries were immeasurably poorer. In Russia, poverty had tripled. One child in 10 – three million Russian children – lived like animals, ill-fed, dressed in rags, and living, if they were lucky, in dirty, squalid flats. In Moscow alone, 30,000 to 50,000 children slept in the streets. Life expectancy, education, adult-literacy and income declined. A report by the European Children’s Trust, written in 2000, revealed that 40 percent of the population of the former socialist countries – a number equal to one of every two US citizens – lived in poverty. Infant mortality and tuberculosis were on the rise, approaching Third World levels. The situation, according to the UN, was catastrophic. And everywhere the story was the same. [6, 7, 8, 9]

Paul Cockshot points out that:

The restoration of the market mechanism in Russia was a vast controlled experiment. Nation, national character and culture, natural resources and productive potential remained the same, only the economic mechanism changed. If Western economists were right, then we should have expected economic growth and living standards to have leapt forward after the Yeltsin shock therapy. Instead the country became an economic basket-case. Industrial production collapsed, technically advanced industries atrophied, and living standards fell so much that the death rate shot up by over a third leading to some 7.7 million extra deaths.

For many Russians, life became immeasurably worse.

If you were old, if you were a farmer, if you were a manual worker, the market was a great deal worse than even the relatively stagnant Soviet economy of Brezhnev. The recovery under Putin, such as it was, came almost entirely as a side effect of rising world oil prices, the very process that had operated under Brezhnev. [10]

While the return of capitalism made life harsher for some, it proved lethal for others. From 1991 to 1994, life expectancy in Russia tumbled by five years. By 2008, it had slipped to less than 60 years for Russian men, a full seven years lower than in 1985 when Gorbachev came to power and began to dismantle Soviet socialism. Today “only a little over half of the ex-Communist countries have regained their pretransition life-expectancy levels,” according to a study published in the medical journal, The Lancet. [11]

“Life was better under the Communists,” concludes Aleksandr. “The stores are full of things, but they’re very expensive.” Victor pines for the “stability of an earlier era of affordable health care, free higher education and housing, and the promise of a comfortable retirement – things now beyond his reach.” [12] A 2008 report in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, noted that “many Russians interviewed said they still grieve for their long, lost country.” Among the grievers is Zhanna Sribnaya, 37, a Moscow writer. Sribnaya remembers “Pioneer camps when everyone could go to the Black Sea for summer vacations. Now, only people with money can take those vacations.” [13]

Ion Vancea, a Romanian who struggles to get by on a picayune $40 per month pension says, “It’s true there was not much to buy back then, but now prices are so high we can’t afford to buy food as well as pay for electricity.” Echoing the words of many Romanians, Vancea adds, “Life was 10 times better under (Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae) Ceausescu.” [14] An opinion poll carried out last year found that Vancea isn’t in the minority. Conducted by the Romanian polling organisation CSOP, the survey found that almost one-half of Romanians thought life was better under Ceauşescu, compared to less than one-quarter who thought life is better today. And while Ceauşescu is remembered in the West as a Red devil, only seven percent said they suffered under Communism. Why do half of Romanians think life was better under the Reds? They point to full employment, decent living conditions for all, and guaranteed housing – advantages that disappeared with the fall of Communism. [15]

Next door, in Bulgaria, 80 percent say they are worse off now that the country has transitioned to a market economy. Only five percent say their standard of living has improved. [16] Mimi Vitkova, briefly Bulgaria’s health minister for two years in the mid-90s, sums up life after the overthrow of socialism: “We were never a rich country, but when we had socialism our children were healthy and well-fed. They all got immunized. Retired people and the disabled were provided for and got free medicine. Our hospitals were free.” But things have changed, she says. “Today, if a person has no money, they have no right to be cured. And most people have no money. Our economy was ruined.” [17] A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a paltry one in nine Bulgarians believe ordinary people are better off as a result of the transition to capitalism. And few regard the state as representing their interests. Only 16 percent say it is run for the benefit of all people. [18]

In the former East Germany a new phenomenon has arisen: Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the GDR. During the Cold War era, East Germany’s relative poverty was attributed to public ownership and central planning – sawdust in the gears of the economic engine, according to anti-socialist mythology. But the propaganda conveniently ignored the fact that the eastern part of Germany had always been less developed than the west, that it had been plundered of its key human assets at the end of World War II by US occupation forces, that the Soviet Union had carted off everything of value to indemnify itself for its war losses, and that East Germany bore the brunt of Germany’s war reparations to Moscow. [19] On top of that, those who fled East Germany were said to be escaping the repression of a brutal regime, and while some may indeed have been ardent anti-Communists fleeing repression by the state, most were economic refugees, seeking the embrace of a more prosperous West, whose riches depended in large measure on a history of slavery, colonialism, and ongoing imperialism—processes of capital accumulation the Communist countries eschewed and spent precious resources fighting against.

Today, nobody of an unprejudiced mind would say that the riches promised East Germans have been realized. Unemployment, once unheard of, runs in the double digits and rents have skyrocketed. The region’s industrial infrastructure – weaker than West Germany’s during the Cold War, but expanding — has now all but disappeared. And the population is dwindling, as economic refugees, following in the footsteps of Cold War refugees before them, make their way westward in search of jobs and opportunity. [20] “We were taught that capitalism was cruel,” recalls Ralf Caemmerer, who works for Otis Elevator. “You know, it didn’t turn out to be nonsense.” [21] As to the claim that East Germans have “freedom” Heinz Kessler, a former East German defense minister replies tartly, “Millions of people in Eastern Europe are now free from employment, free from safe streets, free from health care, free from social security.” [22] Still, Howard Zinn was glad communism collapsed. But then, he didn’t live in East Germany.

So, who’s doing better? Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright turned president, came from a prominent, vehemently anti-socialist Prague family, which had extensive holdings, “including construction companies, real estate and the Praque Barrandov film studios”. [23] The jewel in the crown of the Havel family holdings was the Lucerna Palace, “a pleasure palace…of arcades, theatres, cinemas, night-clubs, restaurants, and ballrooms,” according to Frommer’s. It became “a popular spot for the city’s nouveau riches to congregate,” including a young Havel, who, raised in the lap of luxury by a governess, doted on by servants, and chauffeured around town in expensive automobiles, “spent his earliest years on the Lucerna’s polished marble floors.” Then, tragedy struck – at least, from Havel’s point of view. The Reds expropriated Lucerna and the family’s other holdings, and put them to use for the common good, rather than for the purpose of providing the young Havel with more servants. Havel was sent to work in a brewery.

“I was different from my schoolmates whose families did not have domestics, nurses or chauffeurs,” Havel once wrote. “But I experienced these differences as disadvantage. I felt excluded from the company of my peers.” [24] Yet the company of his peers must not have been to Havel’s tastes, for as president, he was quick to reclaim the silver spoon the Reds had taken from his mouth. Celebrated throughout the West as a hero of intellectual freedom, he was instead a hero of capitalist restoration, presiding over a mass return of nationalized property, including Lucerna and his family’s other holdings.

The Roman Catholic Church is another winner. The pro-capitalist Hungarian government has returned to the Roman Catholic Church much of the property nationalized by the Reds, who placed the property under common ownership for the public good. With recovery of many of the Eastern and Central European properties it once owned, the Church is able to reclaim its pre-socialist role of parasite — raking in vast amounts of unearned wealth in rent, a privilege bestowed for no other reason than it owns title to the land. Hungary also pays the Vatican a US$9.2 million annuity for property it has been unable to return. [25] (Note that a 2008 survey of 1,000 Hungarians by the Hungarian polling firm Gif Piackutato found that 60 percent described the era of Communist rule under Red leader Janos Kadar as Hungary’s happiest while only 14 percent said the same about the post-Communist era. [26])

The Church, former landowners, and CEOs aside, most people of the former socialist bloc aren’t pleased that the gains of the socialist revolutions have been reversed. Three-quarters of Russians, according to a 1999 poll [27] regret the demise of the Soviet Union. And their assessment of the status quo is refreshingly clear-sighted. Almost 80 percent recognize liberal democracy as a front for a government controlled by the rich. A majority (correctly) identifies the cause of its impoverishment as an unjust economic system (capitalism), which, according to 80 percent, produces “excessive and illegitimate inequalities.” [28] The solution, in the view of the majority, is to return to socialism, even if it means one-party rule. Russians, laments the anti-Communist historian Richard Pipes, haven’t Americans’ taste for multiparty democracy, and seem incapable of being cured of their fondness for Soviet leaders. In one poll, Russians were asked to list the 10 greatest people of all time, of all nations. Lenin came in second, Stalin fourth and Peter the Great came first. Pipes seems genuinely distressed they didn’t pick his old boss, Ronald Reagan, and is fed up that after years of anti-socialist, pro-capitalist propaganda, Russians remain committed to the idea that private economic activity should be restricted, and “the government [needs] to be more involved in the country’s economic life.” [29] An opinion poll which asked Russians which socio-economic system they favor, produced these results.

• State planning and distribution, 58%;

• Based on private property and distribution, 28%;

• Hard to say, 14%. [30]

So, if the impoverished peoples of the formerly socialist countries pine for the former attractions of socialism, why don’t they vote the Reds back in? Socialism can’t be turned on with the flick of a switch. The former socialist economies have been privatized and placed under the control of the market. Those who accept the goals and values of capitalism have been recruited to occupy pivotal offices of the state. And economic, legal and political structures have been altered to accommodate private production for profit. True, there are openings for Communist parties to operate within the new multiparty liberal democracies, but Communists now compete with far more generously funded parties in societies in which their enemies have restored their wealth and privileges and use them to tilt the playing field strongly in their favor. They own the media, and therefore are in a position to shape public opinion and give parties of private property critical backing during elections. They spend a king’s ransom on lobbying the state and politicians and running think-tanks which churn out policy recommendations and furnish the media with capitalist-friendly “expert” commentary. They set the agenda in universities through endowments, grants and the funding of special chairs to study questions of interest to their profits. They bring politicians under their sway by doling out generous campaign contributions and promises of lucrative post-political career employment opportunities. Is it any wonder the Reds aren’t simply voted back into power? Capitalist democracy means democracy for the few—the capitalists—not a level-playing field where wealth, private-property and privilege don’t matter.

And anyone who thinks Reds can be elected to office should reacquaint themselves with US foreign policy vis-a-vis Chile circa 1973. The United States engineered a coup to overthrow the socialist Salvador Allende, on the grounds that Chileans couldn’t be allowed to make the ”irresponsible” choice of electing a man Cold Warriors regarded as a Communist. More recently, the United States, European Union and Israel, refused to accept the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, all the while hypocritically presenting themselves as champions and guardians of democracy.

Of course, no forward step will be taken, can be taken, until a decisive part of the population becomes disgusted with and rejects what exists today, and is convinced something better is possible and is willing to tolerate the upheavals of transition. Something better than unceasing economic insecurity, private (and for many, unaffordable) health care and education, and vast inequality, is achievable. The Reds proved that. It was the reality in the Soviet Union, in China (for a time), in Eastern Europe, and today, hangs on in Cuba and North Korea, despite the incessant and far-ranging efforts of the United States to crush it.

It should be no surprise that Vaclav Havel, as others whose economic and political supremacy was, for a time, ended by the Reds, was a tireless fighter against socialism, and that he, and others, who sought to reverse the gains of the revolution, were cracked down on, and sometimes muzzled and jailed by the new regimes. To expect otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the determined struggle that is carried on by the enemies of socialism, even after socialist forces have seized power. The forces of reaction retain their money, their movable property, the advantages of education, and above all, their international connections. To grant them complete freedom is to grant them a free hand to organize the downfall of socialism, to receive material assistance from abroad to reverse the revolution, and to elevate the market and private ownership once again to the regulating principles of the economy. Few champions of civil liberties argue that in the interests of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, that Germans ought to be allowed to hold pro-Nazi rallies, establish a pro-Nazi press, and organize fascist political parties, to return to the days of the Third Reich. To survive, any socialist government, must, of necessity, be repressive toward its enemies, who, like Havel, will seek their overthrow and the return of their privileged positions. This is demonized as totalitarianism by those who have an interest in seeing anti-socialist forces prevail, regard civil and political liberties (as against a world of plenty for all) as the pinnacle of human achievement, or have an unrealistically sanguine view of the possibilities for the survival of socialist islands in a sea of predatory capitalist states.

Where Reds have prevailed, the outcome has been far-reaching material gain for the bulk of the population: full employment, free health care, free education through university, free and subsidized child care, cheap living accommodations and inexpensive public transportation. Life expectancy has soared, illiteracy has been wiped out, and homelessness, unemployment and economic insecurity have been abolished. Racial strife and ethnic tensions have been reduced to almost the vanishing point. And inequalities in wealth, income, opportunity, and education have been greatly reduced. Where Reds have been overthrown, mass unemployment, underdevelopment, hunger, disease, illiteracy, homelessness, and racial conflict have recrudesced, as the estates, holdings and privileges of former fat cats have been restored. Communists produced gains in the interest of all humanity, achieved in the face of very trying conditions, including the unceasing hostility of the West and the unremitting efforts of the former exploiters to restore the status quo ante.

1. Howard Zinn, “Beyond the Soviet Union,” Znet Commentary, September 2, 1999.

2. “Left behind by the luxury train,” The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2000.

3. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.

4. Dan Bilefsky, “Polish left gets transfusion of young blood,” The New York Times, March 12, 2010.

5. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.

6. “An epidemic of street kids overwhelms Russian cities,” The Globe and Mail, April 16, 2002.

7. “UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty,” World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.

8. Associated Press, October 11, 2000.

9. “UN report….

10. Paul Cockshott, “Book review: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford”, Marxism-Leninism Today, http://mltoday.com/en/subject-areas/boo ... 986-2.html

11. David Stuckler, Lawrence King and Martin McKee, “Mass Privatization and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis: A Cross-National Analysis,” Judy Dempsey, “Study looks at mortality in post-Soviet era,” The New York Times, January 16, 2009.

12. “In Post-U.S.S.R. Russia, Any Job Is a Good Job,” New York Times, January 11, 2004.

13. Globe and Mail (Canada), June 9, 2008.

14. “Disdain for Ceausescu passing as economy worsens,” The Globe and Mail, December 23, 1999.

15. James Cross, “Romanians say communism was better than capitalism”, 21st Century Socialism, October 18, 2010. http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article ... 02030.html “Opinion poll: 61% of Romanians consider communism a good idea”, ActMedia Romanian News Agency, September 27, 2010. http://www.actmedia.eu/top+story/opinio ... idea/29726

16. “Bulgarians feel swindled after 13 years of capitalism,” AFP, December 19, 2002.

17. “Bulgaria tribunal examines NATO war crimes,” Workers World, November 9, 2000.

18. Matthew Brunwasser, “Bulgaria still stuck in trauma of transition,” The New York Times, November 11, 2009.

19. Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2002. p. 232-235.

20. “Warm, Fuzzy Feeling for East Germany’s Grey Old Days,” New York Times, January 13, 2004.

21. “Hard lessons in capitalism for Europe’s unions,” The Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2003.

22. New York Times, July 20, 1996, cited in Michael Parenti, “Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism,” City Light Books, San Francisco, 1997, p. 118.

23. Leos Rousek, “Czech playwright, dissident rose to become president”, The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2011.

24. Dan Bilefsky and Jane Perlez, “Czechs’ dissident conscience, turned president”, The New York Times, December 18, 2011.

25. U.S. Department of State, “Summary of Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe,” September 10, 2003. http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/or/2003/31415.htm

26. “Poll shows majority of Hungarians feel life was better under communism,” May 21, 2008, www.politics.hu

27. Cited in Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. “Russia Nw”, in The Washington Post, March 25, 2009.

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Re: We Lived Better Then

Post by chlamor » Mon Dec 25, 2017 3:45 pm

An experiment in living socialism: Bulgaria then and now

by: F.S.
october 2 2013

"The Communist Manifesto now reads as if it was written just a few weeks ago. ... the experience of Eastern Europe and of the Third World shows the vital need for a universalist left as the only real alternative to diverse forms of barbarism."[1]

Building blocks for a 'people's history' of socialism 1.0

At this critical juncture, given the fierce urgency of now, it is time for the left to give renewed attention to the socialist experience in Eastern Europe. We need to re-explore in depth across the radical left in North America, Europe and elsewhere what was progressive and successful, in the former 'real-socialist' economies in Eastern Europe-especially the smaller socialist states like Bulgaria-along with their weaknesses, mistakes, contradictions and myriad problems engendered by the enduring impact of the Cold War. The socialist countries have been turned with a vengeance into a "testing ground of an extremely aggressive form of neo-liberal social engineering, an attempt to violently impose a change in social paradigm".[2] We are seeing a metamorphosis in political and economic paradigms at the hands of the IMF, EU-and a nouveau riche comprador bourgeoisie and coterie of oligarchs-that has transmuted much of the post-socialist world into a vast societal poorhouse.

Researchers have argued that the neo-colonial tsunami in the wake of the Cold War has brought extreme neo-capitalist versions of neo-liberalism into Eastern Europe, with devastating results for education and social welfare.[3] Bourgeois history's irony--or perhaps its Cunning of Reason in Hegel's classic sense--is that major achievements under 'real existing' socialisms in the 20th century were what people everywhere under austerity capitalism are fighting for here and now.

My core thesis is this: The narratives of ordinary people who grew up in socialism and now work and live in post-socialist societies in the throes of anomie [a widespread breakdown in social order] and severe poverty, their basic dignity trampled, need to be collected, discussed and disseminated widely. This will provide a record of authentic experience and memory as radical as reality itself. Such narratives can only sharpen our visions of 21st-century 'democratic socialism.' Such a project should be oriented toward oral history and biographical inquiry, exploring what life in these socialist states actually was like, as seen by ordinary citizens now living in the chaos of restored capitalism.

It has been argued that the restoration of market economies and bourgeois democracy across Eastern Europe, along with a massive de-collectivization of agriculture and privatization of industry have trashed human dignity and slashed the gains of 'real-socialist' welfare over many decades. Economic and ideological colonization from the West intensified for the vast majority of working families on a massive scale. One author recently observed that

"The dismantling of socialism has, in a word, been a catastrophe, a great swindle that has not only delivered none of what it promised, but has wreaked irreparable harm .... Numberless voices in Russia, Romania, East Germany and elsewhere lament what has been stolen from them - and from humanity as a whole: 'We lived better under communism. We had jobs. We had security.'"[4]

Speaking about 'socialism 2.0' for the 21st century, Peter Mertens, chair of the Workers Party of Belgium, noted in a 2012 interview: "It's also not the case that we don't know anything at all or that we have to start from a blank sheet of paper. There exist experiences, there was a socialism 1.0, with its strong points and its weak points, with its fantastic achievements, but also with its grievous mistakes. And we're living in different times."

The Cold War is over, yet it continues in some socialist ranks in a kind of ideological time warp. In forging left unity, debates about how to build a broad Marxist party need an empirical 'counter-grounding' in what the socialist workers' experiments in Eastern Europe actually meant for ordinary families, as perceived by real people today, now caught up in the chaos of contradictions under restored capitalism in these same societies. Their authentic stories-the subject-anchored nexus of history and memory-are relevant to the present struggle and reflect the once functioning realities, which have now been gutted, about which many North American socialists seem to be remarkably oblivious. But it is precisely this contrast between then and now in post-socialist societies in Eastern Europe that is highly instructive. We can learn much from past achievements as they were experienced and lived. This can serve to counteract the "danger of a single story" in our lingering conceptions of what socialism was (and was not) in Eastern Europe.

Bulgaria-An Icon of the Post-Socialist Freefall

Today, in 2013, the Bulgarian economy is in massive contraction under capitalism's neo-liberal 'shock therapy'. Bulgaria is now the lowest-income post-socialist state, with the highest levels of economic emigration in Europe, reflective of capitalism's 'race to the bottom' in the EU. As one author noted in 2009: "Capitalism's failure to lift living standards, impose the rule of law and tame flourishing corruption and nepotism has given way to fond memories of the times when the jobless rate was zero, food was cheap and social safety was high".[5] Many Bulgarians who were born in the 1970's and before view the socialist period as "a golden era" compared to today. There is a popular current Bulgarian joke about a woman who wakes up and runs about her house at night in panic, looking into the medicine cabinet, the refrigerator and then out the window into the street. Relieved, she returns to the bedroom. Her husband asks her, "What's wrong with you?" "I had a terrible nightmare," she says. "I dreamt that we could still afford to buy medicine, that the refrigerator was absolutely full, and that the streets were safe and clean." "How is that a nightmare?" the husband asks. The woman shakes her head, "I thought the communists were back in power."[6]

A substantial segment of the Bulgarian population over the age of 40 remains convinced that, 25-35 years ago, the socialist welfare system in Bulgaria delivered the necessary goods and services for most families-production for basic human and societal needs-within a largely egalitarian system that was firmly grounded on the development, availability and access to universal social programs. More empirical research is imperative, including qualitative inquiry probing 'working people's post-socialist subjectivity and memory,' explorations in the 'oral history of real Socialism,' biography as a 'flare' to illuminate past societal and communal realities. Nothing is black and white, and every point touched on here can be explored further. A tiny minority of privileged or much younger Bulgarians will of course disagree.[7] Bulgarian narratives can be supplemented by stories from Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and elsewhere.

'Democracy' is a knee-jerk expletive many Bulgarians born 1970 and before use with open contempt, identifying it with the restoration of capitalism, return to a class society, poverty, despair, insecurity, and gross inequality--the wholesale trashing of the human dignity of ordinary people. Bulgaria, which has basically been colonized by neo-liberalism, now has the lowest wages in Europe and is faced with the NATOization of the country, massive joblessness, and the near collapse of Bulgarian agriculture. The country is now confronted with corrosive social chaos, widespread social breakdown, a new ruling class in power, and "predatory globalization", all at the expense of ordinary workers. Bulgarians are now bombarded with endless rhetoric exalting the cult of the commodity and "becoming Europeans." Wracked by the havoc of 23 years of unending social and economic crisis, substantial numbers of Bulgarians-including Roma, many now working as economic migrants in Western Europe-feel that they and their families were significantly better off materially under the old 'universal welfare' regime, whatever its defects, with its southern and southeastern border in front-line confrontation with Greece and Turkey, key capitalist client states in the eastern Mediterranean.

A vast, ever-expanding economic gap has emerged between Bulgaria's haves and its have-nots. The latest Eurostat statistics show that Bulgaria had the highest share of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU in 2011, at just under 50 percent. The Bulgarian 'rule of law' ranking is among the world's lowest. Today the Pentagon operates four military bases in Bulgaria, its compliant new ally. Some 20 percent of the country's population has emigrated since 1990. We have seen a gigantic exodus, the direct result of an unplanned, corporate-run 'free market' economy and a society in constant crisis since the 'obscure disaster' of 1989. A recent opinion survey concludes that a majority of people in Bulgaria think the "situation is unbearable". In 2013, there have been a number of public suicides by the desperate. A "demographic collapse" is looming due to massive emigration, and the birthrate has dropped to its lowest level since 1945.

As Gowans (2011) underscores: "A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a mere one-in-nine Bulgarians believe ordinary people are better off as a result of the transition to capitalism. And few regard the state as representing their interests. Only 16 percent say it is run for the benefit of all people." A new oligarchy and its supporters, largely based in Sofia and closely linked with the colonizing EU, enjoy remarkable privilege, at the majority's expense. Part of this wealth is centered in the Bulgarian and foreign-owned Black Sea tourist industry. As Alexander Andreev recently observed

"Since the breakdown of the communist system in 1989 and 1990, Bulgaria has been ruled by networks of oligarchies and clientilism. Practically all parties and coalitions in power serve the interests of large economic actors - or worse, those of shadow organizations which began as organized crime running protection rackets, who later established themselves as powerful market agents."[8]

Like many of the social democratic parties across Europe, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the transformed Bulgarian CP of old, is largely pro-NATO, espousing a 'milder' makeover of neo-liberal market capitalism. It is headed by Sergei Stanishev. A somewhat puzzling political paradox here is the absence of any anti-capitalist movement in the streets or in the electoral arena. Disillusioned with politicians, mass alienation from the political elite is rife, as reflected in popular protest in February 2013 and again against the newly installed, BSP-led government from June 2013. Andreev (2013) bemoans the "lack of coherency" in the protests, given that the demonstrators have "formed no political party ... Aside from a couple of generally formulated goals, they also have no understandable list of implementation measures - which would be required for the crisis-bound fields of education, healthcare, energy or the stagnating economy." "People before profits" is not a key demand, while the popular slogan "Red Trash!" points up the center-right political sentiment driving many of the demonstrators. Dawson (2013), a British political scientist, critiques the openly anti-Turkish and racist innuendo among the disgruntled on the streets of Sofia and some other towns in the June-August mass protests. Living in this post-socialist labyrinth of contradictions, alienation between the Bulgarian masses and the State is perhaps at its highest level since liberation in 1878 from nearly five centuries of Turkish rule.

Looking back with more than nostalgia

The southernmost of the former socialist countries, Bulgaria was arguably the most successful East European socialist economy and polity. The percentage of ordinary Bulgarian working people aged 40 and over who think they were far better off under socialism in the 1970s and 1980s is markedly higher than their counterparts who have been polled in the former Soviet Union, Romania, and Poland. They traveled freely throughout the socialist bloc, at very low cost, and could see life elsewhere, and talk with citizens there. Bulgaria was also packed with summer and wintertime vacationers from the socialist bloc, on the Black Sea and at its skiing facilities. There were rich opportunities to interact and exchange perceptions. So why do we continue to engage in stereotypical generalizations about a monolithic 'Soviet' system? Why should we assume that the USSR was necessarily representative of the distinctive local realities in far smaller states such as Bulgaria? The memories of many older Bulgarians belie the notion that socialism was 'dictatorial,' a totalitarian society of unending hardship, oppression and lack of freedom, with its drab economy producing only shoddy goods.

On the other hand, it may well be the case that a significant segment of older Bulgarians would echo what Irina Malenko (b. 1967), author of the memoir/novel Sovietica, has written about growing up in the Soviet Union. Recently interviewed, Malenko (2013) noted

"Our life was very secure, safe, in a quiet, non-stressful environment, absolutely free of drugs, with virtually no crime. There was quite a lot of social control: if somebody was doing something wrong, his colleagues or neighbors would set him right. Every adult was in employment, except for disabled people, family care providers - if they wished to stay at home - and retired people. Retirement age was fifty-five for women and sixty for men. Soviet people were also the most literate people in the world. All art was very easy to access. Libraries were free of charge. Books, theater plays, concerts, museums, and exhibitions were extremely cheap.

We had a guaranteed right to housing, the right to have a job, and the right to have a paid holiday. Housing costs were extremely low. People paid only for water and electricity, just three or four percent of their wages in total. The state would give people apartments free of charge, for life, and their children could stay to live there, but you were not allowed to sell it. Public transport was extremely cheap too, as well as food. Children' clothes and shoes were subsidized by the state. Schoolbooks were supplied free of charge. ... We had whole publishing houses working specially on children's books; there was an enormous amount of cartoons and feature films produced especially for children ... All sports clubs were fully free of charge. Kids were encouraged to attend them."[9]

Bulgarian collectivized agriculture thrived, and industry expanded significantly. A major computer industry was built, centered in the town of Pravetz. Many agro-collectives, enterprises, factories, schools, and universities had vacation spots on the Black Sea providing nearly cost-free vacations for their workers. Now all that has vanished and Black Sea vacations are too costly for most. Importantly, there was a minutely planned economy that oversaw production to meet basic human needs, not the free-market chaos rife in the country today. Ostensible regime aims, basically implemented for most citizens, were a distinctive form of radical material equality, full guaranteed employment. There was a concerted effort to develop a strong sense of social solidarity, despite existing racism toward large ethnic minorities, Turkish and Roma. They were integrated as 'citizens' but not as collective ethnic minorities, with rights of their own. Socialist laws reduced structural discrimination. Yet endemic racism against Roma remained, a clear failing of socialist states across Eastern Europe (see below).

The Bulgarian socialist system was grounded on free education, free high-quality medical care, and excellent nearly cost-free public transport. In essence, most services for basic needs were 'de-commodified,' with the cost to consumers very low, and indeed almost 'demonetized' for water, electricity, transport, and central urban steam heating. Those costs are now skyrocketing, most especially for electricity and gas. The Bulgarian railroad system, once a model, is now in deep trouble as passenger numbers have plummeted by over 50 percent since 2001. Municipal bus fares are now 18 times the cost of a ticket under state socialism, where the old fare of 6 stotinki (= $0.04) was largely 'symbolic.' Cafes and restaurants used to be packed with working people, because they were low-cost and non-profit; now far fewer people can afford to go out. Maternity leave under socialism (three years partially paid) is now severely restricted, with many mothers distraught at the meager assistance they receive. Under socialism Bulgaria was reputed to have one of the best medical systems in Eastern Europe; today there is a huge emigration of medical personnel, given that salaries for health-care workers in Bulgaria are the lowest in Europe and the severe lack of medical equipment (once good, now antiquated). There was a good local pharmaceutical industry in Bulgaria in the 1970s and 1980s, which was run on a not-for-profit basis, producing low-cost, high-quality medications. Today nearly all medications are imported from the West and are costly, and many Bulgarians will tell you that their quality is questionable. Lots of older people are dismayed because they cannot afford essential drugs. Big bribes for doctors are now common and many patients are penniless. All this is destructive of basic human dignity.

As Mimi Vitkova, a Minister of Health in the 1990s, noted a decade ago

"We were never a rich country, but when we had socialism our children were healthy and well-fed. They all got immunized. Retired people and the disabled were provided for and got free medicine. Our hospitals were free. Today, if a person has no money, they have no right to be cured. And most people have no money. Our economy was ruined."[10]

Family incomes under socialism were often better in terms of actual buying power than after 23 years of 'democracy' and the free market. Many ordinary older working and retired Bulgarians will corroborate this fact. Then all had a job at a living wage. Now the gap between the few rich and the many poor in Bulgaria is huge and widening by the month. A large proportion of average working Bulgarians, and all pensioners, live on the edge, and 30-40 percent of the population is pauperized. The minimum salary is set at €160 per month, but many are struggling in precarious, part-time hourly jobs. Mean salaries are 25-30 percent lower than in neighboring Romania. Some eight percent of the Bulgarian population, a slim stratum of nouveau riche situated mainly in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Burgas, is now better off. Some social workers make the equivalent of €140 a month and are struggling to survive. In interviews, many Bulgarians report that the work atmosphere was formerly more pleasant, collegial, and productive - and far less stressful than today. Strong bonds of neighborliness and simple human solidarity were common, but daily interactions are now encumbered by economic stress, and social breakdown.

Especially instructive are comparisons in the area of education. Socialist education in Bulgaria was in important ways similar to the educational system in today's Cuba. This was particularly true in the sense of building a 'moral economy of solidarity and community' and overcoming the divide between the curriculum and life beyond the classroom in the natural, social and 'communal' worlds, a process known as 'schooling the revolution.'[11] Education was demonstrably better under socialism in terms of funds allocated, teacher quality and, significantly, in student attitudes to learning. Schools were demanding and geared to high performance levels, energizing student engagement and anti-capitalist Marxist thinking. However, 'critical thinking' in the current bourgeois sense, was lacking. Little open dissent was tolerated, which in retrospect was a systemic error. Public universities (none private!) were hard to enter and high grades were needed. But tuition was free and there was a job guaranteed by the state after graduation. There were no student debts or unemployed graduates. Social class distinction was kept very marginal in schools and discipline was strict. Today a severe lack of student discipline is ravaging the entire educational system. Attendance even in university classes is desultory and overall standards are in decline in today's 'mis-education nation'. Every teacher I have interviewed agrees on this. One senior educator said: "Bulgarian education has been destroyed. The result is total chaos in a system once among Eastern Europe's best." Expensive private schools have proliferated, serving the small elite class. Many students just want to get a degree and emigrate. Polls indicate that two-thirds of Bulgarians would like their children to study abroad. A youth survey in May 2012 noted that 40 percent of young people want to leave Bulgaria the first chance they get. A 2013 Ministry of Education poll determined that 52 percent of the 2013 high school graduating class applied for university abroad. In 2012, one-in-six high school graduates went on to study at foreign universities. Another 2012 study suggests a genuine national crisis, indicating 41 percent of Bulgarians aged 16 are "alarmingly illiterate". Bulgaria once was the Silicon Valley of the socialist bloc. Today the National Astronomical Observatory in Rozhen, the largest in southeastern Europe, is facing severe cutbacks, as are many areas of scientific research, with a huge storm of protest erupting over the devious distribution of research funds in late 2012.

Prior to the restoration of capitalism in Bulgaria, there existed a huge array of well-organized, state-run extra-curricular activities, with free summer camps and excursions for schoolkids. The Pioneers, for ages 9-13, and Komsomol (the Young Communist League), for ages 14-18, organized young people both in and after school. All of that is now dismantled, often wistfully recalled. Youth normally were mobilized to participate in compulsory agricultural harvest brigades under state socialism. This was mandated from above, yet many say there was enjoyable camaraderie, with campfires and singing and dancing in the evenings. There was heavy physical labor, small pay, and summers of required social service. Kids now live in a world of social atomization, with too little stress on physical fitness and love of nature, once central components of Bulgarian education.

The experience of this entire complex of organized youth movements and their key role in shaping the young, recollected from today's perspective, needs in-depth inquiry. Some teachers' colleges were built in part by their own first students, organized in construction teams. Lending a working hand was needed and expected.

Once upon a socialist time in Bulgaria, there were decent libraries, cultural activities, and sports of all kinds. Many school children attended monthly concerts of classical music, which were obligatory in the socialist curriculum. Now few go to such performances, which have become quite rare. Recent studies report that the average Bulgarian family spent the equivalent of €6 on books in the past year and €2 on the cinema/theatre/concerts. Under socialism, extremely low-cost books were far more common, but a whole 'reading culture' has now been trashed. Under socialism, all publishing was socialized, nothing was for profit, and cheap books were a priority. The arts were supported by the state, and there was a notable Bulgarian film industry (some of the best can be found on YouTube) that imploded in 1990 and has not recovered. The system of state-run theaters, where excellent dramatic productions could once be seen in many cities and towns, is today in shambles. Today, even going to see a movie is unaffordable for many, with tickets many times more costly than under socialism. Experienced librarians are now earning as little as €180 a month, and the extensive urban and rural library system-with traditional chitalishte reading rooms-is badly under-funded. In sports, the system of national teams is in a state of severe contraction. Bulgaria had its worst performance in 60 years at the 2012 London Olympics, in what was widely deemed an authentic national disgrace.

Socialist Bulgaria: a non-consumerist society?

In significant measure, socialist Bulgaria was an economy on the road to a virtually non-consumerist society, with an abundance of basic goods, which were not produced for profit and largely affordable. There were identical controlled prices for all items, nation-wide. There was no advertising industry and for 25 years there were no ads on TV. Much production was in a sense 'de-commodified.' There was one kind of yoghurt, of high quality and sold in returnable jars, not 25 brands as there are today. In fact, Bulgarians are now ranked as among "the most pessimistic consumers in the world" according to a recent report. People say 90 percent of the yoghurt now is a fake admixture, as is also the case with basics like yellow cheese (kashkaval), the traditional Bulgarian salami (lukanka), and all lower-cost table wine (once world-class). Under socialism, quality control of food was very strict, but this has now largely vanished. The capitalist market today is heavily colonized by foreign-owned grocery chains. Many items are imported and the quality is often questionable. Under socialism, municipal steam heating (covered by heavy state subsidies) was provided at very low cost, and the cold Bulgarian winters were cozy inside. Now most people in urban apartments cannot afford the privatized steam heat, and have resorted instead to dirty and dangerous wood-burning stoves or costly electric heating. Years ago, such stoves were mainly in villages, where the demand for fuel destroyed much needed woodlands. Today, messy and increasingly costly wood-burning stoves have become the reluctant norm in many urban apartments.

The Spirit of Community

Substantial social energy used to be directed into communal initiatives of all kinds such as neighborhood clean-up committees and snow-removal teams. The Communist Party was actively engaged in spurring communal consciousness at the neighborhood level. Importantly, in socialist Bulgaria there was virtually no violent crime in everyday life, with few break-ins and muggings. Today petty crime is rampant and 'security' is a major issue. The country was recently described by a government minister as an "oasis of organized crime". Older workers often say that years ago many never even locked their front door, and the key was left under the mat as there was no need to steal. There was no grinding poverty then as many Bulgarians and most Roma face today, with a burgeoning community of impoverished retirees, many with pensions the equivalent of €70-130 monthly. Unemployment benefits are set at around €65 a month, scarcely enough for minimal survival.

Widespread xenophobia is rampant today against the Roma throughout Bulgaria, even among university academics, and against the large minority of ethnic Muslim Turks. Racism and discrimination is worsening and rightwing nationalism is on the rise. Anti-Roma racism and historical dislike of ethnic Turks run very deep in Bulgaria. This animosity against Roma was dampened in part under state socialism and its 'assimilationist' policy, but it is now becoming increasingly virulent. Richie Parrish provides an insightful overview of the plight currently
facing Roma in Bulgaria. Many are trapped in extreme poverty. Almost a quarter of Roma children aged 5-15 do not regularly attend school. He cites a 2011 UN report indicating that "only 46.2 percent of the Roma population in Bulgaria completed primary education and only
7.8 percent of Roma completed secondary education."[12]

Toward a people-grounded, empirical approach

Raleigh's oral history work (2006; 2011) strongly challenges the one-dimensional view of Soviet 'totalitarianism' and standard narratives of Soviet history widespread in the West, especially in Great Britain and the United States. Based on several decades of fieldwork in the country and bolstered by numerous narratives of ordinary working people, Kideckel (2008) describes the fear and alienation besetting industrial workers in their everyday lives in post-socialist Romania. Looking back at socialist Hungary and its educational system, Millei (2013) analyzes the memories of five Hungarian kindergarten teachers about what teaching was like under socialism, and "the ways in which explicit socialist ideology is understood by the interviewed teachers." Anthropologist Gerald Creed (1999: 224) stresses: "people have multiple images of the past ... and the synthesis that results is very much a contemporary product." His own long-term fieldwork in the small northwestern Bulgarian village of Zamfirovo illuminates how farmers adapted to socialist practices, and the myriad problems that have been engendered since 1990 (Creed, 1998; 2010).[13]

In Summary

We should avoid "the danger of a single story" in describing what life was like under socialism. We need to take an unblinkered look at 'socialist model' achievements, authoritarian elements notwithstanding. In building a participatory economy and society beyond capitalism, especially a world of guaranteed full employment and largely de-commodified social production, 'socialism 1.0' is our own history and legacy. The stories of average working people who grew up under socialism and now live in a widening vortex of post-socialist alienation, anomie and inequality-along with the narratives of their children about life today-need to be collected more systematically and distributed widely. The need is urgent.

The author is a North American with substantial experience over many years in provincial post-socialist Bulgaria. He speaks Bulgarian fluently and has many ties with ordinary Bulgarian working families and a number of educational institutions.


[1] Kagarlitsky, Boris, New Realism, New Barbarism (London 1999) vii, viii.

[2] Panagiotis Soltiris, "Austerity Capitalism and Education in Greece" in Dave Hill, ed. Immiseration Capitalism and Education, Austerity, Resistance and Revolt (Brighton 2013).

[3] Tom G. Griffiths and Millei Zsuzsa, Logics of Socialist Education: Engaging with Crisis, Insecurity and Uncertainty, (2013) 1-18.

[4] Stephen Gowans, "We Lived Better Then." What's Left, December 20, 2011.

[5] Anna Mudeva, "Special Report: In Eastern Europe, people pine for socialism," Reuters (2009).

[6] Maria Todorova, "From Utopia to Propaganda and Back," in Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille, eds., Post-Communist Nostalgia (Oxford 2010) 1-13.

[7] See, for example, Kapka Kassabova, Street Without a Name; Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (London 2008).

[8] Alexander Andreev, "Violence in Bulgaria to be Expected," Novinite, July 26, 2013.

[9] Irina Malenko, An Interview with Irina Malenko, author of Sovietica, NCCUSA 2 February, 2013.

[10] Gowans, "We Lived Better Then."

[11] For a detailed description of some of these patterns in the 1960s see John P. Georgeoff, The Social Education of Bulgarian Youth (Minneapolis 1968), a classic study in English.

[12] Richie Parrish, "Roma Minority Faces Uphill Battle," The Prague Post, 6 March, 2013. On the education of the Roma in Eastern Europe generally see Maja Miskovic, Roma Education in Europe: Policies, Practices and Politics (London 2013).

[13] See Daniel J. Raleigh, Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia's Cold War Generation (Oxford 2011); David A. Kideckel, Getting by in postsocialist Romania: labor, the body, & working-class culture (Bloomington 2008); Zsuzsa Millei, "Memory and kindergarten teachers work: children's needs vefodre the needs of the socialist state" in Tom Griffiths and Zsuzsa Millei (eds), Education in/for socialism: historical, current and future perspectives, special issue, Globalisation, Societies and Education (2013) 170-193; Gerald W. Creed, Masquerade and Postsocialism; Ritual and Cultural Dispossession in Bulgaria (Bloomington 2011).

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Re: We Lived Better Then

Post by blindpig » Fri Nov 08, 2019 6:02 pm

What the Berlin Wall’s collapse meant for workers worldwide
Book review
By John Catalinotto posted on November 8, 2019

A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee by Victor Grossman/Stephen Wechsler, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019, 352 pages.

This Nov. 9, the world’s imperialists and big capitalists will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They will fill the media, all too available to them, with lies claiming this event was a victory for democracy and freedom. They will be slandering the German Democratic Republic and all the good and progressive acts of the once-socialist part of Germany.

2006, Berlin. At an occupied building near the old border, is written, ‘The border does not separate ordinary people, but runs between those above and those below.’

A partial antidote to these lies can be found in Victor Grossman’s book, “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee,” told by someone who lived in the GDR from the early 1950s until its fall, and still lives in the eastern part of Berlin. The book has only one author; Stephen Wechsler was Grossman’s name before he left the U.S. military when he was stationed in Austria. He swam across a river to escape what he feared would be a possible prison sentence — in reality a sentence for his pro-communist activities — common punishment in the McCarthyite 1950s.

Grossman’s book tells the story of the GDR’s 41-year existence through the eyes of someone committed to socialism, who was also an honest and careful observer of the everyday ups and downs of the fledgling socialist republic. He also describes with excruciating detail the annexation of eastern Germany by the victorious imperialist power in the West.

Even to focus on a little of what Grossman covers in his 352 pages may help explain why the fall of the GDR was a loss, both to the oppressed nations of what is today called the “global south” and to the East German working class and workers worldwide.

GDR aided liberation struggles

He writes, discussing so-called dissidents, “In contrast with the rulers in Bonn [capital of West Germany], the GDR generously aided the African National Congress in South Africa, SWAPO [South West African Peoples Organization] in Namibia, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese, the Sandinistas [in Nicaragua] and the anti-Pinochet forces [in Chile].

“What would success of those dissidents, whose motivation was implacable anti-GDR hostility, mean to those struggles? ‘Human rights’ were demanded by people often totally uninterested in [Nelson] Mandela, Leonard Peltier or even the ‘Berufsverbote’ [exclusion from jobs like teaching] in West Germany, where some were jailed, many were fired and 1.4 million were investigated by the equivalent of the FBI because of their undesirable views.”

This reviewer was in East Berlin in October 1989 interviewing Angolan students, educated at the GDR’s expense at Humboldt University in how to set up and run beer breweries in their recently liberated country. It seemed an intelligent division of labor that socialist Cuba would help win the big military battle with South African troops at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 and that the socialist GDR would provide technical and industrial education to the Angolan people.

Imperialist Germany had conquered Namibia in the 19th century, but the socialist GDR gave medical treatment to the wounded liberation fighters of SWAPO.

Divided Germany became the front line of a global class war between two social systems during the period known as the Cold War. The socialist countries, or workers’ states, were to the east; the imperialist countries with their capitalist system to the west. The line dividing east and west Germany could not avoid being a hot spot of the Cold War, which was not always so cold.

February 1986. At East Berlin’s Schoenefeld Airport, author Victor Grossman, left, greets Pete Seeger, who is a guest at the Festival of Political Songs.

West Germany, one of the most prosperous of the imperialist countries, used its wealth to lure whatever defectors it could from the East. This was part of its war against socialism. In the opposite way, the Berlin Wall discouraged defections. In principle, it was not much different from union workers setting up a picket line to prevent discouraged workers from breaking a strike — only this was done by a pro-socialist state.

In the years after the Berlin Wall fell, those who lived in the East quickly discovered there was a lot that the GDR had accomplished. Unfortunately, they discovered it by losing their guaranteed jobs, universal child care — which especially harmed women — two-thirds of their public libraries, their low-rent apartments and almost-free public transportation.

West German industries and banks moved into the East, bought up for next to nothing the industries that had employed 4 million workers — with a market mainly in the former socialist countries — and in no time created an army of unemployed and precarious workers. Many workers had to migrate to the West. Grossman details how this happened and draws a clear picture not of a “reunification,” but of an annexation, much like an imperialist country seizing a colony.

While there was a GDR, the West German military stayed within its country’s borders. After seizing the GDR in 1990 and dissolving the GDR’s army, German imperialism intervened in Yugoslavia to tear that multinational country apart and gain economic hegemony in the mini-states that succeeded it. In Iraq and in Afghanistan, Germany joined the “coalition” led by U.S. imperialism.

Grossman’s book provides a contrast to the lying propaganda of those imperialists still rejoicing over the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Today, the over-90-year-old Grossman continues his writing by describing, in his Berlin Bulletin, developments in German politics with an explanation understandable for U.S. readers, who might not be following the day-by-day developments there. (For more about the bulletin, see victorgrossmansberlinbulletin.wordpress.com)

"We ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall not make excuses for the terror."

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