Keith Irwin

On Communism

This is an article about communism, specifically the soviet kind. It's not about "socialism" or "Marxism" or communism "in theory" because discussions of theory are moot. We live in the real world.

"But I already know about communism!" you say. "It's bad." Congratulations on having a simple mind. You may stop reading this article and go back to believing what you already believe. Otherwise, ask yourself, have you ever lived in communism? No? Then is your opinion valid?

I've never lived in communism but I have lived in former east Germany and travelled extensively in former soviet bloc countries, including Russia. In my travels, I met many people who lived under the soviet form of communism, and then under western capitalism after the iron curtain fell. They knew both systems and, if you ask me, their opinion is more valid than that of someone that has only ever known one system.

Some people preferred the soviet system unambiguously; others said capitalism was much better. Both groups were decidedly the minority. The majority opinion was often expressed with the exact same phrasing: "It wasn't that bad." (For starters, this is not a resounding endorsement.) They seemed to recognize (often with an emphasis on the word "that") that I probably had some preconceptions that communism was bad, preconceptions that had been taught to me by an educational system that was... patriotic in its one-sided-ness.

Thoughtcrime around the world

The main complaint these not-badders had about communism was always that you weren't allowed to leave. The borders were closed. Why were the borders closed? Because the soviet government knew that if their citizens saw how great capitalism was, their citizens would want it and there would be a revolution. This is in contrast to free western societies where an open marketplace of ideas allowed people to compare capitalism and communism side-by-side and determine that capitalism was better without any pressure from the government. Right?

No, of course not. During the Red scares, ideas about communism, or even leftism, were repressed. Careers were destroyed, politicians were voted out of office, my own uncle had his PhD thesis in history rejected. If communism was so obviously bad, why was any discussion of it all but illegal?

Then there were the foreign interventions. In addition to the Korean and Vietnam wars, openly fought to stop communism, the CIA waged a series of quiet wars in Latin America which violently installed or backed dictators anytime a left-leaning president was elected democratically. This happened in Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Cuba. And probably several other countries I don't know of off the top of my head, because we didn't learn about any of these in public school.

Why was all this effort made to stop communism abroad? The idea was that if neighboring countries went red, it would spread, like an infection, to the United States. They were supposedly afraid that Americans would look at their neighbors, see how great communism was, and revolt against capitalism.... in the same way communist countries were afraid their citizens would revolt after seeing capitalism. So essentially, both "the west" and "the east" were trying to hide the other system from their citizens. Clearly, no government wanted to protect their citizens from the inferior system, though they phrased it as such. Those in power wanted to stay in power, fullstop. They all knew that a revolution would oust them, so they did everything they could to persist their existing system, regardless of which system was "better".

More alike than different

One of the common misconceptions about soviet communism is that people were assigned jobs and housing. This is partially true. People with the best grades got first pick at what they could study and at which trade school or university. Graduates were then given first pick for jobs in any location they wanted to live in. That is, the government held a quota for jobs and residences, like the need for 250 welders in a particular district of Moscow. If your grades weren't good enough to earn one of the early picks, these 250 slots might fill up, in which case you would have to choose another city. The people with the worst grades were finally assigned to the Siberian salt mines, or similar undesirable occupations and regions.

At first glance, this seems like a much more repressive system than that of capitalism, where anyone can do any job anywhere. But consider the cold economic realities: the quotas still exist, unspoken and unmeasured. That is, there is only the need for 250 welders in a particular district in New York City. After that the market is saturated in a pseudo-repressive system called supply-and-demand. What happens to an American welder who can't find a job there? He or she has to live elsewhere, freedom or not! Maybe the welder decides to move to Nebraska for a higher salary. The invisible hand of the market plays the same role as the communist party.

Now in practice, capitalism is subject to corruption and nepotism, in that a relative of the company's owner will be hired instead of a more qualified stranger. In practice, the same was true for communism; a relative of a party member could always jump the line and get a more favorable position. Remember what I said about those in power wanting to stay in power? Now it makes sense that party leaders and business owners are the strongest proponents for keeping the status quo: because they stand to benefit most from it.

The freedom to loaf

Indeed, communism is faster and more efficient than the invisible hand of the market. Think of the farm girl who moves to Hollywood to be an actress, even though these positions are highly exclusive. She might be a starving artist for years before giving up and moving back to the farm. Think of all the time and money she could have saved by staying on the farm. Think of the GDP this country loses to starving artists. The soviet system of choosing a few artists based on their work was some subjective bullshit, but it objectively prevented people wasting their time trying to make it big while contributing little to society. That is, not everyone can be an artist and someone needs to empty the dumpster. So someone should put some of these artists out of their misery and assign them to empty the dumpsters. In capitalism, the artist will eventually get hungry enough to get a shitty job. It happens in both systems, but communism does it faster and more efficiently.

Those that preferred living in soviet communism often cited this as the main reason: there was zero unemployment and zero homelessness. If you didn't have a job, the government gave you a job, and if you didn't have a home, the government gave you a home. So the next time you see someone panhandling (and perhaps stick your head out the window to yell, "Get a job!"), remember that this is by design; it's the freedom to loaf.

^ 2023/09

< 07/01 09/04 09/10 >