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Student Question: Living in a communist country


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I have never lived in a communist country but I have visited several countries when they had communist governments and spoke to a large number of their citizens (Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, China).

People living in Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia were critical of their form of government. Their main complaint was the lack of democracy. They did not feel they had any real say in the way the country was run. Interestingly, one of their main complaints was how the system created inequality. They believed that Communist Party officials had too many privileges. For example, in Moscow, party officials could buy goods in shops set up for tourists. Their inability to buy consumer goods was a major factor in their views of the government. It has been said that the most important factor in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was satellite TV. This ensured that people were fully aware of the consumer goods available in non-communist Europe.

There were some benefits to the communist system in Eastern Europe. People valued the welfare states that were introduced after the Second World War. There seemed to be very little unemployment and as long as individuals did not criticise their governments too much, they felt a sense of security. Talking to people in Eastern Europe today, it is this sense of security that they miss most of all since the fall of communism.

China was very different. Virtually everybody I spoke to seemed happy with communism. In fact, they seemed immensely proud of what their country had achieved. I remember visiting a family that ran a successful farm. His home suggested that he was obtaining a good income for his labours. He told me that the government had introduced measures that enabled hardworking farmers to become prosperous. This was not uncommon. Chinese newspapers contained stories of businessmen who had become rich under communism. They seemed to be using these people as role models.

The system in China scared me a great deal. People seemed totally brainwashed by government propaganda. A lot of what I found seemed the very antithesis of communism. The state had complete control over the trade unions and had a policy of taking young women from the rural areas to work in factories run by the Chinese Army. No wonder they could (and can) produce goods far cheaper than those factories in the western world. A recent report suggested that young women living in rural China had the highest rate of suicide in the world.

One of the most disturbing events took place on the streets of Beijing. A man stole the bag of a tourist. A policeman saw this and blew his whistle. To my surprise the thief stopped dead in his tracks and waited to be arrested. I seemed to be inhabiting the world of 1984.

I only met one dissent in China. Xin Zhi Yao was one of the most intelligent people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. He had won a place at the London School of Economics but the government refused to let him leave the country. At the time he was deputy editor of a trade magazine. He gradually developed the confidence to tell me what he thought about the situation in China. We would go to places where we would not be overheard. He was terribly frightened of getting into trouble for criticising the government. Yao spoke about his hopes for the future but was doubtful about whether it would ever be achieved. He told me that basically the people were happy with their way of life and that as long as the government never allowed mass starvation to take place, it would survive.

I asked Yao if there was anything I could do for him. He asked me to send him books on economics that had been banned in China. As soon as I got home I bought the books he had requested and posted them to his home in Beijing (21 Baiwanzhuang Avenue). He never wrote back. I fear that his desire to read proscribed books cost him his liberty.

My experience of Cuba was very different. The people of Cuba were the happiest people I have ever encountered. People would come up to you on the street and and thanked you for visiting their country. They were immensely proud of their achievements (their high literacy rate and low infant mortality rates were a constant subject of conversation – they were always compared to those of the United States). Certain goods were in short supply but they never blamed their government for that. They were quick to tell me that this was caused by the American economic blockade.

The people genuinely idolised Fidel Castro. They were aware of their history and were proud that at last they had a leader who was not under the control of the Americans. They were also convinced that he had not used his power for personal gain.

Unlike in China or Eastern Europe they were not frightened to openly criticise their government. I remember having a conversation with a group of young men about the wearing of crash helmets. They criticised the government for trying to impose this on the Cuban people. It was far too hot to wear crash helmets they told me. Nor did they wear them. Nor interestingly, did the police enforce this legislation. Unlike other communist countries, the Cuban people did not seem frightened by their police. In fact, they seemed to police themselves. On one occasion a young boy said something that was probably rude to my wife (we don't speak Spanish). A man of about 70 heard what the boy said. He raced after him and gave him a terrible telling off. He then came over to my wife and apologised for the young boy’s behaviour.

Life in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and China seemed to have nothing to do with the kind of communism described by writers in the 19th century. Cuba was different to any other country I have been to. I think Karl Marx would have liked Cuba.

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A student at my College asks:
What were the worst things about communism? What were the advantages of living in a communist country?

The worst things about communism were:

* the nationalizing of almost everything in the early (Stalinist) years of communist rule, under the pretext of the Marxist postulate that private property is the root of all evil; the ruthless suppression of all former owners of landed, industrial and financial property, of liberal intellectuals, of the clergy and of all those considered to be enemies of the people, to whom also belonged the so called exploiters of the working masses?; general terror accompanied these inhumane measures of expropriation;

* no communist constitution guaranteed private property and individual/human rights;

* total lack of freedom of speech, of assembling;

* continuous supervision by the state security service;

* the existence of political concentration- and work-camps (in the years of Stalinist terror);

* a rigid control of the media;

* very restricted freedom of travel to the so called western or imperialist countries;

* frequent food and energy supply crises;

* the economic system was rigidly planned and worked with heavy state subsidizing;

* a very limited private sector in economy;

* no free market, state controlled the price-system;

Well, it’s hard to mention any advantages of living in a communist country, with the exception, perhaps of the following:

* the absence of a real drive towards modernization, the controlling of information, continuous shortcomings favoured the survival of a communitarian solidarity other than that preached by communist propaganda and ideology, namely solidarity of people in their continuous needs;

* there being no real competition, there was less envy and mischief among people;

* the economy being planned, centralized and subsidization there was no real fear for losing ones job, hence this was at least one point of security:

* because of the general mistrust in official political and cultural events people retreated into the four walls of their apartments and within their families and circle of friends.

The above characteristics varied from one communist country to the other. Thus the former Yugoslavia of Tito was considered by the Romanians to be a quasi capitalist country, because of the relatively high living standard and the general freedom there. In much the same light were seen the former German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where the living standard was by far higher than in Romania, my country of origin; even the individual and collective rights were handled more unorthodox like in Ceausescu’s Romania, Jivkov’s Bulgaria, Enver Hodga’s Albania and Gierek’s and Jaruselski’s Poland.

The liberal communism in Hungary, Kadar’s ‘goulash-communism’, was the result of the Hungarian’s revolt against the Russian occupation in 1956. The privileged situation of the population in the former GDR is partly due to the Berlin revolt in 1953, but also to the strong influences coming from Western Germany.

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I have had limited experience in Communist countries, but this may be relevant.

I spent many holidays in Yugoslavia during the 1960s and early 1970s. Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet Bloc, however, and it’s government was not hardline Communist. It was a poor country and there were shortages evident in the shops, but then this was characteristic of many non-Communist poorer countries at the time. Yugoslavia was a very pleasant country to visit. The people were friendly, food was generally good and plentiful, and the weather was fantastic!

East Germany was a lot different. I spent a month living with a family in Leipzig (then part of East Germany) in 1976, when I was attending a refresher course for teachers of German. There were rigorous checks at the border on the way in, and one had the feeling that one was being watched a good deal of the time. Shortages in the shops were frequent. My landlady used to get up at 5 o’clock every morning in order to join the long queues for basics such as bread, fruit and vegetables, meat and coffee. But, as a Westerner, I could buy all kinds of Western goods in the Intershops, which only accepted currency in Deutschmarks rather than the valueless East German marks. I bought my landlady coffee beans and a large pack of detergent in an Intershop as a farewell present – greatly appreciated!

There was widespread ignorance about the West. While dining in a restaurant in Leipzig I got into conversation with two farmers attending a trade fair. When they realised I was English (English visitors were rare in East Germany in those days) they asked me a lot of questions and told me how wonderful life was in East Germany, with its free education system and free national health service. I don’t think they believed me when I told them that the UK also had a free educational system and a free national health service.

On one occasion I was walking across the forecourt at Leipzig station and was stopped by a beggar (of North African origin, I think). I politely refused to give him anything and walked on. Immediately afterwards a uniformed member of the Free German Youth (FDJ – Freie Deutsche Jugend) approached me and asked if the man was begging for money. Stupidly, I confirmed this, and the FDJ lad ran off after him and dragged him off to the nearest policeman.

Generally, East German was depressing. After one month in Leipzig I was glad to be able to leave. On the train to Frankfurt I met an East German pensioner visiting relatives in the West, and we chatted most of the time. East German citizens were strictly controlled with regard to the countries that they could travel to, but there were few restrictions on pensioners travelling abroad, because it did not matter if they returned or not. The East German government was quite happy for West Germany to pick up the bill for maintaining their pension if they decided to settle in the West!

The worst thing about East Germany was the heavily fortified border, and the ruthless ways in which the border guards would shoot anyone trying to leave the country illegally. In 1963, when I visited East Berlin, the area near the Wall was covered with wreaths and memorials commemorating people who had lost their lives trying to escape.

I was in Berlin and Rostock during the week that the Wall came down in November 1989. The heavily fortified border practically crumbled overnight. Read my account at: http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/berlin.htm

I visited Hungary once during the Communist period, in 1988. It was similar to Yugoslavia in many respects – quite liberal in comparison to some of its neighbours, and there was little evidence of serious shortages of food. From 1991 to 1996 I visited Hungary around 20 times in connection with a project that I was managing under the EC’s TEMPUS programme. In just five years I watched Hungary take a massive leap forwards. It was a delight to be able to work there and observe the people pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

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Well, let me start my reply by writing first about the advantage of the communist regime. At first though I would like to clarify something. I happened to grow up in the socialist era (I am just 38) so I know about the communist regime only from history books, from documentaries, from my parents’ and grandparents’ stories ie. from accounts given by people who lived and suffered under the communist regime.

I know the terms communism and socialism are sometimes interchangable, and in the past the media in Western countries designated a country communist which had a communist leadership. However, these countries called themselves socialist since, according to ideology and doctrine, socialism was an intermediate phase on the way to communism, which they were striving for.

So the advantage: Well... it is not that easy to mention even one. Perhaps, the biggest advantage was that there was absolutely no unemployment. Nowadays a lot of people have a feeling of insecurity, for unemployment is a problem people did not have to face in socialism. Therefore, some people tend to look back upon socialism even with some nostalgy.

The biggest disadvantage, the most dangerous traits of the communist and socialist rule was that the government leaders’ tried to totally control the people’s minds. They used different propaganda techniques to achieve this aim.

Also, there was an acute shortage under the communist era. In the socialism there was not that big shortage but there were limited options between products. I think some political jokes well represent the era:

(1) A competition for the best political jokes was announced. Do you know what the first prize was?

No- Fifteeen years.

(2) What’s the difference between socialism and capitalism?

Capitalism makes social mistakes and socialism makes capital mistakes.

(3) Doctor, I don’t feel well.

Who does?

(4) A man goes to a psychiatrist. Doctor, something is very wrong with me. What’s the matter? Every night I dream I’m crosssing the frontier ilegally. Don’t you worry, a lot of people dream that. Yeah, only I dream that I cross it to the east. (towards the Soviet Union).

(5) In Budapest in 1956 the Hungarian uprising/revolution has been crushed by Russian tanks and the city was in ruins.The battered buildings shows the friendly assistance given to Hungary by the Soviet Union. Two men meet on the street. You know come to think of it, we Hungarians are very lucky people. What? You don’t mean you’ve become one of them? Oh no, but just think. The Russians came here as friends. Imagine what the’d have done if they came here as enemies.

And finally let me suggest an excellent poem (it is translated into English) that gives back the atmosphere of the communist regime. Here goes the URL.


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George Orwell referred to political jokes as "tiny revolutions". This is of course only true if they are subversive. Over the last few years I have collected a large number of political jokes that can be used in the classroom. Several of them are about communism.

(1) A peasant has applied for membership of the Communist Party. The Party secretary first asks him a few questions:

'Comrade, if the Party were to ask you for a donation of a hundred roubles, would you comply unhesitatingly?'


'And if the Party were to request you to enlist your only son in the Red Army?'

'I would enlist him.'

'What if the Party were to ask you to donate your cow to help in the fight against the White armies? Would you do so?'


'Do you mean to tell me that you would give a hundred roubles or an only son, but not a cow?’

‘But comrade, I have a cow.’

(2) An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian were arguing about the nationality of Adam and Eve.

'They must have been English,' declares the Englishman. 'Only a gentleman would share his last apple with a woman.'

'They were undoubtedly French,' says the Frenchman. 'Who else could seduce a woman so easily?'

'I think they were Russian,' says the Russian. 'After all, who else could walk around stark naked, feed on one apple between the two of them and think they were in paradise?'

(3) A conversation between Walter Ulbricht and Willy Brandt:

'Have you a hobby, Herr Brandt?'

'Yes, I collect jokes that people tell about me,' says Brandt. 'And you?'

'Oh, I collect people who tell jokes about me,' says Ulbricht.

(4) 'Why do we love the Soviet people?' asks a teacher in the German Democratic Republic.

Little Fritz raises his hand: 'Because they liberated us.

'And why do we hate the Americans?'

'Because they didn't liberate us.'

(5) The Interior Minister telephones Walter Ulbricht.

'Thieves have broken into the Ministry this evening.'

'Have they stolen something?'

'Alas, yes. All the results of the next elections.'

(6) A West German Communist was travelling on a train through the GDR. He got into conversation with an old lady.

'Back home in West Germany,' he told her, 'shirts cost forty marks each.'

'Shirts?' said the old lady ruefully. 'We had those here once.'

'Butter is terribly expensive in the West. We are forced to eat margarine,' he continued.

'Yes,' said the old lady, 'we had margarine here once, too.'

'Now look here!' shouted the West German, by now thoroughly exasperated, 'You don't have to tell me these fairy-stories, you know! I'm a Communist!'

'A Communist?' sighed the old lady. 'Yes, we had those here once, too.'

(7) Stalin has just explained his plans:

"Those who agree please raise your right hands. And as for those who do not agree, please turn your faces to the wall, with your hands in the air, and wait.'

(8) 'How did the poet Mayakovsky die?'


'What were his last words?'

'Don't shoot, comrades!'

(9) Among the trouble-makers under Stalin's rule was Krupskaya, the widow of Lenin, but even Stalin could not afford to have her 'liquidated'. He summoned her, and threatened:

'If you don't stop criticizing me, I'll have someone else appointed Lenin's widow!'

(10) At the 20th Party Congress as Khruschev recounted the evils perpetrated by Stalin, a voice called from the hall:

'And where were you then?'

'Would the man who asked that question please stand up,' said Khruschev.

Silence. Nobody stands up.

'That's where we were too!' replied Khruschev.

(11) A Polish customer asks his butcher for pork. No luck. Then he asks for beef. Again, no luck. “What about lamb?” Same answer. “Any chicken?”




He leaves in despair and the butcher turns to his assistant. 'What a fantastic memory!'

(12) “What's fifty metres long and eats potatoes?”

“A queue waiting to buy meat.”

(13) “What do the Poles like about Communism?”

“That the Russians are in it, too.”

(14) A foreign journalist was interviewing a worker in Gdansk.

“Do you find your job rewarding?”

“In every respect.”

“And what's your apartment like?”

“Modern, spacious and cheap.”

“How do you spend your leisure?”

“I go to the opera and the theatre. I attend evening classes to broaden my education. I play football at weekends.”

“Do you possess a radio?”

“Of course I do. How else would I know how to answer your stupid questions?”

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The use of humour to cope with communism is an interesting issue worth exploring. For example, during the Hungarian Uprising people in Budapest used posters to call for a united campaign to overthrow the Communist government. After the arrival of Soviet tanks on 4th November, 1956, the people changed the contents of their posters. They now resorted to humour to attack their discredited government. Here are four examples (by the way there were 10 million people living in Hungary in 1956).

(1) Former aristocrats, cardinals, generals and other supporters of the old regime, disguised as factory workers and peasants, are making propaganda against the patriotic Government and against our Russian friends.

(2) Wanted: Premier for Hungary. Qualifications: no sincere conviction, no backbone; ability to read and write not required, but must be able to sign documents drawn up by others. Applications should be addressed to Messrs Khrushchev and Bulganin."

(3) Ten million counter-revolutionaries are at large in the country.

(4) Lost - the confidence of the people. Honest finder is asked to return it to Janos Kadar, Premier of Hungary, at 10,000 Soviet Tanks Street.


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Political humour was a prominent feature of life under a Communist regime. Here are two jokes that we told to me by an East German and a Russian.

East German: What’s the difference between East and West Germany?

Visitor: I don’t know:

East German: We have Marx and they have Capital. (Or in German, “Wir haben Marx und sie haben das Kapital.”)

It’s 1975. A Russian is being informed by an official that his application for a new car, which he made two years earlier, has been approved and that he can expect delivery in January 1980.

The Russian asks the official, “On which day in January?”

“January 15th”, replies the official.

“Morning or afternoon?” asks the Russian.

“I’m not sure,” replies the official, “Is it important?”

“Yes,” says the Russian, “I’m expecting the plumber in the afternoon.”

I visited Minsk in 1995 – in the supposedly post-Communist era, but Belarus in the immediate post-Communist era was not a lot different from what it was before. I stayed in an unmarked hotel, which was guarded by a soldier in the lobby carrying a sub-machine gun. I paid 75 US dollars per night to stay in the hotel – which was equivalent to twice the monthly wage of an average teacher in Belarus.

The restaurant in the hotel had just nine items on the menu: three starters, three main courses and three desserts. Every evening we went through the same routine. The waitress would ask what we required, and two of the items in each group would be unavailable – but the waitress never indicated in advance which ones. You had to work through each group, asking for each item in turn until you hit the one that was available. There was little to buy in the shops in Minsk. I looked in vain for something memorable to take home.

On the positive side, the Minsk underground transport system was clean, efficient and very cheap. I went to a concert one evening – a balalaika ensemble and some excellent singers. The theatre was elegant, with comfortable seats - and cheap. There was a moving moment in the middle of the performance when a very elderly member of the audience – an old soldier, proudly displaying his medals – rose from his seat and walked up to the stage to present one of the female singers with a rose. He was clearly very infirm and took ages to get from his seat to the stage. Everyone waited patiently, the singer graciously accepted his rose, and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

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Say it's post-Stalin, hence no Gulag or other abomination.

WORST: No freedom to say and write what one believes; a warped world view from politicalization of the media; intellectuals must be dishonest or silent to survive; economic stagnation (the more modern the tech basis, the lower GDP and the more stagnation), corruption of the intelligentsia if its members want to prosper.

BEST THINGS: Sense of community; idealism within communist cadres; concern with exploited and abandoned underclass.

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The worst things in communism were:

* Not to trust in people near you; everybody could be informer of the "Securitate", the political policy. It was dangerous to criticize the policy of the Communist Party or the fact that you couldn't find food in stores, or the political leaders. In fact it was dangerous to criticize no matter what.

* civil rights were not guaranteed by the Constitution, which was only an empty text

* The interdiction to travel across the "iron curtain". It was possible to travel only in communist countries and than, only if you had a lot of papers from a lot of "important" organizations.

* Not to find food in stores. In 1980 Nicolae Ceausescu decided to pay the external duty of the country not with money but with food, actually with our food. So buying a pack of butter or 10 eggs or a kilo of oranges after an hour’s long line was a real victory for us! So sad...

* To find only "politically correct" books

The advantages were huge only for the aristocracy of the politicians: houses, special stores, travelling and so on. Actually I don't know too much about them, I belonged to the other category.

But for normal people there was the sentiment of the security of the work place. Everybody had to work, there were no unemployed, even if the system was artificial and the economy was not productive.

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The two worst things about communism, in my opinion, were:

(1) The attempt of the totalitarian state to control not only your actions, but your thoughts as well. This prohibition on the free and unfettered exchange of ideas - that is, the unacceptability of free speech and freedom of the press, and the prohibition on engaging in writing (and reading) that was "politically incorrect," is perhaps the most odious aspect of Communism to someone brought up in the West.

(2) The poor material standard of living that resulted from inefficient, centrally planned economies, combined with the lack of economic incentives for individuals to excel in "collective economies." Long bread lines, shortages of meat, and thousands of shoes of the wrong size that do not fit well, are three classic examples. But the quantity and quality of work in communist societies often suffered, because there was generally no economic incentive for an individual to produce greater quantities of goods, or to improve the quality of his/her work. One of the common jokes shared by industrial workers in Communist countries was 'they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.' In the post-WW II USSR, there were rarely high-quality consumer goods for sale, but there was an abundance of cheap vodka, with which poor and disillusioned workers could remain stupefied (and relatively docile).

As I see it, a major advantage of living in a Communist country would be the extra resources dedicated to those who showed promising athletic talent or great intellectual capacity (in a field that benefited the state, such as aerospace technology, nuclear physics, etc.). Much greater state resources were dedicated in Communist countries (as compared to 'free market' societies) to direct support of these arenas... providing, of course, that the end results would reflect favorably on the state and its standing vis-a-vis Capitalist states in the Cold War.

I am not going to list free medical care as a major advantage, as many people would, because we now know, post-cold war, that the quality of this free medical care was truly substandard in most Communist societies."

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It depends on who is answering the questions. Relatives of executed person will deliver one sorts of answer; the persecuted persons with experience of doing time in “Gulags” (there are large amounts of books written by people who have been there and came back) will deliver different kind of answer. Elder people with an experience of pre-communist democracies would tell yet another story. People living in Soviet Union will tell a quite different story than people who lived in communist Poland or Ceausescu’s Romania.

I was a kid and then teenager during fifties and sixties so what was bad and what was good seeing it with my eyes in my country, communist Czechoslovakia?

The good thing was the sense of equality. There were no rich people around with posh cars living in luxurious houses. There didn’t exist “boulevard press” dominated by articles about scandals, high society, love affaires between singers, actors and supposedly rich. There was no Oprah Winfrey show or any other glamorous television programs dealing with curious but non-essentials details of life. There were only us, ordinary people believing that we were altogether striving for the bright communist future. We believed (with a help of the propaganda) that we were a part of strong and just movement reshaping the future of mankind. This believes was a powerful force that make as proud. I think that this feeling was rather common in Czechoslovakia in the fifties.

What was bad? Dictatorial countries are always keen on young people. They believe that young people are the future and that they will if properly guided guarantee the continuation of the particular political system. So I actually became first aware of the bad things as an older teenager.

I do believe that the worst thing with communism was these two separate lives all of the citizens were living parallely. On one side flag waiving and demonstrations for “world peace” and “world communism, the best and friendliest political system in the mankind” and on the other side retirement into a private life where everybody knew that what I do say and feel in school or at my work where I’m supervised and what I’m doing at home (and possibly with closest friends) are two very separate and different things. This reality created a slave mentality inside us. We were smiling when we have been asked to smile, cheering for the unprecedented communist achievements when we have been asked to cheer and then privately expressed disappointment and despair after returning home from hours long waiting in a queue for a small piece of meat. Or a box of matches. Or half a pound of salt. Or a pack of tissue paper. “Those who are not stealing at their jobs are stealing from themselves” was a most fanny joke I heard grown up people repeat all the time with a roguish smile in their face. At the boarders people were killed when trying to leave. Human lives seemed to be a cheap commodity.

To overcome these situation citizens tried to create a network of protections and connections, which would enable them to come around shortages and beat the system. (Who can help my son to get at University? Who can help me to obtain and install telephone at home? Who can help me to get coal for heating now when winter is approaching?, were the kind of questions everybody was wrenching with all the time). This situation helped to spread atmosphere of bribery and dishonesty throughout the whole society. This schizophrenic situation also left deep wounds inside the society and hampered normal relations between people for a long time.

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda
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I've never lived in or even visited a communist country, except for a couple of overnight stays in disgusting Soviet hotels on the way between London and Tehran in the 70s, so anything I write here is based only on what I have read.

First of all, I agree strongly with what Dalibor wrote: it depended a lot on where you mean and, indeed when you mean...

Anyone who claims, as does right-wing historian Richard Pipes, that the average Russian gained nothing from the Revolution is clearly allowing his political convictions to outweigh his historian's objectivity. Compare, for example, the near 100% literacy rate of the late Soviet Union with the 10-20% at the time of the revolution. Or the universal health care provision. Or cheap and plentiful (if crowded and jerry-built) housing. Or virtually full employment. All these were obvious improvements over conditions is tsarist Russia.

And it's difficult to say that this was purchased at the cost of democracy and individual liberties, since there weren't any in tsarist Russia to lose!

Yes, the Stalinist terror was inhuman and brought suffering to millions of innocent Russians. Yes, even under the comparatively "liberal" regimes that followed him, the Soviet Union continued to repress freedom both at home and throughout Eastern Europe, but it just isn't true to say that there were no gains at all to counterbalance this suffering.

On the other hand, the people of Poland had communism imposed on them after 20 years of independence. They "had something to lose" and they lost it.

The people of Czechoslovakia had one of the most advanced democracies in Central Europe. They also had a well-developed bourgeoisie and a carefully won sense of national consciousness. They had something to lose.

But did the Cubans, I wonder? Did Castro take away their freedom in any meaningful sense given that they had been ruled since independence by corrupt oligarchies dominated by US interests. Living conditions were poor to appalling and social and educational provisions virtually non-existent. Now Cuba, despite more than 40 years of US economic blockade, has universal elementary education, a free and widely available higher education system, and what is widely accepted as the best health care system in Latin America.

This is not to say that Cuba is some sort of socialist paradise. Thousands of Cubans risked their lives attempting to reach Florida in homemade "balsas". They obviously thought they were missing something important!

I suppose the basis of the question is actually more philosophical than historical. Marxists interpreted "freedom" in a different way from the Western Liberal tradition. Marxists would agree with Rousseau that true freedom resides in obedience to the General Will, a General Will that the ordinary citizen may be unable to discern without the assistance of an elite to guide him, to "force" him "to be free". Individual liberties must be subordinated in the interests of society as a whole. Liberals, on the other hand, give precedence to the liberty of the individual. JS Mill said that if all the world save one man were of one opinion they would have no more right to coerce him than he would have to coerce them. That is one of the foundations of our democracy, and it's not a concept that would mean anything to the sincere Marxist.

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I think it is necessary to distinguish between internal revolutions and imposed revolutions. As Mike has rightly pointed out, revolutions in Russia and Cuba were followed by real improvements in some areas such as education and health care. The same was true in China and Yugoslavia.

However, improvements were less noticeable in those countries that became communist as a result of being occupied by the Soviet Union.

The main complaint made against communist governments has been their unwillingness to allow freedom of speech and the holding of democratic elections. Without these safeguards, any government will evolve into a military dictatorship. Marxists have defended this action with the claim that it was necessary to defend itself against hostile outside forces. In reality, the reason for this is that they doubted the popularity of their revolutions. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, communist revolutions will always end up as military dictatorships if they do not have the active support of the majority of the population. She was rightly suspicious of some sort of elite vanguard leading the working class to victory. Luxemburg also believed revolutions that took place during or soon after wars were also bound to be long-term failures (Russia, China and Yugoslavia).

We should not forget to point out that free political expression is severely restricted in capitalist societies. We all have the freedom to stand on the street corner and say almost anything we like about our governments. However, our audience is likely to be fairly small. This does not compare to the freedom of expression enjoyed by Rupert Murdoch or Tony Blair.

Our democratic system is deeply flawed. This is especially true in first past the post, two party systems like the UK and the USA. See for example the discussion at:


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