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Communism – good riddance

Over at the excellent libertarian group weblog, Cattalarchy, there is a fine and thoughtful collection of articles, which was published a few days ago, to mark the May Day parades of old socialists with a wide-ranging broadside against what communism has wrought. I urge folk to fire up some coffee and take time out to read them all.

With all that fine material in mind, I was stunned to read a screed in the latest edition of The Spectator by ultra-rightwinger Peter Hitchens. As well as saying some decidedly uncomplimentary things about former South African President and anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela, a topic to which I may return later, Hitchens also bemoans what he claims has been the lack of any real improvement of life in countries which have been released from communism.

Really? Have there been no improvements at all? I mean, for a start, surely a declared Christian like Hitchens should be glad that fellow believers are no longer persecuted as they were in the old days of Communism. The Gulag is no longer in operation. Members of the KGB no longer drag you off in the middle of the night. And yes, key parts of the economies of those nations are not just recovering, but offering some of the tastiest investment opportunities in the world today, as this article illustrates.

There is a priceless passage in which Hitchens even refers to the elderly generation in the former Eastern bloc who miss the good old days of guaranteed jobs, even if that era came with bread queues, bureaucracy and compulsory military service. That’s the spirit! None of this messy and vulgar capitalist nonsense, with all that bothersome choice, and ugly advertising, noisy department stores and red light districts.

I honestly do not know what to make of folk like Hitchens and whether he has any coherent political philosophy at all apart from a desire to shock what he thinks is the received wisdom (not always a bad or dishonourable urge, mind). A few weeks back he wrote a superb article shredding the case for state identity cards, of the kind that any libertarian would be proud to write. Yet a few issues later we get a gloomy piece almost pining the days when half of Europe was run by the communist empire of the Soviets.


21 comments to Communism – good riddance

  • Bernie

    “I honestly do not know what to make of folk like Hitchens and whether he has any coherent political philosophy at all”

    Indeed. Coherent political philosophy is very hard to come by anywhere these days. It simply doesn’t do to have logical principles to uphold when prospecting for votes.

  • Slightly off topic but there was also an interesting piece at “Reason” on the continuing denial by US academic historians about the nature of communism, that might take these themes a bit further.

    Here’s a taster…

    In 1983 the Indiana University historian Robert F. Byrnes collected essays from 35 experts on the Soviet Union — the cream of American academia — in a book titled After Brezhnev. Their conclusion: Any U.S. thought of winning the Cold War was a pipe dream. “The Soviet Union is going to remain a stable state, with a very stable, conservative, immobile government,” Byrnes said in an interview, summing up the book. “We don’t see any collapse or weakening of the Soviet system.”

    Barely six years later, the Soviet empire began falling apart. By 1991 it had vanished from the face of the earth. Did Professor Byrnes call a press conference to offer an apology for the collective stupidity of his colleagues, or for his part in recording it? Did he edit a new work titled Gosh, We Didn’t Know Our Ass From Our Elbow? Hardly. Being part of the American chattering class means never having to say you’re sorry.

    Worth a read, I think.

  • Okay my mistake- the second paragraph above should also have been blockquoted. Preview is your friend…

  • Euan Gray

    Actually, there really are large numbers of people in the East who do miss Communism, however much you may think they should not. Some of them are the older generation who have to live on Soviet state pensions which were good enough then but are now worth little, in some cases $3-$4 per month. There are also many people who miss the sense of national pride in belonging to a major power, the social discipline & cohesion and the rigorous education system. There are still old people who think fondly of Stalin and the powerful government he represented.

    As for religion, two things: my friend’s mother tells of the time in Grozny under Brezhnev when they would all don dark glasses and headscarves to scurry off to church by circuitous routes in hopes of avoiding the KGB stooges – only to end up standing next to the local party boss (also Christian) inside the church. Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically, the most liberal period for the Orthodox church in Russia was under Stalin after 1943 and until his death in 1953. There were more functioning churches in 1947 than there are now. Of course Stalin, was educated at a seminary, which may have something to do with this.

    Nothing is all bad, nothing is all good.


  • Johnathan Pearce

    “the social discipline and cohesion”………well, Euan, I guess if you have lived under Communism for all your adult life and have never experienced all that dangerous, anarchic stuff we call liberalism, then I guess you have a point. I am not being sarcastic, as I think you make a valid point, but I have little sympathy for those who hanker for the “good old days” of state repression and the Big Brother state.

    It is true that for some of the older generation, the transition from communism carried certain costs. That those costs were overwhelmingly justified strikes me as about as obvious a truth as it is possible to make, given the horrors experienced under communism during the 20th Century. Read Robert Conquest, Anne Applebaum and others on this.

    Frankly, given Stalin’s persecution of Jews, the idea that his regime looked upon religion at all favourably is a bad joke. At the height of the Second World War Stalin and other communist leaders no doubt found it convenient to invoke old Russian legends and religious feelings to drum up support for his cause, but be in no doubt that officially at any rate, communism was hostile to religion.


  • Euan Gray

    I think you make a valid point, but I have little sympathy for those who hanker for the “good old days” of state repression and the Big Brother state

    I haven’t lived under communism, but I know several people who have. They all say pretty much the same thing – in contrast to the present chaos, greed, social disorder and selfishness, there were certain advantages to the Soviet system. This doesn’t defend or justify it, and none of those people would really like to go back to the USSR. They like liberal democracy, but they recognise it’s not without its defects.

    That there would be a cost in changing from communism to (what passes for) capitalism is of course obvious, but what people complain about is that where previously you couldn’t buy anything, now you have to buy everything, even things which were notionally “free” in the USSR. That’s ok for those who have money, but it is a problem for babushka living on $4/month. It’s the profiteering, mismanagement and naked greed that seem to cause resentment.

    It’s true enough that much of this is a result of the horrendously mis-managed transition away from communism, involving as it did the stupendous undervaluation of the assets of the state, the rise of the oligarchs and the attendant explosion in corruption and organised crime. I suppose that, had the Russian government been humble enough to seek advice from western states on how to do this properly, many of these problems would not have arisen. But they didn’t, and as a result Russia’s present GDP is about 1/3 that of Britain’s and the average Russian is still financially worse off now than he was in the last days of the USSR – even if he earns more, he has to spend a lot more. This will of course improve, and very probably it will do so quickly now that some degree of sanity has returned to the Russian government and the oligarchs are getting trodden on when they try to interfere in politics.

    The uncertainty, greed, corruption and frequently poverty understandably enough make some people hanker for the certainties of old. People will put up with the cost, though, because they see that, eventually, things will improve significantly. It only becomes a serious problem is the improvement doesn’t come, and then you will see organisations such as the communists and the lunatic ultra-nationalists capitalise on the situation.

    As for religion, anti-Semitism is a different thing and historically has been widespread in Christian cultures, not just under Stalin. However, as far as the Orthodox church is concerned, it is perfectly true that the period 1943-53 did see the widest tolerance of at least that religion in the USSR, and it is a matter of statistical record that more Orthodox churches were functioning in 1947 than in 2003. The Soviet government never looked on religion favourably, for standard Marxist reasons, and I never said that it did. But that does not mean it did not from time to time tolerate it (or at least the traditional Russian one), sometimes surprisingly so. Of course, you have to weigh the official party line against everyday practice in the real world. It has been said that the Orthodox church never lacked supporters even in the Politburo, but equally it never lacked opponents.


  • Andrew Duffin

    Jonathan Pearce, I don’t think Stalin persecuted jews much at all until perhaps at the very end of his life. In fact many of his closest henchmen were actually Jewish. Of course many of them were executed, but then many of EVERYONE were executed!

    On the sincerity or otherwise of his re-opening churches I think you have it just right: this was pure self-serving cynicism. At one point he even said “To hell with politics, let us save Russia”, which being translated meant roughly “I’ve been killing you guys off for years but now I need you on my side for a bit”.

    Euan is wrong imho to attribute this to Stalin’s early education. It was simply self-preservation.

    I am interested in your remark about the number of churches functioning in 1947 cf. the number now. Do you have a reference for that? Given the huge religious revival since the end of the USSR it suggests a gigantic repression during the later postwar period does it not?

  • Cobden Bright

    Euan – Russia isn’t Eastern Europe, and wasn’t the subject of the post or the article it referred to. As for the latter, in my experience with Eastern Europe almost everyone under, say, 50 is virulently anti-communist and very much in favour of western capitalism and democracy. America and the UK are thought of very highly, whereas Germany and France are not. Whilst you are correct that some older people miss not having to do anything for daily subsistence, laments about the “good old days” are a feature of old people in all societies. Generally old people are very conservative, even reactionary, dislike change of all kinds, and scorn new developments, reforms, and progress. So I wouldn’t take their views as representative – these people will die off within a generation, and their views will die with them.

  • Euan Gray

    Euan is wrong imho to attribute this to Stalin’s early education

    He didn’t do that, he speculated that Stalin’s time in seminary MAY have had SOMETHING to do with his approach to tolerating the church since he would have at least some understanding of the influence of religious belief over the people.

    Given the huge religious revival since the end of the USSR it suggests a gigantic repression during the later postwar period does it not

    Yes, which is what happened to a greater or lesser extent, although I wouldn’t call it gigantic. It’s interesting to note that although church-state relations thawed considerably after 1943, much of this stopped shortly after Stalin’s death and large numbers of churches were closed under Khrushchev’s administration – he was actually less tolerant of the church than Stalin (in his later years, anyway).

    Of course its realpolitik – but in some respects it’s surprising, particularly since it continued long after the war.

    Do you have a reference for that?

    Yes, but it’s at home and I’m not. Later.


  • Euan Gray

    Russia isn’t Eastern Europe, and wasn’t the subject of the post or the article it referred to

    Were I feeling uncharitable, I could comment that in fact it was in that it referred to countries that have been liberated from communism, of which Russia is one. The Spectator article also talks about Russia a lot. However, I’m a charitable soul normally, so I won’t point this out.

    I did not say the people in question are not anti-communist or pro-western – I did say that they appear to recognise that there are many defects in both systems. And it is not only older people, although they are the ones who suffer most, especially if they don’t have family members earning some cash somewhere. Younger people, who experienced the communist system up to the time they left school or university, now seem to frequently say similar things – although by no means all of them.

    Basically, to my knowledge and experience, there’s a lot of truth in what Hitchens says. “Communism or capitalism” is not a simplistic “good or evil”, “black or white” question, although it does often seem to be so treated here.


  • Verity

    Jonathan, Re what happened to Hitchens – perhaps the more apt question is ‘what happened to Hitchens’ piece?’

    He may have written a perfectly coherent piece that was consonant with his well-known views, and Boris got his hands on it and edited it.

    Tuning in to this week’s Spectator is like waking up on a dull, drizzly day. There is absolutely nothing in it but grey, grey, grey, more of the same. Nothing original. Every article provokes a response of, “Mmmm. Looks boring.” Oh god, who cares about Matthew Parris’s impressions of Australia? Yet one more pedestrian, pointless article from Boris’s sister Rachel. Julian Manyan writes a piece with the threatening title ‘Worse Than Viet Nam’. I couldn’t even be bothered to read the first paragraph.

    Hitchens could have turned in a lively, provocative piece and had it filleted and stuffed by Boris, MP, editor and taxidermist.

  • Johnathan

    “in contrast to the present greed, chaos, social disorder and selfishness there were certain benefits to the Soviet system”.

    Benefits to whom, exactly? The ruling communist flunkeys, presumably. As for everyone else, it was a pitiable existence, and unsustainable. Yes, the current situation in parts of Russia, Ukraine and other parts of former communist states is not ideal, and sometimes volatile. But from what I have read and from many people I know from that part of the world, things are a great deal better.

    Recall the old saying of soviet-era workers:
    “The state pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work”. that summed up a lot of what people thought of the system at the time.

  • R C Dean

    Nothing is all bad, nothing is all good.

    Leaving aside the benefits to the Big Man and his cronys, I am quite prepared to argue that totalitarianism is all bad. Even the “but the trains ran on time” argument is a fallacy.

    Totalitarianism delivers nothing that a free society cannot deliver better, faster, cheaper, and in designer colors, and without all the annoying blood spatters.

  • Euan Gray

    Even the “but the trains ran on time” argument is a fallacy



  • Euan Gray

    Benefits to whom, exactly?

    The benefits of a stable and more or less predictable social order, generally stringent law enforcement, etc. Now this isn’t to say that things generally are worse now – although in some cases they are – or that a heavy handed state is the best solution to social ills, or that the communist government of the USSR was in any fair or reasonable. People in general are naturally conservative, and therefore they tend to prefer stability. The point is that it is natural and expected for people to look back favourably on the days of the communist state and recall the stability and order it provided – of course, the knock on the door in the middle of the night tends to get forgotten. This doesn’t mean they want to return to communism, but it means that Hitchens’ article is probably not the load of old cobblers it seems to be seen as hereabouts.

    However, to the extent there was stability in the USSR it was at the price of having a police state and this is in the long term unsustainable. Coupled with an inefficient economic system, collapse was inevitable as long as huge military expenditure (ca. 30% of GDP, IIRC) was seen as necessary. I do sometimes wonder how, or if, the USSR would have developed without the insane military expenditure, or if Lenin had lived longer and his “new” economic policy had become entrenched. But, for all that, I am not a supporter of or apologist for the USSR or any similarly excessive state, although I do accept that some form of state is necessary.


  • As one who has had the pleasure of visiting Russia at least annually for the past decade on business and also to Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Czech Rep quite frequently, I cannot fathom how one could possibly miss the positive changes that have transpired.

    As a Soviet Studies undergrad in the 80’s I am very familiar with how wretched the old days were. That prosperity has not trickled down to everyone as yet, and that some are worse off (for lack of pension and other socialist goodies) cannot be taken as an indictment against the whole of capitalist change. Give it time.

  • David Gillies

    I think Peter Hitchens’ dominant political philosophy, if it can be called that, is simply to adopt a gloomy, Eeyorish fatalism, leavened with occasional splenetic harrumphing.

    And Euan Gray, the ‘trains ran on time’ line is a fallacy by dint of (gasp!) not being true. An analysis of the punctuality of the Italian train system under Mussolini revealed no improvement. And why should it? Look at the relative figures of merit for various forms of transport. You will see an absolutely perfect negative correlation with punctuality as the degree of state interference increases. Involvement of the state screws up absolutely everything else, so why should transport be any different? A moment’s thought should suffice: if you have to be there on time, which do you pick – black cab or London Underground?

    Eastern Europe was yoked under totalitarianism for fifty, Russia for seventy. It’s only been fifteen years since the wall came down. Even so, there are some very bright spots. The Baltic states, Estonia in particular, are well on the road to recovery. Poland is going to be a major economic player in the next few years. The Czech Republic is doing fine. Even poor old Bulgaria is making great strides, as I am assured by my Bulgarian colleague.

  • Euan Gray

    And Euan Gray, the ‘trains ran on time’ line is a fallacy by dint of (gasp!) not being true

    OK. I only asked because I didn’t know the answer.

    Having said that, whether to take the tube or a taxi depends on where you’re going and the time of day. There is no infallible rule that says private taxicabs are always and necessarily faster than state/municipal trains, now is there? Sometimes the tube is faster when the roads are congested, especially for longer trips, sometimes the taxi is faster when the roads are clear.


  • Charles P

    Yet another reason why people of a libertarian or classical-liberal cast of mind should never, ever call themselves “right-wing”. They indeed belong to the “non-left”, but have NOTHING in common with either authoritarian Briticist conservatives like Peter Hitchens or High Tories like Roger Scruton. The free-market-liberal streak in the Conservative Party is only 30 years old (Keith Joseph & Margaret Thatcher), & may not last. The conservative-libertarian alliance is tactical only.

  • 1. Who cares what the old people think? a.) They’re going to die soon, and b.) They’re a bunch of reactionaries anyway –old people ALWAYS prefer the “old times”, and I’m one of them, so I know.

    2. As Private Eye would say,”Shome mishtake, surely?” That Speccie article sounds like it was written by CHRISTOPHER Hitchens, not Peter…

  • Sandy P

    Don’t forget the 800-1000 years of either church or monarchy rule.

    They’re a tough people.