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Monday, July 09, 2007

I Was Once a Communist

No, really! I was! I wasn't a card carrying member or anything like that, but I strongly believed (perhaps even in a religious sense) in the communist ideology.

I was introduced to Marx's (Karl's, not Groucho's) works in high school history class when I was sixteen years old. I found that communism was an amazingly powerful and appealing idea. To me, it was by far the most powerful and appealing idea that I've ever heard. It was intoxicating even. A brotherhood of mankind! To each according to their needs!

So I can strongly relate to all frustrated Leftists. They are seriously addicted to an idea. An idea that appeals to the entirety of their heart, their soul, and their entire being. Have you ever been addicted to anything or interacted with addicts? If you have, you probably know that rationality is way, way down on the list of priorities for an addict. It's really pointless to try and have a rational conversation with an addict about his or her addiction.

I'm obviously not much of a communist now (though I've been called one recently at Cafe Hayek, so maybe a few traits still linger). Sometime between 16 and 46 I changed my mind about collectivism in general and communism in particular.

So what changed my mind? There were several things, of course. One of the biggest was to observe how people actually lived under communist rule.

There were always troubling reports of people fleeing communist countries There were the boat people and the communist countries did, after all, seem to build fences to keep people in. Why? The answer I was given from my respected friends was that it wasn't true at all, it was just U.S. government propaganda. As further evidence, they pointed out that government propaganda regarding marijuana was clearly bogus (as determined by our careful research and personal observations of actual users). Therefore, that was proof that the government lies about everything, right?

In 1984, Hungary and Czechoslovakia began allowing western tourists to visit. I went so I could see for myself whether or not these places were worker's paradises. What I saw with my own lyin' eyes was shocking.

First, the comparison with Germany, the country on the other side of the border from Czechoslovakia was stark. The farm land in Germany was completely planted, the barns well maintained, the houses pretty and painted. Everything was well kept up. Just on the other side of the border in Czechoslovakia, fields lay fallow, barns were falling over, and the houses looked like they hadn't been painted in decades. There was no physical reason why anything should have been different on these adjacent tracts of farmland, yet the difference was like day and night.

Prague is a spectacularly beautiful city, but it was terribly dirty and sooty, the air was terrible (I could hardly breathe), there were bullet holes everywhere (from WWII? from the ending of the "Prague Spring"? who knows?), and it was dark and dreary like a scene from an old haunted movie (I kept expecting to run into a vampire or something). And I did run into zombies - the people were depressed and lifeless. They almost never smiled. In pubs there would be many people so drunk that they had passed out on the bar. They walked slowly and sullenly as if they'd forgotten where they were going or didn't care - just like zombies.

It was a real eye-opener. But alas, my eyes were the only ones ever opened from that trip. Because as I describe this and you read it, you're probably thinking one of two things. If you've never been enticed by Marxism, what I've just described probably isn't very surprising to you. On the other hand, if you're a Leftist, you're probably thinking, "Bret's either lying or severely exaggerating, it couldn't really be that bad." In either case, my words have convinced nobody of anything. To actually be convinced to change your opinion, you would have to travel somewhere and see something you didn't expect. Like me.

One of the responses I heard was, "Oh, well, the eastern Europeans are just like that - you know, drunk and depressed." However, years later, after the Berlin wall bit the dust, I visited Prague again. I was stunned at the change. What was dirty was now clean, the air was fresh, what was dark and dreary was now bright and cheerful (perhaps a little too bright and cheerful as they had stuccoed over some of the historic stone buildings with yellow stucco), and the people had changed most of all. There were smiling faces everywhere, and everyone was moving briskly and with purpose. They radiated happiness. The zombies had come back to life and in just a few years. So no, eastern Europeans aren't "just like that." Communism made them so, plain and simple. Fortunately, it was temporary.

The point is that there's nothing that comes close to experiencing something in person as far as influencing ones perspective. Anything else is easily written off as lies and propaganda. It's harder to write off what you see with your own eyes. Your eyes might be lyin', but they're still so much more believable than anything else.


Oroborous said...

My family and I toured quite a bit of Hungary in early '97, and by then it too was bustling and what one might call "impoverished modern" - you could get almost anything that you could in the States, (and probably some stuff you can't), but clearly most people were not yet living as well as Western Europeans.

The dollar/forint exchange was very favorable to Americans, too, so we lived like shabby royalty for cheap.

Oroborous said...

Also, I too believe that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" will be the way of the future.

Partly because of work like yours.

I was just too familiar with the failures of early American Utopian societies to ever believe that it could work before people didn't have to produce much, to survive - when society's needs can be met with only, say, one out of six people working.

Bret said...

Outside of Prague, the Czech Republic was fairly inexpensive in '97. Prague, however, was almost as expensive as other major European cities.

Bret said...

I'm just wondering how things that are in short supply will be divided up in the future when it is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". I've made a similar claim about the future in the past and my co-blogger Howard always asks something like, "but what if everybody needs to live at an ocean front property? How will that be resolved?" Some things will always be rare and expensive.

Susan's Husband said...

We'll just build more planets.

Harry Eagar said...

Seein' is disbelievin' didn't/doesn't really work with various dupes who went to Russia in the '20s and '30s or who attend Southern Baptist healing services today.

Seein' works better on the unprepared mind. The prepared mind sees what it expected to see.

Hey Skipper said...

I found that communism was an amazingly powerful and appealing idea. To me, it was by far the most powerful and appealing idea that I've ever heard.

Which is one of the many reasons I insist Communism is a religion, and not the least bit "secular."


From the very first I paid any serious attention to Communism, I thought it a stinking, steaming, heap of nonsense: there is no such thing as a good theory that doesn't work in practice, and human nature ensured just that.

The only way Communism could possibly work is if human nature is malleable.

It isn't. That anyone could think otherwise left me slack-jawed.


I spent a fair chunk of my life preparing to fight the ugly unshaven head of monolithic, hegemonic, Communism.

Along the way, I read a great deal about the place, from Solzhenitsyn to "The Russians" (a book by a US reporter who spent several years on the Soviet Union).

Also, I read Soviet press extracts about both the US and themselves (courtesy of the CIA), and found them barking mad.

However, nothing would confirm my suspicions like seeing the Communism on its home turf.

My first chance was East Berlin in 1988: dark, dingy, pathetic (I saw a Soviet Army film, on a Soviet base, portraying its victory in the Great Patriotic war. The projector was a clattering wreck, and the screen a sagging bed sheet), but not outright awful.

In 1992, I went to the Soviet Union -- in fact, the coup happened the day after I left. Even now, I wonder if it was something I said.

I saw the nice bits, Moscow and Leningrad. They were, no holds barred, the most awful places I have ever been; words simply fail to convey the all pervasive decay of the place.

Kind of what you'd expect from imposing at the point of a gun an ideology that could scarcely be more distant from the humans who were supposed to be its beneficiaries.

(Blogger's Captcha implementation is probably the most annoying thing I have ever had a computer inflict upon me -- it is bottomlessly bad in at least a half dozen ways. Just saying.)

Howard said...

Hey Skipper

the "new man" needed for collectivism has yet to arrive...perhaps he'll appear just before hell freezes over


the Cafe Hayek commentors called you a communist - even Hayek and Friedman were called socialists by Ludwig von Mises for even discussing some modest redistribution in the form of a minimal social safety net...your in excellent company!

Bret said...

susan's husband wrote: "We'll just build more planets."

Maybe not planets. But we could build artificial islands.

Bret said...

harry eagar wrote: "The prepared mind sees what it expected to see."

In fairness to the dupes in the 1930s: (a) the U.S. was not doing too well at that time either and the U.S.S.R. hadn't had as long to degrade; and (b) the whole thing was staged so the dupes saw what the Soviets wanted them to see. I was pretty much able to wander about without my movements being very controlled which gave me a much broader perspective.

Bret said...

hey skipper,

Sorry about blogger's captcha. How does The Daily Duck avoid comment spam?

Harry Eagar said...

Orrin calls me a Stalinist for saying it, but it's still true: Skipper, if you'd been there before communism, it would have looked just as decayed.

Did you ever read Gorki's 'Lower Depths'?

If you are listing the appeal of Communism, not the least of it was/is that from the point of view of a Russian peasant or city worker in 1917 or a Chinese peasant in 1949, there was nowhere to go but up.

In the '50s, when the largest Communist parties in Europe were in France and Italy, it was said by the less purblind outsiders that they were really anticlerical parties with no place else to go.

Events pretty much bear that out.

The largest Communist party in Europe pre-1917 was in Germany. What does that tell us about Wilhelmine Germany? (If you live b y anecdotes, the way I do, there's a very good one in Gwen Reverat's 'Period Piece' about the brutal treatment of a servant girl from the country by a bourgeois Hamburg family around 1905.)

Oroborous said...

I'm just wondering how things that are in short supply will be divided up in the future when it is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". ... Some things will always be rare and expensive.

True, but those things may be few indeed, as you point out with the island solution (which is already being put to the test in Dubai).

I define "needs" as "early 21st century middle-class American standard lifestyle", which is extreme luxury by current global standards, and all historical standards, plus "future medical and longevity advances", which puts us in the realm of demi-gods.

I reject the notion that future peoples will "need" status symbols or ultraluxury. Those are "wants", and will be largely reserved for the future's elites - people who, for whatever reason, desire to work, to produce.

We won't all be equal in the future, (unless we decide to go to full-scale cloning), we'll just all be extremely pampered. We'll all be very close to equal in material goods, but there will be social differences, as there are now, and those will be ever more important.

But anywhere from 60% - 75% of humanity will be spending most or all of their time in virtual reality, "on the holodeck", anyway, so those folks will be exactly equal: Living in universes of their own creation, or at least ones of which they approve and desire.

Oroborous said...

Also, for any items that are in truly short supply, such as, perhaps, an time-share apartment near a prized ski slope, we could have a lottery system - everyone gets an equal chance at such an apartment.

Or we could just build some really, really tall apartment buildings there, which doesn't happen now in the Rockies because the current owners in such communities benefit from scarcity.

Or just tell people who don't get a chance to ski there to ski it in virtual reality, which is better anyway: No broken bones, and you always score with the ski bunnies, if you want to set up such a scenario.

One experience that will almost certainly be both prized and rare is a slot on a spaceship. Not the tourist hops to orbit and maybe to the Earth's moon, but a real system-roaming ship.

There too a lottery among qualified people seems like a good way to go.

Hey Skipper said...

Sorry about blogger's captcha. How does The Daily Duck avoid comment spam?

One or both of two things:

1. Duck deletes them so fast I never see them.

2. The Daily Duck's audience share is so small, comment spammers can't be bothered.

Bret said...

hey skipper,

It's not (2), because The Daily Duck's audience is much larger than ours and we still get a fair amount of comment spam if captcha is off (that's why I turned it on). Comment spam is automated so they don't care how small the audience is.

Therefore, I'm guessing (1).

Hey Skipper said...


Then we may need another explanation.

Due to those pesky time zones, I often fire up TDD when Duck, unless he is a world class insomniac, is asleep.

I simply never see any.