Friday, December 30, 2011

A Marx revival? (3 of 5): the former Communist states as real-time challenge

Neil Clark in an article on the recent passing of Czech leader Václav Havel called attention to one of the ways in which ideology interferes with realistic evaluation of the actual experience of the "real existing socialism", as East Germany and other eastern European governments in the Soviet bloc referred to their system. Václav Havel: another side to the story The Guardian, 12/18/2011:

No one questions that Havel, who went to prison twice, was a brave man who had the courage to stand up for his views. Yet the question which needs to be asked is whether his political campaigning made his country, and the world, a better place.

Havel's anti-communist critique contained little if any acknowledgement of the positive achievements of the regimes of eastern Europe in the fields of employment, welfare provision, education and women's rights. Or the fact that communism, for all its faults, was still a system which put the economic needs of the majority first.

Although he did clash with his uber-Thatcherite presidential successor, Václav Klaus, over economic policy, Havel, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur whose companies were nationalised when the communists came to power, showed little concern for the plight of ordinary people who lost out in the change towards a market economy. And there were losers aplenty. While the years following the liberation of eastern Europe from communism by Havel and his fellow dissidents are routinely portrayed in the west as one big success story, the reality is rather different. A 2009 Lancet study concluded that as many as 1 million working-age men died due to the health problems brought on by mass privatisation. As economies across eastern Europe were restructured so inequalities and social divisions grew. A 2011 OECD report found that Havel's Czech Republic had the joint-second largest rise in income inequality in OECD members since the mid-1980s.
The Western triumphalist narrative of the collapse of the European Communist regimes cast the last 20 years as the victory of Western-style democracy and the "market economy," i.e., capitalism. Although what is meant by the latter is often the neoliberal doctrine of allowing corporations to operate with fewer and fewer restraints by democratic governments.

I can imagine that many readers would object to Clark's comment that Czech socialism "was still a system which put the economic needs of the majority first". Even those willing to look realistically at the strengths and weaknesses of those systems would mostly recognize that the Party leaders and apparatchiks were often focused more on their own power and comfort than on the needs of their people. And, clearly, the perceived greater affluence in Western capitalist countries was a major factor in the internal discontent the Soviet block regimes experienced, along with lack of personal and political freedoms.

The average per capita income in Russia has never yet regained the level it was when the Soviet Union collapsed. Michael Gorbachev, who was seriously committed to democratizing Russia and the Soviet Union and who withdrew Soviet support from eastern European "satellite" countries, says even today that Russia would be better off had the Soviet Union not fallen, as he says in this German-language report from ZDF, "Besser, es gäbe die Sowjetunion noch":

Getting back to Clark's comment, in East Germany the effort to maintain living standards for workers figured heavily into the country's eventual demise. As former East German democratic activist Ehrhart Neubert documents at length in his Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR, 1949-1989 (1998), the famous workers' uprising in 1953 badly shook the leaders of the SED, the Communist Party there. It became a permanent assumption that the standard of living of workers had to be maintained through such devices as subsidized rents in order to prevent the kind of discontent that led to the nationwide disturbances of 1953 would not be repeated.

Other devices such as the notoriously invasive and pervasive secret police, the Stasi, were also employed to prevent such a recurrence. But the various subsidies aimed at maintaining living standards were substantial enough that they limited the availability of funds for capital investment, which led to the chronic economic stagnation that became so evident in the late 1980s.

The West German capitalist system clearly produced a higher standard of living for its people than the East German system did. Not only did it never find a way out of the dilemma that the competition between subsidies for working people and the need for capital investment represented. But the environmental degradation in East Germany was tremendous. One of the unified German government's initial miscalculations was that it seriously overestimated the amount of actual investment that the East Germans had made in their economic infrastructure. A lot of the nominal investment had disappeared into waste, corruption and those proverbial Swiss bank accounts. (The Austrian Communist Party developed quite a reputation for its business acumen, not least by helping East German officials get money out of East Germany.)

But the eastern German states haven't become model economic miracles in the last 20 years, either, for a variety of reasons including mass emigration to the former West Germany.

What Clark's comment points to, though, is the substantive as well as ideological challenge that the existence of the Soviet Union and the eastern European countries represented to the West and to the kind of capitalism that has produced the latest depression. Although the military power-balancing represented by the Soviet Union and China loomed far larger in the fears and plans of the Western nations, they also represented a real-time ideological challenge that could also not be entirely ignored, however unappealing Western publics may have found the "real existing socialism" of the Soviet bloc as a political alternative.

Posts in this series:

A Marx revival? (1 of 5) The Marx bogeyman 12/28/2011
A Marx revival? (2 of 5) Some intellectual luminaries of the European left 12/29/2011
A Marx revival? (3 of 5): the former Communist states as real-time challenge 12/30/2011
A Marx revival? (4 of 5) Is there actual evidence of such a thing in US and European politics? 01/01/2011
A Marx revival? (5 of 5) The archetypal left challenge to Marxism 01/02/2011

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