Communism, Fondly Remembered, Is Really A Longing For Tradition

My wife recalls going with her little sister to stand in line for bread in the waning years of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. Clutching her family’s ration card in hand, they would go to the dispensary and join the queue of ladies with scarves tied over their heads, waiting for the bread truck to arrive and bring the day’s allocation. She was six years old, and her little sister was two.

In order to get to the front of the line more quickly, my wife would pinch the toddler to make her cry. Moved with pity, the old ladies would let them cut to the front of the line where, having conned their way through more than half of the wait, they were assured of getting their bread more quickly and returning home in time to play.

Getting to the front of the line was about more than alleviating girlish boredom, though. Occasionally the bread would run out before the girls could reach the front, and they would have to return empty-handed.

To a reader who never lived in the Communist world during this time period, a few things stand out in this reminisce. The first, of course, is the fact of bread lines themselves, something that hasn’t existed in most of the countries of the West since the end of the rationing programs of World War II. The fact that the government-supplied food often ran out before everyone could be fed is another striking fact. As my mother-in-law tells it, the ration books she received theoretically provided plenty of food for their growing family (my wife being one of five children), but the real problem was finding all of the food to which they were entitled.

But just as remarkable is the fact that a six-year old girl and her two-year-old sister were allowed to walk across the city unaccompanied, and no one ever thought they might be in the least bit of danger.

Americans are frequently surprised to hear that there is quite a lot of nostalgia for the old communist regimes throughout the countries of the Warsaw Pact. Don’t those people value freedom and democracy? Don’t they appreciate not having to wait in bread lines? Conversely, American leftists sometimes interpret this fondness for the communist era as a tacit endorsement of the Marxism political program. Surely, they argue, communism could not have been as bad as the conservatives make out, or else why would people be so eager to return to it?

First, people do appreciate not having to wait in bread lines. Nostalgia for the communist days of yore is very rarely a nostalgia for the economic policies of communism (though there are some interesting exceptions to that rule, which I will discuss shortly). Rather, positive feeling about the communist era is almost always couched in cultural terms.

The people I encounter who speak warmly of the days of Ceausescu will invariably bring up several things. They discuss the warm and intimate relationships they had with their neighbors, and the depth and commitment of community that existed at the time. My mother-in-law was forced to work an evening shift at the local factory much of the time, and she left her children, none of them older than six, home alone. They were instructed to go to the neighbor in the case of any real emergency, and the nature of the community in their apartment block was such that they were never more than a moment or two away from a friendly, watchful adult eye. The children were given an immense amount of freedom, because every one of their neighbors was known and trusted. Today, a third of the apartments in my wife’s building are empty, abandoned by people who have moved overseas to work.

Crime, especially violent crime, was very low by all accounts. This statement is hard to back up statistically, since the official records from the communist era are generally not trustworthy, but what studies do exist support popular memory. Young girls such as my wife were able to go to the markets unaccompanied and never felt a moment of fear, and what crime occurred tended to be petty theft motivated by shortages.

There was a strong sense of community spirit, solidarity, and national pride. Family photos from that time period show people dressed in Party uniforms and participating with gusto in national celebrations and school events. These were, of course, propaganda events organized by the state, but that does not mean that the sentiments expressed were unreal. This sense of national pride and national greatness are two things that survivors of the communist regimes miss most, because in a large part the post-communist era has not been kind to either of these sentiments.

And this brings us back to the post-communist economies, and the one sure advantage that the West was supposed to have over the East: economic productivity. It is absolutely true that conditions in Romania today are better than they ever were under Ceausescu (though this is not true of every other post-communist regime, some of which have never recovered). It is also absolutely true that the post-revolutionary conditions from 1990-2000 were much worse than they ever were under Ceausescu, and this dramatic drop in living conditions after the collapse of the communist regimes was felt in every single post-communist regime.

The arrival of the free market was not experienced as liberation by rank-and-file Romanians, but as a sudden and disorienting disruption in long-settled economic patterns which brought about misery, unemployment, hunger, and uncertainty, all the while enriching a tiny elite. The grotesqueries of the post-communist economic collapse should remind us that markets are not magic. The proper functioning of the free market requires cultural and legal institutions which are not everywhere present.

Finally, Romanians are very aware that their country was completely free of foreign debt under Ceausescu, as Ceausescu’s aggressive export policy that paid off their foreign debts was the cause of their domestic shortages. The prosperity that Romania has begun to enjoy after joining the EU has come at the cost of giving huge chunks of the economy over to the Germans, and breaking up millions of families as parents and children went to work overseas. No one minds the extra cash that EU integration has brought, but there is widespread regret at the fact that it has come at the cost of national pride and independence.

So, what is a rightist to make of these conditions? Does an honest accounting of the values of the communist nations force us to re-evaluate our opinion of communism?

For the most part, the answer is no—but we should re-evaluate our opinion of capitalism, or at least the liberal hybrid which in the West goes by the name of “capitalism”. Because it turns out that, despite all of the rhetoric, by the time that the communist states actually fell, they weren’t to the left of the American mainstream: they were to the right.

It turns out that in politics, as in industry, the main flaw of the Soviet system was a failure to innovate. It’s been documented elsewhere that the Soviets were quite able to build factories on existing models, and so they achieved a tremendous industrialization of the agrarian Russian economy in only a few decades. But they were fatally crippled when it came to innovation, and so they essentially ran a state-of-the-art 1940s economy all the way into the late 1980s. But the same failure to generate novelty is apparent in the cultural sphere as well.

When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, they implemented cutting-edge progressive social policies of that period, and though they quickly retreated from the most radical of those ideas out of necessity, they were, nonetheless, one of the most socially liberal countries at their outset, with full female suffrage and high female labor force participation from their earliest years. But by the 1960s these advances were already quaintly conservative, and by the 1990s social conditions in the former USSR and its satellites were distinctly reactionary. Once the Soviet system had implemented the progressive vision of 1917, it did not continue to move left, and thus by the time it collapsed, it found itself lagging the West both socially and politically.

The American cultural left has proved itself a surer destroyer of tradition than the Bolsheviks. Because while the Bolsheviks implemented their revolutionary ideals and stopped, the leftward ratchet at work in the free world never came to a stop. And so we arrive in the present day, when the successor states of the Soviet Union are the right-most states in Europe, while the “capitalist” West descends ever further into insanity. Let us make no excuses for the cultural and economic destruction that the communists wrought, but let us not pretend that our own society has been any healthier. America is a communist country.

And even when waiting in a bread line, man does not live by bread alone.

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  1. Well-written and very true to life. I interract with many living in the former Eastern Bloc via Twitter and the sentiment is there, lurking in the background, that while communism was negative, liberation from behind the Iron Curtain was not the fairy tale that zealous talk show hosts claim it to be. Reminds me of a Soul of the East article on Yeltsin’s Russia and how it was far worse than the Soviet Union of the 1980s, due to the sudden influx of drugs hitherto unknown and the rapid privatization at the behest of corrupt foreign oligarchs.

    But as you say, what is really longed for in all of these countries (often where official Communist Parties still have support from some segment of the population) is the fading aspects of Traditional order that were frozen in time under Stalinist oppression. Things such as being able to trust your kids alone in the street. In the USA, this was finished after the Manson murders when people started locking their doors at night, but for the east it lasted into the 90s.

    Stalin reversed many of the wild-eyed social reforms of the Leninist era, fearing their destructive effects on civil society. Our leaders by contrast have no such qualms. In fact, destruction of the civil society plays into their hands for their globalist ambitions are real, whereas Stalin’s were mostly for show.

  2. This is an excellent article, which is confirmed by my grandmother’s experience of talking to East Germans who fondly remember the GDR. You could get free scholarships to study music and earn a decent subsidised life as a concert musician, for instance.

    It’s very unhealthy to denigrate the past, in any case. All nations eventually rationalize their experiences and incorporate them into a historical narrative. Russians who like Stalin are no stranger than Englishmen who can admire parts of Cromwell.

    1. Yes, in the case of East Germany you have the so-called “Ostalgie” or “nostalgy for the East” which was behind films such as ‘Good Bye Lenin’.

  3. Thorgeir Lawspeaker February 13, 2017 at 10:06 am

    Interesting to hear that the neighbors were all trusted.

    One of the staple points of growing up in America in the 70s/80s in a commie-hating household was that communist countries had secret police (KGB, Stasi, etc.), and that to live behind the Iron Curtain was to be watched all the time by agents of the state, waiting for an opportunity to send you to the gulag. Think Solzhenitsyn’s description of the early Soviet period (through Stalin’s time) in the Gulag Archipelago, for instance, or the cult of Pavlik Morozov.

    1. The KGB and the Stasi were amateurs compared with the means of social tracking Western intelligence agencies have now at their disposal.

    2. Iulian Bretonescu February 13, 2017 at 1:28 pm

      The neighbors were trusted as caretakers. They might also have been informants.

      I know that my father in law talked about a friend of his who informed on him to the Securitate. It was a part of life, so common that it did not actually break up relationships–to make a big deal over informants was to quickly run out of friends. This is terrible, obviously, but was perhaps not as bad as people might assume.

  4. Fear not. We too will be back that communal trust in due time. That’s a side effect of misery and despondency.

  5. Excellent piece, Iulian. I have always had a similar feeling about this.

    I would say that the Soviet Union was capable of innovation, but unable to transfer it from the military complex to everyday life, due to a lack of incentives. In the 1960s they had quite a debate about this, but finally reforms were halted under Brezhnev’s rule.

    Also related to this topic, I would say that the dynamics of communism are often linked to those of nationalism, especially after 1945 when it became the inspiration for many developing countries.

    Cuba is the case in point. There is no sickle and hammer to be seen, just the traditional Cuban flag and coat of arms, which are the exact same the Miami exile has. “Republic of Cuba” is still the official name. José Martí, a pre-communist figure, is the main icon of the regime. Fidel Castro was always a Cuban nationalist first and foremost, who adopted communism as the alternative model to that of his “oppressor”, the United States (despite his failure, back in 1960 that decision was not as stupid as it might seen now with the benefit of hindsight).

    Where communism was imposed, it did not survive in the long run, while it has been proven far more resilient in those countries that experienced it as part of their national liberation process. When Polish workers revolted under Walesa, were they revolting against a political system or just against foreign domination expressed under such system? How did manage Cuba, the stereotypical banana republic, to survive the 1990s collapse (loss of their entire trading bloc plus tightening of the US embargo through the Helms-Burton Act)? I don’t think repression alone accounts for it.

    After Castro’s death there was the usual debate where leftists praised him for achievements (healthcare, education) that are now a shadow of their former glory, while Conservatism Inc. just remained us of the tragically vanished 1950s Caribbean powerhouse that Lansky & Co. called home. What both sides missed is the fact that Cuba might be one of the very few Latin American countries that offer a safe environment, with low violent crime. I think that is what Cubans will miss the most after the current regime disappears.

  6. Abrupt transition to the purported miracle of free markets is a cause for much heartache and suffering. While looking at the bright horizon, one stumbles on the obstacles along the path. To put it another way, opening the floodgates may flush out more than intended.

    That is not to say Don’t do it, but instead to think through the consequences of such actions and to ask about the impacts on the demand side as well as the supply side.

  7. Michael Rothblatt February 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    So, NRx is Communism apologia now, eh? Seriously though, I hated the cultural side even more than the economic one. I do not remember those “warm and intimate relationships” between neighbors, but I distinctly remember homo homini lupus relationships between neighbors where everybody in your neighborhood wold hate you if you upgraded your home, or got a promotion, and horrible “neighbor’s cow too, must die” culture being prevalent everywhere (after all, jealousy and envy, those are the two supreme “virtues” of Communist society). Sense of national greatness created through propaganda existed yes, but it was empty and shallow. Communists knew how to play psychological games with populace, they knew how to play bread and circuses and they knew it well. They understood that people need a sense of unity, of purpose, that people need holidays, but their vile “tradition” is Satanic, and in this Communist manifestations are no better than “pride parades”, but are in fact more insidious, exactly for the reason you describe (whereas “pride parades” cause innate disgust in vast majority of people, Communists trick you with that feeling of “longing”).
    The claim that American cultural left was a bigger destroyer of tradition than Bolsheviks is ridiculous. In fact Romania may be unique among Communist countries in that it did not destroy the churchiness and traditions of its population completely. Just look at any Communist country and look at their stats. It cannot be blamed on “transition” (what was promised was transition, what we got instead was bunch of party high-ups dividing up loot, but whatever, for me it was worth it alone for not having to look at their vile symbols anymore), for sub-replacement fertility, alcoholism, divorce rates, abortions, etc. everything was already on downward spiral for decades.

  8. “…despite all of the rhetoric, by the time that the communist states actually fell, they weren’t to the left of the American mainstream: they were to the right.”

    That is truly chilling. Eye-opening essay.

  9. “Because while the Bolsheviks implemented their revolutionary ideals and stopped, the leftward ratchet at work in the free world never came to a stop.”

    When I first began to lose faith in any form of liberalism, this was one of the things that really struck me. I had been clinging to the “collectivism of any sort is inherently evil” line of thinking for many years, and hence never bothered to really look at the social structure of Communist polities. The fact that what passes as conservatism has done nothing to halt the leftward cultural march is what really sent me over the edge. Liberalism, of all forms, seems to always become more liberal, as though there is some intrinsic tendency to push forward with the premise and never be content with what works. Had this tendency not existed, perhaps things would be a bit less insane. In contrast, Communists, at least of the Eastern Bloc variety, had a specific goal, and once they achieved it, they held fast, not even allowing an inkling of “progress” to emerge beyond what the party had mandated.

    1. Stalin stopped the leftward ratchet by killing everyone to the left of him.

  10. Christopher Bradstock February 14, 2017 at 4:48 am

    From a Chinese perspective, I think this is right. During the Cultural Revolution, a lot of rusticated youths, despite the hardships, formed genuine friendships with the people they were sent down with and with the villagers. Reunions are a pretty common thing.

    My parents’ generation survived the Cultural Revolution, but for them the greater tragedy was the Great Leap Forward. It was particularly difficult for my mother and aunts. Their father, basically a kulak polygamist, had died, and their brother’s university education was resented by the other villagers.

    The Great Famine killed my youngest aunt. It left my mother and aunt stunted.

    Unlike the youth’s that were sent down, they certainly hate communism. Still, even they are sometimes nostalgic for a song or a certain rhetoric.

    Ideology is truly a frighting force; it can reduce communities to forced cannibalism yet still be fondly remembered.

  11. This article seems to be missing a lot of cultural problems inherent in communism.

    First-hand accounts from my parents from USSR:
    – incredible soul-crushing boredom at work and complete lack of care about it
    – alcoholism
    – lack of desire to take care of one’s own health, since the idea of personal responsibility was not within the Overtone window
    – constant gaslighting about what capitalism really is or what it is capable of, which spilled over to other aspects of reality
    (if those sound similar to behavior of liberals in america today, that’s not a coincidence)
    – inability of intelligent people to find ways to apply themselves – this had an interesting consequence of many people playing chess

    Other accounts, primarily around crime:
    – Freeing people from camps post-Stalin freed both political and other prisoners and so crime would spike after those
    – there were uncaught serial killers, since police was too focused on political crimes ( People may not have been afraid to let their children play outside, but maybe they should have been.
    – Life in general was treated as highly expendable. Some claim this was an asset in winning WW2, though I am not so sure.

    This doesn’t even count X million people who starved in Lenin years or died in Stalin years.

    There was some sense in which people who lived close to each other knew each other. This is a positive consequence of slightly more sane design of neighborhoods that didn’t assume everyone had a car. There were also fewer forms of liberal social insanity, which is something you are pointing to. However, the point is not to conclude that the absence of social insanity automatically made the culture more bearable. Economic insanity is enough to achieve the level of soul-crushing despair that I so much hope to avoid in the USSA.

  12. I really don’t think the author is apologizing for Communist regimes, nor even truly indulging in the “It wasn’t all bad,” school of historical analysis. Rather, the point is to explain how people, who do or did know how truly terrible Communist government really was, due to having to live under it, despite the myriad injuries to the soul and body politic detailed by perspicacious commenters, nevertheless sometimes feel a real nostalgia for those bygone days. As the title says, what they’re really longing for is Tradition.

  13. This article hints at a point that I have made: conservatism and reaction are meaningless without an historical context. Favoring the status quo or the status quo ante means nothing in and of itself because the nature of both the status quo and the status quo ante are dependent upon time and place.

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