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.