Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Economic Authoritarianism (Part 2: The Shred of Truth)
Last week I started with a story about an East German official who appeared on West German television and claimed the Wall had been built not to keep East Germans in but to keep capitalism out. There was indeed a shred of truth in this lie. Though the Berlin Wall was constructed to stem a tide of refugees (more than two thousand of whom were leaving the East every day in 1961), the Wall also separated two economic systems, and the Cold War was very much a war of ideologies. At least in part, the Berlin Wall was constructed to keep capitalism out. Though freedom and democracy were denied the people behind the Iron Curtain, authoritarian rule of itself was not the original reason for the oppression of entire populations. Oppression was merely a sad by-product of the prevailing economic ideology’s need for survival. The people, had they possessed the power, most certainly would have tossed communism out once they had experienced its supreme practical flaw—namely, that it couldn’t provide them daily bread. It therefore became imperative to the new elite that the people be denied that power.
The survival of the Marxist ideology thus became a moral imperative to its true believers (and also to those who sought power and privilege through confessing their belief in it). Instead of admitting the theoretical flaws and practical limitations of their system, the communists actually resorted to a philosophically indefensible, totally uncommunist method of preserving the ideology. They attempted to enforce cooperation, a terribly ironic solution to the practical shortcomings of their ideology.
Marx, it should be remembered, didn’t envision the totalitarian regimes that sprouted from his own version of dialectical materialism. He merely predicted a revolution of the working class against the capitalist class, which would ultimately result in a classless society ruled by rational economic cooperation. (It should be noted that democracy was to be an inevitable part of true economic cooperation, hence the repeated insistence among dogmatic communists that their system was indeed democratic in nature. The official name of East Germany, after all, was the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. But enforced democracy is as much an oxymoron as is enforced cooperation. And enforcement is exactly what happened.)
When it became apparent that the idealistic end result of the working-class revolution would never materialize on its own, the communists forced the people into a cooperative, classless mold. But this plan had two small defects: first, you can’t force cooperation; and, second, you can’t enforce a classless system without setting up a separate, privileged class of enforcers. So, in a strange twist of logic, the communists tried in vain to transform the common people into a classless, well-fed, “democratic” society by taking away their liberty and at the same time establishing a new bureaucratic aristocracy.
The root cause of all this unanticipated authoritarian rule, however, was the communist ideology and the perceived necessity to make it work somehow. And, quite logically, if it was to work, it had to be separated from capitalism, its opposite, for the two are quite incompatible. Capitalism had to be eliminated, fenced out, and the people had to be corralled, fenced in. The oppression was merely a tragic by-product of the blind devotion of a few to a flawed ideology and their perceived need to force others to accept that ideology. The ideology was sacred, beyond the reach of public questioning, certainly beyond public rejection, and also beyond the reach of obvious facts. (It is sobering to note that in America today we see shades of this same sort of dogmatic devotion to a political ideology that is being required by one party to the extent that facts no longer matter. This is also a form of oppression, mental oppression, that is in some ways more frightening than the physical oppression brought to bear behind the Iron Curtain.)
One point of this analysis is to show that the Cold War was not a battle between freedom and oppression, as some have portrayed it. It was a conflict between incompatible economic theories, capitalism and socialism on the one side and communism on the other. Thus, it is interesting to note that as economic reform (a forsaking of communist principles) moved forward in the former Soviet Bloc, the oppression eased. And there is a reason for this. When communist leaders gradually admitted that their economic system was terribly flawed, that it couldn’t feed its own slaves, they also recognized that their moral imperative was both embarrassingly stupid and outrageously immoral. The economic reforms themselves were proof of this recognition. Of course, authoritarianism has re-entrenched itself to a certain degree in Russia and some of its former Soviet satellites in recent years, but not for the same reason as under communist rule. Authoritarianism is very difficult to root out of any human society, but particularly in countries addicted to corporate capitalism. (More on that in future posts.)
To wrap up our little examination of communism, however, let me simply point out that almost all but a few remaining communists in the world have finally had to face the fact that their ideology is bankrupt. Consequently, the Cold War is now history; East Germany no longer exists; the Berlin Wall has been sold piece by piece, in good capitalist fashion, as souvenirs; the Soviet Union has disintegrated; China has embraced various market reforms; and communism, as it existed in the last century, is all but extinct. For good or ill, the Cold War is long past, and communism lost.
It is instructive, however, for us to understand exactly how the Cold War ended. In spite of our national pride (Republicans call it American exceptionalism) and Ronald Reagan’s eagerness to take credit, we must resist the temptation to assume that we beat them. We didn’t. Communism collapsed from within—a point that should cause some introspection on our part. You see, even though the people behind the Iron Curtain were fed up with political oppression, even though many of them protested against authoritarianism, the Cold War’s deciding battles were not fought on political battlefields. They were fought instead in the grain fields, factories, and marketplaces of the respective ideologies—and the communist economic system lost the Cold War for the simple reason that it collapsed first. It was the more flawed, the more inefficient.
In short, communism died from self-inflicted wounds, corporate capitalism was declared the victor by default, and freedom and democracy were always secondary issues. Indeed, it is possible to argue that liberty and democracy were actually hostages and casualties of the Cold War, prisoners who dramatically escaped because of the incompetence of one side, only to be slain by mercenaries on the other. The survivors of the collapse of communism had a unique opportunity to actually embrace economic democracy and freedom. Instead, because they didn’t understand the options, they chose to replace one authoritarian system with another.