Lie and Practice before 1989

One paradox of the post-1989 world is how little we think on certain dimensions of the changes that communism’s demise wrought: Eastern European success is colossal and yet seldom remarked upon. And the communist destruction was of gigantic proportions as well.

If one looks at the economic developments, the most striking fact is that these countries had never been so rich before communism, and that its advent reversed over a century of growth. Immediately after WWII, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were richer than Austria, and Bulgaria was more prosperous than Greece. By 1989, all East European countries were between five and seven times poorer than Western Europe. The economic deficiencies of the communist past brought them to the level of 30% less wealth (in terms of GDP per capita) than the world average. Now, once again, they all belong to the club of the prosperous nations.

Daniel Mahoney’s article helps highlight a key feature of the 1989 revolutions: contrary to so many modern expectations, they were not really about the economy; instead, they came out of long-neglected concerns for human dignity.

We in the post-communist nations were not promised a transition to an opulent paradise. The thinking concerning economic transition centered on a return to normality. The core foundation of the quest for a new normal in economics, however, centered on the conviction that the old regime was anti-human.

Consider: the final regime-made disaster of the Soviet regime was the Chernobyl nuclear accident—and yet, until very recently the anti-human nature of it attracted almost no attention in film or Western culture at large. Behind the Iron Curtain, even for the silent if not supportive minority of regime beneficiaries, after Chernobyl there was already no need for additional evidence that the communist system was nothing more than a force for the destruction of humanity.[1]

Communism grew out of civil wars, the purposeful elimination of pre-communist elites, expropriation of capital and savings, feudal rule in the villages, and forced-labor industrialization. The system softened in 1960’s but if one considers the life expectancy statistics in communist countries, it is obvious that compared to their peers, life expectancy stagnated from the 1950’s onward, and only started improving in the ex-communist countries after 1989.

The Resistance

This is not to say there was no opposition to communism before the mid-1980s.

The resistance to communist rule is a forgotten feature of the communist system. On October 28, 1917, the first use of the Bolshevik military was to break a strike of Petrograd workers including railway workers, post office employees, and bank clerks; the most important job of the future KGB (established six weeks after October), besides killing and robbing the bourgeoisie, was to suppress, according to Orlando Figes, about 4,000 peasants’ revolts.

From 1944-1962, there were about fifteen grassroots armed resistance movements in Eastern Europe working against communism. The Bulgarian “Goryani,” or “forest brothers” was one of the most stubborn groups. Yet other countries experienced similar movements, almost none of whom are well-known today. They include:

  • The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (defeated in 1956).
  • The “Forest Brothers” in the Baltic states (extinguished in the early 1960s).
  • The Romanian Resistance Groups of Haiduks (or Highwaymen) as people called them in appreciation of their heroic deeds (eventually crushed in 1962).
  • The Polish “Cursed Soldiers” (who organized at least nine guerilla-warfare divisions, the last of which was destroyed as late as 1963).
  • The anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary (October 1956).
  • The partisan movements of Croatia (known as “Crusaders”); Serbian “Chetniks,”or “Četnici.”
  • The Albanian National Front (a nationalist, anti-communist and republican organization).
  • The Moldovan resistance of Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Bukovina.
  • Various resistance movements in Belorussian and Slovenia were all defeated by the end of the 1940s or the early 1950s.

Because the system could not work by itself politically or economically without private property, free trade, and free movement of persons, the communists all kept their people within their nations by force. To stop individuals and their families, there was an Iron Curtain; for peoples, there were armies that could be deployed to crush uprisings; and, finally, there was the Warsaw Pact under Soviet, and KGB, command to keep wayward pact nations in check. Setting aside the long-term occupation of Eastern Europe, communists used military force to curb dissent in 1948, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1968, 1979, and even 1989-1990—and secret police forces used violence on a daily basis for the entirety of communist reign.

Soviet peasants could not travel, and the Soviet Union did not even issue them passports until the mid-1970s; they had no ease of traveling even within the USSR. Similar regimes existed in all the Warsaw Pact nations, and this lack of foreign exposure shaped the culture. For example, in the year I was born, 1955, only 1,118 persons left Bulgaria to go to other countries. Fully 20% of these were business trips, primarily by government employees, and that year, only 120 foreigners visited Bulgaria.

It is believed that about 1,000 East Germans were killed on the Iron Curtain, but a good estimate suggests twice as many GDR nationals were shot dead by Bulgarian border guards while fleeing to Greece and Turkey. It is anybody’s guess what the real number of the victims is. (Needless to say, there were successful attempts as well, such as the one described by German diplomat Rüdiger von Fritsch in his Die Sache mit Tom: Eine Flucht in Deutschland.)

On this real life background, Mahoney is right to underline that “the ‘ideological lie’ had been exposed as the chimera… and the peoples behind the Iron Curtain cried out for a ‘normal’ existence, freed from … systematic mendacity,” while “economic motives and concerns were real but secondary.” The Lie was an inner mainstay of communist power; when it became exposed widely enough, the house collapsed.

The Practical Lie

The ruling communists faced a “stationary bandit” dilemma: if they oppressed and grabbed too much the subjects would either stop working, or flee, or the costs of forcing them to work and stay would grow unmanageable. The authorities had two additional policy options: to deceive and to bribe the subjects of the regime.

Bribery turned out to be quite simple: the Warsaw Pact regimes could always employ deficit spending. By the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s, government spending as share of GDP in Warsaw Pact countries was twice as high as Germany’s during WWII, and as late as 1989, the USSR’s military outlays comprised approximately 15-17% of their GDP.

One country, Bulgaria, set a record in the Northern Hemisphere of the 20th century—it defaulted on its government debt three times under communism. Two of these defaults were to the Central Bank in Moscow, which it ultimately attempted to repay with the country’s gold reserves, chunks of the industry and global services, and smuggling arms and narcotics to finance insurgents and friendly regimes from Nicaragua to North Korea. The third default involved the London club of creditors, with government spending at par with WWII Britain. Borrowing from the West required political concessions such as closing gulags, releasing political prisoners, and some protection of human rights. The turning point came about in the mid-1970’s with the so-called Helsinki Process. However, there the communists simply pretended to observe their citizens’ rights, and in return enjoyed new borrowing opportunities that allowed them to finance the consumption that the populace expected.

Because coercion could only work to a certain point, the default communist policy was deceit, even when everyone knew the regime’s positions were a lie. Publicly, the regime’s official intellectuals feigned adherence to state ideology and repeated its propaganda, but no one seriously read state propaganda or enjoyed this act. Official art stagnated, underground artists flourished. The most talented writers were at best expelled or forced to comply. At worst, they were deprived of the ability to be published or publicized (consider here the case of Havel, one of heroes of 1989 to which Mahoney pays a deserved tribute), jailed in madhouses (like Volodya Bukovsky who passed away recently), or simply killed to stifle their dangerous talent (like Georgy Markov or Patočka).

The communists knew that artists, writers, and performers could make trouble. So also could priests and other religious leaders, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Muslim—to say nothing of the Buddhists. The victims of communism among the servants of God are yet to be counted.[2]

A couple of years ago, Hannes Gissurarson, an Icelandic political scientist and economist, embarked on a journey into the history of anti-communist literature. His historiography is just the tip of the iceberg. Recent analytical recounts of the 1970-1990’s and the newly opened archives suggest that we have underestimated the power of artists and writers in the fall of communism. When one considers the works (and the communists’ struggles to counter) figures such as Vaclav Havel, Georgy Markov, Alexander Solzhenizyn, Josif Brodsky, Tomas Venclova (in Lithuania), Paul Goma (in Romania), and more than 200 other European novelists, playwrights, poets, movie makers, and musicians, it seems more certain that they played a very significant role in the demise of communism.

The characters of their 1960’s novels, drama, verses, song, and legally (or often illegally) performed concerts were normal humans, with doubts and weaknesses—in short, they depicted the reality of life under communism. They embarked on a quest for normality, which twenty years late toppled the regime. To Live Not by Lie was not only Markov’s, Solzhenitsyn’s, and Havel’s credo. This was a quest of a generation of Eastern Europeans that knew in their hearts that the communists had forced them to live in fear and participate in regimes built on ideological deceit.

Unlike the youth of late 1960’s France—who had similar tastes in art and music but a naïve belief in communist promises—from 1945 to 1989, Eastern Europe’s young Jazz and Rock-n-Roll lovers, protesting students, and the beat and hippie movements, were always concerned with protecting individual liberty and human dignity.

The Generation of 1968 and the Present Climate for Liberty

Mahoney also reflects on the change of the climate of ideas in the 1970’s, and contemplates links between the ideas of that generation with contemporary leaders of Poland or Hungary. I think this effort is rather misguided.

The collapse of the “Evil Empire” started in 1968. The reasons for Prague spring were not economic. Communists promised a “human face” for the society, not a prosperous economy, and certainly not opulence. As Ludwig von Mises predicted in 1922, the regime was defunct economically almost from the beginning. In comparison to the immediate past, it was “basically okay”—at least by the standard of public understanding of those years. Irrespective of the fact that Czechoslovakia and Poland were victims of the German invasion, the Red Army confiscated key industries in both countries. The economy of Czechoslovakia, built on the legacies of the pre-WW II period, was the most competitive communist economy: their cars were far superior to those produced in the USSR or East Germany, their shops offered better food and non-food goods, and by the end of the 1980’s the country traded “only” 55-56 percent of its output with the Soviet Union. In Poland and Bulgaria, by contrast, this figure was over 80 percent.

The communists suffocated the Prague Spring by force, and a generation lost the hope for instant liberation. However, the flashes of discontent with the communist rule that sparked across Eastern Europe did not cease to exist. The 1968 generation of these countries had put an end to that rule by 1989. This generation hoped to return its countries back to normality and to close the page on the communist past. Part of that returning was the re-establishment of private property rights, the rule of law, and freedom of contracts and movement. It took about ten years, a short period compared to the long years of captivity and despair. The follow up entry into the EU was nothing more than a hefty footnote to the coming of those countries to where they belonged prior to communism.

What happens now in Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Poland, is a political fight against the reformers of the 1990’s. The contemporary leaders of Hungary and Poland (and most ex-communist countries) blame the politicians of the 1990’s for making “political concessions” with the ex-communists—as if it was possible to re-establish the rule of law by retaining the communist approach to law and freedom. The EU criticism of the leaders of these countries is primarily about attempts to compromise the rule of law. And we should remember that the most important difference between the EU and the Soviet Union is that the EU has no mechanism to militarily enforce its decisions and to keep countries within its jurisdiction.

It is also important to recall that that the 1989 revolutions were about reestablishing the ways the societies functioned before the advent of communism. However, one of the challenges we are facing now in Eastern Europe is this: when incumbent politicians deplore the lost glory of those revolutions, they often restore elements of central planning, government intervention (in the judiciary especially), and, like in Hungary, cohabitation with the anti-Western political regime in Russia.

I see this situation as normal political competition in a situation when freedom of thought, speech, and association is not restricted. What I fear is that the ideology of many politicians in this part of Europe today is the vilest type of anti-globalism and nationalism.

[1] In my country, Bulgaria, we count these elites at about 80 (often inter-married) families. It seems true that in all communist countries the top-strata in the social hierarchy were about 0.004% of the population. Beneath them these elites, stood a helping apparatus (about 300 families, 0.015% of the population) that enjoyed certain other privileges. Victor Sebastyen, on page 121 of his “Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire”, estimated that in GDR there was one STAZI, the East German analogue of KGB, informant and/or agent on every 63 citizens (while one Gestapo agent was expected to cover about 2,000 citizens). Around and below these two groups were the members of the Communist parties, 4 to 9% of the population. They, at least from the late 1960s, hoped “not to get into trouble,” to send their children to universities, to not suffer “unnecessary” career distress, etc.

[2] On this, see my article “Are Orthodox Christians naturally statists?