Communism, Eastern Europe

Wojtek Sokolowski sokol at
Wed Jul 22 09:53:17 PDT 1998

Because of posting limitations, I am answering several missives under the threads "Communism Should Take Some of the Blame" and "Soviet and US Economy."

>>Brett Knowlton asks if it is possible to separte effects of communism
from those of other geo-political and historical factors.

=I reply: yes it is possible, but it requires the formulation of a counterfactual, or the case that differs form that being analysed only by the absence of the condition of interest (communism). In other words, this is the 'ceteris paribus' (everything else being equal) situation. That in turn, requires that we abstain from comparing nation-states (e.g. US and USSR), and start comparing smaller units, such as firms, or fields operating under different political-economic regimes.

'Ceteris paribus' is usually based on a comparison of several cases that are in many respects similar but differ in the presence or absence of the conditons being studied. However, such a comparative study CANNOT be performed with the nation-states as units of analysis. It is so, because it is virtually impossible to achieve 'ceteris paribus' with different nation-states. Nation-states differ in so many respects, that attributing the observed difference in, say, economic performance to a particular condition is virtually impossible.

To draw an analogy: two individuals earn vastly different salaries; they also differ in many other respects: socio-economic background, level of education, age, sex, occupation, skin color, temperament, place of residence, etc. It is thus impossible to causally link the differential earnings to any specific difference between the individuals in question. In other words, differential earnings can be caused by any one of those other differences, a specific combination of those differences, or none of them in particular.

That of course does not stop demagogues from drawing conclusions about the effects of skin color on IQ or communist ideology on economic peformance. We need to be aware, however, that such conclusions are closer to witchcraft than to rational analysis.

A better way would be to compare smaller units, such as firms/eneterprises or fields/industries operating under political reconomic regimes that differ in the level or type of state control of the firm.

>>Lew argues that the popular discontent in Eastsdrn Europe should be
construed as proof of unpopularity of communism and the denouncement of that system.

=I reply: Not necessarily. We have to distinguish between communism as utopia or ideology and communism as a label denoting various practices under specific historical conditions. It is the perceived difference between the two, I argue, and NOT the rejection of the former that explains popular discontent in Eastern Europe (EE).

There is sufficient evidence to conclude that various aspects of 'communist ideology' had a great popular appeal in EE. Examples may include public ownership of the means of production, workers' control of the means of production, welfare-state provisions, economic equality or right to work.

While the government/central planning authorities gave the lip service to these popular sentiments, it is a well known fact that praxis differend from theory quite substantially. In other words, the socialist ideology not only created great expectations in a large number of people, but also provided a justification to view those expectations as rights. However, the reality of developing economy that required various limitations on consumption, austerity measures etc. was that much of those expectations could not be met. That dissonance (in sociological li refered to as 'relative deprivation') created motivation for discontent.

Another important aspect of popular unrest is the opportunity for a collective action. Motivation alone is not enough to spark a protest action. People have to have physical opportunities to organize such an action and participate in it in large numbers. In other words, there needs to be a certain degree of social cohesion, solidarity, geographical proximity, availability of free time, etc.

In countries like the US, the potential for social protests, especially among the white population, has been undermined by dismantling the opportunity for a collective action through geographic dispersion (suburbanisation), absorption of free time (9-5 work schedule, entertainment, etc.), promotion of individualism that weakens solidarity, etc.

In EE, however, all these conditions remained in place. Social solidarity was officially propmoted as a virtue. The 7-3 work schedule left ample of free time that was not absorbed through the entertainment industry. And the development of urban centers (as opposed to suburbanisation) created large concentrations of peopluation. All those conditions created the opportunity for a collective action.

Finally, a collective action requires a precipitationg event, something that moves people to depart form their daily routines and take to the streets. Thse were usually generated by inept implementation of economic policies (price hikes) by government officials.

So we can safely say that social unrests in EE is a proof of three things: - that socialist ideals sunk into popular consciousness, - that state socialism did not destroy the social fabric necessary for a collective action; - and that there was a dissonance between socialist ideals and the implementation of those ideals by the authorities.

>> Jim heartfield argues against my points that there was not as much waste
in EE as some belive and that the Soviet regime did not have an impact on regional economic development much greater from the efforts already underway.

=I reply: As to the first point: there was a tremendous level of housing construction, especially in cities. True, these were project-like structure lacking the suburan amenities, but, they provided decent living conditions for waves of people moving from the country side to the cities. There was no homelessness, even though the newly built housing was quite crowded. Compare that to the shantytown or homelessness in capitalist developing countries (eg. Brazil or Mexico) . Any further questions?

As to your comments about the economic development already under way, see my remarks above about the proper unit of analysis. To reiterate, it makes little sense to make comparisons among different countries, even within the Soviet bloc. A better strategy would be a comparison of the same countries 'before' and 'after' the implementation of central planning. If memory serves, Poland nearly doubled its industrial output, comparing to that before the 2WW, just 7 years after the war ended, despite enormous destruction in the infrastructure and loosing about 1/3 of the population (mostly skilled and technical labor). That fact alone testifies to the great superiority of central planning to anything that the US-style capitalism could offer to that region.



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