The far right has a ready answer. Does the left?

By Stephen Gowans

“The search for scapegoats has started,” observes German magazine editor Michael Naumann, alluding to growing anti-immigrant sentiment throughout Europe. The Swedes “elected an anti-immigrant party to Parliament for the first time, and the French are busy repatriating Roma” while “Germans continue to debate a best-selling book blaming Muslim immigrants for ‘dumbing down society’.” (1) Complaints are heard in England that England is no longer for the English, while a paroxysm of Islamophobia marks a US campaign to block a Ground Zero mosque, which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. Naumann’s point is taken, but he misses the reality. The search hasn’t just begun, it’s complete.

These days, the paradigm for scapegoating is provided by the Nazis’ blaming Jews for the ills of the inter-war years, a period of intense capitalist crisis. The parallel is the latest crisis, with its mass unemployment, insecurity, stagnant and shrinking incomes, and in some places, fiscal austerity. The real blame lies with capitalism–a system whose internal dynamics regularly produce wrenching downturns, making life uncertain, challenging and sometimes cold, bleak and humiliating for countless millions. How many people 50 years of age and older live, either without hope of ever again finding work, or in fear they’ll lose their jobs and never work again? How many young people have failed to land a first job, or are forced to navigate an uncertain world of low-paying, part-time, contract or temporary positions? How many are working harder, for less? In times of crisis the desperate, the humiliated, the frightened, look for an explanation for their situation.

They don’t have to look far. The far right has a ready answer—that immigrants are stealing our jobs and freeloading on social services. The first part has a ring of truth to it. Governments, after all, do use immigration policy to manage labor market flexibility, a euphemism for a pool of employees large enough to meet capital’s current demand for labor with a reserve army of job seekers left over. The reserve army–eager to take the place of those who already have work– maintains downward pressure on wages and keeps those with jobs in line. Without keen competition for employment, the price of labor would rise, eating into profits, possibly so much that capitalists would no longer invest, and the system would come to a halt. Labor market flexibility, then, is necessary to the smooth functioning of the system. But because people compete for jobs, any measure which increases the intensity of competition is hostile to their interests. It limits their bargaining power and increases the chances someone else will get the job they hold or want.

In the competition of all against all, those who bear the greatest burden are the workers who fill the ranks of the reserve army, or go from one low-paying job to another, denied any form of economic security. It’s easy for them to blame their plight on the immigrants they see working in jobs they want (though regularly in jobs they would disdain to hold), because it is often with them they compete. It’s true, they also compete against people of the same ethnicity, color and national origin, but don’t hold them to blame. But differences in skin color, accents, cultural practices and religion facilitate the creation of in-group-out-group divisions, making it easy to mark out the competition.

At the same time, the non-immigrant working poor often live side by side with newly arrived immigrants, some of whom have no work, and get by on welfare payments and sometimes criminal activity. Their presence is a source of confusion and resentment to the working poor, who question the wisdom of their governments’ accepting new immigrants–whose upkeep can be subsidized in part by the working poors’ taxes–at a time of economic downturn.

II

Crises, you would think, would provide opportunities to transcend the capitalist system. At these times the system’s problems are encountered the most acutely and therefore the motivation to overcome them ought to be greatest, but crises paradoxically have often led to the rise of far right parties and anti-immigrant sentiment. The reason why is two-fold: The far right’s seemingly plausible explanation for the insecurity many people are forced to bear; and the left. When the left provides a compelling alternative explanation and mobilizes mass energy around it and thereby threatens to take power, charismatic far right leaders are provided with money to rally public support for a nationalist cause and vie with the left for power. When the left fails to offer a compelling alternative explanation, the far right movement remains limited, poorly organized, and largely spontaneous; it’s not needed to protect the system from challenge, and so is left in its inchoate state. The far right isn’t pressed into service and built up as a major force unless the left is strong.

The dominant left response to the recent rise of xenophobic sentiment has been moral suasion and anti-racism demonstrations, a strategy that possibly owes more to satisfying the psychological needs of the practitioners than concern over efficacy. It fails to attack the root cause of the disease, trying to suppress the symptoms instead. Campaigns of anti-racism offer their practitioners cathartic opportunities to express moral indignation (which may be the underlying motivation for carrying them out), but their effectiveness is questionable unless accompanied by an assault on the root causes. The recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment didn’t arise in a vacuum. Its momentum comes from economic crisis, and if one wants to mobilize the energy that far right explanations attract, a credible solution must be offered to the critical underlying problem: economic insecurity. Against the far right’s explanation that immigration is the cause of joblessness, the left could point out that insecurity is caused by the failure –indeed refusal–of capitalism to offer secure employment to all; that the solution is to transcend the capitalist system; and that where it has been transcended in the past, secure employment has been made available to all, along with guaranteed healthcare, security in old age, subsidized housing, free education, and a raft of other mass-oriented reforms. There is no freeloading in a socialist society. Work is an obligation. But at the same time, employment is guaranteed. Against the pseudo-explanation: immigration is the cause of your problems, must be counterpoised an accurate explanation: capitalism is the cause of your problems; it can’t—won’t—guarantee a secure life for all; socialism can.

The problem is that much of the left, even that part of it that traces its origins to revolutionary Marxism, has given up on both revolution and socialism, defined here as production for use (not profits), governed by a plan (not markets), and carried out in publicly owned (not private) enterprises. Socialism in contemporary usage has come to refer to a mixed economy presided over by an elected government that calls itself socialist. Production is governed by markets, much of the economy remains in private hands, the commanding heights of the economy are brought gradually under public control, and the exploitation of man by man is accepted as necessary, desirable, and the key to efficiency. But markets—which almost everyone now thinks are an unavoidable necessity–inescapably mean recurrent economic crises, unemployment, and inequality. In other words, socialism, as it is defined by 21st century socialists, offers no solution to the economic insecurity that regularly flares up and drives the insecure into the arms of far right campaigns to scapegoat immigrants and foment xenophobia. Sweden, often celebrated as a social democratic paragon and held out as an attractive alternative to Marxist-Leninist-style socialism, has proved no less vulnerable to outbreaks of recession-induced xenophobia than bastions of neo-liberalism have. And that’s because 20th century social democracy and its equivalent, 21st century socialism, don’t transcend capitalism, but embrace it, and therefore accept its destructiveness (in crops, products, factories, and gainful employment eliminated during regular downturns), inefficiencies (capitalism regularly operates below capacity and well below during downturns), wars (to pry open closed markets and secure new investment opportunities) and blighted lives.

No one in Germany “is predicting the rise of a successful right-wing party,” remarks New York Times reporter Michael Slackman, “but that is because the main ingredient is missing: a charismatic leader to rally the public. With such a leader, and some financial support, the prospect could take on a life…” (2) Perhaps. But there is also one other ingredient missing: a compelling left alternative explanation of people’s distress. Without one, there’s no need to find, and provide financing to, a charismatic right-wing leader to transform a spontaneously arising, minority, anti-immigrant movement into a mass movement capable of vying for power to do what far right mass movements have been historically mobilized to do: block the rise of a revolutionary left movement. That the rise of a far right demagogue is unlikely can perhaps be looked at as a good thing (and in one sense it is), but in another sense it is far from good, for it means capitalism is safe, despite what one might think about capitalism’s current tribulations creating an opportunity for change. The opportunity may exist, but who is there to seize it?

It used to be that the role of a revolutionary Marxist party was to set forth an alternative explanation to the dominant ideology, one that would supply an essential ingredient to the project of transcending capitalism at a time of crisis. People’s troubles with unemployment, under-employment and poverty, it would be explained, are systemic, not personal or immigrant-related; they are remediable, not inevitable. Freedom from the ills of capitalism, it would be shown, is possible and realistically achievable through collective action. Nationalism, xenophobia and social democracy would be revealed to be pseudo-solutions, offering the illusion of change but no real redress of capitalism’s ills. No longer. Nowadays, everyone has shifted to the right. Liberals are conservatives, social democrats are liberals, and communists are social democrats, if not liberals in practice with a vaguely radical rhetoric.

With a void having opened up in the space once filled by alternative left explanations, the current capitalist crisis is proving to be a fertile ground for the growth of far right pseudo-explanations of what are properly systemic problems. With the left having embraced markets, and thereby all that markets imply (regular crises, unemployment and inequality), it no longer has a solution to offer for market-induced plights. Having capitulated, it has reduced itself to the role of uttering pious expressions of benevolence.

III

Many people who were once communists drew strength from the knowledge that communism represented a mass movement. Perhaps it remained marginal (or more aptly, suppressed) in their own country, but it had been embraced by a substantial fraction of the world’s people and seemed to be getting stronger. With the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and China’s journey down the capitalist road, all that changed. Now, really-existing socialism had all but disappeared, hanging on, sort of, in a few outposts: Cuba, where parts of the socialist model had to be dismantled to survive, and North Korea, where the Juche philosophy supplanted formal adherence to Marxism-Leninism. Communism now seemed largely discredited, and to cling to it, was to mark oneself as peripheral and locked in the past.

Desperate to reconnect to a mass movement, many embraced the only mass working class movement they could find, which in many Western countries, was social democracy. But the corruption that had led the Bolsheviks to break away from social democracy to form the communist movement in 1917 had intensified, and by the time the Soviet Union was dismantled, social democracy had nothing anymore to do with socialism; it had become capitalism with a friendly face, and at times, not so friendly.

In Marx’s and Engel’s day, there were periods when a meeting of every socialist in Europe could have been easily held in a mid-sized hall. Until 1917, the Bolsheviks—whose ideas and organizational forms would eventually guide the economic and political organization of a majority of the world’s population–remained a political party of limited significance without a mass following. The need to be connected to a popular movement—and the practice of linking up with a cause on the basis of its popularity and not the ideas and aims that inspire it– would have led many latter day communists to shun Marx, Engels and the Bolsheviks had they been contemporaries.

One reason Marxism-Leninism commands little authority nowadays is that it seems to have been rejected by its practitioners. Glasnost and Perestroika and the eventual dismantling of communism in the Soviet Union, followed by communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, and the turn to capitalism in China and Vietnam, appear to be admissions that Marxism-Leninism doesn’t work and that capitalism is both inevitable and the end of history. Cuba’s recent decision to expand its private sector by cutting loose 500,000 state employees—and Fidel Castro’s remark to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more” (3)—seems to underscore the point. All this, however, misses a few significant points.

First, communism arose under inauspicious circumstances. It took root where capitalism was weak, and therefore without the strength to smother the infant in its cradle. In 1917, Russia’s Tsarist ruling class was demoralized by war and the capitalist class too small, weak and disorganized to put down revolutions in March and October. But capitalism being too weak to block the rise of revolution meant that the revolution would have to take hold in a country where the working class was small and the industrial base–necessary to progress toward a communist society of plenty–was rudimentary at best. Lenin believed his revolution would spark working class revolutions in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe, and that the working class in those countries would come to the Bolshevik’s aid, providing the necessary capital Russia would need to build its own socialist society. He judged wrong. While the Kaiser’s rule was overthrown in Germany, the Social Democrats–who disagreed with Bolshevik’s revolutionary methods and refused to break decisively with capitalism and its rulers –came to power. Revolutions elsewhere were stillborn or not in the cards. After a period of waiting, the Bolsheviks realized that if socialism were to come to Russia, they would either have to first shepherd the country through a long period of capitalist development, actively intervene in Western Europe to foment revolutions there, or undergo a program of rapid industrialization and forced agricultural collectivization at home. After a period of conflict about which path to pursue, the Bolsheviks decided to build socialism in one country. This decision was reinforced by the expectation that the capitalist powers would attack the Soviet Union within a decade, and that an industrial base was urgently needed to build a modern military for self-defense.

Second, communism had not a moment’s rest from attempts by the capitalist countries to destroy it. Blockades, sanctions, trade embargoes, sabotage, subversion, diplomatic isolation, military intervention, war (both hot and cold) and ideological warfare were pressed into service with the aim rolling back—and ultimately destroying– communism. The chances of communism surviving the onslaught were far from sanguine. Attributing the demise of really-existing socialism to internal failings, and ignoring seven decades of efforts to exterminate the communist challenge—a practice of both the right and left–is a peculiar form of blindness. As William Blum observes: “It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon these catastrophes, nodded their heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Humankind shall never fly.” (4)

Third, it wasn’t because communist countries rejected markets that they failed. It was because they backed off of Marxist-Leninist principles, and conciliated with capitalism, that they collapsed. Poland, for example, ran into trouble because it failed to collectivize agriculture and provided implacable enemies of socialism, including the Catholic Church, space to operate. Rather than using agricultural surpluses to pay for industrialization, Polish communists subsidized food prices and emphasized light industry and the production of consumer goods and foot the bill by borrowing heavily from Western banks. Burdened with debt, the government was eventually forced to allow Western banks to dictate economic policy. The banks demanded the government remove its food subsidies to pay interest on its debt. This led to spikes in food prices, sparking strikes and ultimately the development of a working class strike movement. The strike movement was hijacked by anti-socialist ideologues linked to the Catholic Church and the CIA who eventually managed to force the government to step down when it became clear that the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, would not intervene.

Gorbachev was dismantling the Marxist-Leninist basis of the Soviet state and experimenting with market mechanisms in response to a slow-down in the Soviet economy. The slow-down had a number of causes. The Soviets had been forced to adopt a policy of self-sufficiency to protect the country from the possibility of imperialist countries manoeuvring to strangle it economically by cutting off its access to vital raw materials. This led to a situation where the Soviets paid more to extract some raw materials internally than they would have paid had they imported them. Another factor was an increase in raw materials costs. As easy to reach mines were depleted, deeper mine shafts had to be dug, and longer distances had to be travelled to reach new mines.

Planning had its own problems. Enterprises hung on to employees to ensure they had sufficient staff to meet planned production targets. This led to over-staffing, and to the less than efficient deployment of manpower. The Soviet commitment to full employment also meant that retrofitting factories—in order that they could continue in operation with layoffs avoided—was favored over building new factories based on new technology. As a result, the industrial base became a patchwork of new grafted onto old.

At the same time, the need to keep pace with NATO put a severe strain on the Soviet economy. Despite its rapid growth, the Soviet economy was still much smaller than that of the United States. To come anywhere close to matching NATO expenditures, the Soviets had to allocate a crushingly large percentage of their GDP to the military. Although necessary for self-defense, this was wasteful, since it diverted resources away from the productive investments that were needed to raise living standards. US cold warriors figured that if they could stall the growth of the Soviet economy by locking the Soviet Union into an arms race, they could weaken attachment to Marxism-Leninism, both among the Soviet citizenry and in the Kremlin. With living standards failing to converge on those of the advanced capitalist countries, Eastern Bloc populations might sour on the socialist model and look longingly to the West. At the same time, it might occur to Soviet leaders that their only hope was to compromise on Marxism-Leninism and open up the Soviet economy to market mechanisms and the world capitalist economy.

There were other strains. In order to win allies and expand socialism to other countries, the Soviets shipped aid to countries and movements struggling to free themselves from colonialism. Most of these countries were desperately poor, and profited from transfers and subsidies from the Soviet Union, while returning little in exchange. For example, the Soviets bought Cuban sugar and nickel at above world prices, getting little in return from Cuba. Cuban military intervention in southern Africa on behalf of the liberation movements there–ultimately paid for by the Soviet Union–and the intervention in Afghanistan on behalf of a modernizing and secular revolutionary government, put further strain on the Soviet economy. In the end, Gorbachev decided to pull troops out of Afghanistan, cut Cuba loose, and not intervene to protect Warsaw Pact allies from counter-revolutionary movements. He also moved the Soviet Union toward a Scandinavian-style social democracy. Far from invigorating the Soviet economy, the attempt to make over the USSR pushed the economy into collapse. As the economy imploded, the economies linked to it through the socialist community fell like dominos. By embracing capitalist methods, Gorbachev had turned a set of manageable problems into a catastrophe. Communism’s collapse was not due to public ownership, central planning, and production for use, but the abandonment of socialist practices in favour of markets and capitalist methods. The problem wasn’t that there was too much socialism; there was too little.

IV

The capitalist class in imperialist countries is a formidable enemy. Except for the period of the Great Depression and the chaotic aftermath of the two world wars, it has not been weakened, demoralized and disorganized—a condition that would need to prevail if revolutions were to come about. What’s more, both world wars led to a stronger, more confident, and assertive class rule based in US finance and industry. The opportunities for Marxist-Leninists to lead new revolutions were, therefore, limited. At the same time, the space for socialist countries to develop was systematically impeded by a United States immeasurably strengthened by WWII, whose rulers committed themselves to wiping the communist foe from the face of the earth, a campaign that carries on today in efforts to bring down the Cuban and North Korean systems. (By comparison, the Soviet Union was immeasurably weakened by the same war.) That the communist movement should be bloodied, bruised and knocked to the mat should come as no surprise. The opponent was formidable. But does that mean the towel must be thrown in? It would appear that for communists who were accustomed to being linked to mass movements, the answer is yes. But the movement of revolutionary socialists has been tiny and peripheral before. Had there not been a core of revolutionaries who remained dedicated to Marxist-Leninist principles and refused to sacrifice fundamental principles for immediate gains and popularity, the first attempt at building socialism would never have come off. Capitalist crises and war are inevitable and recurrent. Opportunities for transcending capitalism and liberating mankind from its scourges are therefore, inevitable and recurrent as well. When they arrive, a Marxist party capable of offering an explanation of people’s unhappiness, showing that another way is realistically achievable, and revealing the pseudo-solutions of nationalism, religion and social democracy to be dead-ends, can lead a renewed attempt to move humanity forward.

1. Michael Slackman, “Rightwing sentiment, ready to burst its dam”, The New York Times, September 21, 2010.
2. Ibid.
3. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Fidel: ‘Cuban Model Doesn’t Even Work For Us Anymore’” theatlantic.com, September 8, 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/fidel-cuban-model-doesnt-even-work-for-us-anymore/62602/
4. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report,” September 2, 2009. http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer73.html

REFERENCES

Robert C. Allen, Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Bahman Azad, Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR, International Publishers, New York, 2000.

Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, New York, 2004.

Melvyn P. Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953, Hill and Wang, New York, 1994.

Irwin Silber, Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Sources of the Socialist Crisis, Pluto Press, 1994.

Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984.

Albert Szymanski, “Crisis and Vitalization: An interpretive essay on Marxist theory,” in Rhona F. Levine and Jerry Lembcke (Eds.), Recapturing Marxism: An Appraisal of Recent Trends in Sociological Theory, Praeger, 1987.

Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban ought to be hoping for the revival of the communists.

By Stephen Gowans

While worries are expressed about “women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan … seeping away” [1] there was a time when the rights of Afghan women were much stronger, and stronger still among the people who shared a common culture with Afghans but lived in Soviet Central Asia. While US journalists draw attention to worry that a US troop withdrawal, and the possible return of the Taliban to government, will imperil the few rights women have gained, US establishment journalism expressed few concerns about the loss of women’s rights when Washington backed the misogynist Mujahedeen in its fight against a progressive government in Kabul that sought to free Afghan women from the grip of traditional Islamic practices.

Here’s New York Times’ reporter Alissa J. Rubin.

Women’s precarious rights in Afghanistan have begun seeping away. Girls’ schools are closing; working women are threatened; advocates are attacked; and terrified families are increasingly confining their daughters to home. As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. [2]

Rubin’s report is part of a propaganda offensive being played out in US newspapers and magazines to drum up support for the continued occupation of Afghanistan by the United States and its NATO allies. The campaign is perhaps most blatantly revealed in the July 29 issue of Time, whose cover, to quote the newsmagazine’s editors,

is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.

What happens if we leave Afghanistan? asks Time magazine. The news magazine’s editors would have shown a greater sense of history had they asked: Would this have happened had we not backed the Mujahedeen in the 1980s? Washington supported Islamic reaction in Afghanistan, recruiting and bankrolling tens of thousands of jihadists to overthrow a government that sought to liberate women from the misogyny of traditional Islam.

There is nothing good to be said about the prospect of a Taliban revival. The conditions for women will indeed sink to a barbaric level if the Islamic extremists return to power. But the idea that US foreign policy makers care one whit about the condition of women in Afghanistan, or that the surest way to guarantee the rights of Afghan women is to keep US troops firmly in place, ignores the history of US foreign policy in the region, and also ignores a point Rubin herself makes: that Washington is exploring reconciliation with the Taliban.

Rubin’s use of the word “reconciliation” is apt. Washington had a working relationship with the Taliban going back to 1995, when it funded and advised the nascent movement through the CIA, in partnership with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, and Saudi Arabia. [3] Washington had no qualms then about the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women, and for reasons explained below, probably has no qualms today either. The State Department maintained friendly relations with the Sunni extremists right up to 1999, when every Taliban official was on the US government payroll. [4]

That there are concerns far more senior to decision-makers in Washington than the conditions of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies is evidenced by the enormous support oil-rich Saudi Arabia receives from the US government. The kingdom is a key strategic ally for Washington and a source of colossal profits for US oil firms and US investment banks, through which the Saudis recycle their petrodollars. And while little is ever said in the United States about the condition of women in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women are subjected to practices as barbaric and benighted as any the Taliban have inflicted on the women of Afghanistan. But the Saudis, owing to their cooperation with America’s corporate rich in building Himalayas of oil profits every year, get away with backward practices that leave the Western world sputtering in indignation when carried out by the Taliban, whose practices toward women only received the scrutiny they deserved when the Islamic fundamentalists refused to play ball with Unocal on a pipeline deal.

Here’s how the Saudis – one of Washington’s partners in the Middle East – treat women. Women are not allowed to vote, drive cars, or leave the house without a male chaperon, and when they do leave they must avoid men and cover most of their bodies. If they want to marry, divorce, travel, go to school, get a job or open a bank account, they need the approval of a male relative. A woman’s place is in the home, and a woman’s role is to raise children and care for the household. In a court of law, the testimony of two women is worth the testimony of one man. The sexes are strictly segregated, with separate men’s and women’s entrances to most houses and public buildings and segregated areas in public places. US restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks collude in the oppression of women by maintaining separate areas for the sexes in their restaurants. Girls go to all-girls’ schools where the teachers are less well-qualified and textbooks updated less frequently than in boys’ schools. Fathers can marry off their daughters at any age, and girls as young as nine have been married. In one case a 10 year old girl was forced into a marriage with an 80 year old man. With its separate and unequal legal rights and schools, and its restrictions on the movement of women, the Saudis practice a form of apartheid no different from that once practiced in southern Africa. The only difference is that the victims are defined by their possession of uteruses, not the color of their skin. [5]

Saudi women are not allowed to vote, drive cars, or leave the house without a male chaperon, and when they do leave they must avoid men and cover most of their bodies. If they want to marry, divorce, travel, go to school, get a job or open a bank account, they need the approval of a male relative. A US troop presence in the Arabian Peninsula hasn’t put an end to these barbaric practices.

Further evidence of Washington’s supreme indifference to the rights of women abroad is evidenced by the role it played in undermining a progressive government in Afghanistan that sought to release women from the grip of traditional Islamic anti-women practices. In the 1980s, Kabul was “a cosmopolitan city. Artists and hippies flocked to the capital. Women studied agriculture, engineering and business at the city’s university. Afghan women held government jobs.” [5] There were female members of parliament, and women drove cars, and travelled and went on dates, without needing to ask a male guardian for permission. That this is no longer true is largely due to a secret decision made in the summer of 1979 by then US president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to draw “the Russians into the Afghan trap” and give “to the USSR its Vietnam War” by bankrolling and organizing Islamic terrorists to fight a new government in Kabul led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. [6]

The goal of the PDPA was to liberate Afghanistan from its backwardness. In the 1970s, only 12 percent of adults were literate. Life expectancy was 42 years and infant mortality the highest in the world. Half the population suffered from TB and one-quarter from malaria.

Most of the population lived in the countryside, which was ruled by landlords and wealthy Mullahs. Women – subjected to traditional Islamic practices of forced marriage, bride price, child marriage, female seclusion, subordination to males, and the veil – lived particularly barbaric existences. [7]

US president Ronald Reagan fetes Mujahedeen “freedom fighters” at the White House. The State Department maintained friendly relations with the Taliban right up to 1999, when every Taliban official was on the US government payroll. Despite Washington’s alliances with religious zealots who enforced – and continue in Saudi Arabia to enforce – a barbaric patriarchal rule over women, the US media promote the contradictory idea that women’s liberation in Afghanistan can be entrusted to the United States.

In stark contrast, the Bolsheviks had raised the living standards of the Afghans’ Tajik, Turkman and Uzbeck brethren in Soviet Central Asia and liberated women from the misogyny of traditional Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged – indeed obligated – to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich Engels’ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. [8]

In 1978 the government of Mohammed Daoud, who the PDPA had backed but had increasingly grown disenchanted with, killed a popular member of the party. This sparked mass demonstrations, which Daoud met with orders to arrest the PDPA leaders. However, before the order could be executed, the PDPA ordered its supporters in the army to overthrow the government. The rebellion was successful, and Noor Mohammed Taraki, leader of a hard-line wing of the party, was brought to power. The Saur (April) Revolution was a spontaneous reaction to the Daoud government’s plans to arrest the PDPA leaders and suppress the left, not the realization of a plan worked out with Moscow’s connivance to seize power. While the new government was pro-Soviet and the Soviets would soon intervene military at its request in an effort to suppress US-supported Islamic reaction in the countryside, Moscow was not behind the seizure of power. [9]

The new government immediately announced a series of reforms. The debts of poor peasants would be cancelled and an Agricultural Development Bank would be established to provide low-interest loans to peasants, in an effort to root out the usurious lending practices of moneylenders and landlords. Land ownership was to be limited to 15 acres and large estates broken up and redistributed to landless farmers. [10]

Unlike Washington, which is willing to collude in the oppression of women if it benefits US enterprises, the Bolsheviks liberated the women of Soviet Central Asia from the grip of what they deemed to be barbaric traditional Islamic practices. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, and veiling were outlawed and women were expected to work outside the home to earn incomes to achieve independence from men.

At the same time women would be liberated from the constraints of traditional Islam. Bride price – the treating of marriageable women as chattel to be exchanged in commercial transactions – was severely limited. The age of consent for girls to marry was raised to 16. And students from the cities were dispatched to the countryside to teach both men and women to read and write. [11]

While some gains were achieved, especially in Kabul where PDPA support was strongest, the reforms never took root in the countryside, where the government pressed ahead too quickly, arousing a determined opposition by the rich landlords and Mullahs it lacked the military power to suppress. [12] Washington’s recruiting of tens of thousands of mujahedeen from Muslim countries to jihad, including the Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden, eventually contributed to the Soviet decision to withdraw its military forces and to the eventual overthrow of the PDPA government, which hung on for a few years after the Soviets quit the country. Soon the Taliban, backed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had returned Afghanistan once again firmly to the Middle Ages, after the country had taken a few determined steps toward modernity under the leadership of the PDPA. Significantly, it was the Bolsheviks in Soviet Central Asia, and the Marxist-Leninist-inspired PDPA in Afghanistan, that acted to improve the conditions of women, while the United States allied itself with religious zealots who enforced – and continue in Saudi Arabia to enforce – a barbaric patriarchal rule over women.

For Washington, profits stand above women’s rights. The communists, by contrasts, were inspired by the aims of liberating peasants from feudal backwardness and breaking the grip of traditional Islam on the lot of women. The latter acted as paladins of human progress and women’s rights; the former, as captives of the logic of imperialism. Liberation of women from the misogyny of the Taliban and Saudis will not come about through the agency of Washington. Anyone worried about the revival of the Taliban and the consequent loss of the few gains Afghan women have eked out under a puppet government backed by the Pentagon, ought to hope, instead, for the revival of the communists. They have a track record in the service of women’s liberation; Washington’s record, by contrast, is not one to inspire confidence.

1. Alissa J. Rubin, “Afghan women fear the loss of modest gains”, The New York Times of July 30, 2010.

2. Rubin.

3. Michael Parenti, “Afghanistan, Another Untold Story”, Michael Parenti Political Archives, December, 2008, updated in 2009. http://www.michaelparenti.org/afghanistan%20story%20untold.html

4. Parenti.

5. “Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia
San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2001. Cited in Parenti.

6. From an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998, translated by William Blum, available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/BRZ110A.html

Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [“From the Shadows”], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

B: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

B: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.

7. Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland: With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984a.

8. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books, London, 1984b.

9. Szymanski, 1984a.

10. Szymanksi, 1984a.

11. Szymanksi, 1984a.

12. Irwin Silber, Afghanistan – The Battle Line is Drawn, Line of March Publications, 1980.

A failed system’s failed promises

By Stephen Gowans

With Communism’s demise, and the return of Warsaw Pact countries to the capitalist fold, the world was promised a new age of peace and prosperity. The shadow of war would lift. Military expenditures would be cut back, and troops would be brought home from Cold War postings. There would be more money for new wars — on poverty and homelessness, this time. And capitalism, the single sustainable model of success (it had, after all, emerged triumphant in a decades-long battle with Communism) would deliver the poor from poverty, and bless the world with a bonanza of consumer goods.

Talk about failed predictions.

In place of peace, we got the lone remaining superpower waging war to sweep up the few remaining stragglers that continued to resist integration into the US dominated global economy. Iraq was conquered, at the expense of countless dead, homeless, mangled and ruined; campaigns of intrigue and bombing in the former Yugoslavia pushed the region into the US orbit; and a war on Afghanistan continues to blast away thousands of peasants but cements a US military presence in a Central Asia pregnant with the promise of oil and gas wealth. Wars on Iran and north Korea are real possibilities.

Today, the United States is asserting its military might over the face of the globe more audaciously than ever. There are 368,000 US troops deployed in nearly 130 countries around the world. (1) US citizens think their military protects their interests abroad and defends host countries from threats. They rarely pause to wonder whether what’s called “their” interests are really their own personal interests or those of people who live in bigger houses and get bigger tax breaks and have sizeable investment portfolios. Nor do they make a habit of wondering how it is that with the US exercising a virtual military monopoly over the world, host countries could be under a threat so imminent they would require a US force presence. Exactly which of the tiny collection of countries not hosting US troops are threatening the remaining 130?

Could it be that US troops gird the globe to enforce the access of US firms and investors to the land, labor, markets and resources of others? Do “our” interests equate to Iraq’s oil, Indochina’s tin, Central Asia’s natural gas, Kosovo’s mines, the Balkan’s pipeline routes, Africa’s treasure trove of minerals and oil, and Indonesia’s sweatshops? “A lot of people forget,” remarked Alexander Haig, former Supreme Commander of NATO and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, that the presence of US troops in Europe is “the bona fide of our economic success…it keeps European markets open to us. If those troops weren’t there, those markets would probably be more difficult to access.” (2) A lot of people forget, because they were told something quite different: That US troops were stationed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion, not to put a gun to the head of Europeans to keep their markets invitingly open to US firms and investors. The obvious question, With the threat of a Soviet invasion long passed, why are US troops still there?, is rarely asked. So it doesn’t really matter that we’ve forgotten. The most blatant of Washington’s latest exercises in imperialism run amok has a similar character. It was said that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons. None were found. But US forces stay in Iraq anyway, to ensure the conquered country remains the refashioned paragon of free markets and free trade Washington’s policy makers have turned it into.

Which is to say, the emergence of US capitalism triumphant hasn’t given us peace, as promised; it has given us a bold US military prepared to wage war. And it seems to be waging war to facilitate US capital settling everywhere, nestling everywhere and establishing connections everywhere, to paraphrase a shockingly topical passage from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a document whose irrelevance was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground. Yet, today, it seems to be more relevant than ever; certainly more relevant than when a competing ideology forced the stewards of capitalism to tidy up the image of their vaunted system lest the rabble get it into their heads that they could do better. It’s said in newspapers and on TV that Washington’s wars have to do with fighting terrorism, but the documents which define the US national security strategy are long on paeans to free markets and free trade and capitalism and short on concrete measures to protect the lives of US citizens from attacks by radicalized West Asians bearing legitimate grievances against the United states. On the contrary, the strategy is a recipe for provoking terrorist attacks.

Marx and Engels: While the irrelevance of Communist Manifesto was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground, today it seems to be more relevant than ever

Bourgeois society,” to use Marx’s and Engels’ phrase, hasn’t given us prosperity either, unless by “us,” you mean the people who own and control the economy. For the bulk of humanity things are a lot worst materially than they were when communists, socialists, and nationalists kept upsetting the capitalist apple cart by bringing vast tracks of national economies under public control, and putting the public welfare ahead of the profit interests of bondholders and investors.

According to the United Nations, 54 countries are poorer today than they were in 1990, about the time Communism was declared failed, and capitalism lionized as the single sustainable model of success. More children under the age of five are dying in 14 countries, and enrollment in primary schools is down in 12. Extreme poverty remains the fate of over one billion people. And in former Soviet republics — cradle to what has been dismissed as a failed system — poverty had tripled one decade into their liberation from Communism. Seventeen countries in Eastern Europe and the countries that made up the former Soviet Union have hardly become dynamos of prosperity, which should leave anyone with an ounce of gray matter wondering by what standard success is measured; surely not by the majority’s well-being. (3)

After having been demonized for decades by a capitalist establishment bent on making Communism radioactive (along with anyone so cavalier about their standing in polite society to utter a kind word about it) it’s sometimes forgotten, if ever apprehended in the first place, how impressive Communism’s economic achievements were…and still are, considering the barren and poisoned ground in which the lone holdouts have been forced to eke out precarious existences.

Let’s start with the most reviled of the hold-outs: north Korea. The idea that north Korea is a threat to the United States is about as believable as the idea that a colony of ants is a threat to the elephant whose foot hovers three inches over its hill. North Korea hasn’t a single solider stationed outside its borders. Washington, on the other hand, has 37,000 troops deployed, on, or near, the north Korean border, 65,000 troops stationed in nearby Japan, the Seventh Fleet lurking in nearby waters, and bombers within striking distance. It has dismissed Pyongyang’s pleas to sign a nonaggression treaty, declaring bizarrely that it will not succumb to blackmail. And what has north Korea done to threaten the United States (or to blackmail the country)? It has fired up a mothballed nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons grade material, and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but only after Washington reneged on an agreement to build light water reactors and provide fuel oil shipments. And only after Washington issued a virtual declaration of war, designating north Korea part of “an axis of evil.”

Could a north Korea with one or two crude nuclear bombs pose much of a threat to the United States poised to strike with overwhelming force? Quite the other way around. Indeed, north Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons can be said to be a rational response to an overwhelming US threat. And there have been plenty of signs the threat is real.

“This is just the beginning,” a Bush administration official told the New York Times, after US and British troops marched on Baghdad. “I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and north Korea as for Iraq.” (4) The Pak Tribune cited CIA sources that revealed a “list of countries where replacement of government has been declared essential.” (5) The list included north Korea. US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, warned Pyongyang to “draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq.” (6) It has. “The DPRK (north Korea) would have already met the same miserable fate as Iraq’s had it compromised its revolutionary principle and accepted the demand raised by the imperialists and its followers for ‘nuclear inspection’ and disarmament,” declared the official daily of the ruling Korean Workers Party, Rodong Sinmun. (7) Later, the government issued this statement: “The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent.” (8)

Washington ultra-hawk, Paul Wolfowitz, anticipating similar words US Secretary of state Hilary Clinton would utter seven years later, warned, “north Korea is headed down a blind alley. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not protect it from the real threat to its security, which is the (internal) implosion brought about by the total failure of its system. Indeed the diversion of scarce resources to nuclear weapons and other military programs can only exacerbate the weakness of the (government).” (9) So what’s the choice? Head down a blind alley, or turn over the country to Washington, and the multinational corporations it represents? Who’s the blackmailer?

History has not been kind to the tiny country. The mountainous north was once the center of the peninsula’s heavy industry, the south its breadbasket. The Korean War, which saw US bombers destroy every building in the north over one story, changed that. The north was reduced to rubble. But it rebuilt, and until the 1980s, outpaced the south economically. By 1961, it was self-sufficient in agriculture. North Korean children were better vaccinated than their counterparts in the United States, according to the World Health Organization and United Nations, who commended the country for its delivery of health care. And life expectancy was higher than in the capitalist south. (10)

Then disaster struck. The socialist trading bloc collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of its major trading partners. Oil subsidies from Russia ended. And if that weren’t enough, floods and droughts ravaged crops. Famine followed. But, for a time, the country had enjoyed impressive material gains, an affirmation of what can be achieved outside the capitalist system, even where resources are diverted to defense against an unrelenting foe than remains poised on your borders to strike. Imagine what the country could have achieved without the United States breathing fire down its neck.

Cuba, in many respects, fits the same mold: Astonishing social and economic gains under a communist government, the implacable and unrelenting hostility of the United States, and some backsliding after the collapse of its major trading partners. (The United States has maintained an economic blockade for half a century.) Still, despite these challenges, Cuba is a much kinder and egalitarian place today than it was before the revolution, under the rule of the US-backed Batista regime, when the country’s economy was an appendage of that of the United States. The United States fears Cuba, journalist Seamus Milne observes, not because it is a threat to the safety of US citizens, but because it’s an example of what can be accomplished outside the US dominated capitalist model. (11 )

In 1953, the illiteracy rate in Cuba exceeded 22 percent. Today it is under one percent. Three percent of those over the age of 10 had a secondary school education. Today, almost 60 percent do. Back then, at the height of the sugar harvest, when unemployment was lowest, eight percent were jobless. Today, the unemployment rate is three percent, making Cuba one of the few countries in the world to boast full employment.

Well over 80 percent own their own homes, and pay no taxes. The remainder pays a nominal rent.

No other country has as many teachers per capita. Education is free through university. The country also provides free university educations to 1,000 Third World students every year. And classroom sizes put those of Western industrialized countries to shame.

Health care is free. And while the United States has deployed over 300,000 troops in almost 130 countries to keep markets open to US investment, Cuba has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 Third World countries to heal the sick. (12)

Infant mortality is lower than in any other Third World country and even some Western capitalist countries (it’s higher in Washington, DC.) Life expectancy is 76 years, and is expected to rise. (13) By comparison, the return of capitalism has pushed life expectancy down in former communist countries.

These gains, seldom mentioned in the United States, place the country head and shoulders above other Latin American countries firmly ensconced in the US orbit, for which Washington’s single sustainable model of success continues to deliver grinding poverty, misery, and gross inequality, but the profits necessary to keep the capitalist system afloat and the capitalist class awash in mansions, retinues of servants, stables of luxury cars, exclusive schools and private clubs.

There are elections, and, contrary to Washington’s anti-Cuba propaganda, Cubans do vote. But they don’t choose among two largely identical parties, as in the United States, where the parties, and their candidates, are almost invariably in thrall to, or are representatives of, the capitalist class. As for human rights, Cuba stands as a model of what can be achieved by way of economic and social rights, the basic rights to food, housing, clothing, health care, education and jobs, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but not recognized as human rights in the United States. (14) Washington, on the other hand, has made a fetish of civil and political liberties, which, in the case of its relations with Cuba, has everything to do with giving its agents in the country, mistakenly called “independent” journalists and “independent” librarians (they’re not independent of Washington, which bankrolls their activities), room to maneuver to organize destabilization, with the object of overthrowing the revolution and banishing economic and social rights in favor of investors’ rights. That Cuba, a poor country, has been able to guarantee the right to food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and jobs, despite trying economic circumstances and US hostility, can be seen as extraordinary, or simply what can be readily accomplished outside the strictures of capitalism. If a poor Third World country, harassed by a powerful neighbor, can deliver high quality health care and education for free, why can’t the world’s richest country do the same? The answer: Capitalism drives towards better profits, not better lives.

Ever since the US-dominated global economy has, with the collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism over 10 years ago, more boldly sought purchase everywhere, US military imperialism has run amok, wars of aggression have been started, and poor, and formerly communist, countries have become poorer. The leaders of the Western world declare capitalism to be the single sustainable model of success, but countries that rejected capitalism, and committed to egalitarianism, have done better in terms of guaranteeing economic and social rights than comparison countries, despite difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, those that have rejected egalitarianism in favor of a return to capitalism have regressed. The promises of peace and prosperity that attended Communism’s collapse were a fraud based in the self-interest of a narrow band of wealthy people in the world’s richest countries. That it is a fraud is richly evident in the failed promises and dismal record of the post-communist era.

1. “Where are the Legions? Global Deployments of US Forces,” GlobalSecurity.Org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/global-deployments.htm)
2. UPI, January 7, 2002.
3. “UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty,” World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.
4. “Pre-emption: Idea With a Lineage Whose Time Has Come,” The New York Times, March 23, 2003.
5. “Iran to be US next target: CIA report,” Pak Tribune (Online) March 24, 2003.
6. “U.S. Tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea ‘Learn from Iraq,” Reuters, April 9, 2003.
7. “North Korea vows to make no concessions,” Agence France-Presse, March 29, 2003.
8. “Administration Divided Over North Korea,” The New York Times, April 21, 2003.
9. “Wolfowitz Visits US Military Base In Korean Buffer Zone,” AFP, June 1, 2003.
10. “Peace, the real resolution to famine in North Korea, ZNet, July 23, 2003.
11. “Why the US fears Cuba,” The Guardian, July 31, 2003.
12. Ibid.
13. Speech by Fidel Castro on the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, July 26, 2003.
14. Karen Lee Wald, “Democracy, Cuba-Style,” Canadian Dimension, July/August, 2003.

Originally written in August 2003, revised and updated May 2010.

Polls show a spectre is haunting Europe…and much of the rest of the world

By Stephen Gowans

Just two months before the West celebrated the 20th anniversary of the events that would lead to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a polling organization funded by a tax-exempt trust established by the founder of the Sun Oil company, conducted a poll that showed that Eastern Europeans are decidedly gloomy about their lives under capitalist democracy.

Available from Baraka Books http://www.barakabooks.com/catalogue/washingtons-long-war-on-syria/
While Western media and politicians spoke glowingly of Eastern Europeans embracing freedom and regular multi-party elections, Russians, Poles, Bulgarians, Ukrainians and other residents of former communist states complained to the Pew pollsters about being worse off today than under communism, about their dissatisfaction with capitalist democracy, and about the transition from communism to capitalism benefiting business owners and politicians, not ordinary people.

The poll revealed that what Eastern Europeans really think about life under capitalism is a far cry from the picture painted by US and British journalists, who, in their celebration of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, mostly presented the events of 1989 to 1991 through the eyes of dissidents and business owners rather than ordinary people. “Our voice, the voice of those whose lives were improved by communism,” remarked Zsuzsanna Clark, who has written a book about her life growing up in communist Hungary, “is seldom heard when it comes to discussions of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, the accounts we hear in the West are nearly always from the perspectives of wealthy émigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind.” [1]

The poll of 14,760 Eastern Europeans was conducted in August and September in eight countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. [2]

According to the poll, one-half of Eastern Europeans say they’re worse off today than they were under communism. Only one-third say they’re better off. [3]

The chief beneficiaries of the collapse of communism, according to eight of 10, have been business owners. More than 90 percent say politicians have also benefited. But less than one-quarter say ordinary people have reaped any advantage.

Other findings:

• Only one-third of Eastern Europeans believe their country is run for the benefit of all people.

• Only one in three is satisfied with capitalist democracy.

• Only one-quarter believes that most elected officials care what ordinary people think.

The failure of Eastern Europeans to laud their retrogression from full employment and freedom from economic insecurity under communism to high rates of unemployment and the tyranny of the market under capitalism was chalked up to cultural retardation in one New York Times article. “We have created democratic institutions, but we are missing the democratic-political culture to make them effective,” a Bulgarian academic explained. [4]

Rather than being a neutral observer, the Pew Global Attitudes Project is an integral part of a public relations program of imbuing Eastern Europeans with the right culture – a public relations project that has failed miserably.

Funded by the wealth sweated out of oil industry labor by Sun Oil Company founder, Joseph Pew, the Pew Charitable Trust channels money to organizations and individuals that work toward propping up, legitimizing and disseminating capitalist ideology and weakening capitalism’s opponents.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project is part of this wider project. It monitors global attitudes, as an early warning system, to detect growing dissatisfaction with capitalism so that defensive measures can be taken to pre-empt possible challenges to the capitalist state. It also sets benchmarks, to monitor progress in inculcating global populations with attitudes favorable to capitalism.

What is likely to trouble the poll’s sponsors is the continued commitment of Eastern Europeans to the values of solidarity and welfare that characterized communism. Two-thirds of the residents of the former Warsaw Pact countries continue to cleave to one of the defining values of communism: that it’s more important that the state play an active role in guaranteeing that nobody is in need than it is for everyone to be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state.

If the Pew poll points to the tenacity of pro-socialist values in Eastern Europe, a GlobeScan poll conducted in 27 countries, representing 70 percent of the world’s population, shows that most people in the world are social democrats, while a sizeable number are anti-capitalist. [5]

One-half of the world’s population living in areas in which capitalism is the dominant economic system hold social democratic views, believing that capitalism’s problems can be solved through reforms and stricter regulation, while one in five are radicals, believing capitalism is fatally flawed and a new economic system is required. The remainder, 30 percent, hold laissez-faire capitalist views, believing capitalism works well and should not be subject to reforms and government oversight. [6]

GlobeScan is a strategic issues management firm that provides public relations advice to governments and transnational corporations. To survey global attitudes toward capitalism, GlobeScan partnered with the Program on International Policy Attitudes, an organization funded by the Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller and other capitalist foundations, which largely exist to burnish the reputation of capitalism. GlobeScan also does work for the World Bank and World Trade Organization.

The poll found that a clear majority of the world’s population favors policies traditionally associated with socialism, including public ownership of major industries, redistribution of wealth, and an active role for governments in regulating businesses.

According to the poll, 62 percent of adults living in the world’s capitalist areas would like governments to play some role in owning or controlling major industries, while 44 percent believe governments should play an even more active role than they play today.

At the same time, three-quarters want governments to distribute wealth more evenly and 60 percent favor governments being more active in redistributing income.

Seven of 10 of the 29,000 people polled by GlobeScan say governments should play at least as much of a role in regulating businesses as they play today, while 55 percent believe governments should play an even stronger role.

The poll, which sampled opinion in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, revealed that the greatest percentage of radicals is in France, where 43 percent believe capitalism should be replaced by a different system. (Three-quarters of French citizens, according to the Pew poll, believe that government providing for the basic needs of all is more important than ensuring individuals can pursue personal goals without government interference.) By contrast, Japan, Germany and the United States have the smallest percentage of radicals. Only 10 percent in these countries believe capitalism is fatally flawed and needs to be replaced.

On balance, the GlobeScan survey of world opinion shows that in the world’s capitalist areas, a majority remains unwilling to write capitalism off as fatally flawed, but recognizes the system’s problems are severe enough to warrant public ownership, income redistribution and regulatory measures as correctives. While this may appear to be a pessimistic finding to those who favour a clear break with capitalism, public ownership, regulation of enterprises (through central planning) and a sharp reduction in income inequality were central planks of the economic policies of countries that broke decisively with capitalism after 1917 and World War II. Despite a reluctance to reject capitalism entirely, the world’s majority favors decidedly socialist policies.

Taken together, the two polls show that the political attitudes of the world’s population reflect the majority’s position in the world economy as sellers of their own labor, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the labor market and faced by growing economic insecurity. Eastern Europeans recognize that capitalist democracy benefits business owners and politicians, not ordinary people, and that elected officials are not responsive to the majority. They are also dissatisfied with capitalist democracy and believe that life was better under communism. A majority of the world’s population favours a traditional socialist policy of government ownership and control of the commanding heights of the economy and calls for governments to play more of a role in distributing wealth evenly, an expression of a commitment to egalitarian values. And while half of the world’s population believes that capitalism’s flaws are remediable, a large majority, 70 percent, recognizes that capitalism is a flawed system.

The polls suggest that most people are socialists, whether they recognize themselves as such, or would use the word to describe their core political values. That they routinely vote for parties of private property is not indicative of the majority’s political orientation. A substantial number of people don’t vote, recognizing, as Eastern Europeans do, that elected officials do not work on behalf of the interests of ordinary people and that the state operates in the interests of business owners. Those who do vote, often vote against parties and policies they don’t want, finding no parties that advocate policies they do want, settling for the lesser evil. Pro-capitalist parties command a virtual monopoly on the resources required to run the marketing campaigns necessary to win elections, meaning they are often the only choice voters are aware of. And many people shy away from parties that advocate anti-capitalist positions for fear that if the parties come to power they will provoke businesses to move elsewhere or curtail investment, thereby touching off an economic crisis, leading to the loss of their jobs.

The polls underscore that the goal for those who advocate a radical solution to capitalism’s problems is to show that the widely-favoured policies of public ownership, income redistribution and tighter regulation, without a wholesale rejection of capitalism, cannot bring about the intended benefits in any lasting way.

The Pew poll also shows that history’s lone top-to-bottom alternative to capitalism, the socialist states of Eastern Europe, were not rejected holus-bolus by the people who lived in them, and that the popular reaction to the successor capitalist regimes does not warrant the celebratory retrospectives on the “fall of the Berlin Wall” and the collapse of communism favoured by the Western media.

Notes

1. Zsuzsanna Clark, “Oppressive and grey? No, growing up under communism was the happiest time of my life,” The Mail on Sunday (UK), October 17, 2009.

2. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Two decades after the Wall’s fall: End of Communism cheered but now with more reservations,” November 2, 2009. http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/267.pdf

3. All figures represent averages weighted by country population.

4. Matthew Brunwasser, “Bulgaria still stuck in trauma of transition,” The New York Times, November 11, 2009.

5. PIPA and GLobeScan, “Wide Dissatisfaction with Capitalism — Twenty Years after Fall of Berlin Wall,” November 9, 2009, http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/bbc2009_berlin_wall/bbc09_berlin_wall_release.pdf

6. All figures represent averages weighted by country population.

Democracy, East Germany and the Berlin Wall

The GDR was more democratic, in the original and substantive sense of the word, than eastern Germany was before 1949 and than the former East Germany has become since the Berlin Wall was opened in 1989. It was also more democratic in this original sense than its neighbor, West Germany. While it played a role in the GDR’s eventual demise, the Berlin Wall was at the time a necessary defensive measure to protect a substantively democratic society from being undermined by a hostile neighbor bent on annexing it.

By Stephen Gowans

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While East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) wasn’t a ‘workers’ paradise’, it was in many respects a highly attractive model that was responsive to the basic needs of the mass of people and therefore was democratic in the substantive and original sense of the word. It offered generous pensions, guaranteed employment, equality of the sexes and substantial wage equality, free healthcare and education, and a growing array of other free and virtually free goods and services. It was poorer than its West German neighbor, the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG, but it started at a lower level of economic development and was forced to bear the burden of indemnifying the Soviet Union for the massive losses Germany inflicted upon the USSR in World War II. These conditions were largely responsible for the less attractive aspects of life in the GDR: lower pay, longer hours, and fewer and poorer consumer goods compared to West Germany, and restrictions on travel to the West. When the Berlin Wall was open in 1989, a majority of the GDR’s citizens remained committed to the socialist basis of their society and wished to retain it. [1] It wasn’t the country’s central planning and public ownership they rebelled against. These things produced what was best about the country. And while Cold War propaganda located East Germany well outside the ‘free world,’ political repression and the Stasi, the East German state security service, weren’t at the root of East Germans’ rebellion either. Ultimately, what the citizens of the GDR rebelled against was their comparative poverty. But this had nothing to do with socialism. East Germans were poorer than West Germans even before the Western powers divided Germany in the late 1940s, and remain poorer today. A capitalist East Germany, forced to start at a lower level of economic development and to disgorge war reparation payments to the USSR, would not have become the social welfare consumer society West Germany became and East Germans aspired after, but would have been at least as worse off as the GDR was, and probably much worse off, and without the socialist attractions of economic security and greater equality. Moreover, without the need to compete against an ideological rival, it’s doubtful the West German ruling class would have been under as much pressure to make concessions on wages and benefits. West Germans, then, owed many of their social welfare gains to the fact their neighbour to the east was socialist and not capitalist.

The Western powers divide Germany

While the distortions of Cold War history would lead one to believe it was the Soviets who divided Germany, the Western powers were the true authors of Germany’s division. The Allies agreed at the February 1945 Yalta conference that while Germany would be partitioned into British, US and Soviet occupation zones, the defeated Germany would be administered jointly. [2] The hope of the Soviets, who had been invaded by Germany in both first and second world wars, was for a united, disarmed and neutral Germany. The Soviet’s goals were two-fold: First, Germany would be demilitarized, so that it could not launch a third war of aggression against the Soviet Union. Second, it would pay reparations for the massive damages it inflicted upon the USSR, calculated after the war to exceed $100 billion. [3]

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Courtesy of Brendan Stone

The Western powers, however, had other plans. The United States wanted to revive Germany economically to ensure it would be available as a rich market capable of absorbing US exports and capital investment. The United States had remained on the sidelines through a good part of the war, largely avoiding the damage that ruined its rivals, while at the same time acting as armorer to the Allies. At the end of the war, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the USSR lay in ruins, while the US ruling class was bursting at the seams with war industry profits. The prospects for the post-war US economy, however, and hence for the industrialists, bankers and investors who dominated the country’s political decision-making, were dim unless new life could be breathed into collapsed foreign markets, which would be needed to absorb US exports and capital. An economically revived Germany was therefore an important part of the plan to secure the United States’ economic future. The idea of a Germany forced to pour out massive reparation payments to the USSR was intolerable to US policy makers: it would militate against the transformation of Germany into a sphere of profit-making for US capital, and would underwrite the rebuilding of an ideological competitor.

The United States intended to make post-war life as difficult as possible for the Soviet Union. There were a number of reasons for this, not least to prevent the USSR from becoming a model for other countries. Already, socialism had eliminated the United States’ access to markets and spheres of investment in one-sixth of the earth’s territory. The US ruling class didn’t want the USSR to provide inspiration and material aid to other countries to follow the same path. The lead role of communists in the resistance movements in Europe, “the success of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany,” and “the success of the Soviet Union in industrializing and modernizing,” [4] had greatly raised the prestige of the USSR and enhanced the popularity of communism. Unless measures were taken to check the USSR’s growing popularity, socialism would continue to advance and the area open to US exports and investment would continue to contract. A Germany paying reparations to the Soviets was clearly at odds with the goals of reviving Germany and holding the Soviet Union in check. What’s more, while the Soviets wanted Germany to be permanently disarmed as a safeguard against German revanchism, the United States recognized that a militarized Germany under US domination could play a central role in undermining the USSR.

The division of Germany began in 1946, when the French decided to administer their zone separately. [5] Soon, the Western powers merged their three zones into a single economic unit and announced they would no longer pay reparations to the Soviet Union. The burden would have to be borne by the Soviet occupation zone alone, which was smaller and less industrialized, and therefore less able to offer compensation.

In 1949, the informal division of Germany was formalized with the proclamation by the Western powers of a separate West German state, the FRG. The new state would be based on a constitution written by Washington and imposed on West Germans, without their ratification. (The GDR’s constitution, by contrast, was ratified by East Germans.) In 1954, West Germany was integrated into a new anti-Soviet military alliance, NATO, which, in its objectives, aped the earlier anti-Comintern pact of the Axis powers. The goal of the anti-Comintern pact was to oppose the Soviet Union and world communism. NATO, with a militarized West Germany, would take over from where the Axis left off.

The GDR was founded in 1949, only after the Western powers created the FRG. The Soviets had no interest in transforming the Soviet occupation zone into a separate state and complained bitterly about the Western powers’ division of Germany. Moscow wanted Germany to remain unified, but demilitarized and neutral and committed to paying war reparations to help the USSR get back on its feet. As late as 1954, the Soviets offered to dissolve the GDR in favour of free elections under international supervision, leading to the creation of a unified, unaligned, Germany. This, however, clashed with the Western powers’ plan of evading Germany’s responsibility for paying war reparations and of integrating West Germany into the new anti-Soviet, anti-communist military alliance. The proposal was, accordingly, rejected. George Kennan, the architect of the US policy of ‘containing’ (read undermining) the Soviet Union, remarked: “The trend of our thinking means that we do not want to see Germany reunified at this time, and that there are no conditions on which we would really find such a solution satisfactory.” [6]

This placed the anti-fascist working class leadership of the GDR in a difficult position. The GDR comprised only one-third of German territory and had a population of 17 million. By comparison, the FRG comprised 63 million people and made up two-thirds of German territory. [7] Less industrialized than the West, the new GDR started out poorer than its new capitalist rival. Per capita income was about 27 percent lower than in the West. [8] Much of the militant section of the working class, which would have ardently supported a socialist state, had been liquidated by the Nazis. The burden of paying war reparations to the Soviets now had to be borne solely by the GDR. And West Germany ceaselessly harassed and sabotaged its neighbor, refusing to recognize it as a sovereign state, regarding it instead as its own territory temporarily under Soviet occupation. [9] Repeatedly, West Germany proclaimed that its official policy was the annexation of its neighbor to the east.

The GDR’s leaders faced still other challenges. Compared to the West, East Germany suffered greater losses in the war. [10] The US Army stripped the East of its scientists, technicians and technical know-how, kidnapping “thousands of managers, engineers, and all sorts of experts, as well as the best scientists – the brains of Germany’s East – from their factories, universities, and homes in Saxony and Thuringia in order to put them to work to the advantage of the Americans in the Western zone – or simply to have them waste away there.” [11]

As Pauwels explains,

“During the last weeks of the hostilities the Americans themselves had occupied a considerable part of the Soviet zone, namely Thuringia and much of Saxony. When they pulled out at the end of June, 1945, they brought back to the West more than 10,000 railway cars full of the newest and best equipment, patents, blueprints, and so on from the firm Carl Zeiss in Jena and the local plants of other top enterprises such as Siemens, Telefunken, BMW, Krupp, Junkers, and IG-Farben. This East German war booty included plunder from the Nazi V-2 factory in Nordhausen: not only the rockets, but also technical documents with an estimated value of 400 to 500 million dollars, as well as approximately 1,200 captured German experts in rocket technology, one of whom being the notorious Wernher von Braun.” [12]

The Allies agreed at Yalta that a post-war Germany would pay the Soviet Union $10 billion in compensation for the damages inflicted on the USSR during the war. This was a paltry sum compared to the more realistic estimate of $128 billion arrived at after the war. And yet the Soviets were short changed on even this meagre sum. The USSR received no more than $5.1 billion from the two German states, most of it from the GDR. The Soviets took $4.5 billion out of East Germany, carting away whole factories and railways, while the larger and richer FRG paid a miserable $600 million. The effect was the virtual deindustrialization of the East. [13] In the end, the GDR would compensate both the United States (which suffered virtually no damage in World War II) through the loss of its scientists, technicians, blue-prints, patents and so on, and the Soviet Union (which suffered immense losses and deserved to be compensated), through the loss of its factories and railways. Moreover, the United States offered substantial aid to West Germany to help it rebuild, while the poorer Soviet Union, which had been devastated by the German invasion, lacked the resources to invest in the GDR. [14] The West was rebuilt; the East stripped bare.

The GDR’s democratic achievements

Despite the many burdens it faced, the GDR managed to build a standard of living higher than that of the USSR “and that of millions of inhabitants of the American ghettoes, of countless poor white Americans, and of the population of most Third World countries that have been integrated willy-nilly with the international capitalist world system.” [15]

Over 90 percent of the GDR’s productive assets were owned by the country’s citizens collectively, while in West Germany productive assets remained privately owned, concentrated in a few hands. [16] Because the GDR’s economy was almost entirely publicly owned and the leadership was socialist, the economic surplus that people produced on the job went into a social fund to make the lives of everyone better rather than into the pockets of shareholders, bondholders, landowners and bankers. [17] Out of the social fund came subsidies for food, clothing, rent, public transportation, as well as cultural, social and recreational activities. Wages weren’t as high as in the West, but a growing number of essential goods and services were free or virtually free. Rents, for example, were very low. As a consequence, there were no evictions and there was no homelessness. Education was free through university, and university students received stipends to cover living expenses. Healthcare was also free. Childcare was highly subsidized.

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Differences in income levels were narrow, with higher wages paid to those working in particularly strenuous or dangerous occupations. Full gender equality was mandated by law and men and women were paid equally for the same work, long before gender equality was taken up as an issue in the West. What’s more, everyone had a right to a job. There was no unemployment in the GDR.

Rather than supporting systems of oppression and exploitation, as the advanced capitalist countries did in Africa, Latin America and Asia, the GDR assisted the people of the global South in their struggles against colonialism. Doctors were dispatched to Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola, and students from many Third World countries were trained and educated in the GDR at the GDR’s expense.

Even the Wall Street Journal recognized the GDR’s achievements. In February, 1989, just months before the opening of the Berlin Wall, the US ruling class’s principal daily newspaper announced that the GDR “has no debt problem. The 17 million East Germans earn 30 percent more than their next richest partners, the Czechoslovaks, and not much less than the English. East Germans build 32-bit mini-computers and a socialist ‘Walkman’ and the only queue in East Berlin forms at the opera.” [18]

The downside was that compared to West Germany, wages were lower, hours of work were longer, and there were fewer consumer goods. Also, consumer goods tended to be inferior compared to those available in West Germany. And there were travel restrictions. Skilled workers were prevented from travelling to the West. But at the same time, vacations were subsidized, and East Germans could travel throughout the socialist bloc.

Greater efficiencies

West Germany’s comparative wealth offered many advantages in its ideological battle with socialism. For one, the wealth differential could be attributed deceptively to the merits of capitalism versus socialism. East Germany was poorer, it was said, not because it unfairly bore the brunt of indemnifying the Soviets for their war losses, and not because it started on a lower rung, but because public ownership and central planning were inherently inefficient. The truth of the matter, however, was that East German socialism was more efficient than West German capitalism, producing faster growth rates, and was more responsive to the basic needs of its population. “East Germany’s national income grew in real terms about two percent faster annually that the West German economy between 1961 and 1989.” [19]

The GDR was also less repressive politically. Following in the footsteps of Hitler, West Germany banned the Communist Party in the 1950s, and close tabs were kept by West Germany’s own secret police on anyone openly expressing Marxist-Leninist views. Marxist-Leninists were barred from working in the public service and frequently lost private sector jobs owing to their political views. In the GDR, by contrast, those who expressed views at odds with the dominant Marxist-Leninist ideology did not lose their jobs, and were not cut off from the state’s generous social supports, though they too were monitored by the GDR’s state police. The penalty for dissenting from the dominant political ideology in the West (loss of income) was more severe than in the East. [20]

The claim that the GDR’s socialism was less efficient than West Germany’s capitalism was predicated on the disparity in wealth between the two countries, but the roots of the disparity were external to the two countries’ respective systems of ownership, and the disparity existed prior to 1949 (at which point GDP per capita was about 43 percent higher in the West) and continued to exist after 1989 (when unemployment – once virtually eliminated — soared and remains today double what it is in the former West Germany.) Over the four decades of its existence, East German socialism attenuated the disparity, bringing the GDR closer to West Germany’s GDP per capita. Significantly, “real economic growth in all of Eastern Europe under communism was estimated to be higher than in Western Europe under capitalism (as well as higher than that in the USA) even in communism’s final decade (the 1980s).” After the opening of the Berlin Wall, with capitalism restored, “real economic output fell by over 30 percent in Eastern Europe as a whole in the 1990s.” [21]

But the GDR’s faster growth rates from 1961 to 1989 tell only part of the story. It’s possible for GDP to grow rapidly, with few of the benefits reaching the bulk of the population. The United States spends more on healthcare as a percentage of its GDP than all other countries, but US life expectancy and infant mortality results are worse than in many other countries which spend less (but have more efficient public health insurance or socialized systems.) This is due to the reality that healthcare is unequally distributed in the United States, with the wealthy in a position to buy the best healthcare in the world while tens of millions of low-income US citizens can afford no or only inadequate healthcare. By contrast, in most advanced capitalist countries everyone has access to basic (though typically not comprehensive) healthcare. In socialist Cuba, comprehensive healthcare is free to all. What’s important, then, is not only how much wealth (or healthcare) a society creates, but also how a society’s wealth (or healthcare) is distributed. Wealth was far more evenly distributed in socialist countries than it was in capitalist countries. The mean Gini coefficient – a measure of income equality which runs from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality) – was 0.24 for socialist countries in 1970 compared to 0.48 for capitalist countries. [22]

Socialist countries also fared better at meeting their citizens’ basic needs. Compared to all capitalist countries, socialist countries had higher life expectancies, lower levels of infant mortality, and higher levels of literacy. However, the comparison of all socialist countries with all capitalist countries is unfair, because the group of capitalist countries comprises many more countries unable to effectively meet the basic needs of their populations owing to their low level of economic development. While capitalism is often associated with the world’s richest countries, the world’s poorest countries are also capitalist. Desperately poor Haiti, for example, is a capitalist country, while neighboring Cuba, richer and vastly more responsive to the needs of its citizens, is socialist. We would expect socialist countries to have done a better job at meeting the basic needs of their citizens, because they were richer, on average, than all capitalist countries together. But the conclusion still stands if socialist countries are compared with capitalist countries at the same level of economic development; that is, socialist countries did a better job of meeting their citizens’ basic needs compared to capitalist countries in the same income range. Even when comparing socialist countries to the richest capitalist countries, the socialist countries fared well, meeting their citizens’ basic needs as well as advanced capitalist countries met the needs of their citizens, despite the socialist countries’ lower level of economic development and fewer resources. [23] In terms of meeting basic needs, then, socialism was more efficient: it did more with less.

Why were socialist countries, like the GDR, more efficient? First, socialist societies were committed to improving the living standards of the mass of people as their first aim (whereas capitalist countries are organized around profit-maximization as their principle goal – a goal linked to a minority that owns capital and land and derives its income from profits, rent and interest, that is, the exploitation of other people’s labor, rather than wages.) Secondly, the economic surplus the citizens of socialist countries produced was channelled into making life better for everyone (whereas in capitalist countries the economic surplus goes straight to shareholders, bondholders, landowners and bankers.) This made socialism more democratic than capitalism in three ways:

• It was more equal. (Capitalism, by contrast, produces inequality.)

• It worked toward improving as much as possible the lot of the classes which have no other means of existence but the labor of their hands or brains and which comprise the vast majority of people. (Capitalist societies, on the other hand, defend and promote the interests of the minority that owns capital.)

• It guaranteed economic and social rights. (By comparison, capitalist societies emphasize political and civil liberties, i.e., protections against the majority using its greater numbers to encroach upon the privileges of the minority that owns and controls the economy.)

As will be discussed below, even when it came to political (as distinct from social and economic) democracy, the differences between East and West Germany were more illusory than real.

Stanching the outward migration of skilled workers

Despite the many advantages the GDR offered, it remained less affluent throughout its four decades compared to its capitalist neighbor to the west. For many “the lure of higher salaries and business opportunities in the West remained strong.” [24] As a result, in its first decade, East Germany’s population shrunk by 10 percent. [25] And while higher wages proved to be an irresistible temptation to East Germans who stressed personal aggrandizement over egalitarian values and social security, the FRG – keen to weaken the GDR – did much to sweeten the pot, offering economic inducements to skilled East Germans to move west. Working-age, but not retired, East Germans were offered interest-free loans, access to scarce apartments, immediate citizenship and compensation for property left behind, to relocate to the West. [26]

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Courtesy of Brendan Stone

By 1961, the East German government decided that defensive measures needed to be taken, otherwise its population would be depleted of people with important skills vital to building a prosperous society. East German citizens would be barred from entering West Germany without special permission, while West Germans would be prevented from freely entering the GDR. The latter restriction was needed to break up black market currency trading, and to inhibit espionage and sabotage carried out by West German agents. [27] Walls, fences, minefields and other barriers were deployed along the length of the East’s border with the West. Many of the obstacles had existed for years, but until 1961, Berlin – partitioned between the West and East – remained free of physical barriers. The Berlin Wall – the GDR leadership’s solution to the problems of population depletion and Western sabotage and espionage — went up on August 13, 1961. [28]

From 1961 to 1989, 756 East German escapees, an average of 30 per year, were either shot, drown, blown apart by mines or committed suicide after being captured. By comparison, hundreds of Mexicans die every year trying to escape poor Mexico into the far wealthier United States. [29] Approximately 50,000 East Germans were captured trying to cross the border into West Germany from 1961 to 1989. Those who were caught served prison sentences of one year. [30]

Over time, the GDR gradually relaxed its border controls, allowing working-age East Germans to visit the West if there was little risk of their not returning. While in the 1960s, only retirees over the age of 65 were permitted to travel to the West, by the 1980s, East Germans 50 years of age or older were allowed to cross the border. Those with relatives in the FRG were also allowed to visit. By 1987, close to 1.3 million working-age East Germans were permitted to travel to West Germany. Virtually all of them – over 99 percent – returned. [31]

However, not all East Germans were granted the right to cross the border. In 1987, 300,000 requests were turned down. East Germans only received permission after being cleared by the GDR’s state security service, the Stasi. One of the effects of loosening the border restrictions was to swell the Stasi’s ranks, in order to handle the increase in applications for visits to the West. [32]

Pauwels reminds us that,

“A hypothetical capitalist East Germany would likewise have also had to build a wall in order to prevent its population from seeking salvation in another, more prosperous Germany. Incidentally, people have fled and continue to flee, to richer countries also from poor capitalist countries. However, the numerous black refugees from extremely poor Haiti, for example, have never enjoyed the same kind of sympathy in the United States and elsewhere in the world that was bestowed so generously on refugees from the GDR during the Cold War…And should the Mexican government decide to build a ‘Berlin Wall’ along the Rio Grande in order to prevent their people from escaping to El Norte, Washington would certainly not condemn such an initiative the way it used to condemn the infamous East Berlin construction project.” [33]

GDR sets standards for working class in FRG…and abroad

Despite its comparative poverty, the GDR furnished its citizens with generous pensions, free healthcare and education, inexpensive vacations, virtually free childcare and public transportation, and paid maternity leave, as fundamental rights. Even so, East Germany’s standard of living continued to lag behind that of the upper sections of the working class in the West. The comparative paucity and lower quality of consumer goods, and lower wages, were the product of a multitude of factors that conspired against the East German economy: its lower starting point; the need to invest in heavy industry at the expense of light industry; blockade and sanctions imposed by the West; the furnishing of aid to national liberation movements in the global South (which benefited the South more than it did the GDR. By comparison, aid flows from Western countries were designed to profit Western corporations, banks and investors.) What East Germany lacked in consumer goods and wages, it made up for in economic security. The regular economic crises of capitalist economies, with their rampant underemployment and joblessness, escalating poverty and growing homelessness, were absent in the GDR.

The greater security of life for East Germans presented a challenge to the advanced capitalist countries. Intent on demonstrating that capitalism was superior to socialism, governments and businesses in the West were forced to meet the standards set by the socialist countries to secure the hearts and minds of their own working class. Generous social insurance, provisions against lay-offs and representation on industrial councils were conceded to West German workers. [34] But these were revocable concessions, not the inevitable rewards of capitalism.

East Germany’s robust social wage acted in much the same way strong unions do in forcing non-unionized plants to provide wages and benefits to match union standards. [35] In the 1970s, Canada’s unionized Stelco steel mill at Hamilton, Ontario set the standard for the neighboring non-unionized Dofasco plant. What the Stelco workers won through collective bargaining, the non-unionized Dofasco workers received as a sop to keep the union out. But once the union goes, the motivation to pay union wages and provide union benefits disappears. Likewise, with the demise of East Germany and the socialist bloc, the need to provide a robust social safety net in the advanced capitalist countries to secure the loyalty of the working class no longer existed. Hence, the GDR not only furnished its own citizens with economic security, but indirectly forced the advanced capitalist countries to make concessions to their own workers. The demise of the GDR therefore not only hurt Ossis (East Germans), depriving them of economic security, but also hurt the working populations of the advanced capitalist countries, whose social programs were the spill-over product of capitalism’s ideological battle with socialism. It is no accident that the claw back of reforms and concessions granted by capitalist ruling classes during the Cold War has accelerated since the opening of the Berlin Wall.

The collapse of the GDR and the socialist bloc has proved injurious to the interests of Western working populations in another way, as well. From the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the territory available to capitalist exploitation steadily diminished. This limited the degree of wage competition within the capitalist global labor force to a degree that wouldn’t have been true had the forces of socialism and national liberation not steadily advanced through the twentieth century. The counter-revolution in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and China’s opening to foreign investment, ushered in a rapid expansion worldwide in the number of people vying for jobs. North American and Western European workers didn’t compete for jobs with workers in Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Russia in 1970. They do today. The outcome of the rapid expansion of the pool of wage-labor worldwide for workers in the advanced capitalist countries has been a reduction in real wages and explosive growth in the number of permanent lay-offs as competition for jobs escalates. The demise of socialism in Eastern Europe (and China’s taking the capitalist road) has had very real – and unfavourable – consequences for working people in the West.

Going backward

Since the opening of the Berlin Wall and the annexation of the GDR by the FRG in 1990, the former East Germany has been transformed from a rapidly industrializing country where everyone was guaranteed a job and access to a growing array of free and nearly free goods and services, to a de-industrialized backwater teeming with the unemployed where the population is being hollowed out by migration to the wealthier West. “The easterners,” a New York Times article remarked in 2005, “are notoriously unhappy.” Why? “Because life is less secure than it used to be under Communism.” [36]

During the Cold War East Germans who risked their lives to breach the Berlin War were depicted as refugees from political repression. But their escape into the wealthier West had little to do with flight from political repression and much to do with being attracted to a higher standard of living. Today Ossis stream out of the East, just as they did before the Berlin Wall sprang up in 1961. More than one million people have migrated from the former East Germany to the West since 1989. But these days, economic migrants aren’t swapping modestly-paid jobs, longer hours and fewer and poorer consumer goods in the East for higher paying jobs, shorter hours and more and better consumer goods in the West. They’re leaving because they can’t find work. The real unemployment rate, taking into account workers forced into early retirement or into the holding pattern of job re-training schemes, reaches as high as 50 percent in some parts of the former East Germany. [37] And the official unemployment rate is twice as high in the East as it is in the West. Erich Quaschnuk, a retired railroad worker, acknowledges that “the joy back then when the Berlin Wall fell was real,” but quickly adds, “the promise of blooming landscapes never appeared.” [38]

Twenty years after the opening of the Berlin Wall, one-half of people living in the former East Germany say there was more good than bad about the GDR, and that life was happier and better. Some Ossis go so far as to say they “were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down” while others thank God they were able to live in the GDR. Still others describe the unified Germany as a “slave state” and a “dictatorship of capital,” and reject Germany for “being too capitalist or dictatorial, and certainly not democratic.” [39]

Much as the GDR was faulted for being less democratic politically than the FRG, the FRG’s claim to being more democratic politically is shaky at best.

“East Germany…permitted voters to cast secret ballots and always had more than one candidate for each government position. Although election results typically resulted in over 99 percent of all votes being for candidates of parties that did not favour revolutionary changes in the East German system (just as West German election results generally resulted in over 99 percent of the people voting for non-revolutionary West German capitalist parties), it was always possible to change the East German system from within the established political parties (including the communist party), as those parties were open to all and encouraged participation in the political process. The ability to change the East German system from within is best illustrated by the East German leader who opened up the Berlin Wall and initiated many political reforms in less than two months in power.” [40]

West Germany outlawed many anti-capitalist political parties and organizations, including, in the 1950s, the popular Communist Party, as Hitler did in the 1930s. (On the other side of the Berlin Wall, no party that aimed to reverse socialism or withdraw from the Warsaw Pact was allowed.) The West German parties tended to be pro-capitalist, and those that weren’t didn’t have access to the resources the wealthy patrons of the mainstream political parties could provide to run the high-profile marketing campaigns that were needed to command significant support in elections. What’s more, West Germans were dissuaded from voting for anti-establishment parties, for fear the victory of a party with a socialist platform would be met by capital strike or flight, and therefore the loss of their jobs. The overwhelming support for pro-capitalist parties, then, rested on two foundations: The pro-capitalist parties uniquely commanded the resources to build messages with mass appeal and which could be broadcast with sufficient volume to reach a mass audience, and the threat of capital strike and capital flight disciplined working class voters to support pro-business parties.

Conclusion

No one would have built a Berlin Wall if they didn’t have to. But in 1961, with the GDR being drained of its working population by a West Germany that had skipped out on its obligations to indemnify the Soviet Union for the losses the Nazis had inflicted upon it in World War II, there were few options, apart from surrender. The Berlin Wall was, without question, regrettable, but it was at the same time a necessary defensive measure. If the anti-fascist, working class leadership of the GDR was to have any hope of building a mass society that was responsive to the basic needs of the working class and which channelled its economic surplus into improving the living conditions and economic security of all, drastic measures would have to be taken; otherwise, the experiment in German democracy — that of building a state that operated on behalf of the mass of people, rather than a minority of shareholders, bondholders, landowners and bankers — would have to be abandoned. And yet, by the history of drastic measures, this was hardly drastic. Wars weren’t waged, populations weren’t expelled, mass executions weren’t carried out. Instead, people of working-age were prevented from resettling in the West.

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Courtesy of Brendan Stone

The abridgment of mobility rights was hardly unique to revolutionary situations. While the needs of Cold War propaganda pressed Washington to howl indignantly over the GDR’s measures to stanch the flow of its working-age population to the West, the restriction of mobility rights had not been unknown in the United States’ own revolution, where the ‘freedoms’ of dissidents and people of uncertain loyalty had been freely revoked. “During the American Revolution…those who wished to cross into British territory had to obtain a pass from the various State governments or military commanders. Generally, a pass was granted only to individuals of known and acceptable ‘character and views’ and after their promise neither to inform or otherwise to act to the prejudice of the United States. Passes, even for those whose loyalty was guaranteed, were generally difficult to acquire.” [41]

Was the GDR worth defending? Is its demise to be regretted? Unquestionably. The GDR was a mass society that channelled the surplus of the labor of all into the betterment of the conditions of all, rather than into the pockets of the few. It offered its citizens an expanding array of free and virtually free goods and services, was more equal than capitalist countries, and met its citizens’ basic needs better than did capitalist countries at the same level of economic development. Indeed, it met basic needs as well as richer countries did, with fewer resources, in the same way Cuba today meets the basic healthcare needs of all its citizens better than the vastly wealthier United States meets (or rather fails to meet) those of tens of millions of its own citizens. And while the GDR was poorer than West Germany and many other advanced capitalist countries, its comparative poverty was not the consequence of the country’s public ownership and central planning, but of a lower starting point and the burden of having to help the Soviet Union rebuild after the massive devastation Germany inflicted upon it in World War II. Far from being inefficient, public ownership and central planning turned the eastern part of Germany into a rapidly industrializing country which grew faster economically than its West German neighbor and shared the benefits of its growth more evenly. In the East, the economy existed to serve the people. In the West, the people existed to serve the minority that owned and controlled the economy. Limiting mobility rights, just as they have been limited in other revolutions, was a small price to pay to build, not what anyone would be so naïve as to call a workers’ paradise, but what can be called a mass, or truly democratic, society, one which was responsiveness to the basic needs of the mass of people as its principal aim.

1. Austin Murphy, The Triumph of Evil: The Reality of the USA’s Cold War Victory, European Press Academic Publishing, 2000.
2. Henry Heller, The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2006.
3. Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto, 2002; R. Palme Dutt, The Internationale, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., London, 1964.
4. Melvyn Leffler, “New perspectives on the Cold War: A conversation with Melvyn Leffler,” November, 1998. http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1998-11/leffler.html)
5. Heller.
6. John Wight, “From WWII to the US empire,” The Morning Star (UK), October 11, 2009.
7. John Green, “Looking back at life in the GDR,” The Morning Star (UK), October 7, 2009.
8. Shirley Ceresto, “Socialism, capitalism, and inequality,” The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1982.
9. Dutt; William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press, Maine, 1995.
10. Pauwels.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Murphy.
15. Pauwels.
16. Green.
17. Ibid.
18. The Wall Street Journal, February 22, 1989.
19. Murphy.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid.
22. Ceresto.
23. Ibid.
24. Green.
25. Murphy.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Pauwels.
34. Fred Goldstein, Low-Wage Capitalism, World View Forum, New York, 2008.
35. Ibid.
36. The New York Times, December 6, 2005.
37. The Guardian (UK), November 15, 2006.
38. “Disappointed Eastern Germans turn right,” The Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2005.
39. Julia Bonstein, “Majority of Eastern Germans felt life better under communism,” Der Spiegel, July 3, 2009.
40. Murphy.
41. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Book Ltd., London, 1984