All entries for Wednesday 19 August 2009

August 19, 2009

Capitalism and Communism: A Few Things I Changed My Mind About

I sat over lunch under an apple tree with some old comrades. We reminisced about the U.K. referendum on EEC membership back in 1975. At the time, we all campaigned against. I mentioned that since then I had changed my mind. Why? Because, I offered, the EU had done more to spread and consolidate democracy in central and eastern Europe than any other factor or force. I'm not sure, but I think someone close to my right ear muttered "Shame!" That, and a few other remarks, made me realize that some of those I was sitting with might not have changed their minds about much, despite the passage of a third of a century.

Some things I have kept. I was brought up in a high-minded atmosphere of nineteenth-century rationalism. Now, I would not recommend this for everyone. It was not a lot of fun. I did not really learn how to party, for example. However, I did absorb a lot about the sanctity of truth and the beauty of logic. As for politics my mother, a lifelong Liberal, imbued me with the notion that:

Whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where one grew before would deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together (from Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift).

That was the "rationalism" side of my upbringing. The "nineteenth century" bit was the optimism that came with it. I had instilled in me a belief in the possibility of progress -- that we, the human race, could learn from experience and reasoning to make things better for everyone.

These things I still believe.

But some I don't. One thing I used to believe was that the government could always fix things -- at least, if not the government, then some other government.

I lost faith in this idea gradually, a bit at a time. To begin with, I believed it wholeheartedly -- as did we all (this was those of us that were studying economics in Cambridge, England, in the late 1960s). The only problem would be if the government was mistaken in fact or logic. If so, it was our job to put it right! We all saw government service as the highest calling of a professional economist. I nearly went that way, but I got bitten by the economic history bug.

A little later, my view of politics had darkened. I no longer trusted the government -- our government, the capitalist government, that was. I became a revolutionary socialist, and then a communist. (By this point I had forgotten about the two blades of grass.) It was still the government's job to fix things, but it had to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. This outlook wasn't anarchistic, but it was libertarian. I wanted a world, foreshadowed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, where,

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

What kind of government would that be? Well, although a communist, I did know it wasn't the Soviet government of the day. I had lived and studied in Moscow; I knew it was a police state and didn't much like it, although there were other things I was ready to admire. But the voices from the Soviet bloc that I listened to were the Czechoslovak and Polish reformers (some of them now exiled to Britain) and, in the Soviet Union, democratic Marxist dissenters like Roy Medvedev. This was the now forgotten era of Eurocommunism which, germinated by the 1960s, blossomed briefly during the 1970s. Italian and Spanish communists put forward the daring view that Soviet socialism had something missing from its makeup. The Russian Revolution of 1917, although not a mistake, had driven a wedge between democracy and socialism. In Britain some communists, but by no means all, took this up. It was our job to put democracy and socialism back together. (We failed.)

We debated the mistakes and crimes of Stalinism. This debate turned out to have some unexpected twists. In the Great Terror of 1937, Stalin had murdered a million people. No one really wanted to defend this. Those who wanted to support the Soviet Union on principle generally divided into two. One lot went into denial: some real enemies had been justly executed, and the rest was a fabrication. Others accepted the truth, but stuck to the line of Khrushchev in 1956: it was the fault of Stalin and a few leaders, who had died or been got rid of, and everything else was basically healthy, so that made it okay.

More disturbing, if anything, was the problem of the far more numerous victims that Stalin didn't intend, but killed anyway: for example, the five to eight million deaths resulting from the famine of the early 1930s. There was no plan to kill them, but they died because Stalin's drive to industrialize the country took too much food from the villages, leaving not enough to keep the rural population alive. Their bones were buried in the foundations of socialist construction. This was harder for some to face up to than premeditated mass murder. If a death was a crime you could convict the murderer, but killing by mistake placed the whole Soviet system on trial.

We wanted to heal the rift between socialism and democracy. We were failing, but we didn't know it yet. For the mid-1980s saw the coming to power in the Soviet Union of a leader who walked and talked like us: Mikhail Gorbachev. Like us, Gorbachev wanted to put socialism back together with democracy. The Soviet Union could become a free, democratic society! We were re-inspired, briefly.

It wasn't all philosophy and infighting. While disagreeing on history and the Bolshevik Revolution, we lived in our own country in the present. Putting differences aside, we engaged in many campaigns. We fought for jobs and full employment, opposed racism, supported strikers, marched for peace, campaigned for votes, and worked to enliven and empower our local communities.

Some other beliefs that I still held at that time mirrored my faith in political action to put things right. One was that fairness matters more than efficiency. In the late 1980s, shortly before his final illness, I became friends with Peter Wiles. We soon understood each other pretty well. Given our different starting points -- in many ways he was a classic liberal -- he was exceptionally kind to me. But even when he was no longer quite sure who I was or why I was there, he would turn to me suddenly and say: Efficiency! You've never paid enough attention to efficiency! Efficiency is very important!" And he was right. Because, the more efficiency you have, the more blades of grass and ears of corn you have, and the easier it is to be fair. At the time, this was something that I was still thinking about.

Then the Soviet experiment came to an abrupt end, a complete and total failure. Sometime early in 1991, I decided that the era ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution was over. It was time to move on. I didn't know where, but I knew I couldn't stay where I was. I turned in my party card, and that was it.

A few years later, I was still stuck with nineteenth century rationalism, but I had changed allegiance from Marx and Engels to Smith, Ricardo, and Mill. In economics and politics I had become a liberal. I was happy -- as most liberal economists are -- with progressive redistribution through taxes and benefits, and tax-financed health and education services. I still had an optimistic belief in progress. But I no longer thought the government could drive progress, or fix everything, and I didn't even want it to do these things any more.

Political economy and the study of bureaucracy helped me to this view. Politicians and government officials, I realized, are not to be judged by their high-mindedness. Whether capitalist or socialist, under democracy or a dictator, political leaders and civil servants are self-interested. If the incentives align their private interests with those of society as a whole, well and good. Mostly, however, this is not the case. I ceased to believe that good government needed only correct facts and correct logic. I began to grasp the possibility that governments could fail systematically, perhaps more often than markets could fail.

From there it was a short step to the idea that a good way to organize society is to place the government under strict constitutional constraints, and let the citizens govern themselves as much as possible.

There were plenty of things I struggled with then, and still do today.

One is climate change. When climate change is (in the words of the Stern report) "the greatest market failure the world has ever seen," it is clear that without some kind of political action there is no solution. (You can actually read me struggling with this in my first and only article about climate change, written way back in 1991. I had figured out the political action problem, although in a crude and overdramatic way, but not yet the coordination problem that goes with it.)

Another is military intervention. I still thought military force had a purpose in the modern world and, to be perfectly honest, I still do. That doesn't mean I know exactly what that purpose is. Here's an example. I was in favour of the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and less surely in favour of the invasion of Iraq two years later. What do I think now? There is a lot of evidence now to suggest I was wrong. I still think Saddam Hussain brought defeat on himself by pretending to have weapons that he wanted to have, and had tried to develop, but did not in fact possess. Also, I think the full consequences will not be known for many years, and could well differ greatly from what seems obvious now. Still, that is to anticipate hindsight that we don't yet have.

More to the point is this. I never forgot a conversation about Iraq with an American friend and fellow economic historian. I visited his university in November 2004 when Bush had just won his second term. Depressed and angry, Tim exploded at me: "You ex-coms are all the same!" (I wondered how many he knew.) "When it comes to military intervention you still think the state can fix everything." I think he had me just right. I was skewered.

A third thing I struggle with is who gets my vote. I favour policies that are economically conservative, socially liberal, tolerant and generous in international affairs, interventionist when forced but always reluctant and mindful of the perils of selective intervention. The only party that would be all these things is a party that is not interested in power. No party is all of these things in any country that I can think of. But if we don't vote, I believe, they will take our liberties anyway.

The last thing I want to mention is what it has meant to me to have spent the last eighteen years working in and with the Soviet state and party archives. First, a wonderful privilege: what luck, that I was granted such an opportunity. I have used it to work on a wide range of topics -- statistics, economic planning, growth and development, wartime mobilization, defence planning and procurement, decision making, information, secrecy, lying, cheating, whistleblowing, and repression. There is so much to study! This was a state of 200 million people and one sixth of the world's land surface that recorded everything of note in millions upon millions of documents over 70 years.

And second, a strange voyage of discovery, hard to define in a few words -- but I'll try. In general, no great surprises. The documents show a vast, centralized dictatorship with a mailed fist and a decaying metabolism. But we knew that, already. The fact is that academics and writers older and better than me, the dissidents and scholars of Peter Wiles's generation, had already worked out the main dimensions and characteristics of the Soviet system, its politics and economics. This was a state that just had too much power. 

In specifics, though, my sense of shock, accompanied by a full span of emotions from grief to laughter, is continually renewed by the opening of each new file. Two examples: First, how did I get interested in secrecy? I was working on Soviet military procurement. Every year the government gave the Red Army a cash budget to buy new equipment. Soldiers toured the factories to work out what weapons were available and at what price. Industry was supposed to sell weapons to the military at cost price. So, the officers' first question tended to be: "How much does that cost?" And the standard answer? "We can't tell you. It's a military secret." It sounds ridiculous! But it worked! Year after year and decade after decade, it worked. That told me there was something interesting and remarkable in the operation of Soviet secrecy that needed to be understood.

Second example: Earlier in the summer I took a first look at the files of the Lithuania KGB, newly acquired from Vilnius by the Hoover Institution archive. Every year the KGB second administration, responsible for counter-intelligence, made a plan of work and a report of work. They enumerated the thousands of "objects" that, in the course of the year, they would aim to monitor, intercept, warn off, compromise, recruit, blackmail, or arrest, and the hundreds of informers they would deploy to achieve the plan. This is what the KGB did in Lithuania year after year, right up to the end of the 1980s. The term "object" is no mistake; they coldly manipulated "the lives of others" with casually understated brutality. Suddenly at the end of the 1980s the endgame arrived, and a hundred thousand people were on the streets, demonstrating for independence -- half of them, party members! They were taken completely by surprise! They'd been watching the wrong people! (Or had they? Again, there's a story in this.)

And finally, an inner struggle between the calls of science and morality. As a social scientist, my first duty must be to understanding. Understanding comes from new knowledge, and there is so much new knowledge in those dusty files and blurred microfilms! Judgement should come later. But there is also a feeling that spreads involuntarily from my gut, a voice that I can't shut out: Reagan was right. This was an evil empire.

Do I regret my past associations or activities? No. I believed or did many things that seem silly or misguided with hindsight, but I did not betray anyone or do anything really wrong. Many good people belonged to the communist party who inspired me both as idealists and as activitists. From them I learned about how to translate ideals into action, and how to work with people of differing views, build cooperation, and get things done in the face of criticism and opposition; it is hard to imagine that I could have learned these things in any other way. One thing I learned was always to start from the world as it is, not as you would like it to be. This was one reason I did not write off the Soviet Union at the time. Which bring us to mistakes. Well, they are supposed to help you learn. I made many, many mistakes and this just gave me plenty of scope to learn from them. Of course, I probably did not learn all that I should and I probably made many more mistakes than I ever recognized.

No doubt there is some degree of self-serving fiction in my story. The way I tell it, I remained true to the values I got from my mother: truth and reason before everything else. The facts changed, so I changed my reasoning. The world changed, and I moved on. But there could be other versions.

My children might say: In his youth, Dad was a free thinker. He got older and more established, put on weight, and settled for a comfortable life in an armchair.

The old comrades I lunched with might not go along with that. After all, they got older too, but they did not settle for comfort or accommodate to new times. They remained true to the cause. Among them, some might tell a story of treachery and betrayal, in which I began with my heart in the right place, but eventually sold out the cause in return for academic status and reputation. Others might wonder if I wasn't always a middle-class revisionist, just playing with politics, an enemy within from the start, never a true comrade. Somewhere in this tangled tale lies the golden thread of truth -- but where? You choose.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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