There are still British people who assume that the experience of Communism in eastern and central Europe was of unmitigated tyranny, that all were victims except for the Party bureaucrats and the secret policemen. Today, in 1995, when democracy has returned neo-Communist parties to power in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Bulgaria, that view of history won't do.
That those regimes were tyrannical and absurd is true enough. Those who fought them and helped to overthrow them were right; those who tried to excuse them on the grounds of "realism" were ultimately wrong. But in 1995 the old "totalitarian" label ought to be junked. There were periods, brief and mostly in the 1950s, when the state's grip on words and deeds was nearly total. There were longer periods when the regimes' rhetoric was totalitarian. But for most of the time that rhetoric was empty and that grip was only partial. The Communist parties held their populations by the ankle, like a clanking fetter, but not by the throat - or by the testicles.
The state was often brutal as well as stupid. Only 10 years ago, hundreds of good men and women were still serving prison sentences for demanding justice and democracy. But the state was not nearly as absolute as it pretended - or as it was represented in the West. For most of those 50 years of unfreedom (I am leaving the Soviet experience out of this), a sort of para-politics went on. It was not just a matter of competing Party factions (does anyone remember all that diligent journalese about "hardliners" v "revisionists"?). It was the pushing and shoving of whole sections of society, some of whom did well out of Communist policies and others who, although lacking formal organisation in a one-party state, tried and sometimes succeeded in subverting or distorting those policies.
Last Monday I was in Hamburg, and the woman who drove my taxi was Polish. We reminisced, and it turned out that her personal "golden age" was the time of Edward Gierek, the liberalised Communism of the 1970s. Secure jobs for higher wages, foreign imports in the shops, easy foreign travel and small Polski Fiats for everyone. Of course it all ended in national bankruptcy, empty shops, strikes and then the Solidarity revolution. "But that was the Russians' fault - they wanted us to fail!" The new capitalist democracy, with its unemployment and high living costs, was no substitute for her lost Gierek paradise.
During that period, the "totalitarian" state had lost control of the social process it was supposed to be directing. The Poles torched their money in a gigantic consumption spree while factories - still immune to profit or loss - totally failed to pay off foreign loans by exports. Demand gobbled up supply down to the last pork chop; the private farmers killed their remaining pigs rather than breed more because the state refused to let them raise prices. And between 1979 and 1981, Poland duly went bust - not because the "totalitarian" state was too strong but because it was too weak. When the Gierek boom started going wrong, the regime was too divided and too discredited to head off economic stampedes by one section of society after another.
The ideas put forward by these late-Communist governments were by no means all bad in themselves. From time to time, and sometimes as much by accident as design, they created communities which were both securely employed and usefully productive - even innovative. None of those communities has survived. But those who lived in them - while usually contemptuous of Communism as an ideology or political system - now pass severe judgements on the social achievement of free-market economics and politics. Who can blame them?
This point about "strong" states which are really weak was made recently in the journal Daedalus by Professor Chris Hann of the University of Kent. During the 1970s he studied the tanyas - isolated farmsteads scattered over the Great Plain of Hungary. The tanyas had been regarded as sinks of agrarian misery, and the first generation of Communist social engineers proclaimed that they would be replaced by collective farms whose workers would be housed in clean new towns. But later, in the tolerant years when Janos Kadar ruled the Party, the individual peasants came back into their own. The tanya people were allowed to lease land from the collectives to farm intensively, and they were able to make money for themselves and to feed the Hungarian cities very well indeed.
But this compromise between a "totalitarian" state and acquisitive peasants did not survive the 1989 revolutions. The big collectives fell apart into family patches too small for efficient capitalist farming. Demand fell as the purchasing power of urban workers stagnated. The tanyas have slithered back towards poverty and welfare dependency.
In what was East Germany, farming went down a different path. The land had been "socialised" into more than 3,800 vast collective farms (LPGs). The "partners" (members of the collective) earned a wage based on the "work unit" - the farm's annual cash surplus divided by the number of partners - which had a minimum value guaranteed by the state. I visited several LPGs in the 1960s. They were clammy and soulless, but they were efficient and gave members a reliable living standard.
Then came unification. In theory, the members and even the expropriated landlords could have bought and divided up the LPGs. But instead the farm chairmen and their Party cronies formed private companies and purchased their own collective's land, stock and equipment at artificially knockdown prices. Then they launched out into large-scale capitalist farming, and are making agribusiness fortunes. Most ex-members have only their back gardens and income support.
What does all this prove? One obvious point is that some of the modernisations attempted by the Communist states were good foundations for the future. East German collectivisation was carried out ruthlessly, and betrayed all the principles of the previous land reform which had divided the big estates among the small farmers. All the same, it established the right scale of agricultural unit (on those poor soils) to compete successfully in an open economy. Conversely, the Hungarian Communists let themselves be blown off course - being tolerant, bribable and pragmatic, The result today is rural disaster.
This is all in rather bad taste. Let me go further. Hitler made West Germany's post-war "economic miracle" possible. He did this by violently overthrowing the barriers - social, administrative and traditional - that kept Germany provincialised and caste-ridden. He left Germany in ruins, but more individualistic, more plebeian - the seedbed for an enterprise culture. Hitlerite Germany was certainly a totalitarian dictatorship as Gierek's Poland or Kadar's Hungary never was. I quote Hitler only to show that vicious regimes sometimes leave solid foundations for the future.
My other point is the one I started out with. Communism was not just a black hole or a missile from Moscow. Its ideas were - are - as impeccably Western as those of the French Revolution. Its practice led to similar disasters in the hands of Robespierre, Lenin, Napoleon or Stalin. But the dreams of 1789-94 gave Europe no rest for a hundred years. And, inconceivable as that now seems, certain memories of Communism will continue to haunt and sometimes to inspire our children. Watch that red space.Reuse content