Berlin, Capital of the GDR (click on photos to enlarge them)
We all know these countries were far from perfect, and that a bureaucratic clique of opportunists, careerists and corrupt politicians creamed off the best for themselves, and enjoyed many perks. The mother of a Hungarian friend of mine has confirmed she joined the Party just to further her career and help her family. This was the great flaw in the one-Party system or one-Party dominated coalitions which existed in these countries. The only way to further your career was to join one of these Parties, which then became corrupted.
However the basis of Socialism was laid in most of these countries, including good health and education, good public transport systems, full employment, security in old age, low rents, subsidized essentials, etc.
Some of the criticisms leveled against them are, I feel, unjustified. The lack of cars on the roads for example. Surely this is a good thing? Cars cause pollution and greenhouse gases, and the Socialist countries had excellent, cheap public transport systems. I choose not to have a motor vehicle in London for the same reason – we have good public transport here. In fact Hoxha’s Albania had a great idea – banning all cars with certain exceptions. The EU has considered it, I believe, for inner cities where there is congestion, lack of parking space and good public transport.
Then there are the relatively low wages in the former Socialist countries compared to the capitalist world. The difference between East and West Germany being typical comparisons. This is totally unjustified. Socialist countries had managed economies where prices could be fixed. There was no need for high wages since inflation hardly existed, that is a product of capitalism and too much money chasing too few goods/services due to living on credit, interest charges, high rents and other unearned income. Basically printing money and so devaluing it in the process. Prices for essentials in the Socialist countries were controlled and subsidized, and there were many renumerations in other forms: free health care, free education, low rents, cheap public transport, a guaranteed job for everyone, guaranteed pensions, etc.
Fountain representing 15 Soviet republics,
Exhibition of Economic Achievements, Moscow, USSR
Freedom of travel abroad is one of the most common criticisms of Socialist countries, but it was not true of many of them. Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, even the Soviet Union allowed citizens to visit the West. Even in East Germany pensioners were allowed to visit the West, and others with the necessary visas.
However East Germany, and especially East Berlin, had unique problems. Firstly, West Germany poached its citizens by guaranteeing them West German citizenship. No other citizens of European Socialist countries had this right. Secondly, due to the way Germany was divided into spheres of influence and zones by the Allies of WWII, families were split by these divisions. This did not apply to most citizens in the other Socialist countries. Thirdly, the GDR (East Germany) was able to receive West German TV and adverts for products only available in the State Intershops with hard currency (though this wasn’t difficult to obtain as many GDR citizens had relatives in the West). However it encouraged a jealous ‘grass is greener’ mentality. Fourthly, in Berlin particularly, the open border before 1961 led to various scams which were ruining the GDR economy. East Berliners living in subsidized flats, buying subsidized food, etc. were getting high paid jobs in West Berlin, presumably paying taxes to the West Berlin authorities. Meanwhile West Berliners were raiding GDR shops of subsidized foodstuffs. The Wall was therefore an economic necessity in such a divided city with two opposing social/economic systems. However mining this border and shooting people trying to cross it illegaly was unnecessary and ultimately counter-productive. All that was needed was a policy of allowing visits to the West on payment of a hefty returnable deposit when they came back, and for an export tax on GDR goods bought by West Berliners/West Germans going home. The returnable deposits for GDR citizens visiting the West could have easily been raised by public contributions, and used over and over again to fund visits to the West by different people.
Then there is the more genuine criticism of lack of freedom of expression, and not having free elections as we know them in the West. This was certainly true in many Socialist countries where the State-owned media was strictly censored and controlled. Incarceration in prisons, gulags and even mental institutions awaited many dissidents. Much of this was due to the corruption in high places, and the mistaken idea that a one-Party State or one-Party led coalition State would allow inner-party democracy thru democratic centralism, and that the masses would actively participate in this process, leading eventually to the evaporation of class contradictions, the withering away of the State itself, ushering in the self-governing society of Communism proper.
This was hopelessly optimistic as the masses never joined the ruling Parties in sufficient numbers, or if they did, never became fully active in them to weed out the opportunists and careerists and defeat them. Consequently apathy set in. The Party or Coalition approved list of candidates in elections only allowed approval or rejection, and to reject the list you had to go into a booth thus revealing your political views. The ballots should, of course, have been completely secret.
However, the candidates were chosen rather as with the U.S. primaries in pre-election meetings by the ruling political parties. So you had to be a member in order to take part in this process. Once the candidates had been chosen, the electorate was just asked to accept or reject the list. This was less than satisfactory for the reasons described above, and there is no reason why rival candidates and rival political parties could not have given the electors a real choice, and the chance to vote out a corrupt or inefficient government. This could have been done under a Socialist Constitution so that various Socialist models could be tried out, but capitalism could not be restored without getting a massive vote in favor of abandoning the Socialist Constitution and replacing it with something else.
Gorky Park, Moscow, 1960s
There were, after all, many Socialist models. The USSR had massive State-owned monopolies, often rather inefficient. The GDR had publicly owned companies competing in the market place, like Carl Zeiss of Jena. It also had State-owned shops and enterprises, and privately owned shops. The Yugoslav federation had a true Socialist market place with many worker and consumer cooperatives all competing, and it felt very much like a Western country despite the one-Party dictatorship.
Another criticism is how gloomy and depressing places like East Berlin looked. This was often deliberate Western propaganda. There were many modern buildings in the GDR and other Socialist capitals, and other cities. The bright, modern Alexanderplatz complex in East Berlin for example. The modern Centrum department stores thruout the GDR. The fairgrounds Treptow Park (East Berlin), Gorky Park (Moscow), etc. It was not all gloom and doom. There were homegrown rock bands, etc. The Western press, however, preferred to show pictures of shabbily dressed people looking miserable, and of dilapidated buildings and streets which you can find in any old city. In actual fact the people of places like the GDR and Yugoslavia, for instance, were very well dressed indeed.
So lots of lies were spread in the Cold War by and about both sides. However not all was bad about even the distorted Socialism which existed in the Soviet bloc. Ask some of those former citizens now unemployed and facing an uncertain old age with no guaranteed pension and the excellent public services of Socialism. No wonder many have nostalgia for the GDR and other Socialist countries.
Even in Albania, that former Stalinist country, I’ve heard people say how much nicer Tirana the capital was when it wasn’t clogged with private cars.
I can’t bear to re-visit Berlin or Moscow and see how capitalism has pulled down so many Socialist buildings and erected gaudy Western-style adverts, etc. I don’t wish to see McDonalds in Red Square or Marx-Engels Platz. The pictures on the Internet are more than I can take. I did pay a short return visit to Croatia on a Mediterranean cruise. I couldn’t resist asking a waitress in a bar with prices marked up in some new local currency what was wrong with the Yugoslav dinar. Also the new flags of most of these countries just don’t look right to me, old Red that I am. The Socialist emblems embazoned on them now missing. Symbolic, of course, of a lost culture and heritage which, nevertheless, will at some stage in the future be revived in a better, more democratic format, learning from the errors of the past.
Festival, Alexanderplatz, Berlin – Capital of the GDR, 1973