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When the USSR was the main enemy of our loudly-proclaimed free and democratic society, we struggled to measure ourselves against its yardstick.
If the USSR claimed to have the best chess players, we had to beat them with Bobby Fischer. If they claimed to have the best students in math or science, well we had to show we had the whizzes. If they claimed their medical system was better, their workers were better treated, their social services and their agricultural output was better, we had to show ours could beat theirs. They put a man in orbit, we walked on the moon.
Of course, the USSR – and indeed most Communist nations past and present – were not the workers’ paradise they alleged. We knew that, but we pretended not to. Most were bleak, dreary, economically destitute, brutal dictatorships. They weren’t run by lofty ideologues seeking to craft a society for the betterment of the working class. They were run by an oligarchy of squabbling, irritable competitive sycophants and bullies in a race to see who would be last to face the firing squad.
Contrary to the way the Communists portrayed the West, we weren’t all imperialists, capitalists without a conscience, greedy, warmongering expansionists. At least Canada wasn’t. Mostly. But they weren’t entirely wrong about the West, either. And if they could see us today, they’d be saying the same thing they said back then. To America in particular.
Both sides of this political divide ignored the full reality of the other because it made for better propaganda campaigns. And it was much easier to justify wars, coups, and interference in other nations’ business. The threat of the other side’s emergence was often sufficient. Propaganda was at its pinnacle.
But at the same time, the competition between two opposing systems also brought out the best in both. It created the space race and some of the most important scientific and technical developments in a century. It spurred the Civil Rights movement. It created a half-century of exploration, achievement, education and science. It made chess international news: the Fischer-Spassky match briefly put an intellectual pursuit ahead of the corporate sports news. And into headline news at that!
Under pressure from the West, Soviets had to lighten up on dissidents and writers, allowing some to escape to the West. And both sides curbed their nuclear strategies for fear of mutual annihilation.
And because most wingnut terrorist groups were allied to one side or the other and dependent on that side for arms, money and direction, there was at least a modicum of control over what they were allowed to do. There was never an ISIS back then.
Thanks to the tug-of-war between the East and West blocs, civilized countries got socialized medicine. Unions grew and their workers got benefits and better pay. We got more rights and freedom of expression because we couldn’t be seen as oppressive like the Commies. We walked on the moon and were poised to go further.
The unbridled greed and aggressiveness of capitalism and corporations was sometimes held in abeyance or even muzzled as left-leaning countries nationalized resources, overthrew brutal dictators and actually held free elections (true, thanks to the CIA and US involvement, many of these were bludgeoned back into violent feudalism, but some – like Cuba and Nicaragua managed to hold out against the imperialists, at least for a while).
Communism wasn’t good for anyone, except in that it provided a yardstick against which we had to measure ourselves. Communism, however, was widespread. That made it a serious alternative to capitalism: it challenged us to be better than it promised it would be. People and nations gravitated to Communism because there weren’t many other choices. We had to be the better alternative to draw them back.
No one wanted to say aloud the truth: that we could easily bury Communism by out-selling, out-marketing, out-producing and out-performing it. In capitalism’s darkest hours – the Great Depression – it was still a more powerful economic engine than Communism in its best. Just build a few shopping malls in a Communist state, put some bling on sale, open a Mcdonald’s and it would have been game over for the regime.
But we didn’t tell people that – the US in particular preferred to use the excuse of the Red threat to arm itself, to conquer smaller nations, and to bully others. They could have more easily won by sending in Wal-Marts instead of troops. They could have built shopping malls, created pop radio stations, theme parks and opened SUV dealerships. People are more easily fooled by gaudy baubles and trinkets than ideological arguments. But that wouldn’t have gone over well with the military.
Cuba is a good example: if the US administration really wanted to win Cuba to its side, it would have invested in it. Cubans might have shucked Castro in a moment like an old corn husk in exchange for a Wal-Mart, an Apple store and some junk-food outlets. But the US needed Castro because he gave American politicians the anti-Casto Cuban-American vote and all its campaign dollars. So it’s never been in the politicians’ interests to win over the Cubans by peaceful or economic means, as long as the exiles can still fork over the pork.
Popular mythology to the contrary, neither President Reagan nor the superiority of the American Way of Life defeated Communism. The Soviet Union didn’t fall because Ronnie out-competed, out-armed or out-smiled them. That would be like crediting the pharaohs with the annual Nile floods. The USSR imploded of its own critical mass. It was in trouble from Lenin’s day and never got better, let alone fixed.
There were some good ideas, even great ideas in the Marxist theory of Communism, but in reality the system as implemented was simply too inefficient and repressive. There were too many power-hungry amateurs meddling in it at the top, controlled by a series of inept but omnipotent leaders.
The USSR started to topple in 1917 and its fall was inevitable. The fact that it took more than 70 years is remarkable. It might have been a different story had Trotsky ousted Stalin, not vice-versa, or had Lenin’s will been acted upon, had any of a number of vicious psychopaths like Beria or Yezhov not come to power, or had a capable economist been given authority instead of cement-heads Brehznev. But these are all what-if games.
Ronnie Reagan just happened to be in the White House when the Soviet house of cards collapsed. He had no more to do with its fall than King Canute had to do with the movement of the tides. And when it fell, so did the West’s competitiveness to be better. We haven’t walked on the moon since. In fact, NASA’s space program has dwindled and the Russians do the heavy lifting to get us to the space station.
Is capitalist Russia a better place to live? It’s as repressive as the old Soviet Union. There’s more crime and poverty – unless you’re one of the oligarchs and their gangs. And they’re even more militaristic today. All capitalism did for Russia was make billionaires and criminals. Lots of criminals. Is Putin any less a dictator than Stalin?
Yes, there are still some pockets left, but most are mostly minuscule. Sure, there are more Chinese Communists than all the rest of the former East Bloc combined, but since Mao died, they’ve been Communists in name only. The PRC Politburo has eagerly sold their workers as slave labour to any Western corporation while they become millionaires.
They’re not ideologues like in the old USSR: they don’t want to create a world revolution. The Chinese will take over by stealth; by taking all the industrial jobs and buying all the foreign debt until all of the West is subservient. Western governments are eager allies even when they see their own economies dismantled because it’s all in the name of capitalism. And it’s working. The Chinese elite don’t give a rat’s ass about Marx or Lenin or any ideological claptrap. They want limos, cell phones, indoor swimming pools and laptops. And power. Lots of power.
Since the USSR fell, capitalism has been unleashed and the West has fallen victim to a far greater evil than any Communist ideology ever threatened. We’re now at the mercy of the corporate interests and lobbyists, serfs to the so-called shareholders and their profits (in reality shareholders are a convenient prevarication: it’s the CEOs and their executives who hold the reins of power).
We’re losing jobs, benefits, rights and freedom at an escalating rate because the corporate interests and profits have to be protected. Some of those corporations have a big vested interest in making sure the military is active and aggressive. Others just want to buy their CEOs more yachts.
We’ve even been convinced to participate in the so-called “sharing economy” even when it is clearly not about sharing at all: it’s merely a transparent money grab by capitalist billionaires to make working people do all the work, take all the risks so the CEOs can add another yacht to their collection. As predators go, capitalism makes the Great White Shark look like an inefficient sea cucumber ambling about on the ocean floor eating wet compost.
At least when the USSR was still around we maintained the pretense of a free society, a good life and a competitive economy. And we were willing to defend our society and our nations to keep those freedoms and extend them to others. We kept corporate capitalism on a tighter leash. We controlled the banks. We taxed the rich. Those were the days, eh?
Now most of us are merely wage slaves, or worse, unemployed. The 99%. We buy cheap Chinese-made knock-offs because that’s all we can afford since our employers closed the factory and shipped all the jobs overseas. We apply for jobs as Wal Mart greeters, fast food cashiers or stocking dollar store shelves while the CEOs get another yacht or mansion.
And some of us have been fighting and dying in Iraq or some other Middle East nation to protect the fiscal interests and oil deals of the big corporations and the arms dealers. Oh sure, we’re fighting ISIS while we’re there, too – an entity our unrestrained, unethical capitalist policies helped create and continues to help fund and arm.
And is that the alternative we really want to measure up to? An extremist, theocratic bunch of males, brutal killers and rapists? That’s not an ideology: it’s a gang. There’s no competition in measuring up to thugs and criminals. They set the bar far too low for any reasonable challenge. Besides, they buy our guns…
Perhaps worst of all, a generation or two have emerged since the USSR collapsed; young people whose nine-second attention span means that awareness and understanding of the whole business of geo-politics, history and political economy is ephemeral at best. They would rather chase imaginary cartoon characters in Pokemon Go. Little wonder the rise of the powerful elite capitalists: it’s never been easier to distract the masses with the metaphorical bread and circuses than today.
Sadly, today there’s no real internal opposition, no protest movement, no alternatives to the Establishment. The protest movement of the Sixties retired to a condo in Florida. Today more people get worked up about the availability of a new iPhone than about political issues.
We can’t threaten to turn to the Communists today if we’re not treated right because they’re long gone. There is no Red Scare to motivate bosses and politicians. Only old farts like me remember them and we’re not about to march in the streets. Our walkers don’t do protests very well.
We can’t stop climate change under unfettered capitalism. If only we had some competition to it, we might have a chance to save this world. That’s why I say we had it better when they were around. We need competition to be our best. And to limit our excesses.
I wouldn’t really wish life under Communism on anyone (although maybe in Cuba…) because I’ve read too much about Soviet and Chinese history. But I’ve seen a resurgence of books of late that challenge the premise that unfettered capitalism is good for anyone but the CEOs. A rethinking of Marx (not the later Leninist, Stalinist or Maoist lines, but back to the source) is taking place. Is anyone else reading them?
The awareness of the destructive income inequality in the West, and the unrest towards the greedy 1% is modest, but not entirely snuffed out. If we can just get the youths to put down their smartphones and pay attention, we might have a hope.
There was even a brief blip of optimism called the ‘Occupy’ movement that, had it not got bored and gone home to find better Wifi access, might have made a difference. Or at least kept public attention focused on the 1% long enough to make some politicians act (and tax the rich…). But it did focus some attention, however transitory, on the ivory towers.
That seems to have dissipated with the rise of Donald Trump and the racist, homophobic, misogynist gimme-gimme politics of the right. The Republicans have become the vocal advocates for a profit-based, segregated, theocratic wage-slave society that would make North Korea look like the bastion of freedom and consumer opulence. The party of entitlement, not the party of Lincoln any more.
Surely there are still some leaders out there with a conscience, some honest politicians who haven’t been completely bought by the corporations, who will help tame these capitalist pit bulls. Politicians who aren’t owned by the NRA or some other lobby group shilling for the CEOs and even fewer restrictions on their predations and lower taxes for the wealthy. Some who have more invested in ethics than offshore accounts. Capitalism is a good system, but only when on its leash.
I can only hope someone is willing, able to tie it back up. We may not need an armed revolution like Che started, not now anyway, but we could use a charismatic leader to wake us up, get us engaged and committed to a better world. Surely the spirit of Che is alive somewhere, in someone and not entirely relegated to tourist T-shirts and teenage tattoos.
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