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Post-Communist Economics

Author:  Andrzej Brzeski Andrzej Brzeski is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of California (Davis ) . He came to the United States from his native Poland in 1958 as a Ford Foundation fellow . He had first hand experience of Hitler’s murderous fascism and Stalin’s communism. His stay in the Soviet Gulag in 1944-46 was especially enlightening. & A. Groth Alexander J. Groth (Ph.D. Columbia University, 1960) is Research Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Davis, where he has taught comparative politics since 1962. His major interests include Communist and post-Communist systems as well as comparative public policy. Groth is recipient of the Thomas R. Dye award in public policy studies, 2000. He has written and edited eleven books, including Comparative Politics (1971); People's Poland (1972); and Holocaust Voices (2003). He has contributed over 100 articles to scholarly outlets, including American Political Science Review; British Journal of Political Science; Slavic Review; Orbis; Studies in Comparative Communism; Communist and Post-Communist Studies, and Problems of Communism, as well as The Encyclopedia Americana; The World Book Encyclopedia; The Encyclopedia of Political Revolution; The Yearbook of International Communist Affairs; and Revolutionary Movements in World History.

Between 1989 and 1991 most of the world's Marxist regimes patterned on the Soviet model collapsed and vanished into the pages of history. In economic terms, what distinguished these regimes, with some variations among them, was state ownership and centralized control of production and distribution of goods and services.

Today, China still calls itself "Communist" but, for all practical purposes, it has virtually abandoned the traditionally socialist principle of state ownership and centralized planning. Vietnam has been moving in much the same direction. Apart from two isolated and palpably precarious regimes, Cuba and North Korea, the collapse of Communist-style economic management has been general.

While the ostensible goals of the extinct Communist regimes were humane and high-minded -- freedom from "exploitation of man by man," the end of all oppression and class distinctions, equality, meeting everyone's economic needs -- the means employed to achieve all this were frequently opposite, i.e., very inhumane, and the practical results profoundly disappointing.

To the Soviet Communists and their counterparts elsewhere, the first stage of their social engineering, "socialism," meant the assumption of control by the workers' state, led by its Communist Party vanguard, of all the means of production and distribution within the society. There was the simultaneous development of the necessary resources and "appropriate" social attitudes to reach the ultimate goal of classless Communism -- in which each person would contribute to society “according to ability” and receive “according to need”.

Such a utopian vision required massive uses of political power for its realization. The Communist totalitarian state closely controlled virtually every sphere of life: economic, social, and cultural, and above all, political. The Communist, party-led state became the universal employer, planner, educator, policeman, and spy. The Party adhered to an unforgiving view of the class struggle both at home and abroad.

To both Lenin and Stalin, as well as to their followers in other Communist dominated countries, the class struggle was at once domestic and international: the Party needed to be vigilant, always on guard against powerful and ruthless enemies both domestic and foreign. This "garrison state" idea suited the interests of rulers who, like Stalin, craved the perquisites of absolute power. The Party called for enormous spiritual and material sacrifices by people in pursuit of the goals of "Socialism" and "Communism".

One way to mobilize -- and destroy class enemies at the same time -- was to seize valuable assets, such as land, food, valuables, livestock, buildings, and business establishments of all sorts, as happened in Russia during the civil war period and the collectivization campaign of the early 1930s. Another aspect of this mobilization was to devote all accumulated resources predominantly to the military, industrial, and security needs of the Communist state, as defined by Party leaders. "Squeezing" the consumer, neglecting private needs for food, shelter, clothing and personal amenities, beyond the barest of necessities, in order to maximize the production of industrial and military hardware, was one of the enduring consequences of Party policy.

A most serious problem generated by this virtually perpetual "squeeze" was the extraordinary flowering of corruption in the Communist system. For millions of people the only way to satisfy many basic needs of life was the black market. There was ubiquitous breaking of rules and visible privileges afforded party functionaries and bureaucrats. These practices tended to delegitimize the Communist system by making a mockery of its official norms. It was obvious to most people in the country that one simply could not survive and meet many reasonable human aspirations without violating official decrees.

An important aspect of "Communism" was the transformation of revolutionary "vigilance" into institutionalized paranoia; the Communist society was one dominated by police agencies, by spies and informers, by jails and prison camps or gulag and, at times, by execution squads. Religious and intellectual freedom became victims of the Communist regime.

In the prototypic Stalinist Soviet Union, everyone and everything was subject to suspicion. People were not allowed to travel to various parts of their own country which were classified as military-security zones. They were not allowed to visit even neighboring towns or villages for any prolonged period of time without official registration with the police. They were not allowed to take photographs of objects regarded elsewhere in the world as harmless tourist sights. Keeping the company of foreign visitors was an automatic invitation to official suspicion. So was receiving and sending mail to persons living abroad. As to visits abroad, especially to countries outside the Communist orbit, such activities were virtually impossible for ordinary citizens.