How to Talk to Your Kids About Socialism
An open letter to my niece at college, with excerpts (in boldface) from the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
You recently shared with me that you are studying Karl Marx’s theories in one of your college classes and that you support Bernie Sanders for president. Something about socialism must appeal to you.
As you probably know, Sen. Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist whose political “revolution” involves reducing income inequality, increasing the minimum wage, eliminating college tuition at public colleges and universities, and combating climate change.
Undoubtedly you’re learning about both socialism and communism. While Sen. Sanders’ 21st-century socialist revolution doesn’t go as far as the “revolution of the proletariat” Mr. Marx advocated in his 1848 “Communist Manifesto,” I think the 19th-century philosopher would say they share common ground.
When I was your age during the Reagan era, I too, had a fascination with socialism and communism. In college, I learned that capitalism was cruel and unfair, that those in charge supported the capitalistic exploitation of the poor by the wealthy and that the government should allow and even facilitate all sexual behavior. Current memes aren’t as new as you might think.
In the spring of 1990, five years before you were born, I decided to travel through Eastern Europe to discover how college students were reacting to the fall of communism in their countries.
I’d like to explain some of my personal reasons for believing that communism failed in the Eastern Bloc and why I don’t think socialist ideas will work now. I will contrast the realities I observed with some of the Marxist ideals in the “Communist Manifesto.”
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
I traveled through then-Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania during the months following the fall of communism in those countries, and I saw no product on par with any in the West. I stayed in hotel rooms with ugly, illogically designed furniture. Everything I saw gave me the impression that the Communist Party had fettered design and innovation. Clothing was unattractive, and shoes were just bad. Eastern Europeans always eyed my leather shoes.
I saw college laboratories full of prehistoric equipment and electronics. I met engineering students who couldn’t program in the computer languages they were learning because they had no computers.
I met Romanians who daily waited in long queues to buy rationed foodstuffs though their country was rich in oil and other resources.
“Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.”
In all three countries I visited, people were forced to live in giant, substandard apartment buildings in government-planned developments. Sometimes they had to wait for years just to get inadequate apartments, which they could not purchase.
Romanians I met lived in poorly constructed buildings with walls that were moldy and mildewed because earthquake damage had not been repaired.
“If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”
In Romania, I also spent time with Communist Party members’ families who lived in large, beautiful homes on secluded wooded lots, not unlike suburban homes of the American upper-middle class.
I toured the immense palace of the country’s former communist dictator. With its carved marble and 10-foot ceilings crowned with crystal chandeliers, it was a sad monument to a failed state that had impoverished the nation for its own gain.
“In Communist society, accumulated labour is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the labourer.”
I observed that everyone had a job, but not everyone worked. Frequently, two people did what one person could do — or they did other unnecessary jobs, such as handing out toilet paper in public restrooms.
More than once I thought the size of a restaurant’s staff was inversely proportionate to the amount of service provided.
Mostly, I saw people lacking hope because they had few opportunities. At the same time, I met young people who were beginning to see glimmers of possibility in a post-communist world. In countries such as Czechoslovakia, residents could practice their faith freely for the first time in many decades and packed the churches to overflowing.
“Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.”
Modes of transportation in all countries were old, inadequate and usually crammed full. Obtaining train tickets, along with many other simple tasks, could become a prolonged ordeal.
In every conversation, Eastern Europeans asked me about the West. Years before the Internet, I was one of their first links to a world that had been closed to them. Even children of Communist Party members were starved for knowledge, especially about technology. They couldn’t understand why I hadn’t absorbed all the information that had been off limits to them.
I was amused to find radios that had no tuning knob because, for so long, there had been only one station.
“Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.”
I don’t know about the soil, but as I passed factories in rural Czechoslovakia on the train, I saw dark clouds of air pollution. It probably wasn’t as bad as modern-day pollution in China, but for a number of miles, I had to cover my face, and I had difficulty breathing.
Often, we remember events more favorably as time passes, so I may be painting a too-rosy picture of my experiences. You are right to be dissatisfied with the state of our country, and I’m glad you want to do something about it. But history has clearly shown us — in Eastern Europe, Russia and elsewhere — that implementing socialist ideas won’t get us to a better place. Just ask anyone who lived behind the Iron Curtain if they think it was better there.