COMPARISON WITH EAST GERMANY
Although I do not consider myself a Third International communist in the Marxist-Leninist sense, which entails quite a heavy dosage of Stalinism and state repression, I have to confess my bias in that I am a very left-wing leaning person, feeling absolutely identified in communist theory as fleshed-out originally by Marx and Engels. I have not faith, but absolute certainty that the problems we face today (namely, lack of food, unemployment, overpopulation, pollution) shall need socialist solutions (Western Europe, for all its anti-communism, managed to survive and thrive after WWII due to implementing socialist policies in its capitalist neoliberal model, creating the welfare state, or social-democracy). Even so, I regard communism as understood in the utopian sense to be absolutely impractical and unattainable for the time being, not only because of what some would call “the human condition,” but because the global sociopolitical and economic landscape is not yet fit for such a system. I regard capitalism as essential and if used correctly even beneficial for this moment of great industrial advance at the individual level, yet absolutely believe the future does not lie with capitalism, and that the exponential growth of population and the wasteful nature of capitalism will require for socialist practices to be implemented. I can conclude by saying that right now I consider myself a pan-Latin American socialist and part of the Socialist Fifth International, heir to the Trotskyist Fourth International, which is closely associated to Hugo Chávez. Many hardcore Stalinist communists would call me perhaps a revisionist or quite simply a Trotskyist (which entails to them fascism and counter-revolution) but I have dwelled deeply into the subject, and I simply cannot justify the repression of Stalinism no matter how beneficial or crucial it can be perceived in the historical sociopolitical context. Why am I defining myself ideologically? Because I believe it essential to keep said ideology in mind before commenting on the following and prevent misunderstandings.
After WWII, with the start of the Cold War, there was an apparent economic dissonance between countries of the West and those of the East. The West, particularly Western Europe and North America, had benefited extensively from colonialism and exploitation of less developed countries. Through protectorates and mandates, countries like the UK and France had submitted less advanced nations like India and Vietnam to their political and economic whims, suppressing their potential development and depriving them of their resources, as well as instilling feelings in the populations of European ethnic and cultural superiority.
With the end of WWII, Europe had been ravaged completely. Countries like the UK and France had lost much power, and their colonies began to rebel, mixing nationalism and communism as in the case of Vietnam. In a state of political and socioeconomic turmoil, the colonies found in communism and ideology that catered to their aspirations and which would perhaps advance their development swiftly, like Stalin had managed to do in the USSR with his infamous Five Year Plan. China’s communist revolution triumphed in 1949, and other Asian countries like Vietnam and Korea began to develop communist revolutions. In Latin America, Cuba’s revolution triumphed in 1959, and Latin American countries with the same aspirations were harshly repressed by the US as result, like Asia was, due to fear of the “domino effect” of neighboring countries falling to communism.
With the USSR achieving victory in the Eastern front in WWII, the destroyed countries of Eastern Europe fell into the sphere of influence of the Soviets, also finding respite in the promises of communism. Western European countries did the same on the side of the US, which basically vowed to reconstruct Europe and restore prosperity so as to make the US model more attractive and prevent them from falling into the Soviet sphere. The Marshall Plan was signed by President Truman and put into full effect, and Europe was rebuilt having to pay less war reparations to the Allies, unlike the countries of the Eastern Bloc like East Germany, which the USSR forced to pay fully for the damage caused during the war, which if you know about the Eastern front, was massive, with huge human and material losses, the greatest in the war. West Germany paid for war damage but not so much as East Germany. It was given a huge break; to the newly-created state of Israel, for example, West Germany paid money for confiscated Jewish assets and forced labor, but it didn’t even pay for the Holocaust genocide. West Germany was given more respite as the Allies focused on the Marshall Plan, demanding not money from West Germany but industry assets. In East Germany, the reparations seriously hindered the ability of the country to compete with West Germany economically. The estimated 100 billion worth of reparations taken from the East, had it been invested in the East German Economy, with East Germany’s average 18% rate of return on investments, would have compounded to give East Germans a per-capita income 15 times the level of West Germans. This added to West Germany’s bigger edge in prosperity in comparison to East Germany. This is important, and it’s a factor we’ll analyze later.
Many people of a predominant apolitical nature will immediately point out that East Germany, one of the most repressive states in the entire Eastern Bloc, practiced torture and political repression through its famous secret police the “Stasi” in ways astoundingly similar to the ones depicted in this article, and that a dictatorship will always be a dictatorship, neglecting ideology or motives and dismissing them in the face of cruelty. While it is indeed humane and reasonable to point out these similarities, these people forget the founding principles that make these types of dictatorships different. Simply put, the ideals make the difference. In the case of the Eastern Bloc, the communist society’s struggle for equality, the right for all to have access to free and universal education, healthcare, housing, transport and work (causes usually associated with the left), which was the case not only for East Germany, but for all socialist nations during the Cold War and communist nations today like Cuba. There were aspirations for a better future and a different society. When Che Guevara compared poor peasants in revolutionary Cuba and capitalist Bolivia, when interviewed in captivity, he said:
“I don’t deny that in Cuba poverty still exists, but the peasants there have an illusion of progress, whereas the Bolivian lives without hope. Just as he is born, he dies, without ever seeing improvements in his human condition.”
That in itself is the quintessential difference of a capitalist and communist dictatorship. The capitalist dictatorship is created in reactionary fashion to keep things as they are, to benefit an elite and make society stagnant both intellectually and morally. I’m not saying this never happens in communist dictatorships; it does, and the methods employed are very much the same. But the fact that in communism there’s an ideology that claims to defend the workers and end their oppression is significant in how people view one dictatorship or another. Both can cause sentiments in nostalgia, but nostalgia for the communist regimes seem, by personal accounts, statistics and surveys, to be more widespread, not to mention that rational people not driven by hatred of the enemy or violence prefer the communist regimes, precisely because of the positive concepts to be found in their ideological fields.
It should also be noted, for further contrast, that in all socialist countries there was a very strong emphasis on science, in research, in the arts and in sports, something military capitalist dictatorships neglect or show disdain for, and this gave Eastern Bloc peoples like East Germans a different outlook on life when comparing them with the Germans of the capitalist West. I once had a discussion with my German teacher during a class, when she was explaining some background information in Cold War politics in Germany, and to make it simple for the people there, she said that “West Germany was colorful, prosperous, lively and free, while East Germany was grey, dim, repressive and poor, and essentially a dictatorship.” I intervened and told her something similar to this, obviously shorter and more to the point, but there you have it fleshed out. The following information is from an article I found long ago while researching on the essence of East Germany, titled “Democracy, East Germany and the Berlin Wall” by Stephen Gowans:
“While East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) wasn’t a ‘workers’ paradise’, it was in many respects a highly attractive model that was responsive to the basic needs of the mass of people and therefore was democratic in the substantive and original sense of the word. It offered generous pensions, guaranteed employment, equality of the sexes and substantial wage equality, free healthcare and education, and a growing array of other free and virtually free goods and services. It was poorer than its West German neighbor, the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG, but it started at a lower level of economic development and was forced to bear the burden of indemnifying the Soviet Union for the massive losses Germany inflicted upon the USSR in World War II. These conditions were largely responsible for the less attractive aspects of life in the GDR: lower pay, longer hours, and fewer and poorer consumer goods compared to West Germany, and restrictions on travel to the West. When the Berlin Wall was open in 1989, a majority of the GDR’s citizens remained committed to the socialist basis of their society and wished to retain it. It wasn’t the country’s central planning and public ownership they rebelled against. These things produced what was best about the country. And while Cold War propaganda located East Germany well outside the ‘free world,’ political repression and the Stasi, the East German state security service, weren’t at the root of East Germans’ rebellion either. Ultimately, what the citizens of the GDR rebelled against was their comparative poverty. But this had nothing to do with socialism. East Germans were poorer than West Germans even before the Western powers divided Germany in the late 1940s, and remain poorer today.”
For those who may think that this is merely manipulative propaganda, I highly encourage you to travel to former East Germany yourselves and talk to people. After the fall of the wall, the East Germans realized that they had lost their identity to the West Germans, who constantly mocked them for their poverty and criticized them as little more than unwanted immigrants after the reunification. In later years, a nostalgia for East Germany eventually developed, and people remember the GDR with great fondness, even in spite of all the state repression. This phenomenon is referred to as “Ostalgie,” a portmanteau of “ost” (east) and “nostalgie,” nostalgia. This is well portrayed in the Ostalgie film “Goodbye Lenin,” the most famous of all. East Germans had a very high sense of ideology and patriotism, and then they found out they didn’t have anything to call theirs anymore, that capitalism wasn’t as good as they were led to believe by the propaganda of West Germans and that in essence, capitalism is a system of fending for yourself, which made many question the purpose of living in a world that simply doesn’t really care for you, while the state of East Germany looked after its citizens and provided for them in terms of education, culture, work and health. East Germans also found out that, just like post-Soviet Russia, mass poverty, homelessness, lack of access to housing, education and healthcare, inflation, crime, instability and other classic capitalist socioeconomic problems spread unchecked. This is why East Germans miss the GDR, while more than 50% of Romanians (the only ones who violently ousted the communist leadership) miss communism. Just look at this if you want an example, taken from The Washington Times;
“An ongoing battle between the prime minister and the president amid a tanking economy has left many Romanians longing for a return to communism because they think the democratic and free-market reforms of the past two decades have failed.
They view communism as a system that guaranteed stability and safety, said Lucian Boia, author of the book “History and Myth in the Romanian Consciousness.”
“Today, Romania has become unpredictable. Those who care more about safety than about freedom end up looking back nostalgically,” he said.
More than 53 percent of Romanians last month told the Public Affairs polling agency that they would prefer to live once again under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. The dictator, who terrorized Romanians for 24 years, was toppled and executed with his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day in 1989.
Two years ago, the polling firm found that 44 percent of Romanians favored a restoration of the communist regime.
The increasing disenchantment with democracy and market capitalism follows years of economic and political turmoil.”
In many former Soviet republics this is also the case, especially those at the east (the westernmost ex-republics like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are notably anti-communist). I took this from an article titled “Soviet nostalgia binds divergent CIS states,” by Dmitri Solovyov:
“The Soviet Union gave me a first-class education, for which I did not pay,” says Saijon Artykov, a 67-year-old retired geologist who supplements his monthly pension of $32 by selling potatoes in a market in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe.
“We did a lot of good in our time, discovering bauxite and gold deposits. We had good wages and I bought an apartment in Dushanbe,” said Artykov, a graduate of the elite Moscow Mining Institute. “Now we struggle to win our daily bread to survive.”
Tajikistan, a predominantly Muslim nation and now one of Asia’s poorest countries, lived through a civil war from 1992 to 1997 when its Moscow-backed secular government clashed with the Islamist opposition. Tens of thousands were killed.
Gulnara Ashimova, the 46-year-old owner of a beauty parlor in Bishkek, capital of next-door Kyrgyzstan, recalls low — though admittedly stable — salaries in Soviet times and restrictions on trips abroad for ordinary citizens.
But living in a country where violent revolutions have overthrown two presidents in the last six years and where ethnic clashes killed hundreds in June 2010, she would gladly swap her relative prosperity for the Soviet “friendship of peoples.”
“Maybe our wages weren’t that good, and I hated the ‘Iron Curtain’ most of all, but there was stability. There were the brotherly republics nearby, and you felt the shoulder of your neighbor,” Ashimova said.
This nostalgia is not limited to a few individuals. Art has also bloomed in the form of nostalgic Soviet films and literature (there are also anti-nostalgic films) just like in Germany, and some works even border outright demand for a revived USSR.
In Spain, the other country I can call my own and the one I’m currently residing in, our rights are violated constantly by neoliberal politicians who benefit the banks and the financial world order. Our healthcare and education services undergo cuts constantly to satisfy this order, people who can’t afford their apartments anymore are brutally driven out of them in police raids, scholarships are denied on a constant basis and people with “overqualifications” are unemployed or taking odd-jobs because companies refuse to hire them. That is the freedom of capitalism, and the harsh reality countries like Spain are awaking to. The worst part is that these “crises” are completely artificial and manufactured. We are not at war or facing ecological disasters which ravage our economy. These crises, which take turns after brief periods of economic prosperity, are the way of capitalism, the forced and subtle impoverishing of millions to benefit a few bankers and financial sharks who exploit and abuse a system so flawed it begs to be exploited and abused. In Communist countries, people miss precisely the stability we lack in the chaotic capitalist West. That this current financial system will not stand (especially on a long-term scenario) is now almost a reality, and that socialist solutions based on the equal distribution of wealth and resources respecting the ecosystem of our planet (fundamental to our survival) are the future. Those who cling to the current system do so because they are either ignorant, deluded, afraid or merely because they know well that what the future holds will not suit their interests or benefit them in any way, and will ruthlessly try to maintain or restore this order in the best reactionary fashion using every single weapon in their arsenal.
The GDR article ends with the following statements, truly startling truths that were true then and ring truer at present more than ever before.
“Was the GDR worth defending? Is its demise to be regretted? Unquestionably. The GDR was a mass society that channeled the surplus of the labor of all into the betterment of the conditions of all, rather than into the pockets of the few. It offered its citizens an expanding array of free and virtually free goods and services, was more equal than capitalist countries, and met its citizens’ basic needs better than did capitalist countries at the same level of economic development. Indeed, it met basic needs as well as richer countries did, with fewer resources, in the same way Cuba today meets the basic healthcare needs of all its citizens better than the vastly wealthier United States meets (or rather fails to meet) those of tens of millions of its own citizens. And while the GDR was poorer than West Germany and many other advanced capitalist countries, its comparative poverty was not the consequence of the country’s public ownership and central planning, but of a lower starting point and the burden of having to help the Soviet Union rebuild after the massive devastation Germany inflicted upon it in World War II. Far from being inefficient, public ownership and central planning turned the eastern part of Germany into a rapidly industrializing country which grew faster economically than its West German neighbor and shared the benefits of its growth more evenly. In the East, the economy existed to serve the people. In the West, the people existed to serve the minority that owned and controlled the economy.”
It should be noted that obviously, such a society collapsed along with the entire Iron Curtain. Why could such an efficient economy collapse, you may ask yourselves, and why am I citing East Germany as an example of an efficient communist planning? It should be acknowledged that more and more political scientists, economists and sovietologists are agreeing on the fact that communism in Eastern Europe didn’t collapse due to communism itself, but rather a combination of factors including the extremely expensive arms race with the West, the envy the relative freedom and wealth provoked in communist citizens, the pointless Soviet War in Afghanistan, the creation of perestroika and glasnost which awoke in Soviet citizens more craving for political and economic freedom akin to capitalist nations, a stagnant leadership incapable of garnering popular support and the simple desire of people to rebel. But as has been pointed out before, East Germans didn’t run away from misery or the secret police, but from a comparative poverty, one that can only arise when being put next to someone who has more than you. Likewise, in a capitalist nation, someone who sees the next door neighbor cruising in a brand-new car won’t be happy either. Wealth is relative, and humans always want to feel that they have more than the person beside them. Satisfaction arises from that, not from how much you actually own, and that is the essence of consumerism. In Cuba, one of the countries after the Cold War which survived the Soviet collapse and remained communist, even ardent dissidents will tell you that in spite of all the island’s shortcomings at least children do not eat from trashcans, while in wealthy capitalist nations this happens, and it happens due to unequal distribution of wealth, a central tenet in Marxist theory. It’s really such as simple as that, and at least to my eyes, it manages to contrast the goals, motivations and achievements of left-wing and right-wing dictatorships. Cuba, for instance, has one of the highest human-development indexes in Latin America, it is renowned as having a free and universal educational system as well as healthcare, countless students from all over the world including the United States attend its universities, it prides itself in its gender equality and it even sends international humanitarian aid to less developed countries. No right-wing dictatorship has ever achieved any of this, much less showed the remotest interest in helping other countries in humanitarian or intellectual ways like Cuba does. A very strong argument in favor of Cuba’s and Venezuela’s systems would be the undeniable fact that all of CELAC and UNASUR stand up for them even though not all Latin American governments are communist or even left-wing, and on the other hand they are demonized and attacked by the neoliberal financial elites represented by the US and Europe. If Cuba and Venezuela were such monstrous regimes, they would never receive official backing from nearly all of the Latin American democracies.
In South America, except for truly crazy old deluded people you can’t help but feel sorry for and a few archetypical fascists and confused neo-Nazis (yes, we actually have neo-Nazis in South America, especially in Chile and Argentina), absolutely no one misses the dictatorships. The right and the conservative sectors loathe them as much as the leftist ones, and all agree at least in the defense of democracy. Ideology matters. There is no way Cuba could have survived 55 years of political, military and economic terrorism by the US without ideological support from its populace, who far from saying Cuba is “Hell on Earth” defend Fidel just like they did during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Soviet-styled socialist dictatorships, despite their horrors, repression, hardships, shortcomings and regrettable actions, can still inspire nostalgia and even love, while right-wing dictatorships, essentially ideology-less save for boorish patriotism and religion and based on nothing but selfish military power for a few, generate only contempt and hatred. Nobody in Uruguay or Argentina would say statements like those ex-Soviet citizens did. Why is this? While I shake at the idea of torture and political repression, (no matter if it is to satisfy the best humanitarian goals) and I am extremely proud of the democratic model of my country, the fact that East Germany was located right in one of the most crucial hot spots of the Cold War definitely played a role in the country’s use of repression to ensure the survival of the state. Do not get me wrong, I am not justifying or praising the repression in any way, merely explaining its mechanism and practical drive. Like we are about to see in Phantom Pain, even heroes we admire blindly like Big Boss can be turned into demons and do horrible things because they have to be done, because they are trapped in a game with a predefined set of rules, killed or be killed. That is the nature of war, and that is the reason most atrocities are committed in times of war. Like the laws of nature, they cannot be escaped, and we have to play by them. The Tupamaros shook in disgust at the idea of violence, yet they were forced by the brutal police into using violence themselves, even resorting to assassination and kidnapping after Dan Mitrione created that reign of terror with his atrocious torture techniques. Most certainly, the Metal Gear series has matured to the point that it can portray these themes in absolute seriousness, and it is certainly one of the most precious gifts mainstream video gaming can give us. Unlike most game developers, Kojima is trying to make us think and feel, to judge the contents in his games by ourselves and draw our own conclusions. That has to always be appreciated, especially from someone belonging to the mainstream videogame industry.