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Dr Geoffrey Stern
The theory was a world without class
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Jan Repa
The system itself was economically inefficient
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Saturday, 25 December, 1999, 09:31 GMT
Communism: Consigned to history?

Communist diehards remember the past

By the BBC's Charu Shahane

Communism - the end of an era
In the Czech Republic, one organisation's idea of a good joke was recreating the days of communism.

So, as swarms of giggling bystanders watched in Prague's Wenceslas Square, speeches were made calling for greater efforts to build socialism, a fruit and vegetable shop ran out of bananas and actors dressed as the People's Militia sternly kept order.

Members of the public queued up to get stamps from state and party officials. In one game, the prize was a bowl of goulash.

"It looks like people are honestly reliving history. It's something they forgot about," says one of the organisers, Vaclav Pecha, who was a 15-year-old demonstrator in 1989.

"And I think we need to remind them how horrible it was and the state of affairs right now may not be perfect, but it's definitely better than 10 years ago."

The tenth anniversary of the defining moment symbolising the end of communism in eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin wall, was marked in other countries as well, although not always with as much enthusiasm.

Since the Wall fell, most former communist countries have become market economies and those that are still communist, like China, are certainly market-oriented, whatever they may call themselves.

Winners and losers

The winners of the Cold War clearly were the United States and western capitalism. So has communism been thoroughly discredited? Dr Geoffrey Stern, a specialist on communism of the London School of Economics argues that what the 20th century witnessed was not communism at all.

Berlin Wall: The end of an era
"The theory was that there was going to be a totally new world. A world without capitalism, a world without states, a world without class antagonisms, a world in which there is no need for religion, and rural life has been eliminated," he says.

"And it wasn't going to happen in just one country like Russia, it was going to happen throughout the world. What in fact happened, was quite different.

"In Russia, Lenin took power in the name of Marx and in the name of the proletariat, but Russia wasn't a country in which there was much of a proletariat and in which there weren't that many Marxists either.

"So what we call communism is not communism Marxist-style. I'm sure Marx would have been quite horrified that in his name was created a bloc of states in which bureaucracy thrived, in which patronage and privilege persisted, which was brutal, inefficient and so on," says Dr Stern.

Cruel manifestations

Communist countries did provide free education, health services and subsidised food to millions of people who were denied these under the old feudal system. But some manifestations of communism were both bizarre and cruel.

One fateful day in 1961, residents of the city of Berlin woke to find that the west had been sealed off overnight. Nearly 40 years on, Inga Deutscom, a 77-year-old east Berliner remembers the scene.

"It was dreadful to see how the people were standing there, waving to the other side, to their beloved and you saw them crying and you saw the hankies, you know, waving to each other and it was really painful to see," she says.

While the ideals of communism were never quite implemented, in its name, some basic freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, were removed and opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. Corruption was rife.

Lenin: Icon for communists
In effect, communist systems were in many ways not much better, and in some ways a great deal worse, than the systems they were meant to replace. But it was not all bad, as recent post-communist history has shown.

"If you look at countries that were under communist rule, there's a lot of unhappiness today," says Dr Stern.

"When they look back on their lives under communism, some of them think it was much better than it is now. Because however bad communism was, it did bring certain things - a sense of community, a sense of society, a sense of common weal.

"Transportation was cheap, rents were cheap, housing was cheap, most people had a job. Whichever way you look at it, there was a sense of security which doesn't exist now."

The system itself was economically inefficient because ultimately I don't think it was really designed to cater to the needs of individuals
Jan Repa
If there was so much that was desirable and good about communism, why did it fail? Experts argue muddleheaded and autocratic economics partly accounts for its failure.

"I think the system itself was economically inefficient because ultimately I don't think it was really designed to cater to the needs of individuals," says the BBC's European analyst Jan Repa.

"There was no market in the strict sense of the word. Those people who were in authority decided what ought to be available. You know, shoes should look like this! Hemlines should be like that! And what was produced and where and in what quantities was determined through a bureaucratic process of decision-making."

Dependency culture

Not only did communism produce goods nobody particularly wanted, it also engendered what in modern parlance would be called a "dependency culture".

"The idea was to take either a feudal or a capitalist society, modernise it and give it the kind of economic thrust that it didn't have before," says Dr Stern. "That didn't work.

"It didn't work because in trying to provide for all these social things - education, health and welfare and so on, they encouraged laziness, they encouraged over-bureacratisation, over-centralisation, and in the end the system couldn't work."

Gorbachev: Democratic instincts
There's a second factor too and that has to do with Gorbachev himself," argues Dr Stern.

"He had democratic instincts, although he was a Communist and he more or less said, well if the countries of eastern Europe don't want to belong to one bloc, so be it. And they took him at his word and they decided they'd go their own way.

"But once they had gone their own way, a lot of peoples within Russia decided that they wanted to go their own way too. So the whole thing collapsed."

One of the key reasons the idea of communism, as opposed to the practice, can be said to be discredited is because it made the grand, and mistaken, assumption that people would be willing to act disinterestedly.

"I suspect that it couldn't work in the sense that it probably requires far too much of human nature - to put society before ourselves. Or if it can work, it can probably only work in a world of abundance. Where everybody's got what they want anyway," says Dr Stern.

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See also:
06 Jul 99 |  Europe
Marking the death of communism
09 Nov 99 |  Europe
Analysis: A decade of change
09 Nov 99 |  Europe
In pictures: Berlin Wall celebrations
09 Nov 99 |  Europe
Memories from the Wall
08 Nov 99 |  World
Sights and sounds of 1989
09 Nov 99 |  Africa
Fall of the Wall echoes in Africa
04 Nov 99 |  Iron Curtain
Ten years on, disillusionment
08 Nov 99 |  Europe
Eyewitness: The night the Wall came down

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