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The More Banal Anti-Communist Cliches

It is interesting how certain cliches about communism manifest out of a need to say something anti-communist.  Take, for example, this small article about a GDR documentary on the more exciting sexual live of East Germans in comparison to their West German counterparts during the cold war era. While on the one hand it points out that the documentary demonstrates that the sex life of people in the GDR was more liberating, it also feels the need to assert, in a throwaway line: "Sure, nobody on the 'wrong' side of the Iron Curtain could have enjoyed the food lines, the crumbling housing, or the sheer boredom."  Take that communists!

This cliche, treated as a truism, is actually quite humorous in the context of a documentary that supposedly proves how sex was more exciting in drab old communist GDR.  Especially when it claims that life in this context was one of "sheer boredom" and, at least in my mind, an exciting sex life is one of the things that would make life far from boring.  Then again, such truisms function so as to explain away anything that would challenge their claim to truth: even sexual liberating is ultimately boring because, well, communism is boring.  QED.  Really, this is empty rhetoric that lacks any argumentative strength; it falls apart upon investigation.

First of all, the bread lines.  As I have mentioned at other points (that I cannot really find or recall) on this blog, this whole "communism means long bread lines" complaint isn't a very good argument.  If these lines where people stood to get food were as long and as onerous as the story goes, then so what?  Is this not better than not having the ability to line up for provided by a state that believes eating is necessary for its citizens and instead having to find soup kitchen charities and/or starving in the streets?  The argument, here, is that it is an evil to have to line up for food, regardless of class, since the wealthy should just be able to buy what they want and the poor should either die or hope for some charitable organization to provide them with a smaller soup kitchen line or what-have-you.  This is the same kind of argument that conservatives in social democratic Canada use to argue for the complete privatization of healthcare because they think having to wait is somehow worse than people dying from lack of access to medicine.  That is, it is actually a highly unethical argument since it is not based only on immediate individualistic desire satisfaction.  According to any ethical system, from the deontological to the consequential, guaranteed free food for everyone rationally outweighs the logistics of waiting in line.

And yet, without being devastated by WW2 or facing the might of global imperialism leveled at its very existence, the United States has a tendency to produce breadlines simply through the logic of capitalist exploitation:

Great Depression (NYC 1930s) breadlines created through the miracle of capitalist freedom.

Secondly, the crumbling housing.  But again it was guaranteed housing.  That is, it was recognized that everyone should have access to food or shelter, that no one should be homeless or starving, and so I don't see how having free "crumbling" housing is better than dealing with landlords, mortgage gangsters, or being homeless.  And even in the capitalist context where there is no guaranteed housing, and millions of people are homeless, housing is still crumbling.  Good lord, I have lived in a variety of crumbling houses that were vermin infested and presided over by slumlords.  And my most recent home, that was newer and we thought was better, was flooded due to shitty development construction based on a "code" that has become crappier every year because of the pressure development corporations place on the government.  Actually, come to think of it, I've never lived in a non-crumbling home in this country: even my parents' home, that I lived in up until the end of my undergraduate fifteen years ago, was falling apart, flooded, and always in need of renovations.

To be clear, waiting times and crumbling housing is the norm under capitalism as well, unless you are wealthy and this is the point of these arguments: a society is treated as more "free" if a small minority of people don't have to wait or live in shite homes because they're absurdly wealthy.  Otherwise, a bizarre level of bureaucracy and housing disintegration (or the lack of housing) is inflicted on everyone.  The poor have to wait longer times and are expected to pay for it––and if they're waiting for their welfare cheques or food stamps than they are treated as parasites by the real parasites who think that even these hard-won rights should be canceled.  I would rather live in a society where I wouldn't have to worry about paying for things that are necessary for my survival as a human being, such as food and housing, even if I had to wait in line or live in a shitty building that I'm doing anyway but paying for it.  Most people would, all things considered, except for those people who are benefiting from the fact that the majority of people have to struggle to pay in order to stay alive.

Finally, the boredom.  What the hell does it even mean to claim that life on the other "side of the Iron Curtain" was more boring than life in the capitalist world?  Really, this claim is rather impossible to prove because "being bored" is a subjective experience that cannot be measured in any meaningful manner.  What constitutes a universal measure of boredom when different people are bored by different things, and most people will find themselves living boring lives at multiple points in their lives with or without socialism?  As aforementioned, even an exciting sex life can be translated as ultimately boring (and fair enough, sex like anything else can become boring––especially if we strip it of its religious mystique), which is why the GDR's better collective sex life can still be treated as part of a general boredom.

Peace, needs satisfaction, and the pursuit of the end of class struggle is something that might be treated as "boring" by those who believe that excitement is produced by conflict.  How many dystopian fictions have functioned according to the claim that a perfect society of needs satisfaction is "boring" because it prevents humans from excitedly fucking each other over?  Indeed, the seminal science-fiction journal Strange Horizons has actually forbid this kind of story from being submitted because it is unimaginatively stereotypical.  In point 6(a) of their "Stories We See Too Often" FAQ they describe the following cliched story: "The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good."  But if this is a cliche that even a popular speculative science-fiction journal won't even consider––and that claims is a common trope of the submissions they reject––then we should ask why it is a cliche to assume that life is "boring" without "imperfection, pain, misery."  Because we simply assume that life is boring without these things, and so communism was boring because it was not channelling all of the things bourgeois ideology has taught us is essential to existence: imperfection, pain, misery. And yet why should we accept that life is "boring" if we aren't being exploited and oppressed?  This is more human-nature-is-capitalist bullshit.  (As an aside, Iain M. Banks wrote a bunch of novels about a communist civilization that was far from bored.)

Moreover, you really can't have it both ways.  If communism is necessarily "boring" then it could not have also been filled with the paranoia of repression and anti-communist resistance that the same cold warrior discourse claims was prevalent.  Fear and rebellion are not boring states of emotion and activity.  If everyone was bored under communism then the general level of ennui would have prevented them from caring about being afraid of the KGB, the Stasi, or some other "totalitarian" police force, let alone resisting their evil communist overlords.  And yet the same anti-communist propaganda claims these bored citizens-under-communism were all afraid or engaged in resistance.  Really, they should have been too bored to resist––which is probably what the average person living at the centres of capitalism actually does experience since the culture industry can produce a boredom and one-dimensionality where we are too distracted to resist or even care about exploitation/oppression/repression.  Even still, returning to my original complaint about boredom, this emotional state should not even count as an argument against capitalism because it is impossible to measure whether the boredom experienced under communism was more or less significant than the boredom experienced under capitalism, nor should we count this as an ethical argument: if I live in a completely ethical society but am still bored then what should this individual and vague emotional state even matter?  If complete peace on earth is less boring than a nuclear apocalypse for some people, does this mean that the latter is more ethical?  And if exciting sex under the GDR can be treated as ultimately boring then everything can also be boring, even all of the disruptive shit we experience in our day-to-day capitalist existence.

Can we at least be honest about what is really interesting about this sex life documentary, with all its problems, that makes us want to throw up these truisms about boring-old-communism as if we are citing multiple hail marys to save us from communist taint?  It's yet more proof that, on a social level, the actually existing socialist states of the past were opposed to the very drab conservatism that we would like to think they represented.  They were decades ahead of the capitalist world when it came to womens' rights (again, the first places where abortion was legalized was in Russia and China, and this was initially seen by the capitalist west to be heinous, despite anti-communist emphases on communist exceptions to the rule), just as they were opposed to the segregation laws that were normative, in those days, under capitalism.  Now we know that they also possessed some sort of "sex positive" approach to things––though not, thankfully, the kind that would be pro-prostitute––back in the days when the capitalist world was still terrified by sexual liberation.  Truth be told, if an anti-communist ideologue in the 1970s was aware of the pro-sex practices under actually existing socialism they probably would have used this as evidence of the "godlessness" of communism.  I'm obviously being facetious because this wasn't a probably: they actually did argue against communism according to an assumption that conservative values were sacrosanct––sexual licentiousness in an era were "family values" were triumphant was treated as a communist plot along with drugs, women's liberation, civil rights, etc.

So when we interrogate the anti-communist propaganda of yesteryear and discover that so much of it is based on a revulsion of anything that defies conservative morality, we should probably question all of the truisms that are based upon this revulsion.  It's a bit like encountering someone whose family "fled communism" in Eastern Europe and, because of this familial experience, believes they have some authentic insight into what these actually existing socialist formations really were even if they are too young to have experienced these states in a meaningful manner.  Most often they are referencing a collective memory of exiled families who left because they were conservative, because they couldn't keep their privilege and their conservative Catholic or Orthodox Christianity––because, well, birth control, more rights for women, sexual freedom!  Relying on this experience of communism as authoritative is about as useful as relying on the insights of our conservative family members about "the good old days" of so-called "family values", or the "good old days" of white settlerdom.  Why should we care about the way in which these conservative exiles experienced a period that was opposed to their conservatism?  Why should we trust their narrative when we don't trust the narrative of those who talk about how things were better in the 1950s when "men were men and women were women" and what-have-you?


  1. I thought you might like to know that a review has been written on your book here:

  2. do you think there is anything like 'human nature' ie do you accept the category as valid?
    there is a common sense view of 'human nature' which sees people as selfish, and thus communism or anything too utopian can't work.

    1. This is a complex area in marxist theory/philosophy. On the one hand, there are those who say Marx has a general understanding of human nature (like when he quotes Aristotle's "political animal") that defines humans as social/historical animals who make and are made by society/history. You can find justification for this in the Grundrisse and 18th Brumaire. At the same time, there are those who say there is no category of human nature in the mature Marx because his claim that "social being determines social consciousness" undermines any conception of a transhistorical human nature.

      Whatever position you choose to accept, though, it is clear that Marx has attacked the notion that humans are naturally selfish––which would be a way of being that proceeds from the assumption that humans are naturally competitive, isolated individuals first and foremost––since this idea comes out of a capitalist mode of production and is projected back on history. If humans are "naturally" anything, for Marx, they are neither naturally selfish or naturally altruistic; they are simply messy beings.

    2. Also, even if you leave Marx out of it, the question of human nature(does it exist and if so what are it's immutable characteristics) appears to be more or less impossible to answer in any rigorous way that wouldn't be absolutely rife with every single type of bias that undermines getting good information from observations and research.

      I think making almost any conclusions about human nature without really good evidence from disparate communities, societies and civilizations spread across a myriad of time periods, including pre-historic ones, is almost always just setting oneself up to see what ever they wanted to see from the start.

    3. True, but there might be some vague generalities that we could make––more of like definitions of the species, what makes humans different from animals, that will necessarily be open enough to take in all kinds of cultural variations but closed enough to prevent some of the sillier anti-categorizations that provide no explanation as to what makes a human different from a fish. Not that we should bring Aristotle into this, of course!

      But I agree with you about being able to disagree with these precise definitions of human nature without having to use Marx. I was just asking a question that had to do with "my view" and since my view is Marxist, I filtered it through that lens. This was something I engaged with for years during my time as a PhD student in philosophy, though tangental to my dissertation, and a question I have always found interesting but, at the end of the day, not something we should waste our time worrying about, particularly since it ends up being expressed in the way that you indicate at the end of your comment: "just setting oneself up to see what ever they wanted to see from the start."

  3. This is probably somewhat out of context with your post, but I was watching random videos on Youtube when I came across a channel run by a young man out of Russia. The focus of his video series was to dispel commonly held stereotypes about contemporary Russia. One of his videos addressed (to Western viewers) why the statues of Lenin had not been torn down since the "collapse" of the USSR. His explanation was that the USSR is widely perceived as a great era of Russian history, and that the current manifestation of Russia owes a lot to Lenin's revolutionary work. He also added that many of the older generations that remember the USSR era actually miss the stability it provided. It was just an individualized anecdote, but this post reminded me of his video, and how anti-communist cliches work to obfuscate the stories of those who benefited and lived through the communist projects of the 20th century.


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