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We Lived Better Then

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Over two decades ago Vaclav Havel, the pampered scion of a wealthy Prague family, helped usher in a period of reaction, in which the holdings and estates of former landowners and captains of industry were restored to their previous owners, while unemployment, homelessness, and insecurity—abolished by the Reds– were put back on the agenda. Havel is eulogized by the usual suspects, but not by his numberless victims, who were pushed back into an abyss of exploitation by the Velvet revolution and other retrograde eruptions. With the fall of Communism allowing Havel and his brother to recover their family’s vast holdings, Havel’s life—he worked in a brewery under Communism—became much richer. The same can’t be said for countless others, whose better lives under Communism were swept away by a swindle that will, in the coming days, be lionized in the mass media on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s demolition. The anniversary is no time for celebration, except for the minority that has profited from it. For the bulk of us it ought to be an occasion to reflect on what the bottom 99 percent of humanity was able to achieve for ourselves outside the strictures, instabilities and unnecessary cruelties of capitalism.

Over the seven decades of its existence, and despite having to spend so much time preparing, fighting, and recovering from wars, Soviet socialism managed to create one of the great achievements of human history: a mass industrial society that eliminated most of the inequalities of wealth, income, education and opportunity that plagued what preceded it, what came after it, and what competed with it; a society in which health care and education through university were free (and university students received living stipends); where rent, utilities and public transportation were subsidized, along with books, periodicals and cultural events; where inflation was eliminated, pensions were generous, and child care was subsidized. By 1933, with the capitalist world deeply mired in a devastating economic crisis, unemployment was declared abolished, and remained so for the next five and a half decades, until socialism, itself was abolished. Excluding the war years, from 1928, when socialism was introduced, until Mikhail Gorbachev began to take it apart in the late 1980s, the Soviet system of central planning and public ownership produced unfailing economic growth, without the recessions and downturns that plagued the capitalist economies of North America, Japan and Western Europe. And in most of those years, the Soviet and Eastern European economies grew faster.

The Communists produced economic security as robust (and often more so) than that of the richest countries, but with fewer resources and a lower level of development and in spite of the unflagging efforts of the capitalist world to sabotage socialism. Soviet socialism was, and remains, a model for humanity — of what can be achieved outside the confines and contradictions of capitalism. But by the end of the 1980s, counterrevolution was sweeping Eastern Europe and Mikhail Gorbachev was dismantling the pillars of Soviet socialism. Naively, blindly, stupidly, some expected Gorbachev’s demolition project to lead the way to a prosperous consumer society, in which Soviet citizens, their bank accounts bulging with incomes earned from new jobs landed in a robust market economy, would file into colorful, luxurious shopping malls, to pick clean store shelves bursting with consumer goods. Others imagined a new era of a flowering multiparty democracy and expanded civil liberties, coexisting with public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, a model that seemed to owe more to utopian blueprints than hard-headed reality.

Of course, none of the great promises of the counterrevolution were kept. While at the time the demise of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was proclaimed as a great victory for humanity, not least by leftist intellectuals in the United States, two decades later there’s little to celebrate. The dismantling of socialism has, in a word, been a catastrophe, a great swindle that has not only delivered none of what it promised, but has wreaked irreparable harm, not only in the former socialist countries, but throughout the Western world, as well. Countless millions have been plunged deep into poverty, imperialism has been given a free hand, and wages and benefits in the West have bowed under the pressure of intensified competition for jobs and industry unleashed by a flood of jobless from the former socialist countries, where joblessness once, rightly, was considered an obscenity. Numberless voices in Russia, Romania, East Germany and elsewhere lament what has been stolen from them — and from humanity as a whole: “We lived better under communism. We had jobs. We had security.” And with the threat of jobs migrating to low-wage, high unemployment countries of Eastern Europe, workers in Western Europe have been forced to accept a longer working day, lower pay, and degraded benefits. Today, they fight a desperate rearguard action, where the victories are few, the defeats many. They too lived better — once.

But that’s only part of the story. For others, for investors and corporations, who’ve found new markets and opportunities for profitable investment, and can reap the benefits of the lower labor costs that attend intensified competition for jobs, the overthrow of socialism has, indeed, been something to celebrate. Equally, it has been welcomed by the landowning and industrial elite of the pre-socialist regimes whose estates and industrial concerns have been recovered and privatized. But they’re a minority. Why should the rest of us celebrate our own mugging?

Prior to the dismantling of socialism, most people in the world were protected from the vicissitudes of the global capitalist market by central planning and high tariff barriers. But once socialism fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and with China having marched resolutely down the capitalist road, the pool of unprotected labor available to transnational corporations expanded many times over. Today, a world labor force many times larger than the domestic pool of US workers — and willing to work dirt cheap — awaits the world’s corporations. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what the implications are for North American workers and their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan: an intense competition of all against all for jobs and industry. Inevitably, incomes fall, benefits are eroded, and working hours extended. Predictably, with labor costs tumbling, profits grow fat, capital surpluses accumulate and create bubbles, financial crises erupt and predatory wars to secure investment opportunities break out.

Growing competition for jobs and industry has forced workers in Western Europe to accept less. They work longer hours, and in some cases, for less pay and without increases in benefits, to keep jobs from moving to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other former socialist countries — which, under the rule of the Reds, once provided jobs for all. More work for less money is a pleasing outcome for the corporate class, and turns out to be exactly the outcome fascists engineered for their countries’ capitalists in the 1930s. The methods, to be sure, were different, but the anti-Communism of Mussolini and Hitler, in other hands, has proved just as useful in securing the same retrograde ends. Nobody who is  subject to the vagaries of the labor market – almost all of us — should be glad Communism was abolished.

Maybe some us don’t know we’ve been mugged. And maybe some of us haven’t been. Take the radical US historian Howard Zinn, for example, who, along with most other prominent Left intellectuals, greeted the overthrow of Communism with glee [1]. I, no less than others, admired Zinn’s books, articles and activism, though I came to expect his ardent anti-Communism as typical of left US intellectuals. To be sure, in a milieu hostile to Communism, it should come as no surprise that conspicuous displays of anti-Communism become a survival strategy for those seeking to establish a rapport, and safeguard their reputations, with a larger (and vehemently anti-Communist) audience.

But there may be another reason for the anti-Communism of those whose political views leave them open to charges of being soft on Communism, and therefore of having horns. As dissidents in their own society, there was always a natural tendency for them to identify with dissidents elsewhere – and the pro-capitalist, anti-socialist propaganda of the West quite naturally elevated dissidents in socialist countries to the status of heroes, especially those who were jailed, muzzled and otherwise repressed by the state. For these people, the abridgement of civil liberties anywhere looms large, for the abridgement of their own civil liberties would be an event of great personal significance. By comparison, the Reds’ achievements in providing a comfortable frugality and economic security to all, while recognized intellectually as an achievement of some note, is less apt to stir the imagination of one who has a comfortable income, the respect of his peers, and plenty of people to read his books and attend his lectures. He doesn’t have to scavenge discarded coal in garbage dumps to eke out a bare, bleak, and unrewarding existence. Some do.

Karol, 14, and his sister Alina, 12, everyday trudge to a dump, where mixed industrial waste is deposited, just outside Swietochlowice, in formerly socialist Poland. There, along with their father, they look for scrap metal and second grade coal, anything to fetch a few dollars to buy a meager supply of groceries. “There was better life in Communism,” says Karol’s father, 49, repeating a refrain heard over and over again, not only in Poland, but also throughout the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. “I was working 25 years for the same company and now I cannot find a job – any job. They only want young and skilled workers.” [2] According to Gustav Molnar, a political analyst with the Laszlo Teleki Institute, “the reality is that when foreign firms come here, they’re only interested in hiring people under 30. It means half the population is out of the game.” [3] That may suit the bottom lines of foreign corporations – and the overthrow of socialism may have been a pleasing intellectual outcome for well-fed, comfortable intellectuals from Boston – but it hardly suits that part of the Polish population that must scramble over mountains of industrial waste – or perish. Maciej Gdula, 34, a founding member of the group, Krytyka Polityczna, or Political Critique, complains that many Poles “are disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises of capitalism. They promised us a world of consumption, stability and freedom. Instead, we got an entire generation of Poles who emigrated to go wash dishes.” [4] Under socialism “there was always work for everybody” [5] – at home. And always a place to live, free schools to go to, and doctors to see, without charge. So why was Howard Zinn glad that Communism was overthrown?

That the overthrow of socialism has failed to deliver anything of benefit to the majority is plain to see. One decade after counterrevolution skittered across Eastern Europe, 17 former socialist countries were immeasurably poorer. In Russia, poverty had tripled. One child in 10 – three million Russian children – lived like animals, ill-fed, dressed in rags, and living, if they were lucky, in dirty, squalid flats. In Moscow alone, 30,000 to 50,000 children slept in the streets. Life expectancy, education, adult-literacy and income declined. A report by the European Children’s Trust, written in 2000, revealed that 40 percent of the population of the former socialist countries – a number equal to one of every two US citizens – lived in poverty. Infant mortality and tuberculosis were on the rise, approaching Third World levels. The situation, according to the UN, was catastrophic. And everywhere the story was the same. [6, 7, 8, 9]

Paul Cockshot points out that:

The restoration of the market mechanism in Russia was a vast controlled experiment. Nation, national character and culture, natural resources and productive potential remained the same, only the economic mechanism changed. If Western economists were right, then we should have expected economic growth and living standards to have leapt forward after the Yeltsin shock therapy. Instead the country became an economic basket-case. Industrial production collapsed, technically advanced industries atrophied, and living standards fell so much that the death rate shot up by over a third leading to some 7.7 million extra deaths.

For many Russians, life became immeasurably worse.

If you were old, if you were a farmer, if you were a manual worker, the market was a great deal worse than even the relatively stagnant Soviet economy of Brezhnev. The recovery under Putin, such as it was, came almost entirely as a side effect of rising world oil prices, the very process that had operated under Brezhnev. [10]

While the return of capitalism made life harsher for some, it proved lethal for others.  From 1991 to 1994, life expectancy in Russia tumbled by five years. By 2008, it had slipped to less than 60 years for Russian men, a full seven years lower than in 1985 when Gorbachev came to power and began to dismantle Soviet socialism. Today “only a little over half of the ex-Communist countries have regained their pretransition life-expectancy levels,” according to a study published in the medical journal, The Lancet. [11]

“Life was better under the Communists,” concludes Aleksandr. “The stores are full of things, but they’re very expensive.” Victor pines for the “stability of an earlier era of affordable health care, free higher education and housing, and the promise of a comfortable retirement – things now beyond his reach.” [12] A 2008 report in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, noted that “many Russians interviewed said they still grieve for their long, lost country.” Among the grievers is Zhanna Sribnaya, 37, a Moscow writer.  Sribnaya remembers “Pioneer camps when everyone could go to the Black Sea for summer vacations. Now, only people with money can take those vacations.” [13]

Ion Vancea, a Romanian who struggles to get by on a picayune $40 per month pension says, “It’s true there was not much to buy back then, but now prices are so high we can’t afford to buy food as well as pay for electricity.” Echoing the words of many Romanians, Vancea adds, “Life was 10 times better under (Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae) Ceausescu.” [14] An opinion poll carried out last year found that Vancea isn’t in the minority. Conducted by the Romanian polling organisation CSOP, the survey found that almost one-half of Romanians thought life was better under Ceauşescu, compared to less than one-quarter who thought life is better today. And while Ceauşescu is remembered in the West as a Red devil, only seven percent said they suffered under Communism.  Why do half of Romanians think life was better under the Reds? They point to full employment, decent living conditions for all, and guaranteed housing – advantages that disappeared with the fall of Communism. [15]

Next door, in Bulgaria, 80 percent say they are worse off now that the country has transitioned to a market economy. Only five percent say their standard of living has improved. [16] Mimi Vitkova, briefly Bulgaria’s health minister for two years in the mid-90s, sums up life after the overthrow of socialism: “We were never a rich country, but when we had socialism our children were healthy and well-fed. They all got immunized. Retired people and the disabled were provided for and got free medicine. Our hospitals were free.” But things have changed, she says. “Today, if a person has no money, they have no right to be cured. And most people have no money. Our economy was ruined.” [17] A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a paltry one in nine Bulgarians believe ordinary people are better off as a result of the transition to capitalism. And few regard the state as representing their interests. Only 16 percent say it is run for the benefit of all people. [18]

In the former East Germany a new phenomenon has arisen: Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the GDR. During the Cold War era, East Germany’s relative poverty was attributed to public ownership and central planning – sawdust in the gears of the economic engine, according to anti-socialist mythology. But the propaganda conveniently ignored the fact that the eastern part of Germany had always been less developed than the west, that it had been plundered of its key human assets at the end of World War II by US occupation forces, that the Soviet Union had carted off everything of value to indemnify itself for its war losses, and that East Germany bore the brunt of Germany’s war reparations to Moscow. [19] On top of that, those who fled East Germany were said to be escaping the repression of a brutal regime, and while some may indeed have been ardent anti-Communists fleeing repression by the state, most were economic refugees, seeking the embrace of a more prosperous West, whose riches depended in large measure on a history of slavery, colonialism, and ongoing imperialism—processes of capital accumulation the Communist countries eschewed and spent precious resources fighting against.

Today, nobody of an unprejudiced mind would say that the riches promised East Germans have been realized. Unemployment, once unheard of, runs in the double digits and rents have skyrocketed. The region’s industrial infrastructure – weaker than West Germany’s during the Cold War, but expanding — has now all but disappeared. And the population is dwindling, as economic refugees, following in the footsteps of Cold War refugees before them, make their way westward in search of jobs and opportunity. [20] “We were taught that capitalism was cruel,” recalls Ralf Caemmerer, who works for Otis Elevator. “You know, it didn’t turn out to be nonsense.” [21] As to the claim that East Germans have “freedom” Heinz Kessler, a former East German defense minister replies tartly, “Millions of people in Eastern Europe are now free from employment, free from safe streets, free from health care, free from social security.” [22] Still, Howard Zinn was glad communism collapsed. But then, he didn’t live in East Germany.

So, who’s doing better? Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright turned president, came from a prominent, vehemently anti-socialist Prague family, which had extensive holdings, “including construction companies, real estate and the Praque Barrandov film studios”. [23] The jewel in the crown of the Havel family holdings was the Lucerna Palace, “a pleasure palace…of arcades, theatres, cinemas, night-clubs, restaurants, and ballrooms,” according to Frommer’s. It became “a popular spot for the city’s nouveau riches to congregate,” including a young Havel, who, raised in the lap of luxury by a governess, doted on by servants, and chauffeured around town in expensive automobiles, “spent his earliest years on the Lucerna’s polished marble floors.” Then, tragedy struck – at least, from Havel’s point of view. The Reds expropriated Lucerna and the family’s other holdings, and put them to use for the common good, rather than for the purpose of providing the young Havel with more servants. Havel was sent to work in a brewery.

“I was different from my schoolmates whose families did not have domestics, nurses or chauffeurs,” Havel once wrote. “But I experienced these differences as disadvantage. I felt excluded from the company of my peers.” [24] Yet the company of his peers must not have been to Havel’s tastes, for as president, he was quick to reclaim the silver spoon the Reds had taken from his mouth. Celebrated throughout the West as a hero of intellectual freedom, he was instead a hero of capitalist restoration, presiding over a mass return of nationalized property, including Lucerna and his family’s other holdings.

The Roman Catholic Church is another winner. The pro-capitalist Hungarian government has returned to the Roman Catholic Church much of the property nationalized by the Reds, who placed the property under common ownership for the public good. With recovery of many of the Eastern and Central European properties it once owned, the Church is able to reclaim its pre-socialist role of parasite — raking in vast amounts of unearned wealth in rent, a privilege bestowed for no other reason than it owns title to the land. Hungary also pays the Vatican a US$9.2 million annuity for property it has been unable to return. [25]  (Note that a 2008 survey of 1,000 Hungarians by the Hungarian polling firm Gif Piackutato found that 60 percent described the era of Communist rule under Red leader Janos Kadar as Hungary’s happiest while only 14 percent said the same about the post-Communist era.  [26])

The Church, former landowners, and CEOs aside, most people of the former socialist bloc aren’t pleased that the gains of the socialist revolutions have been reversed. Three-quarters of Russians, according to a 1999 poll [27] regret the demise of the Soviet Union. And their assessment of the status quo is refreshingly clear-sighted. Almost 80 percent recognize liberal democracy as a front for a government controlled by the rich. A majority (correctly) identifies the cause of its impoverishment as an unjust economic system (capitalism), which, according to 80 percent, produces “excessive and illegitimate inequalities.” [28] The solution, in the view of the majority, is to return to socialism, even if it means one-party rule.  Russians, laments the anti-Communist historian Richard Pipes, haven’t Americans’ taste for multiparty democracy, and seem incapable of being cured of their fondness for Soviet leaders. In one poll, Russians were asked to list the 10 greatest people of all time, of all nations. Lenin came in second, Stalin fourth and Peter the Great came first. Pipes seems genuinely distressed they didn’t pick his old boss, Ronald Reagan, and is fed up that after years of anti-socialist, pro-capitalist propaganda, Russians remain committed to the idea that private economic activity should be restricted, and “the government [needs] to be more involved in the country’s economic life.” [29] An opinion poll which asked Russians which socio-economic system they favor, produced these results.

•             State planning and distribution, 58%;

•             Based on private property and distribution, 28%;

•             Hard to say, 14%. [30]

So, if the impoverished peoples of the formerly socialist countries pine for the former attractions of socialism, why don’t they vote the Reds back in? Socialism can’t be turned on with the flick of a switch. The former socialist economies have been privatized and placed under the control of the market. Those who accept the goals and values of capitalism have been recruited to occupy pivotal offices of the state. And economic, legal and political structures have been altered to accommodate private production for profit. True, there are openings for Communist parties to operate within the new multiparty liberal democracies, but Communists now compete with far more generously funded parties in societies in which their enemies have restored their wealth and privileges and use them to tilt the playing field strongly in their favor. They own the media, and therefore are in a position to shape public opinion and give parties of private property critical backing during elections. They spend a king’s ransom on lobbying the state and politicians and running think-tanks which churn out policy recommendations and furnish the media with capitalist-friendly “expert” commentary. They set the agenda in universities through endowments, grants and the funding of special chairs to study questions of interest to their profits. They bring politicians under their sway by doling out generous campaign contributions and promises of lucrative post-political career employment opportunities. Is it any wonder the Reds aren’t simply voted back into power? Capitalist democracy means democracy for the few—the capitalists—not a level-playing field where wealth, private-property and privilege don’t matter.

And anyone who thinks Reds can be elected to office should reacquaint themselves with US foreign policy vis-a-vis Chile circa 1973. The United States engineered a coup to overthrow the socialist Salvador Allende, on the grounds that Chileans couldn’t be allowed to make the ”irresponsible” choice of electing a man Cold Warriors regarded as a Communist. More recently, the United States, European Union and Israel, refused to accept the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, all the while hypocritically presenting themselves as champions and guardians of democracy.

Of course, no forward step will be taken, can be taken, until a decisive part of the population becomes disgusted with and rejects what exists today, and is convinced something better is possible and is willing to tolerate the upheavals of transition. Something better than unceasing economic insecurity, private (and for many, unaffordable) health care and education, and vast inequality, is achievable. The Reds proved that. It was the reality in the Soviet Union, in China (for a time), in Eastern Europe, and today, hangs on in Cuba and North Korea, despite the incessant and far-ranging efforts of the United States to crush it.

It should be no surprise that Vaclav Havel, as others whose economic and political supremacy was, for a time, ended by the Reds, was a tireless fighter against socialism, and that he, and others, who sought to reverse the gains of the revolution, were cracked down on, and sometimes muzzled and jailed by the new regimes. To expect otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the determined struggle that is carried on by the enemies of socialism, even after socialist forces have seized power. The forces of reaction retain their money, their movable property, the advantages of education, and above all, their international connections. To grant them complete freedom is to grant them a free hand to organize the downfall of socialism, to receive material assistance from abroad to reverse the revolution, and to elevate the market and private ownership once again to the regulating principles of the economy. Few champions of civil liberties argue that in the interests of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, that Germans ought to be allowed to hold pro-Nazi rallies, establish a pro-Nazi press, and organize fascist political parties, to return to the days of the Third Reich. To survive, any socialist government, must, of necessity, be repressive toward its enemies, who, like Havel, will seek their overthrow and the return of their privileged positions. This is demonized as totalitarianism by those who have an interest in seeing anti-socialist forces prevail, regard civil and political liberties (as against a world of plenty for all) as the pinnacle of human achievement, or have an unrealistically sanguine view of the possibilities for the survival of socialist islands in a sea of predatory capitalist states.

Where Reds have prevailed, the outcome has been far-reaching material gain for the bulk of the population: full employment, free health care, free education through university, free and subsidized child care, cheap living accommodations and inexpensive public transportation. Life expectancy has soared, illiteracy has been wiped out, and homelessness, unemployment and economic insecurity have been abolished. Racial strife and ethnic tensions have been reduced to almost the vanishing point. And inequalities in wealth, income, opportunity, and education have been greatly reduced. Where Reds have been overthrown, mass unemployment, underdevelopment, hunger, disease, illiteracy, homelessness, and racial conflict have recrudesced, as the estates, holdings and privileges of former fat cats have been restored. Communists produced gains in the interest of all humanity, achieved in the face of very trying conditions, including the unceasing hostility of the West and the unremitting efforts of the former exploiters to restore the status quo ante.

1. Howard Zinn, “Beyond the Soviet Union,” Znet Commentary, September 2, 1999.

2. “Left behind by the luxury train,” The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2000.

3. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.

4. Dan Bilefsky, “Polish left gets transfusion of young blood,” The New York Times, March 12, 2010.

5. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.

6. “An epidemic of street kids overwhelms Russian cities,” The Globe and Mail, April 16, 2002.

7. “UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty,” World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.

8. Associated Press, October 11, 2000.

9. “UN report….

10. Paul Cockshott, “Book review: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford”, Marxism-Leninism Today, http://mltoday.com/en/subject-areas/books-arts-and-literature/book-review-red-plenty-986-2.html

11. David Stuckler,  Lawrence King  and Martin McKee, “Mass Privatization and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis:  A Cross-National Analysis,”   Judy Dempsey, “Study looks at mortality in post-Soviet era,” The New York Times, January 16, 2009.

12. “In Post-U.S.S.R. Russia, Any Job Is a Good Job,” New York Times, January 11, 2004.

13. Globe and Mail (Canada), June 9, 2008.

14. “Disdain for Ceausescu passing as economy worsens,” The Globe and Mail, December 23, 1999.

15. James Cross, “Romanians say communism was better than capitalism”, 21st Century Socialism, October 18, 2010. http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/romanians_say_communism_was_better_than_capitalism_02030.html “Opinion poll: 61% of Romanians consider communism a good idea”, ActMedia Romanian News Agency, September 27, 2010. http://www.actmedia.eu/top+story/opinion+poll%3A+61%25+of+romanians+consider+communism+a+good+idea/29726

16. “Bulgarians feel swindled after 13 years of capitalism,” AFP, December 19, 2002.

17. “Bulgaria tribunal examines NATO war crimes,” Workers World, November 9, 2000.

18. Matthew Brunwasser, “Bulgaria still stuck in trauma of transition,” The New York Times, November 11, 2009.

19. Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2002. p. 232-235.

20. “Warm, Fuzzy Feeling for East Germany’s Grey Old Days,” New York Times, January 13, 2004.

21. “Hard lessons in capitalism for Europe’s unions,” The Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2003.

22. New York Times, July 20, 1996, cited in Michael Parenti, “Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism,” City Light Books, San Francisco, 1997, p. 118.

23. Leos Rousek, “Czech playwright, dissident rose to become president”, The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2011.

24. Dan Bilefsky and Jane Perlez, “Czechs’ dissident conscience, turned president”, The New York Times, December 18, 2011.

25. U.S. Department of State, “Summary of Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe,” September 10, 2003. http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/or/2003/31415.htm

26. “Poll shows majority of Hungarians feel life was better under communism,” May 21, 2008, www.politics.hu

27. Cited in Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. “Russia Nw”, in The Washington Post, March 25, 2009.

Written by what's left

December 20, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Kim Jong-il’s Death is a Danger for North Korea, not its Neighbors

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There are a few facts to keep in mind to understand what’s going on in the wake of the death this week of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

#1. US foreign policy vis-a-vis North Korea has always sought to force the latter’s collapse to pave the way for its absorption into the US-dominated South [1] — and did so well before Pyongyang began to work on nuclear weapons. US hostility toward North Korea has never been about nuclear weapons. On the contrary, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a consequence of US hostility. US hostility, now in its seventh decade, is about what it has always been about: putting an end to what Washington mistakenly calls North Korea’s Marxist-Leninist system (Marxism-Leninism has been replaced by Juche ideology—a home-grown doctrine of self-reliance), its non-market system, and its self-directed economic development [2]. None of these offer much latitude for US profit-making at North Korea’s expense, and hence are singled out for demolition.

#2. North Korea only began to seek nuclear weapons after the United States announced in 1993 that it was retargeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles from the former Soviet Union to North Korea. Since then the country has only been able to develop its nuclear capability to a kindergarten level. [3] The plutonium devices it tested in 2006 and 2009 produced only one-tenth the power of the Hiroshima blast. There is no evidence it has miniaturized a warhead to fit atop a missile. And its missile program is plagued by problems. [4]

#3. North Korea is a military pipsqueak, whose personnel are deployed in large numbers to agriculture. The military budgets and weapons’ sophistication of its adversaries, the United States, South Korea and Japan, tower over its own. If the Pentagon’s budget is represented by the 6’ 9” basketball player Magic Johnson, North Korea’s military budget is 1”, about the height of a small mouse. South Korea’s is 4.5” and Japan’s 3.9”, multiple times larger than the North’s. [5]

#4. North Korea has no more military heft to mount a provocation against the United States than a mouse has to beat Magic Johnson on the basketball court. Nor has it the capability to wage a civil war against its southern compatriots and expect to win. North Korea is not an aggressive threat. “In the Obama analysis,” writes New York Times reporter David Sanger, “the North is receding into what the president’s top strategists have repeatedly called a ‘defensive crouch,’ trying to stave off the world with a barrage of missile and nuclear tests…Constantly on the brink of starvation, its military so broke that it cannot train its pilots, it has no illusions about becoming a great power in Asia. Its main goal is survival.” [6]

#5. Because the United States is a military Gargantua compared to North Korea, and South Korea and Japan have better equipped militaries, they can safely stage provocations against the North, forcing Pyongyang into a defense-spending drain of its treasury, bringing closer the realization of the US goal of tipping the country into crisis and possibly collapse. On the other hand, North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party wants to avoid confrontations at all costs, short of surrendering to the demands that it close up shop, and re-open under South Korean management.

#6. Provocations, then, are all on the other side. There are few acts more provocative than the United States’ targeting of North Korea with strategic nuclear missiles, nor former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s warning that the Pentagon could turn North Korea into a charcoal briquette [7]. Six decades of Washington-led economic warfare against the country is equally provocative, and a principal cause of North Korea’s impoverishment. Tens of thousands of US troops are deployed along the North’s southern borders, US warships and nuclear missile-equipped submarines prowl the periphery of its territorial waters, and US warplanes menace its airspace. Pyongyang is only the immediate architect of North Korea’s Songun (military-first) policy. Washington is the ultimate architect. Finally, US and South Korean militaries conduct regular war games exercises, one of which, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, is an exercise in invading North Korea. Who’s provoking who?

#7. Kim Jong Il, the recently deceased North Korean leader–literally depicted in South Korean children’s books as a red devil with horns and fangs [8]–has been equally demonized in the Western mass media for starving his people. It is true that food shortages have plagued the country. But the vilifying Kim obituaries don’t mention why North Koreans are hungry. The answer is sanctions. [9] US foreign policy, like that of the Allied powers in WWI toward Germany, has been to starve its adversary into submission. This isn’t acknowledged, for obvious reasons. First, it would reveal the inhumane lengths to which US foreign policy is prepared to reach to secure its goals. And second, North Korean hunger must be used to discredit public ownership and a central planning as a workable economic model. North Koreans are hungry, the anti-Communist myth goes, because socialism doesn’t work. The truth of the matter is that North Koreans are hungry because Washington has made them so. Not surprisingly, calls by humanitarian groups for the United States to deliver food aid are being brushed aside with a litany of bizarre excuses, the latest being that food aid can’t be delivered because Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-eun, has succeeded him. [10] Huh? The real reason food aid won’t be delivered is because it would contradict US foreign policy. The United States once considered the death of half a million Iraqi children “worth it”. [11] Its leaders would consider the sanctions-produced demise through starvation of as many North Koreans worth it, as well.

#8. The death of Kim Jong-il is a potential boon for US foreign policy. There is a possibility of disorganization within the leadership, and internal conflicts leading to a fraying unity of purpose. Rather than focusing on external threats, the leadership may be divided, and pre-occupied with succession. If so, this is, from the perspective of the United States and South Korea, a pivotal moment—a time when the country may be tipped into collapse. And so, at this moment, who would you expect to unleash a provocation: Pyongyang? Or Washington and Seoul? At the best of times, Pyongyang wants to avoid a fight. At this critical juncture, it absolutely needs to. But the calculus works the other way round for the predators. Now is when North Korea is most vulnerable to predation.

#9. Predators never let on that they’re the hunters. Always they portray themselves as seeking to safeguard their security against the multiple threats of a dangerous world. Through guile and cunning, the mouse might just outmanoeuvre Magic Johnson and sink a basket or two. So it is that the United States, South Korea and Japan are said to be on high alert, in case the North Koreans stage another “provocation,” like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan (for which the evidence of North Korean involvement is laughably thin at best [12]) or another Yeonpyeong Island artillery barrage (which the South set off by firing its own artillery into disputed waters, that, under international customary law, belong to the North. [13])

But as we’ve seen, it makes no sense to expect the scenario of a North Korean-furnished provocation to unfold. The more likely explanation for why US, South Korean and Japanese militaries are on high alert is because now is an ideal time for pressure on Pyongyang to be intensified, and because the triumvirate might be preparing to intervene militarily if conditions become propitious.

1. New York Times reporter David Sanger (“What ‘engagement’ with Iran and North Korea means,” The New York Times, June 17, 2009) notes that “American presidents have been certain they could … speed (North Korea’s) collapse, since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.” At the same time, Korea expert Selig S. Harrison has written that “South Korea is once again seeking the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” (“What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.)
2. According to Dianne E. Rennack, (“North Korea: Economic sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, October 17, 2006) many US sanctions have been imposed on North Korea for reasons listed as either “communism”, “non-market economy” or “communism and market disruption.”
3. In an article on Newt Gingrich’s fantasies about North Korea or Iran setting off a nuclear device far above US territory in order to unleash an electromagnetic pulse attack, New York Times’ reporter William J. Broad cites a US military expert who characterizes “the nations in question (as being) at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.” (“Among Gingrich’s passions, a doomsday vision”, The New York Times, December 11, 2011.)
4. Keith Johnson, “Pyongyang neighbors worry over nuclear arms”, The Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2011
5. The annual military budgets in billions are: United States, $700; North Korea, $10; South Korea, $39; Japan, $34. With the exception of the Pentagon’s budget, annual military expenditures were estimated by multiplying a country’s GDP by its military spending as a percentage of GDP, as estimated by the CIA and reported in its World Factbook. The source for the Pentagon’s military budget is Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
6. David Sanger, “What ‘engagement’ with Iran and North Korea means,” The New York Times, June 17, 2009.
7. “Colin Powell said we would…turn North Korea into a ‘charcoal briquette,’ I mean that’s the way we talk to North Korea, even though the mainstream media doesn’t pay attention to that kind of talk. A charcoal briquette.” Bruce Cumings, “Latest North Korean provocations stem from missed US opportunities for demilitarizaton,” Democracy Now!, May 29, 2009.
8. David E. Sanger, “A ruler who turned North Korea into a nuclear state”, The New York Times, December 18, 2011.
9. See Stephen Gowans, “Amnesty International botches blame for North Korea’s crumbling healthcare”, What’s Left, July 20, 2010. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/amnesty-international-botches-blame-for-north-korea%E2%80%99s-crumbling-healthcare/
10. Evan Ramstad and Jay Solomon, “Dictator’s death stokes fears”, The Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2011.
11. Asked about a UN estimate that sanctions had killed 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five, then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said infamously, “It’s a hard choice, but I think, we, think, it’s worth it.” 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbIX1CP9qr4. Retrieved June 19, 2011
12. See Tim Beal’s Crisis in Korea: American, China and the Risk of War. Pluto Press. 2011.
13. See Tim Beal, “Theatre of war: Smoke and mirrors on the Korean peninsula on the anniversary of the Yeonpyeong incident,” Pyongyang Report V13 N2, December 6, 2011 http://www.timbeal.net.nz/geopolitics/Theatre_of_War9.pdf and Stephen Gowans, “US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in Yellow Sea”, What’s Left, December 5, 2010. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/us-ultimately-to-blame-for-korean-skirmishes-in-yellow-sea/

Written by what's left

December 20, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Posted in north Korea

Vaclav Havel: Fought to Restore Ill-Gotten Wealth

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By Stephen Gowans

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright turned President, came from a prominent, vehemently anti-socialist Prague family. Havel’s father was a wealthy real estate tycoon, who developed a number of Prague properties.

One was the Lucerna Palace, “a pleasure palace…of arcades, theatres, cinemas, night-clubs, restaurants, and ballrooms,” according to Frommer’s. It became “a popular spot for the city’s nouveau riche to congregate,” including a young Havel, who, raised in the lap of luxury by a governess and chauffeured around town, “spent his earliest years on the Lucerna’s polished marble floors.”

Then, tragedy struck – at least, from Havel’s point of view. The Reds expropriated Lucerna and the family’s other holdings, and put them to use for the common good, rather than for the purpose of providing the young Havel with more servants.

Four decades later, Havel, as president –celebrated throughout the West as a champion of intellectual freedom — presided over a mass return of nationalized property, including Lucerna and his family’s other holdings. As a business investment, Havel’s anti-communism proved to be quite profitable.

A champion of intellectual freedom, or the formerly pampered scion of an establishment family who had a material stake in seeing socialism overthrown?

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December 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Fall 1941: Pearl Harbor and The Wars of Corporate America

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By Jacques R. Pauwels

Myth: The US was forced to declare war on Japan after a totally unexpected Japanese attack on the American naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. On account of Japan’s alliance with Nazi Germany, this aggression automatically brought the US into the war against Germany.

Reality: The Roosevelt administration had been eager for some time to wage war against Japan and sought to unleash such a war by means of the institution of an oil embargo and other provocations. Having deciphered Japanese codes, Washington knew a Japanese fleet was on its way to Pearl Harbor, but welcomed the attack since a Japanese aggression would make it possible to “sell” the war to the overwhelmingly anti-war American public.

An attack by Japan, as opposed to an American attack on Japan, was also supposed to avoid a declaration of war by Japan’s ally, Germany, which was treaty-bound to help only if Japan was attacked. However, for reasons which have nothing to do with Japan or the US but everything with the failure of Germany’s “lightning war” against the Soviet Union, Hitler himself declared war on the US a few days after Pearl Harbor, on December 11, 1941.

Continued

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December 16, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Posted in WWII

Kindergarten Threats

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By Stephen Gowans

New York Times reporter William J. Broad wrote today about the apocalyptic vision of fiction-writer and Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. [1] Gingrich warns that U.S. bêtes noire Iran or North Korea could send the United States back to the Middle Ages, detonating a nuclear missile high above the United States, which would create an electromagnetic pulse that knocks out anything that runs on electricity.

“Millions would die in the first week alone,” Gingrich cautions in the foreword to “One Second After,” a novel written by William R. Forstchen, a Gingrich friend and co-writer with Gingrich of historical novels. The novel describes a calamitous scenario in which an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack cripples the United States.

Gingrich announced before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in May 2009 that he favored “taking out Iranian and North Korean missiles on their sites” to prevent either country from delivering an EMP Armageddon to the United States.

Gingrich is not alone in calling for strikes on Iran and North Korea.

In a March 30, 2010 piece, Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus wrote that the then head of the US strategic nuclear command, former astronaut General Kevin P. Chilton, had told US senators that “no nuclear power has been conquered or even put at risk of conquest.” Chillingly, Pincus added that Chilton’s observation is something that “others in government ought to ponder as they watch Iran and North Korea seek to develop nuclear capability”…a not so veiled call for wars to prevent North Korea and Iran from eliminating the risk of their being conquered. [2]

Equally chillingly, in a July 18, 2008 New York Times op-ed, Israeli historian Benny Morris urged the United States “to use bombs to stave off war”…that is, for “the US to use its formidable military to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities”. (Using bombs to stave off war is like using famine to stave off hunger.) To make his case, Morris constructed a fantasy about Israel being “threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders,” adding bizarrely that they “are likely to use any bomb they build…because of fear of Israeli nuclear pre-emption.” [3] In other words, because Israel threatens to pre-empt Iran, Iran must be pre-empted, otherwise it might pre-empt Israel’s pre-emption.

Creating Fictions

As the Cold War drew to a close, Colin Powell, at the time the top US solider, warned: “I’m running out of demons, I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and (then North Korean leader) Kim Il Sung.” [4] On the eve of the Soviet Union’s demise, cold warriors Robert McNamara, Carl Kaysen and George W. Rathjens echoed Powell’s warning in an autumn 1991 Foreign Policy piece: “With the end of the Cold War,” they wrote, “it is hard to construct even a semi-plausible military threat to the United States.” [5]

Keen to keep US taxes flowing to the Pentagon and straight to the bottom lines of Lockheed-Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and other profit-soaked US defense contractors, US officials took on what the cold warriors envisaged as a difficult task. They puffed up military midgets into military Gargantua, and found dire threats—an alleged genocide in Kosovo and WMDs in Iraq—where none existed. 9/11 sealed the deal.

Today Pentagon chief Leon Panetta can cite “North Korea and Iran as persistent threats” which the US military must remain bulked up to “to deter and defeat,” [6] with few people batting an eye. At $700 billion per year [7], US military spending is greater than that of the next 19 biggest spending countries combined, [8] many of which are US allies, and none of which are North Korea or Iran. And the New York Times turn over its pages to the Benny Morrises of the world as a platform to urge the United States to prevent wars by waging more of them. It turns out that Powell’s and McNamara’s fears that the United States had run out of demons to justify the pumping of billions in profits into defense contractors were based on a misjudgment of the prowess of the propaganda system to crank out compelling fiction.

Getting Gingrich

Maybe it was a desire to discredit Gingrich, a Republican whose hand on the tiller of the ship of state may be too frightening for the liberal New York Times to contemplate that led Broad to puncture some of the myths that have been carefully constructed about Iran and North Korea as nuclear menaces–myths the Times itself has been no stranger to lending credence to. Whatever the case, the Broad article ran against form, challenging Gingrich’s fear-mongering.

Broad cited Philip E. Coyle III, a former head of Pentagon arms testing, who has complained that Gingrich and his fellow fear-mongers are puffing up Iran and North Korea “with the capabilities of giants.” Broad then pointed to other military experts who say that North Korea and Iran “are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.” To this might be added that it’s far from certain that Iran is even at the kindergarten stage, while North Korea, the most sanctioned country on earth [9], will find its US-imposed poverty keeps it at the kindergarten stage well into the future.

“To even begin to attempt to do what Mr. Gingrich fears,” Broad writes, Iran and North Korea “would have to perfect big rockets, powerful bombs and surreptitious ways to loft them high above America.” Yet “Iran is having trouble keeping its missile bases from blowing up and North Korea cannot seem to get a big rocket off the ground without it tumbling out of control.”

Broad’s reporting deflates myths about an EMP attack, but it is just as damning to the more widely-circulated myths about North Korea and Iran threatening the United States and its allies with a garden variety nuclear strike.

The Real Threat

Still, it’s true that both countries pose a threat—though not a military one and not to the bulk of US citizens. Iran and North Korea, like Gaddafi’s Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, defy a US-favored regime of free-trade, free-markets and free-enterprise–one that opens doors to US enterprises and keeps foreign profits pouring into Wall Street.

According to the US Congressional Research Service, numerous US sanctions have been imposed on North Korea for reasons listed as either “communism”, “non-market economy” or “communism and market disruption.” [10] Iran, as the US Congress of Library’s country study documents [11], favors a host of state-led economic development measures that, like North Korea’s publically-owned and planned economy, walls off large parts of the country’s markets, resources and labor from foreign corporations, banks and investors.

It is the limitations on US elite economic interests, and the threat of their becoming a model for other developing countries, that drives Gingrich, Pincus and others to puff up military pipsqueaks into giants and to elevate kindergarten students into MIT graduates. Transformed into threats, they become seemingly legitimate targets for all manner of aggressions—sabotage, economic warfare, funding of overthrow movements, military harassment, and, at times, overt war. The aim is replace leaders who favor independent, self-directed economic development, with puppets who will throw open the country’s doors to US exports and investment and co-operate with the United States militarily.

Marionettes

Burhan Ghalioun is a fine example of an aspiring puppet. He is the president of the Syrian National Council, an exile group linked to the Movement for Justice and Development [12]. The latter has received $6 million in US government funding to organize opposition to the Assad government, according to a WikiLeaks cable [13]. The supplicant marionette, who has met with Hilary Clinton and has already persuaded French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and British Foreign Secretary William Hague to declare his organization “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people” [14] is promising US officials that if they bring him to power he will “cut Damascus’s military relationship to Iran and end arms supplies to Middle East militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas” while integrating Syria with “the region’s major Arab powers”, [15] a reference to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the club of US-allied oil tyrannies which recently used military force to crack down on a democratic uprising in Bahrain, a member country, and home to the US 5th Fleet, the main military threat against Iran. (Bahrain, for the record, is a foreign investor’s paradise, ranking number 10 on the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom). Ghalioun’s eagerness to become entangled with a conspiracy of democracy-abominating absolute monarchies speaks volumes about his commitment to democracy and the direction of a possible Syrian National Council-led revolution in Syria.

1. William J. Broad, “Among Gingrich’s passions, a doomsday vision”, The New York Times, December 11, 2011.
2. Walter Pincus, “As missions are added, Stratcom commander keeps focus on deterrence”, The Washington Post, March 30, 2010.
3. Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” New York Times, July 18, 2008.
4. Carl Kaysen, Robert S. McNamara and George W. Rathjens, “Nuclear Weapons After the Cold War”, Foreign Affairs, Fall 1991.
5. Ibid.
6. Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
7. Ibid.
8. “Defence spending: The world’s biggest armies in stats,” The Daily Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/8002911/Defence-spending-the-worlds-biggest-armies-in-stats.html
9. Then US President George W. Bush had called North Korea “the most sanctioned nation in the world”. U.S. News & World Report, June 26, 2008; The New York Times, July 6, 2008.
10. Dianne E. Rennack, “North Korea: Economic sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, October 17, 2006. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/rl31696.pdf
11. The Library of Congress. Iran: A Country Study. 2008. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/irtoc.html
12. The leader of the Movement for Justice and Democracy is Anas Al-Abdah. He is a member of the SNC.
13. James Rosen, “U.S. Fears Syrian Reprisals After WikiLeaks Disclosure,” FoxNew.com, April 18, 2011.
14. Jay Solomon, “Clinton Meets With Syrian Opposition”, The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2011.
15. Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “Syria would cut Iran military tie, opposition head says”, The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011

Written by what's left

December 12, 2011 at 11:50 pm

70 Years Ago, December 1941: Turning Point of World War II

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by Jacques R. Pauwels

World War II started, at least as far as the “European Theatre” was concerned, with the German army steamrolling over Poland in September, 1939. About six months later, even more spectacular victories followed, this time over the Benelux Countries and France. By the summer of 1940, Germany looked invincible and predestined to rule the European continent indefinitely. (Great Britain admittedly refused to throw in the towel, but could not hope to win the war on its own, and had to fear that Hitler would soon turn his attention to Gibraltar, Egypt, and/or other jewels in the crown of the British Empire.) Five years later, Germany experienced the pain and humiliation of total defeat. On April 20, 1945, Hitler committed suicide in Berlin as the Red Army bulldozed its way into the city, reduced to a heap of smoking ruins, and on May 8/9 German surrendered unconditionally. Clearly, then, sometime between late 1940 and 1944 the tide had turned rather dramatically. But when, and where? In Normandy in 1944, according to some; at Stalingrad, during the winter of 1942-43, according to others. In reality, the tide turned in December 1941 in the Soviet Union, more specifically, in the barren plain just west of Moscow. As a German historian, an expert on the war against the Soviet Union, has put it: “That victory of the Red Army [in front of Moscow] was unquestionably the major break [Zäsur] of the entire world war.”[1]

Continues here.

Written by what's left

December 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Posted in Soviet Union, WWII

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