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My Experience with Communism

I was about nine years old when my grandfather got the bad news. The communists had confiscated his 120 hectares of farmland in western Slovakia and put it into a collective farm. Even though he had left it to his family to operate for the previous 30 years, the land was still in his name. It was his big connection to “the old country.”

The lawyer my grandfather was communicating with told him that many other landowners were affected in this way, except they were now former landowners. I kind of understood the story the adults were telling me; kind of not. But it was a blow to my grandfather.

My grandfather passed away just before the Velvet Revolution. My father made contact with his Slovak family shortly after. He was met by welcoming relatives. Both my sister and I followed suit a year later.

I was teaching English for a Slovak factory of about 300 workers. My students were somewhat fluent in Russian and German and could see the future for Slovak business was with English.

We in the West often wonder why the Velvet Revolution did not happen much earlier. It seems natural for us to have opposed such an authoritarian regime. If we would have done it, why couldn’t they have done it? One of my students gave me a big insight into the nature of communism.

Fero Vranka was a young chemist in the factory. I was leading the English conversation practice: “What will you be doing on the weekend, Fero?” Fero gave his reply in broken English: “I am build my house.” I was under the impression that communists did not encourage home ownership, let alone house building. There were lots of ugly, high-rise, prefab apartment buildings, called “paneloks,” for citizens to call their home. So I had more questions for Fero. He happily told me his story, which stretched his English abilities. And I learned some new things about communism.

Every Saturday, Fero and a few friends and family members (usually male) would congregate at his little plot of land in the suburbs of his town. The communist government supplied the land and all the building material at a very subsidized price. Fero and his crew supplied the labor and construction know-how. This project took about three or four years of Saturdays. Then Fero would move his family out of his panelok apartment building and into the new house. He had accomplished something great and earned respect as a Slovak man.

It was expected that Fero would then use his Saturdays to help build the new houses of the men who had helped him.

I quickly saw the construction subsidy as a social relief valve. It was a great way to channel young men into doing something positive rather than being a source of political trouble for the government. Spare time and energy were occupied by house building. And these men were then indebted to the communist government for acquiring a much better home. The communists were astute about the psychology of governing.

Another social relief valve was sports. There were all sorts of avenues for young people to occupy themselves in sports. Perhaps the best sport for social relief was football (“soccer” in North American talk). Czechoslovakia had four football leagues. A young man only had to be minimally competent to play for the fourth, lower league. This fourth league was a bit of a joke, mostly a good excuse for boys to spend time at the tavern after a game. While a young man could stay in that fourth league until his late 30s, many of them grew up before then. Other young men used the fourth league as a steppingstone to gain enough skills and notice to move into the higher leagues. Players in the first league earned a top salary in the communist scale. A few of these players made it to western Europe to earn much bigger money. The communist government financed much of the operations of these four leagues. Again, keeping young men with lots of energy and time away from causing political problems.

A year later, I was in a pub in Ostrava with a Czech fellow named Marek. He was in his late 20s and working as a school teacher. His world had been turned upside down with the Velvet Revolution.

Marek was not building a house or playing football on the weekends. Instead, he was going to communist school. He wanted to join the Communist Party. One did not join this political party by paying a small fee and reciting an oath or two. Being a communist required some training. So, Marek studied communist-inspired economics, sociology, philosophy, and a few other things on the weekends. This was almost a second university degree. He made connections with other aspiring communists. He passed his written tests, and other communist members vouched for his good character. He got his communist membership and looked forward to many more meetings where he and fellow communists would direct the future of their country. Marek wanted to be influential in his society.

And all of Marek’s communist work was lost with the Velvet Revolution. He did not like the western democracy erupting around him, with rank amateurs winning elections to be in governance. I didn’t know Marek well, but I thought he was too soft spoken to be of influence within western democratic structures.

Being a former political junkie, I was interested in Marek’s experience in the Communist Party. He only had a year in the party, so he didn’t rise too high before the crash. What he told me was different from our perception of communism.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was fairly democratic. Some members campaigned for positions and gave speeches. Others worked the sidelines, trying to influence other members. There were often intense debates within the party. The members voted on issues often, with the losing side accepting the direction of the winning side. Elections were done with proper membership lists, secret ballots, and open counting of ballots. But all this democracy belonged to only 5% of the Czech and Slovak population.

Being a member of the Communist Party was another social relief valve. That’s where Marek put his spare time and energy.

We in the west like to belittle communists. But when we peel back the anti-communist rhetoric, we can see that the communists were applying some wisdom to their governance, trying to make average citizens happy. They knew they had to offer some social relief valves to those citizens outside their power structure. These valves kept many young people, with lots of time and energy, occupied in a direction that would not become a political problem.

But obviously, the social relief valves were not enough. Czechoslovak communism lasted only 40 years.

I am bringing up this 40-year lifespan for an important reason.

Today it is plausible that the great democratic nation of the United States of America might soon become a one-party state. The Republicans are behaving in a way that can only be explained by this future being inevitable. They see it; they are preparing for it; they look forward to their higher position in a new pecking order of American society. Whether they realize it or not, they are following a known game plan for their objective. And there are enough of them willing to enforce whatever new political rules—formal or informal—that will bring in and retain this Republican oligarchy.

The next question is: How well will the Republicans govern? Of course, that is a matter of opinion of what constitutes good governance. We could say that the Czechoslovak Communists were not that great at governance because they got only 40 years.

If system longevity is our measuring stick, I would give today’s Republican Party only a decade to run things their way before their curtain drops down and they are thrown off the stage. I do not see Republican governance being anywhere close to the capacity and quality as the pre-1989 communist governors of Czechoslovakia.

Of course, another plausible outcome is that the USA somehow continues to bumble its way with its current precarious political balance. Maybe another 10,000 left-wing articles on Medium will tip the balance to prevent this one-party state after the 2022 or 2024 elections. But is holding this tipping point really sustainable? What if the political right finds a more capable leader? In my opinion, hoping for the current system to somehow fix itself is like dancing the tango at the edge of a cliff. Eventually there is going to be a misstep with a big consequence.

The history of the near future of the USA has already been written. The social/political forces are just too large for another 10,000 Medium political articles to influence whether the USA will have a decade-long, one-party state or the USA continues to bumble into the next political crisis. There is no good long-term outlook, is there?

What the USA really needs is for 1% of Americans to look beyond this near future, whatever that near future might be. It is time for them to build a new democracy. New electoral structures and a new political culture are necessary. This will take time and effort. The sooner the early builders start building, the sooner the new system will be built.

Someday, the clouds will lift. Many Americans will finally realize: “Our traditional way has not been working for a long time. Is there another way?”

Hopefully that new democracy—built by average Americans who had worked together to build this better system—will be ready to answer that question with: “We are here! We are here!”

Published on Medium 2021

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