Whatever Happened to Eastern European Communism?

“[In Bulgaria] after 1989 there was [a] group of British experts who came to give advice on democracy. . . . There was a man in this delegation who warned me about the baby in the bath. He saw what was going to happen. There were a lot of good things that were achieved by socialism, but we threw the baby out in the water.” “Veneta”

Kristen Ghodsee has written an elegant book on a forbidden topic: The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe (Duke University Press, 2015). Ghodsee, an ethnographer and professor at Bowdoin College, had written several books about the status of women in post-communist Bulgaria. This book connects history and current conditions with a central theme: that there were idealists in the making and governing of communist Bulgaria, and that to some extent their ideals were realized, especially in regard to women’s rights.

Ghodsee is aware of the danger of her conclusions:

“There were big risks in trying to tackle Cold War stereotypes. . . . There was no need for official censorship when all of the scholars learned to censor themselves. [I]t might be easier to assert that the moon landing was staged than it would be to argue that there was anything good about the communist past.” (133)

As an anthropologist, Ghodsee had slightly more freedom to break this taboo than those in my field, political science. For us, the only politically correct approach was to identify all aspects of communism anywhere with Stalin-totalitarianism-terror; there was no point in trying to discover what was really happening in Mongolia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and all the other red devils, including of course the USSR. A few Marxists were tolerated in US university departments, but most of them were especially careful to say that those “actually existing” places had nothing in common with their own ideals. Among the rare and fair studies of communist Bulgaria was economist Robert McIntyre’s Bulgaria: Politics, Economics and Society.

In this review essay, I will include my observations of the Bulgarian story, based on a study trip to Bulgaria, reading in English sources, and extensive correspondence with those I had met while there. I am not an expert on Bulgaria, but include my two cents because the subject, and the perspective, are underexposed. Information provided by Ghodsee and her informants will be so indicated; do not hold her responsible for my comments.

The idea for The Left Side of History occurred accidentally, when Ghodsee got into a conversation with Freeman Dyson; both were teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. When she mentioned that she was going to work in Bulgaria, Dyson asked her to find out about the fate of leftsidehis old schoolmate Frank Thompson (brother of historian E.P. Thompson). During World War II, Thompson had been sent by the British government to join the partisans of Bulgaria, to weaken the fascist Nazi-allied Bulgarian government, and perhaps force it to renounce its Axis alliance.

Ghodsee then delved into the history of the Bulgarian partisans, and with the help of their memoirs, she described their daily life in hiding. Led by the Bulgarian Communist Party, they were not only fighting against the fascist government, but wanted to institute a more just society. One family is described in detail, the Lagadinovs. Elena joined her 3 brothers in the mountain stronghold of resistance when she was 14, in 1944. She survived, and was celebrated as a hero in the revolutionary society. One of the brothers, Kostadin, also survived the war and became a general.

The partisans were militarily weak; Frank Thomson was killed in an ambush. However, the Red Army liberated Bulgaria. Its presence certainly aided the communist revolution; they did not “install” the government. At first, the nation tried to follow an independent form of socialism; by 1950, Stalin made this impossible. On the other side of history the capitalist armies (along with the CIA) promoted capitalist governments in Western Europe; that occupation still exists. Those countries managed to follow an independent form of capitalism, social democracy, but that ideology’s commitment to peace and international law was not permitted by the hegemon.

Ghodsee’s story turned to ethnographic studies in 2013, when she interviewed Elena. She had married, had 2 children, and was a successful research scientist in genetics. In 1967, her career was interrupted when Elena was pressed into service by Todor Zhivkov’s government. Bulgarian women were possibly the most advanced in the world in terms of equality in education and occupation, but they weren’t having many babies. Elena was to head the Women’s Committee with the mission of increasing the birthrate. She conducted a survey and concluded that the government must provide paid maternity leave and childcare facilities; it must not outlaw abortion as in Romania. The government balked at the cost, but Elena insisted, and it happened.

Indeed, I was impressed when I visited Bulgaria in May 1989. The government provided loans to buy a flat (most were privately owned) upon marriage. Those who had three children were forgiven 70% of the loan. University students who had children were given special privileges. For example, they could postpone their exams for years and take them whenever they felt ready. Maternity leave at full pay was available for one month before childbirth and six months after. In addition, two years leave could be taken at the minimum wage, and in all cases, jobs had to be held open for the person taking the leave. Most often, it was the mother, but the father, grandmother, aunt, or others could take this two year leave. Maternity leave counted as service toward retirement. Once a parent returned to work there were also special provisions, for example, exemptions from after-hours meetings, and fully paid leave if a child was ill under a doctor’s care. Nurseries were available for working parents. It was common for grandmothers, upon retirement at the legal age for women, 55, to take the paid leave to care for their grandchildren. Abortion was legal, but could be more difficult to obtain if the woman had not had at least two children. On the other hand, unplanned births were rare. I was told that unmarried women who had children were mostly highly educated women who could not find husbands.

Despite the socialist commitment to equality, patriarchal and sexist attitudes persisted. Members of the Committee of Bulgarian Women told me that Roma girls were the best pupils, but unfortunately, their parents withdrew them from school around the age of 13 for marriage, usually to much older men. Women were represented well in occupations by world standards, but the political and industrial leadership was mostly male.

Contradicting the politically correct epithet “totalitarian,” the Bulgarian way of life differed from ours by the persistence of the traditional family structure. Three generations often lived together, and in any case were close enough for constant visiting. The country is small (and fares, even airfares, were low) so that frequent returns to old folks who lived in rural villages were common.

Other informants who had served on the Committee of the Bulgarian Women’s Movement were Veneta and Anelia. The latter was not a communist party member, but had served on the Women’s Committee’s international work as a translator and writer. Censorship had required her to write that there was poverty, unemployment, crime, etc., in capitalist countries. At the time, she thought these were lies; merely government propaganda. Now Anelia told Ghodsee: “Communism was like Cassandra. It told the truth. But it couldn’t change the future because no one believed it.” (154)

I noted in 1989 that even educated people, and those in the Communist Party, rejected the information of their own government, while accepting without question the capitalist propaganda and adopting its values. I was amazed at the esteem held by Madonna, skateboards, and Revlon products. This was one reason for the success of the overthrow movements of 1990.

What happened? Why did communism end rather than proceed on the reformist road? Here are my reflections, informed by but not attributable to Ghodsee. By 1989, people were doing well, not only in Bulgaria, but in many nations of the red world. My standards of evaluation, created for a course I taught during the 1980s, “Capitalism and Communism,” were based on reliable reporters (scholars or journalists) and indicators (from UN statistics) related to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: social, cultural, and economic well-being, as well as political and civil rights. Thus, standard of living, education, political participation, ethnic rights, and freedom of expression were among the criteria.

Comparisons were made between a country’s quality of life before and after socialist revolution, and between a capitalist and communist country at similar levels of economic development, according to GDP per capita. Bulgaria was not compared to Sweden or the United States, but to Greece. Students in the seminar focused on one field, for example, education, sports, or women’s status, and compared pairs such as China and India, Cuba and Jamaica, Mongolia and Jordan, Hungary and Spain, Czechoslovakia and Ireland, East and West Germany, etc. In most cases, the capitalist countries were considerably wealthier by GDP standards, but much less equal in distribution. Particular attention was paid to the status of women, minorities, the lowest paid, farmers, children, and the elderly. Because of the immensity and prejudices of such a project, the United States was not directly compared to the USSR, although a fine comparison was part of the course, J. K. Galbraith and S. Menshikov’s Capitalism, Communism, and Coexistence. Today we can compare the communist systems to what came after, and this is a major happening throughout the ex-red world, although little of it leaks into the Western press.

Bulgaria, like many others, had been a fascist country since the 1920s, with little freedom or equality. After its communist revolution, a decent standard of living gradually emerged; women, workers, farmers, and the elderly were protected by a social safety net. The Roma minority were assimilated, if willing; others could follow nomadic occupations such as street carnivals; and housing and education were provided for all. Violent crime, death by fire, and other breaches of homeland security, so common in the United States, were extremely rare. Men were required to serve in the military for a short period, but they did not go abroad to get killed and maimed, and murder thousands of foreigners. People did not live on the streets, and prostitution was not an industry. University education was free. Students upon graduation served for three years in their specialties, but in a location selected by government.

As in all countries, there were many imperfections, some serious. There were shortages, sometimes of essential items, not just luxuries. An impressive cultural life existed, despite censorship and repression. Fear of subversion (not irrational) resulted in surveillance and political prisoners. Most people lived a life untroubled by the authorities, yet, as Ghodsee’s informant Anelia pointed out, they accepted the political oppression of others passively, rather than protesting and taking action. This, I discovered, was true even of rank and file Communist Party members, who would have had some influence if they had tried to exert it. CP members, about 10% of the population, had both extra duties and personal advantages.

Hazardous chemical industries and a nuclear power plant posed great risks to the environment and human health. Protests by Ecoglasnost, mostly against transnational pollution from Romania, opened cracks in the regime through which both native disaffection and subversion could enter. Although constraints on Bulgarian communism exerted by the USSR was a major hindrance to national independence, in this matter it was not entirely at fault. Stalin wanted Bulgaria to remain an agricultural country—the breadbasket of the COMECON. Zhivkov would have none of that, and so hastily and carelessly, often with obsolete and dangerous equipment, Bulgaria industrialized.

Among the industries introduced was computer software, which Bulgaria supplied to partners in the communist bloc. Yet East and West trade was increasing, and Bulgarian hi-tech was not competitive with the capitalist versions. With the gradual disintegration of the communist economic collaboration, the Bulgarian economy was in trouble. Its low tech production, for example, of rose oil, was superior to all, but apparently not enough to sustain a participant in international trade and financing.

Another fatal flaw was the government’s campaign to force the Turk population to change their names, under the pretext that they were really Bulgarians who had been subject to previous Turkish colonization.

Ghodsee’s informants agreed that the leaders no longer shared the idealism of the revolution. They were materialistic, and cherished their privileges. Although these were mild by US elite standards, the population was especially resentful of their foreign travel, cronyism, and nepotism. My informants expressed anger at the Communist hierarchy, “because their children always got the best jobs.” Objections were to the principals, not the principles of a socialist society, except for a common opinion that foreign contract firms were better for creating industries or public works projects, because Bulgarians would not enforce work discipline on their fellow citizens.

One reason for the anger of young people was that despite socialist “manpower” planning, there were more highly educated people than suitable jobs. Many graduates, along with the superabundance of superb opera singers, reluctantly chose to emigrate for appropriate work. All the socialist societies were not egalitarian, but meritocracies. They did not try to follow the proposal of Charles Fourier, echoed by Marx and Engels, to abolish the division of labor. In such a system, people would perform a variety of jobs, including some drudgery, and would be experts in some tasks and novices in others. There would not be a class of drudges, or losers. At a time of rapid economic growth, Bulgaria imported Vietnamese workers for additional labor, but when stagnation set in, their presence created resentment. “Real” socialism was sowing the seeds of its own destruction by having excellent professional and technical training that created high expectations of careers and disdain for manual work.

It wasn’t merely the leaders who were materialistic. They fostered consumerist values in the general population, promoting the idea that socialism was better than capitalism because it would eventually produce more and better things and distribute them to everyone. That was the intent of Khrushchev’s unfortunately ambiguous statement: “We will bury you.” Communist governments were measuring their success by the increase in calories consumed (despite rising tides of obesity), and also tobacco and alcohol per capita. Such congratulatory statistical tables can be seen in Erwin Marquit’s The Socialist Countries.

Paradoxically, among those who helped to jettison socialism were those who thought capitalism would deliver the goods better and faster, and those who objected to the whole idea. There were idealists who rejected the conflation of socialism and stuff, and hoped for a society of equality, justice, compassion, cooperation and peace. These people, as discussed in Communism Unwrapped, edited by Paulina Bren and Mary Neuburger, were not going to lift a finger to defend the fat princes of communism. They deplored the ideology of economic growth and infinite technological advancement; these would not be needed in a healthy society of shared work, social safety net, and international peace.

The cold war must also be factored in. The “soft” side included very effective propaganda, emitted by both government, for example, Voice of America, and commercial sources like Hollywood movies and TV shows. Bulgarians had a tendency to reject their own very fine culture of folk music and dance, humor (I attended the Humor Festival in Gabrovo), and natural approaches to health and cosmetics. In addition, they appeared to have an “inferiority complex” about their nation in general. Thus they were susceptible to the idea that foreign ways were better.

Many of the elite—managers, intellectuals, university students—participated in exchange programs, were affiliated with international NGOs, especially the human rights groups that arose out of the Helsinki accords, and attended foundation-sponsored conferences. These people often had reason to believe that abandoning socialism would benefit them personally. Zbigniew Brzezinski was not off-base when he predicted that communism would be defeated not by the force of atomic bombs but by the politics of knowledge and information technology, which would transform professional elites. The loosening of USSR’s control over Eastern European countries gave them space to reject communism, but it did not require them to do so.

Covert action also came into play, especially after the Bulgarian Socialist Party won elections in 1990 and later. Student mobs made governing impossible; the ringleaders subsequently were studying on scholarships at U.S. universities. William Blum’s Killing Hope documents these activities as well as anti-socialist subversion throughout the world.

Another cause for socialism’s defeat may be more general; whether it is genetically determined I do not know. People wanted something different, while taking for granted what they had. The younger generation were not very clear about why their grandparents had supported a communist revolution. They hadn’t experienced the poverty and the fascism, and, in addition, the propaganda in favor of socialism was not very effective. Creating a socialist society and sustaining it require different personalities, techniques, and incentives.

Perhaps some who demanded equality only wanted to be equal to the privileged rather than eliminate classes. Socialist men, like the regular ones, often have difficulty accepting the equality of women. There are surely other reasons why socialism ended, and what weight to give each factor remains to be estimated by historians, social scientists, and activists.

To return to Ghodsee’s narrative. She found that in 2013, despite many years of transition and healing, even those who had not been Communist Party members or even supportive of communism were appalled by the current situation in Bulgaria, including the huge inequalities and their own loss of jobs, social safety net, homes, and even heating fuel. Attempts to survive for both rulers and the ordinary citizens included crime, drugs, prostitution, and migration.

The Left Side of History is a stimulating study and a delightful read. It should provoke other fearless ones to collaborate in solving the major mysteries of our time: what was communism really like, and why did it end in an array of countries, but not everywhere?

Note: “Frank Thompson was not killed in an ambush.  He was captured in an ambush and held for several weeks by the Bulgarians before being taken out and executed in absolute violation of the Geneva Convention.  He was a uniformed British officer and should have be held as a POW until the end of the war, but instead he was shot.  This is a very key point in the book because it highlights the brutality of the Bulgarian WWII regime.”

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996). A narrative of her Bulgarian travels is on her web site: www.joanroelofs.wordpress.com  and photos of Bulgaria 1989 are at travelroelofs.shutterfly.com Contact: joan.roelofs@myfairpoint.net




Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) and translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site: www.joanroelofs.wordpress.com  Contact: joan.roelofs@myfairpoint.net