Hello Lenin?

The film Good Bye Lenin is a sweet tale of a son determined to protect his fragile socialist mother from the news that, as we are celebrating today, the GDR is no more. The emotional core of the film is the mother-son relationship, but we are led to a little sympathy for the mother who never lost her belief in a delusional socialist idea.

But what are we to make of people who late in life start making excuses for the dismally failed socialist experiment in central and eastern Europe?

In a bizarre letter published in Australian Book Review last May, Norman Abjorensen, once a Liberal staffer, blamed the collapse of the socialist experiment not on its dysfunctional economic system and cruel treatment of its captive peoples, but on a propaganda campaign and ‘permanent war footing’ by the ‘capitalist ruling class’ determined to ‘discredit and rid itself of a potential alternative’.

How anyone can talk about the ‘promising post-Stalin era’, as Abjorensen does, is beyond me. I very much doubt the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968 thought a brutal Soviet crushing of their attempts at creating a better society was ‘promising’. True, the end of mass extermination by the Soviet Union of its own citizens was an improvement, but the post-Stalin regimes were not ‘promising’ by any normal standard.

Anyone hoping that ABR readers would object to this nonsense would have been disappointed. Instead, former Meanjin editor Ian Britain was inspired to write in support of Abjorensen. In lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union, he says:

Its effect on the rest of us, in removing such a formibable counter-model of collective behaviour and belief, has amounted to something of a moral tragedy. However deficient that model was in daily life, however murderous were some of its leading practitioners, it embodied a way of organising the world that was not relentlessly tied to materialist acquisition.

But how deficient in daily life and how murderous would a system’s ‘leading practitioners’ have to be before Britain would regard its demise not as a ‘moral tragedy’? Surely the moral tragedy here is not the demise of these regimes, but the millions of people killed before communism crumbled and the hundreds of millions stunted lives spent under tyranny.

Maybe Britain has always held views like this. They were, unfortunately, common enough in the cold war era. But what on earth can be going on with Abjorensen to became an apologist for departed brutal dictatorships? What was his Hello Lenin moment? Perhaps whatever triggered it is deserving of some Good Bye Lenin type sympathy. But the views themselves are intellectually and morally bankrupt.

22 thoughts on “Hello Lenin?

  1. Abjorensen has been driven to ideological bizarreness by his complete antipathy to liberal economics.

    As for the former editor of Meanjin, I am reminded of Frank Moorhouse’s witticism that ‘Meanjin’ is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘rejected by the New Yorker’. If your moral sense of identity is based on being a critic of the society around you, if that is the best sort of society humans have been able to manage, that rather undermines the credibility of your ever-critical stance. Hence attempting to find something, anything, that points to the vindicating better alternative.

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  2. ‘You can fool all of the people some of the time, AND SOME OF THE PEOPLE ALL OF THE TIME …’

    Although I think even Lincoln would be surprised that some even stay fooled long after the fooler had stopped fooling.

    Most likely a severe case of Howard Derangement Syndrome, as Michael suggests.

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  3. Yes, Abjorensen is being silly. That said I reckon a balanced view of the failed socialist experiment should acknowledge its successes as well as its failures.

    And across countries and cultures it proved good at just three things: war fighting, cheap health care and broad based education.

    You should draw a special lesson from the last, Andrew: your field of interest is one where socialist approaches have consistently worked and market based ones consistently failed. You might care to consider why.

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  4. DD:

    How can you argue state run education is a better offer? I don’t see many Iphone type products getting pumped out of Russia even these days.

    Is there an equivalent Harvard, Yale , Princeton, MIT?

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  5. DD – As JC says. While there are particular aspects of school education that in my view require government involvement (eg compulsory schooling and at least partial government funding), the full public delivery mode is deficient – as you would expect with bureaucratic control and no price signals. It is not coincidental that public schools are a source of chronic dissatisfaction in almost every country, and where public policy lets private schools into the market they gain market share, even where, as in Australia, they are often at a significant price disadvantage.

    In higher ed, the problems are overwhelmingly caused by poor regulation, see the higher education category on this blog passim.

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  6. DD – can you show me where anyone has done a ‘balanced view of the failed socialist experiment’ that acknowledges its successes as well as its failures?

    I’m trying to figure out what on earth would be your criteria for success. The three you mention are just too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

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  7. The Soviet indifference to the value of human life helped defeat that Nazis?

    The trick in such calculations is to find things that were done better than they would otherwise have been under a different system. For example, Russia was generally an economically very backward country when the communists took over, and it became wealthier during their era. That is an achievement, but the counter-argument is that the economy would have been better still, and the collateral costs massively lower, had the communists not taken over. But there are lots of unprovable counter-factuals – it could have become a non-communist authoritarian state that was still way behind what was achieved in stable Western liberal democracies (eg what happened in much of Latin America during the 20th century).

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  8. “That said I reckon a balanced view of the failed socialist experiment should acknowledge its successes as well as its failures.”

    Add DD to the list.

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  9. “That said I reckon a balanced view of the failed socialist experiment should acknowledge its successes as well as its failures.”

    A variation on ‘at least they made the trains run on time” – although apparently they weren’t too good at that either.

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  10. Clearly no Sputnik readers here – it was a cheery sort of Soviet Readers Digest that I used to buy at the local newsagent, in Perth, in the 1960s! (Stopped buying it after 1968).

    “the full public delivery mode is deficient – as you would expect with bureaucratic control and no price signals. It is not coincidental that public schools are a source of chronic dissatisfaction in almost every country” – not, obviously, including Finland, which seems to have about the best schools in the world.

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  11. The Soviet Union had great chess players , of course, and also great mathematicians. Maths was hard to wreck by Party officials, because they didn’t understand it. And the smarter officials knew that it was useful for industrialisation and weapons systems.

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  12. S of R – Yes, but did it having anything to do with socialism (other governments have interests in industrialisation and weapons)? Perhaps so many activities being banned or politically dangerous, there was a displacement of talent into these areas?

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  13. Russian mathematics was first rate before the Bolshevik revolution and remained first rate 1917-1991. It was well resourced and Soviet mathematicians (unless they were Jews) got a lot of privileges, such as good apartments. Soviet school maths education was much more advanced than in Western countries, Germany possibly excepted. Russian mathematics is still excellent today, even though it’s resourcing has been cut dramatically. A Russian won the Fields Medal a few years ago. I Russians are just good at maths.

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  14. I often think that if I were growing up in a communist country, I would go into science or medicine as the fields themselves are much less politicised than law or economics where most conclusions you make have a political aspect to them and that is dangerous in a communist country (dangerous in an intellectual sense, but of course often dangerous to your freedom too particularly in the Soviet Union). However in Poland and other such countries you couldn’t really escape the politics, if you wanted to get anywhere as a scientist or doctor you had to be a loyal member of the party. My Father was a rare example of a person who was never a member of the communist party but still rose up to be a high ranking bureaucrat when he became chief architect of Krakow in the 70s.

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  15. Krystian, medical students in Eastern Europe after the war had to read the complete works of Marx, Lenin and Stalin as part of their medical training. (Stalin was later dropped from the syllabus.)

    “if you wanted to get anywhere as a scientist or doctor you had to be a loyal member of the party.”

    I wonder if that was true of Angela Merkel.

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  16. I know, one of those students was my Mum, who studied medicine in the early 60s in Poland. As I wrote, politics was everywhere – But when you’re a doctor diagnosing a medical condition, your conclusion is less political than when you’re an economist proposing a new way to improve production.

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  17. On Merkel, from Wikipedia (it’s a cited statement about her): “Like most pupils, Merkel was a member of the official, Socialist-led youth movement Free German Youth (FDJ). Later she became a member of the district board and secretary for “Agitprop” (Agitation and Propaganda) at the Academy of Sciences in that organisation.”

    In any event, she never rose that high, she was a relatively junior researcher – Still, she wouldn’t have gotten as far as she did without being loyal. She only got involved in the democratic movement after the fall of the wall.

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  18. Andrew, I’m curious, as the private education providers fall, do you believe it should be tough luck for the students, or should the government socialize the losses?

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  19. Charles – Neither. A tuition assurance scheme such the one we have already is the answer.

    To the extent that government contributed to problems through negligent quality assurance or by creating a visa-sale scheme perhaps they have some liability, but as a general principle insurance is the answer.

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  20. Charles – It is compulsory for all education providers with international students to be a member of a tuition assurance fund. On a quick glance at the legislation it looks like there is provision for a Commonwealth bail-out as well, though I am not on top of the detail of this.

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  21. Can I put forward the theory that Russians are so good at maths and chess has nothing to do with ideology, and more to do with the frigging cold?

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