Back in the Cold War, one of the unanswered questions that came up from time to time was why did the people in the Soviet Union put up with it? American propaganda said that the living conditions were terrible. They had to stand in line for essentials like toilet paper and meat. The secret police regularly hauled people away, sending them into exile in Siberia or worse. Despite it all, the people, including those in the captive nations never revolted against the state or the communist party.
It is a useful question to ponder now as America and the West slip into the abyss of soft totalitarianism. We don’t have cops busting down doors and hauling away dissidents, at least not yet. We do have ideologues armed with the power of the state pushing people around because they can. The Covid hassles are the result of petty pipsqueaks in government offices dreaming up new ways to torment us. Curfews and bans on alcohol are punitive measures, not palliative ones.
It brings up that old question. Why are people tolerating this? There were some flickers of resistance during the early stages of the lock downs, but governments sent out the cops to harass dissenters and the media revved up the fear campaign. Here we are in a second wave of pointless lock downs, more petty and stupid than the first, but no one is raising hell about it. Back in the Cold War, stories like this elicited oaths about how the tree of liberty needed to be fertilized with the blood of tyrants.
A popular answer, for why people willingly allow themselves to be stripped of their liberty and dignity, is our material prosperity. The Boomers care more about their stock portfolios and their kids care more about the game consoles. The reason everyone goes along with this stuff, according to popular thinking, is everyone feels like they have too much to lose. That material prosperity has made everyone lazy and cautious, so they are easily pushed around by the petty tyrants.
While there is some truth to it, that can’t be the answer for why the people living under communism never revolted. The stories about people waiting in line for bread were no doubt exaggerated by Western media, but there is no doubting that the people in the Soviet Union lived well below Western standards. The Soviets may have had great military gear, but their consumer goods were terrible. Only party members had access to the small luxuries taken for granted in the West at the time.
In retrospect, we now know that life for most people in the Soviet Empire was not the dystopian nightmare portrayed in the West. Once Stalin died, there was a brief period of reform and then communism fell into a long period of conservatism. That is, it was more about maintaining a set of rules and enforcing them. Ideological experimentation came to an end and the focus was on the basics of life. For most people this meant a predictable life, where they had the necessities.
There’s no doubt that material standards of living for people in communism were far below that of the West, but this was not something they saw everyday. They just knew that life was better under communism than in the past. They were also free of crime, disorder and the great uncertainty of the first half of the 20th century. In other words, lacking a plausible alternative that was clearly better, most people were willing to knuckle under to the ideologues in order to get on with life.
We see that in America now. An under appreciated subplot to the Trump phenomenon is that Trump represented disorder and uncertainty, while his establishment opponents became stability and order. They selected the Pretender Biden because no one could possibly see him as a revolutionary. To use the old movie concept, the election was about the blue bill of Biden or the red pill of Trump. Note that the old alt-right greedily gobbled down the blue pill of Biden.
Another historical parallel is important. The captive people of the Soviet Empire were not all willing to go along to get along. The Hungarians revolted in October of 1956 against the party and the Soviet occupation. In November the Soviets sent in the Red Army to crush the revolt. The Politburo was initially open to dealing with the leaders of the rebellion, but changed their mind and crushed the revolt. The reason was they did not want to encourage more rebellions.
In January 1968, the reformer, Alexander Dubček, was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. This set off what is known as the Prague Spring, which was an effort to liberalize Czech politics and economics. This reform effort did not go over well with the Soviets who sent in half a million Warsaw Pact troops to suppress the reform movement and restore the old order. The scenes from Freedom Plaza last Saturday had a Prague Spring vibe to them.
What the Hungarian Revolt and the Prague Spring showed is that raw power has an appeal that can never be underestimated. There is no question that the people of the captive nations were in support of their independence, but the raw power of the Soviet Empire was more than enough to counter popular support. When the rebels had no answer for the Soviet tanks, the people did what Osama bin Laden observed many years ago. They chose the strong horse.
This is a lesson the Poles learned and put to good use in the 1980’s. The Solidarity Movement was as much about making the Polish communist party look weak as it was about organizing the people. Instead of hoping the party would yield to popular will, they played a game of chess with the party, putting them in positions where they looked weak and indecisive. This allowed the people to trust that the cure for communism was not worse than the disease of communism.
This brings us back to the current time. One obvious failing of the populist movement that put Trump in the White House is it was never able to create a plausible alternative in the mind of the people. Was the goal a return to the past or was the goal the present with specific modifications? Was it some undefined future? Trump was not skilled enough to grasp this and lacked the imagination to articulate a plausible alternative, even if he recognized the historical moment.
This is something that the reformers and rebels in the late Soviet Empire did not fail to grasp when their time came. When the party tried to oust Yeltsin, for example, the public rallied to his side because he represented a clear alternative. The Solidarity movement in Poland had a clear set of goals, rather than a list of complaints. When the party tried to muscle them, they were opposing more than just a rebellious rabble, but a set of specific reforms popular with the people.
Getting back to the central question as to why people throughout the ages have been wiling to submit to the most terrible crimes against their liberty and dignity, the answer is that life is about trade-offs. Instinctively, people make their choices based on the options put before them. They do not rebel against the present arrangements because they fall short of some ideal. They rebel, either because the alternative is misery and death or they see some better option on the table.
This has been the magic of the two-party democracy, which is explicit in America and implicit in Europe. The options before the people are always the two faces of the establishment, Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative. Unless and until that dynamic is broken, either with a third option or the discrediting of the two option system, the status quo remains the strong horse. Nothing will change until the trade-offs presented to the people change.
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