Socialism, totalitarianism, and the Cold War

In the aftermath of the Great War (that is, World War I) came the Great Depression. These combined perils caused the citizens of several countries to surrender their individual rights to their governments, hoping in return to obtain economic security, national pride, and protection from hostile forces within and beyond their countries’ borders. In Russia, Lenin’s Bolsheviks became Stalin’s Communist Party. In Italy, the Fascist Party rose under Mussolini; in Germany, the Nazi Party rose under Hitler. All three parties exercised totalitarianism, government control of the population that restricted freedom and human rights, controlled communication, and punished citizens who disagreed with the government’s policies.

Earlier dictators may have wished for totalitarian control of their countries, but twentieth century technology opened avenues to government power that had not previously existed. Governments could exercise total control over the printed word of newspapers, magazines, and books. They could exercise total control over spoken word of radio broadcasts. They could monitor private communication between citizens that used the postal service or the telephone. Rapid communication made control of schools easier than earlier times. Teachers were required to spread government propaganda in their classrooms and to report to the government any dissent represented among their students or noticed in the families of their students.

Stalin’s government was openly socialist—the official name of the country was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Hitler and Mussolini did not advocate socialist economies. Meanwhile, the United States government, led by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, offered New Deal that increased government participation in the economy but did not directly threaten individual freedoms. Communication and education were not totally controlled by the government. Citizens were not arrested for openly disagreeing with government policies.

The Second World War defeated the Nazis and Fascists without overthrowing Stalin’s Communist Party. The Soviet Union was permitted to set up totalitarian governments and socialist economies in several nations, from Poland and East Germany to North Korea. Shortly thereafter, Mao’s Communist Party won control over most of China, establishing a government that was also totalitarian and socialist. The Cold War had begun. On one side of the Cold War stood totalitarian and socialist governments promising a Communist world when they had prevailed. On the other side stood democratic and capitalist governments promising a free world when they had prevailed. The rhetoric was more stark than the reality. Many allies of the United States maintained dictatorships rather than democracies, and some American allies in Europe experimented with socialist economies.

The “Communist” governments during the Cold War portrayed capitalists as a wealthy and powerful minority who crushed the majority of their fellow citizens, forcing them to work long hard hours for insufficient wages, forcing them to live in substandard housing with little medical care or hygiene, and denying them any real control of the political process that ran their lives. The “Free” governments during the Cold War portrayed communists as radical subversives, trying to overthrow the established order to take control, abolish religion, end all freedom, and enslave the entire world.

Democratic socialism and dictatorial capitalism were quietly ignored. Yet the stereotype of the “godless Communist,” as described by leaders in the “free world,” contained truth despite their exaggerations. During the decades of the Cold War, capitalist nations thrived while socialist nations struggled. As the standard of living rose in capitalist nations, so did individual freedoms. Dictatorships were replaced by democracies. Meanwhile, the totalitarian socialist governments regularly had to crush opposition with military force. People fled totalitarian socialist nations for free capitalist nations, forcing the former to build walls to contain their own people. Even China eventually chose to reestablish a capitalist economy, while remaining under control of a totalitarian government that still identified itself as the Communist Party.

Thirty years since the Cold War ended, its rhetoric and its reality continue to shape politics in the United States and around the world. American families who escaped totalitarian socialist governments in Poland, East Germany, China, Vietnam, and Cuba remain suspicious of politicians who speak well of socialism or who advocate greater government control of the American economy. Freedom, democracy, and capitalism remain linked in the minds of many people. Old pictures of capitalistic oppression, once fostered by the Soviet Union and its allies, are sometimes reiterated in political debate in the twenty-first century. Some American citizens, especially younger people born after the Cold War, sometimes forget why our side prevailed in that conflict. But advocates of socialism are rightly portrayed as isolated, huddling in the cold, bundled to resist reality while they continue to call for an economic system that has never worked.

Although democratic socialism exists as an option, it contains more threats to freedom than capitalism contains. Government control over prices and wages reduces freedom. Government decisions about which products to produce reduces freedom. As silly as it may seem, freedom to choose among dozens of brands of toothpaste or coffee or beer is far better than a single, mass-produced, government-controlled monopoly of toothpaste or coffee or beer. One free pair of shoes given each citizen once a year can never satisfy the human spirit as well as freedom to choose among many kinds of shoes, spending one’s own hard-earned money for the shoes one truly prefers.

The pendulum of politics swings to the left and then to the right. Free elections often reveal massive divisions of philosophy within a national population. True freedom allows both sides to state their case and invites voters to choose between them. Those who gain power cannot maintain their grasp indefinitely; the tighter they cling to power, the more it slips from between their fingers. Reversals happen, but the long course of history shows that freedom prevails over tyranny.  The future of America and of the world is bright, because free people will always work to remain free. J.