Bryan Caplan  

Belief in Communism

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I've discovered a gem of a book on public opinion in the former Soviet bloc: Values and Political Change in Postcommunist Europe by William Miller, Stephen White, and Paul Heywood. In the mid-late '90's, they surveyed people in Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary about everything from A to Z. Perhaps the most fascinating pair of questions, though, were:

"Did you ever believe in communist ideals?"

"Do you believe in communist ideals now?"

Survey says:

Country % Ever believed % Believe now
Russia 60 19
Ukraine 52 17
Czech Rep. 29 15
Slovakia 36 23
Hungary 29 21

Once again, it looks like persistent brainwashing works. Despite the horrors of Communist rule, a solid majority of respondents in the former Soviet Union admit they once believed in communist ideals. And even in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the centers of anti-communist rebellion, fully a third admit the same.

Admittedly, though, the data also confirm that deprogramming works! Past belief varied widely by country; present belief is almost uniform at around 20%.

One question the book doesn't ask is when people lost their faith. Was it specific events in the history of Communism, like Khrushchev's secret speech, or the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia? Was it just getting older and wiser - believing at 20 and doubting at 30? Or was the key disillusioning event the collapse of Communism itself?

My suspicion: Soviet invasions in '56 and '68 shattered faith in the East bloc. In the birthland of socialism, however, it was Gorbachev who wrecked the faith of a nation with glasnost and the Sinatra doctrine. If a religion's High Priest isn't a True Believer, how is anyone else supposed to be?

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The author at Club for Growth in a related article titled Do You Believe in Communism? writes:
    Here are the interesting answers given by people from the former Soviet bloc states to the questions, "Did you ever believe in communist ideals?" and "Do you believe in communist ideals now?"... [Tracked on September 17, 2006 4:45 PM]
COMMENTS (15 to date)
Gabriel M. writes:

What about Romania? Any data?

Omer K writes:

I wonder how much of the disparity between Russia and the other countries in the "ever believed" category can be explained by the fact that it was the Russians themselves who created and ran the communist machine, and thereby probably had the least hard time of it?

Also I wonder what the numbers in the Ukraine were before and after the stalin engineered famine...

David writes:

Economic prosperity, dignity of labor, fair pay for work, power taken away from those who oppose such things -- who can argue with that? Many people are not very political and not very theoretical and were only ever educated in the Cliff's Notes of communist ideals, which are not very different from the Cliff's Notes of capitalism.

Fairness! Prosperity! Justice! Dignity! Yay!

No ideology has ever promised tyranny and starvation.

To take a nonpolitical example, the Yugo ideal is a reliable, economical car for thrifty people. Everyone believes in the Yugo ideal, but they know better than to buy one.

Yuri Schimke writes:

Isn't your conclusion that its brainwashing a bit simplistic. Couldn't 20% who still believe be explained by those who are now worse off under capitalism. (I haven't read the book)

Having lived in Estonia for 3 1/2, there definately was a group who believed they were better off. The prime example was elderly who didn't have a chance to accumulate wealth under communism, and are now forced to live in poverty or find other means of supporting themselves when they should be retired.

Yes, we can explain to them that they are poor because of communism, but that doesn't help them at all. The communist parties instead sell them the dream of being supported again by the state.

vadim writes:

I grew up in Ukraine in the 70s-80s. I stopped believing at about the age of 13-1, and I suspect lots of people did. Of course, this is not what they are asking, so the question is meaningless as phrased (unless you are abbreviating): they should have asked, "did you ever believe as an adult". For what it's worth, I don't remember any adults who believed in this stuff growing up, certainly not my parents or their friends.

Torkill Bruland writes:

Another explanation is the morally and intellectually corrupting effect that communism must have had on the hands that did all the dirty work of the regime. Journalists, prison guards, pshyciatrists, police, bureaucrats...

The accomplice of the system, that defended the system, and built their advantage on it, would find it hard to live with themselves, if they didn't lie about it and continued to live in denial.

It's like the good old radicals of the sixties and their endless struggle to think well of themselves by working for the conclusion that democracies was at least as bad...

dearieme writes:

Did anyone direct the questions to any other groups e.g. members of the British Labour Party, faculty members at Harvard, etc?

Dr. T writes:

Many people believed in Communist ideals. The fact that supposedly communist countries did poorly economically and politically does not necessarily refute those ideals, since none of the countries actually followed the ideals of Communism.

Anyone with an ounce of intelligence and half an ounce of understanding human nature knows that Communism will never work, but it appears that many persons have only quarter ounce amounts.

Tom West writes:

I'd love to see a similar poll about laissez-faire capitalism (about the opposite to communsim as you can find) done in various countries. I'm fairly certain that results would be illuminating. Certainly voting patterns indicate that the vast majority of people are not particular happy with either end of the spectrum.

Randy writes:

Its just good salesmanship. Sell the problem - not the product. Lot's of people were willing to give communism a shot because the problem was really bad. But sometimes the product has problems too. And, speaking of a product with problems, I expect the numbers on Social Security will look about the same in 50 years.

Michael Giesbrecht writes:

Could it be that "brain washing" and "deprogramming" are two words describing the same thing?

TGGP writes:

Polls on people's positions/opinions in the past are notoriously unreliable.

The real way to see which system people prefer is to look at how they "vote with their feet". You don't see rafts fleeing Florida for Cuba under Castro (although Cuba did have net immigration before him) and it wasn't West Berlin that had to build a wall to keep their people from fleeing.

liberty writes:

I don't think that you need propaganda to explain the data. Under communism the people knew nothing else - communism required censorship and propaganda and this is part of why - but living in such a system is propaganda all its own. In a system without a free market, where private ownership may be experienced as corruption, exploitation or sabotage given your own position within the public ownership system, markets may appear to be evil or destructive. Honestly held beliefs, supported by very limited data and understanding, could account for these results even without propaganda.

Kent Gatewood writes:

The second place finisher in the Mexican presidential race was a communist. The third party has been communist may still be. What is the view of socialism/communism in the third world?

Mike Woodson writes:

It seems that a similar, perhaps improved, survey should be done in the same countries now.

In the Russian Federation today, the Communist Party is in second place by membership numbers.

There is some problem in referring to communist ideals as a whole, just as the polls asking people if they affiliate or support the GOP or Dems do not give them a chance to say how they affiliate or support same. What platform ideals would they accept? Which would they reject? Of course that would require a longer and more detailed survey. Perhaps in a communist country more people would have the time to fill in such a survey. In the US, to get someone to fill out a detailed survey it takes legal compulsion as included with Census Bureau surveys. All others have to be simplistic and quite short unless some kind of prize may entice someone to take the time.

I like something that the survey says about the Russian, Ukrainian and other respondents: they aren't afraid to tell the truth about their contrasting beliefs, that is, their change of mind. It is a refreshing thing to see people eschew foolish consistency. It seems more possible in a culture of people who traditionally believe repentance is a good thing, which includes self-truth telling. And yet, that same quality can work against them in prolonging unjust and insane rule over themselves, because they are more likely to take blame and perhaps see efforts at achieving dreams less possible.

Here, in the West, people who suffer gotchas at the hands of the media have a terrible time taking the blame. I think this may be because anyone reported on in the media is likely powerful enough to have excessive investment in a self-as-brand concept. The "successful" monetarily also tend to over-identify self with vestment.

These questions go to the center of cultural differences as to how and what people believe about themselves and their role in this life.

It seems that in Russia, the nostalgia for the old power of the USSR has increased. When a nation places confidence in the cheer-leaders for such power and pride, especially one in which people are taught not to trust themselves but trust institutions instead, public support for the regime is easier to inflame with constant intimations of external threat.

This fear-principle works here too via advertising and media with different twists.

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