Paint it red

I grew up in a socialist country.

I’m reminded of it every time I hear that public health care is socialist, or that financial regulation is socialist, or that regulating the auto industry is socialist, or that taxation is “spreading the wealth” and therefore socialist. I don’t get the impression that this refers to the “socialism” of the Scandinavian variety. More likely, it refers to the Soviet Union and its then-satellite countries – exactly where I was born.

I suppose I should recognize those various socialist things – oppose them, even – as marks of the failed system that I grew up with. But I don’t. Instead, I try to find a way to explain life under socialism to someone who doesn’t know it and I come up short every time. It’s not just explaining why apples are not like oranges. It’s explaining why apples are not like hockey and oranges are not like patio furniture.

Yes, we did have more political repression and government regulation. Yes, we had censorship, rationing and fewer consumer articles. People understand that. But then you mention to someone the high prevalence of tooth decay, and they respond, “sure, I bet you didn’t have fluoridated water”, and then you don’t know if you’ll be able to answer that in less than half an hour, so you smile, say that it was actually a little bit more complicated, and change the subject.

Take for example taxation. Do you think it’s socialist? If so, you’ll be interested to know that neither my parents nor I had ever filed a personal tax return before I left Poland at the age of 23. Taxation as it is known in the Western world was almost nonexistent in socialist countries. Just think about it. Most of the economy was state-owned, so why would the state try to tax something it owns to begin with? The public sector employees – the vast majority of the population – did not pay taxes, either. Poland allowed a small private sector: family-owned small farms, produce stands, private medical and dental offices, handcraft, and so on. I think those businesses were taxed. Of course, the private sector was intended to be only temporary and was expected to disappear once the transition to socialism was fully completed. There were no sales taxes. We did have some incidental taxes, for example on inheritance. That’s about it.

Is “spreading the wealth” socialist? Where I grew up, there was no wealth to be spread. The Eastern European socialist countries were, for the most part, poor as a church mouse. Poland’s economy was devastated in WWII, rebuilt less than optimally, then drained and mismanaged throughout the socialist years. What we had was empty shops, shortages of food and sanitary products, run-down crowded apartments with frequent power and water outages. Everyone had a flashlight and a supply of candles at home because the power might go out at any time. The outages could last the whole day or more, so it was common practice to keep pots, buckets and bathtubs filled with water whenever utility work was scheduled. Did you know that in a water outage you can still flush a toilet by pouring water from a bucket directly into the bowl? Well, now you do.

Speaking of accommodation, here’s a recent photo of my undergraduate dorm.


Back then, of course, we didn’t have satellite dishes. What you should imagine instead is plastic and mesh grocery bags hanging out from almost every window, with preserve jars and plastic-wrapped food packages clearly visible. There were only a few shared refrigerators in a dorm housing about 500 students, so most of us kept our food fresh by hanging it out the window whenever it was cold enough outside. The jars, plastic bags and aluminum foil protected the food from the rain and dirt. Most of the packaging would be washed and reused.

After graduating with a Master’s degree, I worked as a junior researcher in the math department and lived in the building that you can see here in the back.


I was initially assigned to a shared bedroom; once my roommate moved out, I applied for a single bedroom and got it. Each bedroom had a sink, but the kitchens and bathrooms were communal as in the dorm, one on each floor. There were families with children living there. If you had one child, your family was entitled to one bedroom. If you had two children, you were entitled to two bedrooms, not necessarily on the same floor. People lived like that for decades, and so would I if I had not left. The expected waiting period for public housing was 20 years or more and a junior researcher’s salary did not pay for a decent private rental apartment in a large city.

You think that’s bad? According to one report, a census of a major factory’s workers in 1957 showed that only 1% of families had hot running water at home, less than 50% of families had cold running water, and 75% did not have a toilet in the building. Does this begin to answer the question about the teeth?

As for the shortages of food and other articles, there was a whole culture around it in the 1980s. You’d walk into a grocery store and the shelves would be completely empty – or else there would be long rows of canola oil and vinegar bottles on display, because that’s all there was in stock. Many articles were rationed at various times, including sugar, meat and meat products, milk, butter, flour and other selected grain products, alcohol, chocolate, cigarettes, soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, gasoline, and more. This does not cover all articles that were subject to shortages – products such as coffee and oranges were also hard to get, but they were not rationed because they were not considered essential enough. (Yes, I know. Coffee is essential.)

The typical diet was heavily dependent on meat. That was the tradition and there weren’t many alternatives to choose from. And meat was in very short supply. People would often start lining up many hours before the butcher’s shop would open, bringing blankets and tea in thermoses, waiting for the delivery that might or might not come. Queuing up at the butcher’s could be a full-time job, sometimes a paid one, as there were people who got paid to line up on behalf of others who couldn’t miss work.

But here’s something about rationing that you might not know. You may remember that the origins of the Solidarity trade union go back to an agreement between the government and the striking workers at the Gdansk shipyard that ended the nation-wide strikes in the summer of 1980. (See here for the full text in Polish.) The Gdansk workers had presented the government with a list of 21 demands. Number one was the right to form independent (of the government) trade unions – this led to the creation and legalization of Solidarity. Number 13 on the same list was meat rationing, which indeed was introduced in February 1981. The rationing system was expanded to cover other products later on, except for sugar which had already been rationed since 1976.

Yes, you’ve read this right. Walesa and the reform movement demanded meat rationing. Of course they also demanded an increase in supply, see items 10 and 11 on the list. But since it was clear enough that the supply would not meet the demand any time soon, the rationing would introduce an element of fairness to the process.

When I think of socialism, I also think of people who defended it. I don’t mean in official media, and I don’t mean government or party officials. They were my kin and my friends’ kin. They defended socialism in our private conversations, not because they were worried about getting reported by a family member – that did not happen much in my days – but because they genuinely believed that its advantages outweighed the disadvantages. They would cite public education, public health care, almost universal employment, the elimination of the most extreme poverty. If that came at the expense of political freedom, so be it. They believed that it was worth the price.

They were of course skipping over the same point that many Americans are missing right now: it is possible to have public health care without political repression and low living standards for everyone. That has been demonstrated in many countries including Canada. It wasn’t necessarily an option for Poland, stuck between a rock and a hard place, devastated by the war and strong-armed by the Soviet Union. We couldn’t have it all.

But there’s no reason why America couldn’t.


Filed under politics

15 responses to “Paint it red

  1. liuxiaochuan

    Dear Professor Laba:

    I never know you came from Poland, a country which looks just like China in so many ways. Your article reminds me some of my memories, and the stories that I heard from my parents. Some say China is already a better place and I can live with that argument, though I am not satisfied with the current situation. Yes, it is true that we generally don’t get punished to death simply because we have said or write something wrong, it is true we don’t send all the intellectuals into the country to receive ‘reeducation as a farmer’ simply because the party won the ‘revolution war’ relying on farmers. But, people’s minds are devastated, with little free will left. They already get used to the giving up the opportunity of thinking by themselves. They don’t even try any more. Most only follow orders of their ‘the big leaders’. So most social problems existing in China today can track back to several decades ago, when ‘FREEDOM IS SLAVERY’, and ‘IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.’ (George Orwell nineteen eighty four)

    My father and my mother were both born in 1957, before the famous ‘culture revolution’ begins. When they were sent in the country to do farm works, they were told in the first place that the only chance that they can come back to city is that they must do excellent job as a farmer. That means, lots of them will stay in the country for ever, and only the ones who listen to the Party carefully and receive the so called ‘reeducation’ wholeheartedly can get a job in their hometown and thus a chance to come home. Even today Chinese are not allowed to move from places to places within their own country. Our identities are decided by authorities as ‘countrymen’ or ‘citizens’, even before we were born. This means if someone are born as a farmer, then they will continue that way unless some incident happen in their later lives. For example, if they can get enrolled in the city university, maybe it is the only chance for them to become a city dweller. But the ones who can get the chance consists only a tiny part of the people.

    It is quite sad that years later, when these people come to the point of whether or not they can come back to cities, they are facing examinations, including mathematics, verbal and science sections. Those who really worked hard in the farms finally get their opportunity to work that way in rest of their lives. So the government lied, then what? It is not the first time and won’t necessarily be the last. This kind of thing happens and happens. Even today, some are still silly enough to get used by their supervisors. Some are always complaining that that since I already did all that are asked, why can’t my little pathetic demand be meted. Lots of people live under the great fear for their direct supervisors. They sadly hold the thought that others could help. They accustomedly receive orders and follow it. So when some friends ask me why Chinese people, clever and diligent as they are, can’t obtain any true achievement within their own country, I think the reason is quite obvious. No one here is actually working or thinking about the real matters. They pathetically wait for others’ ‘by the way’ dog foods.

    When I look around within the campus, I sadly get all the reasons why some leaders in an academic department should shamelessly plagiarize their students’ results, providing not at all helps or advise.

  2. Thanks for posting this. The good news is that Poland has changed a lot since then. It’s a much better place to live now. I’m hoping for the same for China.

  3. liuxiaochuan

    Yes, definitely better, but with a long way to go, though.

  4. Gustavo de Oliveira

    Sure, of course it is. Public services, wealth, freedom, solidarity… These things are not incompatible. But public health system and big profitable private health companies are! And there is also this upper middle class that can buy anything… They are comfortable… Poverty like you described above is sad. But clutter also is.

  5. Well, you know. There are reasons and there are reasons

    I actually get the impression that much of the U.S. middle class is in favour of a health care reform. They’re comfortable while they’re healthy, but they’re also aware that a major illness with a few surgeries could take them very quickly from affluent to bankrupt.

  6. I find it most annoying that opponents of the Obama health reform plan tend to attack it using misplaced ideological terminology. Words like “socialist” are just labels and do not contribute to the substance of the debate. Personally, I oppose Obama’s plan because I believe that it is financially unsustainable, poorly thought out and would leave millions of people uninsured.

    While I was born in the former Soviet Union and lived there until the age of 11, my opposition to Obama’s plan has nothing to do with any knee-jerk opposition to “socialism” that many immigrants I came to the U.S. with suffer from. If Obama can convince me that his plan will address the problems that it purports to solve, then I will support it. But not until then…

  7. I don’t know the details of Obama’s plan well enough to argue about how it might or might not work, but I do think that it’s a shame that the U.S. does not have universal health care. Here in Canada nobody would even try to argue seriously that we shouldn’t have it.

    As for “socialism,” I’m used to a fairly specific meaning of the word, but now it is evidently becoming synonymous with “there be dragons”…

  8. Ahhh the famous Anti socialist sentiment and ignoring the obvious. To a crowd which grew up reading Aldous Huxley and George Orwell(which are good in a way), socialism is so bad that that they categorize any (nonsense) associations to socialism as BAD. Hopefully good sense will prevail someday.

    A lot of the description regarding your experiences as a student are an exact replica of my childhood and the ruling party of my state dreams of a socialist world . Though having not seen better things then, it was not so bad. Things are improving back there again but we are still far off .

    Socialism ain’t very bad. The ideology of some sort of democratic socialism as discussed by (I think) Huxley according to me is good.(it is difficult to comment on his ideology though) Frankly more than the political Ideology it depends on whether they have a ‘brain’ working ‘for you’ up there. Ideology can be twisted, goodness cannot.

    liuxiaochuan , you remind me of a line by Pasternak :”Man is born to life, not to prepare for life.” Interestingly I have had many a debates with other Chinese friends regarding the system up there and they were on the opposite side as you.

    I hope I make some sense. if I do not, sorry.

  9. You’re not assuming, are you, that we didn’t read Orwell over there? 1984 was available in many libraries, although there was usually a waiting list, and was also broadcast as an audiobook on the public radio in the mid-1980s. One of Poland’s best rock bands of the 80s, Republika, blasted Orwell and Vonnegut references all over the place. They even went as far as to record an English language album called 1984. We loved it.

  10. Nope. I am certainly not assuming that. That would be too stupid of me. Neither am I trying to justify anyone. I am just saying where the wave started and what has it gone into. I might be completely wrong though. Sorry for my impreciseness.

  11. I see, what I wrote meant more than what I wanted to say .Should have been careful of the implications? All I wanted to emphasize was how things start alright and later turns into a phobia at some places…My mistake.

  12. Nishant, don’t worry about it! It is indeed hard to talk about any of this without piling up misunderstandings on top of misunderstandings. I’m not criticizing your comment – just trying to put some information out there…

    There’s a very common misconception here in the West that we behind the Iron Curtain did not have access to Western literature, arts or pop culture (people have actually asked me if I’d heard about the Beatles), and that Orwell and other similar literature must have been banned. That may have been true in the 1950s, but not in the 70s or 80s. Orwell was widely read, as were many other Western authors, and jazz and rock music were all over the place. I was part of the Orwell-reading crowd, too. We’ve had plenty of idealistic political discussions over too many drinks. Have you perhaps seen “Lust, Caution”? There’s a sequence in it where a group of students puts up a politically charged theatrical performance and then goes out for drinks afterwards. It reminded me so much of my own student days.

    Legend has it that when jazz music was first played on the Polish national radio, back in the 1950s, the DJ introduced is as “the music of the oppressed Black workers in America”… but he did get to play it, and soon enough we had our own homegrown jazz music. Culture-wise, it wasn’t a free society, but it was far more open than it was generally thought in the West.

  13. Sibusiso

    It was enjoying reading this article, and better to see that things worked out for Poland. I will read your blog from now onwards.

  14. jeff

    Incredible article which should be required reading for every American..especially news people and students. Thank you for sharing this.

  15. “When I think of socialism, I also think of people who defended it. I don’t mean in official media, and I don’t mean government or party officials. They were my kin and my friends’ kin. They defended socialism in our private conversations, not because they were worried about getting reported by a family member – that did not happen much in my days – but because they genuinely believed that its advantages outweighed the disadvantages. They would cite public education, public health care, almost universal employment, the elimination of the most extreme poverty. If that came at the expense of political freedom, so be it. They believed that it was worth the price.”
    Socialism doesn’t have to do with political repression. In fact you actually get to to read what the Socialist thinkers wrote about Socialism you’ll see that in the so called socialist countries there wasn’t much socialism happening.
    If you want to know what real socialism may look like, take a look at the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain during the Civil War.