You’ll never be as lucky as a communist worker was
What they didn’t teach you about communism at school
Let’s debunk the myth of dirty old commies. In many ways they lead a life you can only dream of — they didn’t work to pay the mortgage, they weren’t afraid of losing their jobs. However, it was too good to be true and last.
My personal stand is that communism brought many dreadful AND many beautiful things. I always see the glass both half full and half empty.
Nevertheless, my perspective on communism refers to communism in Yugoslavia (Southern Europe). Unlike East European communist countries, in 1948 Yugoslav communists refused to submit to Stalin’s will and got expelled from the eastern communist block. Yugoslavia founded the Non-aligned movement and stayed away from the Eastern and Western political influences. So, Yugoslavia was not a Soviet satellite state unlike the rest of Eastern Europe.
Today in my country, Serbia (a former Yugoslav republic) there is still a strong polarization of opinion on communism almost 30 years after its fall in this region (Yugoslav communists came to power after the WW2 and ruled the country until its breakup in 1991).
Unfortunately, the life of true comradeship turned out to be utopian.
A few examples of the bad stuff in communism
Before we get into the good things, here are a few bummers of the communism in former Yugoslavia:
- About 16,000 prisoners served their sentences (including artists and writers) and almost 4,000 people were killed in 50 years in the top-secret political prison and labor camp on Goli Otok (Barren Island).
- Democracy was something you could only learn in a history class in ancient Greece. The Communist Party was the only party in Yugoslavia. Benevolent dictator and global celebrity Josip Broz Tito was in power for almost 30 years. Your grandparents surely remember him — the old guy with a Cuban cigar ogling Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage.
- There was no freedom of speech. Censorship was in every sphere of life including pop music.
- The country was taking big credits from the IMF to simulate its prosperity.
- A membership in the Communist Party was a nice way to prosper in career and life — the majority of citizens were its members. The most fortunate ones got to be the famous red bourgeoisie.
However, there are several things unimaginable to an average Western citizen. Here are the good sides of communism in the Balkans:
Communism brought Yugoslav women the right to vote in 1945
Unlike Switzerland we all love (in 1971).
Well, sort of got. The system which consisted of only one party was nondemocratic, so the decision to give women the right to vote was purely formal. They could not exercise that right before free elections in 1990. The following year the country broke up and the civil war started.
Free and universal health care for all
For every Yugoslav citizen. For everything, including major surgeries.
I remember going to the doctor for a mere sore throat every two weeks when I was a kid. I was sickly, my mother was concerned, it was free of charge.
Workers’ rights were today’s dream come true
Employees did not work overtime and always had free weekends. They also had free lunch in canteens and regular medical checks (all of them). Many prosperous companies had seaside resorts for their workers. Everybody was entitled to a paid one-month vacation.
In case an employee died, the company would pay for the funeral. Very often a family member of the deceased got employed in the same company so that the family would have enough financial means to sustain themselves.
Quite often people’s first job would last until retirement — there was no fear of being sacked. It provided a strong sense of security and trust in the state.
However, the unemployment in Yugoslavia in its most prosperous years ranged from 9.4 to 16%. So, not everybody had these privileges at the time.
You could get an apartment from the state
Imagine getting a newly built property without a mortgage. All you have to do is pay a low rent.
Members of the upper middle class and intellectuals got flats more often than workers. Experts, artists, politicians, school teachers, civil servants, and people employed in the army would often get a two or three-room apartment. My grandad was a common worker in a tractor factory and he was lucky to get one. My mom (a sales clerk) and dad (a mechanical technician) didn’t have luck on their side.
On the other hand, private property was condemned. After the WW2, as they came to power, communists confiscated thousands of properties from rich homeowners and distributed them to their members.
Wanna have your own holiday house?
You could also buy a plot of land near your city/town for a low price and build a holiday house cheaply.
Education was free
At that time Yugoslav high-quality education ranked well internationally (such as electrical engineering). Everyone could attend a university for free and many foreign students came to Yugoslavia to study (especially from the Non-aligned movement).
People retired early
Women retired at the age of 55, men at 60. With the average lifespan of about 72 at the time, they could chill in holiday houses or babysit their grandchildren still relatively young.
The living standard was good
At least for some 15 years. In the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Yugoslavia had a better standard than the majority of European communist countries, and even some western countries such as Austria.
Still, a huge part of one’s salary was spent on food.
Not everybody was thrilled about Yugoslavia. From 1968 to 1973 over half a million people (or 2.5% of its total population, a large percentage of them being intellectuals) emigrated to Germany in search of a better life. Many emigrants sent money to their families from abroad thus improving the picture of Yugoslav lifestyle.
To maintain peace, satisfaction, and order, Yugoslav communists pumped foreign investments into the public consumption. The industry the country was so boasting of was not bringing profit but a severe loss in spite of great foreign investments.
Public transportation and utilities were cheap
Nowadays — not so much.
You could feel you really belonged somewhere
Due to ethnic diversity, the sense of community had to be very strong among different south Slavic nationalities. And they were finally free after being under great empires for centuries (Austro-Hungarian empire and Ottoman Empire).
In order to keep all the nationalities together, the communists stressed the importance of comradeship and integrity. Even though God didn’t officially exist in Yugoslavia, brotherhood and unity were extremely important in this multicultural country.
There was also a strong sense of trust in public services, the military, the police, and the education system — the pillars of society.
Generally, it all worked well as long as the country had enough money.
The youth were taught to have a sense of purpose and be useful
Thousands of young people took part in voluntary labor actions to build roads, railways, industrial infrastructure, and buildings in the country torn by the WW2.
Youth work brigades built the whole left bank of the capital — New Belgrade (its population is over 200,000 citizens). This cheap state labor was rewarded with a free vacation for teenagers and students. Labor actions were a good way to socialize — do something useful for your country (remember Kennedy?), meet new people, have fun dancing and playing the guitar/accordion in the evening.
At the age of 7, children became pioneers. With dark blue caps and red scarves on, they would swear on their honor to serve their country.
As Wikipedia states:
“The social function of becoming a pioneer in communist countries was similar to that of First Communion in Roman Catholic Church… A child at the critical age of around seven is initiated as a member of a group within which the individuals share certain values and culture. This early initiation increases the likelihood that, once the child becomes an adult, it will identify with the group.
Children were high on Tito’s agenda… Children were taught to be responsible and respectful, were asked to study hard and were considered the future generations of the nation.”
The end of the communist good life
Josip Broz Tito died in 1980. The cult of personality died with the old man. Sure, the whole nation still celebrated his birthday at a sports stadium as it were the Olympics opening ceremony but somehow everybody knew that the old guy was missing. The connective tissue among the nationalities was lost.
In 1983, Yugoslavia went officially bankrupt and stopped paying foreign debts. This caused big shortages even in basic foodstuffs and gas. In 1990 Yugoslavia had 20 billion dollars of bad debt.
By the end of the 1980s, the unemployment rose drastically. In 1990 it was almost 20%. Moreover, 20–30% of the workforce got employed through politics — many of them had a job title but were practically not doing anything. And were being paid for this.
Poverty caused nationalism. Big economic differences among the regions could not be reconciled. The country slowly sinking into debt was heading towards its own end. Rising unemployment, fight about which republic gets a bigger share, and tumultuous history kindled the flag-waving. By the end of the 1980s, each nationality felt special and too different from their neighboring comrades. People started remembering history before Yugoslavia more often. In 1991 the civil war broke out. The country fell apart in bloodshed.
My take on communism
I don’t know if I would be happy working and living in the old Yugoslavia.
It was a gorgeous country and they taught me to love it as a child: a European melting pot of 20 million people, the Adriatic Sea with more than 1,300 islands, mountains and valleys, rich folklore. Also, the mainstream culture was beautiful even though it was managed by the communist regime.
Nevertheless, you could not ask the government “Why?“
We lived off the money we were not earning.
The red bourgeoisie dominated with its wealth. However, my country’s present economy is capitalist and there are still the privileged thanks to their party membership or family fortune. I bet there are such people in your country as well (but they hate communism).
My mom, the happiest realist I know, told me her experience of living in communism as an ordinary citizen: although the system had severe failings which you could not (or didn’t want to) see, she never felt more secure and taken care of. Until the beginning of the 1980s economic downfall, she could put faith in Yugoslavia and believe there’s order, justice, and reward for her hard work. She felt satisfied and free in the country without private property. My mom is not an easily impressed person.
How many of us can brag about the same? It must be something more to it than communist brainwashing.
Unfortunately, people cannot grasp the idea of collective ownership.
If it doesn’t belong to anyone, no one will take care of it and it will rot. You won’t work because you don’t have to, and you will still get paid for nothing.
If it doesn’t belong to anyone, you can grab it because you need it and it’s nobody’s! And the one who goes after riches never has enough.
Victor d’Hupay’s noble idea of property belonging to all individuals in society is a utopia for us, Swift’s Yahoos. In many countries, communism gave enough space for the excessively ambitious to have their own little dictatorships (remember Shakespeare’s Macbeth?). Well, they know best, so why shouldn’t they rule the world? But this is a story as old as the hills: the insatiable and the complex-ridden are killing us, little workers, everywhere.
Hello, I’m Maria — a Serbian translator and children’s author. If you like the read, feel free to check out my website: