Two thousand seventeen marked a centenary of the Russian Revolution. One of my bitterest realisations is that the countries that have been affected by the 1917 revolution most – the post-Soviet world – seem to be strikingly blasé to draw useful lessons. It is perhaps asking too much to assume that experience and reflections can reform individuals and nations, yet I strongly believe that our eyes should be open to the fact that actions have consequences in the moral domain. And if one wishes to preserve the strength of character, he’d better watch his thoughts and actions.
The lessons of the Russian Revolution and the Communism are many. They may not have been obvious some dozen years ago, but this is no longer the case. First, take morale of the civil service. The aftermath of the revolution predictably led to a further, very significant deterioration in integrity of public institutions. The reason for this, I claim, was a failure to grasp the impossibility of bridging benign aspirations with utterly unscrupulous means. Individual freedoms and property rights were brought to the altar in the name of distant, economically unworkable, and morally questionable Utopia. Few, except the privileged bureaucrats who cared to Marx anyway, actually believed it. This Utopia quickly turned into another ‘opium for the masses’, and far more pernicious at that (a comparison by no means stretched to anyone with cursory knowledge of the methods of the Soviet states and Catholic Church in the Middle Ages). This is remarkable. Adam Smith, who in the age of the Enlightenment was careful to avoid using religiously charged rhetoric (because of the many misfortunes that appeals to religious sentiments had brought in his age), could not resist waxing spiritual when referring to property rights. In The Wealth of Nations he wrote: “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman and of those who might be disposed to employ him. As it hinders the one from working at what he thinks proper, so it hinders the others from employing whom they think proper. To judge whether he is fit to be employed may surely be trusted to the discretion of the employers whose interest it so much concerns. The affected anxiety of the law-giver lest they should employ an improper person is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive.” Adam Smith called sacred not a single other right or thing.
On the other side of the fence, Vassily Grossman, one of few authors who retained independent conscience under the “impertinent” and “oppressive” regime of the Soviet law-giver, famously wrote: “I used to think freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. But freedom is the whole life of everyone. Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; for the lathe operator, the steelworker, and the artist it’s a matter of being able to live as you wish and work as you wish and not as they order you to. And in our country there is no freedom – not for those who write books nor for those who sow grain nor for those who make shoes.” Our knowledge and experience have taught us the truth of this, yet Russians and Ukrainians keep believing in state’s competency to run entire sectors of economy. They find it fit and proper when the state regulates economy in a way that excludes other participants and kills initiative. Hence many Ukrainians have no moral qualms about the state-imposed ban on sale of agricultural land. This is the first lesson that people failed to learn.
The experiment of bridging benign aspirations with reprehensive methods proved to be another refutation of the attractive idea that the ends can justify the means. In Vassily Grossman’s country, property rights were sacrificed for equality which was reduced to a mere mockery as the system of informal privileges abounded. Equality was just a useful rhetoric where petty and big lies had been routinely fabricated to disguise the genuine material condition of the ruling class (all were equal but some were more equal than others).
Where the rhetoric of equality and prosperity was an empty political tool, little doubt that morale in public institutions declined. Every evil committed in pursuit of an abstract good, close or distant, tarnishes character to the point where good aspirations turn into something of a nuisance. Any individual who corrupts his or her character in the name of a nice little thing will cease to be good enough to enjoy it (think of the story in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment). This outcome is as relentless as a natural law. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, the Germans started off killing the Jews because they hated them, but soon enough they hated them because they had been killing them.
The same considerations apply to governments, only with this qualification that since governments’ powers far exceed those of any individual, so increased is the potential of committing evils, with its corroding outcomes. And this was the case with Communism. The government which started off by committing thefts and murders (the Russian Revolution and the aftermath), could not have pursued happiness of its subjects sincerely. This is the second lesson.
The Soviet regime made out the Marxian formula of achieving prosperity (nevermind cruelty along the way) to be a hard science, and the only accurate one at that. Its sheer misfortune lied in the fact that the policy of levelling material wealth and killing off business initiative was flawed from the start. It amounted to killing the geese that laid golden eggs. As many economists argue, the basic flaw of the policy of aiming at equality of outcome (all equally wealthy) rather than equality of opportunity (everyone is entitled to have a go) derives from attributing economic growth to all sorts of causes except improvements and innovations. (An economist D. MacCloskey called them ‘market-tested betterments’, such as improvements in production, transportation, quality of goods and services etc. Such market-tested betterments are best encouraged under the democratic conditions of markets, where business ideas are voted for by consumers, not bureaucrats. The opposite to this, of course, is state-planning with huge costs of inefficiencies).
The popular idea of radical wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor doesn’t deliver. Giving to the poor a one-off bounty, stolen from the rich, would not make them richer for any period longer than that which is strictly necessary to consume that bounty. On the other hand, letting the rich – provided that they got rich by application of skills – to mind their own business and produce wealth would benefit all, both the rich and the poor. This is the story of liberal economies. It is well-known that in the Soviet Union the idea assumed quite an extreme form of eradicating the bourgeoisie. The efforts, naturally, stamped out any business initiative and foreclosed the main driver of economic growth – market-tested betterment – for nearly a century (not that the culture of entrepreneurship was particularly developed in 19th century Russia or Ukraine. The famous theatre innovator Konstantin Stanislavski was always ashamed of his merchant background.)
As a result of killing off wealth-producing ideas (entrepreneurial initiative), Communist states could not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. No amount of violence, soft or radical, could bring about the desired outcomes, since, without improvements, material wealth depreciates through diminishing returns. This is the third lesson.
Finally, it was equally unavoidable that the generally low morale in the government would trickle down to the wider masses, both in the working and the “managerial” classes. How could it be otherwise if the state forbade to earn honestly, i.e. by business initiative, while encouraging to earn dishonestly, i.e. by fawning and stealing. The side effects of lazy economic policies have been highlighted by Cicero as long as two millennia ago. In his On Duties he wrote thus:
“When politicians, enthusiastic to pose as the people’s friends, bring forward bills providing for the distribution of land, they intend that the existing owners shall be driven from their homes. Or they propose to excuse borrowers from paying back their debts.
Men with those views undermine the very foundations on which our commonwealth depends. In the first place, they are shattering the harmony between one element in the State and another, a relationship which cannot possibly survive if debtors are excused from paying their creditor back the sums of money he is entitled to. Furthermore, all politicians who harbor such intentions are aiming a fatal blow at the whole principle of justice; for once rights of property are infringed, this principle is totally undermined. It is, I repeat, the special function of every state and every city to guarantee that each of its citizens shall be allowed the free and unassailed enjoyment of his own property.
Besides, politicians who propose a measure of this kind, with all its disastrous national implications, do not even succeed in winning the popularity they had hoped for. For anyone who has been deprived of his property automatically becomes their enemy; and the person who has taken the land over pretends he never wanted any such thing. Or, if his debt has been cancelled, he takes elaborate steps to conceal his satisfaction, so that people will not realize he had been insolvent. The injured party, on the other hand, not only remembers the injury, but displays his resentment for all to see. So even if the beneficiaries of the iniquitous measure outnumber the victims, that does not mean that they will be more influential; for in such mattes numbers count less than determination. However, leaving all that aside, it is utterly unfair that estates which have been in a family’s possession for many years and indeed centuries should be handed over to someone who has never owned any property at all, and that the rightful owner should be deprived of them.”
We should have learnt that cheating honestly doesn’t work. When the “proletariat” stole the produce on a daily basis (not so much as seeing their takings as theft) while at the same time dismissing commerial activity as “speculation”, something ought to have happened with businesses alertness, and it did. This is the fourth lesson.