In 1968 nine friends and I from Rome’s North American College visited the U.S.S.R. at a time of international tension. Flying out of Prague, Czechoslovakia only two days before Soviet troops invaded that capital to put down the unprecedented “Spring of Freedom,” we were with Czech students who were panic-stricken at what they learned in Moscow from Pravda and Izvestia. We Americans went to the U.S. embassy and got them teletype news from the Associated Press and UPI.
In that seminal year of student protests, they wanted to picket in Red Square, but we convinced them otherwise. The trip was a package tour we had put together, complete with a Soviet tour guide our own age who was fluent in English. Slava was approved as a true believing Marxist who could be trusted with skeptical Americans challenging the economics and politics we found. It was not that long since the end of World War II, which cost the U.S. 350,000 military deaths — and Russia 20 million military and civilian deaths. The siege of Leningrad alone cost over a million fatalities, with horror stories of hunger survival. This was part of the reason their standard of living was far below what we had enjoyed in the U.S.
We saw the lines of people waiting to buy not theater tickets but bread, shoes and clothes. The famed shortages of consumer goods occasioned black humor among Russians: if they declared communism in the Sahara desert on Tuesday, there would be a sand shortage by Thursday. All citizens were provided meager social services whether or not they showed productivity on the job, prompting the joke that “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” Slava proudly took us to an auto show, with the Soviets’ latest. Detroit had nothing to fear.
True, the Red Army was a fearsome force, one that no American general ever wanted to take on. I would have been arrested if caught photographing a soldier in uniform on the street, so different were their laws. But the Kremlin showed us how to so misappropriate government spending on behalf of the military that its peacetime economy was in shambles. Between this and Pope John Paul II supporting Solidarity, the world saw the incredible sight of the Soviet empire collapsing in on itself between November of 1989 and January of 1991. It fell of its own dead weight.
I went to the U.S.S.R. with no illusions about the likelihood of that kind of economy working. About the only place it could is in a Benedictine monastery, where they also have no private property, where the workers own the means of production, where they have a classless society, and several other similarities. Only one thing was different: you could walk out of the monastery if you chose.
When I hear Tea Party gripes that our government is suffocatingly socialist and mammoth in scope, I want to line up a package tour of old Soviet Russia and show the critics how ludicrously wrong they are. I see in America selfishness so naked that it has no problem denying handicapped people or marginalized minorities or job-seeking unemployed the very thing for which there is government: providing for the common good, not just for the 1-percenters. They would not believe that the U.S. is the most lightly taxed of all industrialized countries anywhere, providing guns and butter like no other. And they would see no inconsistency in their claiming a huge, expensive government yet demanding an ever larger military, which already swallows two thirds of the discretionary federal budget. That makes it by far the biggest part of government.
For the life of me I cannot understand how struggling middle-class voters can vent spleen and spew venom on behalf of the truly greedy. How are they so easily gulled? I can see how the wealthy would and do, bothered by nightmares of angry peasants at the barricades. But how the wealthy so mesmerize the non-wealthy is beyond me. One does not become wealthy by voting like them. The evidence shows the opposite.
Historically, capitalism came first, ages ago. Its many abuses of rich on poor, boss on worker, oppressor on oppressed generated a powerful opposite force called communism. If you don’t like communism, blame capitalism. Pope John Paul in Centesimo Anno showed his life experience of the evils of both in his native Poland.
Yet westerners only quote the parts where he scored Marxism. Isn’t that odd?