USSR and the War on Individualism

Aaron Clarey always asks me the kind of questions I love answering. Here is the most recent one:

In the book/essay “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labor” it cited and alluded to instances in various communist countries where the government took measures to eliminate individualism.  It proved to be a key missing piece in my forever forming mental model of the socialist mind.

Could you confirm or speak to:

1.  The above post (am I close, am I right?)
2.  Efforts made by the communists to “eliminate” individualism in different countries
3.  How common that was.  Was it VERY common?  Was it rarely done?  Was it part of the societal psychology?

Aaron is absolutely right in his understanding of how important the elimination of individualism was for the massive social experiment conducted by the Soviet leaders. A series of intense and productive practices was put in place in order to allow people to get rid of those pesky individual identities and dissolve themselves in the great collective. The goal was simple: the people who relinquish the cumbersome individual responsibility and rely on an external authority (in this case, the Communist Party) for all of their decisions experience an instant sense of relief. Responsibility and individuality are hard, while doing what you are told to do without thinking too much is pleasant and easy. There are few things as painful as having to think for yourself. And the temptation to hand oneself over to a supposedly benevolent and all-powerful authority is very powerful.

In his biography of Stalin that I keep exhorting everybody to read, Edward Radzinsky writes about Stalin’s strategy to make as many people as possible participate in all kinds of collective endeavors:

This constant emphasis on the mass—mass congresses, mass holidays—this dissolution of the individual in the mass produced something which [Stalin] prized above all else: a collective conscience. Personal responsibility died; there was only collective responsibility: “the Party has ordered it,” “the country has ordered it.” This collective conscience enabled people to enjoy life unconcernedly when the Terror was at its most cruel. Woe to anyone troubled by a conscience of his own.

So what do you need to do to erode individualism and help people hand themselves over to the collective? Well, the very first step is to destroy the most powerful allegiance we can have. That is, the allegiance we feel for our family. In the very first years of the Soviet Union, the following things happen:

1. People are forced to share their living space with many different families. The privacy dies, and the annoyance of staying in a very cramped space with the people you are supposed to love grows. Everything that happens between the members of the family becomes private. People are encouraged to vent the grievances against their loved ones in collective trial-like events. Yes, it’s intrusive but soon many find a certain pleasure in the idea that there is no need to figure out the ways to repair a relationship. Instead, you can just complain to the collective and the straying spouse or the annoying child, parent, or sibling will be dealt with by the authorities.

2. Children are encouraged to spy on their parents for signs of subversive behaviors or opinions and rat them out to authorities. This feels unnatural at first, but soon many people begin to realize that this practice could come in quite useful. Getting rid of an annoying relative is just too easy.

3. Instead of family gatherings, there are endless collective outings where people go on picnics, excursions, trips, vacations, etc. with large groups of co-workers. And this wasn’t really optional. I, of course, was born decades after Stalin’s death, so the worst excesses of the war on individualism had passed me by. I still, however, have panic attacks whenever I hear of any forced social occasions because they remind me of these endless obligatory instances of collective sociability that persecuted me when I was growing up. The worst thing you could be in the USSR was a thinking individual who enjoyed solitude, contemplation, and analysis. Only if you were a fan of marching and yelling slogans at the top of your lungs could you be really happy.

The result of all these measures was that the very word “individualist” became an insult. The death of individualism permitted the most horrible crimes of the Soviet communism to take place. This is the same thing that happened in Nazi Germany. “Fuhrer thinks for you, so you don’t have to” – and off we go, herding people into concentration camps and gas chambers. Without individuality, there is no humanity. When we give up our individual conscience, choice and responsibility, we turn into happy, cud-chewing animals.

So to answer the original question that gave rise to this post, not only was the war on individuality common in the Communist countries, it was the very basis of existence there.

P.S. Later on, I also want to write about another idea of Aaron’s which is the way in which Soviet leaders battled the division of labor. This is also a very interesting topic, and I hope I won’t forget to discuss it.

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24 comments on “USSR and the War on Individualism

  1. The forced collectivism isn’t very good. I had that in the abusive workplace, which had a leftist ideology. I also had the weird invasion of my privacy when I took refuge in books, and had to return to live with my parents for a while. I had presumed this might be a way to recover my health from the workplace abuse situation, but it was also very stressful. My father considered my spending time with books to be a sign of something malignant. Also he became distressed when I tuned off the computer screen if I left the room. These seemed very strange objections — but people under stress feel threatened if you do anything they do not understand. Intellectual engagement fits this criteria.

    By the way, I had an interaction with a group of You Tubers, yesterday, where one accused me of using words like “logic” and “context” to make myself seem “more educated than I am”. Anti-intellectual paranoia is also alive in America.

    I wonder what it would mean to be “more educated than I am”. I suppose they expect me to pursue a post-doctorate in order to be able to talk to them — but these are just kids who are generally trying to make themselves seem more educated than they are. They want all interactions to fit the criteria of logic, but even if that could happen, truth would not be obtained in this way. Nonetheless, they persist in their notion. If you happen to disagree with any of them, they demand you go and do a foundation course in logical fallacies. I have done quite a lot of courses in critical thinking (informal logic) and philosophy. I’m also well-aware of how formal logic is structured. On the basis of all this, I’m well aware that no amount of applying the rules of logic will get someone who sees things differently to agree with you.

    • “By the way, I had an interaction with a group of You Tubers, yesterday, where one accused me of using words like “logic” and “context” to make myself seem “more educated than I am”. Anti-intellectual paranoia is also alive in America.”

      - Did I tell you about a friend of mine whose boyfriend dumped her for being condescending? “You use these long words like “nevertheless” to show off how smart you are,” he whined. :-)

      • Haha. Well what she was communicating was a secret code, “never the less”. She was trying to tell him that if he wasn’t in the picture, the outcome would never be any less.

        He must have read through the secret message she was saying and dumped her before she dumped him.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. The War on Individualism here in the USA freaks me out for all the reasons you’ve listed. People don’t realize that individualism is a privilege and really is what made the USA great (not so much anymore).

    One thing that bothers me is, for some reason, people ignore the experiences of former USSR/satellite citizens while they’re praising socialism or communism. It’s almost like recognizing their experiences is an inconvenience. My grandfather was born in Poland in 1917 (he got to experience all of the fun), and he tried to explain to my dad how evil socialism/collectivism really was , but my dad became a raging leftist and former union member anyway. His father’s experiences and suffering amounted to nothing. It’s very sad.

    • Gosh, I know exactly what you mean! Time and again, people who have never set foot in my country tried to explain to me that they have a better understanding of what the Soviet reality was like because they read some stupid article somewhere. This annoys me more than what I can tell. Why not just listen to people who have actually experienced it and accept that maybe their is some validity in what they say?

    • Back in middle school (c.1980) the teacher brought in a woman who had grown up in Communist Hungary to tell us horror stories. Being a bored kid at the time, I didn’t pay much attention, but today I appreciate the effort.
      Do schools even do this anymore?

      • “Do schools even do this anymore?”

        - I don’t really think so. When I tell my students about my own experiences in the Soviet Union, they betray no previous knowledge of what I’m talking about.

      • In middle school , we got my Grandad to come into the history class to talk of his experiences as a child, born in Lithuania, spending part of his childhood in Russia during the revolution years ca. 1917, and getting out of the country ahead of the Russians (coming back AGAIN) at the end of WWII with his wife and my mother in tow.

        Between that, Solzhenitsyn, etc., I am flabbergasted at kids with Lithuanian parents of the post WWII wave who think all this centralized power stuff is a good thing.

      • There’s a big effort to preserve the recollections of WWII vets before they die, by the Library of Congress and others.

        Someone needs to do this for the living survivors of Communism. Know someone who is willing to tell the stories? Grab a camera and put it up on Youtube.

        Perhaps always use a black background, call them the Black Videos of Communism.

  3. The global brotherhood (or should I say sisterhood? wouldn’t want to imply misogynism!) of the left are universally more concerned with “equality” than with liberty. In the US this is most apparent when words like “rights” are applied to groups at the expense of individuals. A case in point that often makes people angry or uncomfortable: Regardless of how wrong I think racial prejudice and bigotry are the Federal Government had no business using police and military force upon the individual citizens involved to achieve what they deemed as “social justice.” Does think mean I want things to be the “way they used to be?” Absolutely not. Ignorance, pride and fear generated that and I am glad to see it gone just not using the process of government intervention. Some lines were not meant to be crossed in fact our Constitution declares where the government shall not… This sort of intervention mindset is so common now that in the context of “civil rights” a certain brand of individualism is by default pejorative. You are not “allowed” by the state or the groups involved to think in a way that makes another individual uncomfortable. So many groups declare that they have “rights” but do not (and in many cases cannot) enumerate them nor give cite from where they actually stem. They don’t understand that with the freedom and the right to be offended inherently comes the right to be offensive. You cannot have freedom otherwise. Freedom has always been a double edged sword but modern special interests would have one edge sharpened and the other edge blunted. Gone are the days of the true “Liberal” champions of freedom who decried that although they vehemently disagreed with an opinion they would fight and perhaps die so that the individual who communicated it kept that right.

  4. Funny, Clarissa’s post confirms as correct the remarks of our anti-communist American Catholic priest about fifty years ago in rural Minnesota. This stuff was never unknown, even in the days of Walter Duranty but the sophisticated intellectuals I’ve run across since all managed to miss it and sneer at anyone who points it out.

      • It IS good to hear some sense on that subject from a sophisticated intellectual. I worked in the former East Germany (post re-unification) for 14 years and heard many things similar to your observations from the people there. Of course the DDR was in general materially better off than much of Russia and they never suffered a terror on the scale of Stalin’s, but the government’s view of individuality was certainly the same as the Soviets’. For relief, people (in private among friends) told hundreds of jokes about the regime. Was it the same in the USSR?

      • ” For relief, people (in private among friends) told hundreds of jokes about the regime. Was it the same in the USSR?”

        - Yes, definitely. Of course, during the Stalin era, that wasn’t possible but in the last decades of the USSR, jokes about the regime were endless and very inventive. The jokes are funny but I always felt like they were counter-productive because they helped people see the system as cute and not as something deserving rage.

        Here is a Soviet joke I really like:

        A Soviet citizen and an American are talking (this is funny already because this was not allowed).

        “We have freedom!” the American says. “I can stand in front of the White House and say, ‘Our president is an idiot!”

        “Pshaw!” the Soviet citizen says. “We have that freedom, too. I can stand in the middle of Red square and say that the American president is an idiot as much as I want.”

      • One more joke… Polish hammer thrower wins the Olympic games. The reporters ask him – what are your future plans, what do you want to achieve next? – The next step of my career would be to throw the sickle even further!..

        Another one may sound a bit weird for the Americans, but here it goes. The secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the US president make a bet. About communists winning in the US in one hundred years. And then they get frozen to see who wins. The US president wakes up first, reads the newspaper and discovers that communists are indeed ruling the US. Oh, shit, thinks the US president…. Then the secretary of the CPSU wakes up, and reads in the newspaper “there were no incidents on the Finnish-Chinese border lately…”

      • But it would be incorrect to say that all population was secretly opposed to the communist rule. The communist believers were a large enough group. In fact, the believers and non-believers were almost equally numerous and each group did not believe the other exists. That is an exaggeration, but each group believed the other is just a handful of idiots somewhere… out there…

        Speaking of jokes, there was also what I call “patriotic folklore”. Like the following song, which is a children song with changed words:

        The missiles are slowly disappearing in the distance
        You will never see them again
        And even though we are a bit sorry for America,
        The bright future awaits us.

        Clouds, clouds of chloropicrin are covering the land
        And sneaking under my gasmask
        Everyone believes in the best [outcome]
        Maybe some of us will survive.

        Maybe we offended someone without a good reason
        By dumping 15 megatons on them
        There is only the scorched ground left
        Where the Pentagon used to be…

        Clouds, clouds of chloropicrin are covering the land
        And sneaking under my gasmask
        Everyone believes in the best [outcome]
        Maybe some of us will survive.

        there were more parts, I forgot…
        The threat of war was a fact of everyday life, people got casual about it…

      • “But it would be incorrect to say that all population was secretly opposed to the communist rule. The communist believers were a large enough group.”

        - You are telling me? My great-grandmother died as a passionate Communist in 1994. Her daughter had died as a passionate Stalinist in 1982.

  5. Here’s a DDR joke [Erich Honecker was once the head of the DDR]
    Axel and Horst are drinking in a small pub when Axel turns to Horst and asks, “As your oldest and best friend, tell me, what do you think of Honecker?”
    Horst is visibly rattled by this and responds “How do you expect me to answer such a question here? Anyone could overhear my what I say.”
    Later, after a few beers, they step outside and Axel asks the same question. Horst answers, “There could be anyone out here, maybe behind that tree, who could hear me. Why do you want to get me in trouble?”
    They walk together for a kilometer or so and find themselves in the middle of a recently harvested, large, very flat, wheat field. They can see by the light of a bright full moon that the field is deserted except for themselves.
    Axel says, “Here we are where nobody can hear what you say and you know that I will certainly keep your confidence. So, what do you think of Honecker?”
    And Horst says, “Oh, I like Honecker”.

  6. I owe you thanks! I’ve been desperate for a present for my lousy brother-in-law, who deserves nothing. At the last moment, I heard that he’s fanatical about biographies of Stalin and Hitler. Sounding so very erudite and in-touch, I said, “Oh, I’ve just read about a fantastic biography. I’ll go order it now!” You rock :)

  7. Will have to check that biography myself. On the issue of intellectuals and communism, the intellectual Raymond Aron (Sartre’s main rival, Sartre being a passionate believer in communism), wrote a book called “The Opium of the Intellectuals,” based off of Marx’s statement about religion being the “opiate of the masses.” In it, Aron argues that communism is akin to a religion that many intellectuals, who otherwise do not believe in formal religion, fell hook, line, and sinker for. Like many formal religions, it promises a utopia, but here on Earth, and is very oppressive in implementing this utopia.

  8. Pingback: Lightning Round -2012/12/19 « Free Northerner

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