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.