While the circumstances and tension inherent in being a Cold War border state form a rationale for the building of the wall and the ramping up of internal security, along with the extensive intelligence apparatus working to sabotage the DDR from the West, a defense of the Wall and the Stasi is not my purpose here, and not something I'd be able to mount anyway as I would be lying through my teeth.
My personal opinion is that with more accountability and transparency for party officials, workplace managers and the police force, the DDR would serve as the best example to date of actually existing socialism. I came to this conclusion only recently after reading a few sources on the subject, which I'll do my best to summarize here. Previous to this, I knew very little of the DDR besides the way most of us do — what we've seen in Hollywood movies and that one Reagan speech.
So, let's begin with the basics.
The CIA World Factbook from 1984 (ayyyyyyy). Data on Germanys available pages 81 through 84.
GNP: $165.6 billion, $9,903 per capita, 1982 growth rate 0.5%
Organized labor: 87.7% of total labor force
GNP: $658.4 billion, $10,682 per capita, growth rate 1.1%
Organized labor: 37% of total labor force
A country with a third the population of its neighbor (and, admittedly less than a third of its GNP) manages to keep pace on a per capita basis and beat the United Kingdom ($8,620, p. 238). A cool historical wrinkle I wasn't aware of: For every country listed here, it counts off the major political parties then gives a rough estimate of the number of communists. Aww, shucks, CIA, you care about little ol' us?
Anyway, this doesn't mean a damn thing if that productivity doesn't make its way down to the workers, right? Right. So let's consult our friend Jonathan Steele about just what went on in East Germany. Steele isn't a commie; he's a well-regarded British journalist with decades of foreign bureau experience, so this isn't the raving of some Marcyite stooge.
Also worth noting — the DDR is probably the place where socialism was developed at "most optimal" conditions: i.e., not out of a purely backward economy like in Russia or China. Conditions weren't great, or even good, of course — the Second World War had just happened, and a massive brain drain hit the country hard. The Marshall Plan, or Western Allies' scheme to pump vast sums of money into the war-torn countries of Europe to rebuild, did not extend to the Eastern Bloc or Soviet Union. That was, uh, on purpose. After the greatest loss of life and industry from any war in the history of the world, the USSR had no hope of competing with the United States in building up friendly governments — since the US lost no industrial resources and a comparatively small number of people.
But putting all that aside, let's take a look at the facts. Really the whole book is chock full of useful information when discussing this stuff, much like Albert Szymanski's "Is the Red Flag Flying?" about the Soviet Union. Too frequently we rely on received wisdom taken via cultural osmosis to inform us; I am no exception. Regardless, it's far more productive to talk about these things as they actually were rather than some inaccurate idea about how things operated.
HOW GOOD WAS THE SHIT. EXTREMELY? KINDA? NOT AT ALL?
First, let's look at pay. The income distribution was very, very equitable, as you might expect. A pay differential existed between manual and mental labor, but the gap was not vast. Mansions and country estates were expropriated not for party officials, but for trade unions and hospitals. There were some privileges for higher-ups in the party, but as Steele states, the number in the "luxury bracket" was around 100 and the income figures show their compensation didn't outstrip the bottom quintile by much. There will be more on factory management later in the post, but it warms my red heart to see the reality under socialism was the directors are overworked and stressed while the rank-and-file workers had a much easier time of things.
Housing in the DDR. This kind of cooperation between factories and workers for house-building is pretty cool, and it's absolutely insane to imagine owning a home and paying 4 percent of my income on it, as loan payments were state-mandated to be equal to average rent in a flat.
The Germans held back on collectivization after the war, and hey presto, it looks like after the trials and tribulations of Soviet collectivization, another country was able to learn from previous socialists' mistakes and do it better, on par with its neighbor. All the while developing a cooperative system on a large scale.
Sample passage on education in the DDR. There's more in the book, including a page on how Nazi scum got kicked out of the schools — the DDR was far more robust in its denazification than the FRG, more on that in a moment. Take special note of the guarantee of a job or further education for every graduate down page left.
Somewhat hilariously, the DDR was running into the kind of issues we currently have in the more advanced economies: the problem of overeducation. However, planning for this eventuality then seemed a hell of a lot more organized than it is here, now. A tiny bit about how the party put manual and "educated" labor on equal footing, too.
Travel and health care. Imagine guaranteed paid holidays being so popular the United States government had to rapidly respond to shortages of vacation opportunities. What a problem to have to solve!
More on health care and pensions. The latter was definitely a serious issue, but one that was being worked on, at least. A quarter of all doctors leaving the country is absolutely staggering.
I GOT YOUR SOCIAL ISSUES RIGHT HERE BUB
So economics seem pretty OK, but how about fighting prejudice and stamping out latent Nazism? We've all heard how actually, economic equality and social equality can't move hand in hand or whatever. Is it true?
The Soviet Union was the first country in Europe to legalize abortion, though it was rolled back a decade and a half later, to later be liberalized post-Stalin. But what about the Germans?
Some more info on women's services. The demographic stagnancy mentioned here was a giant roadblock for continued growth and development for the DDR. Though who needs context, right?
Women in the workplace? Pobody's nerfect, and sexism wasn't just gonna end overnight, but good lord that is some progress, especially for the 1970s. Imagine how angry MRA nerds would get over the divorce rate skyrocketing due to women (paraphrasing) "no longer tolerating bull shit."
"Communism is so gray and drab, it's a wonder people don't di —" *checks label* Hmm. Damn.
One undeniable improvement of the DDR over the FRG is the denazification process. Some party members were rehabilitated, but all were prevented from holding high office, Nazis were kicked out of the schools. A couple pages after on the psychological and cultural differences between the East and the West follows.
That good ol' communist anti-Semitism, worming its way into the country.
IS WORKERS' DEMOCRACY A LIE? ARE YOU EVEN STILL READING THIS? CAN I TYPE ANYTHING HERE
So, to the topic of the exercise of democracy in a one-party state. This is the real conundrum for most people, as there isn't a Western equivalent like there is with health care or education or housing. But lemme turn my baseball cap backwards and rap with you for a second about the dictatorship of the proletariat in action.
Unions, as you might expect, functioned differently than they do here. Because the ruling party and the state are ostensibly a party of the workers, and managers were directly accountable to party leadership both via executive committee and the "councils" mentioned below, unions took on a different character. Some elaboration.
This wasn't perfect, of course. Central planners and directors still had ultimate authority, though they had to answer to councils and their workers in practice if not in theory. More on the party in a second.
Some stuff on labor rewards and bonuses for innovation and suggestion handed out to ordinary workers. Also a page on the "conflict commission," where petty workplace offenses were handled by groups of elected workers and recidivism was low. Part of this no doubt stems from the zero unemployment economy in the DDR, where termination was a long process mediated by unions. I don't know about everyone else, but if I fucked up at work I'd prefer the people who know me best dealt with the problem instead of leaving everything up to my boss.
Now, the party. True enough, the major decision-making organs are cloistered committees of the People's Chamber. But party membership itself, like other parties in the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, was largely a decent cross-section of the population. What most people don't know about communist parties in socialist states is just how big they are. Because political, economic and cultural life are openly interconnected in these countries, party membership is open to everyone and seen more as a meritocratic organization for social climbing than strictly an ideological group. So the kind of "professional class" of politicians we encounter in the West is far more diminished. Only the top leaders enjoy that kind of privilege, while opportunity for political advancement is open to everyone. Also, keep in mind the income numbers from earlier. Even at the very top of the pyramid, the differences weren't that stark. This whole thing can be weird, I know, and runs counter to how we assume democracies should function. But socialism is a fundamental transformation of society. European social democracies resemble other capitalist states because they are still capitalist states. Despite their better treatment of workers, they're not of, by, for the workers. So check dis shit out.
Many passages in the book paint a rosy picture of life in the DDR, and undoubtedly the problems faced by East Germans were far different than those we find ourselves encountering in the capitalist world. Where there is no unemployment, no homelessness and minimal poverty, new problems inevitably emerge. I'm no vulgar leftcom, but as I said in the introduction, it would have been better for the life of the people and the overall health of the state if some systems of checks and balances existed between ordinary workers and party officials, if policing were transparent and subject to review and reform by the party rank and file, if greater powers were given to a people's legislature.
But rather than wistfully hope for better conditions in a past country, one that no longer exists, I choose instead to apply what I've learned from my research into a broader understanding of what socialism was and can be in the future. Taking note of successes and failures and acknowledging the latter honestly is and should be part of building a better world.
So let's uh, do that by making some more posts on line.