Young Canadians should learn about the Polish experiment with socialism

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Appeared in the Hub, May 29, 2023
Young Canadians should learn about the Polish experiment with socialism

Only about half of Canadians are old enough to remember watching the fall of the Berlin Wall live on television. Fewer still are old enough to recall the Polish communists’ brutal crackdown on protesters in the “long December night” in 1981.

This likely explains why, according to a recent poll, 50 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 believe that socialism is the ideal economic system for their country.

For more than two centuries, socialism has captured the hearts and minds of youth everywhere. It’s obvious why; socialism’s promise of equality and unparalleled prosperity is alluring. But for more than four decades in the 20th century, actual socialism captured more than hearts and minds. It captured one-third of the globe’s inhabitants and subjected them to a grand social experiment. In our new book (coauthored with Konstantin Zhukov) we document the results of this experiment, focusing on the experience of Poland.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed that socialism would deliver “such an abundance of goods” that it would be “able to satisfy the needs of all its members.” But it didn’t work out that way. By the 1980s, Polish per-capita production was just 39 per cent of that of the United States.

The average Pole had to work nearly 13 times as long as the average West German to make enough money to buy a TV. And nine times as long as West Germans for cars, twice as long for beef and pork and nearly three times as long for chicken. Compared with westerners, only a fraction of Poles had telephones, cars or homes. Poles waited 15 to 30 years for housing. In the last 15 years of Polish socialism, life expectancy declined.

While most Poles went without necessities such as feminine hygiene products, the elite were able to shop in special well-stocked stores. They paid no taxes. They vacationed in their own resorts. They had their own pension plans and health care.

Because socialist economies were so inefficient, used more natural resources than capitalist economies even while they produced less output. For example, for every dollar of GDP it produced, the Polish economy used more than three times the amount of steel as did the United Kingdom’s economy.

Socialist countries were also notoriously polluted. In Poland, the amount of sulfur oxide in the air per person was nearly three times the amount in West Germany and more than six times the amount in Austria. A 1991 article in the Washington Post described Warsaw’s tap water as “yellowish-brown from the tap, laced with heavy metals, coalmine salts and organic carcinogens. It stains the sink, tastes soapy and smells like a wet sock that has been fished out of a heavily chlorinated swimming pool.”

Marx thought capitalist workers would eventually revolt. But in socialist Poland, the workers turned on the “worker’s party” and the socialist state. In 1981, thousands—mostly women and children—took to the streets of Kraków, Łódź and cities across Poland to protest the deplorable economic conditions. Their signs read “We want to eat,” “How do you eat ration coupons?” and, in an obvious reference to the closing lines of the Communist Manifesto, “The hungry of all countries—unite.”

In December, the government sent 140,000 men into the streets to round up troublemakers. Some 10,000 were arrested and 200,000 were fined. When they came for Lech Walesa, one of the leaders of the protests, he told his captors: “This is the moment of your defeat. These are the last nails in the coffin of communism.” He was right. The socialist experiment had run its course.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister, promised “a return to a market-oriented economy.” Poland, he said, “cannot afford ideological experiments any longer.” Decades of shortages ended in weeks. Hyper-inflation was tamed. Growth rates more than doubled. And life expectancy began growing again.

Those of us who dream of a better society should never forget the terrible lessons of the socialist experiment.

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