Monday, 5 August 2013

A Tryst with Socialism

As a student studying in a State run school in Arbaminch, Ethiopia, I snacked on a veritable range of Communist Ideology( although I was an Ex-Patriot, an Indian student). My parents were both teachers in the same school and they were employed by the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia. The Communist Ideology was invariably propagated by young and rather dynamic teachers who taught Political Science. At the school level, all the students had to study Political Science as a subject which mainly dealt with  the philosophy which expounded the ideals of an egalitarian society. The high point of this school of thought dealt with concepts dealing in the idea of the withering of the state, a rather Utopian society  where the gap between the haves and the have nots was reduced  to a great extent. As a young and impressionable child, I found this school of thought to be full of good things, a philosophy which I believed at that time was the solution to all the problems in life! My exposure to the Socialist philosophy  lasted from 1976 to 1984.
What seemed to be an all encompassing solution to all the ills in the society associated with the gap between the rich and the poor however didn’t explain why there continued to be people who were growing richer and richer while the poor continued to languish in ignominy. Somehow those who were members of the socialist party, the youth members, and the secret agents seemed to be exploiting there powers to exploit the others. Yes, you couldn’t own more than two properties, although there was a solution to it, your wife could be made the legal owner of one house while you remained the owner of another. Everything else was nationalised by the state. In those days, I didn’t notice these discrepancies in this rather Utopian philosophy, but now when I look back on those times, it seems as if the state far from being a benign state was in fact more of a Police State. Freedom of speech was frowned upon, and in a state of paranoia, anything you said would have been interpreted as being disruptive to the Socialist Ideology!
It was a rather claustrophobic world that a young child like me lived in! It was as if each individual didn’t have an individual identity, and in fact each individual belonged to the state, period! But then, it seemed as if this was not a great price to pay if it meant social security and the guaranty that you would not starve especially as you were the responsibility of the state. The truth was that the Philosophy which promised equal opportunities to all didn’t in fact translate into reality! The reality was that the Philosophy that promised such grand possibilities of the withering away of the state in fact promoted and environment of paranoia, mistrust, and fear! It didn’t in any case create an environment of security.
In one instance, my father who was driving my brother and I to school was stopped at one of the bus stops where the bus had been delayed, and one fine gentleman demanded that my father should give him a lift to his destination. When my father asked him why he should do so, the gentleman said there it was a Socialist society, and there could be no private ownership, and that my father had the duty of ferrying him to his destination as a service to the state! This seemed to be a rather  lame excuse for getting a lift, that too without having to pay for the fare, and so my father rather tactfully refused to oblige the gentleman.
The images of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Lenin adorned posters and books everywhere. They seemed to be benign presences who promised a Utopian state which would ensure that everyone was equal. Somehow, Darwin’s idea of “Survival of the Fittest” seems to have been in direct contravention of the very tenets of Socialism and Communism. In those days we were told that Communism would follow Socialism especially after there was the withering away of the state, the extinction of the Capitalist and the extinction of the bourgeoisie. The emancipation of the Proletariat would finally lead to a state which would be the perfect state! In times when there was side scale condemnation  of Capitalist America, few wondered why Coca-Cola continued to be a popular drink, why Boeing Aircraft continued to be the mainstay of Ethiopian Airlines and why aid for drought victims continued to pour in from the United States of America!
Mother Land Call was a call to all the able-bodied citizens of Ethiopia to lend a helping hand in clearing forests for further plantation, and the plucking of Cotton grown on state run farms. As a school student, I accompanied my friends on such excursions where we hacked and cut trees and bushes to clear land for further plantation. people living in the town were also given the Mother Land Call to help in the harvest of Cotton, and entire townships left home en mass to cultivate cotton, often leaving homes unprotected for thieves to have a filed day. No one was spared, and often entire families composed of young children, young adults and grandparents would go out to the farm to do their share of duty towards the Mother Land! Even though we were ex-patriots, my parents, my brother and I were not spared.
When I returned to India for further studies, I was surprised by the greater freedom of expression that was exercised by all the people. People could talk relatively more freely about the failure of the ruling Government in those days, and they could voice there opinions without fear of any form of punishment from the state. The five year programmes seemed however to be a common feature of the Indian polity, and before the advent of Rajive Gandhi, the country seemed to follow a closed market policy. The memories of Emergency however continued to haunt the minds of people in India. In spite of the fact that India was aligned to the USSR, the relative freedoms enjoyed by the people of India was a heady mix for me by the time I joined college for further studies. It is clear that the tenets of Democracy are better than the tenets of an oppressive philosophy which deals with greater state control over the minds of people of the state. The very concepts of dictatorship, and oppressive regime seem to have been promoted by the philosophy of  Socialism. Today, when I think back to the times when I lived in a Socialist state, I realise that the very concept dealt with conformism forced though it may be. One had to conform to the philosophy of egalitarianism and any divergent beliefs were dealt with harshly.If the state curbs creativity and divergent thinking, then it is oppressive in nature and the leadership can in no way be absolved of dictatorial tendencies! In many cases, the atmosphere of paranoia ensured that political dissent was stifled at the outset. The oppressive consequences meted out to dissenters, and so called enemies of the state from time to time ensured that there was little or no opposition to government policies. Often, innocent people were punished on trumped up charges. Some of the people I knew including teachers and highly educated people were thrown into prison where they were subject to intensive indoctrination about the benefits of the Socialist Ideology. Some of the people I knew, including a neighbour, a teacher in the elementary school spent four years in prison on trumped charges. He underwent the so called, “Re-education” in Socialist Ideologies. But then, the end result was that his wife had to fend for herself and her two children for all those years. One can hardly imaging the hardships she would have had to face all those years. Some people disappeared during those times, never to be heard of again.
The tenets of Socialism seem to be rather good in theory, but in practice they seem to be rather oppressive. The concept of Utopia, derived in many ways from the idea of Heaven as expounded in the Bible and many other scriptures can only exist in an ideal state which is more idyllic than real given the facts of life. While egalitarianism is a most desired state of life, it is a misnomer to believe that it can exist in a situation where human beings exist as one single entity. It is a fact that in real life, no two human beings can arrive at a consensus of opinions. In a world where each human being exists as a distinct individual with  with unique qualities and abilities, it is wishful thinking to believe that egalitarianism can be easily achieved. Rebelliousness and thinking differently from others will always pose a challenge to the very thought of bringing human beings to one single platform of thought, philosophy or ideology. On Earth at least, Utopia is a rather far fetched albeit, a wishful   thought. Some of the most corrupt regimes including some of the worst dictatorships have existed in the so called Socialist regimes. I have observed that very few of the Chairmen  of  Socialist regimes can be absolved of nepotism, corruption and dictatorial tendencies. In some socialist societies that exist even today, it has been observed that the onus of leading the “glorious revolution” has been vested in a leadership system which passes the responsibility of doing so from father to son.It is rather like an aristocratic  or feudalistic system of governance where the rule of the state is inherited by the descendants or heir apparent of the titular figure-head of the revolution. It is so like the family rule that existed in many countries in the past!
The Glorious Revolution heralded by Mengistu, Teffari Banti and others came to end by the late nineties in Ethiopia. The entire facade on which a lie was built collapsed when the Northern rebels entered the capital, Addis Ababa. Overnight, the entire political structure built on the ideals of Marxism and Leninism collapsed, and to add ignominy to the ruling elite was the fact that Mengistu and his entourage fled the country well before the rebels entered the capital. USSR, which had its own upheavals starting with the fall of the Berlin wall and the introduction of Glasnost could not help Mengistu and his regime any further. Today, the Socialist era continues to haunt the people of not only Ethiopia, but also those countries that were once upon a time  staunch allies of the Soviet Union. The failure of Socialism in the erstwhile allies of the Soviet Union might be ascribed to the very rebellion of people who could no longer  bear a rather claustrophobic and overwhelming system of governance. Today, increased centralisation of powers, challenges posed to various freedoms enjoyed by people in different countries all over the world, issue of unique identification numbers, increased monitoring of individuals, tapping of telephones seem to suggest that we might once again be heading towards the rather fallacious beliefs in the possibility of building a Utopic society based on egalitarianism.

No comments:

Post a Comment