Communist parties persist after the fall of the Red

The Czech Republic, along with eight other former communist countries in central and Eastern Europe, will enter the European Union – a political and judicial union as well as a free-trade zone – in less than one week. While attending a lecture at the Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, pertaining to this issue, I learned that the Communist Party normally captures 15 to 20 percent of the vote in Czech elections. As with many other former communist countries, poor and supposedly uneducated people tend to still vote Red.

Most U.S. columnists would blame uninformed nostalgia for the generous welfare state of the communist regime as the reason the party fairs moderately well. The columnists – The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, for example – would then entertain us with imaginative descriptions of a newly freed city such as Prague still harboring echoes of the totalitarian past just under the surface and in the minds of the uneducated.

After spending a couple of days in Prague, I must say that I felt no echoes of the past. Swimming through herds of jostling tourists required all my concentration. Nevertheless, one particular evening, a couple of associates and I found a much-needed respite in a small pub – one clearly inhabited by locals. The beer was about 80 cents, so we stayed for a couple. Unexpectedly, we ignited the interest of another patron who sauntered over to our end of the bar.

The 40-ish man spoke Czech and knew only a smattering of English and German. Attired in frayed denim, he was thin with decaying teeth and the beginnings of a fine mullet. After finding out he was an electrician, talk inevitably turned to politics as we explained we were Americans living in Germany and studying the European Union. We knew very little about Czech domestic politics. So we asked him if he liked Vaclav Havel – the celebrated playwright/philosopher who led Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989 and eventually became president. By U.S. standards, his politics were moderate and maybe even left – but he was certainly a fan of capitalism. The electrician shook his head with displeasure. Yet, when asked about the communists he shrugged his shoulders as if they were OK.

Let us then assume this particular man was one of those poor, uneducated folks nostalgic for the communist regime. Yet, knowing a little about economics and recent Eastern European history, it becomes clear why the Communist Party persists.

The standard of living dropped while the wealth disparity skyrocketed after the communists fell. For our particular bar patron, wages probably dropped while others got rich. But in a growth-oriented capitalist economy, the wider the wealth disparity, the better.

Basically, the more accumulated and centralized the capital, the more possibility for excess money used on investment, and with investment the economy grows. With economic growth comes the incentive for other firms to enter the market and competition increases. With the increase of competition comes the demand for more labor and, finally, the demand for more labor amid a competitive environment amid a growing economy equals rising wages. The trickle-down effect.

However, in a newly emerging capitalist economy, this effect takes quite some time. For our beer-drinking electrician, this equals lower wages for electricians until long after his retirement. Using an individually oriented, rational-choice mentality so beloved by neoclassical capitalist economists, this man should vote communist. After all, asking someone to sacrifice his well-being for the sake of something from which he himself will never tangibly benefit sounds more akin to a religious undertaking than the agenda of a rational economist.

While I certainly do not advocate the return to the command economy, let us remember – seemingly unlike many U.S. columnists, or indeed presidents – that global capitalism is not the utopian vision many claim it to be. Perhaps some sort of redistribution is necessary for a just and sensible economy. Without it, the 19th century communist ideology will inevitably return when leaders follow a 19th century economic agenda.

Douglas Voigt is studying abroad in Germany, and welcomes comments at [email protected]