People have been arguing constantly in the seventeen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union over whether socialism, per se, played a significant part in the ultimate failure of the state. On one hand, people may point to the rusted-out remains of tractors mouldering in the fields, neglected and uncared-for by farmer collectives whose members all played the “not my job” game. On the other hand, people may point to the disastrous social and legal policies of a tyrannical, dictatorial regime that killed millions of its own people.
The purges and mass repressions carried out in the USSR, as described in excruciating detail in The Gulag Archipelago, have been ascribed by some to Stalin, and by others to Lenin, as noted in the Wikipedia article about the book:
Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront this shameful Soviet system, the realities of the camps remained taboo into the 1980s. While Khrushchev, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union’s supporters in the West viewed the GULag as a deviation of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn and the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture — an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project. This view, politically unpopular inside and outside the USSR during the Cold War, because it ascribed to Lenin the theoretical and practical origins of the concentration camp system, has become the prevalent view of informed writers and scholars since the USSR’s demise.
Such purges and repressions are blamed by many for some of the economic failings of the Soviet Union, and with good reason. Solzhenitsyn himself said:
Subsequently, after 1917, by a transfer of meaning, the name kulak began to be applied (in official and propaganda literature, whence it moved into general usage) to all those who in any way hired workers, even if it was only when they were temporarily short of working hands in their own families. But we must keep in mind that after the Revolution it was impossible to pay less than a fair wage for all such labor — the Committees of the Poor and the village soviets looked after the interests of landless laborers. Just let somebody try to swindle a landless laborer!
This sort of policy pretty much guarantees the industrial failure of a nation. Keep in mind that being called a kulak — essentially, a “miserly, dishonest rural trader who grows rich not by his own labor but through someone else’s” — made one immediately subject to being swept up by the Gulag system. In the following paragraph, it gets worse:
But the inflation of this scathing term kulak proceeded relentlessly, and by 1930 all strong peasants in general were being so called — all peasants strong in management, strong in work, or even strong merely in convictions. The term kulak was used to smash the strength of the peasantry. Let us remember, let us open our eyes: only a dozen years had passed since the great Decree on the Land — that very decree without which the peasants would have refused to follow the Bolsheviks and without which the October Revolution would have failed. The land was allocated in accordance with the number of “mouths” per family, equally. It had been only nine years since the men of the peasantry had returned from the Red Army and rushed onto the land they had wrested for themselves. Then suddenly there were kulaks and there were poor peasants. How could that be? Sometimes it was the result of differences in initial stock and equipment; sometimes it may have resulted from luck in the mixture of the family. But wasn’t it most often a matter of hard work and persistence?
That’s really the key point. “But wasn’t it most often a matter of hard work and persistence?”
Consider the Communist slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This is, in direct translation from concept to action, what happened to the most productive farmers under the Soviet system. Farmers were granted lands according to quantified need (the number of mouths per family), but in the end this was not deemed to be good enough. Some farmers still ended up more prosperous than others, violating the universal balance of wealth envisioned by collectivist economic theories.
This imbalance grew thanks primarily to hard work and persistence, of course. The greater one’s talent and invested effort, the greater the returns. The only way to eliminate this problem is to eliminate all privacy entirely — private ownership of anything, including a little space to call home, must be forbidden. All, beyond basic survival requirements, must be equalized — which requires eliminating anything that proves too problematic to equalize. How, after all, does one enforce equality of reward for any efforts from anyone when someone has a bedroom to call his or her own — a private space that can be cared for, cleaned, decorated or even furnished through application of talent and effort?
One can always collectivize everything, of course — ensure that all leisure activities are carried out in common rooms, that private spaces are solely for sleep, sex, and hygiene activities, and that all rooms (common and private) are cleaned by specifically tasked crews. None but the most minimal privacy required. The only way to achieve equality in this regard is to ensure that everyone’s space gets cared for by the same people — that all sweeping of floors in private spaces must be done by the same person, for instance. Otherwise, someone might end up with a cleaner space than someone else. Even if you take a lax enough position that it need not be the same person sweeping all rooms, though, you certainly can’t just let every person do his or her own space maintenance, because you’ll end up with a filthy hovel next door to a fancy, well-tended, cozy home. Wealth must be redistributed.
There are three flaws in this collective solution to the problem of individuals in a collective economy:
Collectives don’t scale well. Say you have two million people in a given population. You would need to break it down into communities, and organize tasks within each community. The end result would be disparities in wealth between collectives, as the social culture of one lends itself to greater care for, e.g., the decoration of private spaces, than another. Wealth must be redistributed, again.
The motivations for the individual induce him to never exceed the norm. In fact, one should always be careful to live below the norm. If one cannot do so, one will always be the next to have one’s quality of life “redistributed”. Ultimately, instead of inducing people to work hard for the good of the people, communism and all its socioeconomic children (including state socialism) induce people to engage in a race to the bottom, each always trying to undersell the others by as little as possible. Communism, in essence, motivates one toward mediocrity graded on the curve: mediocrity, as compared with the average. As everyone seeks mediocrity, the average drops, forcing the standard of mediocrity ever lower.
Once you’ve turned a community into a collective where only minimal private space and facilities are afforded, where one does not tend one’s own space and has no security against others wandering through, where one has no possessions of one’s own, where any “leisure time” is spent in common areas, and where nobody has any motivation for pride in work or engaging any talent or effort, you’ve destroyed any freedom. You’re now living in a Gulag.
. . . but this is what is mandated by the communist slogan. This is what true, enforced economic egalitarianism means. In practical terms, successful communism is the Gulag system. The two are roughly interchangeable.