Dining with Stalin

In the socialist commonwealth every economic change becomes an undertaking whose success can be neither appraised in advance nor later retrospectively determined. There is only groping in the dark. Socialism is the abolition of rational economy.” —Ludwig von Mises

When I was driving to work earlier this week, I heard a fascinating story on NPR that discussed communal life under the Soviet Union. As part of the grand effort to completely reorganize Russian society under communal lines, the Soviet regime sought to abolish private kitchens!

Why? The NPR story reported that “Soviet authorities considered kitchens and private apartments dangerous to the regime was because they were places people could gather to talk about politics.” According to Russian writer and radio journalist Alexander Genis, “[t]he most important part of kitchen politics in early Soviet time was they would like to have houses without kitchens. Because kitchen is something bourgeois. Every family, as long as they have a kitchen, they have some part of their private life and private property.” Another Russian writer adds, “[c]ommunal kitchens were not places where you would bring your friends. I think that was one of the ideas for creating a communal kitchen. There would be a watchful eye of society over every communal apartment. People would report on each other. You would never know who would be reporting.”

The full article on NPR is worth reading and contains a number of revealing gems on the reality of communal kitchens in Soviet apartments and regimented life under communism. Here’s one striking episode:

Following the civil war, the shortages and the famine of the 1920s devastated whatever was left of the Russian kitchen. Stalin’s industrialization program included the industrialization of food. Completely new, mass-produced food appeared—qqqfoods like canned and processed soup, fish, meat and mayonnaise.

“The whole of the Soviet Union, all 120 different ethnic groups were suddenly being served exactly the same stuff,” says Grisha Freidin. “Choices for this or that food, the tastings, took place at the politburo level. The kinds of candies that were being produced was decided in a special meeting with Stalin and [Vyacheslav] Molotov.”

You read that right. Joseph Stalin himself decided what kind of candy people could produce and consume.

As early as 1920, the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises recognized the unsustainability and inevitable failure of socialism. In an essay for the ages, “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” Mises contributed an entirely original critique of socialism that was vindicated by many first-hand accounts of dissidents, defectors, and survivors, and ultimately the events of 1989 and 1991. What made Mises’s challenge to socialism unique was that it was completely unrelated to the well-known incentive problem (even already acknowledged by some defenders of socialism at the time).

Mises stated that socialism cannot deliver on its promises because it lacks the means for any rational economic calculation beyond the Robinson Crusoe stage. The main reason is because of the socialist assault on private ownership and exchange of capital goods. Without private ownership, there is no exchange and thus, market prices cannot emerge. Without market prices for capital goods, accounting is simply impossible. People cannot know if they are losing or making money, or if they are wasting or saving resources. Every central planning board ends up “groping in the dark.” As a result, every decision made is completely arbitrary and chaotic. In short, it’s the “abolition of the rational economy.” Mises elaborates upon on his argument in his magisterial work, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, a comprehensive refutation of the entire intellectual apparatus of socialism.

Whether one reads the Soviet kitchens story on NPR or Mises’s academic writings, the message is clear: collectivism is the enemy of human liberty and flourishing.

Aaron Tao is the former Assistant Editor of the Independent Institute's blog, The Beacon.
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