History’s Witness: Prague, Communism, And The Socialist Ideal

What is it about the “noble ideals” of socialism that makes people forget the lessons of their actual practice? If you need yet another reminder, visit Prague.

This ancient city, the gem of central Europe, has seen its share of both glory and depredation. Walking its pristine streets while admiring the architectural artistry, overflowing shops, and lively nightlife, it’s hard to imagine that these proud and prosperous people languished for half a century under the boot of Communism.

That’s what the Museum of the History of Communism is for.

Located on a bustling avenue in the city’s commercial district – ironically next door to a casino and upstairs from a McDonald’s – the Museum of Communism offers a stark reminder of how the socialist ideals of Karl Marx inexorably lead to the brutal repression of the police state everywhere they are imposed. As Europe’s social democracies teeter on the brink of insolvency and the U.S. faces up to the true meaning of “We all belong to the government,” it pays to ponder the lessons of socialism’s dark past.

Marked by the triple whammy of the Great Depression, Nazi annexation, and brutal Stalinist occupation, the 20th century was not kind to the Czech people. That their 1989 Velvet Revolution was bloodless is a testament to a strength of character we could all learn from. The country’s return to commercial vitality, which helped bolster the restoration of a city that was fortuitously spared the ravages of wartime bombardment, amply demonstrates the power of private property propelled by the profit motive.

Ask anyone that has lived under Communism what they think about politicians that claim prosperity can be achieved by looting the prosperous. Ask them what they believe the phrase “We are all in this together” really means. Ask them what memories are evoked by the slogan “Forward!” Ask what happens when a rigorously enforced equality of outcomes is elevated to become a country’s highest ideal, when central planners claim they can guide an economy better than the market, and when resources are allocated according to “need” and not “greed.”

The museum is divided into three sections, aptly named The Dream, The Reality, and The Nightmare. My favorite sections were the replica empty shop and the secret police interrogation room. Considering the warm and artistic nature of the Czech people, it is amazing to realize how many were co-opted into informing and spying on each other. Big Brother evidently has his ways. Videos of the dying days of the old regime, complete with baton wielding policemen shamed by protesters distributing flowers, completes the picture.

So, what does this story have to offer us? Vexing questions.

Why are we, who are uniquely privileged to have inherited the legacy of individual freedom, so eager to trade it away in search of the illusion of security? What makes us fall for the failed ideals of an alien philosophy born on a continent that has time and again demonstrated the consequences of its practices? What is it about freedom that makes us fearful of living it? What excesses of liberty can possibly be as bad as a life lived in its absence?

The only answer I can come up with is that this propensity toward socialism must be the cumulative effect of ubiquitous indoctrination, from the time we enter public school to our immersion in progressive media messages throughout our adult lives. Messages that deny the reality of socialism as it extols its imaginary virtues. Messages that seek to turn a myriad of products and services – from birth control to day care to nursing homes – into inalienable “rights.” Messages that foment envy of the prosperous, blame poverty on oppression, deny the role of individual accomplishment, and empower politicians who anoint themselves as the chosen ones.

What is the antidote for this folly? A field trip to the Museum of the History of Communism would be a good start. Maybe we need to build one in Washington.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here. If you would like to have his columns delivered to you by email, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.