Cars and Communism

The following is excerpted from a forthcoming CEI monograph on mobility and the fall of Communism.

Our grandparents told us stories from their student years in Poland before the Second World War, when a hitchhiking trip to Vienna or Paris was nothing unusual. The Communist regime made such experiences impossible for the people of my parents’ generation and my own. In most countries, it was almost impossible to get a passport to travel abroad; in the Soviet Union, special permission of the authorities was often necessary simply to travel to another Soviet city.

Yet bureaucratic restrictions did not succeed in wedging human nature into a Communist form. Independence of movement remained a cherished value to most people living under Communist rule. The careers of athlete, scholar, intellectual, journalist, artist, or actor were so hotly pursued in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe because they provided "a ticket to ride"—at least a fleeting illusion of autonomy and mobility. These careers were neither very lucrative nor free from political barriers. In fact, scholars and intellectuals belonged to the least-paid professions. Athletes and actors remained under close scrutiny of Communist officials. Journalists, scholars, and artists were constantly censored. They were pressed to join the Communist Party or at least to express repeatedly their loyalty to the regime.

Most people were ready to swallow these bitter pills of humiliation in order to enjoy the bittersweet taste of momentary freedom. Being an athlete, a scholar, or a journalist was a first step to acquiring some degree of mobility. While the price of a plane ticket from Warsaw to London or from Moscow to New York equaled an average worker’s annual salary, one could get that ticket from one’s tennis club, university, or journal.

When, in at least some countries, the liberalization of the Communist grip made it somewhat easier to travel, the attractiveness of these semi-free professions began to decline. It seems that growing car ownership has gradually overtaken their attractiveness. It has become enough to have four wheels to feel free.

The growth of car ownership undermined one of the key elements of the Communist regime’s ideology and practice, namely the abolition of private property. Communists understood that private ownership, as a form of one’s sovereign dominion over a certain sphere of one’s life, was a denial of their monopolistic rule. If an individual has a right to use, consume, lend, rent, sell, or even destroy a thing owned, the dominion of the state is seriously limited.

With the exception of Poland, there was no property in land in Communist countries. It was almost impossible to own a small company; for legal and financial reasons it was also very difficult to own a house or apartment. Yet the institution of property as such survived. Despite those serious limitations, or perhaps because of them, people cared even more about their possessions. They had to live in public housing apartments but they cherished their family souvenirs, antique furniture, and the tiny plots of ground they were allowed to cultivate individually. Automobiles became a vital part of this narrow sphere of ownership, a center of material efforts and cultural veneration. For many people, the prospect of owning something as big, costly and useful as a car was a leading motivator to work hard at a second job or in the underground economy.

Although Albania was the only country where private car ownership was prohibited, it was clear that other Communist governments did not like the cultural changes that the automobile wrought: a rejection of both collective ideology and practice. Yet the thing that made the Communists truly furious about car ownership was the fact that a private car and its owner could become a one-man private company. From that point of view, car ownership was almost as unbearable as land ownership. Private farmers and private cab drivers were too independent and, therefore, very politically inconvenient.