The fascist Benito Mussolini was a brutal dictator, but the defense said to have been offered by his defenders was “at least the trains ran on time.”
The phrase is now cited derogatorily to point out that dictatorships are objectionable even if they offer some superficial advantages. My husband still recalls his grandfather voicing the equivalent sentiment about Adolf Hitler, that, for all the evil he did, he put people to work and gave them vacations through Kraft Durch Freude programs.
Now Kristen R. Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has authored Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. She examines the Iron Curtain regimes of Eastern Europe and offers a third-wave feminist twist on the old trains-running-on-time saw: However much totalitarian control they exercised over people’s lives in these communist countries, Ghodsee alleges that women had comparatively greater independence from men, and better sex that is both positive in itself and an indicator for this greater well-being.
Capitalism vs. Prostitution
Ghodsee begins her book by citing the experience of a friend who left her job to become a full-time mother. This trapped her into domestic abuse, in which her husband tightly controlled her spending. Ghodsee sees this not as an aberration, but merely an example of the corrupting transactional nature of capitalism, because her friend expected to get more “spending money” upon having sex with him.
Capitalism, Ghodsee writes, is an economic system in which women, compelled to be their children’s primary caregivers, are subservient to men. Even if they do not explicitly prostitute themselves, they are forced to place themselves under men’s protection and control, for their own survival and that of their children.
Postwar socialist governments, in contrast, encouraged women to work outside the home. Ghodsee acknowledges that women did not have any choice in the matter, were still generally restricted to traditionally female jobs, and were still responsible for the “second shift” at home or on breadlines. Nonetheless, she still celebrates their widespread participation in the labor force at a time when women in the West were expected to leave their wartime jobs for homemaking.
Next, she writes of a corporate-ladder-climbing childhood friend who hired a woman who soon quit her job after struggling to manage as a new mother. She was dealing with nursing and pumping, middle-of-the-night feedings, missed work when the baby was sick, and a traveling husband. “I’m never hiring a woman again,” she quotes him saying. This, to Ghodsee, pointed to the wisdom of the socialist regimes in providing child care and parental leave. Ghodsee concedes that staying at home with the baby
should remain a choice, [but only] as long as staying home to do care work does not entail financial dependence. Our goal should be that an equal number of men and women choose to act as stay-at-home parents
Apparently, she believes, there is no reason for any difference between men and women on this point except for the gestation and delivery of babies—”at least until scientists develop ectogenesis,” she writes, and I’m not entirely sure if this is in jest or not.
Finally, she writes of her best friend from college, a Wall Street trader who (in her telling, anyway) pursued “bimbos” but discovered too late that this sort of woman only wanted his money. He would have been better off pursuing a professional woman and seeking an egalitarian relationship rather than a gold-digger, she says. This anecdote serves as a springboard for the discussion promised in her title, that, without women’s dependence on men inherent in capitalism, they have more fulfilling sexual relationships.
The numbers of women engaging in prostitution of various kinds in the years following the fall of these communist governments constitute more proof to her of capitalism’s poisonous nature. She’s not wrong about the prostitution, although this was largely due to the economic dislocation in the aftermath of the collapse of communism, rather than the nature of capitalism. Around 1998, my husband and I drove from Germany into the Czech Republic and prostitutes lined the road immediately after we had crossed the border.
Ghost Stories About the ‘Evil Empire’
To be sure, Ghodsee acknowledges that plenty was bad about these systems. She writes “I don’t advocate a return to any form of twentieth-century state socialism,” and rejects both the lack of basic political freedoms and, yes, toilet paper under those governments. But she rejects what she calls “blackwashing,” that is, the casting of life under these governments as unrelentingly awful. She writes:
George Orwell once wrote: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ Conservatives will do anything to suppress evidence that socialist experiments in the twentieth century (despite their collapse) did some good things for women, including policies that have been and can be implemented in democratic societies: paid maternity leaves, publicly funded child care, shorter and more flexible work weeks, free postsecondary education, universal health care, and other programs that would help both men and women to lead less precarious and more fulfilling lives.
Along these lines, she also dismisses groups such as Victims of Communism for being funded by those on the political right and suggests that the United States prevented socialist governments from succeeding with its overt and covert opposition.
It’s tempting to discard her book. She’s just another kooky left-wing academic, writing for an audience so similarly left-wing that she includes a host of caveats that the rest of us would never even fathom being necessary, such as the fact that she uses the word “women” to refer to cisgender (that is, nontrans) women, and that when she discusses maternity leave, she does not specifically address the question of pregnant people who do not identify as women.
She also discusses “gender” in a manner that conforms to the worst stereotypes of gender theorists: that she is “female” because she conforms to a feminine appearance with skirts and makeup, but that she is also “more masculine” insofar as she works full-time and speaks her mind.
But she is right when she cites studies that young adults (taught at their universities by professors who share her viewpoint) respond far more favorably to socialism than in the past, because they understand “socialism” to mean “government provision of generous social welfare benefits” rather than a command economy. They might readily accept her pitch that if only we learn from the mistakes of socialist governments in the past, we can implement what’s good and avoid what’s bad.
However much she badmouths Victims of Communism, she cites their poll from 2017 showing that more millennials say they would prefer living in a socialist rather than a capitalist country, and concludes “perhaps millennials don’t trust the authority of the baby boomer cold warriors, or perhaps the economic realities of the present day, with growing inequality and stagnant earnings for the bottom half of the income distribution, are more real than ghost stories about an ‘evil empire’ that fell before they were born.” What she says matters because, like it or not, she’s finding an audience.
No True Socialism
Yet her “trains ran on time” defense of socialist countries doesn’t actually succeed the way she thinks it does. You can argue that Warsaw Pact countries did have full inclusion of women into the economy, albeit with state-provided child care of dubious quality and suffused with indoctrination. But if women worked a second shift and were as often as not channeled into “women’s work,” there aren’t actually any lessons to be learned here.
You can also argue people behind the Iron Curtain had better sex, but such claims need to be understood in the proper context. For one thing, “free love” was encouraged in socialist countries because, as Ghodsee herself writes, “the East German regime encouraged people to enjoy their sex lives as a way of distracting them from the monotony and relative deprivation of the socialist economy and the travel restrictions.”
As a result, if East German women report being happier about their sex lives and having more orgasms, that does not constitute proof that a hypothetical non-coercive socialist system would provide a better quality of life for women. It also needs to be said that Ghodsee should be far more suspect of the number-fudging expected of East German researchers who knew they need a favorable result or else, to say nothing of the dubious survey responses fearful East Germans may have given to questioners they did not trust.
In the end, what she’s really doing is recommending that the United States adopt policies based on the model of Scandinavian social welfare democracies. Sweden, it turns out, ticks off her boxes of free childcare, extensive maternity leave, a norm that men and women both work, and the relentless promotion of sexual sameness. What is the value of defending the quality of life the Warsaw Pact countries?
Is it because Russia and Eastern Europe are her field of study? Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that it’s the book she chose to write, and that it garners more attention because of the clickbait title. Books from left-leaning authors that say “We should all be like the Swedes” are a dime a dozen.
But I’m not sure that’s the entire reason. I suspect it’s simply easier to argue in favor of these policies in a system that is dead and buried, even if it means acknowledging Soviet satellite states had flaws otherwise (and saying they had “flaws” is a grand understatement). It’s easier to engage in revisionist history and argue that critics didn’t give failed socialism a fair shake, rather than having to address whether the system is actually working as desired in places that still exist, such as Scandinavia.
Then again, socialism always seems to work in Fantasyland.