Scholar Interviews

What is communism?


When I was in graduate school, I knew what communism was and now that I’ve been out for several years, with the passing of time, I’m finding I know less and less about what communism was. My certainties about it have dissipated. Was it a way of organizing society? Was it a way of organizing time? Was it a way of organizing relationships? Was it a political system? Was it a social system? Was it cultural? What precisely was it? And I find as I get older that it’s everything and more.

I mean, if you’d asked me in 1983 or ’84 when I was first coming into contact with Eastern European culture, I would’ve said, you know, communism is a dictatorial regime in which everything’s owned by the state and it’s horribly repressive of human rights and particularly of creative artists because that’s what I was interested in. And all those things are true, but it’s not just that. It’s something more and that’s why I think Havel’s insight that the system runs through everyone is so valuable because in a sense it was the system, whatever we determine that is, that ran everything.

And Havel points out in The Power of the Powerless that even ministers are subject to the system. It’s not just the people who are being oppressed that are oppressed. It’s the people who are doing the oppressing that are also weighed down by what they feel they have to do. In a sense, everyone is to some degree— to some degree responsible, and even maybe guilty, for the sort of moral morass that the Czechoslovak society had sunk into.

How to Cite

Bradley Abrams, interview, "What is communism?" Making the History of 1989, Item #622, (accessed February 23 2020, 6:59 am).