Z. Gille u.a. (Hrsg.): The Socialist Good Life

The Socialist Good Life. Desire, Development, and Standards of Living in Eastern Europe

Gille, Zsusza; Mincytė, Diana; Scarboro, Cristofer
Anzahl Seiten
246 S.
€ 31,25
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Annina Gagyiova, Institute of History, Czech Academy of Sciences Prague

Cristofer Scarboro, Diana Mincyté, and Zsuzsa Gille, renowned scholars in the field of state socialism and its material culture, edited the volume “The Socialist Good Life: Desire, Development, and Standards of Living in Eastern Europe” published by Indiana University Press. In the spirit of preceding volumes, such as “Pleasures in Socialism”1 or “Communism Unwrapped”2, this book is another important contribution to a nuanced assessment of socialist consumption culture, understanding it in its own right and not as a mere second-class version of the Western model. The volume was preceded by a conference organized at the University of Berkeley, California, in April 2015, bringing together a highly prolific group of scholars from both the US and Europe.

The publication is organized around three different analytical perspectives, beginning with three contributions by Mary Neuburger, Patrick Hyder Patterson, and Brian Porter-Szűcs, contextualizing socialist consumption within global contexts. This is followed by three case studies by Anne Dietrich, Patryk Wasiak, and Tania Bulakh, exploring how official and popular perceptions of the “socialist good life” intersected and played out on the ground. Two separate theoretical contributions by the editors conclude the volume, drawing on the notions of modernity and a distinct socialist middle-class, furthering the empirical findings of the chapters with methodological and theoretical perspectives. However, a first chapter by the editors, “The Pleasure of Backwardness,” introduces the volume, providing the reader already with some of the major aspects raised in the last two chapters.

One of the central aims of the book is to question the paradigms of backwardness and the absence of (material) pleasure explicitly and implicitly stated by most current scholarship on socialist consumption culture. As the editors point out, pleasure should not only be understood in material terms at an individualized level. Instead, a much greater variety of pleasures existed during socialism, both individually and collectively. Collective consumption included free or heavily subsidized goods and services, such as public transport, book publications, cultural events, and sports activities. The authors critically assess that East-West-comparisons traditionally overlook such socialist collective consumption.

While the Cold War climate encouraged Western observers to judge negatively general living standards in the socialist East, ultimately nurturing the notion of backwardness, in socialist states a critique of Western consumerism, both in official and informal settings, was an ongoing debate. As Mary Neuburger explores in her chapter “Consuming Dialogues: Pleasures, Restraint, Backwardness, and Civilization in Eastern Europe”, the Bulgarian state party merged pre-existing critical notions of Western consumption with socialist understandings of material well-being. As a result, consumption practices consisted of abundance and thrift in equal measure.

The editors identify the formation of a distinct socialist middle-class as central to the understanding of an alternative consumption culture. They define this middle-class as a stratum with a comfortable lifestyle and a petit bourgeois existence, enjoying economic certainty previously unknown to Eastern European societies. According to the editor’s understanding, this middle-class possessed the highest level of agency for developing their vision of a "good life". However, as Scarboro points out in his chapter “The Late Socialist Good Life and Its Discontents: Bit, Kultura, and the Social Life of Goods,” experiences of this active and creative stratum were contradictory: the simultaneous presence of scarcity and abundance did not always align with the expectations of a late socialist middle-class, creating both satisfying and alienating experiences. The chapters by Dietrich and Wasiak on the distribution of coffee and tropical fruits in East Germany and modern VCRs (Video Cassette Recorder) in 1980s Poland illustrate these ambivalences by showing how access to material goods created social difference but helped the formation of this middle-class. Above all, as the editors stress, it was a life of comfort informed by modern lifestyles which defined this specifically socialist middle-class. While these societal developments challenged the centrality of the working class to state socialism, it also introduced something else: social inequality. A highly sensitive topic, already approached by socialist sociologists through stratification studies, the editors probably deal with it too marginally. After all, we need to ask: How does the existence of a socialist middle-class challenge the egalitarian claims of the socialist state?

Another implicit or explicit claim still found in academic literature is that relatively low consumption levels and only occasionally obtainable Western commodities led to the demise of socialism. The editors recognize this as a methodological fallacy, as needs are assumed as a given instead of being socially constructed. While rare Western goods “caused pleasure by mediating or facilitating social relations” (p. 14) and therefore served a positive social role, the actual consumption of it did not always create pleasure in socialist citizens.

The political dimension of an unpredictable command system is a complex topic too. As the editors elaborate, there was a “differentiated view of whom to blame for shortages or shoddy commodities” (p. 15), be it high or low-level party leadership. While there was no doubt that production and distribution of goods showed room for improvement, comparisons with lower consumption levels of previous eras and neighboring countries made the contemporary good life look not too bleak after all. This layered understanding ultimately complicates the question of political legitimacy at the intersection of consumption and state practices. As Porter-Szűcs in his chapter “Conceptualizing Consumption in the Polish People’s Republic” stresses, no leading policy maker or professional economists perceived consumption in terms of political legitimacy, but rather as a marker of socialist success.

The last chapter serves as a coda to the edited volume, skillfully merging the overarching aim of the book and its individual chapters. Gille and Mincyté provide a powerful, thought-provoking theoretical evaluation of current academic trends regarding socialist consumption. Among their most remarkable points is the avant-garde character of consumption practices, which “presaged current Western alternative consumer movements” (p. 11). While the authors elaborate on the research agenda underlying the edited volume, they decisively move beyond it, proposing alternative ways of analyzing the material world of state socialism.

Although some chapters could have been more explicit in their overall aim and conclusion, particularly in how they relate to the central hypothesis of the volume, the theoretical approach, as outlined by the editors, is pioneering. For any scholar publishing on the subject who aims at leaving a linear, often teleological perspective on the political nature of consumption in state socialism, I highly recommend the volume for (self-)reflection. The book is also especially beneficial for teaching postgraduate students to arrive at a nuanced exploration by taking the creative agency of socialist consumers into account. After all, the volume transcends the socialist past by alluding to current conditions we, as consumers in the age of overproduction, are a genuine part of. Ultimately, this is a significant contribution to the studies of socialist consumption and deserves a broad reception in the future.

1 David Crowley / Susan E. Reid (eds.), Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc, Evanston 2010.
2 Paulina Bren / Mary Neuburger (eds.), Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe, Oxford 2012.

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