I feel lucky to have lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. I never saw it coming. The bad guys in the Cold War seemed to have all the advantages and the abject grovelling of the West's politicians seemed to confirm Lenin's remark that "a capitalist will sell you the rope with which to hang him".
In Britain our Communist Party and many of our trade unionists and politicians were sympathetic to and in some cases in the pay of the Kremlin. The political game of those years seemed just as rigged as the Olympics in which naive amateur Westerners competed with drugged-up, pampered, full time Communist athletes.
My mother in law camped out at Greenham Common and claimed of the USA and USSR that "they're as bad as each other." She had at least visited Moscow with a Labour Party trip, seen the bare shelves in GUM and experienced the joys of Soviet service culture, so she was less enthusiastic than most of her leftist contemporaries. Having heard my Russian teacher's reaction in Moscow to my revelation that I had been a Maoist in my teens, I strongly suspect there were more true believing socialists in Britain than there ever were in Soviet Russia. "You actually believed in it?" she said. "No one here did!"
What were the chances of the Cold War ending as it did, given those circumstances?
Without the happy coincidence of the USA and UK producing the best leaders in their history at the same time, the views of the other Western leaders who dismissed them as fools and warmongers right up to the point of victory could have prevailed. Yes, the USSR would have foundered anyway because economic truth, always less attractive than fantasy, would have prevailed. But the West of the détente era would cheerfully have continued to sell grain and other essentials to feed its people and prop up its vile regime. Without Pope John Paul II, Lech Walȩsa (history's second most under-rated hero after the original and best Tom Paine), Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the Soviet Union might still be limping along.
I feel even luckier to have worked, as an international lawyer based in post-Communist Poland and Russia on the reconstruction of the countries of Central & Eastern Europe. I helped my clients provide facilities, infrastructure and housing that improved the lives of locals immensely. I was, in Marxist terms, a "running dog" of international capitalism and I could not be more proud of it. No socialist in history ever improved the lives of the people of any country on the scale that we did. When I visit today's Poland and remember the country I first saw in 1992, my heart sings.
After what I have witnessed in my life, I am as surprised as Matt Ridley in the linked article from The Times today that free markets are again out of favour. It frankly astonishes me that anyone sentient could still use the word "socialist" with approbation. And yet the Labour Party in Britain now has more members than all other political parties combined, precisely because it has returned to its socialist roots. Economic reality remains unpopular. For all the empirical evidence of 20th Century history, socialist fantasy retains its appeal — as witness the recent devastation of Venezuela, urged on by the ideological cretins of the Labour Party.
Yet all over the West (even the Land of the Free is "feeling the Bern") real world economics are still being dismissed with the Marxist pejorative "capitalism". And this by young people dressed, fed and equipped for their SJW campaigning with tablets, phones etc. provided, as Lenin predicted, by "capitalists".
It's often noted that Marxism has some characteristics of religion. True believers see everything through its prism. Facts don't disturb their convictions. The Satan of "capitalism" is at the root of all evil and the "God" of socialism is credited with every advance. What leftist ideology and theology really have in common I fear is that they both exploit the human weakness reported by Paul Simon in my favourite song, "The Boxer." As he wrote on a yellow legal pad in Queens all those years ago, "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest".
The idea that humans can treat all their fellows as brothers and sisters and share with them as they would with their own family is appealing. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is a great slogan. So much more noble than the truer ones from Communist era Poland such as "standing up or lying down it's still a złoty an hour" or "if you're not stealing from the state you're stealing from your family'. The daily economic grind, particularly of the young setting out on their careers, is tedious. The temptation to envy those who are - for whatever reason - better off financially is close to irresistible for many. Most tellingly, perhaps, the temptation for politicians to pander to such weakness requires more morality to resist than anyone attracted to bossing others about is likely to have.
I am particularly struck by how profoundly we tribal humans experience the boundaries of the nation state. We simply refuse to learn lessons from the experience of other nations. Twenty years as an expatriate took off my national blinkers but now I am back I understand that my fellow Brits don't really accept the relevance of other peoples' history. My posh socialist friends in London seem to think Communism only failed because those shambolic Russians were mostly in charge of it. If I were inclined to their methods of debate I might call them racist. At least they have more excuse than young Poles, Czechs and Hungarians who are raising the red flag again. Don't they talk to their grandparents?
That's a long whinge and I apologise for it. The only real question is always "What to do?" I wish I had a simple suggestion but let's face it - the lure of simple ideas is our enemy not our friend. It may be the youth of American and Britain won't learn until Bernie or Jezza have had their way with them as Lenin, Mao, Castro and Hoxha had their way with their own peoples. But if we love them (and I love quite a few of them, not least the Misses Paine) we have to read widely to arm ourselves with arguments and be brave enough (even at the risk of being the golf club or family bore) of advancing them whenever we can.
Perhaps one lesson of Labour's situation is that our political parties are now highly vulnerable to "entryism". Cynical though all wise men must be about the motivations of party members and the politicians they serve, perhaps we should hold our noses and join? If enough classical liberals, aspirational working-class voters re-politicised by Brexit and plain old-school Thatcherites joined the Conservative Party, for example, perhaps the authoritarian social justice warrior who leads it might quake in her kitten heels? Its membership is so trivially small that it is far more vulnerable than Labour. UKIP is also making such a mess of itself post-Farage, that its members could surely be tempted away?
I am no pessimist. I have faith in our young people. They are every bit as clever as we were and have more historical data to work with. They will err (as we did in our day) and then life will teach them hard lessons. The job of the older generation that loves them is to make them more receptive.