Black and White and Red All Over: The 10 Commandments of Socialism

What was expected of East Germans, in one handy list
Walter Ulbricht, leader of East Germany (Wikimedia Commons)

The Babylonian king Hammurabi had his code, Moses had his 10 Commandments, and Walter Ulbricht, East Germany's de facto leader for two decades, decided in July 1958 that he'd try his hand at a list of rules by which to live.

As translated by the Stasi Museum in Berlin, here are The 10 Commandments of Socialist Morals and Ethics, part of the Socialist Unity Party platform until 1976. They were widely promulgated within East Germany for much of that period. (And for the record, he wasn't the only socialist in history to borrow the form.)

Here's the list:

1) You shall always campaign for the international solidarity of the working class and all working people and for the unbreakable bond of all socialist countries.

2) You shall love your fatherland and always be ready to deploy all your strength and capabilities for the defense of the workers' and the farmers' power. 

3) You shall help to abolish exploitation of man by man.

4) You shall do good deeds for socialism, because socialism leads to a better life for all working people.*

5) You shall act in the spirit of mutual help and comradely cooperation while building up socialism, and also respect the collective and heed its critique. 

6) You shall protect and enhance state owned property.

7) You shall always strive to improve your performance, be frugal and strengthen socialist discipline at work. 

8) You shall raise your children in the spirit of peace and socialism to be well educated, highly principled and physically hardened people. 

9) You shall live purely and fairly and respect your family. 

10) You shall show solidarity with those who fight for their national liberation and those who defend their national independence. 

The largely forgotten commandments (which still resonate with some socialists) prompted me to reflect on how different in character "thou shall" commandments are from "though shall not" commandments. The Old Testament iteration covers a lot of ground by the time it's through forbidding false idols, taking God's name in vain, killing, lying, stealing, coveting, and committing adultery; but it's honoring thy mother and father, God, and the Sabbath that confront the average person with the imperative to really alter daily life.

Do you know what would be exhausting, dreary, and resentment-stoking? "Always" campaigning for working-class solidarity. "Always" strengthening socialist discipline on the job. Or "always" being ready to marshal one's full strength for the fatherland. Some of these nod seductively toward perfectly nice impulses, even as they neatly illustrate how stifling overweening authority can be, even when it's telling you to raise principled children. Three cheers for the dissidents who said, even of that particular commandment, "How I raise my kids is none of your damned business." 

What madness to suggest those 10 dictums as a set of rules that a whole society would plausibly embrace, observe, or respect. To do so implicitly denies the notion that many moments of life are ours to live as we see fit for ends of our own — and that our ability to live those moments is itself cause for celebration, even if it has no affect on workers or "the collective." There's something especially perverse about totalitarianism that proceeds as if the people subjected to it should be grateful for its pervasiveness. 

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*Is it just me, or does the explanatory/justifying clause betray weakness?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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