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1991 May 29 We
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Leningrad State University ("Freedom’s Revolution")

Document type: speeches
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Leningrad
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1130. Questions was scheduled to follow the speech.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2294
Themes: Civil liberties, Conservatism, Environment, Foreign policy (general discussions), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Religion & morality, Society


A Watershed

It is a special pleasure to speak to a Soviet university audience today. For all of us know that this is a watershed in the history of the Soviet Union. And it is your generation—the generation of the students of this university—who will reap the benefits or pay the price of decisions now being made.

But it is even more appropriate to speak to such an audience in Leningrad. For, not just in the Soviet Union but in the West, the name of Leningrad itself evokes memories of another turning point, another heroic struggle. In the longer perspective, even the different names which have been given to this City mark out, as it were, the changing currents of Russian history.


Indeed, a sense of history and a willingness to learn its lessons are, I suggest, important to those struggling to change conditions in the Soviet Union.

This is not the first time of revolutionary change which your country has faced. And I would like today to refer to another [end p85] watershed—the emancipation of Russia's twenty three million serfs in 1861.

Like today's reforms for freedom, that emancipation too was the result not just of humanitarian feeling but also of the understanding that serfdom had resulted in a backward Russia. Indeed, it began a period of 56 years of rapid economic advance. Not, of course, that I am suggesting that this was a time of peace and plenty for all: manifestly, it was not. But during it Russia's economic and technical advance was so great that it inspired not just envy but fear in some of her neighbours.

Russia and the other nations of the Soviet Union now need a new emancipation to permit a new economic advance. The emancipation of 1861 left many wrongs unrighted. The triumph of Western style freedom in the Soviet Union today can and will improve the lot of everyone—if allowed to do so.

Pain and Progress

The programme of radical reform which is required will bring some pain. That is certain. But always remember that to let things drift would be far more disastrous in the long run.

Yes, all progress causes disruption—for soldiers who must find new jobs and quarters as large armies are reduced; for workers who, through no fault of their own, find that useless or polluting factories have to be closed; for officials who once [end p86] looked forward to a life of privilege and security and now necessarily face an uncertain future.

But time is short if people are to retain confidence in the process of reform. And resources are limited. So every effort, every penny, that goes into useless production or administration is actively harmful—and sometimes harmful both economically and environmentally.

Furthermore, a realistic programme of economic reform must be put into effect in full. Some of its provisions may be easier to accept, or less unpopular. But if only the easier provisions are put through, the whole programme may be useless.

Freedom and History

There is no reason to be dismayed by the scale of the problems you face. The past history of your country shows that economic progress is possible. Even the black market, which as we all know always flourishes when too many controls destroy a real market, bears witness to the fact that people in the Soviet Union do respond to the demands of consumers.

The history of Western countries since the industrial revolution shows even more plainly how free markets and free enterprise encourage the generation of wealth. Our history in the last hundred years shows something else as well. It is that, with democracy and a strong rule of law, the wealth which capitalism [end p87] generates improves the living standards of everyone. Above all (and contrary to socialist myth) it improves the lot of workers—workers who, as the years go by and as their property and savings grow, become owners as well.

History does not just tell us, either, about the strengths and weaknesses of political systems and economic policies: it tells us much about Man himself. About his nature. About his aspirations. About his dignity and his destiny.

History tells us of Man's striving to be free. You may use brute force to crush a nation: but you cannot destroy its identity and pride. You can forbid individuals to employ their talents to better their families: but in the end some will be more equal than others. You can fight a war against truth by every means at your disposal: but ultimately truth will win the battle of ideas.

Between them Presidents Reagan, Bush and Gorbachev created the conditions for the countries of Eastern Europe to recover their freedom. They all deserve great credit for that. But I can never forget that it was people—ordinary individual people—who pulled down the Berlin Wall with their bare hands.

The Benefits of Freedom

Let me state at once my conviction that only democratic politics and a free economy can offer the Soviet Union—as they offer [end p88] other countries—prosperity and peaceful progress.

Not, of course, that plural democracy, the rule of law and free enterprise themselves provide solutions to every problem. After all, we in the West have plenty of political, social and economic difficulties. But these—democracy, law and economic freedom—are the minimum requirements. And they provide the framework under which solutions can be found for the difficulties, within which change can be managed, and through which apparently conflicting interests can be reconciled.

Moreover, free enterprise alone can create the wealth needed to provide wealth and jobs. Government cannot in the end create employment. In a free economy the only way to provide jobs is by satisfying customers. In a totally closed command economy, of the kind that the Soviet Union once sought to be, this may appear to be different. But in those circumstances it quickly becomes apparent that what appear to be jobs are not jobs at all: they constitute nothing short of wage slavery. Through them the worker enjoys neither choice nor dignity nor a decent income.

Ultimately, communism—whatever its original design and whatever its current justification—serves the elite and not the ordinary citizen. It is free enterprise capitalism which serves the masses. And it is thriving free enterprise which alone can pay for decent levels of state pensions, social security and public health care. [end p89]

Three Illusions

The practical advantages of freedom and free enterprise over socialism and the command economy are almost indisputable. And certainly in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe few have any wish to pursue some kind of “third way” between the two. They know full well that the “third way” leads only to the Third World.

But freedom and free enterprise are attacked as well on other grounds. Our system is said to be only interested in individuals, as opposed to society; it is said to promote selfishness; and it is said—a rich irony this from the advocates of dialectical materialism—to be materialistic. Each of these attacks is unjustified. Each is based on an illusion.

First, it is an illusion to think that you have to choose between promoting the interests of individuals on the one hand or the community on the other. In a free society it is accepted that the larger community benefits if as many decisions as possible are left either to a smaller community or, indeed, to the individual. The State should therefore do nothing that could as well be done by the lesser communities, and these communities nothing that could as well be done by the family or the individual. A citizen who takes much of the responsibility for his own life and that of his family is a better citizen. The more of them there are, and the more they do themselves, the stronger and healthier the whole social order. [end p90]

A free economy depends not just on competition but on cooperation between individuals—on people at every stage of production and distribution working together. And when they do work together and provide goods and services of the price and quality customers want, everyone benefits.

The second illusion is to believe that there is something inherently selfish about freedom and free enterprise. Yet there is nothing reprehensible in wishing to look after one's own family and neighbours. It is egalitarism—the dislike of seeing someone succeed better than we do—which is the real source of selfishness and envy in any society.

Of course, people may behave selfishly and misuse their wealth. But as one of our greatest theologians put it “The fault does not lie in money but in them that use it” .

Moreover, our experience is that freedom generates a sense of responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. And so, as the example of the United States shows, those who are most free and so most wealthy are also most generous.

Third, it is an illusion to imagine that free enterprise is more materialistic than socialism—indeed the opposite is the case. The economic progress, which free enterprise alone can generate, gives people the time and opportunity to concentrate on cultural and spiritual things. And, as is all too well known, it is the [end p91] socialist not the capitalist countries which have perpetrated the worst desecration of the environment.

Behind each of these illusions which some seek to foster is another misunderstanding, itself the result of regarding the world through Marxist spectacles. This is to see freedom and free enterprise as a system based on an ideology—a system with the purpose of moulding Man and shaping society along some predetermined lines. Of course, ideas and beliefs are important if democracy and free enterprise are to work properly. But what might be called democratic capitalism is not a kind of mirror image of Marxism. Rather, it is a way of allowing people to live as they wish rather than as the State wishes.

Freedom and the World

Freedom and democracy today are not just advancing in the Soviet Union. They are advancing across the World.

Different countries find different paths. But when they reach their appointed destination with freedom in its fullness they will all satisfy three broad conditions.

First, they will be governed through the consent of the majority, expressed in free elections, by governments with a limited term of office. And there will be a party or parties able to take over the responsibilities of government if the electorate so decides. [end p92]

Second, there will be a rule of law applying equally to everyone, which guarantees fundamental rights—such as freedom of speech, freedom of worship and private property—and which is administered by an impartial and independent judiciary.

Third, there will be a free enterprise economy in which state ownership, intervention and controls are minimised and in which private ownership and enterprise prevail.

From continent to continent freedom and democracy are advancing; and that advance will bring prosperity and peace—because democracies do not make war on one and other. That does not reduce the need for vigilance in international affairs: for we cannot assume that the progress of freedom will everywhere be smooth. But it does increase the possibilities of fruitful cooperation between our countries, no longer divided by tension and distrust.

Working Together

There are three particular areas which I would mention today.

First, I believe that we have to cooperate more effectively to prevent regional wars—wars which have had such terrible consequences for the people of Africa and the Middle East and which constantly threaten to draw the nations of the world into wider conflicts. [end p93]

We have to seek to help those involved to resolve the differences which lead to regional conflicts before the path of violence has irrevocably been chosen. We have to work together to deprive unstable countries, run by dictators and extremists, of access to advanced military technology and weapons of mass destruction. And I hope that the British Government's proposal for a UN Register of the sale of conventional arms will be given favourable consideration.

The Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council have shown that they can work together to deal with the consequences of Iraq's aggression. In future, we must also work together to prevent the conditions arising for such aggression to be possible.

Second, all the nations of the world have a duty to to tackle the threats to our environment. There is much to be done to deal with the causes of climatic change and to curb pollution. And it requires action at an international level. But we also must observe that it is the socialist countries which geared their industries to meeting production targets rather than to satisfying customers, unfree systems which neither respected human rights nor nature itself, which are the principle culprits. And it will be the advanced technology and the new wealth generated by free enterprise which will provide the means of restoring the world's environment.

Third, I know that we are all aware that a British woman [end p94] cosmonaut has very recently participated as a member of a Soviet team in Space. And, although I understand that the Captain of the Mission has suggested that a woman's place is not in the stratesphere, I seem to recall that some people thought a woman should not be Prime Minister either.

The ability to benefit from each other's technical successes and advances is just one of the advantages which the creation of a free and open world will bring. The application of Western know-how and technology in the Soviet Union can improve the performance of your industries and increase the living standards of your people. And as this happens, your generation can look forward to a far better and fuller life.

Freedom's Revolution

Ladies and Gentlemen, the world has seen many revolutions. Some at the time have been hailed as great advances. Now they are considered by many to have been great tragedies. But the true revolution—the revolution of freedom which is sweeping the world today—is one which should cause all of us only joy. Not joy because one side or another has won. But joy because all mankind has won.

For Man was created to enjoy the dignity of freedom. This is the conviction which has sustained me in a lifetime of politics. And I hope that it is a conviction which may sustain you too. For it is your generation which must carry the torch of freedom [end p95] forward.