In Search of Communism

It began in Scandinavia, for I heard rumours that communism – or perhaps socialism – had been achieved in that part of the world by stealth. As Warren Zevon would have it, the deal was done in Denmark on a dark and stormy day.

Or it seemed to be. True enough, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland have built impressive welfare states. Social-democratic regimes have seen to this since at least the Second World War (although a belated liberal turn is systematically dismantling bits and pieces of the system). And true enough, the so-called ‘happiness’ surveys indicate that Scandinavians are among the happiest and most contented people in the world – although how one quantifies happiness is beyond me.

In the end, I was disappointed. Do not get me wrong, I love being in Scandinavia, out in the countryside, cycling and hiking. But socialism it is not. They are bourgeois democracies and aggressively capitalist. As for the much-hyped welfare state, it is designed both to keep everyone consuming and generates a distinct type of xenophobia: the welfare is only for citizens of each state.

I kept looking. Perhaps I could find something in Eastern Europe – a memory perhaps, a cultural framework …

I dwelt longest in eastern Germany, for it embodied the recent history of Europe as a whole. Germany had been two parts for a while, a communist east and a capitalist west, until the east was annexed in 1989. The majority of East Germans were not in favour of the disappearance of their country.

Here at least one could find traces of communism past, strong traces. People over 40 years of age could speak a little Russian; the Free Youth organisation continued, albeit somewhat smaller than in its heyday; well-designed and constructed crockery could be found in any flea market; streets named after Marx, Engels, Ernst Thälmann, Thomas Münzer and others could be found in every town; grand communist-era architecture – Stalin baroque no less – was everywhere, from Karl Mark Allée in Berlin to the small garages found in almost every village. Coupled with this was a conscious effort by the Western Germans to erase any positive memory, associating East Germany with repression and greyness (even the photographs are black-and-white), if not seeking the dubious connection with Hitler, oinwhat may be called the reductio ad Hitlerum

In response, many East Germans push back, noting the destruction of their economy, the deindustrialisation and high unemployment. They remain suspicious of those from the West, while trying to find a place in the ‘new’ Germany. Above all, they have a strong sense that the collective identity they had has not been replaced by anything, whether religion or the nation. So they speak of ‘post-communism’.

While I was there with my partner, we began digging deeper into the history of communism, way back before the arrival of its modern form after Marx. We found that Czechoslovakia had championed Jan Hus, the first real reformer from the fifteenth century. And we found that the German Democratic Republic had made Thomas Münzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’ (so Ernst Bloch), a hero. Films were made, the East German five-deutschmark note bore his image, and the five-hundredth year of his birth was elaborately prepared and celebrated – just before the DDR was dissolved and colonised by the western parts. Still, the monuments are there, in Zwickau and Allstedt and Frankenhausen and Mühlhausen, tracing the path of the ill-fated yet proto-socialist revolution of the peasants in 1525.

Meanwhile, she dug deep into the Moravian Brethren, the Herrnhutter Brüdergemeinde, who traced their history back to none other than Jan Hus. We dwelt long in the village of Herrnhut, deep in the far east of Germany, in the Oberlausitz part of Saxony. The feel is still there, the peace and collectivism of the village, where Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Puttendorf breathed new life into the movement in the early eighteenth century. So much so that the smallest of collectives became a great global missionary movement, emphasising practice of the collective Christian life over against dogma.

I could no help delving into Karl Kautsky, for all his faults (in criticising and dismissing the developments of the Russian Revolution). Yet, Kautsky had taken up the mantle of Engels by writing a full account of the history of the ‘forerunners of modern socialism’, which ended up being a four-volume work – Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus – that he was unable to complete in his lifetime (he manged only three volumes, so others completed the fourth). Among the many, many movements of ‘heretical communism’, the early days of the Moravians could be located. They focused on communal living, trying the recall the early church, when ‘everything was held in common’.

I also moved eastward, of one thinks of the Eurasian landmass, following the successful socialist revolutions that seemed to escape the Atlantic corridor. I ended up in China, the People’s Republic no less. The word was that China had followed the ‘capitalist road’ since the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, overturning all that Mao Zedong had tried to construct. So when I arrived I did not know what to expect.

At first, it did not look like the socialism that one so often heard touted. According to that version, everyone is equal, paid the same, living simple lives in communes, having property in common, and so forth. Invariably this turns out to be the equality of poverty, for everyone is equally poor. We might call this populist socialism. In China it cannot be found.

Instead, I found a place full of energy, constantly changing as old buildings and old factories were knocked down and new ones constructed. I found people full of energy, keen to learn from experience overseas, but even keener to return to China and enhance their skills. I found people who are experts at self-criticism, never happy with the state of things, always seeking to improve. Endless are the discussions concerning the main problem, the main contradiction in China, and the best way to solve it. And as they do so, they begin to leap ahead of the rest of the world, transforming what they have learnt to becoming the leaders.

Is this socialism? Some in China would say no, holding to some ideal from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Some would say maybe, feeling that China has still a long, long way to go. And some stress the term, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, deriving from Mao Zedong and championed by Deng Xiaoping.

What in the world does this mean? One may fill the meaning in one’s own way, from dismissal to appreciation. But I suggest it bears the other sense of socialism, which was always about improving the economic wellbeing of all. This is Marx’s famous unleashing of the forces of production, which entails using and refining what can be used. It is the basis of a Marxist approach to human rights, in which the right to economic wellbeing is the basis of all other rights.

For some strange reason, I continue to find it a great relief that the communist party is in power in China. Why? Not only is the party in charge of the strongest socialist state in world history, but it is, after all, the communist party.

2017 April 011

A Journey Through Easter – After a Death

This journey is a little different from most – a journey from death to life, if I may call it that. Or rather, it is a voyage of meaning, turning around the unexpected ramifications of Easter, of all things, after a death.

Easter had often been a weary, worn and empty time of the year for me. With bodily memories of short nights, midnight and dawn services hard after one another, of an emptiness as to what one might say, I was always thankful I was no longer in ministry when Easter came around. And I was puzzled at the way a supposedly once-off event, the pivot of history, the high point of revelation and salvation, had to be repeated, every year, ad nauseam. It was as though the old pagan celebration of the dying and rising god, the one that Christ’s death and resurrection had supposedly condemned to the dustbin of history, had returned with a vengeance. Rather than lifting himself above such annual cycles, he had become one more name in the legion of resurrected gods.

But two events set me on the road from this dreary point of origin. One was a prolonged bout of atrial fibrillation, which eventually passed with the assistance of a mild electrical shock. Not immediately fatal, it had the potential to lead to blood clotting in the heart; should it form, parts of that clot may break away and happily journey to one’s leg, arm or brain. It also meant my heart was not pumping blood efficiently, especially with exercise. This second-by-second reminder of my own mortality opened up – quite unexpectedly – an appreciation of that strange narrative of suffering, death and new life.

I found myself drawn to a liturgy, directed by an older priest with an extraordinary, almost shaman-like, ability to sense one’s immediate need and direct his attention there. The church was from my Reformed heritage, but through Lent I was there, usually at the simple and brief evening prayer on a weekday. By Palm Sunday I was part of the flow, participating in the harrowing experience of Maundy Thursday, joining the vigil for a short while, quietly slipping in for the stark Good Friday service, attending a renewal of baptismal vows with a small crowd on Saturday evening, and then joining the vast celebration of new life on the Sunday morning. Pomp and ceremony it was, far more than the simple story warranted; hints of cloying piety were there at odd moments. But the drama resonated in a way it had not done earlier.

At that Easter service were my father and mother, enjoying a stimulation of all the senses that was absent at their own church. By the following Easter my father was dying from cancer. To experience the death of someone intimately close, with whom I had argued and struggled and whom I had loved for a lifetime, to see him fade as the cancer took hold, to share with him in ways that had never happened before, to see him take his last unconscious breath, to see the pulse stop, to hear the rattle of internal fluids, to dress his body already stiff from rigor mortis before the funeral directors arrived, is to absorb death into one’s own life.

As he lay dying, he asked me: ‘How old are you?’

‘Forty eight’, I said.

‘I was forty seven when my father died’.

Unlike me, he had not been present, day by day, at that time, not even afterwards, for his father had died in the night from a stroke (perhaps brought on by that hereditary fibrillation – who knows?) and my father could not afford the trip, half way around the world, to the Netherlands for the funeral. His quiet regret at not having seen his father one last time had stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The following Easter, after we buried him that August, touched me even more deeply. I was drawn down, out and then up with the richness of the Easter cycle at the cathedral. At the recollections of the last supper and the austere moments of Good Friday I felt much greater sense of what it means to die, to breath one’s last and pass on. Throughout the quiet morning prayer at the cathedral on the Saturday (with one or two gathered, quietly reciting the prayers) I thought of my father. And he was very much present at the morning blast of music, colour, eucharist and sermon of Easter Sunday.

In the midst of the celebration, I recalled his of faith and fear, his hobbling presence the two Easters before. He may have been staunch in his faith, holding to it through a life of ups and downs. For all his assertions that he knew where he was going, my father also realised, with some trepidation, that he did not quite know all there was to be known about the destination or indeed the journey there.