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


Why Would One Join the Chinese Communist Party? Or, How Socialism Has Become Ingrained with Chinese Society

Is the communist party of China a bunch of mean, nasty and greedy old men, terrorising and suppressing a fearful population? Do they merely use socialism as a thin veneer for outright greed, maintaining power by authoritarian means when needed? I have heard not a few voice such opinions. Yet it jars somewhat with my experience of finding many young people keen to join the party. Why would they desire to join a party that is supposedly widely disparaged and held in disdain? In order to understand rather the impose presuppositions, I set out to find out a little more. This has required an increasingly extensive series of discussions and interviews – an early component of a much larger project called ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’.

A few basic facts will help set the scene. The CPC (Communist Party of China) itself has a little less than one million members. One cannot simply join the party by paying a membership due and gaining admission. Instead, it requires significant preparation, with the usual path requiring precursors in the youth organisations. As with other communist parties, the two main organisations are the Pioneers (中国少年先锋队), for children in schools up to the age of 14, and the Communist Youth League of China (中国共产主义青年团), which has members between the ages of 14 and 28. Only when people have attained the age of 28 may they become full members of the communist party. Membership – particularly of the Youth League – requires courses of study and then entry examinations, testing one’s knowledge of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

Yet the key question is why children and students are attracted to such organisations. Are they picked out early and then ‘brain-washed’ to join – as a foreigner once suggested on a boat voyaging down the Yangze River (Chang Jiang) – thereby ensuring the continuity of the party? It seems not, although this may come as a surprise to many outside China, even those among the international Left.

In my interviews, a breakthrough moment came when one of my interlocutors suggested that socialism is becoming, or has actually become, integrated with Chinese culture at deep and almost unnoticeable levels. In other words, it has become part of Chinese tradition, along with Confucianism and Buddhism. How does this work? What are the reasons why young people want to join the youth organisations?

An almost universal, albeit knee-jerk, response to this question is that young people decide to join for the sake of a better job. For some, this reason is presented as a dismissal of the youth organisations and the party itself: membership is thus a self-serving act with little interest in socialism as such. For others, the reason is perfectly legitimate, although it needs to be seen in light of a wider collection of reasons. Indeed, the prospect of a better job is a relatively minor feature. When hearing this answer, I cannot help comparing it to the appeal of Christianity when it was the ideology of a state. Many are the reasons for joining in, not least being the opportunity to improve one’s lot in this life. And the church wisely knew that people join the movement for myriad reasons.

A second reason, I have been told, is that membership – especially of the Young Pioneers – is seen as a sign of merit. If a school child is recommended to join the Pioneers, it is a clear distinction among one’s class mates. Particularly noteworthy is an invitation by teachers to be among the first to join the Pioneers. In non-socialist education systems the signs of merit are usually academic and sporting achievements. In China, a crucial if not primary sign of merit is to be invited to join the Pioneers. Yet, such a desire for signs of merit can be misread at an individualistic level in terms of a meritocracy: in the incessant competition fostered by schools from an early age, signs of merit can be seen as merely person achievements.

This misreading brings me to the deepest reason: I have been told again and again that the focus is heavily collective. This focus takes two forms. One depends on the wider family, which in day-to-day life is the most obvious collective reality. At times, the emphasis on the family can have a negative effect, as when corruption takes place. A corrupt official does not skim off riches for him or herself, but for the sake of the family. Thus, when arrests are made for corruption, it involves more than one member of a family.

But I am more interested in how the family can encourage a young person to join a youth organisation. Often a young person wishes to become a party member because someone in the family is a member. It may be a grandfather, as one young woman told me. He inspired her through his model of integrity, honesty and directness – typical old communist virtues. Or it may be parents who are members, which means that a child and then young adult too will become a member as a way of continuing a family tradition and showing respect to his or her elders. Or it can be parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents; in such a situation it is a foregone conclusion that the child will wish to join. Not to do so would entail a significant break in the family. In this respect, the crucial role of the family in Chinese society has also become part of a wider socialist identity. That is, socialism has become ingrained even within family patterns.

Another form of the collective focuses on Chinese society itself. Indeed, it became clear among my interlocutors that this form of the collective is the most deeply ingrained. Here the influence of socialism’s emphasis on the collective runs deepest. To be sure, it also connects with a Chinese tradition infused with Confucian and Buddhist values, but it is presented and understood as a primarily socialist value. Thus, the merit for a school child is understood as a sign of one’s contribution to a greater collective good. Or a university student – of all types, from comprehensive universities to specialist universities and colleges – feels that joining the party provides an opportunity to make an improvement to the collective.

That collective, I am told, is primarily China as a whole. The danger here is that such an emphasis can become another manifestation of nationalism, which then twists the socialist stress on the collective to some of the more rebarbative features of nationalism. Yet, not all nationalisms are regressive, and socialism has found again and again that it needs to come to terms with nationalism in its progressive forms – not least being the modes of anti-colonial struggle. Discernment is obviously the key.

Closely connected with China as a collective is the communist party itself, which is still regarded by most as a collective project, even if they feel the party is not living up to expectations and could do with some improvement. Indeed, this need for improvement is crucial to the collective incentive to join the party or one of its youth organisations. One seeks to influence the collective in a positive direction.

In light of all this, it becomes clear that if a school child should refuse the invitation to join the young Pioneers, it is seen as a very strong anti-social, anti-collective statement, challenging the good of China itself. This is a tough call, and few do so. And it becomes difficult to refuse the pull of the Youth League, especially if one seeks a better job, comes from a family tradition of membership, and feels the pull of contributing to collective good. It is not for nothing that more half of the students in my classes at the university have joined the Youth league or are studying to do so.

Of course, not all are interested in the party, for many also are focused simply on getting married, establishing a family and finding a stable job. And there are plenty who are interested primarily in material gain – also a less desirable feature of Chinese traditions. Further, some long-time members do seem to develop a sense of cynical distance from the party. It may the cynicism of age that affects their sense of the party; it may be a disappointment that the party does not always live up to its ideals on a wide range of issues; it may simply be a feature of long-standing membership of a socialist party. But this does not lead them to give up their membership or their involvement, nor does it mean they will let such cynical distance influence the decisions of their children concerning the party. Others are more firmly opposed to the party, not due to some vague notion of bourgeois democracy, but because that party – they feel – has betrayed its socialist roots, especially in relation to workers and farmers. These people may be seen as part of the Left Deviation, which feels that the party has veered too much to the right. Yet, I cannot help noticing that their opposition is predicated on the same collective reasons that leads others to join the party.

Even with these caveats, it seems that the insight I mentioned earlier does have some truth to it: socialism has been and continues to be increasingly integrated within Chinese culture. This reality has finally enabled me to make sense of a feature I have noticed for some time. More often than not, the research undertaken by the people I know – from postgraduate students through to scholars – focuses on a specific problem in China and seeks to find a solution. It may be economic, environmental, social, cultural, technological, and so on. And it obviously entails criticism of what is happening now in such areas. But the underlying motivation is a deep desire to improve the collective good.

Communist Mystery: The Secret Appeal of the DPRK

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

The Communism of Anti-Communism

‘Look out for the pig’, she said.

Directly in our path a two-tone porcine, pink and brown separated by a distinct line across its solid stomach, was rooting about in the wet grass. Not in a pen, not fenced off from the world, but on the side of the narrow muddy street of a Romanian village.

‘What a beautiful animal’, she said, as it carried on oblivious to the world. She stopped to stroke its back and beckoned that I should do so as well.

We were in the village of Dănești, in the mountains of Transylvania, walking along the village street in an autumn drizzle. I had come into this entrancing part of the world via slow and bumpy trains, along tracks that had been allowed to settle into a distinctly natural state. As was my custom, I had avoided flying, but even then only one plane, a propeller-driven affair, arrived per day in the regional centre. And a car journey was a patient business, negotiating twisting and potholed roads full of horses and carts, rusty riders on equally rusty bicycles, ancient mini-buses and daredevil drivers. All of which passed through mountains bedecked with the reds and golds and mists of autumn.

My walking companion was stately woman originally from a village further in the mountains. Solid, somewhat regal, with gravitas in town, she was descended from an ancient noble family that had suffered as part of the former ruling class during the communist revolution in Romania. With the end of communism, they felt truly liberated – for a few moments. As I wrapped my coat more tightly about me as the first real chill of winter came with the wind, our con asked her about politics and life.

‘After the “revolution” happened’, she said, ‘we were asked if we would go into politics’.

‘“Revolution?”’ I asked.

‘Yes, the revolution of 1989’, she replied. ‘When we overthrew Ceausescu’.

‘Ah yes’, I said. ‘Less are alive now who witnessed the revolution of 1945’.

‘That wasn’t a revolution!’ She said. ‘Stalin imposed communism on us here in Romania. The real revolution was when we got rid of communism’.

‘Why didn’t you go into politics in ‘89?’ I said.

‘We had been asked because we were “clean”’, she replied. ‘And we thought about it for a while. But then, we saw soon enough what was happening?’

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘The politicians simply changed their spots’, she said. ‘They became proponents of capitalism, of the free market, and of liberal democracy. They simply became even more corrupt than before’.

‘But every place is corrupt’, I said. ‘The north-western Europeans like to characterise the southerners as lazy and corrupt – the Greeks, the Italians, the Spaniards. In their eyes, the Eastern Europeans are even worse. But they are just as corrupt, only they manage to conceal it a bit more’.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But there are different levels of corruption. There they may siphon off money for themselves, distribute it among their cronies, but at least the roads and hospitals get built. Those things might be ridiculously expensive, but they get them. Here the roads, schools and hospitals are not built’.

‘What about communism?’ I asked.

‘It’s evil to the core’, she said. ‘It gives expression to basest parts of human beings. It is a naked exercise of power, one over another. And all for self-interest’.

‘And what about Romania joining the EU?’ I asked. ‘Has that been a blessing or a curse?’

‘Both’, she said. ‘At least there are some things the politicians must do to keep the EU happy, so that funds come in to build a few roads. But really, it’s a disaster. Wages have been pushed down, prices have gone up with new taxes, public services and welfare cut, “free” enterprise is to reign everywhere, and more and more people have to work outside Romania in other parts of the EU and send money home. The EU is interested only in cheap labour for Western European industry, or maybe branches that they occasionally establish here’.

‘But what’s the worst part of the EU?’ I asked.

‘The destruction of communal life in the villages’, she said.

I looked around the village through which we were walking. It’s main street – the only road in fact – wound between traditional farm houses, lanes occasionally meandering off to fields, chickens and dogs and the odd pig out and about, along with an old man on a bicycle or an even more ancient woman in shawl and black dress. An ox-cart passed by at its own measured pace.

‘It looks pretty traditional to me’, I said.

‘It’s actually changing rapidly’, she said. ‘There are virtually no young people here anymore, since they have to work in other countries while their parents take care of their homes. More and more of the communal networks and occasions are breaking down – the festivals, the dances, the weddings and funerals, but above all the daily life that is the lifeblood of a village. Speculators carve up the land and the only ones who seem to want to move here are foreigners who are sick of the commercialised life they lead. We can’t even find a local person to replace our 87 year-old village shepherd’.

‘Yes, I noticed the herd of sheep and goats earlier’, I said. ‘Browns and blacks and whites, with them mingling together as though it were the most normal thing in the world. But tell me, is that herd about two-thirds sheep and one-third goats?’

‘Yes, it is’, she said. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Ah’, I said. ‘That ratio is a very ancient and well-tried combination, going back millennia. It minimises risk from disease, since the part of the herd not affected provides resources while the affected part recovers. The animals are culled at all ages and all parts of the body are used – apart from the wool and fibre and milk they produce. They are nurtured and consumed locally rather than produced in great numbers for export. And the herding is geared to optimal use of pasturage and water, rather than maximal use for profit’.

‘Of course’, she said, looking at me bemusedly. ‘All that’s obvious. The village herd when I was a child was like that, although we didn’t need to calculate it in those terms. It was just the way it was done’.

‘So what’s the response to all that is happening’, I said.

‘We’ve bought a home here in Dănești. It’s run down and needs lots of work, but my husband is a retired priest so we live here now. Simple things take up our time. My vegetable garden is expanding, using permaculture – you know of that, since it was invented in Australia?’

‘Ah yes,’ I said, ‘It’s very common at home’.

‘And since my husband is a priest’, she said, ‘people leave the house alone. It’s bad luck for anyone, even gypsies, to help themselves to things at the house. You know, disaster might strike, an incurable disease, an accident, a misfortune may follow’.

‘But what else do you propose to do?’ I asked.

‘I want to re-establish a spinning and weaving network with the women in town. I would like to reassert the old tradition of woman being the decision-makers in the village. I hope to encourage younger people to stay and see the value of the life here. Above all, it’s the collective nature of village life that is the key’.

‘You know’, I said. ‘You are more communist than you care to think, precisely in and through your anti-communism’.

‘What do you mean?’ she said.

‘Maybe I should rephrase that’, I said. ‘You have seen the bad side of communism and now want to foster one of its better sides. It’s that old tradition of rural socialism, in which communal interaction is vital for the life of the village, of the countryside. Everyone knows everyone else, in intimate detail, for good and ill. The down side is that you have no privacy at all and it can be mean and vicious. But it also means that you don’t sink on your own, for everyone gets together to help out’.

Later, after we had ended our walk through the village and I had a moment to myself, I wondered whether even bad communism – of the sort that many in Romania saw in the last days of the communist government in Romania – enabled the preservation and confirmation of local, communal ways of life that people now find so appealing, that people feel called upon to revisit. Of course, it becomes mixed up with all sorts of rural nostalgia, with efforts to recover a disappearing way of life. But that is unavoidable to some extent.

So the question is, how does one harness the communal, socialist dimensions of ‘the way it has always been’ without seeking to destroy it all in the name of modern progress? That applies especially to unexpected elements, such as the low-level matriarchy, the proud and ancient noble families, drawing on the experience of lived communism and thereby being able to discern what is worth leaving behind and what is worth retaining about it. That is, how can what is traditional be seen nor as regressive but as forward-looking, as a source not of oppression but of human flourishing?

Communist China versus Capitalist China

What is like to travel with others in the two Chinas, in both communist China and capitalist China? How do people perceive the differences? How are their preconceptions challenged or confirmed? I was accompanied by two women, both from Eastern Europe with youthful experiences of communism, but both had never been to either of the two Chinas before. One was a communist, having grown up in Yugoslavia before it was attacked and dismantled by NATO. The other was mostly anti-communist, having celebrated the end of communism in Bulgaria. We first spent a few days in the massive commercial centre of Shanghai, one of the two great creative cities of the twenty-first century (the other being Beijing). From there we immediately went to Taiwan, long the only officially recognised ‘China’ by the West, location of US bases, capitalist industry and parliamentary democracy.

So how did they respond? In Shanghai it began with the food and eating implements. The celebration of food in China is embodied in the very word for ‘hi’ (Chifan le ma?), which actually means ‘Have you eaten?’ And eat we did. The problem for my friends was that the food was thoroughly unfamiliar and often unidentifiable. What is that strange looking blob in the bowl? What precisely is that yellow hue to the dumpling? From what part of what animal does this squiggly piece with a blob on the end come? And why are there no cafes that sell coffee for confirmed caffeine addicts? Wisely, most Chinese eating places have pictures of the dish that one may wish to choose, so at least you have a rough idea of what it may contain.

One of my friends, the communist, completely gave up at first, seeking out a shop called ‘Croissants de France’, where she could buy her beloved coffee and croissant, or a Korean barbeque restaurant where her much desired and identifiable meat appeared ready to be cooked on the small grill in the middle of the table. The other friend was willing to give some dishes a try, digging her way through the myriad components of a soup from a Muslim Chinese restaurant, or exploring with interest the items of a dish she had simply not encountered before.

Yet her openness to the food was coupled with an extraordinary collection of preconceptions about Chinese people. At one point, we were observing in awe the negotiations of a Shanghai intersection. A vast chaotic jumble of trucks, cars, motor-scooters, bicycles and pedestrians all seemed to be intent on a massive carnage.

Then she observed: ‘There will be a crash soon, for Chinese people have no peripheral vision’.

Imagining that she had some authoritative source in mind, I asked, ‘How do you know?’

‘Everyone in Bulgaria knows it …’ she said … and then laughed with us, realising that it was part of a whole unverified construct of China.

To that she added Chinese susceptibility to microbes – hence the face masks when people have a cold – and the slowness of the East to change. All of which collapsed in the face of the reality of China itself.

But we were not finished with the food just yet – or rather, the implements with which one eats food. Places with the supposedly useful fork were as scarce as a blond Chinese, so my friends had no option but to test their dexterity with chop-sticks. I can say that coming from a land (Australia) where chop-sticks have been part of the culinary furniture for close on 200 years, these two sticks were familiar enough for me, although I still find a good number of challenging items – slippery balls, soft tofu, things with shells on them. But for my friends chop-sticks had been until now part of the mystery of the East. Not any more. Faced with myriad foods they had never encountered, attempting to locate two sticks among five fingers, they dropped their food, broke it apart, were awed by the suddenly massive distance between plate and mouth. One allocated a chop-stick to each hand, bringing them to bear on the plates, with limited success. The other resorted to spearing the various bite-size pieces with one stick, only to realise that it was a terrible faux pas. Initially beaten, they retreated to the small ceramic spoons always available, the blessed respite for foreigners. They told stories about the wonderful invention of the fork that came from the Arab world, via the Byzantine Empire and into Western Europe. Of course, by the time they left the two Chinas, our host had kindly armed us with a small satchel with steel chop-sticks and a spoon for our further adventures.

Deeper than all these engagements, however, was an intangible feel on the streets. How to express what cannot be directly observed? Is it a matter of time? People in Shanghai – even bustling Shanghai – never seem to be in a hurry. One walks at a leisurely pace, taking in the street life. Does the secret lie in that very street-life itself, with its stalls for anything under the sun, bicycle repair-men, steaming metal pots, makeshift outside tables for a bite to eat, a man picking his toenails in a leisurely manner, a cleaner taking an interminable break, a couple of people haggling over some fresh fruit …? Is it the fact that women do not wear makeup as a rule, thereby not absorbing an extraordinary amount of chemicals over a life-time? Is it a deep shift in the coordinates of space and time, in which so many people are still able to find a quiet spot and plenty of time to themselves in the midst of everyone around them? It seemed to be all these and yet more. All I can say is that it gave one a strong sense of collective life, of lived space and time.

How did my friends respond? The communist was absolutely thrilled, noting so many things in this Asian city that reminded her of communist Yugoslavia, from the student accommodation at the university, through the way this vast city was thoroughly lived-in, the health of the endless people who made the streets their own, the absence of make-up on the women, to the way that one struggled to find an overweight person. At a much deeper, physical and psychic level, she felt the difference from her adopted home in Australia in a way that reminded her of what the lost communism of Yugoslavia was like.

My anti-communist friend was thrown. She had embraced the rapidly-imposed capitalism and bourgeois ‘freedoms’ of the new Bulgaria, blocking out their dreadful cost. But now, she was reminded again of the Bulgaria of her teens and twenties, before 1989. And this surprised her immensely. Once she saw through her pre-conceptions about Chinese, she too felt at that intense level the presence of communism here. Perhaps she put it best: they seem to have achieved social peace here.

Too soon did we need to leave communist China, taking a short and newly reinstated direct flight to capitalist China, to Taiwan (for only a couple of years have direct flights begun again, when a pro-mainland government, sensing the way the economic winds were blowing, was elected). We passed from the PRC to the ROC, the People’s Republic of China with its 1.3 billion to the Republic of China with its 2 million inhabitants. Here too were Chinese foods and implements and languages, here too was the same landscape and vegetation, and here too one might expect that Chinese ways of living would be the same. But it was not. Immediately, my friends were struck by a very different set of familiarities, from their lives now: Western chains were immediately evident, from 7-Elevens to coffee-shops. The pace of the traffic was faster, much faster, with everyone racing to beat each other to some putative destination. The young people were more overweight, the air and water and streets far less clean (compared even with the massive Shanghai), the living conditions obviously poorer and more ramshackle, and space itself giving way to the power of capital.

But once again my friends felt the difference at a level to which I could not relate, since I did not have their experience of two worlds, of two modes of production, two different social lives. My anti-communist friend, who had begun to become uncertain and surprised at her response on the mainland, wrinkled her nose in despair. It reminded her far too much of what had happened in Bulgaria after 1989, knowing full well that massive profits were made here by the rich oligarchy, even though the economy was in poor shape. And that wealth certainly did not make its way into the population at large. She withdrew into herself and became resigned, seeking small pleasures within – precisely the way I have encountered her in Bulgaria.

But my communist friend was outraged, her passion flaring up all the more, full of revolutionary fervour and enthusiasm. In Australia I had known her as bitter and cynical, often exploited, living in a cramped quarters, nostalgic for a beautiful country and a life that had been lost. But now she had tasted that world again and she was not going to let it remain a memory. Full of prophetic disdain at the very dis-organisation of time and space in Taiwan, of the way capitalism inhabited the bodies of its people, she found herself re-enlivened. Fired up with vast and forgotten passions, she declared that she had once again discovered that it was indeed possible to change the world.

Belgrade (the White City) and the ‘End’ of Communism

We arrived in Belgrade late in 2006. A comrade in Australia who had been a refugee from the Balkan War made some ‘arrangements’ back home and soon enough I was on my way as guest of the University of Belgrade to give a series of talks on religion and politics. We was housed at the top of the old Faculty of Philology building in the heart of Belgrade, a city where one was perfectly safe walking the streets at any time of the day or night — largely because everyone else seemed to be out as well. I was overwhelmed by the palpable energy for life. It simply felt extremely good to be there.

Walking the City

Early in the morning we was on the lookout for breakfast. Skipping the tiny niches selling pastry and Serbian coffee, we ducked beneath a low doorway, asking for breakfast.

‘Not until eight o’clock’, said the proprietor, in Serbian. ‘Snaps?’

I paused and said I preferred coffee. He offered burek with the coffee, so we sat on hewn stools by a low table, taking in the old woman picking her nails in the corner. An ancient fossil arrived, the only other customer at this hour, ready to knock back his snaps (three of them, one for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Spirit) and his half-dozen cigarettes.

Fortified for the day with burek and coffee, I set off to find a quiet corner to read through my notes for the lectures later in the day. Soon enough, I found a seat in a small hidden courtyard in the centre of Belgrade. It was about ten metres square, off the main street. It really was the city in a microcosm: people stretching on a balcony, a small tobacco shop or pantyhose shop open, the occasional walker making a short-cut. Clustered on the ground floor beneath residential apartments above, the shops in the courtyard hoped to catch the attention of the overflow from the main street nearby. Customers would turn occasionally to look for a shop specialising in very small lines — tobacco, electronics, money exchange, pillows and mattresses, stockings and socks, hats and shoes, or perhaps a drink at a tiny bar. The main interests in a long day that could last eleven hours, from 10 am to 9 pm, were the discussions with other shop owners, cigarettes and coffee, and unexpected events that brought people outside to deal with a common problem.

One such problem was the dog shit. A woman in white pants had come striding through. She stopped when she noticed the dog shit clinging to her shoe, swore, scraped and then hopped her way around the corner. How to deal with the mess left behind in this small courtyard? Suddenly in this microcosm I had a chance to see how a culture deals with such everyday occurrences.

Soon, from the small tobacco shop on one side of the courtyard shop a stunning woman in her thirties emerged with a fistful of newspaper. She pulled her black hair away from her face and began to place one piece of paper and then another on the dog shit. After the briefest of glances my way, she was soon smothered by the man from the equally small electronics shop next door. He would appear whenever she did; she with some more paper, he with a coffee cup. He smiled and joked; she responded tight-lipped. Then the woman from the clothing shop would join them every now and then for a coffee and cigarette, although she would break off to answer yet another mobile phone call. Those sauntering through the small passageways from mall through courtyard to street would read the paper signals and carefully avoid them, knowing that beneath one or two lay the prime heap. Others rushed through, heads down and brushed a piece or two of paper before realising what lay beneath them.


However, I was in Belgrade for purposes other than observing cultural responses to dog droppings. One of those purposes was to give a talk at the Institute for Social History. So I set off to find it. If I expected it to be at the university I was sadly mistaken. I climbed aboard a trolley-bus and managed to procure a ridiculously cheap ticket, after puzzling over the Cyrillic instructions and then watching another passenger to see how it was done. This was not one of the donated trolley-buses from the EU. No, it was one of the glorious older, dented and rusted ones. At the articulation point between the front and rear it rose up alarmingly like a huge caterpillar. Every now and then the bar connecting us to the overhead wires would lose its connection, so the driver had to climb out, defy death and do his best to reconnect it.

Another even longer journey on a second bus that hailed from the time of the Ottoman Empire eventually dropped me near the Institute. My host met me there and we walked past the old army headquarters. He noticed me staring at the ruins and said, ‘Yes, they were bombed by NATO, but the army knew it was coming and had already gone’. To my question as to why the ruins were left alone, he told me that they are a memorial to NATO’s attacks.

I soon found out why the Institute for Social Theory was so far from the university. Over a coffee before my talk and the ubiquitous cigarette, the head of the centre, Alexander, told me that in the 1970s there had been a group of professors who were very critical of Tito. The man with the white suit and blue train wanted to minimise the influence of these thorns in his side. But since Yugoslavia was a law-abiding country, Tito had to find a way to do it legally. After six years of exploring ways to do so, he finally decided to establish an institute and appoint the professors in question as full-time researchers. There was one condition: they were not to teach (aka corrupt) students at the university. And just to make sure, Tito located the whole lot as far away as possible from the university so that the professors could no longer be the voice of the venerable and large university. I found myself momentarily wishing for some similar benign dictatorship back home.

War Generation

The next day I had my own chance to experience some of the students. At the university I was to give a class on the sociology of religion for about two and half hours to a group of about seventy. My topic: the use and abuse of biblical themes in current foreign policy in the United States and Australia. In contrast to the students here in Australia, they were vitally interested in the talk of politics and religion. And in contrast to the students here, at the break they all had a smoke in the corridor just outside the door, beneath the ‘No Smoking’ sign. Even though one or two struggled to understand the Australian lilt, they asked many questions, offered ideas and helped me enjoy myself. Yet I also noticed that their eyes were far older than their eighteen or nineteen years. As I spoke, I realised they were much more mature than other students I have encountered, from Bulgaria through to Denmark to the United States. That evening over dinner, Svetlana summed it up quite simply: they are a war generation. Their city has been bombed, their country attacked. For a decade from the age of five they had experienced ‘cloudy times’, as the Serbian saying goes.

They were students who were also accustomed to protest. And their protests were not futile efforts by a minority, whose ritual oppositions were ritually ignored by university managements or governments. When I arrived the students had occupied the main square at the central city campus to protest against the imposition of university fees to the tune of 1000 euro per year. Alexander Molnar, the tall, grey-maned head of Sociology told me that the university management had not called in the police. Rather, they had been in close negotiations with the students about the best way forward. These were, after all, the students who had massed in protest against Milosevic only a few years earlier. Eventually they came to an agreement, the banners came down and the festivities ceased — for now. And as a thank you for my lecture, one of the protest leaders gave me an indelible marker pen that had been used to write the slogans on the banners.

The End of Communism?

One of the main reasons I remain fascinated by Serbia is its experience with socialism. As part of Yugoslavia, perhaps it was one of the places where ‘actually existing socialism’ was not a paradox. Used as something of backhanded compliment, ‘actually existing socialism’ used to refer to what many perceived as a failed experiment — those countries that claimed to be socialist were not so at all, or had at least given up on the program.

I have found that more than one émigré, fleeing the Balkans War of the 1990s, has actually come around to reassess their experience of Yugoslav socialism. For example, one friend (she calls me ‘comrade’) — olive-skinned, fiery and fascinating with a husky smoker’s voice — said to me, ‘When we were growing up in communist Yugoslavia, we were all so sick of Marx and marxism. We all thought he was wrong and we were all part of the opposition. But after 1989, when we moved to the West, we found that Marx had got it right, that there is class consciousness and conflict, that there is alienation and reification’.

‘You can’t just wipe away seventy years of a very different cultural and social experience’, I said.

‘You know’, she replied, ‘loneliness and isolation are so ingrained in the capitalist West that they seem normal. I struggle to find the spark and fire of communal living, of collective engagement between people’.

She waved her arm in a wide arc, as if to take in Australia and the whole of capitalism. ‘In the end, for all its flaws, I think socialism is better than this’.

Now, one might put such a sentiment down to nostalgia, to a longing for home while in exile. But it seems possible to me to be an exile not merely from a place of birth, but from a social and economic system itself. Perhaps there is a Socialist Diaspora.

In fact, when I was in the ‘former Yugoslavia’ it seemed to me that in every mouth and in every mind were the words ‘we did not expect this!’ There is an overwhelming feeling that something very valuable was lost with the death of Tito and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. An open socialism, a working federalism, a cosmopolitan and outward-looking generation or two, a benign and gentle leader — all of which went for a variety of reasons. What came in their place was the democratically elected political thug Milosovic, ten years of war, the harsh terms of ‘peace’ from NATO and the strictures of the International Monetary Fund.

In light of this recent history, one would be forgiven for thinking that Serbia would be an immensely sad place, full of a deep feeling of loss and bereavement. But that was not what I sensed and heard and felt. Instead the overwhelming impression was positive, optimistic and energetic. How to account for this strange disjunction: a dismal and brutal recent history versus an extremely positive vibe; a sense that something valuable was lost versus distinct hope for the future. Is it because the Serbs are an inherently optimistic people? For what they are worth, global sex surveys always seem to place the Serbs at the top of the list for both the frequency of and pleasure in sex. Or is it because they have finally overthrown communism and can look forward to a glittering future of a capitalist economy and society? Some would say so. However, I would suggest the reason lies elsewhere: here is a place that has a living memory of socialism, a memory still active for those over thirty. And from what people have told me, for all its flaws it did work most of the time. Of course, such a view is easier in hindsight, after experiencing what capitalism is like in all its brutal reality. The danger is that such a socialist past becomes a Golden Age before the depredations of war and a market economy, a paradise lost through folly and enemy action. But unlike so many of us, for whom the closest socialism has ever come is perhaps a commune in the bush with ‘alternative lifestylers’, there has been a collective experience of socialism. Here is the source of those immensely positive vibes I experienced in Serbia and Belgrade.

That sense was only enhanced when I passed back to Western Europe. On a number of occasions I have made the journey, usually by train. As soon as you cross the border the visceral sense of energy and life — whether in Serbia, or Bulgaria or Russia — slips away and is replaced by the anxiety and fear of the Western country into which I have travelled. The immigration checks give palpable reminders of the fear of terrorism, the political struggles and newspaper reports express an inchoate anxiety that things are going downhill, that the West is under siege.

And that makes me wonder whether the deepening wish to protect and hold onto something that seems to be threatened is the first sign of the end of the West. As one Western nation-state after another perpetually tightens its immigration requirements, as each one introduces more and more measures to protect itself from a so-called terrorist attack, as they take on the trappings of police states with each passing day, as they assert ever more stridently what is supposed to be unique and valuable about them — in short, as they feel more and more that something must be preserved, the West marks the first moment of its decline.

As a last thought, what we might learn from Serbia? Let me put it this way: after being in a country where a non-smoker is a rarity, where even the children seem to smoke, I began to think that giving up capitalism is somewhat like giving up smoking. You try again and again, sometimes for shorter periods and sometimes for longer. The addiction keeps pulling you back, but as soon as you light up that first smoke, you realise how crap it really is. It seems to me that the feeling in Eastern Europe is rather like that. They have had a really good try at giving up capitalism, and for a while at least they have relapsed. But just like the ex-smoker who is always a smoker who doesn’t smoke, so also the first generation of communists will always be capitalists who no longer imbibe capitalism.

(First published in Arena Magazine 96, 2008).