Sunday, August 06, 2006

The demise of socialism, a non-scholarly treatise

I was a socialist once upon a time. No, that won’t do. It’s a little weak and does not tell the full truth in all its acute gravity. For the truth is -- I am over with all of it, and therefore the truth can be told -- I had actually become a communist. Passionate, unyielding, and now that I know better, unthinking. Had it not been for the fact that I was still in school then, and my serious commitments out there, I would have become a card carrying, red-flag waving member of the Communist Party of India.

How did I manage to go so dreadfully wrong? I really have no clue, no worthwhile defence to offer. Except perhaps this. Those were also days when I wore bell-bottomed trousers that look so absurd now. Indeed one of my favourites, an oft-worn specimen, was one whose colour tended to tread on that perilous borderline between maroon and red. When I look back upon it, I am convinced that compared to my communism, this was the more egregious folly.

The centre of my universe lay in Moscow. The leaders I held in esteem lived there. And the economic system that I believed in, was administered from there. This was the system where everyone was equal. There was no rich and no poor. People worked to the best of their abilities and were paid according to their needs. There was no unemployment and no homelessness. I lived in India but managed to cultivate a deep sense of patriotism for the Soviet Union. If it was the Olympics, I would eagerly scan the sports pages of the newspaper to check out on the latest Soviet medals tally (India has never really mattered in the Olympics). It was a matter of deep personal pride that they always came out on top. The one team that I backed in the World Cup of Soccer was the team from the Soviet Union. When the referee failed to notice that Diego Maradona had used his hand (yet again) to palm away a certain goal, I felt cheated. When it rained in Moscow, I would open out my umbrella in Trivandrum.

Those were days when we did not have television. For news of the world -- and the bi-polar world of those days was a matter of deep concern to me, as happens when you are convinced one pole is yours – for news of the world, I listened to the BBC world service radio. I knew that their claim of impartial news reporting was bogus. Therefore, to get the perspective right, I would also listen to Radio Moscow. I can still recall the news read by the deep, metallic voice of Karl Yugorevich. Their news was of the kind to be expected from a totalitarian state – one-sided and blatantly propagandist in content and tenor. This did not bother me. What did bother me was that Karl and the other news readers spoke English with an American accent, when my own preference was the polished British variety as was to be heard on the BBC.

I was also bothered by something else which, in fact, happens to be the point of this exercise. This was a major problem I faced as a communist of such deep conviction -- and this is beside the other major problem that I was wrong all along -- I could never ever summon up the sporting spirit to laugh at the many socialism jokes, which I constantly ran into. And there were so many of these. One of the very first anti-communist jokes (and a good one at that) I heard was after the Carter-Brezhnev summit meeting (sometime in the late seventies).

Brezhnev was in the U.S. and during a break in the meetings, was told about this remarkable telephone invented by the Americans through which one could talk to the dead. Not convinced, he asked Carter for a demonstration, which was immediately arranged for. Among the dead, whom did he want to talk to? Well, Brezhnev had no doubts. He had to speak with Stalin. Carter picks up the phone and asks the operator to connect him to hell. Stalin is located and Brezhnev has a long and hearty conversation with him. When the call is over, the operator comes back with the bill amount. Brezhnev had to pay 30 dollars. All the same, he was so impressed, he arranges for a similar instrument to be taken back to Moscow with him. In Moscow, at the very first politburo meeting thereafter, Brezhnev is found brandishing his latest toy to an incredulous audience.
“Comrades, I have here a telephone through which we can talk to our dead comrades”.
After the initial commotion had died down, Brezhnev proceeds to dial the operator and asks to be connected to Stalin once again. And this time, every member of the politburo insists on talking to Stalin. Finally, at the end of the lengthy call, Brezhnev retrieves the phone and asks the operator for the bill amount. “That will be 30 cents”, says the operator. Brezhnev cannot believe what he has just heard. “But when I was in the U.S. and talked far less, I was billed 30 dollars”. “Yes sir, that was an international call. This is a local call.”

The suggestion that the Soviet Union was hell, was not acceptable to me. I tried passing on an inverted version of the joke with the Russians as the inventors and the U.S. as hell but the early attempts fell flat and I did not persist in my folly.
Another good one was about an American, a Frenchman and a Russian who happened to die on the same day and found themselves waiting at the gates of heaven for an appointment with St. Peter. They get talking to each other and discover that each of them had died, in different ways, because of an automobile. Talking about his death, the American had this to say “Well, it was just a month ago that I had bought this bright red Corvette. Gee, you won’t believe it. She could do 0 to 60 miles in 6 seconds flat. Well, this was the kind of trouble I could not resist. All that I know is that it happened at a very sharp bend in the expressway , and here I am”. The Frenchman was next with his tale, which had nothing to do with speed and a lot with love. “ See, I was in this car with my girlfriend. We had parked it in this quiet place on a slope on the banks of the Seine and we were in the backseat deeply involved with each other, and the hand brakes failed and the next thing I know, I am here” The Russian had the most tragic tale. “ I never actually owned a car or drove one. But I wanted one badly. So, I saved and saved. I starved to death”.

Nikita Kruschev once found himself in Belgrade on a delicate mission to pacify Marshal Tito. While unpacking his suitcase, he discovers that the suit which he was supposed to wear for the next days’ meeting with Tito, was not to be found. Not long thereafter, he finds himself at a Belgrade tailor, who was taking his measurements. “You will need 3 metres of fabric”, he was informed. Krushchev is not sure if he has heard right.
“How can that be. Back in Moscow, my tailor demands 6 metres.”
“Back in Moscow, you are a big man”

Communism was all about the promise of a workers paradise. Yet, life for the masses was a struggle. An aspect of daily life, common to all of Eastern Europe was the need to stand in long queues for even the most basic of necessities. From onions to tooth-brushes, everything was in short supply. Indeed, the prevailing wisdom among shoppers was that if you ever saw a long queue, you must join it at once no matter what because it could only mean that something much in demand and out of stock had made a dramatic reappearance.

This joke is from Romania where the people were doubly traumatised. By communism, the ideology, and equally by its resident exponent-in-charge, Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu was a megalomaniac and was the Romanian party leader for a very long time. The joke has a man standing at the back of a long, slow-moving queue who finally decides he has had enough. “I can’t take it any more”, he shouts out. “I am off to kill Ceausescu.” And he stomps away angrily. Barely 15 minutes later, he is back again, looking thoroughly downcast.
“What happened, is Ceausescu dead?”
“No, the queue there is even longer”

Indoctrination of the masses was one of the pillars on which the great edifice of communism rested. State propaganda was everywhere. You were greeted by it at birth and it would be there to walk you to your grave. Television, radio, newspapers, the school textbook ... they all said the same thing, over and over. Even the bill-boards were not spared, for they carried the slogans of the revolution. After all, the objective of indoctrination is to have everyone wear the same set of party-approved blinkers. As if all this was not enough, there would also be an over-active local chapter of the communist party which expected folks to turn up without fail for their week-end meetings.

To the Poles I owe this joke about an elusive character who makes it a point to never turn up for the meetings. The local party boss is out to teach him a lesson and one day, literally drags him by the scruff of his neck to the meeting. He begins by launching into a monologue on the achievements of socialism, with many references to the brotherly help rendered by the Soviet Union and in course of which he also speaks about the contributions made by Lenin to the Great October Revolution. This is where trouble begins. Pointing to him in the crowd, he asks “Comrade Jerzy, tell us, who was Lenin?”
“I don’t know”
This was just the answer he expected.
“Comrades. This is what happens when you don’t attend our meetings. Our comrade here has not even heard of Lenin. Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik party, the father of the Great October Socialist Revolution, one of the greatest thinkers of our time”
He promptly digresses from his prepared text to deliver a very public tongue-lashing. Our man gives a patient hearing to all of it and then puts his hand up.
“Can I ask you a question now ?”
“What is it ? ”
“Who is Novak?”
The Boss is sure he has never heard of any such personality.
“Aha! this is what happens when you attend so many party meetings. If you stayed at home more often, you’d know that Novak is the man who sleeps with your wife when you are away.”

The last of my jokes is also the one that, in its own way, is the most profound. In a few lines we are given a pointed insight into the fundamental folly of socialism, which even the most well researched, scholarly effort could not have.

Two Irishmen were discussing Socialism. This was evening and as is the wont with all good Irishmen, they were at the local pub. A lot of beer had already flowed and one of them was waxing eloquent.
“Oh, that will the good days to come. Workers, folks like you, and me, and shakin’ Joe o’er there, we shall rule the world. No rich, no poor. All equal”
He turns to his companion, jovially slaps his thigh and puts this question. “Mate, if you owned two palaces , wouldn’t you give me one?”
His mate had no doubts whatsoever. “Oh, that I will, that I will”
“And if you had two cars, wouldn’t you give me one?
“Yes, one of that too”
“And if you had two pigs, wouldn’t you give me one”
“MOST certainly not. You know very well I HAVE two pigs”

Is socialism then dead for ever? I suspect not. One of these days, well into the future (and this is my great prediction) the science of bio-genetics would have advanced so much that humans will have a gene for unselfishness implanted into their embryo. Socialism will make a come-back then, and for a change, it might even work.



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