Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gladys and the Pipsqueaks

Now here's an interesting snippet of 20C history to ponder, the visit of the Chilean Communist leader Gladys Marin to East Germany in the aftermath of the Pinochet coup.  At that time Marin was busy organising "Solidarity with Chile" campaigns around the world;  later she would return to Chile to participate in the clandestine struggle against the dictatorship and - a telling point this - become the only woman ever to act as general secretary of a major Communist party.

I wonder what our Welsh socialist bloggers think of this?  No doubt many would have a great deal of sympathy with Gladys, a true working-class hero - as the hundreds of thousands who attended her funeral in Santiago in 2005 clearly testified.  But what about some of the others in the video, the well-groomed Erich Honecker perhaps, or Egon Krenz - so obviously enjoying rubbing shoulders with a revolutionary untainted by power?  Suddenly we see that sympathy draining away.  Socialism yes, but East Germany, heaven forbid.

For most of us East Germany is the Stasi and the Berlin Wall.  The likes of Honecker and Krenz may have been trying to build socialism - full employment, health care, educational opportunities, housing, the equality for women from which the scientist Angela Merkel so obviously benefited.  They also stretched out the hand of solidarity to oppressed peoples, hence the large number of Chilean exiles in the crowd.  These party apparatchiks awarded themselves special privileges, that's true, but hardly on the scale of our present day Western elites.  The Stasi?  It could be argued that East Germany was indeed subject to a great deal of CIA, MI6 and BND inspired sabotage and dirty tricks, not all their enemies were imaginary.  The Berlin Wall?  How do you subsidize basic foodstuffs without preventing cross-border exploitation of that cheap resource?  And if you create a wage structure that narrows the gap between the manual worker and the highly trained specialists, how do you keep those specialists at home?  How do you build a socialism that respects individual liberty in a world with very powerful forces intent on its destruction?

I'll leave that for the socialists to answer, but as the memory of countries like East Germany fades away and a younger generation emerges who never knew that any alternative to capitalism could exist, we need to be careful.  Already in certain EU countries it's a crime to deny that Communist persecutions were qualitatively different from those of the Nazis. You can get five years jail-time for propagating such a viewpoint in Lithuania for example.  Communism is equated with Nazism and demands are made at an EU level that the history taught in schools reflect this new reality.  Will the history of the South Wales Miners or our politicians favourite, the International Brigade fall foul of these diktats?

Honecker and Krenz may have been responsible for their fair share of human misery but surely less than Clinton, Bush and Obama.  Less even than America's little British puppets.  Compared to the likes of the brazen cleptocrats currently destroying both Main Street and democracy, their crimes were smaller-beer, their virtues greater. Compared to them I say Hurrah for the Pipsqueaks!


William dolben said...

Thanks for a provocative article. I agree that in hindsight it all looks quite different. I visited East Berlin in 1985 as a left wing student and wasn't that shocked. The drabness was remarkable compared to West Berlin but the low wages were palliated by the incredibly low rents, transport costs, books prices ...I hardly gave a thought to freedom...or what it was like for the non-conformists: dissidents, Jews etc. A few years ago I saw das Leben der Anderen and was shaken to the core. "Real existiriende Sozialismus" had not just failed economically but also morally. But then we discovered that the great free West was spying on us too. So it leaves you confused to put it mildly.

A visit to Prague recently brought home the drama of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. Jews were dominant in the Prague communist party elites and were purged and executed in e 50's at Stalin's request. What despair, to survive e holocaust to be executed by the new "idealists"

The abuse of power by the likes of Rolf Harris in "free" Britain make one wonder how free and protecte we were

I suppose the key is power. Ideological movements attract idealists and realists and the realists usually win. Then the only belief is me and my power and privileges.

Many friends in Eastern Europe who remember the system despair at how some young people have forgotten the exceses and cruelty of totalitarianism but with NSA, the war on terror etc what can any of us believe?

Despite all this I am not pessimistic. I think society has become more demanding and through trial and error we become aware of the risks of political change and more sceptical about the rhetoric of those who seek change for their own benefit without thinking through the consequences.

radnorian said...

I agree with your point about moral failure, perhaps the reason for the current revival of Orthodoxy in Russia.

Economic failure, was this caused by over-borrowing to buy off unpopularity with a consumer boom? If so a familiar failing in the West.

For the working class the low rents, low food prices, guaranteed employment etc must be something many young people would look at with envy - if they knew about them.

That's the point really. I certainly don't want to defend actually existing socialism, it failed that's clear enough. But the fact that an economic system existed as an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism had a restraining influence. The 1% had to pay some regard to the 99% in a way they don't seem to today.

Socialists should be learning from the mistakes of Honecker and Krebs - the ideological straight jackets, the antipathy to the marketplace and individual initiative - instead for a lot of us in Wales socialism just seems to be an exercise in nostalgia.

Immanuel Kant said...

It doesn't have to be either/or though. Why always be so adversarial? Can't we just hate both?