Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Lenka, or: Socialist sentimentality

The classic socialist community: housing blocks in Chodov, Prague, taken by my girlfriend on her way to work

Speaking to older Czechs, as I get the opportunity to do regularly, it is difficult to ignore a shared sense of sentimentality about life under the old regime. This sentimentality touches the pasts of most, though especially those - the majority in fact, statistically speaking - whose recent family history lies outside the capital. I am keen to stress the distinction between this common sentimentality, the sense of which is expressed in images of semi-rural towns and agricultural idylls, and a much angrier, explicitly political nostalgia which still fuels the Czech C.P. (currently the fourth largest in the Czech parliament). The political nostalgia of the 'older generation' (and the success of the C.P. is always accounted for in generational terms) is founded upon a vague sense of betrayal, and resembles (in form if not in content) West Europe's far-right. The nostalgists tend to be the overall losers of the marketization reforms of the 1990s - pensioners, the poor, manual labourers - whose social standing has plummeted relative to more flexible, accumulative and highly-skilled industrial sectors. The sentimentalists, by contrast, are often highly successful, and are of course under no illusions about the real character of the Czechoslovak socialist state.

A common concession, exhaled half-guiltily, is:

"But, of course, we had communism then."

The verb sits awkwardly there - like having a cold or a gammy knee; an affliction that was lived with, made the best of despite its hampering burden. An English-speaker would say We lived under communism, unconsciously foregrounding the sense of subjugation. But there is something clunkily apt about the Czech bluntness. Communism was, this phrasing implies, mostly experienced as a dull, practical limitation.

Or more euphemistically: "It was different then."

This sighing acceptance of the 'bad past', of the historical crimes that comprise the backdrop of their lives, hasn't alienated people from more personal experiences. In the description of people dotted about in abundantly green parks, of caring for the local allotment, collecting mushrooms in the woods, and (only rarely) the 'plus sides' of having fewer Asians around, one can sense a very profound regret. A disappeared world occasionally makes itself felt, like a divorcee confiding their pleasure in married life's simple, predictable absurdities. 

A student from Ostrava, Czechoslovakia's once-booming industrial heart, gave me one such confession. She's successful, pretty wealthy, intelligent and brims with confidence - her 50s, I think, have been a kind of victory lap, a chance to exploit her professional and intellectual talents to the full. The years of communist moral compromise and post-communist, indiscriminate opportunity hoarding have been kind to her. But when she talks about Ostrava it is like the loss of innocence - in the prelapsarian idyll, everyone young lived in Ostrava and made real things with their hands. People looked after each other. There were a thousand shops. There was respect and closeness between families. Yet it's obvious - she would never 'turn red'. She would never do anything that might suggest, even symbolically, a desire for a re-run. But still she describes vividly, with an acute clarity, Ostrva as it looks today - there are only old people; it's a poor place. She doesn't look at me as she says this but at the long fingers of her hands as they draw emphatic cuboid shapes in the air. I can only imagine she is miming the rationalized communist environment of low-rise housing blocks with blocky courtyards and blocky bushes.

"Of course, we had communism then."

She doesn't moan for an instant, however, about post-89 price hikes or political corruption or economic cronyism. Unemployment, yes; but only in a distracted way. Of course, if pushed, like almost everyone else, she will be clear in her condemnation of the selling-out of working people, of the disenfranchisement and alienation and anomie that run like a dull flame through Czech society today. She might, like some, scoff in disbelief at the postcommunist naivety of the Czechs, who started a million private businesses, only to be bought out by those whose nomenclatura or party status predisposed them to market dominance in the context of a so-called 'return' of class (might this rather be termed the return of the permissibility of 'being bourgeois'?) But, after all, her sentimentality is classically pictorial, a figural arrangement expressing some vanquished harmony, not a political stance.

When she talks about her own experiences of living under communism, it is clear that she had to fight for every inch of breathing space she had. She graduated in law and earned less than a factory-hand. In Prague there was no work but unemployment was illegal. Her father, a good proletarian, could never reconcile with her one change of job. This was, almost literally, a black stain on her character - her small ID book was stamped with news of her change of employers, thus marking her out for the suspicion of any petty official. She lived for years in shared accommodation, the youngest of a group of women, the eldest of whom was eighty and died alone in her bed in the hostel. She once described the smell - the close proximity of uncared for and unwashed old-age. Eventually she signed a lifetime contract with a company and was allocated a flat of her own - until then, her sole motivation, one worth signing oneself into virtual serfdom for.

Life - or at least western-style expectations of it - only started for her amid the shock and awe of the awakening Czechoslovak economy. But she shows no nostalgia for that period of simultaneous enlargement and enclosure of the very frame of life - when real 'freedom' for the first time appeared (if only in the negative form of market competition). The only condition of this new opportunity was that access to it had to contract horizontally even as it hurtled upward. That was a time of harsh lessons and necessary, if brutally imposed, experience.

What accounts, then, for her communist sentimentality? Indeed it's a wonder that her generation, cynical of both the command economy and of the free market, permit themselves this indulgence. Is it just a collective coping mechanism - as if by making the very propaganda tropes of socialism (happy workers in abundant fields) somehow 'internal' one can actually alienate the trauma? Perhaps it partly functions that way, but I'm not convinced that this is all. Like all shared and much-talked about memories it owes a great deal of its current appearance to fabrication. What is felt lost today, to one degree or another by all who care to remember, is not something present in "really existing socialism" but something always-already absent from liberal democratic capitalism.

Now, if it is to be distinguished from its nostalgic counterpart; that is, rescued from its rendering as the soppy shadow of that more politically reactionary view, this sentimentality should have its content mapped. So what is it then? Mostly an image of a displaced agricultural idyll, the merry working farm, semi-urbanised, sort of corporatist and unified, somehow balanced. It regrets the same absence as a long line of English arch-conservatives did in distinctly hierarchical form: that is social solidarity, or some sense of common purpose, a driving motivational force that (even in its most benign manifestations) ultimately requires some coercive, paternal authority.

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