Monday, December 27, 2010

Comedy of Communism

Soviet Roulette is biased: it is naturally obsessed with those authors who mix personal ruminations with historical or literary observations about the Soviet Union. See, for example, previous posts on The Possessed and Inside the Stalin Archives. One of the best efforts in this strange genre is Ben Lewis' Hammer and Tickle: A Cultural History of Communism. Lewis, who isn't afraid to describe an illuminating relationship with a neo-communist East German girlfriend, believes that humor lies at the heart of the communist experiment. Lewis' book (which expands on a movie on the same subject) is an open-ended investigation to decades of communist jokes, which were used both to ridicule socialist states as well as their alleged enemies, including capitalists, Western powers, and even foot-dragging apparatchiks.

Lewis doesn't provide readers with any easy answers about the meaning of communist humor. He tracks jokes by topic, regime, era, purpose, and venue. He contrasts competing historical and cultural theories related to the impact of jokes on despotic regimes. Did the ubiquitous jokes undermine the regimes they denigrated or serve them by replacing more meaningful, action-oriented forms of political protest? Lewis offers no simple solution, although he does admit that people seem to have put away humor when they finally took to the streets in the late 1980s to bring down communist rule once and for all.

If Lewis doesn't advance a single thesis about communist humor, he does help to show how his approach to understanding the logic of communism is indispensable. Humor is at the heart of many different facets of the European experience of communism. People told jokes about almost every facet of communist existence, including shortages, shoddy goods, the cult of Lenin, stupid or corrupt leaders, sham elections, police surveillance, and capitalist economic supremacy. Stalin told jokes about his enemies. Communist periodicals derided the state's perceived enemies.

Lewis quotes historian Steven Cohen by saying something to the effect that communism was only serious for about five minutes, but has been funny ever since. If this tongue-in-cheek formulation underrates the tragedy of the gulags, purges, and collectivisation famines, it does point to the essential absurdity that always lay at the heart of communist social and economic theory. By the 1960s, Eastern Europeans understood that in many ways their society was a parody of the Western one. Their economy produced things that nobody needed; hard work had almost no relationship to economic reward; and the continued viability of most Eastern European nations was contingent upon the generosity of the Western ones, who routinely gave out large, sub-market loans.

There is a flawed Woody Allen film entitled, Melinda, Melinda, that unconsciously follows Marx's famous dictum about the nature of history. In this tale, Allen makes the point that the same story can be told in two different but equally satisfying ways; either as tragedy or farce. Although it's sometimes hard to credit--see my previous post on film, The Trotsky--looking at communism as comedy somehow seems worthwhile and long overdue.

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