onsdag 27. oktober 2010

Osmadvacátý říjen

Today is October 28, or Osmadvacátý říjen, Den vzniku samostatného československého státu, Independent Czechoslovak State Day, the anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and still a public holiday in the Czech Republic, even after the Velvet Divorce. I don't have time today to blog very much on the topic of what turned out to be a mismatch (though not nearly by far as rancorous - or for that matter, murderous - as the union of the south Slavic peoples). All I will say is this: despite the best intentions of the world-improvers, indelible traces of the past keep returning like a palimpsest. In the case of Central Europe, the parchment has been scraped more than once.

mandag 4. oktober 2010

Bowlers of the world, unite! You have nothing to choose but your lanes...

Like so many current and former members of the American assistant, associate and full professoriat, I am a proud, out member of the petite bourgeoisie. While I do not bowl, my parents did (I can remember my dad's pink-and-charcoal 1950s vintage bowling shirt). My mother was always afraid that once I entered the rarefied aether of academe, that I would look down on her. While she was still alive, I tried to make it clear to her that I always believed that she was the most astute observer of politics of anyone I knew (and I meant it). Not only did she have the ability to see through phoniness and pretension, but she never had to unlearn patent untruths picked up at university.

The silly punning allusion to both The Communist Manifesto and stereotypical lower-class pastimes is intended as an observation that, for all of Marx's incisive social criticism, he was too wedded to his preconceived notion that history (or, rather, History) was a riddle to be solved, instead of what it more likely is, namely "one damned thing after another.". He was simply too much of an optimist (yes, I said optimist) to have the courage to toss Hegel out the window (and not just turn him on his head), unlike, say, Schopenhauer.

For all that, Marx's original insight (one of the "truffles of truth to be dug for in the enchanted forest of Marxism", an observation made by either James Dale Davidson or William Rees Mogg in a book they co-authored) is the centrality of class struggle in human affairs. But such class conflict is systemic, and not only restricted to ownership of the means of production.

The most interesting class conflicts are between immediately adjacent classes, and not between classes that are far apart (such as in Upstairs, Downstairs, which readers d'un certain age will recall from its years and years on what Nicholas von Hoffman (and not just he) termed "the Petroleum Broadcasting System" ("public housing for the poor and Public Television for the rich"). The best example of popular entertainment that capitalizes on class conflict is the 1970s-1980s spinoff of All in the Family, The Jeffersons. The fact that George (played with panache by Sherman Helmsley), his often exasperated wife Louise and their put-upon maid Florence are black is merely a red herring, diverting the inattentive viewer to the endless racial sideshow that continues to distract both blacks and whites from pursuing their shared interests. The real conflict is between self-made dry-cleaning tycoon George Jefferson and the genteel upper middle and upper class denizens of his new apartment building. You always saw George in a tailored three-piece suit, never in preppy sportswear, or even country-casual tweed jacket, turtleneck sweater and chinos, like his antagonist Tom Willis, one half of an interracial couple and editor (a nice, non-money-grubbing occupation, perfect for someone with some inheritance capital but not independently wealthy). No matter how hard George tried, he was never accepted. Not because of the color of his skin, but because of the content of his character: a pushy, obnoxious philistine who got on everyone's nerves, regardless of skin pigmentation. Isabel Sanford was also perfectly cast as Louise (Weezie), who unlike her social-climbing husband, was perfectly content to be what she was. Anybody who looked like Louise Jefferson and was anxious about her social standing would have enrolled in aerobics classes (or at least dieted), but if you were to suggest it to her, she would have probably laughed in your face. I remember reading in the program for a University of Illinois theater production of Tartuffe that the closest analog of a Molière comedy in contemporary American popular entertainment was The Jeffersons. I thought then that that observation absolutely hit the mark, and I still do.

You can even have bitter class conflicts in societies without an aristocracy or even much of a true capitalist class. Norway is an example of a country without a native aristocracy and with a bourgeoisie that lived rather modestly compared with their class comrades in other European countries (for evidence, all you have to do is walk around the ritzier parts of prewar Oslo). Even so, the lack of a genuine plutocracy in Norway did not spare this country from a very red labor movement. From 1919 to 1923 the Norwegian Labor Party was even a member of the Comintern, the Bolshevik Third International. In Bohemia, however, the brunt of the class struggle was between a class-conscious proletariat and the petite bourgeoisie of shopkeepers, clerks and schoolteachers (ideology to the contrary). Here the difference was not necessarily family background, but attitude. The fact that many rather wealthy businesspeople and successful academics came from humble origins could be seen as a constant reproach to factory workers and miners, as if their relatively low station were due to laziness rather than lack of interest, entrepreneurial skill and/or an understandable preference for leaving work behind the factory gate once the shift whistle blew. Anyone who has worked in a family-owned business (like my great-grandparents' tavern) or slaved from early morning till late at night in a research lab with no guarantee of success knows the meaning of hard work. Not only that, but the children of barkeeps and greengrocers put in far more hours than any outside employees, and nearly always for no pay.

But myths about what labor consists in die hard. Anyway, when the Communists, with a plurality of the seats in the parliament, staged a coup in Czechoslovakia, even many non-proletarian Czechs and Slovaks were favorable toward the Soviet Union, who were seen as not having betrayed them (the Poles, who were the proximate victims of the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, knew better, but were in less of a position to do anything about it--a cursory glance at the Central European rail network required Bohemia as well as Poland and Hungary, but not Austria, safely behind the Iron Curtain, so that the February putsch was probably an inevitability).

The Communist takeover of Czechoslovalia was the start of 41 years of buyers' remorse, beginning with the expropriation of model enterprises, such as Tomáš Baťa's shoe factories in Zlín and elsewhere in Czechoslovakia and ending with the seizure of even the most humble pivnice, proletarianising and demoralising the shopkeeping class under the pretext that since their modest enterprises depended in part on hired labor, this was prima facie evidence that the owners were exploiters and had to be eliminated as a class (though graciously hired back as state employees and not rounded up and shot, like in the Ukraine). The more intellectual wing of the Czech and Slovak petite bourgeoisie had to wait for the debacle of 1968 to come to the same conclusion as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, namely that "democratic socialism was as contradictory as a fried snowball".

And that the hard-working true-believers in socialism with a human face that wasn't Stalin's were the real class enemy of the post-Dubček party was borne out in the aftermath of the Prague Spring: a purge of half of the party membership (and as, Györgi Dalos remarked in Der Vorhang geht auf: Das Ende der Diktaturen in Osteuropa, "nicht unbedingt die dümmere Hälfte", i.e. "not necessarily the dumber half"). These newly purged technocrats could join the ranks of menial laborers, sweeping factory floors and stoking furnaces alongside those who for "class reasons" were denied university educations to begin with, like Václav Havel, the son of what in Prague passed for a movie mogul (even so, the cream always rises to the top).

It is also interesting to observe that of all remaining Communist parties, the core of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia has not undergone a democratic socialist Third Way makeover, but remains unrepentantly true to its Stalino-Brezhnevite roots, continuing to pine for the good old days when the mediocre and talentless were able to lord it over their intellectual and moral betters and make them like it to boot. Not unlike the attitudes of true aristocrats...