Posted tagged ‘communism’

68 lives on

November 28, 2009

Yesterday (November 27) was the birth date of two persons who, in different ways, were icons of my teenage years and who defined a lot of 1968 for me. But, as I said, they were very different: the first was Alexander Dubcek, the second Jimi Hendrix.

Dubcek was a Czech politician, a Communist activist during the German occupation 1939-1945, and subsequently a rising star in the Slovak Communist Party. In January 1968, after what was in effect a coup against the Czech Communist leader Antonin Novotny, Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and thus the de facto national leader. He initiated a number of (for the time, in an Eastern bloc Communist state) radical reforms, including the right of association and assembly, and the abolition of censorship. He called this  ‘socialism with a human face’, and worldwide his reforms became known as the ‘Prague Spring’. But by the summer of that year the Soviet Union had become alarmed at the impact on the Eastern bloc of the Czech reforms, and after fruitless attempts to get Dubcek to roll them back, the Soviets and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia during the night of August 20, and within days the Dubcek experiments were brought to an end. Dubcek himself remained in office for a short while, but by 1969 he was removed, first to the purely ceremonial job of parliamentary president, and then to the role of Czech ambassador to Turkey. In 1970 he was stripped of all remaining posts and his membership of the Communist party, and for the years that followed he was a supervisor in a Slovak forestry administration.

When 20 years ago the Communist party fell, Dubcek returned briefly to public life, again as parliamentary president, until he died in what some regarded as suspicious circumstances in 1992.

But during that brief period in 1968, for my generation Dubcek represented the possibility and promise of freedom under a reformed socialist system. When the Russian tanks rolled in, for many that became the moment when it became clear that Soviet Communism could not encompass a liberal attitude to personal rights and freedoms.

Jimi Hendrix was born (as Johnny Allen Hendrix) in Seattle in 1942. He showed a strong musical interest and talent from an early age. Having played with several bands in the early 1960s, he moved to London in 1966 where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He has immediate success with the band in the UK, and in 1967 he also exploded on the US music scene. In 1968 he released the album Electric Ladyland, which included the iconic songs ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Voodoo Child’. More than anything else, this album defines the music of 1968 for me. Of course Hendrix became famous for (occasionally) playing the guitar with his teeth, and he is regarded by many as the greatest guitarist ever. He died in 1970.

I don’t know whether Alexander Dubcek and Jimi Hendrix were aware of each other’s existence; and I suspect that many younger people today don’t know Dubcek at all and may not have heard that much of Hendrix. But for me both live on as symbols of 1968 as a year of hope.

Searching for witches

November 14, 2009

Today, November 14, is the 101st anniversary of the birth of Joseph McCarthy. A lawyer from a farming background, McCarthy was elected a US Senator in 1947, an office he held until his death ten years later. After an initial period in the Senate during which he was largely unnoticed, he shot into fame (and then notoriety) in 1950 by launching accusations of communist sympathies and treachery against various state officials and, later, army officers. He then presided over the Senate Committee on Government Operations, in which role he again made accusations of subversion and espionage against a number of people – generally without presenting any evidence to substantiate his claims. Eventually his methods brought about growing popular disapproval, and in December 1954 he was censured by the Senate. After that he slipped into obscurity and alcoholism, until his death in 1957.

McCarthy’s activities gave rise to the term ‘McCarthyism’, still much used, though often I suspect by people who have only a vague or even no idea where it comes from.*  His accusations and investigations stimulated Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, which is ostensibly about the Salem witch trials. Richard Condon’s novel, The Manchurian Candidate, is a fictionalised account of McCarthy.

But what Joe McCarthy should still be teaching us is that witch trials corrupt any society in which they take place, even where the concerns on which they are based have some validity. A mature democratic society must learn to deal with its problems without resorting to McCarthyism, and we should all become alert to the danger when we are found dismissing or criticising whole groups of people within the community – not even excluding bankers and politicians. This is a lesson which every generation has to absorb and live out. McCarthy has at least taught us that much.


* This includes my spellchecker, which recognises ‘McCarthyism’, but not ‘McCarthy‘.


October 24, 2009

On this day in 1917 – at least if you follow the Julian calendar – the first incident took place in Petrograd (which had been, and is now, St Petersburg, and which for 70 or so years afterwards was Leningrad) that was to result in the Soviet Revolution. Just to make it as confusing as possible, it is either referred to as the October Revolution, or Red October, or else the November Revolution (because according to the Gregorian calendar it took place in November). But of course, whatever you call it and whichever calendar you use, it unleashed events which profoundly altered history. The system of Soviet Communism that followed it, and which at least for a while governed much of Eastern Europe, had a huge impact not just on those countries, but on western concepts such as the welfare state. But it also produced enormous hardships, including starvation and totalitarian dictatorship, and eventually it collapsed economically, some time around 1989, also around this time of year (if you take the fall of the Berlin Wall as the defining moment of collapse).

And so, in the early years of the new millennium, how should we now assess the Soviet revolution and the political system that followed it? I still find that very hard to say. One particular communist leader, Zhou Enlai of China, is famously said to have remarked when asked about the impact of the French Revolution that it was ‘too early to tell’. And in some respects that is true of 1917. It is difficult to see it objectively in the light of the many victims of Stalin’s brutal rule and in the light of the oppression that was inflicted on Eastern Europe. And yet, communism in government in the East led to significant social reforms in the West that have defined modern concepts of democracy. The East-West debates that defined political discourse during my youth sharpened ideological perspectives that allowed governments to pursue a much more distinct vision than is sometimes the case today.

I had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union just before its demise, and on the one hand mostly found it to be bureaucratic and drab; but I also on occasion found it to be unexpectedly cultured and philosophical, in a way that we were not in the West.

I am sure I would have hated to live in the Soviet Union, and I wholly deplore the oppression and brutality that characterised some of its political actions. But I cannot quite bring myself to regret that the October Revolution happened. Not quite.