Once upon a time, back in school and college, I was a socialist.
No, that won’t do, because it does not tell the full truth in all its acute gravity. The truth is—I am over with it, so the truth can be told—I had actually become a communist. Passionate, unyielding, and now that I know better, unthinking. Were it not for school and my serious commitments there, I would surely have become a card carrying, flag-waving member of the Communist Party of India.
How did I manage to go so dreadfully wrong? I have no clue, no worthwhile defence to offer. Except, perhaps for this. Those were also days when I wore bell-bottomed trousers that look so absurd now. Indeed, one of my favourites, an oft-worn specimen, was of a colour that treaded upon the perilous borderline between maroon and red. When I look back upon it, I am convinced that compared to my communism this was the more egregious folly.
The centre of my universe lay in Moscow. The leaders I held in esteem lived there. And the economic system that I believed in was administered from there. This was the system where everyone was equal. There was no rich and no poor. People worked to the best of their abilities and were paid according to their needs. There was no unemployment and no homelessness. It was the closest to paradise that mankind would ever get to.
I lived in India but managed to cultivate a deep sense of patriotism for the Soviet Union. I remember the Olympics in Montreal in 1976. How I would eagerly scan the sports pages of the newspaper to check out on the latest Soviet medals tally. It was occasion for deep pride that they always came out on top. (Disclosure: India never mattered in the Olympics, not that it mattered to me one way or the other.)
In my school days, we had no television. For news about the world I listened to the BBC world service radio station. The bi-polar world of those days was a matter of deep concern to me, as happens when you carry a deep-rooted conviction that one pole belongs to you.
I knew that the BBC’s claim of impartial news reporting was bogus. Therefore, to get the perspective right, I would also listen to Radio Moscow. I still recall the news read by the deep, metallic voice of Karl Yugorevich. Radio Moscow’s news was exactly the kind to be expected from a totalitarian state, one-sided and blatantly propagandist. That did not bother me at all. What did bother me was that Karl and his fellow news readers spoke English with an “inferior” American accent, when my own preference was the polished British variety as heard on the BBC.
There was also something else that bothered me a lot and which happens to be the point of this essay. A big problem I faced as a communist of such deep conviction—beside the problem that I was wrong all along—was that I could never summon the sporting spirit to laugh at the many socialism jokes I constantly ran into. And there were so many of these. One of the very first anti-communist jokes I heard, and a good one at that, was after the 1979 Carter-Brezhnev summit meeting in Vienna that led to the signing of the SALT II Treaty.
Brezhnev was in the U.S. and during a break in the meetings, was told about this remarkable telephone invented by the Americans that allowed one to talk to the dead. Not convinced, he asked Carter for a demonstration, which was immediately arranged for. Whom did he want to talk to? Brezhnev said he wished to speak with Stalin. Carter picks up the phone and asks the operator to connect him to hell. Stalin is located and Brezhnev has a long and hearty conversation with him. When the call is over, the operator comes back with the bill amount. Brezhnev had to shell out 30 dollars. All the same, he was very impressed and he gets hold of a similar instrument to be taken back to Moscow.
In Moscow, at the very next politburo meeting, Brezhnev is found brandishing his latest toy to an incredulous audience. “Comrades, I have with me a telephone which allows us to talk to our dead comrades”. After the initial commotion, Brezhnev proceeds to dial the operator and asks to be connected to Stalin in hell once again. And this time, everyone at the meeting insists on talking to Stalin. Finally, at the end of a very long call, Brezhnev retrieves the phone and asks the operator for the bill amount. “That will be 30 cents”, says the operator. Brezhnev cannot believe what he has just heard. “But when I was in the U.S. and talked for far less, I was billed 30 dollars”. “Yes sir, that was an international call. This is local.”
The suggestion that the Soviet Union was hell went against the grain of my cherished beliefs. I tried passing on an inverted version of the joke with the Russians as the inventors and the U.S. as hell but the early attempts fell flat and I did not persist in my folly.
Another good one was about an American, a Frenchman, and a Russian, who all happened to die on the same day and found themselves waiting at the gates of heaven for an appointment with St. Peter. They get talking to each other and discover that each of them had died, in different ways, because of an automobile.
Talking about his death, the American says “It was just a week ago I had bought this red Corvette V8. She could do 0 to 60 miles in 5 seconds flat. Gee, I knew it was trouble coming, just didn’t know it would be this soon”. The Frenchman’s tale had nothing to do with speed and a lot with love. “I was in my car with my girlfriend. I had parked it on a secluded slope on the banks of the Seine. We were in the backseat doing our own stuff and the hand brakes failed. The next thing I know, I am here.” The Russian had the most tragic tale. “I never actually owned a car, never drove one. But I wanted one badly. So, I saved, and saved. I starved to death.”
Nikita Kruschev once found himself in Belgrade on a delicate mission to pacify Marshal Tito. While unpacking his suitcase, he discovers that the suit which he was supposed to wear for the meeting next day with Tito, was not to be found. A while later, he finds himself at a Belgrade tailor, who was taking his measurements for an express order. “You will need three metres of fabric”, he was told. Krushchev is not sure if he has heard right.
“How can that be? Back in Moscow, my tailor demands six metres.”
“Back in Moscow, you are a big man”
Communism was all about the promise of a workers paradise. Yet, life for the masses was a struggle. An aspect of daily life, common to all of Eastern Europe, was the need to stand in long queues for even the most basic of necessities. From onions to tooth-brushes, everything was in short supply. Indeed, the prevailing wisdom among shoppers was that if you ever saw a long queue, you must join it at once no matter what because it could only mean that something much in demand and out of stock had made a dramatic reappearance.
This joke is from Romania where the people were doubly traumatised, by communism the ideology, and equally, by its resident exponent-in-chief, Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu was a megalomaniac and was the Romanian party leader for a very long time. This joke has a man standing at the back of a long, slow-moving queue who finally decides he has had enough. “I can’t take it any more”, he roars. “I am off to kill Ceausescu.” And he stomps away angrily. Barely 15 minutes later, he’s back again, looking thoroughly downcast.
“What happened, is Ceausescu dead?”
“No, the queue there is longer”
Surprisingly, a system that unabashedly proclaimed itself to be a “dictatorship of the proletariat” also set great store by “elections”. Of course, these elections were always a charade to be expected of a one-party state. Only the official party candidate was allowed to stand and the entire adult population was duty bound to turn out in full strength on Election Day to record their approval or disapproval. In practice, dissent was rare and candidates routinely won with over 99 percent of the votes in favour. And so it came to pass that a thief once broke into the Moscow office of the Soviet Central Election Commission and decamped with next year’s election results!
Indoctrination of the masses was one of the pillars on which the great edifice of communism rested. State propaganda was everywhere. You were greeted by it at birth and it would be there to walk you to your grave. Television, radio, newspapers, the school textbook… they all said the same thing, over and over. Even the bill-boards were not spared, for they carried the slogans of the revolution. After all, the objective of indoctrination is to have everyone wear the same set of party-approved blinkers. As if all this was not enough, there would also be an over-active local chapter of the communist party which expected folks to turn up without fail for their week-end meetings.
To the Poles I owe this joke about an elusive character who makes it a point to never turn up for these meetings. The local party boss is out to teach him a lesson and one day literally drags him by the scruff of his neck to a party meeting. Addressing the meeting, he launches into a monologue about the achievements of socialism, with liberal references to the comradely assistance rendered by the Soviet Union, in course of which he also mentions the contributions made by Lenin to the Great October Revolution. This is where trouble begins. Pointing to him in the crowd, he calls out: “Comrade Jerzy, tell us, what do you know of Lenin?”
“Lenin? Who is he?”
This was just the answer he expected.
“Comrades. Can you believe that? Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik party, the father of the Great October Socialist Revolution, one of the greatest revolutionaries in history. And our Comrade Jerzy has not even heard of Lenin. Now, this is what happens when you don’t attend our meetings.”
A very public tongue-lashing follows. Comrade Jerzy gives him a patient hearing and then puts his hand up.
“May I ask a question now?”
“What is it?”
“Who is Novak?”
The Boss is sure he has never heard of any such personality.
“Aha! This is what happens when you attend too many party meetings. If you stayed at home more often, you’d know that Novak is the man who sleeps with your wife when you are away at party meetings.”
The last of my jokes is also the one that, in its own way, is the most profound. In a few lines we get a deep and pointed insight into the fundamental folly of socialism.
Two Irishmen were discussing Socialism. It was evening and, as is the wont with all good Irishmen, they were at the local pub. A lot of whiskey had flowed and one of them was waxing eloquent.
“Oh, that will the good days to come. Workers, folks like you, and me, and shakin’ Joe o’er there, we’ll rule the world. No rich, no poor, all equal.”
He turns to his companion, jovially slaps his thigh and puts this question to him: “Mate, if you owned two big mansions, wouldn’t you give me one?”
His mate had no doubts whatsoever. “Oh, that I will, that I will”
“And if you had two cars, wouldn’t you give me one?
“Yes, one of that too”
“And if you had two pigs, wouldn’t you give me one”
“MOST CERTAINLY NOT! You know very well I have two pigs”
Is socialism then dead forever? I suspect not. One of these days, well into the future, and this is my great prediction, the science of bio-genetics would have advanced so much that humans will have a gene for unselfishness embedded into the embryo. Socialism will make a come-back then, and for a change it might even work.
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