Toddling out of CSSD HQ after a trying couple of hours, the Bemolution pondered the nature of neoliberal hegemony, the New Labourisation of social democracy worldwide, and why both these factors are felt especially keenly in the Czech Republic.
The answer is of course Communism. Both the atrocious excesses and eventual collapse of Soviet-style Communism were taken by a lot of the Western world as proof that socialism was inherently awful, and that any alternative to Uncle Sam-brand free-market capitalism was doomed to failure. It’s partly this thinking, along with subtle sociological changes in affluent Western countries, that brought about New Labour and the so-called Third Way, intended as a new kind of social democracy fit for purpose in a neoliberalised world.
Obviously, Czechs know rather a lot more about how Communism worked in practise than we do. Their discontent after forty years under the smothering pillow of Stalinised Marxist-Leninism goes a long way to explaining why at times they’ve been so enthusiastic about the Westernised alternative, and why so many Czechs have a deep-seated cultural aversion to anything remotely leftish.
This is all unhelpfully magnified by something that seems obvious when you Wikipedia it beforehand, but that only hits you as incredibly strange when you arrive. Czech Communism is still there.
After 1989 and the Velvet Revolution that brought about its downfall, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was declared a criminal organisation and subsequently banned. The Czech half ingeniously got round this by renaming itself the Communist Party of Bohemia of Moravia (KSCM). And, despite the irresistible neoliberal zeitgeist, the political dominance of die-hard anti-communists and the widespread left-phobia, for sixteen years the KSCM has been the third-largest parliamentary party in the Republic.
Sustained by a rump of support comprising the old and nostalgic, industrial workers and agricultural labourers from the co-operative farms that have evolved out of Communist-era collectives, the Party contests elections, runs local authorities, and in national polls tends to reel in anywhere between 10 and 20% of the national vote.
Every election, the ODS propaganda machine mauls even the timid Social Democrats as one step away from the C-word. Communism can fuel an endless amount of right-wing scaremongering, allowing neoliberal fanboys the length and breadth of the Republic to portray it as an ever-present peril wobbling threatening over their lovely new Westernised lifestyles.
Only this Summer, Vaclav Klaus, impossibly square-jawed climate-change denying, Brussels-bashing, Thatcher-idolising economist-turned ODS boss and President of the Republic, declared that Europe was back teetering on the brink of socialism and liberal democracy was doomed unless the continent plunged even deeper into neoliberalism.
You can understandably despise Communism for its totalitarianism, hypocrisy and mind-rending abuses in power. But you can also more pettily hate the fact that it just won’t go away. Having travestied and discredited some of the loveliest notions ever dreamt up – liberty, equality and fraternity, among others – notions that are integral to any attempt to drag mankind towards something more equitable and humane, it still manages to cling on just enough to taint anything left-wing by the loosest of associations.
If you want an accurate, objective insight into the legacy of Czech Communism twenty years on from its continent-shaking demise, something calling itself ‘the Museum of Communism’ might seem like an obvious place to start. Alas, like all too many things in this ramshackle world of ours, reality is nowhere near that simple.
The word ‘museum’ is one of those dangerous little additions to the English language that conveys a wholesome neutrality, respectability and authoritativeness that it doesn’t always deserve. Any mug with enough capital and time on their hands can knock something together and call it a ‘museum’, and unfortunately this seems to be what happened with the ‘Museum of Communism’.
Situated slap bang in the middle of central Prague, where the historic old town flows into the commercialised new one, you find the museum proudly sandwiched between one of the capital’s horrifically many MacDonaldses and a gaudy upstairs casino. Taking half an hour out of our afternoon to go in and nose around, the Bemolution found it to be a sensationalist Communist-era hall of mirrors, hysterically warping reality left right and centre.
To be fair, it doesn’t make much of an effort to suggest otherwise – its xenophobic posters are plastered all over town, the most prominent one featuring a glaring red Russian doll with monster fangs, and make its demonising intention quite clear from the start. You only have to go and walk round to see that it’s not really a museum at all, just an upstairs flat stuffed laughably bare-faced, fawningly pro-Western neoliberal propaganda.
Perusing its various exhibits is like reading a history of paedophilia written by the Sun on Sunday, tawdry, distorting, insultingly sensationalist and so monumentally over-the-top that it detracts from the seriousness of the issue at hand. If you went to an imaginary Museum of Adolf Hitler convinced that the Fuhrer was the most insurmountably evil human being that’d ever lived, you’d still expect a level of objectivity and dignified restraint – for it to convey the horror of his actions without claiming he ate babies or lived in a palace made of frilly knickers.
The vast majority of people in the world are convinced already that Soviet-style Communism was fairly disastrous. There were labour camps and secret police interrogations and a lot of people were very miserable – but the Museum makes Hades sound preferable to Communist-era Czechoslovakia. Even the some of the most ardently anti-Communist Czechs are rational-minded enough to acknowledge that the old systems did have some positives – while there were frequent shortages, essential goods were cheap, jobs were stable, accommodation and transport were affordable, et cetera. It was bad, very bad for some, but not the unmitigated nightmare the ‘Museum’ tries to claim.
And thus it was that, gifted with a free afternoon in one Europe’s most grippingly historic, eye-pleasing cities, the Bemolution ended up shuffling around its dingy back-alleys, strangely impelled to look upon the Communist Party’s modern headquarters with our own eyes. Calm objectivity about Communism seemed out of the question in Prague- it’s only been gone for twenty years after all – so having got one biased extreme, off we went to seek out the other.
After not very long, we found it. It was large-ish and anticlimatically mauve. We didn’t really know what we expected to find, apart from a large-ish building that wasn’t mauve, and just stood blankly looking at it.
Part of us wanted to go in and spray questions at whoever we found in a Paxman-like frenzy. How does the KSCM try and sell itself to a hostile electorate? Does it want to win elections at all, or is it waiting for a glorious revolution? Has it changed? Does it renounce its dictatorial past and espouse some cuddly new spin on Marxist-Leninism? Communism with a human face, even? Or is it a pure and unreconstructed revivalist movement, striving for the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic Mark II?
But we didn’t, and the chance for a suitably climactic end to a post-ful of jumbled Czech anecdotes was lost forever. This was mostly because the only words the Bemolution knows in Czechs are ‘thank you’ and ‘cunt’, both taught to us one Summer by a South Moravian science teacher on a narrow boat outside Bath, who was so drunk at the time that we can’t be sure she got the two the right way round.