Years ago we were writing a trilogy of pontificating half-essays about a trip we made to the Czech Republic. It was called Politics and Post-Communist Silly Dancing, but we never wrote the third bit, due to contain the all-important Silly Dancing, thereby rendering the title baffling to anyone who happened to read parts one and two. Then, recently, we played a very small part in helping a sassy and streetwise young altruist from South Bristol get an EU-funded Czech volunteering gig. She was going to take almost the exact same route as we did when we were in the country – a flight to Prague, where she’d have a day or so to look around, then down the Moravian south-east via a very, very long train ride. And, interest suitably re-engaged, we decided to dig out the notes we’d once intended on turning into a part three and actually turning them into a part three – albeit served with a side-dish of thoughts on Communism as-was, capitalism as-is, and the need for an alternative to both we’ve had since (you can click here for part one, and here for part two).
Death by fascistically efficient train door wouldn’t be an especially pleasant way to start a four and a half hour train voyage across the Czech Republic, but you’d get quite a nice view as the unrelenting steel liquefied your innards, at least until your lifeless husk was eventually flung free within sight of the High Tatras.
Luckily, the Bemolution managed to slink aboard with a few nanometres to spare in the twenty seconds or so the carriage designer had considerately thought to allot on the off-chance a passenger might actually try and get in it. We then spent the bulk of the following journey squashed uncomfortably close to two diabolically snobbish Fabians from Kent, inwardly debating whether the company made the prospect of being crushed in the door slightly more appealing.
After a frenetic few days city-slicking around Prague, we were relocating several hundred miles south-eastwards to the Zlin region of South Moravia, scarcely an hour from the Slovakian border. Our little red speck of Somerset was celebrating twenty years of international friendship with this warm and architecturally distinctive border region, and an array of civic dignitaries plus assorted-hangers on had been invited to mark the occasion. Confusingly, a strange sort of Labour Party field trip had been grafted on the side, too – the political terrain back home meaning that most of said dignitaries were Labour councillors – and small-town diplomacy was being frequently interspersed with get-togethers with the Czech equivalent, the Social Democrats, or CSSD (hence the Kentish Fabians). Someone had dropped out at the last minute, so late they couldn’t get any of their money back, and we were offered their spot on the trip for practically nothing. And that was how, despite disliking taxpayer-subsidised jollies for elected representatives about as much as neoliberalised ex-social democracy, The Bemolution ended up rattling speedily towards a bewildering few days of civic pomp, folk-costumed gay abandon and lashings of 50% proof brain-popping Czech booze.
In the meantime, though, there was still a vast rural expanse of Czech countryside to blast across. Sticking our head out the window like a Labrador on a Sunday drive, we could see the vague outlines of massive co-operative farms in the distance, enterprises that evolved out of Soviet-era collectives, and whose workers still reliably vote Communist. But the old world kept jarringly smashing into the new one as we ploughed through towns and cities along the way – one depressing lowlight, seeing, church-spire high and the very opposite of holy, the tallest, most enormous billboard we’d ever seen, bearing five ominous letters: TESCO. In the modern, mainstream Czech Republic, that’s progress. Communism as-experienced was fairly horrendous, unfettered capitalism must therefore be unquestionably great. It’s the logic that underpins Czech politics – and politics practically everywhere, for that matter.
Our destination, when we eventually reached it, was undeniably gorgeous – Austro-Italian looking with its big, sun-splashed squares, cobbled streets and tall, flat Renaissance-ish buildings, all done out in creamy yellows and pastel shades and gently baking in a dry, emphatically un-English heat. But just as we’d done in Prague, we’d spend most of our stay ignoring the pleasing aesthetics and somberly prodding at the political culture of the place.
The Czech Republic wasn’t doing a very good job of convincing us that all that much had changed, let alone improved, since the collapse of Communism. You certainly got the impression that it was straining every sinew in the attempt, particularly out here in the sticks. Our little group were treated like minor celebrities. If a small-town Somersetian legislator decided they wanted to go shopping, or go back to their hotel, or go and get a bite to eat, a chauffeur-driven car was summoned to transport them there. Around practically every corner, at every meeting and function we were invited to, you couldn’t move for blasphemously huge mounds of meat and cheese and fruit and booze – thought Central-Eastern Europe meant food shortages? Not any more, buster. Lavish ceremonies packed with dignitaries from Italy and Germany, Austria and Poland triumphantly peaked with flashy video presentations with the production values of big-budget TV shows. A small fortune was evidently being ploughed into trying to impress us. And if you were the type to be swayed by ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ and expensive PR, they’d have probably done a very good job.
Not really paying attention at the back of a meeting with local-big wigs, we thought about Communism and neoliberal democracy. The English were sat on one side of a long, thin table in a pleasantly rustic wood-beamed attic meeting room, the Czechs on the other. It was a laughable mismatch – stern, middle-aged, ambitious Czech mayors and deputy mayors wielding real, decisive power, faced with the kind of elderly English time-servers who squabble over who gets to wear the useless hat and chain as a cushy retirement present. The only women in the room were translators.
We looked at the stony faces on the Czech side. We’d met and watched them from afar several times during the visit. There was something a bit unnerving about them. You could tell by the way they conducted themselves that they liked, and felt they deserved respect, swishing around in their private cars and flaunting their power with banquets and festivals. It struck us that there wasn’t all that much distinguishing them from the hard old Communist-era elite, ideology aside – like practically everywhere we went in the Republic, this picturesque border town was a stronghold for the staunchly right-wing ODS party. But then we thought about British politicians – not small-town ceremonial manikins, but the modern national-level politico, shiny-faced and middle aged with their chauffeured cars and expense accounts. And then, in a patented Bemolutionary leap from the mundane to the sweepingly profound, we suddenly decided that Soviet-style Communism and neoliberal capitalism weren’t actually all that different at all.
The worst of both worlds
‘Communism’, as least in practice. Capitalist democracy. For a century of human history, few things have seemed clearer than the fact the two are about as far removed from one another as it’s possible to be. But they weren’t.
Let’s deal with the obvious first: most of the ‘Communist’ regimes that ever existed were morally catastrophic. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were history’s greatest criminals, killing hundreds of millions of people between them, and trampling over hundreds of millions more. We’d never suggest the Western system is as bad – we certainly know which one we’d rather live under. But just because that system is significantly less bad doesn’t mean it’s good, or that it’s especially different.
In fact, subtract the major difference between the two systems – the nature of state intervention in the economy – and the Soviet system starts to look like just a much more extreme, less subtle version of what we’ve got now. Both are run by and for a small, rich, powerful elite. Under Communism, you didn’t get a vote. Under capitalist democracy, you do, but for two or three parties within political inches of one another, none of whom challenge the fundamentals of a society skewed in the favour of the richest. For decades, the Czechs and their Eastern Bloc fellows were ruled by an unshakable one-party elite. Now, like the rest of the West, they’re ruled by an unshakable multiparty party one – at election time, you can have any party you like, as long as it’s neoliberal.
Both systems disingenuously trade on the nice connotations of a particular buzzword while actually only very mildly and selectively honouring it at best, trampling it into dust at worst. In the Eastern Bloc, it was ‘socialism’. In the West, it’s ‘democracy’.
The Soviet-led countries weren’t ‘socialist’. Socialism is about radical democracy – really, they just represented an incredibly brutal form of authoritarian statism. And in Britain, and the Czech Republic, and across much of the rest of the Western world, we don’t really live in democracies. We don’t live in fascist dictatorships either. But here’s the democratic acid test. Go outside. How much meaningful say does the ordinary bloke or blokette in the street have in and over the political system that claims to represent them? The answer in Britain, and in the Czech Republic both pre- and post-Velvet Revolution? Virtually none. Our much-vaunted ‘freedoms’ amount to little more than being free to waste our money on an endless variety of things we don’t really need.
What the Czechs are left with, meanwhile, is a worst-of-both worlds amalgamation of the old Soviet system and the Western one – still enduring high-level corruption, inattentive and unresponsive government, lack of political choice and the dominance of an untouchable elite, but without the few saving graces of Communism, like job security, full employment and state-provided healthcare and education.
But here’s the thing – if you’ve lived under a brutal authoritarianism with food shortages calling itself ‘socialism’, then a corporate plutocracy without them calling itself ‘democracy’, you’re going to prefer the latter and be ferociously hostile to the former. And when that ‘democracy’ still falls far short of everything you were promised in the decades when you were without it, you can always find someone to blame, as we sadly found during our Czech adventure.
Institutionalised racism against Roma gypsies is the country’s secret shame, with rising anti-Roma activism by far-right groups and a continuing scandal involving Roma children being excluded from mainstream education and put in substandard special needs schools. Similarly, in the same way British people blame their socioeconomic woes on all those Poles coming over here and stealing their jobs, Czechs angst over the increasing numbers of Ukrainian immigrants taking low-paid work from the indigenous population.
In a political culture that completely rejects the idea government has a duty to provide jobs and housing as a relic of the roundly-detested ‘socialist’ past, vulnerable minorities provide convenient scapegoats. The rich, meanwhile, do very nicely indeed – at the time of writing, a multimillionaire fruit machine magnate has just been elected senator of the area we visited on the back of an eye-wateringly neoliberal manifesto.
Silly dancing past the Czech PM
Our South Moravian adventure had been designed to coincide with a huge, townspeople-rousing folk festival – folk in the Morris dancing rather than the Bert Jansch sense, alas. This weekend-long jamboree essentially revolved around two things – one, local residents dressing up in ‘traditional’ costume and parading through the streets, and two, getting resoundingly plastered. We and the other international visitors were to lead this year’s parade, waddling around the town behind our respective flags. For flimsy philosophical reasons it can’t really remember, the Bemolution doesn’t imbibe anything stronger than orange juice, preferably nothing more expensive than tap water, and accordingly spent several hours dodging goblets of wine and industrial-strength plum brandy proffered by blokes dressed like the yokels from the Two Ronnies.
As surreal as it was being raucously applauded by thronging Czechs for no other reason other than happening to be English, heading the parade was an entertaining way to spend a sunny mid-morning in the Czech Republic. Being at the front meant we were also the first to finish, though, and, having been guided to a pre-arranged seating area, had to sit and watch folk-costumed locals file past for about five hours. Considering they all looked identical to anyone without a PhD in South Moravian textiles, and panned in and out of view doing the same rubbish walking-dance that involved holding one hand up like they were trying to unscrew a lightbulb and bellowing, it was tempting to melodramatically die of dehydration in protest two seats behind the Czech Prime Minister, who turned up halfway through.
The Czechs seem to love this sort of neo-traditionalism. To look at the festival, and the folk costumes and the silly dancing, glorifying a lovely pastoral-rural past that almost definitely never existed, you’d think it’d been going on since people worshipped the sun. That’s certainly the way the PR presents it. In fact, the festival is about ten years old. But the Czechs seem to be seizing on the pseudo-mythical past as a way of moulding a post-Communist cultural identity. It’s certainly understandable. After a century of subjugation and abuse, they want ‘being Czech’ to mean more than ‘those ones who were squashed by the Austro-Hungarians, then by the Nazis, then by the Russians’.
The irony is, the folk costumes and the folk songs and the silly dancing only survived the Communist era because Stalin wanted them to – having cottoned on that unifying people around an idea that preached libertarian egalitarianism but actually delivered authoritarian statism wasn’t going to be especially easy, the Communist elite turned to the folk culture they’d originally tried to wipe out as a way of fostering nationalism. Silly dancing was positively encouraged. Very few locals realise the connection.
The established lefty-liberal thing to do is to respect other people’s cultures and traditions. But ‘tradition’ is almost always politically dubious. It’s hardly ever the organic thing its proponents make it out to be, something that’s unravelled down the centuries thanks to the will of the people. Whether its British colonials restructuring indigenous African societies to make them more hierarchical and easier to control or Stalinist Communists using jolly folk culture to paper over the cracks of the Soviet system, powerful people throughout history have intervened to create ‘traditions’ that help protect and extend their own predominance. Do it well enough, and the new traditions ‘catch’ – the people like and become emotionally invested in them, and happily carry them forward without much encouragement needed from the people at the top. Now, the silly dancing is helping paper over the cracks of the (neo)liberal democratic system – incorporated into the Republic’s new, conservative, reactionary zeitgeist as part of the general flight away from anything associated with old regime.
Parade over, sun setting, the townsfolk, the dancing bumpkins and the visiting dignitaries collapsed into an evening of boozy revelry. We wandered back to the hotel for a night of further cogitation in front of a Czech TV channel that just seemed to give the weather forecast on repeat. It’d been a very nice, memorable day in some respects, politically depressing in others. The next one would entail arse-numbing amounts of travelling, by plane, train and automobile to get back to Blighty.
Because of the material excess and ecological disastrousness of modern civilisation, because of the hundreds of millions left to live in squalor in a world with more than enough resources to prevent it, the need for a radical alternative to the Western way of life is, to fall back on a phrase we use far too often, morally and rationally obvious. For the best results, we think that alternative needs to be both socialist and democratic – concepts which aren’t very different from one another at all given their full definitions, rather than the conveniently stunted ones powerful people use to further their own objectives.
In the Czech Republic and ex-Eastern Bloc most acutely, perhaps, but really all over the Westernised world, those words have been warped and twisted beyond all recognition – in many places, ‘socialism’ is just a byword for tyranny, and ‘liberal democracy’, which we’re told is not only the loveliest system imaginable but the only viable one too, boils down to oligarchy with ineffectual elections. In other words, what a mess.
We’re from very different Left traditions, but probably in an attempt to end on something vaguely hopeful, our subconscious has just thrown out a quote from the late great Trotskyist journalist Paul Foot: “if Orwell’s 1984 society had been overthrown, words such as ‘truth’ and ‘love’ would have been hated words too. Gradually, however, words come back to their real meanings. Truth is the opposite of lies; love is the opposite of hate. And socialism is the opposite of capitalism and therefore entirely different from what it has been held up to be for 50 years or more”. You can’t fault Foot for his optimism. We hope he’ll be proved right. But if it’s going to happen, it will take a hell of a lot of work.
Now enjoy some Czech reggae.