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Vol. 12 No. 4 · 22 February 1990

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When Communism dissolves

Professor Elster must be writing a heavy-handed parody of sociology (LRB, 25 January). I can see the relevance of his remarks on China, but what can be his point in adducing anecdotal evidence from Chicago, Sao Paolo, Mexico City and Delhi in order to explain the recent events in Central Europe without saying a single word about the history of the countries involved? Of course, ‘we shall probably never understand the exact dynamics of the changes that have taken place in the Communist countries’ if we don’t even get the facts right. ‘Inaction in the face of popular unrest is a policy that requires considerable cool. In recent events it wasn’t even attempted,’ he writes, adding for good measure: ‘And if it had been, it might not have succeeded.’ Fortunately, the opposite is true: inaction wasn’t just attempted but practised in Eastern Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and it succeeded. ‘We know from collective-action theory that nobody who acted on purely selfish motives would take to the streets.’ Do we? What we do know is that the motives of people taking part in a political action are bound to be mixed, and that they may or may not be relevant to the outcome. ‘The short-lived attempt to impose political demi-virgins on the Czech people was equally futile.’ What imposition and by whom? Why does Professor Elster describe the ‘peaceable revolution’ of the Czechs and Slovaks as futile? Does he hope it will be, to prove his ‘theories’ right? President Gorbachev, he writes, ‘is one or several steps ahead of popular demands’. Every news item from the Soviet Union indicates the opposite. ‘We might … ask why inaction wasn’t used as a deliberate strategy in Czechoslovakia.’ Has Professor Elster read a single report of what happened there in the first fortnight of last November?

It’s hard to know what Professor Elster would be at. After all, platitudes such as ‘If as is likely, things have to get worse before they get better, the situation will become increasingly difficult,’ or ‘An important aspect of the reform movement in the Communist world is the transition … from one-party rule to democracy’ don’t go with satire. Still, to paraphrase Professor Elster’s comment on Mr Quayle, ‘we may, out of charity to him, attribute some poetic wisdom’ to his article – perhaps parody may accommodate poetic wisdom of sorts.

J.P. Stern

Jon Elster’s analysis of Eastern European change uses the categories of rational choice, and thereby obscures the culturally specific forms these changes are taking. For example, changes in the DDR, the only Protestant Communist society, are baffling unless seen in the context of a tradition which stressed not only socialist unity and central planning, but work, self-improvement and virtuous living. The ingredients of this heady brew are nicely displayed in Kurze Deutsche Grammatik für Ausländer by Gerhard Helbig and Joachim Buscha (Leipzig, 1988). The book is written for foreigners visiting the DDR, hence not for tourists but for students, Vietnamese Gastarbeiter and ‘foreign friends’. It is technically well-organised, nicely bound and astonishingly cheap. The examples are highlighted in striking bright blue print. They provide an earnest, and occasionally surreal, vignette of a very distinctive world, with its own systematic structure.

Work comes first. It permeates life from the simplest sentences to the most involved: Consistent work is the basis of success. It finds its way into predictions, exhortations, criticisms and commands: Tomorrow he will have finished the work. Though the work is hard, it must be done. You should have prepared the work. The work must be complete by tomorrow. After work there is time for self-improvement. This has simple instances – The worker reads a book – and more complex ones: The student would rather read textbooks than novels. There is a general moral to be drawn: Skilled workers need a good general education. This is no mere slogan: In the DDR culture was made accessible to all social strata. Culture begins with high culture: He loves beauty. He will finish his thesis by next year. She said: ‘I am just reading this novel by Tolstoy.’ It also demands effort at sport and at school: He improved his results by steady training. He is first in the class: in fact, he has already passed three exams. A life of work and self-improvement leaves room for old-fashioned good deeds: He carries the luggage for his mother. Other virtues are more culture-specific: He behaves like a Marxist.

The language-learner is also given a guide to the political and economic success the DDR claimed for itself. A vision of the German past is introduced: We think of those who gave their lives for liberation from Fascism. What for West Germans was the defeat of Germany has for East Germans long been known as the liberation of Germans from Fascism. This ‘liberation’ is never to be forgotten: She remembered the liberation. They are commemorating the resistance fighters. They remember the day of liberation. Nor may they forget that the principal liberator was the Soviet Union and that gratitude is a duty.

Since that liberation there have been deep transformations, guided by socialist ideals: We believe in the progress of mankind. He fights for socialism as well as freedom. These ideals have borne fruit: The DDR is proud of its achievements. International problems were resolved, at least on paper, by a benign government: The government hopes for better relations. The government signed an agreement of friendship. The policy is supported by the people: not only do the people want peace, they are concerned for liberated Africa, neutral Sweden, and for socialist Hungary. The picture of internationalist commitment is rosy with collective good will: We are waiting for foreign guests. The students help the foreigners. It even permits an occasional personal note: I would like to get to know Bulgaria.

Economic achievement is a bit more problematic. Here we find no simple thoughts, but a strong party line: The foreigner described our economic system as an uncontestable advantage. Yet there is also a hint of economic bother: Herr Müller, the director of the enterprise, has proposed a new method for fulfilling the plan. We are waiting for the ratification of the plan. There are even dark suspicions that not everybody works as they should: He is enraged that the people’s property has been squandered. Still, in the end there will be progress through technology (as in the other Germany). Simple sentences make the basic point: The machine was working. The machine was working very well. Claims about existing industry oscillate between sober judgment – compared to a steam engine, a diesel engine has many advantages – and blind faith: The Wartburg is a modern, mid-range car.

A collage of examples from our tourist-centred foreign-language manuals would yield different, equally one-sided caricatures of our world. It might look as if we thought that eating and drinking, buying and paying were the central human activities. This would be unfair. The collage of the DDR that I have assembled here is unfair too, but it depicts the distinctive elements of a world which is now dissolving before our eyes. What makes the ‘turn’ in the DDR revolutionary is that it is not merely a rejection of the system imposed by the SED, but the painful pulling apart of a particular fusion of socialist and Protestant ideals: a personal trauma as well as a public revolt. In a few years’ time the Wartburg will have rusted away, ‘friendship treaties’ may be a defunct genre and all the agony of waiting for the plan to be ratified when Herr Müller has put forward a proposal for fulfilling it may be over. Nobody knows whether ideals of hard work and high culture, of helpfulness and international friendship, of concern for the realities of production rather than the indulgences of consumption, will still inspire respect after decades of being trumpeted and tarnished in official propaganda. But in both Germanies there are many who sense that, despite all the disasters, much that made life in the DDR distinctive is neither superficial nor valueless. Rational calculation is indeed relevant to revolutionary as well as to normal politics – but cultural transformations rather than changing calculations distinguish revolutionary change from coups.

Onora O’Neill
Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

Jon Elster, one of the ablest modern analysts of Marxism, writes that ‘by now everybody knows that no one believes in Marxism.’ This may be true from Magdeburg to Magadan, but quite a number of ‘intellectuals’ in the Western universities and media still seem to be attached to it, their philosophical illusions about ‘class analysis’ and ‘egalitarian ideology’ remaining as solidly impervious to human realities as the informational delusions of their 1920-1960 predecessors were to the gulag death-statistics. So far as hostility to the ‘profit motive’ in economics or ‘ethnic comparison’ in biology are concerned, the egalitarianism which has made Communism more of a ‘winner’ over the years than Jon Elster suggests still runs on automatic pilot in Western and Third World ‘academia’.

Whatever the goods and the bads of ‘market democracy’, however, a new spectre may be haunting Europe, more than a century after the workers were exhorted to unite and lose their chains: the Spectre of Thatcherism. What makes one feel that this prospect is viewed with deeper concern at the BBC than in the CPSU?

W. Smith
Sheringham, Norfolk

Jon Elster has got his signals slightly crossed. It is only at night in Brazil, when the roads are less congested, that drivers routinely cross red lights. The rationale for this is partly the fear of highway robbery: but mostly it is impatience. Drivers do not simply run the lights: they treat the red signal as a caution instead of a halt sign, as if it were flashing amber. Vehicles coming the other way – through the green light – have priority. There is thus an informal, but systematic, diurnal modulation of the highway code in Brazilian cities: the rules change after dark. Such an arrangement represents neither an ‘inferior equilibrium’ nor a ‘system failure’, but it is an example of o jeitinho Brazileiro, an ingenious local response to system failure. It does nothing, of course, to solve the underlying traffic problem, or to improve the generally low standard of driving in Brazil, but it does cut journey time.

John Ryle
London W11

What happens in ‘Macbeth’

Having been described in your pages (LRB, 11 January) by the former King Edward VII Professor in Cambridge University as an excessively devoted co-editor of a work without ‘much intrinsic importance’, I dare respond only briefly to Frank Kermode’s paragraph on the new edition of W.B. Yeats’s Letters to the New Island. There he takes the edition to task for devoting one sentence of a note on Ellen Terry, William Wills and others to the plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I would like to assure him that there are indeed people in the world who do not know what Shakespeare’s Macbeth is about, however few he may have encountered within the well-regulated confines of Cambridge University, and that while in an ideal world not even I would wish them to read Letters to the New Island before that tragedy of Shakespeare’s, in our sublunary one some of them inevitably will, regardless of my or Professor Kermode’s preferences. That rationale is explained in the one-page introduction to the explanatory notes, where the example given is that of Shakespeare’s King Lear. I observe that Professor Kermode has changed the example in his review from King Lear to Macbeth, and that despite the lack of intrinsic interest of the material, he read at least as far as the second paragraph of the first of Yeats’s literary ‘letters’, from which his only citation comes.

I do wish he had pointed out that the editors’ ‘excessive devotion’ resulted in the restoration of two whole essays missing from previous editions published by Harvard and Oxford University Presses, correction of numerous errors in the text, and extensive notes clarifying references which might in some cases have been obscure even to so erudite a scholar as the King Edward VII Professor. Finally, if Yeats himself wrote these essays and reviews only ‘to boil the pot’, what then shall we say of Professor Kermode’s own review? As Kermode concedes, Yeats at least had the excuse of being ‘very poor’, a condition that apparently made him more generous towards the work of others.

George Bornstein
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Unwritten Novels

May I point out that the obvious novel about foreign revolutionaries on the loose in Victorian London, though not the only one, is Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent (Letters, 25 January)? A more accurate, and less hubristic, title for Doris Lessing’s article might have been ‘Unread Novels’.

Peter Alderson Smith

Roger Gard (Letters, 8 February) cites Judith Chernaik’s novel about Eleanor Marx, The Daughter, as one of the novels Doris Lessing missed. What about Piers Paul Read’s more striking novel on the same subject – Games in Heaven with Tussy Marx?

Angela Mungrove
London NW6


One of the quotations in Christopher Rick’s article on Aharon Appelfeld (LRB, 8 February) contained a typesetting mistake. The quoted sentence should have read: ‘But later she came to realise that her lover was a goy in every sense of the word, drunk and violent.’

Editors, ‘London Review’

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