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06/27/2008, 05:16 PM
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Meanwhile, my favourite joke here, for what it's worth: “What stage comes between socialism and communism? Alcoholism

Christopher Hart
Ðiểm cuốn “Búa và Cù (liềm): Lịch sử chủ nghĩa cộng sản qua tiếu lâm thời cộng sản” của Ben Lewis
Hoài Phi dịch

Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes by Ben Lewis

The Sunday Times review by Christopher Hart

This marvellously original new study of the collapse of the Soviet bloc began as an article on communist jokes in Prospect magazine. Ben Lewis's thesis is not simply that jokes alleviated the sufferings of those who lived under Soviet communism during those long, grey decades, but that by constantly depicting communism as ludicrous and unworkable, they ultimately - along with numerous other factors, of course - helped bring about its collapse.
Lewis has worked hard and travelled far and wide in pursuit of his mission, or obsession. He interviews an ancient Soviet-era cartoonist in his Moscow tower block, now aged 107, who once made jokes against Trotsky to please Stalin. He looks up Lech Walesa, still living in Gdansk, and now rather an embittered figure, like so many former political leaders. And he unearths the kind of jokes that wouldn't necessarily work too well today in the pub. One from the early days, for instance, goes, “An old peasant woman is visiting Moscow zoo, when she sets eyes on a camel for the first time. ‘Oh my God,' she says, ‘look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!'”
Then again, other Stalin-era jokes still have bite. “What were Mayakovsky's last words before he committed suicide? ‘Comrades, don't shoot!'” And surely one of the best here: “A teacher asks his class, ‘Who is your mother and who is your father?' A pupil replies, ‘My mother is Russia and my father is Stalin.' ‘Very good,' says the teacher. ‘And what would you like to be when you grow up?' ‘An orphan.'”
For whatever reason, other communist regimes don't seem to have produced the same kind of subversive humour. Certainly not China, says Lewis, and surely not North Korea, either; although I am sceptical of his claim that the native, naturally anarchic Cubans don't make political jokes either. One reason for the richness of anti-Soviet humour might be that all those eastern European countries pre-1989 weren't just mocking communism, they were mocking bovine Russian imperialism, too.

An aspect of Moscow's plodding stupidity was its attempt to replace people's rebellious jokes with officially sanctioned Positive Humour - jokes that celebrated the revolution, or carried a little moral about how the proletariat ought to drink less vodka. But any joke on a solemn mission is never going to work, and to describe these attempts as “unfunny” doesn't do them justice. Meanwhile, the jokes that arose naturally (anekdoty, the Russians called them) never strike you as sick or misanthropic, but suggest merely a kind of healthy, sane despair.
The incessant shortages of life under communism provoked numerous gags. “Why isn't there any flour for sale? Because they've started adding it to the bread.” That one would translate pretty well to Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe nowadays. (A recent Zimbabwean joke, I was told, goes: “What did they use in Zimbabwe before candles? Electricity.”)
In the 1980s, even Chernobyl raised a laugh or two. “How many Russians does it take to change a lightbulb? None. They all glow anyway.” But this was the decade of perestroika, glasnost and the faint glimmer of dawn. Ronald Reagan loved and collected anti-communist jokes, recognising in his instinctive, idiot-savant way that they weren't just funny, they were significant. At summits he would even share them with Gorbachev, says Lewis, and they'd end up arguing over the correct punchline.
Often the sheer mendacities of communism's leaden bureaucracies are bleakly funny in themselves. Ceausescu's regime in Romania responded to food shortages not by organising better food production, let alone freeing up the market, but by announcing the findings of a special “nutritional commission”, showing that Romanians required fewer calories than other people. Mugabe should try this one, maybe? Or the Burmese generals?
It is intriguing, as Lewis points out, that Nazism produced so few jokes - and surely not just because Nazism was a German thing? People under communism made jokes about communism, whereas people under Nazism made jokes about Jews. Despite the fact that Soviet communism was, statistically, just as destructive to human happiness, and indeed to human beings, as Nazism ever was, the afterglow from the Nazi era is still that of wickedness, whereas that of communism is more sheer stupidity. And human stupidity makes us laugh, whereas human wickedness makes us feel sick, or ashamed. There is one Jewish joke here from the Nazi era, though: “What's the difference between Jewish optimists and Jewish pessimists? Jewish pessimists are all in exile. Jewish optimists are all in concentration camps.”
It is a slight disappointment that Lewis doesn't take us right on into Vladimir Putin's Russia. Even if his subject is, strictly speaking, communism, there must still be some good jokes around now, surely? Athough perhaps none so hilarious as those photos of Putin gaily posing half-naked on his Siberian fishing trip.
It is a little careless of Lewis to describe Molière as 18th century, and he underplays the crucial role in the collapse of communism of Pope John Paul II, who directly encouraged rebellion and Solidarity in his native Poland, which many would see as the Beginning of the End. One of Lewis's own aperçus deserves to be quoted, though. “If you question communism, you end up with democracy. If you question democracy, you end up with - more democracy.” And his study is a fine tribute to the joyous, humane anarchy of laughter, whose nearest political analogue is that ramshackle, chaotic system of political wishful thinking called democracy. His book even has a moral, which is that we should never stop making jokes about Gordon Brown and David Cameron, eco-warriors and idiot police chiefs, billionaire oligarchs and incompetent jihadists... the targets are countless, as always.
Meanwhile, my favourite joke here, for what it's worth: “What stage comes between socialism and communism? Alcoholism.”
Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes by Ben Lewis