‘Losers’, ‘usurpers’, and their linguistic and historical translation

Lani Seelinger

The Normalization regime in Czechoslovakia — as Václav Havel aptly illustrated in his widely read work, “The Power of the Powerless” — rested on a carefully constructed social contract. As long as Havel’s greengrocer was willing to put a sign amongst his goods displaying the “Workers of the world, unite!” slogan, he could reap all the materialistic benefits that the regime provided. The words on the sign, however, didn’t express the greengrocer’s deeply held belief; instead, they were a signal that he was willing to comply with what the regime asked.

800px-Vaclav_Havel_1965
Václav Havel

But what about when people didn’t comply? The government could deploy certain punishments against the so-called “unreliable” individuals — demotions, blacklisting, the refusal of exit permits, even imprisonment — but one of its most important and effective methods of attack was through the propaganda machine. In the government-controlled media, like the Rudé Právo (Red Justice) newspaper, the regime could denounce the offenders in vicious terms, though their words weren’t intended merely to convey meaning. Again, they served an additional purpose — but this time, they acted as a warning.

In 1977, 242 people signed Charter 77, a document criticizing the regime for its failure to uphold the human rights requirements of documents like the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The precipitating event for the Charter was the arrest of the members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a psychadelic rock band whose messaging didn’t align with the regime. The so-called “Chartists” then banded together to express their support for the band, because they saw the arrest as being in direct conflict with the regime’s commitments to human rights on paper. The regime reacted in numerous ways, but one of the most important of these was its attacks on the signatories in the press. On January 12, 1977, an article came out in Rudé Právo called “Zkroskotanci a samozvanci,” which translates to something like “Losers and Usurpers” or “Traitors and Renegades,” in which the government denounced the dissidents who had signed Charter 77.

The article begins with a description of the regime’s enemies: “imperialism,” “ the bourgeoisie,” and the “rule of capitalism,” which together have been “looking for new

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 12.47.09 PM
Via socialismrealised.eu

forms and methods to mount anti-communist attacks, to disrupt the unity of the socialist countries.” This, the article claims, is what the good citizens of Czechoslovakia have to fear — and then it introduces Charter 77 as “the newest defamatory article,” which “a group of people from the failed Czechoslovak reactionary bourgeoisie and the failed organizers of the 1968 counterrevolution passed on to certain western agencies at the order of the anti-communist and zionist headquarters.”

Already, this description relies on a number of recognizable enemy forces purported to be at work in the article’s publishing. In the language of the communist regimes, the bourgeoisie was always the enemy of socialism and the people working to build it, and here too the concept repeatedly turns up. The article also refers to the Prague Spring as “the 1968 counterrevolution” — the period of liberalization that resulted in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in an effort to “protect socialism” — and a “failure”, meant as both a derisive statement as well as a warning to anyone who might try something similar. In the Cold War context, which the article also acknowledges, the West was the main antagonist, connected to all of the enemies mentioned above. By pointing to “western agencies” as the force that spread the charter, the article set up the charter’s authors as connected to Czechoslovakia’s enemies, rather than Czechoslovakia itself.

In essence, this article’s introduction illustrates the characteristics of an antagonist — the “bourgeois world” — and then describes how exactly Charter 77 is working on behalf of that antagonist against the equality, progress, and peace that the socialist system offers. The harsh denunciation of the Charter and its authors, though, only makes up a relatively small section of the article. After calling the Charter an “anti-state, anti-socialist, anti-people, and demagogic lampoon,” and describing its authors as members of the bourgeois, cosmopolitan class attempting to break up the socialist government, it quickly moves on to describing socialism as a system that is more than prepared to deal with such attempts.

“Everything against socialism is good for it,” the article reads, referring to a document calling for reform published in the lead up to the Prague Spring as an example of the sort of “bourgeois print” that the regime had readily handled in the past, despite the best efforts of numerous western media outlets, which it names in particular as the BBC, The Guardian, Le Monde, and others. These and other attempts to “dirty and malign” the system never succeeded, however, as the system was always prepared for such flimsy attack jobs, as the article’s writers maintain: “Socialism nevertheless didn’t even recoil from atomic extortion, much less from hack writers of reactionary pamphlets done to seed fear.”

In conclusion, the article moves into a full-on celebration of socialism’s successes, emphasizing the unity of the socialist countries and their progress beyond the “imperialistic circles.” Charter 77, it says, is just part of the “stream of lies” that the “reactionary propaganda has unleashed into the world about us.” The socialist system and the people within it constitute, the article concludes,

a good, honest path that will steadily guide us to the communist goals. Everyone who works honestly and contributes to the common good will find for himself life security. No mendacious defamatory article can negate history’s truth.

Throughout the article, the authors rely on terms important not so much for their meaning in the dictionary, but for their broader meaning in the national and Eastern bloc-wide discourse. We’ve already discussed the terms used to mark the enemy — reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist, Western — but on the positive side, “Life security” is a good example — in the Czechoslovak case, this meant exactly what Havel’s greengrocer was after — a job, a second house in the countryside, access to passable schools for his children. Readers may not have believed everything that the article claimed, but they would have understood the threat lurking between the lines — this, readers, is the treatment that you can expect if you join the dissident movement.

To audiences today, on the other hand, “Losers and Usurpers” reads rather as a parody, extolling the virtues of a system that would fall less than two decades after the writing of this article and denouncing the people who would emerge, in the eyes of most, as heroes. The terms that held such meaning coming from the Czechoslovak communist leaders have lost that meaning today, deprived of the discourse surrounding them. This phenomenon, however, of government propaganda and at times even normal propaganda relying on fixed discursive elements that mean more than what it says in the dictionary, is far from relegated to the past. “Losers and Usurpers,” then, serves not only as a glimpse into the past, but also as a reminder that it’s always important to approach media, especially when it comes from someone with an agenda, with a critical and discerning eye.

Lani Seelinger is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki and a remote member of the  Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague. She is also the co-creator and curator of Socialism Realised, an online learning environment aimed at forging a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in communist regimes, and a comparison of these experiences to the present. You can find Socialism Realised on Twitter at @SocialismR.

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Blog Round-Up!: January-February 2019

Tom Shillam

The beginning of 2019 has seen much commentary on authoritarianism, political violence and student activism across the academic blogosphere. Here, I summarise some pieces that draw on new research by promising scholars, which will hopefully offer food for thought and debate!

A fitting place to start might be Brexit and the political wrangling, factionalism and jingoistic posturing it continues to unleash. Not only are leading Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming more strident; those who oppose Brexit in the major parties are splitting away to form an ‘Independent Group’ which straddles both.

This brings to mind Andrew Heath’s piece for History Matters, based at the University of Sheffield, on whether the American Civil War can teach us anything today. Heath proposes that the splits we are seeing in 2019 Britain resemble those wrought by the ‘slavery question’ in the 1850s United States – dominated similarly by two political parties – though he is careful not to elide today’s Europe question with slavery in scale or moral consequence.

What is clear is that domestic political discourse around Brexit is deeply imbued with authoritarian and violent undertones which speak to the importance of submerged, brutal histories. Karis Campion, observing the bitter hostility and ridicule meted out to Labour MP Diane Abbott on the BBC’s Question Time of 17 January – and the routine sexist and racist abuse directed at her on social media – employs the concept of  ‘misogynoir’ in considering how ‘both sexism and racism manifest in black women’s lives to create intersecting forms of oppression’.

The history of British colonialism explains this. Noting that lighter-skinned black women such as Meghan Markle receive comparably less abuse, Campion explores the histories of Caribbean plantation societies. Here, while black slave women were routinely raped, mixed-race women were used as an ‘intermediary between black and white’, sometimes becoming part of new managerial classes. Campion proposes that these ‘historical societal structures’ explain ‘misogynoir’, which ‘systematically devalues darker-skinned women’.

At the same time as history excludes some, it serves others. Kojo Koram focusses on the irony of Brexiteer MPs employing the language of national liberation in a country which historically understood itself to be too ‘civilised’ for ‘overt nationalism’. In the recent past, the language of national liberation was an anti-colonial one which paternalist British elites scorned; but Koram observes a parity of intent between today’s Brexiteer elite and certain postcolonial elites of the 20th-century, whose rhetoric sometimes concealed lust for newfound political and cultural power. Understanding where such political languages come from, Koram suggests, is one step to exposing dishonest latter-day adherents.

Other interesting pieces on the themes of race, resistance and authoritarianism in colonial history include Marlene Daut’s article on the Kingdom of Hayti, and Teju Cole’s article in the New York Times on the camera as an instrument of imperialism. Daut’s is a readable and informative piece on ex-slave Henry Christophe who became king of the first free black state in the Americas. Cole’s thorough and profound piece makes powerful arguments about how photography and photojournalism – which, when paired with a ‘political freedom of movement’, has often served to ‘aestheticize suffering’ – practiced more carefully can catalyse public action on key issues.

Ayona Datta, writing in The Conversation about how young women living on the outskirts of Delhi are using selfies to challenge standard orderings of public space, agrees with Cole that photography can be both a liberating and dangerous act. The locations where young women snap selfies, and their immediate surroundings, provide insights into control over women’s bodies in contested urban settings. Datta suggests the selfies express deeper yearnings and anxieties than ‘a simple rendition of a millennial trend’.

Indeed, studying the political arguments and expressions of the young matters to understanding contemporary politics on several continents. Dan Hodgkinson and Luke Melchiorre highlight the agency of radical students in 1960s and 1970s Africa in pushing alternate pan-Africanist and socialist decolonisation projects which authoritarian postcolonial states combatted.

Elsewhere, Associate Professor of History Elspeth Brown explores the history of Canada’s first gay student organisation, the ‘University of Toronto Homophile Association’, founded in 1969. The body prefigured today’s LGBT liberation movements in the region, and Brown includes audio clips from lead activist Jearld Moldenhauer which shine a light on the challenges – including unemployment – Moldenhauer faced for his agitation.

Finally, returning to the theme of the language and concepts employed to stigmatise disadvantaged groups and populations, Kate McAllister of the University of Sheffield writes about the history of mental health treatment in Britain. Charities like Mind are currently calling for ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health conditions as politicians move painfully slowly – if at all – to recognise the country’s ongoing mental health crisis. McAllister investigates how in early 20th-century welfare legislation, the concept of the ‘unconscious’ was used to brand mental health problems imaginary. Again, the detailed study of history and its organising concepts and narratives offers crucial insights into today’s problems.

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.