Communism and State Violence
As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre passes, it seems apt to begin this round-up by considering state violence. Writing in The Conversation, Chongyi Feng explores the divisions in the Chinese Communist Party of 1989 over how to approach the million-strong protests, which called only for mild government reforms. A ‘hard-line’ faction came to view the protests as symbolising ‘a conspiracy of hostile forces backed by Western powers to create turmoil and divide China’ while a ‘moderate’ faction welcomed them as ‘patriotic’.
On the topic of hard-line authoritarian leaders, Alan Taylor has compiled a brilliant series of photographs of ‘Cold War Bunkers’ in Albania which the increasingly paranoid head of state Enver Hoxha began to construct from 1968. These bunkers spanned the country and were intended as shelters from a potential Soviet attack or invasion by a neighbour. Many still stand, some nestled among high mountains and others grouped on seashores.
Moving towards popular experiences of Communism, Arnos Chapple constructs a similar photo archive which conveys everyday life in Hungary from the 1940s through to the 1980s. From bears visiting delis to divers on the Danube, we get a very broad picture of how ordinary citizens (and animals) laboured, loved and lived in Hungary during these years. Finding creative outlets in song and dance, the population was nevertheless subject to relentless state surveillance throughout.
Indeed, authorities in communist Eastern Europe did not just monitor citizens but sometimes stole their stuff. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Catherine Hickley reports on a pilot project by the German Lost Art Foundation which considered the acquisitions of several Brandenburg museums between 1945 and 1989. It transpires that ‘between 1% and 8% of their inventories’ may have been ‘unethically acquired’ – books, sculptures, paintings and furniture which had often been taken from the homes of people who fled East Germany in the late 1950s subsequently found their way into local museums.
The visual history of the Cold War has also been discussed in great detail on our own blog by Agata Fijalkowski. In the final post in her series, she considers how, towards the end of World War Two, pro-Soviet forces in the Polish eastern territories looked to remodel the legal system. Photographs of new courts which the regime constructed ‘convey an air of watchfulness’ which was intended to keep judges in line with the ideological dictates of the new regime. The authorities distrusted pre-war judiciaries and created special schools to ‘train the new judges on aspects of people’s justice’.
Art, Culture, and Space
Considering the hit new historical dramatisation Chernobyl, The University of York’s Sam Wetherell asks why the bureaucratic doublespeak of the post-war Soviet Union sounds so familiar in a British accent. Though, as he suggests, the comparison should not be pushed too far, the authoritarianism of a state or social system can often be discerned through studying its use of empty abstraction and failed formulae. Wetherell draws interesting parallels between Soviet industrialisation – with its efficiency units and 5-year plans – and what cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls the ‘market Stalinism’ of the contemporary British state, with its relentless and stultifying resort to a complex of measures and metrics with which to evaluate university, school, and hospital performance.
Indeed, such moments frequently presage episodes of popular mobilisation and grassroots creativity. Once upon a time, before news of Stalin’s purges among other atrocities spread, the Soviet Union provided hope and inspiration to oppressed groups worldwide in its apparently progressive and inclusive political credentials. Owen Walsh describes how a significant group of African American writers, activists and journalists, frustrated with ‘white creative control and racial stereotyping’ in Hollywood, took up an invitation in 1932 to travel to the Soviet Union and produce a film about US racism. Unfortunately for the group, the plan failed – largely due to the governmental cynicism and economic rationalism discussed above. The Soviets needed American materials for their infrastructure projects and feared the geopolitical consequences of such a film being released.
Progressive artist groups later in the 20th-century – both within the Soviet Union’s borders and beyond – sought an escape from governmental and societal constraints on creative expression . Arianna Cantarelli studies how philosopher Timur Novikov acted as a ‘frontman for Russia’s wild youth’ during the 1980s and 1990s, experimenting with futuristic technology and art which was anathema to Eastern bloc realism. Of course, as formal dissent began to grow in the Eastern bloc from the 1960s onwards, subcultures and resistance movements also grew in the West. One of these was the LGBTQ movement. As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots passes, Christopher Giola probes ‘grassroots organising’ among activists in the aftermath of the riots. George Lakey recalls how opportunities disappeared and doors shut when he came out in the US in the early 1970s, but that he also stepped ‘into a new place of freedom’, agreeing with the feminist injunction that ‘the personal is political’ and ‘the political, personal’.
Indeed, it was not just state and political violence which activists confronted as the 20th-century wore on but also private and domestic violence. Cara Diver pens a piece for History Workshop about Irish feminists in the 1970s who raised awareness of marital violence and ‘shattered the illusion that the home was always a site of safety for women (and their children)’. The problem had been side-lined with whispers about ‘troubled couples’, but various groups including ‘Women’s Aid’ now formed, which amplified the voices of abused wives.
Civil Society, Race and Internationalism
Vigorous civil societies provide one of the means by which oppressed groups can mobilise – even in dire social and political conditions. Harry Merritt, writing for Peripheral Histories, investigates Latvian Jews who served in the Red Army during the Second World War as part of the 201st Latvian Rifle Division. Facing hostility from gentiles who feared their presence, and soon to encounter horrific German atrocities against Jews upon retaking their homeland in 1944, a ‘diverse and engaged civil society’ offered hope to Latvian Jews, even as the horrors of war took their toll. Among the ideas that moved them were socialism, Zionism, and fusions of the two ideologies.
Tiffany Florvil, for Black Perspectives, studies how Black Germans among other racialised communities, used international book fairs in the 1980s and 1990s as platforms through which to discuss ‘the return of German ethno-nationalism’ and racist politics and discourses more broadly. These annual fairs of ‘Radical Black and Third World Books’ allowed intellectuals from across different continents to come together and forge a Black internationalism which in turn drew on other internationalisms represented at the events.
For those more interested in the 19th century and in individuals rather than networks, Kevin Duong puts together a fascinating piece about little-known French feminist and internationalist Flora Tristan. Tristan self-published a successful book entitled The Workers’ Union, which argued for ‘workers of both sexes to come together to form a common international union’ in 1844. In the book, Tristan drew on utopian socialist currents in challenging ‘conventional ideas about women and social organisation’. Duong suggests that such internationalisms are neglected as compared with 20th-century liberal internationalisms associated with the UN among others.
If you have written a blog which pertains to any of the above themes and would like to be included in a future round-up, please tag us @authlanguage or me @tomshillam! Comments, advice and feedback all welcome. Thanks for reading!
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.