Against Concepts

On November 29, 1944, the last Nazi forces on Albanian territory fell to the National Liberation Army led by Enver Hoxha’s Communist Party, making Albania the first country in Europe to defeat its Fascist occupiers without major outside help. By May 1945, Yugoslavia became the second. Both governments declared their commitment to Soviet-style socialism, and the two grew so close that in 1948 they seemed to be on the point of merging. Yet Yugoslavia unexpectedly fell out with the Soviet Union, leading Albania, loyal to Stalin, to cut all ties with its neighbour. A year later, Greek Communists to the south lost their civil war with British-backed monarchist forces, and across the Adriatic, Italy joined NATO. Albania was surrounded by enemies.

At the time it was Yugoslavia rather than Albania that found itself internationally isolated. But the former would go on to become one of the world’s most outward-looking countries, forging tactical alliances with the Eastern and Western blocs while becoming a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Hoxha’s Albania, by contrast, would progressively shed allies, breaking with the Soviet Union in 1960 and with China in the course of the 1970s. While the rest of the nominally Communist world opened up to its bourgeois rivals, Albania proclaimed itself the last true standard-bearer of socialism, beset not only by Western imperialists, but also by Eastern revisionists who had cravenly abandoned the project of Lenin and Stalin.

All of which is to say that by the time Lea Ypi was born there in 1979, Albania was hardly a typical Communist country. By most accounts, it was exceptional in its lack of freedom. While Yugoslav workers and intellectuals were travelling the world, while the Central European masses were enjoying cheap cars, cheap gasoline, and ample vacation time in country houses and spas and on Croatian beaches, and while even non-conformist youths of the Soviet Bloc could enjoy officially sanctioned rock music, Albania’s diplomatic isolation translated domestically into social confinement. The state did what it could to keep Albanians from visiting or learning about the outside world or buying the strange goods produced there – at least until December 1990, when Albanian Communists proved not so out of step with their time after all and followed their regional counterparts in relinquishing their monopoly on power, acknowledging the newly discovered necessity of radical market reforms, and tasting the benefits of privatization for themselves.

For those few anti-communists who paid attention to the differences between Communist-led countries, it was precisely Albania’s exceptional status that would serve as concrete proof of socialism’s general failure, as if the purity of Albania’s communism were evidence of an ugly truth that underlay all fine-sounding attempts to share ownership and mitigate exploitation. Meanwhile, for most of the world’s left, Albania’s retrograde past has always seemed irrelevant to any emancipatory vision of the future. Even for those willing to recognize the positive elements in Eastern Europe’s often-tragic Communist history, Albania seems to hold little worth remembering.

In her recently published memoir, Free, Ypi makes a case for memory – emphasizing that when we look more closely, even the most repressive historical periods become more complicated and more interesting, both more maddening and more inspiring. The repression in Communist-led Albania was real, but so were the people who lived through it, struggled with it, and even found some sense of freedom within its bounds. Ypi shows formally isolated people avidly following world events on Italian radio and Yugoslav television, which inspire them to wide-ranging political reflection. She equally shows us the austere solidarity of people who, while not blessed with much consumer or electoral choice – and in spite of the ever-present risk of misusing their apportioned freedom and ending up in prison ­– were able to find ways of working together to improve their lives. (Although she doesn’t explicitly compare this with the situation in Communist-led Central Europe in this period, one might observe how much less solidarity remained in those societies, where governance relied more on consumption-induced apathy than exhortation to collective work).

As for what came after Albanian Communism, Ypi shows how the scope of everyday political imagination actually narrowed with the onset of parliamentary democracy, when anything smacking of socialism was summarily banished from respectable discourse. She depicts a newly emerging set of freedoms, both exhilarating and perverse, which were accompanied by new forms of domination. If post-communist Eastern Europe offered inspiration to the neoliberal crusade to liberate (read: impose) markets in every corner of the world, Albania’s experience could have also provided leftists with excellent arguments against that crusade, if only they had been paying attention.

Ypi paid attention because she lived through it. Yet she made her academic career writing mostly about other subjects. As a political theorist, currently based at the London School of Economics, she works in the abstract realms of – predominantly Western – European thought. But something happened when she set out to write a book about these ideas in Albania. As she writes in the epilogue, Free ‘was going to be a philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions. But when I started writing…ideas turned into people’. It’s to her credit that in turning her attention to people, Ypi nevertheless doesn’t lose sight of ideas. The result is a memoir that reads like a novel, about a girl – Ypi’s younger self – coming to terms with the thought-world that swirls around her as voiced by her family, friends, teachers, as well as occasional bureaucrats and experts. Ideas become all the more interesting when they lose their purity and analytic consistency – when they don’t just confront one another as rational arguments, but ‘love and fight each other’, as Ypi puts it.

We meet the confident Marxism-Leninism of Ypi’s grade-school teachers, who impress ideas like equality, solidarity and self-determination on young minds decent enough to believe in such things. We meet the cautious progressivism of Ypi’s grandmother, who once rebelled against her upper-class upbringing but found no place in a post-war order that only accepted one form of leftism. We meet the rebellious radicalism of her father, in love with revolutions that have not yet happened but disappointed by those that have already taken place. We meet the increasingly shrill market-liberalism of her mother, who runs with the spirit of history after 1990, until her running takes her to work cleaning bathrooms in Italy. We meet the pragmatic technocratism of an affable Dutch privatization specialist who moves into the neighbourhood in the early 90s and sees the world in categories as inflexible as the orthodox Marxist-Leninists before him.

Free is also a bildungsroman of sorts, a story of how a post-communist left intellectual comes of age – of how, despite society telling her (like so many others) to love the freedom of the market, she could dare to be dissatisfied. It is a compelling narrative, in part because its endpoint is by no means an obvious one. Ypi’s generation in Eastern Europe is, in some respects, a lost one. In a recent interview, Ypi reflected that if she had been just a few years older – enough to develop a visceral dislike for the regime – she would likely have become a right-winger. If she had been a few years younger, she would have entered the new era with little memory of the past, perhaps less committed to fighting the spectres of the fallen enemy, but all the more prone to accept post-communism as the natural state of affairs.

Instead, she finds herself one day in December 1990 as a true-believing eleven-year-old Communist hugging a statue of Stalin, only to flee in horror when she sees its head has been cut off by protesters demanding what she believed the system had already been offering them: ‘freedom’ and democracy’. By the time she reaches the age of rebellion, the new system is firmly in place, and the echo of the protesters’ calls sounds as empty as the bank accounts of the two thirds of Albanians who have been tricked into investing in pyramid schemes. She is too young to see the new order as her own, but too old to regard the old order as if it belonged to another world. The 1980s were too real to ignore; the 1990s too painful to accept.

This task was made harder by the fact that the revolution of 1990 was, in Ypi’s words, ‘a revolution of people against concepts’. Protesters marched not only against the individuals who had oppressed them, but also against the ideas that had cloaked their oppression. They blamed their ruined lives less on the specific way their unique society was organized than on the ideas of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as such. And when protesting bore fruit, history in general was supposed to have reached its end, resolving and rendering obsolete the great battles of ideas that had plagued the decades and centuries before.

‘The owl of Minerva had taken flight and, as usual, seemed to have forgotten us’, Ypi writes. Rather than illuminating the passing epoch with its wisdom, as Hegel imagined, the owl not only steered clear of Albania but, I would add, seemed to have fled the earthly scene entirely. What remained of absolute knowledge was expertise – the unquestionable certainty that ‘structural reforms’ would be applied everywhere, while ideas about changing the world in any other way would be banished. The transition to free-market democracy was not understood as an idea among other ideas, to accept or reject, debate or defend. It was simply reality, to be realized more or less perfectly, faster or slower, but preferably as fast as possible: ‘There was no politics left, only policy.’

When I first visited Eastern Europe – Slovakia in 2000 – I felt as if I were entering a realm of collective madness, so effectively had reasoned debate been substituted by conjuration, incantation and denunciation. In educated circles, the word ‘socialism’ was enough to void any proposal, crush any vision; the words ‘Europe’, ‘the West’, and ‘reforms’ were enough to win any argument; and the ‘transition’, the unquestioned reality that shaped all personal effort and public governance, struck me as little more than a figment of a few experts’ imagination. I failed to see how the policies of ‘transition’ – the privatization, mass firings, destruction of infrastructure and cutting of social programmes just when they were needed most – would bring anyone closer to the ideals of prosperity and democracy that were supposed to justify all this transitioning.

Not that collective madness is especially unusual. I suspect that an outsider entering Albania circa 1955 would have been just as dumbfounded by the twisted rationalizations and groundless illusions that were passed off as official truth. Madness is always madness to someone else, and recognizing it takes someone who is alienated enough to reside, at least partially, in an alternative system of rationality. This is how Ypi depicts the dying days of one madness and the birth of another – by presenting each system through the lens of opposing rationalities. The clarity of true believers runs up against the coded criticism of dissidents; pragmatic strategies of survival run up against frustrated outbursts, when people dare for a moment to imagine that everything could be different. Sometimes it seems that the self-contained systems will win out. Albanian Communism has an answer for every one of its problems, until suddenly all its reasoning fails. Shock therapy, then, appears as the perfect metaphor for the subsequent period – because what is shock therapy, in the eyes of an observer who might walk in from the street, but a mad scientist’s cure for madness, a cure as mad as the disease?

Since the supposed necessity of post-communist ‘transition’ still justifies so much policy today, there is obvious value in complicating its narrative and relativizing its claim to truth by telling of the ignored or forgotten suffering it entailed. But what value is there in returning to the days of Communist rule which today’s right continually invokes as a caricature, and which the left would rather forget? In her epilogue, Ypi reproaches Western friends for denying that 1980s Albania had anything to do with real socialism and could have any bearing on their own beliefs. But of all the questions raised in her book, this one may be the least clearly answered. Her sensitivity to the complex motivations that underlie contradictory ideas seems to give way here to a blanket condemnation of the Western left for ignoring the legacy of Eastern socialism. I, for one, raised as a good Western leftist, have no desire to concede the title of ‘socialism’ to the oppressive system into which Ypi was born.

Yet this can’t be an excuse for failing to engage with the past. Even if the system established was not socialist, the movement that brought it about was. It involved people who genuinely believed in socialist ideals, who integrated these ideals into one or another system of ideas, and who made concrete decisions about how to bring them to life. How can we find the right concepts for insisting that Stalinism was not genuine socialism, while recognizing that Stalinists formed a significant part of the movement whose legacy we carry on today? Can we work toward something new by working through the real contradictions, hopes, tragedies and fits of madness of the past?

Ypi seems to suggest that her method of writing about ideas as lived by real people could offer a way forward. Albanian Communism treated people as abstractions. Ypi’s father and grandmother were not permitted to work toward their own conception of socialism; they were condemned by their abstract position as descendants of the bourgeoisie. And then, after 1990, the rejection of nearly all grand ideas left them lost in a reality that they were not licensed to question or debate. Ideas without people were replaced by people without ideas. Can we put them back together?

Read on: Robin Blackburn, ‘Fin de Siecle: Socialism after the Crash’, NLR I/185.