Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Bridging the Gap - History and the Nordic World

I thought I'd continue out here in the open the discussion that started in the comments to Harry's Bredsdorff post. Eric wrote:
While nowadays I am more on the right in economic and social-cohesion terms, I still read the former Communist weekly Ny Tid, partly out of nostalgia, partly because of its good cultural coverage, and partly because it is always useful to read opposite views. When I was at UEA and in Åbo, the Communists I knew were almost painfully middle-class offspring. They'd never been within an armsbreath of a worker. But I admired their idealism. And I hope that we people that kick against the cultural pricks of bestsellerdom and xeno-ignorance in the UK can adopt an even-handed approach in political terms.
I have to admit that my political sympathies are mainly centre-right/libertarian. This, I think, is partly a result of the relatively long ime I spent during the 1970s and 80s -- after periods in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe -- trying to do something to lift the veils of wilful ignorance that surrounded the view of the Soviet Union then prevalent among Western democrats, most of whom were apparently unable to perceive the true nature of global Communism. It's also probably a result of the time I spent the United States during the same era, when the discussion of these issues had a different configuration from the one that characterized debate in the UK and Europe. Today, if I were still in the U.S. I suppose I would probably sympathize most with "right-wing Democrats" and "left-wing Republicans".

This political stance caused me some problems when I met writers and intellectuals in the Nordic countries, most of whom held views that were even more the to the left than those of their counterparts in Britain. On the other hand, I became aware that -- as Czeslaw Milosz pointed out in The Captive Mind -- totalitarian ideology has the power to enslave the minds of individuals who are otherwise decent and intelligent, and that behind the ideological enslavement and blindness often lie beauty, truth and honesty. That is particularly true of writers and poets, I think. In Finland, for example, I found some poets who, though they professed to be Communists, were writing poetry that would never be accepted in the framework of Soviet literary dogma, and was even far removed from anything could be called "left wing", or "politically committed".

It wasn't until I got to Estonia in the early 1990s that I began to meet writers and intellectuals from a Nordic cultural background who also had direct and personal experience of Soviet reality, and who because of that had managed to (even had to) bridge the gap between the personal and the public/political - much in the way that W.H. Auden had done in England and America decades earlier, though from a very different experiential base. These writers knew what Communism was and what it did to people, had felt its physically and mentally destructive force, which was similar to that of Nazi ideology and practice. Meeting these people was confirmation for me that even though in the rest of the Nordic world the influence of the Soviet threat and Soviet propaganda had put blinkers on many minds, there was a Nordic cultural reality that stood outside that limitation and beyond it.

I agree with Eric that the labels of "right" and "left" have become less meaningful since the fall of Communism - yet the old dichotomy remains, now mostly polarized around opposition to or support for the United States and its cultural and political role in spreading the values of liberty and democracy throughout the world. But also, for cultural and historical reasons, and probably because I'm British rather than European, the Nordic world has always seemed to me to stand somewhere between Europe amd America, and I guess I still see it as a kind of bridge between those two inwardly diverse but outwardly monolithic entities.


Eric Dickens said...

I'm not the only one that thinks that the labels 'right' and 'left' are losing their meaning. I bought a copy of 'Standpoint' yesterday in Amsterdam, and one Douglas Murray (never heard of him before) claims the same. Whether it's true or not, I do not know.

In my family, political sympathies have varied. My grandfather was a pit deputy who used to talk (in Broad Yorkshire) about " 't bluddy Labour gang". My father voted Liberal for years, till he ended up voting Conservative. I myself was a Communist sympathiser when at UEA in the 1970s, voting Labour, then moved in the 1980s towards the Liberals, gradually during the 2000s towards Conservatism. But given the Whitehall farce of the past two weeks, it does make you wonder whether it makes any difference. (Though I am not thinking of voting UKIP or the BNP!)

I got most of my reality check about the Soviet system by living a whole year in Kraków in 1975-76, paid for by the Polish state (2,500 zloties a month while Polish students received 1,000). I had applied, without knowing any Polish. Whether Ernest Bryll, the Polish poet who interviewed me in London, thought I was an easy naïve target for Polish CP propaganda I do not know. But I was never hassled by anyone in Poland to inform or otherwise compromise my year dossing in Kraków, buying books I couldn't yet read, and learning Polish with the thickest of Polonia Americans you could imagine.

I think as a Western foreigner what struck you most was the absurdity of having to go to a special dollar shop (like the Soviet Beryozhka) to buy such luxuries as whisky, shampoo, sunglasses and toilet paper, unobtainable elsewhere. ('Le Monde' turned up now and again in the newspaper kiosks, and it came in handy during toilet-paper shortages, the paper being a grade up from the Polish rags...)

Later on, I read 'The Captive Mind' (the authors mentioned there are Galczynski, Andrzejewski, Borowski and Putrament, all leading lights in the Polish People's Republic). It's an instructive book. But it must always be remembered that those who stayed behind and didn't jump ship like former Polish diplomat Milosz, had to do almost daily compromising and wangling with the system, the Party, the secret police, and bartering to obtain goods we thought of as normal in the West. No one in the former Eastern Bloc could afford to be squeaky clean.

David McDuff said...

I'm not so sure about all this "the labels of left and right don't mean anything any more" propaganda, as in my experience the left and the right certainly do continue to exist in British politics now. It's just that the extremes of left and right have gotten more extreme - and, just as before, the more extreme they get, the more they look and sound the same. Respect Coalition/SWP meets BNP/BNSM.

It's probably also true - even more so - of political life on the continent of Europe.

Eric Dickens said...

In the Netherlands where I live, I have not really noticed the presence of politics. People make things and sell them, while some people in the Hague, with rather lah-di-dah accents, have endless debates in parliament. Of course left and right are repreented, but despite trying to follow what's going on here, I still feel more attuned to the Westminster Chamber of Horrors than to De Tweede Kamer.

Eric Dickens said...

One of the opposites in politics is honest-dishonest, another serving-exploiting the people. When you see on TV that there are people from all three major British political parties that are not on the make, it does make you hope that the underlying issues of economics and welfare, schooling, culture, health care, etc., can be fought out verbally in a Parliament where fair play holds sway.

Do we have anything to learn from the politics of the Nordic countries, or are Britain and those nations so intrinsically different that we've all got to run our houses in a way that suits each nation?

David McDuff said...

By "we" I take it you mean the British? This blog is intended to be international, but I suppose it's mainly Brits here. :-)

In the last analysis I think that Britain - especially at the present time - is in a category of its own where political life is concerned. Although there may be some superficial resemblances caused by Britain's membership of the EU, politics in the UK don't fit the European pattern. They never have done, and in spite of all the New Labour Euro-speak the UK's parliamentary system has remained its creaky and inefficient self. Still, in its own idiosyncratic way it has usually got the job done, until now.

In British politics, honesty is in the eye of the beholder, and at present the British public believes that its mainstream politicians look like a thoroughly dishonest lot, and have landed them in the muck. And they want change and are going to rebel. The right - possibly in some unpredictable and unprecedented form - is going to take over from the left quite soon now, but whether that will solve any of the problems is another matter.

I sincerely doubt that there's much that the UK can learn from the Nordic world. Britain's culture and traditions are too utterly different for interaction of that sort to be possible. All the signs suggest that Britain is in for a rather rough time - the economy is in a mess, the public is angry and dissatisfied, there's growing unemployment, and the extremes of right and left are making more political headway than they have done since the end of the last war.