March 23rd, 2005


Emotional communist

Whatever I am politically, emotionally I'm a communist. I respond deeply to communist imagery and communist sentiment. Perhaps it's genetic: we have staunch non-conformist radical Hebridean teachers on one side of my family and austere Calvinists on the other. But it permeates most of my ideas of the good and the beautiful. My mother has kept a little pamphlet I wrote aged 6. It's called "The Dive Of Wealth", and rages against the immorality of the rich. We take it out and laugh at it sometimes: part of the joke is that I really haven't changed.

Picture me, back in 1980, as your typical radicalised student, dressed in my quasi-uniform (grey shirt, black tie, Doc Martens, a padded Chinese army coat my mother brought back from her 1979 trip to the People's Republic), working as a volunteer in left wing bookshops, a volume of Brecht's poetry sticking out of my pocket. Imagine me in an austere standard-issue room in a hall of residence on a hill to the north of a dour, working-class city (Aberdeen), bathing in public baths at the Student Union (shades of my later delight in sentos there), singing along with the Brecht, Weill, Eisler and Dessau songs on my Robyn Archer records. My education is paid for by the still-somewhat-socialist British state, as is my medical care. I abhor Thatcher, and write letters to Radio Moscow suggesting ways they might improve their propaganda broadcasts to the West. On the walls of my room I've affixed pictures of Chinese workers' farms. Under the standard-issue orange duvet-cover I lose my virginity to a radical Politics student (she now lectures in African Development Studies). My best friend is a Greek communist studying Sociology (he now works as a transport advisor in Greece, engineering the downfall of the private car). In 1980 he's reading Stalin's biography. He admires Stalin's ruthlessness and tells me that, come the revolution, if it becomes necessary he won't hesitate to have me shot. He's decided not to make love to his French girlfriend because he believes, with some of the more radical feminists, that all acts of penetration are a form of imperialism. Later, when we all move to London, his girlfriend gets sick of the non-intervention and becomes mine instead.

Today, the perception that I'm some sort of jet-setting yuppie is a laughable misapprehension. I'm very poor. And that's okay; I seem to have designed a "low-calorie lifestyle" for myself. I may call it "superflatness" these days, but I'm still very much a communist at heart. I own, basically, nothing. I've never had -- or wanted -- my own private car or house. I hate glitzy capitalist imagery of the kind I discussed the other day (the Louis Vuitton poster of Uma Thurman in Seoul). Berlin, the city I live in, is the most "emotionally communist" city I know, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy being here. Communist sentiment abounds: I see it daily in the ex-Soviet sector of the city. Today, walking on the Kastanienallee, I saw a stars and stripes hung upside down from the window of a squat, with "Against America" printed on it; yesterday, near my house, posters of George W Bush with "Wanted For Murder" written on them. Such is the intellectual climate of the city I live in. Like me, it's emotionally communist. When I went to Moscow last year I couldn't bear the capitalist "triumph" apparent. Sure, there were statues of Mayakovsky on the streets and busts of Marx in the subway (a palace for the workers of yesteryear). But everywhere I saw casinos and dollar signs, advertising hoardings and car salesrooms. It was a relief to get back to the German capital, a city which lovingly restores its communist murals rather than tearing them down.

Berlin's emotional tenderness for its communist past matches mine. On Saturday I bought a record of readings and songs celebrating Lenin on my favourite defunct East German label, Litera. On Sunday I was at the Boxhagener Platz market sifting through glamourous tech-junk from the socialist era (I ended up buying a Korean microwave for 8 euros, which I suppose wasn't terribly communist, although it was cheap). On Monday I took a tram with Hisae out to the Allee der Kosmonauten and we shopped at the Meeraner Strasse Asiahandlung, one of Berlin's best-kept secrets, a North Vietnamese wholesale village. I bought the Vietnamese schoolbooks illustrated on this page. The most beautiful things I saw there were cheap and simple: the pink plastic crates used for spices in the Vietnamese grocery, an orange plastic bead curtain, some aubergines in a box, a sack of rice, fluorescent lights, a blue and white plastic tablecloth.

The number 8 tram out from Karl-Marx-Allee (where I rent an apartment) to the Allee der Kosmonauten traverses a monumental landscape still massively marked by its recent socialist past. There are Russian supermarkets with cyrillic writing on them, the famously brutalist plattenbauten of Marzahn (huge residential towerblocks of socialist design), monumental hospitals and factories. Even the tramline itself is socialist; trams don't run in the Western parts of Berlin. On a sunny day, the vast spaces and industrial ugliness of the Allee der Kosmonauten have something deeply stirring and romantic about them, at least to someone like me. It's great to be amongst the Vietnamese, invited to East Germany during the communist period to escape the imperialist war that failed to prevent their nation becoming The People's Republic of Vietnam. In a bookstore I buy the textbooks pictured, overwhelmed by the beauty of their covers and charmed by the propagandist optimism of the pictures inside, which show cheerful communist children walking through fields rich with harvest, or clustered with glowing faces around their sage, Ho Chi Minh. A little Vietnamese girl explains to me in German, as her mother wraps the books, that I must use the printed books for the lessons, and the jotter for handwriting exercises.

Perhaps I'll use the jotter for Friendly Album lyrics. Even the concept of The Friendly Album is communistic. Friendliness, for me, is close to comradeship; a profoundly horizontal civic virtue. I want the songs to celebrate collectivism and social connectedness. I want to make songs like Brecht's poem To Be Friendly. The record will be propaganda for "emotional communism". I am already preparing for it, marching around the house (Hisae will tell you) singing along with Hans Eisler's rousing Solidarity Song:

Onwards, without forgetting where our strength can be now seen to be!
Onwards, without forgetting our SO-LI-DA-RI-TY!

(Here's a video of Robyn Archer singing the Brecht-Eisler composion In The Flower Garden. The film of the 1953 workers' uprising was shot on the street where I now live, then known as the Stalinallee.)