Stayed up late last night in the company of two fascinating fellows- Jacques Ellul and Mikhail Zoshchencko. They didn’t have much to say to one another, but both had so much to say to me. Reluctant to be rude in the name of something as tentative as sleep, I opened the parlor…
Jeremy Hick’s translation of The Galosh and Other Storiescombined humor, language games, and the absurdity of Soviet totalitarianism. Zoshchencko spent some time in the Red Army followed by a stint writing satire in the newly-formed Soviet Union. When Zhdanov’s notorious Party Resolution of 1946 condemned his children’s story The Adventures of a Monkey as an attack on the Soviet way of life, he was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union, which meant he could no longer publish, and for a time he had to earn a living repairing shoes. He was never fully rehabilitated in his lifetime, but remains a source of fascination for oddballs like me.
Mikhail says everything with a smirk. For example, he speaks of the Soviet’s pathbreaking regard for female equality:
It was only 1918 when this slogan was first announced to complete raptures all round: equality. That means that any poxy little insignificant lady is equal to a man and if she goes anywhere with him, she pays on the same basis and out of her own pocket.
But within five years, this slogan had been forgotten, and a different picture now meets the eye of the beholder. Whether you go to the theatre with some lady or take her to the cinema, you have to pay the entrance money at the theatre and at the cinema. And if the lady has her minor little sister with her, then you have to pay for her too.”
From “A Forgotten Slogan (Letter to the Editor)”
Or his word play on the value of human beings in a time when folks are plentiful and economic goods are few:
“A person’s more important than a basket. You can always buy a basket. But you’ve got to admit a head is priced less.”
And he doesn’t avoid mention of the housing shortage:
Recently, we’ve been travelling all round the Union. We were particularly trying to see how people live. They’re not living badly. They’re doing their best.
In every town new houses and homes are springing up noticeably. There are more and more of these little shacks people call cottages these days. And because of this, the housing crisis has started to ease off just a little bit. We never saw more than seventeen people in a single room.
And only in one town did we see twenty-three persons in a room. Cab-drivers. With their families. But that was in Rostov. After all, it’s a southern town. It’s climatic. I’ve heard you can even grow peaches there. And the seashore’s not all that far away. The sea down there, you know, never freezes over, all year round. With record-breaking climatic conditions like those there really isn’t any dire need for covered accomodation.
From “Does A Man Need Much?”
After enjoying Mikhail’s powerful and very careful use of language to reflect the absurdity of propaganda and the required “positive attitude” of people living under communism, I was almost reluctant to speak. Words seemed to confuse, not clarify. But Jacques insisted that the words, themselves, are not the problem so much as the socially-constructed hierarchies established by them.
Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity can be paid for or devoured for free, pursuant to individual tastes and inclinations. I had to struggle with the urge to jump up and hug Jacques as I read it. The crick in my neck from nodding continuously was my substitute for a standing ovation.
Ellul acknowledged his interest in Marx and his eventual disappointment in Marxism. As a Christian anarchist, he differed from mainstream anarchists because he did not believe the ideal anarchist society could be established, yet he believed that struggling for its establishment was still necessary. Just as we cannot be entirely free from sin, the walls which keep us from God, yet we must still try.
When I talk of a serious challenge, the point is that in anarchy there is no possibility of a rerouting into a reinforcement of power. This took place in Marxism. The very idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat presupposed power over the rest of society. Nor is it simply a matter of the power of the majority over the minority instead of the reverse. The real question is that of the power of some people over others. Unfortunately, as I have said, I do not think that we can truly prevent this. But we can struggle against it. We can organize on the fringe. We can denounce not merely the abuses of power but power itself. But only anarchy says this and wants it.
He goes on to explain his commitment to nonviolence:
No matter what the motivation, however, I am against violence and aggression. I am against it on two levels. The first is simply tactical. We have begun to see that movements of nonviolence, when they are well managed (and this demands strong discipline and good strategy), are much more effective than violent movements (except when a true revolution is unleashed). We not only recall the success of Gandhi but nearer home it is also evident that Martin Luther King did much to advance the cause of American Blacks, whereas later movements, for example, the Black Muslims and Black Pantehrs, which wanted to make quicker headway by using all kinds of violence, not only gained nothing but even lost some of the gains made by King. Similarly, the violent movements in Berlin in 1956, then in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, all failed, but Lech Walesa, by imposing a strict discipline of nonviolence on his union, held his own against the Polish government. One of the sayings of the great union leaders of the years 1900-1910 was this: Strikes, yes, but violence, never.An authoritarian government can respond to violence only with violence.
My second reason is obviously a Christian one. Biblically, love is the way, not violence (in spite of the wars recounted in the Hebrew Bible, which I frankly confess to be most embarrassing). Not using violence against those in power does not mean doing nothing. Christianity means a rejection of power and a fight against it. This was completely forgotten during the centuries of the alliance of throne and altar, the more so as the pope became a head of state, and often acted more as such than as head of the church.
On education, Ellul bemoans the power hierarchies in the traditional system:
Naturally, I am in favor of education, but only if it is adapted to children and not obligatory when children are obviously not equipped to learn intellectual data. We ought to shape education according to the children’s gifts.
Tonight I will keep the parlor doors closed and try to revel in the tentative. But I have a feeling last night’s lessons will not be easily forgotten.