Hammer & Tickle

Sunday, May 31, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Books, Reviews

Hammer & Tickle (Amazon)

Sometimes I am attracted to a book because of the cover. Sometimes I am attracted to a book because of the blurb on the back. Sometimes I am attracted to a book because I’ve read other stuff by the same author. In this specific case, I was attracted to this book because of the pun in the book’s title. It is of course Ben Lewis’ Hammer & Tickle: A History Of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes.

A history of communism as told through communist jokes, eh? That’s, well, different, isn’t it, comrade? And that’s what attracted me to it.

Ben Lewis has attempted to collect pretty much every communist joke going, and finds that the story behind them isn’t simple. Many of them can be perceived as anti-communist, being jokes told against the state by people being careful what they said, and who they said it in front of, but many communists states also used their own brands of humour to either promote communist ideology or to mock the west.

It’s also illustrates the point about Uncle Joe Stalin particularly well. There’s the joke:

Stalin is giving a speech to an assembly of workers in a big factory. ‘The thing we hold most precious here in the Soviet Union is human life,’ he says.

Suddenly, someone in the audience has a fit of coughing.

‘Who is coughing?’ bellows Stalin.


‘Okay, call in the NKVD,’ says the dictator.

Stalin’s political police, the NKVD, rush in with semi-automatic weapons blazing. Soon only seven men are left standing.

Stalin asks again: ‘Who coughed?’

One man raises his hand.

‘That’s a terrible cold you’ve got,’ says Stalin. ‘Take my car and go to hospital.’

Hammer & Tickle: p53

…and there’s the fact that at the height of Stalin’s gulags, some 12% of the prisoners — 200,000 of them — were there for telling jokes. Or that at a banquet with De Gaulle, Stalin happily cracked jokes about hanging other members of the Politburo if they weren’t up to scratch. The jokes about Stalin being a monster were there because Stalin was a monster.

There’s quite an interesting look at how the jokes evolved over time; how repression of jokes changed; how things varied according to time and indeed place: there’s a comparison with Nazi jokes in occupied Europe, showing that generally Communist jokes were slightly different, joking about the way things were as opposed to the much blunter:

What’s the difference between a bucket of shit and a Nazi?
The bucketJoke from occupied Norway, Hammer & Tickle

However, while it is a very interesting look at the jokes, and what was going on around them — the repression of free speech, the propaganda machine, the crumbling economies and so on — the book does fall foul big-style in the area of political ideology.

It makes a rather elementary, and simplistic mistake: that communism is a bad idea. Now it’s fair enough to say that communism — as seen in the Eastern bloc — didn’t work; but that’s not quite the same thing. But it would also be wrong to say that these were actually communist societies. They were societies supposedly founded on Communist principles, but once put into practice, the ruling political class simply took over the power from the previous ruling classes…

…Brezhnev invited his elderly mother to come up and see his suite of offices in the Kremlin and then put her in his limousine and drove her to his fabulous apartment there in Moscow. And in both places, not a word. She looked, she said nothing. Then he put her in his helicopter and took her out to the country home outside Moscow in a forest. And again, not a word. Finally, he put her in his private jet and down to the shores of the Black Sea to see the marble palace which is known as his beach house. And finally, she spoke. She said, ‘Leonid, what if the Communists find out?’Joke told by Ronald Reagan in 1982, Hammer & Tickle

And that is really the point. The communist ideals: cutting inequality and having the richest members of society only slightly better off than the poorest are fine, noble goals. But those in charge didn’t want that: obviously those in charge, in line with everyone else with power and influence, wanted the trappings of power and influence, and to ensure that they hung on to them.

This might mean even mean that selfishness and greed inherent in human nature would mean that it is impractical or next to impossible to actually have a society functioning on communist principles. If I am a plumber who is paid whether or not I actually do any decent quality plumbing, what incentive have I to put the effort in?

So I don’t begrudge Ben his stance that communism didn’t work. What I do object to is the way he treats people who disagree with him. This point is laboured over a ten page Russian spoof of the Simpsons he produces — “the Zimpzonoviches” — he comes up with, which sadly rather illustrates the point that while he might be good at collecting jokes, writing any form of humour, and particularly satire, is an entirely different matter.

He doesn’t seem to understand that some of the people he speaks to could have been critics of the state and the leadership they were living under, but still be supporters of the principles it was supposed to have been built upon. It would also appear that during the book he breaks up with his girlfriend over this very reason — because he is so sure capitalism is better and communism was wrong.

Personally, I don’t think communism worked particularly well where it has been tried (although Cuba is possibly an example of relative success), but Capitalism is not without it’s failures too: third world sweatshops, extreme poverty, starvation, environmental pillage…

And, no, I don’t have the answers. But nor do I think does Ben have the right to judge and find wanting those who have beliefs different to his own. This is summed up beautifully in one piece:

He’d signed the Faustian pact of Communism, along with every other adherent of that ideology. He had been prepared to forgo a large measure of free speech and truthfulness in return for a just societyHammer & Tickle

…which misses the point beautifully. The gentleman in question wasn’t in favour of propaganda or repression, he was merely a supporter of the tenets of Communist ideology. The idea that anyone in favour of communism makes a Faustian pact — sells their soul to the devil — really illustrates that Ben has already made up his own mind that Communist ideology is wrong, and those who support it are wrong also.

I generally have no time for this sort of “if you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong and you’re an idiot” sort of approach, whichever way the politics are facing…

Be that as it may, this is an excellent look inside the Soviet state: with editors of satirical magazines wanting to be very careful about satire — sending jokes off to be approved before publication and so on.

Nor does he just look at Russia: his look at the formation of Solidarność (Solidarity) in Poland, and also very entertainingly the adventures of “Major” Fydrych, leader of the ‘Alternative Orange’ um… carnvial-style protest movement, which used humour as a visible opposition.

He also looks at exactly how much a role the joke played in the fall of Eastern bloc communism, and indeed it’s quite difficult to tell: depending on who you talk to it was either negligible or played a major role. So that’s that cleared up then.

By the end of the book however, I was beginning to wonder whether the Ben Lewis anti-communist persona was actually a spoof as he continued to lay it on thick — telling jokes about the Trabant to people who worked on the design; making further jokes about it to people standing proudly next to restored East German vehicles and then referring to it as the “brutality beneath the Communist pageant” when they take offence after one too many jokes and threaten to smack him one…

If he really, truly, honestly thinks that the reason people took offense is because they are Communists, as opposed to, for example, his own boorish behaviour, then I would possibly suggest he tries sitting at Anfield in a Manchester United top one saturday afternoon, cracking jokes about how Scousers are all stupid criminals. He might discover a certain ‘Communist’ streak there, too :-)

But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the Ben Lewis voice in the book is one final joke, for those wise enough to spot it. I certainly hope so. It doesn’t matter for the book; it’s an entertaining and informative read either way; but for Ben’s own sake I hope he has a little more understanding and empathy than is portrayed…

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