Time for a terrible confession: I was a young communist.
The only things I can put up in my defence are: I was 6 years old, and only for less than a day.
So perhaps this is not a story quite in the same league as those of dozens of prominent conservatives and neoconservatives who have started their political lives as Trotskyites, socialists and other assorted leftists – anyone from Irving Kristol through David Horowitz to Ronald Reagan. But here it goes.
Communist Poland, circa 1978. No Polish Pope just yet, no inklings of Solidarity, much less of glasnosts and perestroika, and the ideas of the Berlin Wall being torn down or the Soviet Union dissolving are simply too fantastic to contemplate, even as science-fiction (and that would be illegal anyway). The system appears as stably unstable, or unstably stable, as ever; sixty-one years in Russia, thirty-three in Poland; entire generations who have known nothing but.
Did I mention it’s 1978? If you thought that the 1970s were dreary, just imagine how much drearier they were on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Steel and concrete in 50 shades of beige. That sort of stuff.
Politics in a communist society is at the same time everywhere and nowhere. You can only speak out well of your rulers or not at all. Which is why most people stay mute in public. “If you can’t say anything nice, say not nothing at all” is not a maxim of good manners, it’s part of the legal code, with infractions punishable by prison, getting fired from your job, or losing other few meagre privileges that citizens of a workers’ democratic republic enjoy. When people do talk about politics they do it in private, with family and friends they trust (in some cases wrongly, though this is not nearly as common in Poland as it is in East Germany), and by talk I mean complain and joke, because what use is there doing anything else? And you generally don’t talk – and complain and joke – in front of children, lest they innocently repeat something in wrong company. So I don’t know; I only feel certain things.
I’m six, and being a child of a slightly more than average intelligence I figure out that we all live under the political system called communism. I don’t really know much about communism, except that communists always talk about how they are communists, and I certainly don’t know much, if anything at that tender age, about there being other, competing political and economic systems elsewhere in the world, and what differences there are between life at home and abroad.
There is no one really to teach me about communism. I haven’t started Grade 1 yet (school starts a year later in Poland than in many other places around the world like Australia), but when I soon do I will discover there is no real indoctrination per se to speak of anyway. No one I know is a communist, certainly not in my extended family. OK, there is one exception, my grandfather in Tarnow. He is a party member and when I visit on holidays, every morning we go to newsagents and buy a copy of “Rude Pravo”, the Czech communist party daily. Grandfather was born of Polish parents in ethnically mixed Czech mining town of Moravska Ostrava. During the war he fought with the Polish Army in the West and was one of the very few to come back to communist Poland afterwards. He was almost shot by a Red Army officer but otherwise his homecoming was reasonably successful, considering that Poland’s new rulers consider the “Western” Poles virtual traitors and quite possibly spies and treat them accordingly. My grandfather’s proletarian origins at least count for something. I’ve always wondered how sincere his communism was and how much a form of protection to survive in the new Poland. In the late 80s, as the system starts to crumble, grandfather finally feels free to start going to the church again, tears up his party card, and will vote for “Solidarity” parties in subsequent elections. I suspect that “Rude Pravo” is less of an ideological need than a link to the Czech language of his childhood.
So I am six, and I vaguely understand I live in a communist country ruled by communists. I don’t really know communists and I don’t really know about communism. But one day, upon long and hard reflection, my six year old’s logic tells me that since this is a communist country perhaps I too should become a communist.
So at the age of six I commit myself to becoming a communist. I don’t tell anyone; this is to be, at least initially, a private political odyssey. I get the feeling that my parents wouldn’t be too happy anyway.
How does one grow in the communist faith? What does a communist do? I wonder. Well, for starters a communist listens to communist things, I assume.
I’m in luck; there are plenty of communist things around for those who want communist things. I’m even more in luck that day because one of the two TV channels is playing, in full, a speech by none other than Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet communist party. So I switch on the TV, sit myself comfortably on the couch, and I start to watch and listen. Fortunately, there is a simultaneous spoken Polish translation for those, like me, who don’t yet understand Russian (I will have to wait until Grade 5 to start being taught, not very well, about tractor drivers and Soviet Pioneers).
I’m trying hard to concentrate, because the speech is full of big words and big phrases, pretty big for a six year old, even one of a slightly more than average intelligence. But it’s not easy. Still, I silently nod in agreement to the General Secretary’s pronouncements. Concepts might be difficult to understand but they are not unfamiliar; even a six year old living in a communist country would have been exposed to this discourse before. It’s the ambient white noise of a “real and existing socialism” society. The difference is that this time I’m actually trying to listen and make sense.
Fifteen minutes later. The General Secretary and his Polish translator are still going. The speeches do tend to go on a bit so it’s nothing unusual. The longer the better. I get up from the couch, walk over and switch off the TV (no remotes yet; it’s 1978 in Poland). The speech? Man, it’s boring. I mean I’m only six, even if of a slightly more than average intelligence – I’ve learned to read a year earlier than my peers – and I don’t really understand it, but I just have this gut feeling that even if I could it would still be boring. Very boring. Dreary. If to be a communist one has to listen to – and presumably enjoy – these sorts of speeches, then, well, I’m afraid I’m just not made to be a communist. At least I’ve tried.
I walk back to my bedroom, jump on my bed and start to read a book about little spacemen. It’s 1978, I’m six years old, and I’m an ex-communist. Hope you’ll understand.