Eastern European Communist regimes deemed it necessary to cultivate a high degree of state discipline in their societies. Much of the public life and social engagement of the populace operated through mechanisms of surveillance and control. Authors and scholars have argued that the regimes retained power through these measures. Milan Kundera, a twentieth-century Czech author who lived through Communism, portrays just such a post-World War II Czechoslovakia in his novel The Joke. His account suggests that Communist practices of ritualism, surveillance, and purges grew out of the larger contradiction between social equality and one-Party rule. Privacy and individualism were sacrificed at the altar of social equality; however, this notion of equality reified social class.
[...] had not only catered to the interests of the Church in their initial bid for power, bit also to nationalist patriots. Thus: “What Ludvik [the Communist] was calling for was nothing but the old utopia of the most conservative Moravian patriots It only made his words more comprehensible to (138) Until 1948, in an atmosphere of authentic public engagement, multiple opinions were given legitimate expression. But after diplomatic developments in Soviet Russia and the February coup led by Klement Gottwald (chairman of the Czech Communists), this public ideological engagement became more heavily subject to Lenin's “dictatorship of the proletariat.” That the public had earnestly believed in this public discourse and its culmination in Marxism is attested to by the Revisionist school of historians as well as Kundera. [...]
[...] Complementary to purging was promotion, the means by which individuals were selected for positions of power. Like purges, this also relied on class- consciousness. The irony of Communist Party rule in Czechoslovakia was that the social hierarchy was not necessarily upset but merely reversed. Meritocracies based on wealth or intelligence were replaced with job assignments favoring the “proletariat.” Problematically, this reversal reproduced old social tensions, thereby reifying social class. As one character insists, the individual often felt at odds with his social position: “Milos isn't allowed to go to the university because of his grandfather who owned a factory. [...]
[...] Rituals were one important method of eliminating the public/private distiction. Because the Party sought a definitive transformation of society, it was thought that theatrical control of public spectacles could infiltrate private thought. For example, the Slánsky show trials of 1952, in which several party cadres (many Jewish and Slovak) confessed to highly distorted crimes, expressed to the public at least two things: the widespread existence of supposed saboteurs, even among those who seem trustworthy, and the contours of the Party's ideology, through identifying the defendants as “Trotskyist-Zionist-Titoist-bourgeois- nationalist.” Such theatrics were not limited to trials; rather, many public spectacles took on new forms under Communist influence. [...]
[...] As individuals ceded their privacy in the service of collective action, the worth of the individual diminished in relation to the worth of his or her category. In Marxist-Leninist doctrine, class-consciousness was ontologically prior to individual consciousness, such that the protagonist of the Joke writes, felt participation in the proletarian revolution to be, so to speak, not a matter of choice but a matter of essence, a man either was a revolutionary, in which case he completely merged with the movement into one collective entity, or he was not.” This emphasis on the category strongly influenced the practice of purges, which is the central problematic of The Joke. [...]
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