The literary history of the Left is a compound of naiveté and sophistication, of idealism and political manoeuvring. These crosscurrents are reflected, quite clearly, in the diverse personalities and careers of the men and women involved. At one end of the spectrum are the scribes: George Bernard Shaw, writing about a reasonable and well-reasoned socialism; Karl Marx, propounding a communism that was intellectually flawed but rhetorically potent. At the other end are the authors of earnest but simple-minded tracts, no longer read except by diligent researchers, and of doggerel rhymes, equally forgotten unless set to catchy tunes. In between are the journalists, reporting on union activities and party congresses, often with more advocacy than objectivity.
Also there are the martyrs: Joe Hill of Sweden and the United States, balladeer of the Wobblies, executed in Utah after a rigged trial; Julius Fučik of Czechoslovakia, balladeer of the anti-fascist resistance, tortured to death in a Gestapo prison.
In Czechoslovakia, the history of the Left as a whole, not just its literary history, is full of contradictions. For three centuries, after the loss of sovereignty in 1620, the Czech and Slovak peoples were unwilling subjects of the authoritarian Austrian Empire. This bred in them a stubborn dream of self-determination, a zealous ambition to re-create their own nation-state; and this involved, essentially, a revolt against alien tyranny, an insistence that the city should exist to serve the citizen, not vice versa. That insistence brought in its wake a leftward leaning, evinced in a hunger for human rights and a communitarian spirit that harked back to the egalitarian ideals of the fifteenth-century Hussites. These tendencies solidified in two distinct political movements: a parliamentary socialism, answerable to the voters in free elections; and a Marxist brand of communism, which sought an exclusive and self-perpetuating hold on power in a one-party system.
There were, of course, other political philosophies, enshrined in various right-wing parties. But when Czechoslovakia finally achieved sovereignty, in 1918, the dominant feature of its political life was parliamentary socialism. Under an enlightened constitution, which guaranteed the rights and freedoms of all citizens, a welfare state was born, imbued with the kind of liberalism found in some other Western countries, but far ahead of them in its progressive benevolence. Fulfilling these social-democratic policies, in the context of worldwide economic depression, was far from easy, and certainly there were intermittent political crises. But where many other European countries, in near-collapse, succumbed to the allure of fascism (as in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain), Czechoslovakia remained a bastion of parliamentary integrity, that lasted for twenty years, until Munich.
During those years, the Czech and Slovak communists were always a force to be reckoned with. Their propaganda painted a rosy picture of life in the Soviet Union, which was utterly at odds with the truth, but which had a duplicitous appeal to the disgruntled. It also hoodwinked many left-leaning people who thought, wrongly, that Stalin stood for the extreme left, when in fact he had instituted a police-state of the extreme right, comparable in its viciousness to the worst excesses of Hitler’s Reich. That delusion was re-inforced in Munich, when London and Paris abandoned Czechoslovakia and only Moscow offered to stand by Prague in its hour of danger — not that the offer had anything to do with a sense of moral obligation: Stalin, who was always far-sighted in his scheming, undoubtedly looked to the day when he could swallow these neighbouring Slavs in the maw of his imperial greed.
There was thus born in many Czechs and Slovaks a sentimental regard for Russia as an ally, which was strengthened by a bitter disillusionment with Britain and France. It was further strengthened, in 1945, by the fact that their country was liberated by the Red Army, not by Western forces, and by the fact that the local communists, during the German occupation, had been the most dedicated partisan fighters and, when captured, had been the most resolute and courageous prisoners. Accordingly, although the government-in-exile returned at war’s end and re-instated the pre-war regime, the support given to the communists by the electorate rose to unprecedented heights. Before the voters could come to their senses and abandon this ill-conceived allegiance, the communists had seized power and abolished free elections; and their regime was to last for many dispiriting years.
During those darkly repressive years, the people most rigorously singled out for persecution were the socialists. The communists had actually purloined the word socialism and used it about themselves, to give their regime a leftist legitimacy that it had neither earned nor deserved. But the genuine socialists represented a true tradition of progressive social policy: because of that, if they were not totally excluded from public life, they would seem an attractive alternative to the regime, in the eyes of a populace increasingly fed up with it. So, from the outset, they were vilified, barred from their professions, tried on trumped-up charges, and sentenced to harsh imprisonment. Semantically, it was an irony that socialists should be thus assailed by people purporting to be socialists. But the judgment of history has to go beyond mere semantics: the fact is that the perpetrators of these judicial crimes, the communists, had themselves been, only a few years earlier, victims of similar assaults, by the nazis; the main victims, of course, were the Jews, but to be a communist was equally to be a candidate for Hitler’s malign attention. In effect, what went on in the Gestapo prisons and the concentration camps was replicated, a decade later, in the police-prisons and labour-camps of Czechoslovakia, run by men (and in some instances by women) who had themselves passed through the same ante-chambers of Hell.
It is easy to be wise after the event, to ask how it was that men and women, raised under the tutelage of Tomáš Masaryk (who, amongst other things, had demolished the philosophic pretensions of Marxism), should have fallen prey to the wiles of Stalinist persuasion. It is a legitimate question, where members of the intelligentsia are concerned; for they really should have known better. But members of the general public can only arrive at sensible opinions if they are well informed. And in those years little was known about Stalin’s paranoid anti-Semitism, about his deliberate infliction of famine on Ukraine, about his murderous state-trials, or about his slave-camps in the Gulag Archipelago. Instead, he was presented to the world as the saviour come to redeem a blighted world, and his domain was portrayed as a workers’ paradise. Many people are easily duped, the gullible, the naive: and some of them are genuinely good-hearted souls, who think they are fighting in a noble cause. They wear blinkers, when faced by troubling news; they cling to their cheerful pieties the way some children go on and on believing in the good fairy.
One such was the minor Czech poet, Julius Fučik. Like many Slavic poets, he stuck to a tradition of metres, rhymes, and stanzaic forms that can achieve mighty eloquence in the hands of a genius like Pushkin, but are fustian stuff in the hands of a lesser talent — especially is this noticeable in a period like the nineteen-thirties, when experimental verse, in many hands, was breaking away from outworn conventions. Fučik was no experimenter. Even within the confines of conservative versifying, he was merely adequate. The sincerity of his ideological boosterism was never in doubt, and that won him a certain esteem among readers who shared his rosy-tinted views. But more objective readers, weighing his literary work, must surely remind themselves of Auden’s quip about “minor poets going oompah-oompah to their minor graves”.
Nevertheless, Fučik’s grave was far from minor. His life’s work will vanish into obscurity. But he will be long remembered for his ending, for the manner of his death. During the war, he was a tremendously courageous partisan fighter against the Germans. When he had the misfortune to be captured, he was not treated as an ordinary prisoner of war: because of his pro-communist writings, he was picked out for special treatment; that is, he was taken to a Gestapo prison and tortured to death. After the war, the cell was identified in which he had been kept while awaiting execution. On the wall, he had scratched a farewell message to the future, unquestionably the best line he ever wrote: “Mankin, I have loved you: be vigilant!”