Dubai: Wednesday 4th July 2012
I have not met many communists in my time. The fall of the Berlin Wall when I was 12 years old effectively destroyed, not only the Iron Curtain but the credibility of the Marxist economic and political model generally. While eastern Europe was now open, there were few outright communists who survived the process.
In consequence, my thinking and conversations surrounding the subject have tended to be theoretical in nature, conducted with people who occupy a similar political and economic perspectives to my own, against a backdrop of a shared knowledge of the systems iniquity, inefficiency and inevitable degradation. And of course, when you know a system is doomed to failure it is easy to offer critique. Yet this has always felt unsatisfactory to me. A system as repressive and likely to lead to poverty, misery and economic and cultural stagnation must have had appeal beyond its initial fervor to have motivated such sacrifice and long-term personal investment from so many.
As a result I have read widely on communism, down the years, largely in an attempt to understand the logic which led to its rise and perpetuation long beyond the point where it can realistically have been thought that the point was near, where money could be abandoned altogether and liberty and leisure granted to all. From my reading, I was able to ascertain that Communism is an essentially economic theory derived from the Marxist assertion of the inevitable rise and fall of the urban capitalist model and the similar inevitability of the rise of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
As such I developed an opinion of the Marxist as a dogmatic and evangelical character, to whom debate and discussion were unnecessary examples of a petty bourgeois educational inequality. Communists, like any piously committed people were unlikely to be much fun. Being entirely certain of your views generally, is in my experience much like the over consumption of alcohol; it renders you leaden footed, boorish, repetitive and uninteresting. When you know you are right there becomes little reason to engage with counter opinions. Even if those opinions extrapolate to the point at which you can no longer make your certainty plain for all to see, it is merely an example of someone’s greater facility with words, or sneaky devilish game playing. Debate itself becomes, to the dogmatic, dangerous and counter-productive.
Yet in part this reflects my own frustrated attempts to reach greater understanding through discussion with people. The problem is that people often do not take kindly to having their views and prejudices questioned. My father would tolerate this up to a point but only up to a point. Get to the stage where you threatened to trap him with his own views or identify a flaw, and he would react aggressively. The smart-arsed son would be beaten off. Darwinian order would be restored.
Then I moved to the Middle East and as with everything in this wonderful world, I have been surprised and amazed. I could never have imagined writing this, but yesterday, I met my second Communist. Maydoon.
My first Communist (You never forget your first) was a taxi driver in Abu Dhabi, three years ago. He hailed from the Indian Province of Kerala and amused and charmed me greatly with his earnestness and sincerity. As we drove I probed his views on social injustice and wealth redistribution (Yes, a taxi drive with Crabbitat is fun, fun, fun!!). In general his primary focus was on the way vested interests in Indian society prevented the poor form obtaining a basic education. Then, as the journey drew to a close and he stopped his meter and fumbled for change, I looked to end on a friendly, jocular and supportive note. “Well, come the revolution, you will have quite a cue for the firing squad.”
“Oh no, sir, no execution. Education.”
Maydoon, my second communist, was also from Kerala, one of only two Indian Provinces with a substantive Communist presence. He works at the bar of the hotel I have been staying at, this week and has greeted me warmly each time. He had a day off, yesterday and his diminutive presence sat at the end of the bar, unnoticed by me as I read my book. As I looked up, to pay my bill, he waved and I joined him. He was nursing a pint of lager and waiting for a friend to finish his shift before going out for the evening, and it should be pointed out that his presence at the bar was daring in and of itself. I had the distinct impression that the manager was completely uncomfortable with customers and staff communing over a pint together, and he hovered continuously and attentively throughout.
If Maydoon is the communist he purports to be he is as far away from my traditional image as is possible. He was quiet and polite, with a habit of referring to me as ‘Sir’ even after I had introduced myself properly. Moreover he had a slight and humble persona which enacted an automatic protectiveness within me. I liked him. And there was something else, about the way he sat, enjoying his beverage, and talking about his beliefs with his manager just a few feet away. He was performing a ritual common in the west, chewing-the-fat in his place of work on his day off. I used to do it myself. Yet for him to be doing this here was socially quite different. It is not that the hotel hadn’t served him, but it was clearly uncomfortable with his presence. He was staff. He was not here to socialize. Maydoon was taking a risk.
I am not sure Maydoon was a Communist in the strictest sense. There was no Marxist dogma: no sense that he had really looked deeply into their ideology. I asked, for example, whether his sympathies for the rural poor extended to embracing a policy of collectivization. He declined to be drawn, merely pointing out that he didn’t agree with everything the Communists argued but he liked some of their ideas. “Such as?” I asked.
“Ending the caste system and educating all the people.” There it was again, that word, education. Was that the cornerstone of the Communists appeal, I wondered? “Yes,” he thought so, “to allow the poor to exercise freedom.”
Now this idea hit me square in the face. To us in the west, particularly the Anglo-Saxon political cultures of the US and the UK, the idea of freedom being best granted by Marxism, is a pretty revolutionary one.
Essentially, what he was arguing was that the state should provide a regulatory framework for redistributing the nation’s resources into educating all Indians, not merely the elites. Moreover, the implication was simple. It was the rural poor who suffered deepest from a free market. It was them, that the State was obligated to educate. Here was his Communist soul. His loyalty, his heart lay not with his nation but with the poor.
Yet he did not agree that the State should protect the poor. That was their job to protect themselves. Education was merely providing the tools with which they were to perform the job. There was a problem with the capitalist system, but once fixed, the poor would be liberated, free to live the lives they wished to lead.
In the UK, there is a growing consensus that the State is not the best provider of universal education. This is, in part the result of failures in education reforms during the 1960’s 70’s and 80’s in which a wave of teaching practices designed to let children ‘flower’ at their own pace, and the introduction of competition into examination boards, has led to the progressive reduction of standards of educative attainment. The answer, say many, is the free market.
I am not about to debate the merits of this in the British context. It occurs to me that there are more failings with British education than merely the examination boards or schools themselves. As one Indian was quoted as saying recently on the radio, the trouble with Britain is that you have ‘rights and entitlements’ while in India, we have ‘roles and responsibilities.’ Any discussion of the failings of mature western democracies to educate our people to a high standard needs to look at societal causation rather than narrowly focus on systems.
Moreover it is far from clear that education is best provided by one system over another. Britain’s failings are both poor implementation of an unregulated exam system and changes to the school system brought about by politicians pushing a socially inclusive agenda. One is an overt failure of the right, the other of the left. Yet in reality, politicians on left and right tent to pick on the aspect which suits their own political agenda. Modern right wingers, for example, tend to forget that it was they who introduced unregulated competition into the examination board system in 1986, leading to the progressive dumbing down of the GCSE Examination. They are happy to critique the wooly policies of the comprehensive system while neglecting to take lessons from the communist education systems of Eastern Europe which focused on excellence and attainment before all else.
Moreover universal education has seldom been implemented by the free market in the first instance. England only achieved universal education as a result of sweeping government reform in the first years of the Twentieth century. Scotland achieved this much earlier with an act of The Estates (Scotland’s answer to a Parliament at the time) insisted on by the Presbyterian Church, in the 1690’s which insisted on a school in every parish. Russians and the French were not educated universally until parliamentary legislation made it compulsory during the twentieth century, and in Latin America it is noticeable that the highest rates of literacy are those of Cuba and Venezuela, neither of which is renowned for its free market economy. Indeed the record of the free market in this respect is even more shabby when one looks at the education of women.
In most countries, where such legislation has not taken place, education is implemented in a piecemeal way by interest groups. In Pakistan, a poor boy is most likely to gain an education from a Madrassa (run by the local mosque and specializing in rote learning of the Quran and theology as much as science or maths. Poor girls are unlikely to get much education at all.
In India, education when received is generally of a high standard, not least because it is firmly encouraged in the home, where expectations are set high and children are fluent in the culture of respect and obedience to their parents, but what was clear from talking with Maydoon, was that education had yet to make its way down, satisfactorily to the rural poor in this vast and crowded nation. Moreover, for many people in Kerala, it is not just a matter of there being more money invested in schools. On the contrary, the culture in India needs to be substantially altered, with the caste system (legally consigned to history, but still effectively practiced throughout the society as a whole), and vested interests subjected to state driven, top down reform.
There is much which is interesting about this. Not least, that sound education needs to be a marriage between a will on behalf of the society to provide universal education (most commonly implemented by the state) and a willingness too, on behalf of that society to actively participate in the process of being educated and improving themselves. To Maydoon, the state could provide the tools but it was the rural peasants themselves, who would set themselves and their nation free.
In the meantime, by sitting on his day off enjoying a pint his own labours had bought, he was performing in his own quiet way a small act of revolution. One, which caused his boss considerable discomfort and which I hope he is not punished for.