Knock, knock

<strong>Hammer and Tickle: a History of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes</strong>

Ben Lewis

In the late autumn of 1989, Steve Bell and I had lunch with a Romanian cartoonist on a visit to England courtesy of the British Council. We met in the basement of a now-defunct Italian restaurant in Clerkenwell, and although the Romanian had a translator with him, his lack of any English and his very small smattering of French meant that things hardly got off with a swing. So, to break the ice, I proposed a toast to the death of Nicolae Ceausescu. And lo and behold, almost exactly six weeks after we'd clinked glasses, thousands of miles away, the Caligula of the Carpathians lay dead in the snow, shot by his own politburo.

Apart from it proving once more the power of cartoonists, there was another conclusion I drew from this encounter. Following the deadly toast, the Romanian had shown us his portfolio, consisting entirely of cartoons in the High Cold War International Why-Oh-Why Freedom Style. You probably know the kind of thing: doves vainly trying to flap their wings in tiny cages or a human pyramid inside a doorless, windowless, roofless building, with a blind man at the top unable to see over the battlements. After the fall of communism, however, I feared for my Romanian friend. How would he be able to survive in the new, free Romania? As he hawked his stuff around Bucharest's magazines and newspapers, it now seemed more than likely that any self-respecting editor or art director would throw his cartoons in his face shouting: "Enough already! Give us something funny!"

In his wonderful new book, Hammer and Tickle, Ben Lewis suggests that I needn't have worried, because all the best jokes died with the system they mocked. But although it contains a lot of very funny jokes - my favourite is about an old peasant woman visiting Moscow Zoo in the 1920s who sees a camel for the first time and (pre-empting by decades Orwell's gag about committees) cries: "Look what the Bolsheviks have done to that horse!" - this isn't just a joke book.

Instead, Lewis embarks on a deeply scholarly examination and analysis of the communist joke - that strand of unofficial, sardonic humour, which appeared to be the unique preserve of people suffering under communist rule - to find out whether or not there is any truth in the capitalist boast that communism was laughed out of existence by its cowed citizenry.

However, as with a lot of good jokes, his conclusion is less important than the way he tells them. Having identified the communist joke as essentially a defensive cultural construct, informed by irony, self-deprecation and fatalism (and therefore more like a Jewish joke than, say, an Irish one), Lewis adopts the same tone to tell his story. So partly this book is highly academic, peppered with charts and graphs, but also self-consciously ridiculous. You get a hint of that in the 27 pages of bibliography. And there is both high and low comedy in Lewis's visit to a Trabant owners' rally, his interview with Lech Walesa and his failure to interview Mikhail Gorbachev (Lewis finally concludes that Gorby isn't worth the size of the "donation" necessary to gain access to the great man).

He also counterpoints his quest with his rocky relationship with Ariane, an East German-born artist with powerful vestigial communist sympathies, whose art consists of manipulated images from the communist era, sold at high prices to Americans. In many ways, her dogged refusal to "get" the jokes he is endlessly cataloguing is even funnier than the jokes themselves. Right at the end, she shouts at him: "The problem with you is that you refuse to take anything seriously - not communism, not me . . . Not even yourself."

"That's true," he replies, "but I take not taking anything seriously very seriously."

Which is really the whole point about the communist joke, as opposed to jokes about communism. Lewis discovers that many of the jokes he collects have pre-communist antecedents, some of them dating back hundreds of years, simply with the names changed. But whatever their provenance, and whether they were about shortages, individuals or the system itself, what was unique about the communist joke was the reaction of the objects of ridicule. Under Stalin, you could get 15 years for telling an anti-Soviet joke and ten years just for listening to one.

After Stalin, things lightened up a bit, and the apparatchiks wised up to the fact that the best response to jokes was other jokes, some of which are actually very good. But none of them was ever quite good enough to save a political system that fatally confirmed its inherent absurdity by refusing to recognise just how absurd it was.

That said, and although Lewis has done an excellent job, I'm still not quite sure he proves conclusively that the communist joke is really anything more than a particular local manifestation of a universal phenomenon. People have always mocked their leaders, along with everything else, and it is the degree of tolerance accorded to the mockery that is significant, but in political rather than cultural terms. Given the nature of Soviet communism and its eastern European avatars - hotchpotches of mutated, sub-scientific Marxism and earnest Russian mysticism -I suspect that the communist joke is essentially an extreme example of the eternal urge to take the piss out of anyone who takes him or herself too seriously. After all, the object of this joke from the early 1980s is infinitely interchangeable: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? That's not funny!

Unfortunately, Lewis failed to find a communist variant on that one to include in this marvellous book, but then again the system was too useless, incompetent and ridiculous to produce many light bulbs anyway.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood