Dan Hannan on Communism, Ostalgie, first loves and enforced atheism

Fresh from his Brexit victory over Brussels, Conservative MEP and thinker Daniel Hannan now has Communism in his sights – organising an ACRE conference next month in Tirana, Albania on the legacy of state socialism for Europe.

euractiv.com’s Matt Tempest met him for a discussion ranging across the 1968’s Prague Spring, first loves, enforced secularism, Che Guevara and the Dunblane handgun ban.

Mr Hannan, you’re organising a conference on the legacy of communism and it’s to coincide with the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution. But it seems to me that anybody who can remember a communist government in Europe must be at least 40 years old and no communist party is in government or even poised to take power anywhere across Europe. So it has to be asked: why now?

It’s exactly the centenary year. So 100 years since the beginning of what has to be reckoned, mathematically, the most murderous ideology ever devised by human intelligence. But I think this is an argument that we have to have in every generation. You’re right, there is not a communist regime still standing in Europe and most communist parties have transformed themselves into something else. But the argument has to be held again in every generation.

I read a poll last month that a third of American millennials think that more people were murdered by George W. Bush than by Stalin. When you see those idiotic Che Guevara t-shirts when people unconsciously adopt Marxist language about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, very few people realise that they’re indirectly quoting him. You realise that this is something that goes very deep and you need to show that this is not some respectable alternative among many. The ethic of coercion which was intrinsic to communist rule, leading, sooner or later, to the secret police and the gulags. You can have it in a mild version or you can have it in a brutal version, but in the end, it always ends in autocracy.

I lived in Berlin for six years and had several East German friends. None of them was nostalgic at all for the Stasi, or the Berlin wall, or for the fact that they couldn’t leave the country. But there was a certain sense, you’ve heard of the term ‘Ostalgie’ – they were nostalgic for that sense of free education, full employment, effectively rent-free accommodation. Obviously, none of it was very nice but it removed that worry you have in a capitalist rat race society of “How do I pay the bills every month?” Is there anything in you, even from the right end of the spectrum, that can see those lures or attractions of communism?

I think something else is going on there. I think people are nostalgic for having been 17-years-old. Which is a very natural and human thing. We’re all the centre of our own universes. When we think back to the bright primary colours of our teenage years; the intensity of your first adolescent crush on someone, then the Stasi and the shortages and the drabness fade into the background. That’s not really what you’re thinking about. But you’re right, it has created this bizarre nostalgia in every communist country from people who forget what it was really like. They’ll say things like “we had time to talk”.

Well, living one week like that again, without even the most basic necessities being available would be a pretty strong cure if you actually had to go back and do it. But again, this exactly illustrates why we need to keep explaining to people where it leads. This wasn’t a system that just meant a bit more state control and a bit less individual liberty. It was a complete hollowing out of civil society; the destruction of everything between the individual and the state. And then, ultimately, the NKVD, the knock in the night, and the torture chambers.

Obviously, all communist governments and regimes were officially atheist and secular. Isn’t there something now, when we’re living in a period of, supposedly, a clash of civilisations – Islam versus the West or Islam versus Christianity… wasn’t there something progressive in this idea of secular states?

I think there’s a very respectable argument for secularism on the American model, where the state is effectively holding the ring and allowing each religion to proselytise. Or even secularism on the French model, where you say all of this is a private business. But enforcing atheism, which is effectively what ends up happening because everything is enforced, is every bit as tyrannical as enforcing Taliban-style sharia law, or enforcing fundamentalist Christianity, or any other belief system. The reason that this still matters is it’s very difficult, even a generation on, to rebuild where civil society has been systematically hollowed out and destroyed.

In 1948, when the Communists took power in Hungary, János Kádár, who went on to become the Hungarian leader, was given the job of destroying independent associations. He systematically went through and closed down every church, every charity, every chess club, every village band, every boy scouts troupe; everything that fills the space normally between the individual and the government. 5,000 organisations, he boasted, that he’d liquidated. That’s what we mean by a totalitarian society. And it bizarrely leaves people both atomised and controlled because people are denied the wherewithal to relate one to the other in a voluntary way as individuals. Everything is channelled through the party and the state.

I think of you as the libertarian, free market, property rights end of the right-wing spectrum, but not really the evangelical Christian, who are more obsessed with issues around handguns, banning abortion. Am I right in thinking that those aren’t your pet issues?

Handguns are not a big issue in the UK. Actually, I do regret the handgun ban. I think it was disproportionate and I don’t think it was anything to do with what had just happened – the abomination that we’d seen. Nobody serious tried to argue that it would have made a difference. But, you know, we are where we are. It’s not a campaign of mine to try and reverse the ban. But I do believe in freedom. I believe, very much, in people perusing their own happiness by making their own decisions and finding virtue by not having it coerced. And the defining ethic of communism was not equality, it was coercion.

Sort of a Brexit question, the only Brexit question, and it’s not a totally facetious analogy; but having defeated the EU with Brexit, and looking at communist regimes, can you see something of that in the EU? Not with the violence or the oppression or the authoritarianism, but as a supranational institution; pan-states and sucking sovereignty inwards.

Not in my worst nightmares have I ever thought that the European Union is going to take away our passports, throw us into gulags or torture us. I suppose that the parallel, and it’s a very minor and limited one, but it’s an interesting one in so far as it goes, would be this. By the end of the communist era, you really struggled to find anyone who believed in it. I remember travelling in what we still called Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and I remember thinking this can’t carry on because nobody believes in it. None of the people running these countries still believed, if ever they did believe, in the principles of Marxism or Leninism.

But on the other hand, how was it going to end? Because so many people had a vested interest in the status quo. So many people had learned to rise through that power structure. And in that limited sense, I think you can draw a parallel, in that there are very few true believers left in Brussels. But there are an awful lot of people who have learned how to make a good living out of it. And I don’t just mean Eurocrats. I mean the armies of consultants and contractors, the big landowners getting money from the CAP, the lobbyists, the professional associations; all sorts of parastatal actors who have learned how to make a handy living out of the EU, one way or another. And just like the nomenklatura in the 1980s, they will fight very hard to maintain their position, not on dogmatical grounds, but out of sheer self-interest.

Certainly, we saw that in the UK referendum a lot of the opposition came from organisations that were directly or indirectly funded by the EU. This wasn’t, in other words, about sovereignty or federalism or democracy; it was about mortgages and school fees. And that is a very difficult thing to end. But I’ll end on a cheerful note. I think the communist system had been basically delegitimised after the Prague Spring. Up until 1968, you could find idealistic Marxists in central and eastern Europe, who believed that they would eventually get to the stage where they could reintroduce democracy. That once the system had been shown to work, shown to be more economically productive than capitalism, then they could have free elections again. After 1968, nobody really believed that and there were just people clinging on to their position.

I think the French and Dutch referendums in 2004 were a similar moment in Brussels. I think after that, people stopped believing that European federalism would win mass support. But they were determined to cling on to their positions. What was it in the end that brought the communist system down? Again, I can remember in the ’80s, very few people saw the end coming. People would say maybe over twenty or thirty years there will be a gradual move to a more reformed kind of Marxism. And a few isolated dreamers would say, no, maybe there will be an exogenous shock; a kind of Chernobyl type massive event that will bring it all down. What was the event that brought down the Marxist system in the end? It was the smallest thing. It was the decision of the Hungarian interior ministry to stop requiring exit visas from East Germans who wanted to travel to Austria. Within two weeks, the whole rotten system had unravelled. And that, I think, does give me hope. Permanence is the illusion of every age.

So why Tirana, Albania?

Tirana is, if you like, the most vivid physical place where you can see the legacy of a communist regime. It was the ultimate autocratic system and the ultimate paranoid system. Enver Hoxha spent an immense amount of money fortifying the country. It was rather like North Korea is today. And a hungry and immiserated population, to use a Marxist word, was paying the cost of what had become a leadership cult, because that’s where it ends.

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