Noel Malcolm reviews Hammer & Tickle, a new book about the incredible variety, ferocity and effectiveness of Soviet jokes that arose in the USSR and its satellite states:
For some commentators in the 1980s, the existence of this type of humour in the communist world took on a profound significance. It demonstrated the indomitable nature of the human spirit under oppression; the fact that communism produced such a huge quantity of jokes showed how hugely oppressive it was; and the stubborn persistence of this humour played a major role in undermining Soviet rule. In the end, they said, communism was laughed out of existence.
Ben Lewis, a television documentary producer with a good knowledge of Russian and German and an inquisitive but sceptical mind, has set out to test these claims.
He has travelled through the former Soviet bloc, collecting jokes, inspecting police records and interviewing cartoonists, dissidents, politicians and diehard communists. The result is a fascinating book which, while written in a resolutely non-academic style (we learn perhaps a little too much about his bedroom conversations with his East German girlfriend), engages with the existing theories and argues that most of them are wrong. In the process, it also manages to tell a lot of jokes.
Did communism generate an unprecedented amount of humour? Lewis studies the available evidence about humour under Nazism, and concludes that communism certainly did better…
'What is the difference between communism and capitalism?' 'Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man; communism is the exact opposite.'
'Capitalism stands on the brink of the abyss. It will soon be overtaken by communism.'
'Is it true that Marxism-Leninism is scientific?' 'No, surely not. If it were, they would have tested it on animals first.'
(via 3 Quarks Daily)