History is an ever-evolving paradox that has learned many of its key lessons through intense trial and error. One of its key battlegrounds has been the quest for social justice and equality. While most of us would agree on the ends of these issues, there has been radically different views as to the means to these ends. The evolution of economic processes, from feudalism through varying forms of capitalism, many legitimate concerns were raised concerning the exploitation of the poor. This has lead to the formation of systems, namely Communism, which have not only failed to bring about economic justice, but have also resulted in the brutal deaths of millions of people.
Our western Capitalist society is far from perfect. When one considers the recent scandals involving Enron and Halliburton, it becomes easy to see the need for significant reforms. One of the reasons for Communism’s appeal is that it is cloaked in very compassionate language:
The lower strata of the middle class -- the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants -- all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on...(The Communist Manifesto)
Within the modern Communist movement, the rhetoric is expanded, but basically unchanged:
...organizing those who are in favor of the longer-term goal of socialism to work on current issues facing workers, directly benefits workers and their families, poor people, and people oppressed due to skin color, nationality, religion, gender, language, etc. (Communist Party USA web site <http://www.cpusa.org> FAQ section: "So how does your communism help the working class?")
Who could possibly disagree with such lofty and noble sounding ideals? Any person with a sense of right and wrong would support efforts directed toward justice and equality, wouldn’t they? At the time these words were written, they gave a new hope and motivation to countless oppressed peoples. Unfortunately, not all means to that end live up to their promises. This is the scenario presented in Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke. In this paper, I will employ both historic and philosophical angles to interpret Kundera’s parable of misguided revolution, and how subsequent events can increase our understanding of how Communism’s supposedly compassionate ideals were such a dismal failure.
We see a personification of such ideals gone astray in the book’s lead character, Ludvik Jahn, a man who has devoted his life to the defense of the proletariat. After being expelled from the Party for a misunderstood prank, we follow Ludvik’s life down a path of military service, lost love and attempted revenge upon those who have wronged him. We see this revenge become the primary motivation of Ludvik’s life, leading the wise character of Kotska to surmise that Ludvik is "living in hell" (The Joke, p. 243). In contrast to the Manifesto’s declaration that "The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. " the very weapons Ludvik believed would elevate the working class have exploded right before his eyes. Communism in theory and practice indeed.
I see many of the book’s other characters and events as being largely metaphorical. Ludvik’s friend Jaroslav, with his love and reverence for his Communist heritage and its symbols (such as the Ride of the Kings) is an obvious representation of traditional Communism. Another example would be the humorous account of Helena’s suicide attempt, in which the overwhelming pain of Ludvik’s antics leads her to swallow a bottle of pills. Rather than giving her an escape, however, the pills land her in a country outhouse (perhaps symbolic of Communism going to the "dung heap of history?") A more serious example would be Lucie, a nieve working girl raped by the system which initially promises to protect her.
As a student of Theology, I took a particular interest in the sections dealing with Kotska. His comments, although often insightful, are also based on a faulty premise which has been a key contrast between Socialist Europe and Capitalist America: "...Marxist teachings were purely secular in origin, but the significance assigned to them was similar to the Gospel and the Biblical commandments" (The Joke, p.225). Kotska goes on clinging to the vain hope that God would "sanctify this great secular faith" (ibid). This premise is key to recasting Jesus as a Socialist/ Communist persona. This ideology is at the root of Liberation Theology movements popular in Latin America, and seem to be Kotska’s rationale for his attempted "Christianization" of a totally godless world view.
Society today tends to look very sporadically at Jesus' teachings, often isolating certain tenets, then stretching them into concepts that are totally the opposite of His true message. This is especially true of His teachings on money. Jesus certainly did teach compassion toward the needy. He also strongly taught against the abuse and misuse of wealth. However, this does not mean that he taught the class warfare rhetoric of the Socialists and Communists.
A number of Jesus’ disciples came from very lucrative career backgrounds, including a tax collector (Matthew) and a physician (Luke). He also had numerous other wealthy followers, including Joanna, a woman whose husband worked for the King (Luke 8:3), as well as Joseph of Arimathea, who provided Him with a burial place (Matthew 27:57-60). Jesus also revered the Old Testament patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matthew 8:11; 22:32; Mark 12:26), all of whom were fabulously wealthy men (Genesis 13:12; 26:14;33:5).
These facts become significant when one considers that many of the conflicts addressed in The Joke are quite religious in nature. Rather than dismiss religion, as Marx did, as being "the opiate of the masses," the Puritans who colonized this country had a very different understanding. What we today know as the Puritan (or Protestant) Work Ethic was based on the understanding that God rewards hard work and ingenuity (Proverbs 10:4) and that to enjoy the fruits of one’s labors is a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 3:13; 5:19).
Ultimately, we see Kotska’s acknowledged disillusionment with his attempt at reinventing the Gospels. In the time in which the novel was set, the author perhaps didn’t realize how prophetic Kotska’s words would prove to be:
This was a cruel religion...It had religious gestures and feelings but remained empty and godless within...Communist theory, its own creation, it will destroy within a few decades. In you, Ludvik, it has already been destroyed, as you well know (The Joke, p. 225).
The impact of these two radically different world views had been profound. In countries which have been dominated by Communism, individual liberty and religious freedom have been sorely repressed. We can see this by contrasting two of the twentieth centuries most tragic struggles, the Korean and Vietnam wars. In the former, the United States stood firm in its resolve to defeat the Red Menace and save the people of South Korea from Communist aggression. As a result, some of the most vibrant and thriving churches in the world are located in that nation This includes the world’s largest church, Yoido Full Gospel Central located in Seoul, which has a roster of roughly one million members.
However, the latter paints a very different picture. Rather than uniting in support for U.S. efforts to halt Communism in Vietnam, our country was torn apart in bitter protest. For the only time in history, the American military was unsuccessful in a war endeavor. To this day, the nation of Vietnam is a horrible center of religious persecution, with Christians forced to meet in underground churches under constant threat of armed assault.
Later in the book, we see Ludvik himself grappling with these issues from a very different perspective. In addition to the political aspects of his struggle, Ludvik’s agony is much more personal as he finds himself enslaved by the desire for revenge on his former comrades. Having misspent his life in an aimless drift, his quest climaxes in an adulterous tryst with the wife of Pavel, the Party leader responsible for Ludvik’s expulsion. In contrast to Kotska, the atheist Ludvik senses no redeeming grace available to him. Rather, he simmers in an aura of hopeless Existentialist musings:
What was it then, that was mistaken? History itself? History the divine, the rational? But why call them history’s errors? They seem so to my human reason, but if history really has its own reason, why should that reason care about human understanding, and why should it be as serious as a schoolmarm? What if history plays jokes? (The Joke, p. 288)
Adding this anthropomorphic slant to history is an interesting coping mechanism, but one that I feel is unsuccessful. History is not a person, and is therefore not capable of "playing jokes." History is an arbitrary, yet continuing work that we can only read, learn from and hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes.
We see this reflected in the rich symbolism of the book’s climax. Jaroslav’s participation in a performance of his beloved folk songs comes to an abrupt and tragic end. Could his heart attack be a symbol of the heartbreaking failure of the Communist system? As Ludvik watches the ambulance carry away his old friend and last remaining link to his Communist past, Kundera deliberately leaves the story with an uncertain ending. In the years subsequent to The Joke’s publication, history has given us a more certain image of the tragic consequences of Communism, which we have seen to be one of the most cruel and tragic Jokes ever. <p>
Kundera, Milan. The Joke. 1967. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. New York, NY.
Quotes from the Communist Manifesto are taken from an online version located at <http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto.html>