Sunday, June 3rd, 2012


How do parents and children really get on in China? I was intrigued by this question, since so many elderly live with their offspring. The thought of my mother – no matter how much I love her – or indeed both our mothers living with us is enough to give me the most dreadful nightmares. So how do they manage in China?

To begin with, the Confucian virtue of ‘filial piety’ (xiao) plays a crucial role. This is the cultural assumption that children of whatever age will show respect and deference to their parents, indeed any elders. Even a brief visit to China will soon evince the great respect and admiration shown for the very old. Of course, people complain that it is breaking down (that kind of narrative is trotted out about every young generation), but it is really as strong as ever. (I have often expressed the wish that my four children would show me more filial piety …)

Intrigued about all of this, I asked a friend whose mother lives with her: ‘what is it like? Does your mother still tell you what to do, like mine?’

‘No, she doesn’t need to’, was the response.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘I know what I should do’, she said.

‘So your mother doesn’t tell you what you are doing wrong, ask where you have been, tell you should be doing something else?’

‘No’, she said.

‘But do you do what you are supposed to do?’ I asked.

‘Not always’, she said.

‘How does that work?’ I asked.

She went on to explain that even though she knows what she should do in respect to her mother, and even though her mother assumes that she is doing what she should do, she doesn’t always do it. Her mother never asks, and she never tells her mother, each one assuming that they are following the unwritten rules, while simultaneously knowing that they don’t.

Got it? It took me a while to figure out this deeper meaning of filial piety (xiao). But it makes sense, for in no other way would it be possible to live for years with one’s parents in the same place.

Come to think of it, here is a value we might want to appropriate elsewhere.

That is the common picture: at gunpoint, the Red Army under Stalin’s orders forced unwilling states to accept communist governments. As our teller of tall tales, Winston Churchill, put it in his infamous ‘iron curtain’ speech of March, 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities … lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and are all subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence, but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow … The Communist parties … have been raised to preeminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.

Like his ‘history’ of World War II, this account is somewhat gilded, more notable for its rhetoric than adherence to what was actually happening. It also provided the screen behind which former Nazis were given senior posts in Western Europe, since they were, after all, reliable anti-communists.

But let’s look at a few statistics concerning communist party memberships across Europe to gain a sense of how popular the communists were:

Country Pre-war membership Post-war membership
Albania 1,000 12,000
Austria 16,000 132,000
Belgium 10,000 100,000
Bulgaria 8,000 427,000
Czechoslovakia 80,000 1,292,000
Denmark 2,000 60,000
Finland 1,000 25,000
France 340,000 1,000,000
Germany 300,000 805,000
Greece n/a 100,000
Hungary 30,000 608,000
Italy 58,000 1,871,000
Netherlands 10,000 50,000
Norway 5,000 22,000
Poland 20,000 310,000
Romania 1,000 379,000
Spain 250,000 35,000
Sweden 11,000 48,000
UK 15,000 50,000
Yugoslavia 4,000 250,000

Apart from Spain, all communist parties across Europe made significant to phenomenal gains in membership, the highest being in Romania, with a 379% increase. Given that for every one person who joins a political party, ten more sympathise, these figures reflect a truly mass shift. It is also worth noting that the support was by no means restricted to Eastern Europe, for Italy and France experienced massive growth. Even the small Scandinavian countries saw significant rises in membership. This is far from a small cadre of crazed revolutionaries imposing their will on the masses.

Why? During times of severe and genuine crisis, the Left typically gains mass support, as we see in Greece at the moment. The key, as Lenin tirelessly pointed out, is that the Left needs to be thoroughly organised and prepared for such situations. Of course, it helps if the Red Army is keeping order, but that, to my mind, is far preferable than the Americans or, in our time, NATO. To be added here is the fact that the Right, embodied by fascism, had been largely discredited in the popular mind after the war and that the most resolute opponent of fascism was communism. The result was an image of the communist as a straight-talking, trustworthy and resolute fighter for freedom. Even today in Russia, people tell me of a communist father or grandmother, who was precisely such a person: you knew where you stood; no mucking around; absolutely reliable.