Smoking Communism

Communism and tobacco 01

The other day we were discussing alternative ways of funding research and I suggested – in all seriousness – that Big Tobacco may be interested in funding a project on ‘Smoking Communism’. Immediately Castro and his cigars, Stalin and his pipe, and Engels’s love of fine tobacco come to mind. But so also does the smoke-filled inner sanctum of the Communist Party of China, or indeed Marx’s own chain-smoking. A little further research reveals a veritable treasure trove of material. It includes the glorious packet designs for cigarettes:

Communism and tobacco 07

Studies of the crucial role tobacco played in developing the economies of places like Bulgaria:

Communism and tobacco 16

Ludicrous Cold War advertising by Big Tobacco in the United States:


You don’t believe it? Well, wait a second. Let’s use the  same kind of statistical analysis the Public Health Service is using to “prove” that cigarettes cause cancer. We’ll use only statistical facts taken from bona fide population surveys.

1. Americans smoke a lot and some of them die of lung cancer. The Dutch smoke  less than Americans, but more of them die of lung cancer.

2. The Australians smoke a lot and some of them die of lung cancer. The British smoke as much as the Australians, but twice as many British have lung cancer.

3. The Norwegians don’t smoke a lot, but some die of lung cancer. The Finns smoke the same as the Norwegians and twice as many Finns die of lung and bronchial cancer.

One statistical inference is very clear. In each pair of countries, the higher cancer rate is in the country closer to the Iron Curtain.

By the same means that some public servants are using to indict cigarettes, we’ve just proved that Communism causes cancer. But you know and we know, Communism is not guilty. And nobody yet knows about cigarettes.

A good old communist joke:

Ivanov applied to the Communist Party. The party committee conducts an interview.

“Comrade Ivanov, do you smoke?”

“Yes, I do a little.”

“Do you know that comrade Lenin did not smoke and advised other communists not to smoke?”

“If comrade Lenin said so, I shall cease smoking.”

“Do you drink?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Comrade Lenin strongly condemned drunkenness.”

“Then I shall cease drinking.”

“Comrade Ivanov, what about women?”

“A little….”

“Do you know that comrade Lenin strongly condemned amoral behavior?”

“If comrade Lenin condemned, I shall not love them any longer.”

“Comrade Ivanov, will you be ready to sacrifice your life for the Party?”

“Of course. Who needs such life?”


And finally, a manifesto of sorts, by Mladen Dolar (from whom I borrowed the title of the project):

Smokers, like proletarians, have no country, but they instantly create liberated territories wherever they appear. Smoking always represented liberty, a fickle freedom against the chains of survival, it is an anti-survivalist stance. It states: I am free in chains, while being chained to this habit that I can’t give up, but these chains allow taking a bit of distance to the overwhelming other ones and I am willing to pay the price. Smoking makes a statement, which can be read in all kinds of ways, cynical, spontaneous, relaxed, neurotic, psychotic, perverse, obsessive, compulsive, guilty pleasure, sinful, dandy, bon-vivant, desperate, anti-stress, aggressive, arrogant, seductive, available, mark of class, mark of lack of class, sociability, anti-social behavior … But against all odds and in a wild fancy I would like this statement to read: communism has a chance.

Stalin's Tobacco 03

 Actually, forget Big Tobacco for this one …





Mao’s personal five-year plan

Mao didn’t restrict the famous and much-debated ‘Five-Year Plans’ to the realm of economics. He also had a personal one, expressed in 1957:

I, too, have a five-year plan. I’d like to live for five more years. If I can live for another 15 years, I’d be completely content and satisfied. … However, there are unexpected storms in the skies, and people are likely to experience sudden reversals of fortune. This, too, is a matter of natural dialectics. If Confucius were still alive today – if someone who had lived more than two thousand years ago is still not dead – that would be awful, wouldn’t it? (The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, vol. 2, p. 777).

Of course, he died in 1976, so he lived 19 more years. He must have died more than completely content and satisfied …

Stalin’s tobacco preferences

No less iconic than Joseph Stalin’s moustache was his pipe. But what did he put in it? Once he settled on his favoured cherry root pipe, his tobacco of choice was ‘Herzegovina Flor.’ So close did the connection become that the tobacco was also known as ‘Stalin’s Choice’. But this was no ordinary tobacco, for it appeared only in cigarettes. Stalin would take two cigarettes out of a box and shred them into his pipe. Why? Pipe tobacco at the time was cheap and rough and he had become rather fond of the flavour of the cigarettes when he was a young trainee priest and revolutionary.

So what was ‘Herzegovina Flor’? The smokes were produced at the Moscow ‘Java’ factory, which was originally established by Samuel Gabai, from Kharkov, in the 19th century. Gabai’s idea was to produce a tobacco like no other, so he found a tobacco plant in Java, grew it in Herzegovina and then shipped it to Moscow. The products initially became favoured by the elite nobility and fledgling bourgeoisie. So Stalin, as the leader of the first worker’s state was in a quandary. If he smoked the cigarettes, he would give the wrong impression. So he opted for the common man’s pipe, but since he couldn’t tear himself away from the flavour of the tobacco, he decided to use it to fill his pipe. Eventually, the elite origins of the tobacco were forgotten and it became indelibly associated with the man himself. Many others followed suit, among them the famous soviet composer, Mayakovsky.

Of course, with the propagation of the ‘black legend’ of Stalin, Herzegovina Flor sadly fell out of favour. Now it is produced in small amounts, although it is still notable for its rich aroma and high tar content.

Stalin's Tobacco 01

Stalin's Tobacco 02a

Reading Stalin’s pipe

Stalin’s pipe became – along with his moustache – one of his famous attributes. he received many gifts of pipes from around the world, but also has his favourite. The pipe was also a signal of responses to people and ideas. The three key signals were:

1. Pipe taken out of mouth, smoking ceases = moment of thought and possible disagreement or change of mind.

2. Pipe placed carefully on table = someone has stuffed up and is about to be told off.

3. Pipe firmly in mouth and moustache calmly smoothed = deep pleasure and approval.

Criticism of Earth: Preface

I am in the midst of proof corrections for Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology, a hefty tome which is due out in March with Brill and later with Haymarket. So in yet another moment of shameless self-promotion, a section of the preface:

I have put off writing this book for too long, daunted by the endless volumes of Marx’s and Engels’s writings. At long last I opened the first volume of their collected works. Over the next eight months I read the whole lot, instead of the select pieces I had read until then, finishing the last volume on the evening before boarding a freighter-ship bound for New Zealand in June 2008. Vast, tiring and exhilarating, it was one of the great reading experiences I have ever had.

From the nooks and crannies of their youth, with bad poetry, love-letters, angry and worried parents, the story unwound in volume after volume. Marx soon showed up as an obsessive and brilliant writer who cared nothing for his health, even when there was a long history of unstable health on his side of the family. Engels, by contrast, obviously knew how to enjoy himself and unwind: good beer, fine wine, exquisite tobacco and women, mixed in with long-distance hiking and a love for swimming. We follow them through the obstacle course of early political journalism in the face of censorship, arrests and exile in Paris, Brussels and then London. I found myself enticed by Engels’s background, one that was so similar to my own, as well as his remarkable ability with languages (I have come across French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, Frisian, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Devanagari or Sanskrit, as well as classical Hebrew and Greek). While Engels passed through his hawkish phase and wrote some amazing pieces on battles, campaigns, and the histories of matters such as infantry, rifles and castles, Marx buried himself in piles of economic data and wrote endless notebooks working out his breakthrough-theories. As Marx peaked and burned himself out with the monumental first volume of Capital, Engels kept the whole show together, maintaining his partnership in the firm in Manchester, sending Marx endless pound notes in the post, until at last he could retire and set up both Marx and himself in relative comfort. The formality of intellectual work and the immediacy of journalism finally make way for the intensely personal correspondence. Here, Marx’s obsession with his declining health – especially the interminable reports on those famous carbuncles – shows up starkly (if before he disregarded his health now it is at the centre of his attention), as does Engels’s patience and irrepressibly jovial take on life. And this is how the story closes, with Engels dutifully ensuring Marx’s legacy through a mountain of editorial work on Marx’s unfinished manuscripts (not always understanding them) and yet utterly enthused by the strides taken by the working-class and socialist movement.

When I began writing, I became conscious of the fact that Marx and Engels too were primarily writers. I started to gain respect for Engels as a writer. At times, he may have been too categorical and doctrinaire, not quite shining as bright as Marx, but, at other times, his texts sparkle with insight and observation. Unlike Marx’s intense and obsessive prose, Engels could have a lightness of touch and way of turning a phrase that draws one in. I have read his accounts of the walk from Paris to Berne in Switzerland many times, the travel notes on Sweden and Denmark, his glorious description of the cotton-bale that passes through so many handlers and merchants (swindlers) before reaching Germany, or his letters full of comments on smoking, drinking and women, or indeed his continuous doodles, portraits and battle scenes. Only Engels could write, ‘… now I can shit in peace and then write to you in peace. … Damn, there’s somebody sitting in the lavatory and I am bursting’.[1] No wonder he lived to a good age. His motto, written in young Jenny’s notebook would have helped: ‘Your favourite virtue – jollity; Motto – take it easy’.[2]

Often, Engels had to remind Marx to get some fresh air and exercise instead of sitting on a broken chair at a worn desk in order to write. For Marx was driven by a demanding muse, one that allowed him three or four hours sleep a night, rushed breaks for meals and those endless cups of coffee and reams of tobacco. There are plenty of notes in the letters about working all night, or for thirty hours straight until his eyes were too sore to go further, or Jenny taking over letter-writing since he had dropped from sheer exhaustion. No wonder he became so ill – liver, carbuncles, sores, abscesses, rheumatism, lungs (the letters are full of them) – and no wonder he recovered when on the sea at Margate where he ate well, went for long walks (up to 27 kilometres to Canterbury), swam everyday and slept. He was already sick from overwork in his 30s, was alternating between periods of enforced rest and frenetic writing in his 40s, was spent after Capital appeared at the age of 49, and he could not write anything substantial after that. He was lucky to get to 65.

The image Marx’s father, Heinrich, had of his son in Berlin pretty much sums up the way Marx wrote: ‘God’s grief!!! Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp; running wild in a scholar’s dressing-gown and with unkempt hair instead of running wild over a glass of beer’.[3] Or, in Marx’s own words:

The writer does not look at all on his work as a means. It is an end in itself; it is so little a means for him himself and for others that, if need be, he sacrifices his existence to its existence. He is, in another way, like the preacher of religion who adopts the principle: ‘Obey God rather than man’.[4]

The result was that Marx’s texts are often rushed, dense, endless and written in that atrocious hand. Yet he could also rise from that tangle and produce extraordinarily brilliant stretches of text, such as the Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France, but it came less naturally to him. I find myself caught in between, preferring Engels as a writer over against Marx, but then taken up with Marx’s sheer originality. And I must confess that I too often succumb to that demanding muse.

[1] Engels 1839ff, p. 411; Engels 1839gg, p. 354.

[2] Engels 1868k, p. 541.

[3] Marx (Heinrich) 1837, p. 688.

[4] Marx 1842i, p. 175.

Lenin … on smoking

Warn smokers. No smoking. Strictly. Tea and smoking during the break (in the adjoining room).

Collected Works, vol. 45, p. 568.

P.S. Next: was Lenin a dictatorial centrist, suspicious of workers and keen to keep them out of the small core of professional revolutionaries? Kautsky, Luxemburg, the Mensheviks and others seemed to think so.