Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Den ersten Mai

Here's the promised post about the first of May, or International Workers' Day. As a brief not before launching into the topic, though, I find it terrifying that Donald Trump as good as has the Republican nomination.

Onto our regularly scheduled programming. The First of May was first established as a celebration by the Second International, an organization of socialist groups, to honor the Haymarket demonstration in Chicago 1886. Socialist, communist, and anarchist groups all demonstrate on the first of May. In Bertolt Brecht's play Die Mutter, a group of revolutionary workers stage a protest on 1. Mai to ask for better wages, shorter hours, etc., and are shot at, which leads to the main character Pelagea Wlassowa's political awakening.

I've written about Die Mutter and about 1. Mai in two separate essays already, but separately and in German, and I think there are still thoughts I have about it that may be easier to formulate in meiner Muttersprache. Some things to consider: when I asked my host mom about her experiences of 1. Mai, she said that one time she and my host dad found themselves in the middle of a black block of student protesters who were confronting the police. But, according to her, the situation was not actually dangerous. Furthermore, the student protests were not coordinated with those of the workers, because the workers wanted better living and working conditions while the students were pushing Marxist ideals.

When we watched Die Mutter, which Brecht intended as a Communist "teaching play" (Lehrst├╝ck), I noticed a tiny framed picture of Stalin in the corner of the stage. In the production they ended up doing absolutely nothing with it. But it was there, and even if it hadn't been there, a German theater--in the western part of the city, no less--putting on a production of a Communist play would be aware of the shadow that Communism has cast, historically.

One of the songs in the Brecht play, das "Lied vom Flicken und vom Rock," criticizes the labor unions and more moderate protesters for asking for just "patches" (Flicken) instead of "the whole garment" (Rock). The choir says--"We don't need just work positions, we need the whole factory, the coal and the ore and the power in the state. That is what we need--but what are you offering us?"

The play didn't do just Die Mutter, but rather had interspersions of extratextual content. One was a monologue by a character dressed in a golden cape, representing Capitalism. In his monologue, he criticized the way that many Western commentators refer to the refugees as a "flood" rather than seeing them as individuals, the way that capitalism sees people. One sentence later he referred to refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as making an unsolicited application (eine Initiativbewerbung).

That line stuck in my head. I am pro-capitalism, because I have been raised in competitive, individualistic, consumerist American culture on the myth that the world is a meritocracy. Communism, even in its theoretical form, does not pass the compatibility test with my intuition of human nature (which, of course, is strongly influenced by my culture). But even so--capitalism has done evil in the world as well. I don't think the whole philosophy is rotten, but reducing people to their economic value throws aside some very important questions about quality of life, justice, freedom.

I lack the social science background and the life experience to say anything substantive about what system of societal organization does the most to protect those who have the least. I know that I have a tremendous amount of social, economic, and educational privilege, and I am slowly becoming aware of how that plays out. While I am here to enrich my mind and enjoy myself, there are others in Berlin who are here fleeing war, fleeing violence, fleeing the violence of poverty. I have an address, a mail box, enough to eat and drink, heating, clean water. The basic necessities are, I believe, more or less provided in many refugee camps (zB at Tempelhof), but I also have a sense of security that cannot be taken for granted.

Some of the 1. Mai demonstrations were in solidarity with refugees. Some of the summer housing accommodations I'm looking into say "refugees welcome."

What do people really want, and what can we do to help them get it? The easiest way to answer the first is to ask.

I don't believe that what people want is a horde of populist demagogues who preach intolerance and insularity. But if that's what we're getting, what does it mean? For all that it crashed and burned, Communism inspired and mobilized a significant portion of the population in the late 19th century and early 20th century to take actions that actually did improve their lives. It called on people to think beyond national boundaries and see themselves as having a fight in common with workers in other countries. It asked for empathy.

Ideals are not enough to create something workable (see the students imposing their ideology on workers, see the tiny picture of Stalin on the side). But ideals, ideas, give people something to rally around, and the ones that are gaining the most traction now are deeply, deeply troubling.

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