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Free by Lea Ypi review — coming of age in the ruins of Stalinism

If you believed in ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ during the Cold War, what’s not to like about Lea Ypi’s autobiography, says Gareth Jenkins
A black and white picture of Hoxha, he has a clenched fist. Illustrating review of Lea Ypi book Free

“Uncle” Enver—Albania’s Stalinist ruler

What can it have been like to grow up in Albania and reach adulthood just as it was undergoing the transition from “communism” to capitalism in the 1990s? This is the subject of Free—Coming of Age at the End of History, the autobiography of Lea Ypi, now a political philosophy professor at LSE in London. 

The subtitle might suggest that this philosophical memoir, as Ypi calls it, endorses neoliberal champion Francis Fukuyama. In his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, he argued that the collapse of the officially “socialist” states of Eastern Europe left capitalism without an ideological competitor. But Ypi writes as an avowed Marxist, rejecting Stalinism and capitalism as equally failing to measure up to the kind of freedom Karl Marx believed in. 

The strength of the memoir is the way Ypi brings to life the confusions and puzzles that she faced growing up. It’s through her eyes, and from her perspective that we are invited to make sense of the world she confronts. “I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin,” she asks in the first sentence of the book. 

We soon understand why. The Russian dictator’s love for children has been drummed into her by her teacher, who is evasive about whether Albania’s Stalinist ruler “Uncle” Enver Hoxha loves children more. Upset by a noisy demonstration for freedom, Ypi runs for security to Stalin’s giant statue, only to discover when she looks up that there is no loving smile. Protesting “hooligans” have stolen his head.

Other chapters give us an insight into what was important in day to day life under Hoxha. Ypi’s family, for example, finds itself in an enormous row over whether their close neighbours have stolen their prized Coca Cola tin. There is enormous competition over such rarities. 

But there is also cooperation and solidarity. In the ubiquitous queues for scarce goods, the accepted norm was that you could save your position by leaving an object to mark your place. There is a network of mutual borrowing and lending outside the state structures. And getting around the official rules—such as tuning into foreign TV stations—is widespread and coexists with a show of conformity.

Much of this delicate balance depends on no one ever consciously letting slip anything that could be construed as criticism of the regime. No one that is, apart from Ypi herself, who does so innocently. At the reconciliation get-together after the Coca Cola tin row, Ypi interrupts the festivities. She tells their neighbours that her parents had promised to display a photo of “Uncle” Enver, but had never done so. “I don’t think they like Uncle Enver,” she adds. 

The effect is, predictably enough, freezing—and the consequences could have been serious because of the “biography” of Ypi’s family. Biography is code for their status as suspect elements, because of their bourgeois background. Luckily, the other family’s father, who is a relatively important party member, actively colluded in the pretence that the accusation couldn’t possibly be true.

The fracturing of the regime after Hoxha’s death in 1985 blows pretence apart. Ypi’s realisation that her parents had consistently lied to her is experienced as a profoundly disorienting betrayal of trust. They had never challenged her loyalty to an ideology they only outwardly conformed to. 

The political differences between her parents also come to the surface. Her father attempts to recover his anti-Stalinist commitment to socialist ideas while her mother wholeheartedly embraces the watchwords of the new free market order

Ypi casts a jaundiced eye on the “shock therapy” designed to bring freedom and prosperity—particularly, its effect on her father. At last he can get a decent job, only to discover that he is expected to sack people because the World Bank requires “reform”. 

Ypi is scathing about Western hypocrisy. “In the past, one would have been arrested for wanting to leave,” she writes. “Now that nobody was stopping us from emigrating, we were no longer welcome on the other side. The only thing that had changed was the colour of the police uniforms. We risked being arrested not in the name of our own government but in the name of other states, those same governments who used to urge us to break free in the past. 

“The West had spent decades criticising the East for its closed borders, funding campaigns to demand freedom of movement, condemning the immorality of states committed to restricting the right to exit. Our exiles used to be received as heroes. Now they were treated like criminals.” So much for freedom of movement. 

For anyone from Socialist Worker’s political tradition—that said “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism” during the Cold War—what’s not to like about Ypi’s memoir? It demonstrates concretely that, when it comes to exploitation and oppression, there was nothing to choose between the rival systems. 

But I’m left with one question. Ypi criticises her former society for contradicting the Marxist idea of freedom. But she doesn’t agree that a future socialism, “brought about by the right people, with the right motives, under the right circumstances, and the right combination of theory and practice”, could be different. 

If that’s true, we are left with justice and freedom as an unrealisable dream, which is surely the very opposite of Marxism?

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