Note from LeftEast editors. This article was originally published on June 2, 2022, on Alarm.cz . We publish it as part of a cooperation among Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet).
We talked with Albanian writer and academic Lea Ypi about her award-winning memoir, where she describes growing up in one of the most isolated countries of the communist bloc and Albania’s transition from rigid Stalinism into free-market capitalism.
When the Berlin wall fell during autumn 1989 and huge crowds of people forced the communist authorities to step down in Czechoslovakia, the rigid Stalinist regime was still in power in Albania. It was not until the violent revolution in Romania and the execution of president Nicolae Caucesescu that the “silent majority“ of Albanians decided to take matters into their hands and put further pressure on the decaying system. Communism was soon over in Albania, too. It was one of the most isolated countries of the Eastern socialist bloc, which had gradually cut off its alliance with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China. Albania remained isolated also in its fight against Western capitalism and what the Albanians termed the “revisionists“ of the communist bloc. Albanian writer and academic Lea Ypi, who is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, wrote the memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History about the time when she was growing up in Albania. This period corresponded with the end of communism in Albania and its transformation towards free-market capitalism. Her carefree childhood, when neither she nor her parents openly questioned communist ideology, ended after the revolution when she found out that her parents were in fact political dissidents who belonged to the upper class before the Second World War and therefore were enemies of the communist systém. How did she put up with the fact that her parents did not tell her the truth about her family history? How did the transformation of Albania from a rigid Stalinist systém into free market capitalism happen and what does she find problematic about today’s conception of what is freedom?
How did you personally experience life in late communist Albania?
I was in a very politicized environment. The time period of my childhood coincided with the last years of communist Albania. I was subjected to the communist ideology, state propaganda, nationalism and Albania’s place in the world which was fighting its battles with imperialism and revisionism. I was told what to believe and I believed what I was told. The first part of my book is about how I grew up in the environment being told certain things about the country and thinking that all those things were true. My family didn’t intervene to stop that information from flowing in the way it flowed and me believing it in the way that I believed it. It was only in 1990 that I discovered that the family I grew up with was in fact a dissident family that had a history of hostility, conflict and persecution from the socialist state, which went back all the way to the 1940s, but I didn’t know this when I was growing up because they didn’t tell me. There were things about my childhood that were strange to me. Like, for example, my grandmother spoke French to me and I didn’t know why she was speaking French to me as it was certainly not a common thing. Only later did I find out that this was because she grew up in an aristocratic family in the Ottoman Empire and just after the fall of Ottoman Empire she was living in Greece in Salonica, which was a very multicultural cosmopolitan city back then, and French was a language of many of these families.
What is your view now on the fact your parents didn’t tell you what was really going on in your family?
It was a big shock for me when they told me the whole story about my family. It’s one of these traumas that you never absorb immediately. You always carry them through in your life. It creates such a crisis of faith in terms of being told that all these institutions that you believed in – your family and the state – you don’t believe them anymore, because everything you were told was false. So how can you know that the new truths that you are being told are actually true as opposed to other stories? That’s why I grew up with a sense of scepticism around the narratives that were given to me. But on the other hand, I understood the reasons why my parents did it, which was partly to protect themselves from censorship. And it would have been dangerous if I had talked about their political inclinations or about their aspirations with people outside the family circle. They also wanted me to grow up with ambition and belief that things were possible for me and they didn‘t want to crush this hope early on in my life.
When did the rigid Stalinist system in Albania start to collapse?
Basically, communist rule in Albania started to collapse in 1990, which was a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What triggered the fall of Albanian communism was the end of Ceausescu and his killing, which was shown on Yugoslav TV. It shocked and woke up people. It was a part of the domino effect in Eastern Europe, but in Albania it came a bit later because it wasn’t really a part of the Soviet bloc. Albania even left the Warsaw pact in 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. They condemned Soviet imperialism and the USSR’s effort to crush small satellite countries.
In your book you mention that the 1989 revolution was a revolution of people against the concept? What do you mean by that?
One of the things that shapes the book is that no totalitarian system can survive without the complicity of ordinary people. What happens in society that emerges out of this brutal communist regime is that basically it becomes very divisive. But it’s very difficult to trace the lines of division because everyone was both victim and perpetrator at the same time. In my book, I mention that there were communist party members who were helping other people, like for example dissident families. On the other hand, there were people among dissident families who were cooperating with the regime and were spies. That made it difficult for society to settle accounts with historical injustice, because the level of complicity of everyone made it hard to distinguish between perpetrator and victim. In that context what happened was that you rally against ideas. If it is difficult to distinguish who was perpetrator and who was victim, you can solve the problem of historical injustice by making the very concepts criminal. This resulted in extreme hostility to everything that smacks of marxism, socialism, or communism and all these ideas that have been part of the discourse of propaganda of the communist regime, because ideas cannot defend themselves in the way in which people can and there was no justification to make on behalf of them. There was this wildly found consensus around the criminality of ideas. That’s why I say the revolution was a revolution of people against the concept because the only thing that was left to blame was the very terms under which this revolution happened.
The main term of your book is of course freedom. As I understood it you try to show how different people based on their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender can perceive freedom differently. From our perspective today do you find in some way problematic that the revolution of 1989 was based on such a broad and unspecific ideal like freedom?
I don’t have a problem with the term freedom and with the commitment and aspirations to freedom. I think it is very important to have that aspiration in every society and to have that kind of collective commitment to create a free society, but I object to the way in which freedom has been reduced to the particular liberal understanding of what freedom is that applies to capitalist economic structures. It’s an exclusive kind of freedom and it leaves a margin for a lot of forms of unfreedom, because of the way how markets operate and the connection between national and international levels of decision-making. And also because of the way the legacy of the past shapes the history of the country and the fact that often these legacies are not really remedied in the present. I think there are many problems with the way in which we assume that freedom is liberal freedom and freedom is a kind of combination of economic and political freedom that we find in liberal states. The problem with that is often how that ideal gets institutionalized in the societies that we have, as opposed to the idea itself, which is no doubt an important one and it’s worth thinking about how you realize that idea and what form of democracy is needed to realize that ideal in a way that works for everyone.
So during the revolution of 1989 and 1990 the term freedom was free of political ideas, but later on it was institutionalized by liberalism.
Yes, I think it was a right call to make the revolution about freedom and democracy and sometimes a lot of these internal movements, especially in Eastern Europe, were democratizing movements, but were not necessarily free market movements. The problem was the conflation of aspiring for political freedom and for democratizing society at all levels and combining that with privatizing, opening up to the free-market economies and thinking about trade in the neoliberal sense, opening to investments without guarantees for people who are vulnerable and who are made victims of this system, because its structure generates unfreedom. I think that the problem in societies in Eastern Europe was that there was a kind of conflation of the failure of socialism being equated with the victory of liberalism, which I think was not necessarily the case. In many of these movements, the internal aspirations were for reforming these societies and maybe the drive should have been towards a different kind of society that went beyond both of these models – state socialism and the neoliberal model.
In your book you mention the political crisis in 1997 when the country was struck by a pyramid scheme collapse. Could you describe what happened and how it affected Albania?
In the beginning of the 1990s, Albania had a very primitive financial sector. Often transactions between people were informal and there was no robust banking sector. People didn’t not have a lot of savings and they relied on informal ways of lending money to each other and creating collective pots of money. The discourse changed with the opening up of the neoliberal economy. Albania started to be exposed to this new ideology of how money is made under capitalism and that you need to invest and save money or the other way round. A lot of free economic initiatives became the word of the day. Pyramid schemes set up in the early Nineties started to promise people a lot of very high returns for their savings. They promised that if you gave your monthly savings to these companies, they would give you back sometimes triple the amount in a short period of time. People believed it because they felt that was how capitalism and the financial sector works. You just deposit your money and then some company distributes that money in a way that you make a profit. This went on more or less unchecked by international institutions that should have had the experience to alert about the dangers of these schemes, but they sounded the alarm bells only when it was too late. Some of these companies were also involved in electoral campaigns and they used their money to fund politicians’ campaigns. At the time the country was being governed by the Democratic Party, the main opposition party to the former communists. This went on until the top of the pyramid was reached and the companies were unable to fulfil their obligations to their customers. They were unable to return what they promised and they collapsed. Most Albanian families had invested their money in these companies. Everyone was angry because they lost their savings. Some people had sold their houses to put the money in these financial companies. This led to anarchy and looting. The elections were already contested so there was no opposition in parliament. There was a climate of general instability which resulted in complete collapse of the state. It wasn’t safe to be outside in the streets because everyone had a gun and there were shootings all the time.
Did this episode change the way how people in Albania perceived capitalism?
It was narrativized not as a failure of capitalism, but as a failure of the primitive understanding of what capitalism is. It a capitalist logic of responsibility – the whole country was made responsible for this failure to understand how they should handle their finances. The problem was that the model could become dominant because there was no political opposition to this particular way of understanding how money circulates and how the economy should work.
Ok, so it was taken as the end of naive capitalism and now is the time to move forward to more advanced type of capitalism.
The idea was that this was one bad model and now what we need is a reformed capitalism more in touch with institutions of the West. If Albanians are able to do it in the way that the other advanced capitalist countries do it, then hopefully they will reach their level in the future.
What is the political situation in Albania today?
Like in other countries on the periphery of the European Union, the discourse is still about “catching up with the West”. It is believed that institutions are still primitive and they need to endorse the model of rule of law and combination of political and economic organization that you find in the “more advanced” Western European countries. The process of accession to the European Union drives politics forward in Albania. This integration discourse acts as a depoliticizing vehicle within the country. There is a lack of politics of vision, effectively no discussions on proper wealth redistribution, and the whole debate is overshadowed by this vague analysis of ‘corruption’ as the main culprit for a failure to deliver on ordinary people. So, it’s very much like any other country in the Balkans – very unequal, with basic problems of state-building and brain-drain. It is a typical story of a “country in the transition” which is hoping to be part of the EU and is orienting all its domestic politics towards this goal of external accession but without questioning the overarching features of the political and economic system both domestically and internationally.
Today conservative right winger thinkers and politicians often “warn us” against Western liberals and institutions, mainly universities that teach and therefore want bring back Marxism and make it relevant again. In this narrative, we – Easterners -should teach them a lesson about it, because we lived under communism and we know better. Does this critique also appear in Albania? And what is your view on this?
Yes, you find versions of this view. As an academic who teaches in a Western liberal institution, I don’t find it particularly persuasive – there is sometimes pressure from students to diversify the curricula but the progress is very slow. Just take a look at the majority of economics departments, where economic history has virtually disappeared, and ask yourself how much the mainstream views are being challenged. As from lessons from us Easterners, well, I think we could teach a thing or two about the failures of liberalism in our societies, that would balance things out.
At the end of your book you say that you’ve written this book as an answer to your parents who find it difficult to understand your interest in Marxism and communism as a professor of political science at the London School of Economics. That they cannot understand why you devote your time and energy to studying something that brought them much pain and despair. Have they read the book? How did they react?
Only my mother and my brother are still around. Yes, they read the book –my mother even asked me to cut some paragraphs she didn’t like (which I did). I don’t think my mother has ever been particularly convinced by my politics. She has a tendency to see any perspective that challenges the status quo as hopelessly utopian. But she now understands better where I come from, she understands my effort to carry forward the aspirations of those who sought to radicalise democracy in the Nineties, and that someone needs to make a case for the ideals that seem lost.
Lea Ypi is a professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics. Her first trade book Free won the Ondaatje Prize and the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize and the Costa Biography Award. It is being translated into twenty languages.
Ondřej Bělíček is an editor of Czech online daily Alarm (https://a2larm.cz). He contributes to the American magazine Jacobin.