A Proper May Day Remembrance

When you read this, remember that excuses like “oh, but communism/Marxism wasn’t properly applied/implemented in this case” just don’t cut it. No matter how one tries to apply/implement communism/Marxism, things like the following just keep happening somehow:

After graduating from college, Müller was for years harassed by the Romanian secret police, the infamous Securitate. When she refused to become an informant, they orchestrated a campaign against her. She was subject to arbitrary interrogations, death threats, surveillance, and false rumors meant to discredit her, including the rumor that she was an informant. At its core this campaign was not about bruises, broken limbs, and shattered windows, but about things unseen. The regime’s violence was primarily mental, not physical. The battlefield here is not your body, but your mind and the language you speak; against such a regime you defend yourself not in the street, but in your head. It is Müller’s great achievement in this book, as elsewhere, to depict the individual’s confrontation with the totalitarian system as a fight over words, discourses (official or dissident), life stories (big or small), historical accounts, grand narratives, history textbooks, and archives. For totalitarianism, above all, is a linguistic project.

Even the most brutal episodes of Müller’s confrontation with the secret police are language-centered. She was investigated, to start with, because she was suspected of having made “pronouncements against the state.” In line with such an accusation, the interrogator would not use torture instruments against her, but words. “During the turbulent phases of the interrogations he called me a piece of shit, a piece of filth, a parasite, a bitch. When he was calmer, a whore or an enemy.” At the next stage there come the death threats. Yet that’s still bearable. “They are part of the only way of life one has, because one can have no other.” Facing death threats can make you stronger: “You defy fear, deep in your soul,” Müller says. Indeed, a death threat is a form of recognition: you are treated as an enemy, acknowledged as something the regime needs to take into account. Worse are the slanders that the regime fabricates and circulates to annihilate you socially. As Müller finds out, “slander robs you of your soul. You are completely surrounded.” This tactic does not offer you any trace of recognition—you are treated as negligible, as trash.

Such slander campaigns could make the secret police in totalitarian regimes look like literary workshops. For what they do is create characters; they make people up and release them into the world. When, years after the collapse of communism, Müller gained access to her secret police file, she discovered that in the archives she was not one, but two distinct people. “One is called Cristina, an enemy of the state, who must be taken on.” Except for the name, this character looked familiar to Müller, a version of herself as reconstructed by the regime’s spies and scribes. The second character was pure fiction. To compromise the real one, the secret police created a fake Müller, Cristina’s “double.” This literary product had all “the ingredients that would be most damaging to me—hardened Communist, ruthless agent, party member.” Working for the Party—or for its “Shield and Sword,” as the secret police was endearingly called—was often seen as a dirty job, something that could rob you of social respectability. Apparently the inner Party knew this better than anyone else.

Ilya Somin thinks that May Day should be designated as “Victims of Communism Day.” No decent person can disagree with that suggestion.