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Alex Callinicos

European Culture: Horrible Heritage

(December 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 126, December 1989.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

”EUROPE” – the word is suddenly on everyone’s lips. The obscure debates over how far the European Community (EC) should move in the direction of political and economic integration have been overtaken by events. The crisis of the Russian empire – above all the opening of the Berlin Wall – conjures up the image of a continent no longer partitioned between the superpowers, but remade from below by the masses themselves.

One of the main issues this raises is the very idea of Europe itself. It has been, in fact, a subject of much debate among Eastern European intellectuals for some time now.

A few years ago the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote an elegy for Central Europe. By this he means the countries which, part of the Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian Empires before 1914, had enjoyed a brief period of independence between the wars, before once again being subjected to alien rule, this time from Moscow.

This was, Kundera argued, an exclusion from Europe:

“In fact, what does Europe mean to a Hungarian, a Czech, a Pole? Their nations have always belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity. They have participated in every period of its history. For them, the word ‘Europe’ does not represent a phenomenon of geography but a spiritual notion synonymous with die word ‘west’.” Russia, by contrast, is “not just another European power”, but “an other civilization”.

At one level, Kundera’s argument (which has been endorsed by other eastern European intellectuals) seems simply silly. How can one imagine the European culture of the past two centuries without Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mayakovsky and Pasternak, merely to mention some of the writers? But the point of the argument is political. As Eric Hobsbawm – a bad Marxist but a good historian – observed not long ago, Europe is “a continent whose very definition has been political”.

Crudely speaking, Russia is to be included out of Europe and identified as a centre of Asian barbarism by comparison with the sublime “spiritual” values of Europe. Much of the propaganda associated with EC integration peddles the same image of Europe as a haven of liberty and culture. And it is accepted by many Russians – witness Gorbachev’s “common European home”.

He has also spoken of “a deep, profoundly intelligent and inherently humane European culture”. Even a Russian socialist as critical of Gorbachev as Boris Kagarlitsky called Marxism in his Deutscher Memorial Lecture “the path to European civilization”.

The proper duty of Marxists is rather to expose all this Eurotalk for the humbug it is. The idea of the spiritual virtues of European civilization is closely bound up with another fashionable notion, that of “cultural heritage”. The Marxist critic Walter Benjamin observed of “cultural treasures”:

“the historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

And there is no continent fuller of documents of barbarism than Europe. The continent which produced the Mona Lisa and Mozart also sheltered Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Nazi extermination camps were the creation of the culturally and economically most advanced nation in Europe. As one of Kundera’s critics pointed out, his beloved Central Europe spawned Adolf Hitler as well as Franz Kafka.

But Nazism is merely the most extreme case. European conflicts twice this century spread death and desolation across the world, the culmination of a process through which the entire globe had fallen under the domination of this continent at the price of the most appalling suffering.

It is impossible to separate Europe’s achievements from the horrors it has wreaked on humanity. Perhaps the most beautiful room I have ever been in is the Codrington Library in All Souls College, Oxford, which was built with the profits of the slave trade.

Nor is this a matter merely of the past. Where do the millions of descendants of Europe’s colonial or semi-colonial subjects – Indians, Algerians, Turks, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Afro-Caribbeans, Vietnamese – fit in to a “Europe rooted in Roman Christianity”?

To celebrate Europe’s “spiritual values”, ignoring that chief among these values is barbarism, is not merely to collude in racism but, quite possibly – given the new possibilities ushered in by the disintegration of the Eastern bloc – to help clear the path for a new superpower centred on a reunited imperialist Germany.

Socialists’ horizons should be wider, indeed global, regarding struggles in Leipzig and Vorkuta, Sao Paolo and Johannesburg, London and Seattle, as parts of one fight, to create a new world, superior both to the Western market and decaying Stalinism.

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