A review of: Lea Ypi, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Penguin
Albania was Stalin’s favourite example of total insignificance in world politics. Its fate was barely discussed at the wartime conferences of the Allied powers. Against considerable odds, and with little outside help, the partisans and communists led by Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu forced the German army from their country in 1944, and afterwards held off a series of US and British operations to subvert the new state, including CIA and MI6-sponsored parachute landings by Albanian fascists and monarchists trained in Libya and Malta. But no one cared: the Western press showed little curiosity about this Balkan Bay of Pigs on a loop. The Kremlin didn’t bother inviting Albania to join the Cominform, and in 1947, Stalin encouraged Tito’s Yugoslav Federation to ‘swallow’ the country whole. Albania, in Moscow’s view, was an inconveniently located mass of mountain primitives that would take decades to modernise. When Hoxha, who would rule the country with an iron fist for forty years, visited the Kremlin in 1949, Stalin advised his zealous comrade not to be too hasty in collectivising agriculture, and to think twice about liquidating the merchant bourgeoisie – those people could be useful – only to be told that Albania didn’t really have one.
In the postwar years, Albania became more royal than the king. It broke with the Soviet Union after Khrushchev tried to shut down the Stalin cult in 1956. It broke with China in the late 1970s when Hoxha sensed Beijing was cosying up to the West (Mao, Hoxha decided, had been playing a Marxist-Leninist when in fact he was merely a ‘progressive revolutionary democrat’). Towards the end of his reign, Hoxha even broke with his own loyalists, almost certainly having Shehu, his hyper-Stalinoid prime minister, murdered (he was convinced that Shehu had been a British agent in deep cover for thirty years, and had engineered the alliance with Maoist China in order to weaken Albanian communism). Despite these bumps on the road to utopia, Hoxha could point to some success after three decades of breakneck modernisation: agricultural autonomy was complete, illiteracy was almost non-existent, an industrial base had been extracted from discarded allies, and the country did not have the Achilles’ heel of other communist states, having enshrined in its constitution that it would take no credit and give no concession to foreign states or firms. Albania in the 1980s was a country in which the dictatorship of the proletariat was always just around the corner. It enjoyed a motley international fanbase. There were Hoxhaist parties and factions across the globe, with hardline groups in New York and London and Stockholm. Hugo Chávez got his start in a Venezuelan platoon putting down a group of Hoxhaist rebels; an offshoot of the Hoxhaist party in Ecuador holds the provincial government of Esmeraldas. In Berlin, where I live, there are certain protests where the old Hoxhaists show up, as if to remind everyone that reports of their demise have been exaggerated (though not by much).
Lea Ypi is an old Hoxhaist of a different sort. She was born in 1979 to a family of the Albanian intelligentsia living in the port city of Durrës. She became a child prodigy, publishing a book of poetry, Injured Sleep, when she was sixteen and a book of short stories, Just for Yourself, at eighteen, and was a loyal follower of the regime in her youth. After the fall of communism her family sold its restituted coastal properties to developers, which enabled her to live and study in Italy. As a graduate student in Rome, she wrote a thesis on radical left debates about the European Union, and later completed a PhD (which became her book Global Justice & Avant-Garde Political Agency) at the European University Institute in Florence. In the past decade, as a professor at the LSE, Ypi has become one of the most visible political theorists of her generation, with books on Kant, migration and partisanship, as well as articles that explore the affinities between radical and liberal thought. One of her signature moves is to show that the classics of liberal philosophy and political theory – from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to John Rawls’s Theory of Justice – can’t realise their own putative ambitions without reckoning with the latent radicalism in their projects. For several years Ypi has been a co-editor of the Journal of Political Philosophy, an ecumenical, neither-right-nor-left quarterly which performs a gatekeeping role in the field.
In interviews, Ypi has said that her publishers originally asked her to write a book on the subject of ‘freedom’, but she found that all her best examples came from her childhood. Albania has been treated as a delicacy by historians of the Cold War, and has had little attention from political scientists. Yet over the last eighty years it has experienced its share of regime types, from the fascist monarchy of King Zog to Hoxha’s developmentalist dictatorship to the artwashing neoliberal carnival of today under Edi Rama. Post-Cold-War Albania has something to teach students of civil war, ‘transition’, migration crises and financialisation. What developed into a book of ‘auto-theory’ by Ypi transformed still further into a literary memoir. Her earlier incarnation as a writer seems to have reasserted itself over her identity as an academic. Free still bears traces of its original conception: under the limpid surface the ‘themes’ are checked off one by one: feminism, religion, migration etc. Yet the result is a plunge into the vanished world of Albanian communism and the new system that was meant to replace it. The fun of the book (for a Western reader at least) is that Ypi has made communism her control, with the market-based revolution of the 1990s the estranging experience that forces her to reckon with what it means to ‘come of age at the end of history’.
‘I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin,’ Ypi writes in the opening line of Free. She describes herself, aged eleven, as an ardent young Pioneer who loves her country and worships ‘Uncle Enver’. On a rainy day in December 1990 she had run to the statue of Stalin to hide from a band of hooligans wreaking havoc in the wake of the state’s collapse, only to find her idol defiled, his head broken off. In the first sections of Free, Ypi presents a child’s impression of Albanian communism – stable, confident – where the only remaining transition to make is from the socialism the Albanians have achieved to the full communism for which they are still preparing. ‘I’d always thought there was nothing better than communism,’ she writes. ‘Every morning of my life I woke up wanting to do something to make it happen faster.’ As a schoolgirl Ypi reads Richard Wright, learns about the capitalist enemies who want to turn her beloved country into a shopping mall, and encounters odd European tourists, some of whom seem to pity her and some of whom treat her like a precious specimen. Small anxieties balloon in her mind: she has trouble pronouncing the word for ‘collectivisation’ (kolektivizimi) and – an annoying coincidence – she shares her surname with the country’s interwar fascist caretaker, which makes for some uncomfortable moments in history lessons.
Ypi’s depiction of her family has echoes of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, a memoir of family life under Mussolini, and Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, some of whose family yearned to live under British fascism. There are similar scenes of people who appear capable of little more than safeguarding their eccentricities amid ideological storms. Ypi’s grandmother grew up in Salonica, met her husband at King Zog’s wedding when she was a girl, and coaxes Lea into speaking French whenever possible. Unexpectedly, she appears to be the least nostalgic member of the family. Ypi’s mother, Doli, is the one who loves to read, who watches Dynasty and who – in a nervous attack before Lea’s birth – is discovered in a bathroom frantically trying to fix her hair like Margaret Thatcher’s. Lea’s father is a forestry engineer specialising in laurels. In principle he is committed to the socialist ideal that men do half the housework; in practice, he enlists his mother for the task. ‘He hated all wars,’ Ypi writes. ‘He was a pacifist. But he romanticised revolutionary struggle.’ His only requirement for revolutionaries was that they die trying. But the Ypis were not a dissident family – at least not outwardly. Young Lea feels forlorn when no one else in the family shares her sadness watching the funeral procession for Uncle Enver on television. Instead they bicker over whether it’s Beethoven’s Third Symphony that’s playing in the background.
Ypi recovers the sensory world of communist Albania: its privations, its ecstasies, but also its banalities. Young people in Albania fretted over what to wear to school just like children elsewhere. And it’s a testament to the power of the communist ideal that the corporeal electricity which Eric Hobsbawm felt as a boy marching with the KPD in Weimar Berlin was still available to a young Pioneer half a century later in the Stalinist carapace of 1980s Albania. Ypi casually invites readers to exchange impressions from their own indoctrinated childhoods with hers (or so at least this former child-Reaganite-supply-sider felt). The set pieces most praised by Anglophone reviewers seem to me to be among the weakest: Ypi is, if anything, too heavy on the commodity-comedy so familiar from Eastern Bloc memoirs. It’s all there: the fight over the talismanic Coke can that nearly tears two families apart; the dishwasher fluid used as shampoo; the comforting purr of a functioning Western refrigerator; the first touch of a plastic bag; the intoxicating scent of sunscreen.
Halfway through Free, the communist state of Albania collapses. It is also the collapse of Ypi’s world. Her childhood illusions are dispelled: the reason her parents didn’t cry at Hoxha’s funeral was that they weren’t exactly sad to see him go. The relatives they described as going to ‘university’ were in fact in prison. It’s no accident that Ypi shares a last name with Xhafer Ypi: the former fascist prime minister of Albania is her great-grandfather. This latest change in regime catapults her parents into new positions. Her mother becomes involved with the new conservative-liberal party. Her father is put in charge of the now privatised port at Durrës. At first there is general euphoria about the possibilities of post-communist Albania. Everyone senses they are going to get rich, and the long-awaited freedoms of the West beckon. But Ypi charts the steady disenchantment as one delusion gives way to another: the arrival of capitalism comes in the form of a series of government-backed ponzi schemes which bankrupt the population; competitive democracy turns out to mean civil war (leaving around three thousand dead); the freedom of movement comes in the form of Albanians being treated as despised economic migrants in the rest of Europe. The absorption of former communist states from Southern and Eastern Europe into the capitalist world was often accompanied by violence. Before the war in Kosovo and now Ukraine, the violence in Albania pitted the stupendously corrupt anti-communist regime of Sali Berisha, which had taken power in 1992, against an opposition of criminal gangs, army defectors, suddenly impoverished property owners, anti-anti-communists and unrepentant Hoxhaists. By the end of the 1990s, Ypi’s mother was eking out a living as a cleaner in Italy, while her father died from asthma exacerbated by Albania’s air pollution. But the same capitalist system that impoverished the country ultimately came to the rescue of the Ypi clan. Under the new property laws, their coastal lands were returned. They sold them, and after the Albanian civil war was over, Lea left for Italy.
Free was warmly received by Anglophone critics and has won a lot of prizes. The Daily Mail praised it as an incisive portrait of the madhouse of Enver Hoxha’s Albania, while Jacobin lauded it as the opposite: a humane portrait of communism, dispensing with the lie that ordinary lives were not led in communist states. Many critics found much to admire in Ypi’s dramatisation of the clashing delusions of the two ideologies. In the sharpest section of the book, she describes the transformation of the 1990s, sending up the pretensions of the civil society mafia:
My teenage years were years of hyperactivism in civil society. Like many others, I was not blind to the benefits. Those were both spiritual and material. With the debating teams of the Open Society Institute, for example, you could discuss such motions as: ‘Capital punishment is justified’ and learn about the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. Debating ‘Open societies require open borders,’ you could learn about the function of the World Trade Organisation. With the Action Plus information campaigns about Aids, you could kill an afternoon eating free peanuts and drinking Coca-Cola in the former ping-pong room of the Palace of Sports. With the Friends of Esperanto, there were promises of travelling to Paris. With the Red Cross, one could hang around when distributing groceries to families in need and get a free packet of rice. This was different from the rice we used to borrow from our neighbours; firstly, there was more of it; secondly, it came from the West; and thirdly, it contained a ‘use-by date’ which informed you of when you were supposed to eat it, usually the week before.
This would make Gramsci smile. At its best, Ypi’s prose is tart, tactile and unsparing in its account of a society undergoing ‘transition’. In one of the book’s funniest moments, her father proudly speaks of his encounters with the surprisingly gentle members of the US Marine Corps – the shock troops of shock therapy – who arrive at his doorstep in dark attire, only for Lea to realise that, with his faulty English and lack of recent exposure to religion, he has confused Marines with Mormons.
The reception of Free in Albania was different. Ypi’s book launch was hosted by the prime minister, Edi Rama, in Enver Hoxha’s old villa, with the US ambassador in attendance. It was hard to tell who was trolling whom. In the wake of the publication of Free, the Guardian ran an article about the abuse Ypi was receiving from Albanians who saw her as an apologist for Hoxha’s regime. But other Albanian critics argued that the book pandered too much to its Western audience. The opening image of Ypi hugging the statue of Stalin came in for particular scrutiny. There was no large statue of Stalin in Durrës in 1990: there was only a small bust, and it was never decapitated. Ypi responded by mocking her Albanian fact-checkers’ tiresome adherence to the ‘correspondence theory of truth’, and directed them to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Excavation and Memory’, where Benjamin argues that genuine memory yields an image of the person who remembers rather than simply cataloguing events.
It’s true that the protocols of Anglo creative non-fiction have struggled to find a footing in Europe, where there is no established genre of non-fiction, much less ‘creative non-fiction’. (In German, nicht-fiktionale Literatur is a very recent Anglicism. Outside of history and memoirs, there is no common term for ‘non-fiction’, only Sachbücher, ‘books about things’.) In Albania, Ypi’s memoir was marketed as a novel. Nevertheless one would expect more introspection from a philosopher of Ypi’s standing when it comes to local critics. In an impressionistic memoir such as Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, it’s neither here nor there whether there were in fact caryatids on the façade above the Benjamin family flat in 1895. But different standards govern political memoirs that make claims about wider public experience. Adjusting the details of the tearing down of statues in Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 might not bother future Japanese readers, but readers in New Orleans or Bristol would have grounds to feel differently. The problem with some of Ypi’s scenes isn’t really about memory or truth – whether or not her Stalin statue had a thigh for her to press her cheek against. It’s about whether she may have submitted a bit too readily to Anglo-American publishing imperatives that want stories of far-off places served with a spoonful of kitsch. The opening sentence of Wild Swans (‘At the age of fifteen, my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of a tenuous national government of China’), the bestseller that purported to de-exoticise communist China but was criticised for re-exoticising it, strikes me as considerably less cloying, less confected, less college-applicationish than ‘I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin.’
Ypi’s apparent over-compliance with certain narrative expectations makes one wonder if she has oversimplified other aspects of her passage through 1990s Albania. Her turn as a child prodigy was widely reported in the international press at the time, but gets no mention in Free. The experience of being held up to French and Italian television audiences as the model Albanian child of the future must have left her with complicated feelings about this brave new world that was so eager to display its benevolence. But Ypi mostly represses the portrait of herself as a young writer (she does include some raw diary entries from the period) and doesn’t consider the tension between art and the wish to please. She prefers to concentrate almost exclusively on her formation as a political thinker, stressing that she can’t read abstract texts without substituting the landowners, revolutionaries and proletarians with members of her own family and their acquaintances. When it comes to contemporary Albanian politics, however, she is reticent about naming names. Edi Rama’s socialist party may still declare itself a progressive beacon in the Balkans, but his time in office has seen increased corruption (in the EU it costs €1.2 million to build 123 kilometres of road; in Rama’s Albania 20 kilometres can cost you €1.3 million), the closure of opposition media and a public-private partnership bonanza that has endeared it to Brussels. Ypi can’t be unaware of this. But she sits on a committee for higher education Rama convened with diasporic Albanians and has expressed support for various government stunts, such as planting more trees and the razing of the National Theatre.
Free ends with Ypi as a young philosophy student in Rome. She mixes with Marxists and wannabe radicals who dismiss her experience of state socialism as a wild aberration, far from any correct application of Marxism. ‘Their socialism would be brought about by the right people, with the right motives, under the right circumstances, with the right combination of theory and practice,’ Ypi writes. ‘There was only one thing to do about mine: forget it.’ One is disposed to side with Ypi here, as the actual graduate of a state socialist regime. But in the end she doesn’t diverge too far from her friends in their Che Guevara T-shirts: Albania was an experiment gone awry, and it would be absurd to think the socialist pursuit of human freedom couldn’t be carried out in a less savage way.
At the end of Free, Ypi tells us something about her broader work as a political theorist: she sees herself as a mediator between the traditions of liberalism and socialism, and cosmopolitanism and statism. Her concern is that contemporary liberalism has pursued freedom at the expense of equality, while socialists have made the opposite mistake, stressing equality at the expense of freedom. Why can’t we have both? she asks. As she wrote recently in the European Journal of Philosophy, one of the supreme ironies of the Marxist communist utopia is that it fulfils liberal principles of personal agency in full. The dictatorship of the proletariat was only ever meant to be a temporary station on the road to an equal society that no longer requires supervision of the state and in which my freedom is secured only in the realisation of yours. Perhaps this is why Ypi calls herself a ‘Kantian Marxist’. I am not sure I understand what that label means. One of the last major figures to self-identify that way was Eduard Bernstein, who pioneered democratic socialism in the German parliamentary system. But Ypi seems to mean something more general: a lingering suspicion that the left will forget about universal morality in its headlong pursuit of material justice, or perhaps that it will throw out the baby of universalism with the bathwater of global capitalism, or that in its hostility to, say, the European Union, it will retreat from any idea of Europe. But couldn’t our predicament be the other way around: a surplus of moral critique and norm entrepreneurs, and a shortage of accurate reconnaissance about the political conditions of particular institutions and countries?