Briefings - Communism in Aphorism
By Zarko Patan
About the Author of 'Aphorisms'
Zarko Petan (pronounded Zharko Pehtan) was born on 27 March 1929 in
Ljubljana; he later lived in Zagreb and Maribor. He went to school in Senj
on the Adriatic Coast and hated it. He graduated in Economics, but forgot
everything about it since. His real passion is theatre and writing.
Apparently he directed over 110 performances in various theatres in
Slovenia. He has directed plays by Ionesco, Durrematt, Mrozek, Fuzdean,
Shakespeare, Pirandello, and Handke. His career culminated in his
appointment as director of the Slovene National Television and Radio, but
the (ex?)-communists quickly succeeded in changing the rules and removed
him from the post. He has written books about Tito under the titles of The
Marvellous Life of J. B. Tito and The Frivolous Dictator, and has also
written about himself and his family in books such as The Past and The
Continuation of the Past. Most of his works have been translated into
German, some into French and Italian, not to mention Slovak, Bulgarian and
When doing his military service in 1959, Zarko Petan was arrested for
allegedly spying for the United States. He was kept in prison for one and a
About the Translator
Ljubo Sirc is an economist. He was born in Kranj, Slovenia, in April 19,
1920. He participated in the Resistance and served in the Yugoslav Army
between 1941 and 1945. In 1947, due to his political opposition and
friendship with Western diplomats, he was sentenced to death. He was
imprisoned in Slovenia/Yugoslavia from 1947 to 1954, but escaped to the
United Kingdom via Italy in 1955/56.
He received a law degree from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia in
1945, and a Doctorate in Economics from Fribourg University, Switzerland in
1961. Since that time he has held academic appointments at the University
of Dhaka, Bangladesh; the University of St. Andrews, Dundee, Scotland;
Centre Nationale de la Réchèrche Scientifique, Paris, Universities of
Frankfurt, Hamburg and Stanford; and the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
Ljubo Sirc has served as Director of the Centre for Research into
Post-Communist Economies in London. since 1983. He is the author of
numerous books and articles in a variety of languages. His autobiography,
Between Hitler and Tito, was published in 1989.
Communism in Aphorism
(with the transition thrown in)
Aphorisms by Zarko Patan
Presented by Ljubo Sirc
Had I lived in a different country at a different time,
I could consider myself more fortunate,
but my aphorisms would be worse.
When Bill Clinton visited Slovenia in 1999, some people thought that he
should, at least briefly, meet the representatives of those who had
suffered under communism, especially if their suffering was somehow
connected with the United States. It was not to be - the American president
declared that a political situation in which (ex?) communists dominated was
excellent and encouraging tapped the Slovene President, Milan Kucan, on his
shoulder [would a 'pat on the back' be better?] President Kucan was the
last Secretary General (in Yugoslav parlance "president") of the Slovene
Communist Party (in Yugoslav parlance "Communist League"). His head of
electoral staff, Professor Zdenko Roter, is an old political policeman ; he
personally interrogated this writer when he was tried for his life, in
particular for his Western sympathies. Another cherished friend (according
to the Slovene State TV) of Kucan's is Colonel Mitja Ribicic, a Yugoslav
Prime Minister around 1970 when Tito tried to re-introduce class politics,
and also formerly a leading political policeman. As such, Ribicic organised
the show-trial of Nagode and his friends in 1947. Nagode was shot; to this
day, no one knows where they buried him. This, then, is the kind of company
President Kucan still keeps while telling President Clinton about the
marvels of democracy in Slovenia.
Amongst those with whom, in the opinion of this author, President Clinton
should have shaken hands, was Zarko Petan, a well-known Slovene writer. He
had a very hard time because his brother worked for Radio Free Europe in
Munich. Petan described his misadventures in his own book The Past.
Yet the communists could not get at him. He even defended himself which was
considered to be very bad, in line with saying "The beast is dangerous, it
defends itself." Petan's main strength was his humorous disposition.
Instead of succumbing, he started composing aphorisms. He chose this form
of expression as one particularly appropriate to for those in prison, since
the short, biting sentences are easy to remember.
It is an intriguing thought to use such short sentences (in the old Latin
sense of sententiae to illustrate the development of a country under
communist rule and the present transition. They show the country and the
world around it through the eyes of a creative writer, a writer of
aphorisms. This is a way of not reporting mere dry facts, but of conveying
to the reader a part of the feelings that animated the subjects of a
totalitarian regime and its aftermath.
The Quality of Communist Freedom
Petan was too young to react to the events of the so-called "liberation
struggle". There do not seem to be any aphorisms commenting on the
communists' switches from liberation struggle to revolution . Nor does
there seem to be any comment on the tragedy that ensued when the
communists' revolutionary zeal pushed a considerable number of Slovenes
into Nazi hands, believing they could not otherwise defend themselves
against either the communists' attempts to impose their own leadership
monopoly, or communist attempts to "liquidate" their opponents. Yet he does
In revolution, more people get killed
after the battle than during it.
And he confirms
The revolution devours its children as a first course,
and then everybody else that comes its way.
Possibly, it should be the other way round. But Petan is well aware that
many people thought that the "freedom" which the communists had brought
eventually was to be strongly qualified.
We have paid too much for freedom,
especially considering its quality.
A more radical approach would read:
At the liberation of our fatherland
we lost liberty.
The lack of freedom's quality can be most vividly explained:
Sometimes, it is better to think with the head of somebody else,
to protect one's own.
Under these circumstances, people hope that truth will prevail:
Truth will always prevail in the end,
but unfortunately we are only at the beginning.
Other talents are in demand while waiting for freedom:
I know somebody who is successful in turning
his subjective mistakes into objective difficulties.
Blaming everything on objective difficulties was the communists' chosen way
of dealing with the consequences of their own stupidity.
Sometimes it was not all that easy to catch what the communist bosses
wanted one to say:
Whoever believes he understands what is demanded
should ask again, just in case.
That had to be so because
Whenever there is only one path
it is easiest to lose one's way.
Too Clever for Communism
Communists started so many things that went wrong that they must have felt
- deep down - somewhat stupid. Possibly this was the reason why they
disliked clever people so much. Indeed, they did not like Petan who, at any
rate, was also a "class enemy" since his father owned a café in the second
Slovene town of Maribor. Being of the wrong "social origin" and clever at
the same time could prove fatal. Although Petan was not interested in
politics but in theatre directing - one of his particularly expressive
Theatre directors think they are gods;
unfortunately, actors are atheists.
- at the same time the communist politicians were interested in him:
I have no time for politics
but politics had a lot of time for me.
Petan felt that
They will never forgive me
that I was right.
Whoever knew the actual truth about the economic or political situation in
the country had to consider himself
A prophet in the wrong country.
Neither did morality or decency pay:
Should you have firm principles,
do not abide by them.
A clear conscience is more of a
disadvantage than an advantage.
Far better to indulge in self-criticism even if you are right. The art can
be perfected to such an extent that
He writes self-criticism for others.
Regretting one's non-existent sins was the only way to keep clear of the
police and at that
Ordinary police search for criminals;
the secret police designate who they are.
The secret police was [were?] so efficient that
I wonder from where so many class enemies
in our classless society. [sic, but should we change?]
But before you are designated a criminal, keep in mind
You are allowed to speak freely -
Be sensible and don't think.
Or at least
Write always what you think
Lying became a way of life and even stretched to past events.
Sometimes it is difficult
to forecast the past.
Petan in consequence exclaims
Historians (loyal to the Party)
our past is in your hands.
What is interesting and amusing is that things could run away with the
opportunists who did not believe in communism but wanted to please the
powers that be:
It is dangerous if the fellow-travellers
travel faster than the travellers.
Some well-wishers were, however, no cleverer than the communists themselves:
He was an idealist
but had no ideas.
What was socialism really like?
What did socialism feel like without the lies? It was announced with
fanfares how wonderful and prosperous everything was going to be under
We had wonderful plans for planning.
But nothing came of it. Although he studied economics, Petan had little to
say about the economic failures. People adopted the rules by the Party with
Before joining the Party,
he crossed himself.
But rewards followed:
>From his father he had inherited
a ten-room villa plus his proletarian origin.
And so on, until
For himself, he demanded sueperhuman rights.
Life was not equally easy for everybody:
Before the war, we had nothing.
Now we have twice as much.
No wonder some people felt
I live in socialism;
my boss lives in socialism de luxe.
In an even more distortedly sophisticated way, people thought:
For everything we do not have
we should be grateful to you (communist leaders).
On the other hand, there was worse than having little:
Under socialism, the State was
the worst criminal.
The political police and the Party members lived better than the rest, but
quite a few committed suicide:
It is easiest to dirty one's hands
amidst political cleansing.
Or, putting it somewhat differently,
There are ends that corrupt the best means.
Yet the communists reigned supreme and felt superior:
The communists refused to believe in life after death because
they thought they would last forever.
In contrast, the rest of the population moved backwards:
I came back from the future, and being
disillusioned, progressed towards the past.
The same thought was also expressed in terms of personalities:
Under socialism, I had been waiting for
the demise of Tito. His death occurred
but nothing changed. Now I can be saved
by my own passing away only.
Socialism was a progressive ideology
until eliminated by capitalism.
In 1989, socialism died of shame.
It seemed that one heard
Marx's voice from heave: Excuse me,
comrades, I have got it wrong.
The danger is that illusions will persist, since Marx talked about a second
stage of full communism:
It is a pity we did not live to see full communism;
it would have sobered even its most fervent advocates.
Illusions persisted and most bad things continue to be blamed on capitalism:
Capitalism is in a serious crisis, it
no longer provides jobs for the unemployed
from socialist countries.
A strange triumph of Tito was
Tito saved us from Stalin and the Russians.
I wonder who had brought them here in the first place.
Despite the absence of the Soviets, many a Slovene thought
My fatherland is abroad
and tried to escape.
How to get out?
Originally, we looked for a way to socialism.
Now we are looking for an exit.
One almost felt sorry for the communists:
It is a sad day when revolutionaries
have to fight for the status quo.
The results of this travail were, more often than not, surprising:
The market is being introduced;
already one can buy politicians.
In other words:
Bare anti-communism does not
People are beginning to wonder
Am I now an ex-anticommunist?
Difficult to know, since
Our capitalists were communists
Suspicion is rife:
Many returned the Party card
but kept the Party mentality.
The communists do not wish to be responsible
for the sins of their fathers, they just
wish to stay put in their villas.
Do institutional changes help?
What is the use of democratic rules
if nobody abides by them?
Instead of getting closer to Western Europe,
we seem to have overshot and ended up
in the Wild West.
What is wrong with capitalism?
People live just to consume:
The best way to fight consumer society
Life lacks excitement:
What is life like under the rule of law?
Now we can see how bad capitalism really is:
Socialism is dead; tomorrow I
shall attack capitalism.
But let's not forget
Socialism is the father of post-socialism.
Maybe this is why so many aspects remind us of times past also under the
In socialist Slovenia, hardly 5% of the
Slovenes were members of the Communist League.
In democratic Slovenia, 50% of politicians are
ex-communists - do communists multiply?
Not just politicians:
The former secret policemen
are people for all seasons,
usable also under democracy.
One is led to pessimism:
The more sinister the past,
the more promising the future.
An accompanying thoughts
Our democracy reeks of old times of repression.
And so to the top:
In the Cabinet or the President of all
Slovenes, there are no former democrats
amongst a great number of former communists.
Mr Milan Kucan, the incumbent, calls himself the President of all Slovenes
because, after 1989, he proclaimed that he would no longer look only after
the communists but after all Slovenes. Such words could not be more
welcome, but Petan believes
In our democracy also, most can
be achieved by sticking to the Party line.
There used to be privileged Party members;
now there are privileged former Party members.
Rather less funny is this truth:
The abuse of freedom is called liberalism.
This refers to the Liberal Democratic Party issued from the communist youth
and consisting mostly of former young communists. Although this Party was
admitted as a member to the Liberal International, the more sober part of
it has not so far succeeded in steering it towards real liberalism. Petan
even said, when this party was firmly entrenched as the core of the
government of Slovenia, that
Our government does not deserve
The Liberal Democratic Party remained beholden to President Kucan despite
the fact that his slogan is that Slovenia must be based on anti-fascism - a
communist "aphorism" meaning, in effect, that Slovenia must remain
communist. The Liberal Democratic Party was obsessed with preventing
genuine liberals from having their confiscated property restored to them.
The reason for confiscation was not just that the communists thought that
they could manage property better - which they could not - but that the
concentration of all property in their hands guaranteed them absolute
power. Such thoughts approximate the public opinion as developed under
Public opinion is the sum total
of individual errors.
If the attempt is made to stop free thinking, thinking itself deteriorates:
We do not all think the same way -
some of us do not think at all.
No wonder Petan asks
Have you noticed that communists
never use the past tense in their speeches?
It is easy for the communists to persuade a large part of the population
that property should not be returned in spite of the prospect of higher
productivity under private ownership and, hence, better life for the vast
majority. The Slovenes reflect
In the Human Rights Charter, I miss
the right to live better than my neighbour.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to work for the future if one's mind is
stuck in the past:
Having yesterday's brains, they
want to tell us what the future holds for us.
One consequence of the strong position of the ex-communists in
In Slovenia, we have democracy
but no use for it.
In fact, those entrenched in power, especially by controlling property,
Now that we have democracy,
we no longer need it - ponder those in power.
Hardly surprising, then, that playful aphorisms turn somewhat earnest:
It is difficult to be a Slovene
especially in Slovenia.
Slovene democracy was not born at a Party meeting;
it was born in one-time prisons.
The easy transition of the communists bodes badly
Democrats who were communists yesterday
could turn into fascists tomorrow.
In Serbia, to all practical purposes, this is precisely what is happening.
Milosevic cleansed Kosovo ethnically
and Serbia ethically.
The effect of his rule:
The Yugoslav Sisyphus pushes
his rock down the hill.
Without rhyme or reason. [not clear where this last line goes.]
The Western governments, wishing to rid themselves of Milosevic, consult
the Slovene communists about how to bring such a thing about.
Those who were in the same Party with him in socialist Yugoslavia,
certainly find it easier to understand Milosevic.
Unfortunately, a prescription for how to get rid of Milosevic would, by
implication, also help to get rid of the wise advisors themselves in line
with the English proverb: "Doctor, heal thyself!"
Save us from non-converted ex-communists
Numerous communist victims, and not only they, wish to see some of the
medicine the communists dispensed to them applied to the communists
Not putting old wrongs right
aids and abets old wrong-doers
and encourages new wrong-doing.
As soon as they hear proposals of this sort, ex-communists become all
indignant and shout about "revanchism". Indeed, it would be terrible if the
communists were treated in the same way they treated others. Many Western
do-gooders would be appalled. They seem to agree with the communist outcry
Give us back what we have promised
rather than what we have done.
Since many people, on the other hand, want to judge the communists by their
misdeeds rather than praise them for all their promises (which remained
unfulfilled because they are not capable of fulfilment), there is hatred
Hatred is mightier than love,
it passes from father to son.
This is the hatred of the executioner for his victims about which the
Romans knew and which Tacitus, I think, recorded. The response is what one
Sometimes one tires of goodness
and wishes to become evil for a day or two.
Philosophy at the end
Petan feels a change in himself:
I have converted, too; I used to
lack understanding, but now I understand too much.
Such feelings lead him to wonder about philosophy:
I like philosophers
who do not philosophise.
Even more, he wonders about his Slovenia:
Slovenia will join Europe
when Europe gets round to thinking
the Slovene way.