Review of “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,” by Lia Ypi.
Diary of an ex-Corbyn foot soldier (June, 2022)
By Michael Murray
Dictionary definition of foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower.”
In this issue: Review of “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,” by Lia Ypi.
– Paperback out 31 May, 2022
Who is Lia Ypi ?
The “heroine” of this book is a 10 year old elementary schoolgirl in the Adriatic coastal town of Durres. It’s 1990, the year Albania took the first major step towards breaking with its communist past.
Her name is Lea Ypi (pronounced “OOPI”), who, at 42, is, today, Professor of Politics at the London School of Economics, London.
We first meet her as, on her way home from school, she has, inadvertently, found herself caught up in a demonstration that has desecrated a monument to Joseph Stalin – towards whom her elementary school teacher, Nora, has inculcated in her a sense of “Uncle Joe” as a protective, loving figure, along with “Uncle Enver” (Hodja). Thus, she is left numbed and speechless by the sight of his vandalised statue. And, all the while, the demonstrators shout: “Freedom, Democracy, Freedom!”
“Freedom? What do they mean by freedom?”
The events unfolding would set her on a life-long quest to hone her understanding of freedom, of which the present book, clearly is but a milestone.
Chief amongst the prolific output of academic writing, thus far, that has earned her widespread academic recognition, are the following:
“The Architectonic of Reason: Purposiveness and Systematic Unity in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,” OUP, Oxford, 2021.
“The Meaning of Partisanship,” (with Jonathan White), OUP, Oxford, 2016.
“Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency,” OUP, Oxford, 2011
What is Lea Ypi’s background ?
I first heard of Lea Ypi – and this book – only recently, in a newspaper article by an Ethiopian-born writer.
Link: Aida Edemariam: “Spies, lies and doublethink: Lea Ypi on growing up in Europe’s last communist state” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/oct/09/spies-lies-and-doublethink-lea-ypi-on-growing-up-in-europes-last-communist-state(Guardian, 8 October, 2021.)
This lengthy Guardian article outlined Lea’s intriguing family background, and I’m going to quote from that here.
Just to say, first: people may not be aware that Albania is a very new nation-state formed as late as 1912 in the vacuum created by the defeat of the Ottomans in the Balkan Wars.
With less than a million population at the time, it has grown to over 2.8 million, last official count. One of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe, it is renowned for its high proportion of multilingual speakers – Lea Ypi speaks 6 languages.
So, it’s no surprise to learn that Lea’s much loved grandmother was the French speaking niece of a pasha in the Ottoman Empire who became a government adviser at twenty one. Very much her own woman, a free spirit, she is a major, major presence in this book – and a very roundly developed one.
Lea’s mother was descended from wealthy landowners. Lea’s father was the grandson of Xhaffer Ypi, Prime Minister, in office when Italy invaded in 1939 and responsible for the transfer of sovereignty to Italy after the flight of King Zog. (It didn’t go well for her father’s career 1945 to 1990 – the span of the communist party reign. But things could have been a lot worse for him, you can imagine.)
The Guardian notes that all three of Lea’s family were of Muslim origin and were, most likely, what we would call “secular” Muslims, though that may be considered by some an oxymoron. (I know I’m a lapsed Catholic, but would saying that be enough to satisfy the militantly atheistic Albanian Communist Party – especially after 1967 when the clamp-down came on organised religion, pre-empting the inter-religious conflict that was to rend Yugoslavia asunder ?)
The “Transition” from Communism to Capitalism
Her parents came into their own with the so-called ‘Transition” from communist to capitalist Albania. They could drop their act of having to be pro Communist Party. And they didn’t have to lie to Lea about their true political leanings, nor feel the need to protect her, as they had been doing.
Her father, an instinctively left leaning man, though anti-communist, gets a top managerial job more befitting his background and education with the biggest port authority in Albania. For a while, and, critically, for the months of the low intensity civil war that broke out in 1997, he was also an MP for the governing party.
According to Lea, he had lacked the stomach for some of the neoliberal “shock therapy” Human Resource policies he was pressured to apply. But most of his colleagues went with the flow, deeming it necessary for want of any alternative and settling for the enjoyment of their new found freedoms, including foreign travel.
As Lea Ypi explains to Aaron Bastani (LINK below) no critical view of the west had survived, no vision of an alternative future survived, so the“transition” measures had a free run. If truth be told, the Communist Party didn’t have a worked-out plan to pursue. It knew what it was against: revisionism: an abstraction, in the circumstances. And, In the maelstrom of the post-Soviet satellite state crisis, and nature abhorring a vacuum, neo-liberalism filled the political void unchallenged.
Lea’s mother, of a more developed right wing political persuasion, becomes a campaigning leader of a national women’s association and open advocate of the neo-liberal privatisation and small-state politics being imposed on the country in return for financial support. All this change happens just as Lea succeeds to a short-lived leadership role in the young communist Pioneers: thus the “coming of age” of a child and a country. And the “end of history” for both.
“The end of history”? Lea borrowing from Fukuyama; though the latter seems to be having a rethink. See his interview with Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani.
Link “Liberalism is in trouble. Aaron Bastani meets Francis Fukuyama. Downstream, Novara Media “ – Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGo8UvSTIF8
Was 1990-7 the end of history ?
As mentioned, Albania became an independent state in 1912 with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. It was obliged to take on the job of forming a nation state to defend itself in the turbulent Balkans of the time, and against the ever threatening big European powers.
Indeed, hardly had it formed a functioning state when it was occupied by Italy in 1939 and again in 1942 by Nazi Germany. Supported by Yugoslavia, a communist-led partisan movement was organised and a long war of resistance begun which successfully led Albania to free itself without direct alliedinvolvement.
Thus, on the basis of the moral authority gained, the communist-led resistance morphed into the post-war communist state of Albania 1945 – 1990 combining an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist view of the world with nation -state building.
All well and good, until the first domino in the Soviet bloc fell – which turned out to be the Soviet Union itself. Within a year Albania was in crisis. And we know the result.
Amongst the effusive praise for the book, I’ve singled out this example as being the most astute. Having noted that the book is “a moving and profound reflection on the nature of freedom that avoids either liberal triumphalism or Stalinist nostalgia,” the writer adds: “She is most concerned with the futures that were lost in between.” (George Eaton, New Statesman, cited Penguin Books, 2022 edition.)
That, of course is pure Immanuel Kant. Lea quotes Kant “Towards Perpetual Peace,” written during the French Revolutionary wars: his argument for an European departure from the military imperative of balance of power politics to an inclusive security arrangement of all powers big and small.
Indeed, Lea has argued: “Albania’s history teaches that only dialogue and integration end the cycle of war.”
LINK “I grew up in a paranoid dictatorship. isolating Russia won’t bring Europe peace,” Lea Ypi, Guardian, 21 March, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/21/dictatorship-russia-europe-peace-albania
When communism collapsed, it took with it many valuable ideas, she says: “There were a lot of democratising efforts, and thoughts about freedom – but that freedom was not capitalist freedom.
“And then the effort was completely destroyed by the way in which the story has been told after 1990. The idea that the east was defeated and the west won has been so damaging – both to the east, for their own self-understanding, and for the west, in terms of not being able to see themselves as losers as well”
Philosophers have only interpreted the world……
In the book, as Leanears the end of the “coming of age” phase of her life, decisions have to be made about her future. It’s taken for granted in this family the next step is university entrance, even in the straitened, parlous times of 1997 Albania. The question to be decided is which subject.
When she announces “Philosophy” is her choice, it’s met with shock and horror and a heated argument ensues. To cap it her father quotes Marx, giving chapter and verse. “The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it”
Of course Leah got her way – as we know. And the full debate between parents and child is entertaining, and will be familiar to many …. But:
The point is to change it …..
Let Lea have the floor.
“In some ways I have gone full circle. When you see a system change once it’s not that difficult to believe it can change again.
“Fighting cynicism and political apathy turns into what some might call a moral duty.
“To me it is more of a debt that I feel that I owe to all the people of the past who sacrificed everything because they were not apathetic, they were not cynical, they did not believe that things fall into place if you just let them take their course.
“ If I do nothing their efforts will have been wasted, their lives will have been meaningless.
“ I wrote my story to explain, to reconcile,
“And to continue the struggle.” (My emphasis, MM)
Post Script: Lea Ypi on British politics
“For me it was shocking to go to go to some parts of London and to see the run down houses and see people who were clearly struggling and the level of social anomie that would be revolutionary in any other context which people were aware about the fact that this is a systemic problem rather than a case of individual failure problem.”
“I don’t see a political party I’m ready to join.”
For more, listen to this terrific Bastani – Ypi conversation.
Link: “What does it mean to be free? Aaron Bastani meets Lea Ypi” Novara Media, Downstream.” – Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEHNxbsfH8Y
Facebook: Michael Murray London – an occasional commentary/digest of political news for busy people.