Politics

O Pioneers! (East Bloc Nostalgia Edition)

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Unlike those brought up in Margaret Thatcher's devil-take-the-hindmost Britain, I was fortunate to be raised in a society where solidarity and togetherness were officially encouraged from an early age. The Pioneer movement, of which I was a member, was not about indoctrinating young people with the tenets of Marxist-Leninism, as many believe, but engendering a sense of community among the nation's youth.

That's Zsuzsanna Clark, writing in the Guardian and answering rhetorical question:

"Isn't there more we can do to enable young people to come together and give service to their country?" asks [Brit Conservative leader] David Cameron. Well yes, David, there is, and we did it in "backward" socialist Hungary more than 30 years ago….

Many of the Pioneers' activities were similar to the [Boy] Scouts', but the values were more collective and they involved all children and teenagers in the country, not just a minority. Pioneer membership was an integral part of school life, not just in Hungary, but throughout the socialist bloc.

You know, I'm an Eagle Scout myself (shame, shame, I know) and goddamn it if my very first merit badge wasn't Fingerprinting! But I sure would have liked to have gotten the Family Interrogation or Eavesdropping numbers that I'm sure the Pioneers offered. And I'm sure the Order of the Arrow Cross Government was a big deal in Magyar circles, too.

Clark anticipates the reaction of "rabid anti-communists" and other critics of totalitarian societies:

Rabid anti-communists and adherents of the view that "there is no such thing as society" will no doubt sneer at what I have just described, but the Pioneer movement did create a real feeling of togetherness. Hungarians of my generation almost all look back at their Pioneer days with great affection, regardless of their views on other aspects of the socialist system.

Hey, work camps build solidarity too! Here's a news flash: My parents grew up during the Depression and they looked back at their youth with great affection, too. It's called nostalgia, and it shouldn't be confused with what some Marxists used to call objective social conditions.

Glenn Garvin explored ostalgie and remembered the good old days in the German Democratic Republic in his masterful review of Stasiland and After the Wall.

More positive, though hardly unthoughtful, views of Thatcher's devil-take-the-hindmost programme here and here.

Hat tip: Michael Moynihan of Timbro.

NEXT: Mayor Lauzon's Lament

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  1. That iron fist is still trying to bring happyness to the world, eh?

  2. Our Zsuzse also has fond memories of Hungarian culture:

    “The process of dumbing down started with the opening of the country to global capital in 1989. But the government’s liberalising Media Law in 1996, which allowed the creation of privately owned commercial channels and the entry into the market of foreign owned media conglomerates has greatly accelerated the process.”

  3. Zsuzse’s husband’s ‘ecstasy’ at visiting Belgrade under Milosevic is worth a read, too.

    Same theme: “a city that seemed miraculously to have escaped all the horrors of global grunge”

    http://www.icdsm.org/more/nc.htm

  4. Semi but not really OT: I’m surprised how little blogodrome comment there’s been on the movie that just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, The Lives of Others. It’s a terrific movie that captures how insidious and soul-sapping the state security apparatus in E. Germany was (I read recently that the Stasi had 3 times as many employees for 1/4 of Germany than the Gestapo had for all of it). And it’s very sharp on the details of that era, in a way clearly intended to combat Ostalgie. Check it out.

  5. I’m thinking there’s a reason she’s hanging out in the UK. In Hungary their memories of the artifices of Communism are a little less rosy.

    But I’m sure it’s nothing that a little communitarian tanks-in-the-streets happymaking couldn’t cure. Remember, tanks run over the frontmost, not the hindmost, so they are inherently more socially just.

  6. Call me crazy, but I think there must be some way that a capitalist society could provide organized activities for youth yet not micro-manage the economy and spy on its citizens.

    And if we do come up with a way to avoid economic micro-management and spying on citizens, somebody should let Congress in on the idea!

    Thank you, I’m here all week! Don’t for get try the waitress and tip the fish.

  7. Don’t forget the Schickelgruber Youth!

  8. Great idea thoreau. There aren’t any youth groups in the Britain at the moment – so maybe some should be started. No education system either… 🙂

  9. You know, I’m an Eagle Scout myself

    A member of an elite paramilitary organization: “Eagle Scouts.”

  10. Milyen jok volt az akkori napok amikor sorban kellet allnunk es csak egy fajta kenyert tudtunk megvenni. Azok voltak a jo napok…

    Those days were so great when we had to stand in link and we could only buy one type of bread. Those were the good old days

    -Fenevad (“demon”)

  11. Or like the family friend of ours, whose parents were branded, he got to watch the young pioneers gather and head off. Lotsa community there.

    Fucking commies.

  12. Reminds me of the DEA’s rosy history of prohibition (scroll down)
    http://www.justthinktwice.com/factfiction/

    I’m also old enough to remember a time when America was suspicious of executive power.

  13. As a former Eagle Scout–a dark personal secret I usually only divulge during bouts of heavy drinking

    LOL

    I’m the same way. You couldn’t’ve put it better. It’s a dark period of my life that I prefer to avoid in conversation.

    (‘Cept I was a Girl Scout.)

  14. Right before my family emigrated from the USSR, I was a member of the Octobrists (Russian translation, in regards to the Socialist Revolution). Octobrists were basically pioneers, just younger.

    Now mind you I wasn’t an Octobrist, for any ideological reason, it was simply they way kids got classified at school. The younger ones were Octobrists and the older ones were Pioneers.

    As an Octobrist you wore this little red star on the lapel of your school uniform. All the kids wore the star proudly for the first couple weeks, and then gradually the majority of the stars disappeared into oblivion, including mine.

    I don’t remember much in the way of community building as an Octobrist. We did do assemblies outside, on National holidays and such, where we would line up military style sometimes. And one activity I do remember is the recycling drives, basically you would separate your self into groups and go collect scrap metal. The group that collected the most would get cake, or some other prize. This was done for the Mother Land and all that, but most of us did it as a friendly competition and to get the prize. I do remember the pile of scrap metal still sitting there in the school yard months later.

    As you got older you got to become a pioneer. I don’t remember which grade exactly. They would threaten you to get good grades, or you wouldn’t be able to become one, but I don’t anyone actually ever got the rejection.

    What was interesting is that I and my classmates were scheduled to become pioneers in the fall of 1991 (at the beginning of the school year). But in the summer leading up to that the USSR collapsed.

    There was no order coming from the top to dissolve the Pioneers or Octobrists, so thing were still proceeding more or less status quo.

    I think unto this point, participation in the Pioneers was always theoretically voluntary, but even my parents suggested that I join anyway (there was always some fear of loose tongues and the authorities) and my parents were always dissidents (at least privately). But that fall they said that there was no reason for me to become a Pioneer anymore.

    I was the first an only student that year not to go into the office, take the oath and come out a Pioneer wearing that red ascot.

    I told some of my friends that I wasn’t planning on joining and some told me that they won’t either. But when the time came to march off into the office, they did, probably not out of the feeling of community or devotion, but because doing otherwise flew in the face of authority and out of the fear of stigmatization.

    My own mini rebellion went off pretty quietly. Then next day I was the only not wearing the ascot, but most of the disappeared from the uniforms pretty quickly. I don’t really know what happened next year when the new batch of Pioneer would have been ready to join, we had left the country by then.

    I do remember one thing fondly though about school there, something that would doubtfully ever fly there. We actually had a ‘shooting’ club on school grounds as an after school activity. We would go to the shooting range which was located behind tall cement walls in the corner of the school yard and fire off .22 cal rifles and learn how to assemble and disassemble an AK47. Before some of you get into an uproar, the participation was strictly voluntary and the number of people who actually joined was miniscule

  15. val,

    One of the women I knew at a previous firm here in the DC area grew up in Poland. She is in her late 40s (or older) and liked to go shooting at the NRA range during lunch.

    She talked about shooting classes in Poland at school, but never said they were voluntary. She said they were part of class. Perhaps a translation problem, but sounded like it was part of the required classes.

    Similar information from Bulgarians and other Eastern Europeans.

  16. Guy,

    Very possibly. Im defintely not in my 40s, and by then the USSR had been under Gorbachev for a while, so things were softening somewhat. So maybe the Eastern Block outside the USSR (I was in what is now Belarus) had diffent policies.

    I’ve never heard either of my parents having to participate in mandatory shooting classes, I’ll ask them later today. But then 2 years of army service was mandatory for all 18 year old men, so maybe they figured leave em alone in school, we’ll get them sooner or later.

  17. hmm I wonder if there are any schools in North America that have gun education clubs, maybe private ones? I wonder what kind of fallout one would get for trying to start an after-school shooting club in a public high-school.

  18. You know, someone can say the autobahn is a good idea without endorsing Naziism.

  19. I wonder what kind of fallout one would get for trying to start an after-school shooting club in a public high-school.

    I read a comment a few years ago on Slashdot that’s got to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever read about teens and guns.

    The commentor was walking in the halls with a friend of his, talking about different guns in the game Counter-Strike and what they’re good for.

    Now, the guns in Counter-Strike are real guns, so it’s easy to see how this can be misinterpreted, and, sure enough, he notices a teacher watches him and has a moment of sheer terror as to what is going to happen.

    The teacher walks up to him and says “Hey, would you want to join the target-shooting club?”

    He said it’s great to go to a redneck high school.

  20. The Russians I’ve known (who’ve generally been a couple to a few years younger than Val, I guess) seem genuinely nostalgic about the Pioneers and sad-ish that they never got to join, even if they themselves were pretty anti-Soviet in other regards (a bold position, I know).

    I’ve heard of the Octabrist (??? ??-??????? ???????/???/????) But had forgotten about that. I guess I should go ask those people that’re sad they never got their red bandanna if they saved there little lapel stars

  21. My father went to an urban high school that had a rifle team. Apparently, they fired .22s on a shooting range in the basement of the school.

    Imagine trying that today…

  22. You know, someone can say the autobahn is a good idea without endorsing Naziism.

    Absolutely joe, however the pioneers and octobrists taught conformity and submission to the state. They also had these meetings where the ‘lead’ pioneers would interogate other students pioneers if they felt they failed at something or werent holding up the pioneer code.

    Furthermore these ‘elite’ pioneers had pretty cushy digs set up at or around the pricncipal’s office. From there they could actually ‘direct’ others to toe the to party line, you know make a student read a partriotic poem in front of the school or something. And yes they could make trouble for those who refused by pointing them out to the principal or the teachers.

    So some people could say Naziism was a good idea too because thats how the Autobahn was built, but that wouldnt make them right.

  23. val,

    Good points, although it would seem to be a bit of stretch to suggest that an organized youth activity grouop in England would operate like that.

    Insitutions in liberal democracies aren’t exactly like institutions in communist dictatoriships, even if they have the same purpose. I’ll bet the DPW in Stalin-era Kiev had some pretty nasty practices, too.

  24. I’ve heard of the Octabrist (??? ??-??????? ???????/???/????)

    (that says what’s it in Russian, btw)

    ????????? (Oktiabriata).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Octobrist

  25. “Good points, although it would seem to be a bit of stretch to suggest that an organized youth activity grouop in England would operate like that.”

    depends on how it’s organized. frankly, considering how microchip happy the uk seems to be these days (garbage cans, etc) i wouldn’t hold my breath.

  26. ???????, Val. I suppose I could/should have said ??? ???????? ??-?????? or something. But one of the many problems with my Russian is that I understand always understand what I’m saying when often no one else quite does.

    Regarding everything else, from what I know, the Pioneers were certainly about instilling a sense of subservience to the state and creating competition to be the most-so. However, I get the sense from the article and from people I’ve talked to that there wasn’t much memory of that so much as the more “fun” activities (though this would certainly be different for those put on spot in the way you describe or not permitted to join for political reasons). So it makes me just wonder how effective these groups are at their goal. I also don’t get the point of the article really, does she want people to be compelled to join? She says no and that the Pioneers were voluntary. But if that’s the case how’s it any different than the Scouts? Other than the extremity of the propagandizing and the spy-on-your-friends-and-parents encouragement?

  27. You know, someone can say the autobahn is a good idea without endorsing Naziism.

    Yes, but if they say “Unlike those raised in the Palestinian-murdering state of Israel, I was lucky enough to be brought up in a culture where unity was officially encouraged. The autobahn was not about bringing Jews to the slaughterhouse, like many imagine, but for unifying the country,” they would.

  28. dhex,

    Yeah. Instead of red ascots, the Blair-era Brits would hand them crash helmets, anti-bacterial hand wash, and goggles.

    Sandy,

    You’ve convinced me that Clark is a communist sympathizer. You haven’t convinced me that a national school-based youth organization is a bad idea.

    That’s all I’m saying.

  29. joe: what’s wrong with the Boy Scouts? Anyone can join if they pretend to be straight. When I was a kid I belonged to 4-H, which my hippy parents declared to be a healthy alternative to the militaristic Boy Scouts.

    The point is not that there shouldn’t be “community-building” organizations for children, even national ones, but whether they should be directed by the State. There is a tendency to confuse the State with the Community, especially in the minds of the State. Thus, “community-supporting” has a way of morphing into “State-supporting,” with all that implies.

    Witness the DARE program, originally touted as a vehicle for educating children and empowering them to stay off drugs. Now, among other things, the DARE instructors tell kids to call a policeman if they see their parents smoking dope. Name a school that doesn’t have a DARE program.

    As for shooting, AFAIK it’s still common practice in Wisconsin for middle schools to have a “hunter safety” class where the children learn firearms handling with .22 rifles.

  30. what’s wrong with the Boy Scouts? Anyone can join if they pretend to be straight.

    Or a theist, preferably a Mormon.

  31. “I wonder what kind of fallout one would get for trying to start an after-school shooting club in a public high-school.”

    Last month I shot a few rounds of skeet and sporting clays with a friend of mine, and he brought a neighbor kid with him. This kid was talking about being on the shooting team at school, where they apparently do all kinds of shooting (rifles, skeet, trap). I thought that was pretty cool, as I never had that where I grew up. Of course, his school is in a very rural area. The state where I currently reside makes a difference too- NC vs. NY, where I grew up. I’m sure that the people’s socialist republic of NY wouldn’t allow such a thing.

  32. James,

    Don’t ask me; it’s not my idea or cause. Read the article. Apparently, it’s got something to do with universality. It’s hard to have an experience that bonds the whole class when only a quarter of them join.

  33. I’m thinking there’s a reason she’s hanging out in the UK. In Hungary their memories of the artifices of Communism are a little less rosy.

    In general, it’s easier to love communism when living in a country that’s never been destroyed by it.

  34. On the shooting clubs and classes in schools thing, they seem to be in locations that are classified by urban intellectuals as repressive and backward.

    Other key characteristics of these areas are their lax smoking bans, absence of transfat controls, inadequate tax rates, lack of rent controls or stabilization, profuse illegal drug manufacturing, un-mandated green space and other markers of oppressed patriarchal society.

  35. Hmmm, judging from the responses here shooting clubs in schools arent as rare as I thought, at least in the US. Thats good to hear. I wonder if there are any in Canada, where I currently reside (work in the US) its probably not nearly as common, at least I’ve never heard of any in this area.

  36. Oh, I gotcha, Guy.

    The places where there used to be lynchings.

  37. joe,

    Manhattan loses on the transfat thingie, and others, but fits your set as a lynching record holder.

  38. Sandy,

    You’ve convinced me that Clark is a communist sympathizer. You haven’t convinced me that a national school-based youth organization is a bad idea.

    That’s all I’m saying.

    Well, so far the only serious arguments for a national school-based youth organization have come from a communist who claimed that the pioneers were “not about indoctrinating young people with the tenets of Marxist-Leninism, as many believe, but engendering a sense of community among the nation’s youth.”

    I’m worried about what she’s not telling us. “Not about” is not the same as “didn’t involve”. If she’d said that the Pioneers didn’t ever engage in Marxist-Leninist propagandizing, that would put my mind more at ease (although not totally).

    I can easily imagine a devout Christian telling us that the Boy Scouts are not about Christian indoctrination but about citizenship and community. And as a budding atheist who was a Boy Scout I can verify that Christianity wasn’t the focus of day-to-day activities, but it was very much an undercurrent. We didn’t have bible readings at every meeting, and most of our activities would have little-or-nothing to do with Christianity as a practical matter, but there was still a general tinge, and Judeo-Christian elements to things like the Boy Scout Pledge (“I pledge to do my duty to God and my country…”). But a fundamentalist Christian wouldn’t even notice this as being ‘about Christianity’ – it would just be part of the background. And since the actual activities were about volunteering and citizenship and the outdoors, they wouldn’t think twice about saying the BSA wasn’t ‘about Christianity’ despite the obvious Christian underpinnings. But you’d better believe that I noticed the religious undertones, and I pretty much just had to ignore them.

    So when a devoted socialist tells me that the Pioneers ‘weren’t about Marxist-Leninism’ I can’t help but think that a non-socialist might have a different view.

    Certainly we don’t know enough to hold the Pioneers up as a model for an apolitical organization.

  39. joe | February 28, 2007, 3:52pm | #
    Oh, I gotcha, Guy.

    The places where there used to be lynchings.

    Um, the example for the gun cases was rural Wisconsin. I’m going to go out on a limb and say there weren’t any more lynchings in Wisconsin than in New Jersey (you are the one who’s from New Jersey, right? I’d hate to confuse you with JMJ. (Although the lynchings crack was arguably a JMJ-esque cheap shot))

  40. There’s at least one team of high schoolers in Arizona that shoot and compete in Service Rifle Matches with AR15’s.

  41. “Hat tip: Michael Moynihan of Timbro.”

    would that be michael moynihan of blood axis and the book “lords of chaos”?

    naw, can’t be.

  42. “And as a budding atheist who was a Boy Scout I can verify that Christianity wasn’t the focus of day-to-day activities, but it was very much an undercurrent.”

    For octyabrists/pioneers it was a focus. There was a “politinformation” every week where we would discuss the latest political news (according to soviet press) and denounce the horrors of capitalism, zionism, etc

    “Apparently, it’s got something to do with universality. It’s hard to have an experience that bonds the whole class when only a quarter of them join.”

    The only way to do that is to make membership mandatory (just as it was for octyabrists/pioneers). What a truly swell idea.

    The two primary purposes of these organizations were indoctrination and free labor. Some of work (e. g. collecting scrap metal) was fun, some (e.g. sorting rotten vegetables at the warehouse) really sucked.

    Btw, mitirary training was mandatory starting with age of 16 for both boys and girls, Val just left before getting to that point.

  43. I never joined the Scouts, but two of my brothers did. They both went through Cub Scouts, and the older of the two stayed in through Webelos. I think he dropped out before making tenderfoot. Most of the packs and troops in our area were sponsored by schools, churches and service clubs. I think the local synagogue even had a troop. Our church stopped sponsoring just before I was old enough to sign up, and my parents, the hassles of making time in the family schedule for the older boys’ Scouting careers still fresh in their minds, were not enthusiastic about letting me start on the same path, especially since wherever my meetings were going to be wouldn’t be as convenient as theirs had been. I had classmates who were Scouts, and though there wouldn’t have been any guarantee that I would have been in the same pack or troop with my best friends, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the experience. Anything that involved camping out, burning stuff, knives and Boys Life was fine by me. One good thing about it would have been meeting kids from different religious backgrounds. Before the whole “gay scoutmaster” flap, Scouting was actually considered a bastion of tolerance. A child from any background could become a Boy or Girl Scout. We played with all kinds of kids in Little League, and that worked out great, too.

    I understand that activities like Scouting are invaluable to homeschooling families. Helps stave off the “no socialization skills” rap, I suppose. Since I became an atheist and a libertarian, I might have my problems with pledging …to do my duty to my God and to my Country*…, and while I think I’m morally straight, there’s no way I’m going to be reverent. I wouldn’t bring up any child I may someday have by that standard, either. In any case, setting up a mandatory youth group is an invitation to half-assed participation and a sullen attitude towards its activities. We do have the phenomenon of “mandatory volunteerism” (sic) in many schools districts, which is an awful idea. I participated in real volunteerism as a high school student, though there was some self-interest involved. I was a founding officer of a Key Club, the high school affiliate of the Kiwanis. I’ll admit that I joined in part to pad my resume for college applications, but I seem to remember some goo-gooism was also involved. We did service projects, but we had fun, too.

    Maybe some day the Scouts will ditch the religious and militaristic influences that have been inherent in the groups since Baden-Powell wrote his handbook. They are pretty baked in, though. In the interim, parents who aren’t in synch with BSA ought to seek out and support alternative programs, even if they all seem to have much lamer names.

    Kevin

    *I actually don’t have a problem with teaching children love of country, as long as it is patriotism properly understood.

  44. “In the interim, parents who aren’t in synch with BSA ought to seek out and support alternative programs, even if they all seem to have much lamer names.”

    Maybe parents should spend more time with their kids instead of expecting some organization to do their parenting for them? I spent lots of time “camping out, burning stuff, knives”, fishing, hunting, trapping, boating (outdoor activities in general) and I was never a scout. I had something called a father, and he didn’t expect big brother or some other large private organization to do his job for him.

  45. Best example of nostalgia about one’s miserable childhood:

    http://www.phespirit.info/montypython/four_yorkshiremen.htm

  46. I attended a high school just outside of Philadelphia with a shooting team . It was the only sport team that was co-ed and in fact the top shooter was as likely to be a girl as it was a boy.

  47. Maybe parents should spend more time with their kids instead of expecting some organization to do their parenting for them?

    Umm, yeah. Hunting and fishing with pa is a great idea. I did plenty of that, in addition to my BSA activities (not hunting, ’cause my dad wasn’t into that, but fishing/hiking/camping). By the same token, playing catch with your dad in the back yard is also a good thing for parents to do. But playing catch may be active parenting, but it’s not an exact substitute for playing actual baseball on an actual team. Same is true for the BSA. It’s not the same as going camping with the family. Neither is a substitute for the other.

  48. Matt | March 1, 2007, 11:44am | #
    I attended a high school just outside of Philadelphia with a shooting team . It was the only sport team that was co-ed and in fact the top shooter was as likely to be a girl as it was a boy.

    Huh. So far we’ve got reports of three highschool shooting teams from outside of traditional lynching states. I grew up in South Carolina – prime segregationist territory. I do not know of any shooting teams, although it’s possible there were such in JROTC programs that I never knew of.

    So yeah, joe, that’s a real nice red herring you got there. Pickle that up and get some bread, and you got what the Swedes would call a sandwich!

  49. lunchstealer

    Not only did my HS have a shooting team, but it was a league (Bux-Mont) sport with most schools having teams involved. It wasn’t part of JROTC or outside organization

  50. lunchstealer,

    Actually, all parts of the USA were lynching territory. For some reason newspaper writers have dropped the New York Draft Riots into the memory hole, along with Howard Beach and other examples that muck up their geographical bigotry prefrences.

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