This book is a fascinating and voluminous compilation of letters between two left intellectuals across the Cold War divide over a three-year period from 1968 to 1971. It consists of 400 pages of beautifully written discussions about politics, books, family, and the general condition of life and old age, peppered with warmth and mutual understanding, lyrical descriptions of nature, jokes, wide-ranging disquisitions on world events and engaging titbits about literally anything.
One of the writers is Leslie Parker (the grandfather of Laura Parker, national organiser of Momentum, who gets a mention as a ‘rather nice girl baby’). Parker was an Anglican priest who gave up the church and joined the Communist Party. While writing the letters, he lived in Shoreham, although towards the end of the correspondence he moved to York to be near his daughter. The other correspondent, Paul Zalud, was a Jewish anaesthetist, who had been a member of the Communist Party in his youth, lived in England during the war years and was then working in a hospital in the town of Ústí nad Labem in Czechoslovakia.
The correspondence begins as a consequence of a furious reaction by Parker to a letter sent by Zalud to the Times in which Zalud argues that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 cannot be explained by Marxist doctrine; rather by conspiracy theory. Parker’s original letter is not available but in later correspondence he apologises profusely for his intemperate response since actually he opposed the invasion and has a lot of sympathy for Zalud’s views and his situation. Whatever the initial misunderstanding, it leads to an extraordinary exchange of letters, establishing a deep friendship between two men who were never to meet.
Both men are believers but although there are overlaps, there are fundamental differences in their beliefs. Despite his humanism, his love of books and critical discussion, and his evident empathy for Zalud’s situation, Parker still believes that the abolition of private property relations means the end of exploitation of man by man and is the necessary condition for socialism. From time to time, he writes enthusiastically about what is happening in Cuba, or about the economic performance of the GDR, and Zalud politely contradicts him.
Sometimes Zalud feels he has to argue more strongly against Parker’s assumptions, trying to explain that the state is not synonymous with the workers, that imperialism and exploitation can exist without capitalism, that the Soviet Union is better explained in terms of Tsarist Russia or what Lenin called ‘oriental tyrannies’ than in terms of socialism and that double-think is the characteristic of the so-called ‘socialist societies’. His fundamental belief is about intellectual freedom and how that can produce change. ‘Science,’ he says, ‘is to me nothing but the belief that everything is open to criticism and nothing is exempt from it’.
He is delighted with E P Thompson’s History of the English Working Class and makes the point that development proceeds through a series of reforms, won by workers’ struggles. Interestingly, from today’s vantage point, he also questions the debate in Britain about the Common Market. ‘I really cannot understand why the British public is kicking up such a fuss about the EEC. I feel a united Europe is long overdue.’
I loved the discussion of books, many of which I was also reading at the time. Parker thinks Gramsci is ‘well worth a read’. Zalud really appreciates the work of Kenneth Galbraith, although Parker disagrees about the convergence theory in The New Industrial State. They are both a bit disappointed with Djilas’s Imperfect Society – something that surprised me. Other books they read include Orwell, Aldous Huxley, James Watson’s The Double Helix and Geoffrey Barraclough’s Introduction to Contemporary History.
Parker’s letters depict a rather cosy life – a lot of loving family news, descriptions of the weather and the garden, especially the almond tree and the abundant plum tree, his trips to the north, the colour television that keeps going wrong and the kipper for his supper, not to mention the occasional whisky. Zalud’s descriptions of his life are unremittingly depressing. He had lost much of his family in the Holocaust and the war, one of his sons commits suicide in the first few letters in the book, he works long hours at the hospital in terrible conditions, with shortages of people and equipment, and having to write long reports for the next five‐year plan.
He describes graphically the process known as ‘normalisation’, which followed the Soviet invasion – the people expelled from the party and their jobs, the people arrested, the mad loyalty tests in which you are forced to lie. At one point he wonders whether future zoologists will discover that ‘an atrophy of the brain might have developed in the course of the centuries of passivity and submission’. In one of his last letters, Zalud writes poignantly that ‘my occupation for the rest of my life will be a humble one to remain an individual’.
All the same, Zalud does derive some pleasure from his family – his little grandson David and his saxophone-playing son – and from holidays or visits to conferences in Yugoslavia, Prague or West Germany. Evidently Parker’s letters, endless supply of newspapers, especially the Guardian and the Morning Star, books and presents are hugely important for him. Both men write, somewhat patronisingly as befits the period, of the beauties of what Parker calls the ‘superior’ sex.
Amazingly, the letters got through the censors, perhaps because both writers often use parables and invented places and other subterfuges. Zalud wonders whether the censors will mistake Parker’s frequent typing errors due to his failing eyesight for a secret code. The book ends with Parker’s death from a heart attack in 1971.
For me, the book brought back how it felt to live through the Cold War and how much I learned from intellectuals who spent their lives analysing their own situation and how it related to what was happening in the rest of the world. It brought back my visits to my family in Hungary from the 1950s onwards, how they lived and how they questioned our optimistic view of the world. It also brought back the exchanges across the Cold War divide between the west European peace movement and the central European human rights groups, especially Charta 77 of Czechoslovakia during the 1980s.
Milan Simecka, a Slovak writer, wrote a wonderful short story in that period in which men in yellow uniforms decide to install a missile on the balcony of his flat. When he asks why, the men explain ‘It’s for balance’; a lady in Sussex, England, had requested a missile in her back garden. They are given her address and they start a correspondence in which she explains that she too was told that her missile was ‘for balance’. They exchange presents, stories about their families and their cats, and even plan to visit each other before the inevitable tragedy happens.
Those who are interested in gaining an authentic glimpse of those times will really enjoy this book, as well as the excellent commentary from Leslie Parker’s son, David, who compiled it.
Letters of Solidarity and Friendship: Czechoslovakia 1968-71 is published by Bacquier Books
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