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Hammer And Tickle: A History Of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes Paperback – 28 May 2009

3.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W&N (28 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753825821
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753825822
  • Product Dimensions: 13.4 x 2.4 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 456,713 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

Ben Lewis's book celebrates the brilliance with which jokes exposed the gulf between the Soviet ideal and its brutal reality. (SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)

There is a laugh on every page (John Suchet S MAGAZINE, SUNDAY EXPRESS)

Book Description

The book that immerses the Cold War in the warm bath of nostalgia.

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3.4 out of 5 stars
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The author set out, he tells us, to prove that "Communism", that is the regimes of the Soviet Bloc, were brought down by jokes, that is the "Communist jokes" so loved by Ronald Reagan. He collects these jokes from as many sources as he can and then travels through the former lands of the Warsaw Pact to find the people who told them and laughed at them. At some times telling a joke - or spreading anti-Soviet propaganda as it appeared on the charge sheet - meant years in a labour camp. Ben Lewis even contacted an ex-KGB man to get his take. He suggests that the jokes themselves changed over the years, as did state attitudes towards them. In the 80s jokes broke through into official media and many prophesied the end that came soon enough. He agrees that he cannot show that humour proved the undoing of Stalinism or Ceausescu but we can agree it must have helped keep spirits up in the dark days. The author sets his story round a breezy history of the USSR and its satellites. The book is well-illustrated. He interviewed a real variety of people - including Lech Walesa and Gen Jaruzelski, though he could not afford Gorbachev. There are a lot of jokes here. If you are going to look at the place of laughter in politics it helps to have a sense of humour and maybe not take it too seriously.
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Format: Hardcover
Stephen Leacock's verdict that "humour may be defined as the kindly contemplation of incongruities of life, and the artistic expression thereof" should be kept in mind when reading this book.

If humour could destroy an political ideology, as Lewis thinks, it would have destroyed Reagan's "voodoo economics" long before he was elected. Instead, humour strengthened Reagan, because he knew how to use it to counter his critics.

Sadly, Lewis and the communists didn't realize the essence of humour is human kindness, and thus it is a safety valve of society. It's why a George Bush (or a Bill Clinton if you prefer) survives; people laugh away their frustrations during the late night shows and then forget the incongruities of politics by the dawn of a new day.

Sadly, the Soviets used vodka as their safety valve.

Under the Soviets, humour was a person-to-person effort; had it been on radio every night, communists might still be in power. Will Rogers was a classic American political humourist; and, he generally strengthened the American politics. Humour releases tension; censorship allows it to build up until it explodes.

That said, this book is an amusing collection of basic humour from the dissidents of authoritarian power. Like a single drop of rain, the humour may be perfect even though ineffective; bottled up, it can erupt with the power of a desert flood.

The weakness of this book, as other commentators attest, is its pretentious seriousness. It's great strength is its authentic dissident humour from inside authoritarian regimes. Had Lewis understood humour, he'd realize much of the same humour can equally apply to Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.

Humour is not ideological; it is always subversive.
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Format: Paperback
The subtitle to this book is "A history of communism told through communist jokes". This suggests, to this reader at least, that the ratio of jokes to narrative should be higher than it actually is. A subtitle of "A history of communism and an analysis of its humour" would have been more accurate and would have earned the book an extra star.

On to the second point in my title: as another reviewer has pointed out, there is too much space devoted to the rise and fall of the author's relationship with an East German lady. There is also a fantasy sequence in which the author imagines himself taking part in an episode of Mastermind. This adds nothing to the book.

Finally, proofreading. On one page the pope is referred to as Jean Paul. A few pages later he is John Paul. We are told about villas in Romania being "raised to the ground". Unless the villas were originally subterranean this should read "razed". Perhaps worst of all, there are photographic plates in the middle of the book. The plates all have a number and a description alongside them. When these plates are referred to in the text the numbers frequently do not correspond to the plate being described.

This book has some interesting narrative and some very good jokes, but the problems I have highlighted make it worthy of only two stars.
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Format: Paperback
I actually couldn't finish this book, because I just found the author to be so arrogant.

The book starts as a generalised overview of communism interspersed with communist jokes and occasional passages oozing with sentimentality about a former East German girlfriend. While these sentimental bits weren't particularly bad to start with, even slightly touching, by the end (I mean by the time I stopped reading!) I was rooting for it to end in abject misery as I absolutely couldn't stand the guy. After a while the history of communism ends and the framework for the narrative becomes his inquiry into communist jokes, mostly trying to force them into a theoretical framework he appeared to arrive at very early on. What finally stopped me reading was the author's (not at all concealed) contempt for everyone he interviewed. While Lewis managed to secure some incredible interviews with very central and informative individuals, he has no respect for any of these people, as he makes abundantly clear in his descriptions of his various interviewees as naive idealists, drunks, and delusional geriatrics.

Great subject, I recommend people read about it, but buy a different book.
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