“Hammer and Tickle” by Ben Lewis, book review (a great book!)

"Hammer and Tickle" by Ben Lewis

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” George Orwell, “1984”

The truth is forbidden now; it is expelled and cancelled.

All doors and windows are closed to it now,

But anecdotes go out amongst the people,

Finding their way to the soul thru the eyes and the ears.

The jokes may not reach our grandkids,

But future historians will dig thru the archives,

Comparing “great men” with our trail of anger, laughter, and tears.

– paraphrased from “Impatience,” written in 1955 by a survivor of Siberian exile

“The Law of Faust: the worse the times, the better the jokes.” – Ben Lewis [we are beginning to relive some of those times]

Lewis says, in the conclusion: “The concentration of all political and economic power in the hands of the state, and the state’s attempt to direct artistic activities – that meant any joke critical of life in a Communist society was de facto about Communism. All these things created the innate and inalienable humour of Communism, its GREATEST CULTURAL ACHIEVEMENT.” (my caps; this book should be required reading in every school, public and private)

I have a knack for finding the best part of a book by just opening it randomly, but “Hammer and Tickle” came with a bookmark in it, so the first thing I read was “Analysts of Communist jokes agree that the 1960s were the golden age of Communist jokes. The Soviet bloc had quit arresting joke-tellers . . which produced a tsunami of ‘anekdoty’ . . ” [They impeached Trump for jokes over here though; “Maybe Russia can find Hillary’s 30,000 e-mails.”]

The subtitle on the cover is just “A Cultural History of Communism,” but on the title page inside it says “Hammer and Tickle; the Story of Communism, a Political System Almost Laughed Out of Existence” (Pegasus Books). Karl Marx himself once said, in 1844, “The final phase of a political system is comedy.” On Facebook, my theme from Earth day/birthday-of-Lenin to May Day is remembering life back in “the good ol’ USSR.”

Remembering Lenin’s birthday, 4/22, a story from a Russian history class. Teacher waves a well-worn book and asks, “Who wrote this, ‘The Communist Manifesto’?” No answer. He asks the question again. Finally little Bartski says:

“It wasn’t me, Sir.” Bartski gets sent to detention as a counter-revolutionary.

“Lenin was working late at night and when he went to bed at 2 am, he told his guard to wake him at seven. For five hours the guard fretted about the most appropriate way to awaken the big guy. He chose to play the Soviet anthem that begins with ‘Arise, ye wretched of the earth’.” [Sorta kinda sounds like Hillary Clinton’s view of us – irredeemable deplorables.]

A man visits Hell and notices different punishments being inflicted. He asks the devil, “Why does Hitler stand up to his neck in (poop) but Stalin is only up to his waist?” and the devil says: “Because Stalin is standing on Lenin’s shoulders.”

The Czechs are some of the world’s most anti-Communist people because the had to live under its “utopianism.” Q: How do the Czechs know the world is round? A: In 1945 the Nazis were driven out to the west, and in 1968 they returned from the east (Moscow). In 1968, the humour which until then had only appeared in newspapers, or between friends, flowed out onto the streets.

Historical precedent for Soviet elections: God made Eve and told Adam to choose a wife [Sorta kinda like the 2020 election].

Q: What’s the difference between a Russian optimist and a Russian pessimist? A: The pessimist says things can’t get any worse. The optimist says “Yes they can.”

Q: Is it true that half of the Central Committee members are insane? A: No, Boris. Half of the Central Committee ISN’T insane.

The book contains more than 600 jokes, and the sources are listed in 26 pages of bibliography. The author says analyzing the humor of an era isn’t as easy as it seems. There are Russian jokes about the commies, Russian jokes about the Nazis, the jokes the Soviets wanted Russia’s “new Soviet man” to tell, German jokes about the Nazis, and even Norwegian jokes about the Nazis. For example:

Nazi to a Norwegian: “Are Norwegian girls all stupid?” Reply: “No. Those are the ones that go out with you guys.”

USSR mental hospital doctors: What is your name?

Patient: Don’ . .

Doctors: Where are you from?

Patient: Duuh . . Don’t know.

Doctors:. What year is this?

Patient: Lenin’s Jubilee.

Uncle Boris gets sent to Siberia. He had told his family that if that happened, and conditions were bad, he would write home with red ink. A letter came that said everything was wonderful (“It’s just

like summer camp. The only thing is, I can’t find any red ink.”

A peasant stood in line all morning hoping to buy a loaf of bread. When she got to the door, the store closed for the day. She let go some profanities she hadn’t used for years. Two men in black approached her and said:

“This is your last warning. You will not be warned again.”

The lady went home and tells her husband:

“It’s worse than we thought. They’re not only out of bread; they’re out of bullets.”

A housewife stands in line all morning at the state grocery. When she gets to the counter, she asks, “Don’t you have any cheese?” The clerk says:

“We’re the shop with no sausage. The shop with no cheese is around the corner.”

A lady told her friend she must be getting senile: “I was standing on the front door with an empty shopping bag and I couldn’t remember if I had gone shopping or if I was just leaving.”

They’ve got a million of those. The Soviets used to brag that Russia made the world’s fastest watches and the largest microchips. And they didn’t treat the Jews any better than the czars.

In 1985, Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader. He wrote in his memoirs, “No one imagined the scale of our ecological disaster, how far we were behind the developed nations . . ” Economic growth had virtually stopped, military spending was 40% of GDP, and there were 5 million registered alcoholics (when Marx and Lenin’s dream was supposed to be at its apex).

On the power of laughter: the Reagan Administration collected these jokes, and he told many of them “incessantly” to Gorby at their summits. In 1987 for example, he told him this one:

“When our college graduates are asked what they want to do, they may say ‘l haven’t decided yet.’ Grads in Russia say ‘l don’t know; they haven’t told me yet’.” Even Gorbachev laughed, but this is serious, kids. Do you want to be the butt of jokes in the future after you have brought the Soviet-style all-powerful government to America?

Well, boys and girls, it’s 2021 and America’s Nihilists are trying to relive 1921, when the Bolsheviks solidified their hold on the nation, after the inevitable infighting and purges among the

“victors” of the 1917 Revolution. How stands Freedom tonight? BARELY.

P.S. Parents, uncles, and aunts: please consider getting Hammer and Tickle for your young relatives, seriously. Especially if they are off to college. Tell them to give it to a professor. My edition was marked at $15.95 in 2009, but I bought it for $4 from a used book site. Looked like it had never been opened. A review:

“We find at long last the jokes only Communism could produce. And while they may not have brought it down, they can still tell us something important about why it fell.”

– Sunday Telegraph

PPS: “Vladimir” means “lord of the earth.” Is that why academania chose 4/22 for Earth Day? Asking for a Friend on Facebook.

Curtis Dahlgren

Picture Credit: movieo.me

To read more articles by Curtis Dahlgren click here.

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About the Author

Curtis Dahlgren
Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in the frozen tundra of Michigan's U.P., and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton. In the intro to The Fenton Bible, Fenton said: ​"I was in '53 a young student in a course of education for an entirely literary career, but with a wider basis of study than is usual. . . . In commerce my life has been passed. . . . Indeed, I hold my commercial experience to have been my most important field of education, divinely prepared to fit me to be a competent translator of the Bible, for it taught me what men are and upon what motives they act, and by what influences they are controlled. Had I, on the other hand, lived the life of a Collegiate Professor, shut up in the narrow walls of a library, I consider that I should have had my knowledge of mankind so confined to glancing through a 'peep-hole' as to make me totally unfit for [my life's work]." ​In 1971-72 Curtis did some writing for the Badger Herald and he is listed as a University of Wisconsin-Madison "alumnus" (loosely speaking, along with a few other drop-outs including John Muir, Charles Lindbergh, Frank Lloyd Wright and Dick Cheney). [He writes humor, too.]