You know you’ve raised your children well when your son texts you from holiday in Croatia to see if you want some Tito memorabilia. As it happens, I’m not especially keen on Balkan communist collectibles but the boy has been dragged around enough political-souvenir outlets in enough countries to know his offer would be appreciated.
I’ve long collected political memorabilia and though my main interest is US presidential badges — yeah, I know, I rock — there are sundry other gems; a really nasty Ho Chi Minh souvenir saucer; a certified and possibly even genuine piece of the Berlin Wall and some Chairman Mao badges. None of these items cost more than a few pounds; the most expensive was probably £30. I mention this not as proof of my innate modesty but just to assure burglars that I’m really not worth the effort and, besides, I know all the major fences of Woodrow Wilson paraphernalia.
There is a pecking order of dictator chic.
Well, we all have our hobbies and so it was heartening to think of the boy on his post-A-level Interrail trip, rummaging through the flea markets of Split to search out mementos of the marshal for his old dad. He assured me that he was happy to waste some time on my behalf, not least because none of the clubs were yet open. The market stalls were filled with former Soviet-era items and, as gifts go, a Tito badge is certainly more welcome than a bottle of Istrian aftershave, though perhaps less amusing.
While US political tat is my interest, communist memorabilia is perhaps the easiest to obtain and often the most sought after. One reason must be that communism still carries a sheen of acceptability that has always eluded other murderous, tyrannical forms of government. Nazi memorabilia is also not hard to find but the big difference is that apart from neo-Nazis and social inadequates, those who collect it tend to do so furtively. Relics of the Reich are the kind of souvenirs you keep in a back bedroom and curl up with on those numerous lonely nights. There is a pecking order of dictator chic: a poster of Lenin or the romantic Che and you can be a hit with the girls; a poster of Stalin and you are coolly ironic; a poster of Albert Speer and you are probably spending your evenings on the PlayStation.
The boy, incidentally, used his time in the Croatian flea market to buy a Soviet hammer-and-sickle hip flask, which I’m sure will stand him in good stead on campus just as soon as he has perfected his goatee.
Only this week, dedicated Corbynites have been promoting a positive approach to communism and arguing, as ever, that it is not the brutal, dictatorial system that history suggests because, of course, “real” communism has never really been tried. I certainly prefer the idea of theoretical communism, but mainly because I prefer the idea of theoretical gulags. One noted Corbyn acolyte was happily displaying an “I’m literally a communist” T-shirt and explaining on TV that real modern theoretical communism would not bear the taint or failings of every single, tried-and-tested version.
It remains entirely reasonable to trot out (trot out — see what I did) this drivel in polite society. Yet you try suggesting the same about fascism. “Yeah, I’m literally a fascist. Not like a Nazi because obviously those guys weren’t proper fascists at all. They completely corrupted the ideas of fascism, which is actually a very peaceful philosophy.”
Some might counter that the racial-purity theories often central to fascism render it more pernicious than communism, or argue that leftist revolutionaries start with higher motives, even if they rarely evince much compassion for those who don’t share their ideals.
But this does not explain the immense gulf in respectability for two endemically dictatorial and murderous ideologies. It is just not that much of a consolation for famished or brutalised victims of the cultural revolution. “Be fair, Song, at least we are being starved for a higher cause”.
And yet, for all that, if the boy comes back with some souvenirs of Tito, I’ll be secretly delighted. I’ll place it next to the Ho Chi Minh saucer in communist corner and explain that it’s ironic, or a present from the boy. Or both.
© The Financial Times Limited 2018