John Green and Bruni de la Motte are both authors and a husband and wife team that lived, worked and bought up a family in East Germany under the Socialist regime when the Berlin Wall was still standing. Having reviewed Stasi State or Socialist Paradise and discovered a lot about the realities of day to day life in the German Democratic Republic of Germany, I went in May 2016 to have tea and soup with them and enjoyed the conversation so much that I felt that QUAKE Book readers would really enjoy their unique insights and knowledge.
So first and foremost John and Bruni, thank you so much for meeting me in London and agreeing to do this Q&A session.
1. Could you tell us a little about your academic/professional background and the adventures you have had?
John – I began a degree in Zoology at Bristol University, but in my last year switched to Drama and Psychology, so ended up with a mediocre degree. Decided to study film instead, as I’d always been fascinated by film-making and had been nurtured, cinematically-speaking, on Italian, French and Russian neo-realist films. The pioneering Drama department in Bristol cemented that interest. There was no British Film School at the time, so I applied to ones abroad, eventually deciding to go to the German Democratic Republic, as I was offered a scholarship. After completing my four-year training, I returned to the UK and began making short news reports for the GDR – at the time the country was not recognised and they could have no accredited journalists – and graduated to longer reports and documentaries from around the world. Working as a documentarist and news reporter for GDR TV opened my eyes to what was happening in the world and gave me new insights into liberation struggles.
Bruni – I studied English and Russian at the University of Potsdam. After graduating I started working on a PhD in English literature and soon after started teaching at the university. I finished my PhD in 1981 and continued to work at the university until 1988 when I handed in my notice because I planned to move to England.
As an academic in the GDR I did the usual, i.e. teaching students, speaking at conferences and publishing articles. I had a very broad field of interest: from Shakespeare to the Fringe theatre of the 1970/80s, working class literature and women’s writing in 19th century Britain as well as feminist theory. I had articles published in the GDR, in West Germany, the UK and the USA. This may sound surprising to an outsider, but the GDR had a lively international network of academics and international conferences were not unusual.
When I came to the UK (for personal reasons) it was difficult to get a job as an academic. So I decided to change track completely and started working for a large public services union. I worked there for 20 years, most of the time as a national negotiator.
2. What was the catalyst that made you both want to become authors?
John – As far as I was concerned, I had become disillusioned with the possibilities of changing the world through TV and felt that the medium was essentially superficial and didn’t allow me, as a journalist, to delve deeper into reality. I felt writing would give me more opportunity to express my ideas and thoughts in a more profound way.
Bruni – When I first came to the UK in 1989, I worked as a freelance journalist writing about British politics and culture for various newspapers in Germany and Austria. This was quite a challenge because news reporting has to be done fast and doesn’t allow for the long reflections one has when writing academic articles. But it was a good experience and those two years, when I wrote over 200 articles, I learned a lot. It helped me to write for a broader audience.
3. Having lived in a Socialist governed European country, do you feel it strange that most people readily accept capitalism as the only economic system that humanity can work under?
John – In one sense yes, but in another no. Although I am a convinced socialist, I realise that the attempts to build socialist in a number of countries around the world has hardly been an unmitigated success. If we wish to build successful socialist societies in the future, we have to learn from our own mistakes. That said, the powerful capitalist class with its media consistently denigrates any attempt to create a more just and equitable society and does all in its powers to sabotage such attempts. Think Operation Condor, initiated and supervised by the CIA, which cost tens of thousands of lives, plunged Latin America into a nightmare period of brutal dictatorships and set back progress for decades. People are so inured by what they know and what they are told – that there is no alternative system to the one we have, that they have stopped imagining anything different or daring to hope and struggle for something better.
Bruni – I find it strange in theory but not in practice. People in the West are bombarded with the storyline of neoliberalism, i.e. that capitalism and the ‘freedom’ it brings is the only way to live. Alternatives, whether in the former socialist countries in Eastern Europe or the attempts to build a different society in Venezuela, are treated with contempt by the establishment and portrayed in the darkest way so that they don’t appear to be a genuine alternative to capitalism. Whether in schools or in the media, alternative economic and social systems are never objectively analysed and debated so that it is hard for many people to conceive the possibility of an alternative to capitalism.
4. Despite its failures, what do think society in 2016 can learn from European socialism and how do you think it could contribute to a fairer, safer and ultimately freer world?
John – What living in the GDR taught me was that society can be organised in a better and fairer way and most of the people appreciated that, precisely because they had begun to develop more social attitudes and social thinking. What angered them and frustrated them at the same time, was the narrow attitudes of the party and government leaders and their fear of real grass-roots democracy, leading them to govern from top-down rather than the reverse.
Bruni – The most important lesson from European socialism was its success in building a more equal society with equal rights for everyone. The right to work was an important value which was key to the self-realisation of people as human beings. The experience of not being wanted by society is one of the most destructive things for people, young or old. In the socialist countries nobody was thrown onto the scrap heap; people were valued for the contributions they could make, however small. This created a self-confidence that was the basis for a much fairer society and made for happier people and less mental illness.
5. Are there currently any world leaders or public figures who embrace a 21st century form of socialism, and who could ultimately lead people to greater social and economic equity?
John – A lifetime of experience and study of history has taught me to remain sceptical about any leader in the sense of believing that she/he can change the world. Of course, we do need charismatic and capable leaders, but they have to be kept on a tight democratic rein. Even capable and well-meaning individuals, once they have power, tend to become autocratic and dictatorial. We have to develop structures and means to prevent that happening. I was, though, a great admirer of Mandela of South Africa, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Jose Mujica of Uruguay and now of Bernie Sanders (USA) and Jeremy Corbyn here in Britain. But without strong movements behind them they can achieve little.
Bruni – I agree with John on that. We were both in Venezuela in 2013 and could see how much had been achieved under Chavez in terms of education, health care and housing and we saw the enthusiasm of the (mainly poor) people. But we also saw the huge divide of a society where the rich hated to give up any of their privileges. This will be a problem in any society that is trying to change. Previous attempts to build a different society were after a war or revolution; and where it was tried following elections, as in Chile and Venezuela, the ruling class fought/fights back with any means available.
6. Bruni, if people wanted to learn more about 21st century socialism and grassroot movements, what books, websites or talks would you recommend them?
Bruni – Wow, that is a huge question and difficult to answer. I could say: learn German. There is much more debate and analysis going on in Germany, whether it is in the party Die Linke or various journals. They have a think tank that has an office in New York and Brussels and a few other places and these English language websites: http://www.rosalux-nyc.org or https://www.rosalux.de/english/foundation.html
I find the Green Party here interesting. And there are some individuals like Tariq Ali, Danny Dorling or Paul Mason who stimulate debate. But the general level of theoretical debate here is quite poor. I’m sure there are websites but I’m not familiar with them.
7. John, you wrote another book, The Red Reporter, could you tell our readers what you discuss in it and what they would learn about if they read it.
John – As we know, history is invariably written by the victors, not the foot soldiers. In my work throughout the world as a documentary reporter, I experienced, movements, individuals, processes and historical events that gave me, I felt, a deeper understanding of how society progresses and changes. I thought that by writing about those experiences from the point of view of a ‘foot soldier’, I could explain to a wider readership what I experienced and filmed and how I interpreted what I saw. I felt it would give a perspective on history which was very different to the one usually conveyed in the mainstream media.
8. Given that this is QUAKE Books, if you had to each review your QUAKE Book, which book would you choose and what would readers find interesting about it?
John – I’d choose the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. She portrays a family of US evangelical missionaries who travel to Africa during the turmoil in the Belgian Congo. Through the lives and experiences of that family she reveals how religious and political arrogance, US imperialist interference and manipulation destroy the chances of a new democratic system emerging. A lesson for all of us, still today.
Bruni – Two books come to mind: The Country Under My Skin – a Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli; and “In Place of Splendor” by Constancia de la Mora (a rather poor translation of the original “Doble Esplendor”) Both books are autobiographies by women who come from a privileged background and give everything up to join the revolutionary forces, Belli in Nicaragua and de la More in Spain during the Civil War. Both books give a passionate picture of the journey from one world to the other. De la Mora’s book is probably the best book about the Spanish Civil War I know of, because she comes from a different world – the Catholic aristocracy. She portrays powerfully the nature of the battle between the old world and the revolutionary forces which desperately want to create a new society. Belli too leaves her upper-class comfortable life behind her and joins the Sandinistas. She gives moving details of the battles against the fascist dictatorship in Nicaragua. Both books, particularly because they have been written by women, have had a powerful effect on me.
Thank you so much John and Bruni. QUAKE Book Agents, if you haven’t already please check out my review of their book Stasi State or Socialist Paradise for an alternative view of the realities of living behind the Berlin Wall.