For the second in our series ‘An Anarchist Guide to’ we asked Ian Bone to take us through the great Czech anarchist story-teller and troublemaker, Jaroslav Hasek.
An Anarchist Guide to Jaroslav Hasek by Ian Bone
His life was, frankly, a disgrace. He might have appeared to be a Bolshevik but in fact he was just bolshie. He made a bad start in life and got steadily worse. At one time he edited two rival anarchist papers in Prague and conducted a vicious polemic between them. He edited the prestigious magazine Animal World where he invented fantastical animals and sold ‘pedigree’ dogs he had stolen on the street. His one book ‘the good Soldier Schweik’ was mostly written when he was drunk and is nothing more than a ramshackle collection of pub stories. It is also hailed as one of the 100 greatest books of the last century. Such was the life and work of the very bad Bohemian Jaroslav Hasek.
Hasek was by nature anarchic and resentful of authority, but from 1906-09 he was active in the Czech anarchist movement. He was expelled from one anarchist group for bartering the office bicycle for beer. He led a tram-workers strike though not a tram-worker. He was arrested for throwing a rock at a policeman during a riot. His defence was that he had spotted a rare fossil on the ground during the riot. Fearing it might be lost – or worse still used as a missile – he threw it over a wall for safekeeping where it had unfortunately hit a police inspector. Introduced by his fiancé to his worried prospective father-in-law Hasek assured him he had just obtained regular employment. ‘What are the wages?‘ he was asked; ’two litres of beer a day’ he replied cheerily.
Hasek’s greatest project was the foundation – along with four artist cronies – of ‘The party for peaceful and moderate progress within the bounds of the law’ to contest Prague council elections in 1911. Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and strict censorship was in force, but Hasek got round this by establishing an extreme party of moderation. Meetings were uproariously chaotic, always held in bars and attended by government police spies hoping to find evidence of subversion.
‘What do you think of the Crown?’ asked an agent, hoping Hasek would be forced to openly criticise the Emperor. ’It is an excellent establishment,’ replied Hasek, ‘I drink there often.’
‘Why is the portrait of the Emperor turned to face the wall?’ asked another.
‘In case a fly might shit on it and someone make an unfortunate remark’ came the reply.
As crowds flocked to the nightly meetings Hasek rashly promised to list 20 Prague municipal councillors who had murdered their own grandmothers at the next meeting. Expectation grew beyond hope as police and officials joined the huge throng. Hasek had painted himself into a corner but as usual his cronies came to the rescue.
Before Hasek could begin, the ‘Chairman of the Party’ (there wasn’t one) gravely intoned that an emergency question had been asked which must receive priority under the party constitution ‘Section 35 on agriculture’ (there wasn’t one).
‘What do you think of Foot and Mouth Disease?’
‘This is an extraordinarily stupid question’ replied Hasek ‘but one which must be answered.’ He then spoke for 89 minutes on the ravages of foot and mouth to cattle in the Ostrogoth and Visigoth empires before ending with the assertion that the only present-day carrier of the disease was the mayor of Prague who must immediately be given 10 gallons of creosote mouth wash.’ Exit crowd in search of creosote… and mayor.
On election day itself, only minutes after the polls opened, Hasek’s supporters began sticking up posters claiming an overwhelming victory for Hasek. All voters were invited to the pub HQ of the party to celebrate, and hundreds did. Eventually a policeman arrived asking Hasek to remove the posters. Hasek grabbed the humble policeman and announced he was now making him Chief of Police at three times his salary and sent him on his way.
The rest of Hasek’s life was extraordinary. Conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army he was captured by the Russians. After the October revolution he briefly joined the Czech Legion and then the Red Army where he quickly rose to the rank of Political Commissar before wandering back to Prague in 1920. For the next three years he led a vagabond existence writing stories on scraps of paper, which he would then lose, and asking anyone if they could remember the story he had told the night before. He drank prodigiously and at the time of his death in 1923 he weighed 22 stone – the wall of his house had to be knocked down in order to remove his body.
He had, however, written the stories and adventures of ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ – which seemed remarkably close to his wanderings. By playing the wise fool and adopting imbecilic obeying of authority, Schweik is the most anarchic and subversive character in history. Here’s an example from chapter one:
The landlord of Schweik’s local tavern is continually tying to avoid conversations with him for fear of being overheard by police agents. Schweik enters the bar and is greeted by a weeping landlady:
‘After you left, my husband was arrested for subversion and last week was sentence to 10 years in gaol’
‘That’s excellent news’ responds Schweik cheerily.
‘How is that excellent news?’
‘Because he has served a week already’.
In September 2000 I was in Prague for the world bank riots, in the company of Jane Nicholl and Martin Wright. We visited the very touristy Chalice pub, amongst the many where Hasek used to drink. On leaving we could hear tear gas volleys and see the smoke rising from street battles. We raced down. I picked up a rock, and quickly checked to see if it had a fossil.
Ian Bone is an anarchist writer, trouble maker and amateur geologist.
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