Most of us have very little idea of what life is actually like in the Soviet Union for ordinary people. We are so bombarded by various kinds of propaganda that the Communist world becomes a mythological place, to the extent that when we catch glimpses of the reality, we are surprised to find it peopled by ordinary human beings. Caroline Humphrey's book, Karl Marx Collective, tells us what we want to know: what is the relation between theory and practice, what is the relation of the state and the party to the local unit - in this case collective farms - how much are individuals constrained in their lives by central planning, what is family life like, what are schools like, what are funerals like? This is not, however, a subjective account, such as we would find in an autobiography or a short interview. It is a very thorough study of the institutions, laws and government which apply to collective farms, but it combines this with the effect of external structures on daily life. This combination of levels would make the study an outstanding example of modern anthropological description, even if its subject-matter was not of such intrinsic interest in the first place.
LRB 15 September 1983 | PDF Download