The Interview: Lea Ypi

Rowan Pelling interviews Lea Ypi about her upbringing in communist Albania, beautifully rendered in her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, and her philosophy of Kantian Marxism

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Lea Ypi’s darting train of thought is so compelling that it isn’t until the end of our Zoom chat I realise we’ve been talking for 80 minutes without lulls. I tell her I envy her students at LSE, where the 42-year-old is Professor in Political Theory, for having such a high-voltage mentor. The happy news is now we can all share in Ypi’s élan following the publication of her memoir: Free: Coming of Age at the End of History. The much-acclaimed book (shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction) describes her childhood and adolescence in Communist Albania, covering the crumbling of the totalitarian regime and disastrous aftermath, including pyramid schemes in which most of the country lost their savings and an ugly civil war. So many passages are cinematic in their intensity, that I felt I was riding on young Ypi’s shoulders as she fled demonstrators chanting “Freedom, Democracy” in her hometown, the port of Durrës; only to find her totem of safety – a statue of Stalin in municipal gardens – had been decapitated. The exploration of what freedom truly means, on a personal, philosophical and civil level, weaves its way through the book like gold thread in a tapestry.

So it’s surprising to learn Ypi originally had no intention of setting down her own story. She explains that, as a student of philosophy turned political theorist, she had intended to write a more conventional ideas-focused volume “on freedom and how freedom features in liberal and socialist traditions and political thought.” She wanted to counter the interpretation of Marxism as a “wholesale rejection of
liberalism”, contending Marx’s writing was actually in the tradition of Enlightenment political thought and offered “a radicalisation of liberal commitment”. She intended to explore the idea that: “If you really care about freedom, then you have to care about this asymmetrical power which makes it very difficult for some people to have access to the same opportunities as others, depending on where they are in the chain of production.” She was also intrigued by the fact millennials were expressing fresh interest in socialism
following the financial crash and sense of crisis in liberal democracies.

“Whenever I said to my mum I was working on Marxism and socialism, she always said, ‘I can’t believe you’re working on this stuff. What on earth makes you interested in this?’”

But the more Ypi searched for reallife examples to explore this “crisis of liberalism”, the more her thoughts returned to Albania. She realised her world view arose directly from her upbringing. The other part of the story, according to Ypi, arises from the fact that “whenever I said to my mum I was working on Marxism and socialism, she always said, ‘I can’t believe you’re working on this stuff. What on earth makes you interested in this?’” The academic laughs as she says, “it was almost as if I was an embarrassment to her.” So she determined to set out – both for herself and for her mother – how and why someone who’d escaped a totalitarian regime could subsequently commit themselves to the study of Marxism. She wanted to explore how her upbringing could interest the reader in the  way certain ideas have been misinterpreted and abused: “But also to show that ideas are always, in some ways, misinterpreted and abused.”

The early chapters of the book are particularly intense, when we see events through the child Ypi’s eyes and her unswerving certainty in the omniscient benevolence of “Uncle Enver” [Hoxha], Albania’s leader for 40 years. She’s baffled by the fact their house doesn’t have the requisite framed photo of the Prime Minister as a central focus, and that many relatives and family friends are away on perpetual periods of “study”. Only later does she find out “university” is code for prison. Queuing for hours for food and other essentials is normal practice, with an etiquette that permits people to leave a bag or stone in their place as proxy, while they attend to other queues or chores. Commonplace western goods are so scarce that empty bubble-gum wrappers become classroom contraband – sniffed for the lingering scent of synthetic plenty – while drained Coca-Cola cans are prized like Ming vases. The few tourists who go off-piste to Albania (often on a romanticised quest for a socialist Eden), reek of alien suntan lotion.

“I knew that Albania was an isolated state,” says Ypi, “and I believed the ideological categories I was given… that this was an isolated state because it was a very moral state: deeply committed to freedom and freeing workers from oppression. But because it was a small nation it had to deal throughout its history with empires that threatened its survival.”

Ypi and her classmates believed Albanian socialism had “to be defended at all cost from all enemies” and that it offered “a model for other anti-imperialist countries around the world.” While aware it was a poor society, lacking access to products that were freely available in the West, this belief inspired idealism: “Somehow I was convinced we were in the right. It didn’t really matter that we didn’t have these material goods because we believed in something much more important and deeper.”

I tell Ypi that I’d have found her faith in Uncle Enver odd if I hadn’t, at around the same age, cherished an equally sincere belief that a genial bearded man on a cloud was looking after my interests. She laughs and says that when she first caught a glimpse of the Pope on TV – courtesy of “a signal from Italy which was a bit hit and miss” – she was taken aback: “You know, the Pope is really weird if you’ve never seen him.” Ypi’s forebears were all Muslims, but as she explains in Free, Hoxha’s Albania was an atheist state that taught its children the notion of God was kept alive by capitalists “because it made it easier to exploit workers and blame a magical being rather than themselves for the misery they caused.”

The idea of going to prison for political beliefs rather than for theft or murder was hard, especially for an eleven-year-old who doesn’t think freedom of opinion, or freedom of speech, is an issue

It’s quite clear, as Ypi says, that when “you’re surrounded by an ideology, you don’t really question it.” What matters is to be historically aware of how political systems can change: that “circumstances shape ideas and shape motives and shape individual leaders.” So you can never blame “the flaws of particular individuals or particular politicians if things take a bad turn – because in some ways it’s a collective responsibility.” What she sees as the complacency of the West was a driving reason for writing the book: “I feel like when you’re in such a deep crisis – environmental, or whatever – you really need to change the way you think about ideology.”

We discuss the ways in which the UK has been removed from the routine incursions and land grabs that have swept over mainland Europe for centuries. Ypi says crisply: “I always find that world history is made by nations that shape it and nations that just absorb it – suck it up.” Since these different historic fates are intimately connected she wants readers to be aware of “what goes on outside your kind of core area of comfort and security – because in some ways you are responsible for these other small countries if you shape their fate”.

Loss of innocence is at the core of Free. From the book’s early pages it’s clear young Ypi is hurtling towards unbearably painful revelations, unleashed by the fall of the communist regime in 1991. First, she realises her parents and beloved grandmother have no love for the leader or ideology they’ve actively encouraged her to embrace. More shattering is the revelation that the quisling Prime Minister Xhaferr Ypi, whom she wrote about at school as a traitor who transferred Albania’s sovereignty to Italy in 1939, was indeed her great-grandfather, even though she’d always furiously denied kinship with him. And that her paternal grandfather, supposedly away for fifteen years at university, had served a prison sentence as a political dissident.

The idea of going to prison for political beliefs rather than for theft or murder was hard, “especially for an eleven-year-old who doesn’t think freedom of opinion, or freedom of speech, is an issue.” She adds that, as a child, if you have a supportive, mutually respectful family, “it just doesn’t occur to you that there is a kind of conscience that’s being repressed.” She found it hard to accept: “I kept saying, ‘That’s not possible. He must have done something. You just need to tell me what is it that he did?’ And they were like, ‘No, he just had these beliefs.’ And I was like, ‘But nobody goes to prison for that.’”

Even so, within a few months of the 1991 fall she had adjusted to the new narrative, that “this was an oppressive state and I had been oppressed and [my family] had had to lie.” Indeed, the whole country adjusted, including her friends at school. It was only when the party secretary went on television to announce that political pluralism would “make us free” that she really understood they weren’t free. But the recalibration left lingering “questions about identity” that she says will reverberate for the rest of her life. At the time, Ypi came to understand why “Babi”, her beloved father, wasn’t allowed to study his beloved mathematics at university (instead, he was enlisted on a course in forestry), and that it had nothing to do with his aptitude but everything to do with his family’s “biography” – in his case, code for dissident history. Meanwhile “Mami”, her brilliant, Goethe-and-Mozart-loving, chess-champion mother, was propelled towards becoming a maths teacher, even though she detested the subject – her family’s crime had been to be wealthy, Muslim merchants. Ypi recalls an outing when she and her parents cycled past an urban mansion and her mother pointed at a window, remarking to her father, “He said ‘Allahu Akbar’.” Only later did she find out that her maternal great-grandfather leapt from the window with those words in 1947, to escape torture.

Perhaps freedom of movement had never really mattered. It was easy to defend it when someone else was doing the dirty work of imprisonment. Are borders and walls only reprehensible when they keep people in rather than out?

Perhaps the most dramatic family story concerns Ypi’s refined, French-speaking paternal grandmother, Nini, who turned out to have been a mould-breaking civil servant. Her youth was the stuff of novels: “At fifteen, she tasted her first whisky and smoked her first cigar… At twenty, she was an adviser to the prime minister, and the first woman to work in the state administration. At twenty-one she met my grandfather at King Zog’s wedding.”

But under the new, epoch-making “civil society” (a term Ypi pronounces with relish) the family explores fresh avenues. The US Secretary of State James Baker becomes the first American politician on Albanian shores for decades and declares to a crowd of over 300,000 people that “freedom works”. He announces that the US government and private American organisations will be involved to help them construct “democracy, markets, and a constitutional order”. Ypi’s kind-hearted father takes a management role overseeing the port at Durrës, which he’s told must be brought in line with the diktats of a free market economy – but finds he lacks the steel to summarily dismiss the Roma workforce. Her mother joins the opposition party and takes to politics effortlessly, giving impromptu speeches to audiences of thousands. The family enjoy a brief period of advancement before civil war shatters Albania and they – like most of their friends and neighbours – lose all their new-found security in pyramid schemes. Thousands try to flee to Italy, leaping on jam-packed ferries and boats, only to find that, although escaped Albanians were once welcomed as political refugees, they’re now pariahs – to be interned and deported. One vessel sinks leaving dozens of bodies strewn like flotsam on the Ionian Sea; scenes that painfully evoke the current perils faced by desperate refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean and English Channel.

As Ypi writes in the book: “Perhaps freedom of movement had never really mattered. It was easy to defend it when someone else was doing the dirty work of imprisonment. But what value does the right to exist have if there is no right to enter? Were borders and walls reprehensible only when they served to keep people in, as opposed to keeping them out? The border guards, the patrol boats, the detention and repression of immigrants that were pioneered in southern Europe for the first time in those years would become standard practice over the coming decades.” The power of this narrative resides in Ypi’s reminder of how swiftly power structures can flip and liberty can prove illusory, while authoritarian governments and mistrust of the dispossessed are rarely far away.

Unsurprisingly, Ypi’s formative experiences left her finding it “hard to believe in anything,” though she’s adopted a philosophical stance she describes as “Kantian Marxism”. The Kantian side comes from her grandmother, though Nini would never have described herself in that light, Ypi says. “But she had this very strong sense of moral consciousness and moral duty.” The way her grandmother freed herself from the push and pull of external forces was inspirational. The dread “biography” (the state officials’ judgement on your family history) was “crucial to knowing the limits of your world but, once you knew those limits, you were free to choose, and you became responsible for your decisions… You had to avoid being altered by the victories and learn how to accept defeat. Like the moves in chess my mother used to describe, the game was yours to play if you mastered the rules.”

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Ultimately, Ypi tells me, there’s free will “and the ability to make choices”. Marxism runs with that idea and offers “an analysis of capitalist societies and globalisation, which is much richer and more sophisticated than just the crude [dichotomy] of the good and the bad.” She warms to her theme: “You have industrial development and you have historical process and you have colonialism and structures that create motives and produce wealth in this way. And it’s never completely down to the individuals. But what individual morality does is show you how things could be if you didn’t have these constraints.” But Marxism is of limited use unless yoked to “the Kant story”, declares Ypi, because it “just helps you see what’s going on”, without pointing you in a better direction.

It’s hard to convey the ricochet speed with which Ypi explores ideas (in her fourth language, after French, Albanian and Italian). One of the biggest takeaways from her book is the transformative, liberating power of education. When Enver Hoxha took power Albania had an adult literacy rate of around five per cent and when he died it was 90 per cent. Ypi tells me she heard a story of how, when the country’s basketball team went on tour in the West, they would jump out of their hotels’ windows at night and go looking for museums, art galleries and bookshops. This yearning for knowledge “gave you freedom to think”, despite state censorship. The state education system placed boys and girls on a level footing and encouraged academic competitiveness: “We didn’t compete on money, or who was richer, or who had branded clothes [but on] who knew more stuff and who read more books.” She points out there can be greater inequality in western society, where wealthy parents pay for tutors and music lessons. “In Albania we had all these clubs and they were all free and accessible to everyone. It was just default in every village and every last community.”

There’s a richly comic scene in Free where Ypi describes how a delegation of drably-dressed western feminists come to quiz her (by then) politician mother at their family house. Mati wears an exotic red silk slip – a repurposed nightdress acquired from a street market – in honour of the occasion and is puzzled by her guests’ questions, since the sexes have long enjoyed equal career opportunities in Albania. When they ask about women’s freedom she declares, “I think everyone should be free, not only women.”

Her teenage diaries, quoted in “Free”, have a cordite-fresh immediacy, rendered all the more powerful when the rat-tat of Kalashnikovs is punctuated by an account of a classroom crush, or standard-issue expressions of teen ennui

Ypi’s mental toughness must owe much to surviving a terrifying period of civil unrest in Albania in the 1990s. Her teenage diaries, quoted in Free, have a corditefresh immediacy, rendered all the more powerful when the rat-tat of Kalashnikovs is punctuated by an account of a classroom crush, or standard-issue expressions of teen ennui. On 10 March 1997 she records: “So boring. I haven’t seen K for ten days.” On 14 March she writes: “I can’t stand this. I’d rather go out and catch a bullet than just sit here. There is nobody to talk to.” A day later Ypi’s diary entry starts: “I thought about killing myself but was sorry for Nini. It only lasted fifteen minutes. I need to find a new book to read.” Tolstoy’s War and Peace provides the solution.

This almost schizophrenic experience of boredom and danger was typical of the times, says Ypi. “One day it was, ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s not as bad as people say it is.’ The next day: ‘I am going to die.’” This is the banal reality of all wars, she reflects.

Without doubt, Free is the most captivating, humane and thought-provoking book I’ve read this year – fulfilling the author’s mission to make readers reconsider what they mean by freedom. Every chapter is like a portal straight to the Albania of Ypi’s youth and I will carry her summary of her family’s ideological turf war with me for some while: “My family equated socialism with denial: the denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes and learn from them, to explore the world on one’s own terms. I equated liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice.” But, as Ypi concludes, the fairest assessment is that both systems fell short of the ideal. Perhaps freedom can only ever be a state of mental grace.

Lea Ypi is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics, and Political Science and Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at the Australian National University. Her work has been recognised with several prizes such as the British Academy Prize for Excellence in Political Science and the Leverhulme Prize for Outstanding Research Achievement. “Free” is her first non-academic book

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