William Ash’s Pickaxe and Rifle: the Story of the Albanian People is a comprehensive, diversified, in-depth study and explanation of the experiences and the social system of the tiny, formerly Marxist-Leninist Balkan country. Ash was invited to travel to the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania in 1969. He visited again in 1971. He was given the opportunity of visiting the country during the Albanian Party of Labor’s Sixth Party Congress and of checking the draft typescript of his work with historians and state and party leaders, and most important of all, with workers in the factories and on the collective farms.
The 270-page book is divided up into twenty-one chapters, covering just about every aspect of Albanian life, from health, education and the status of women, to the party, state, and mass organizations to the state of the country’s economic development. An entire chapter is also dedicated to expressing the leisure time of the workers and the activities and resorts that are available to them. While examining the situation and lifestyle of socialist Albania’s workers, farmers, and intelligentsia, Ash dedicates the first eight chapters to the history of tiny Albania and the historical struggles for freedom and independence that have been characteristic of the country ever since the days of the Ottoman Empire.
First and foremost, William Ash is a Marxist-Leninist, and as an advocate of scientific socialism and proletarian revolution, Ash never skips a beat in providing a fluid and correct Marxist analysis based. For one example in chapter fifteen, he exposes the Khruschevite coup and the bureaucratic stagnation of the Soviet Union:
“One of the first indications that an entirely different line was being adopted by the Soviet leadership came in May, 1955, when Khrushchev unilaterally rejected the decisions of the Information Bureau and other communist and workers’ parties in respect to Tito’s betrayal of socialism and heading a delegation to Belgrade for the purpose of rehabilitating, without consultation, the Yugoslav leader. Two days before the delegation left Moscow the Albanian Party of Labour was informed of the visit and asked to approve a statement which Khrushchev had drawn up in the name of the Information Bureau without bothering to convene it. This the Albanian Party refused to do on the grounds that there had been no change in the line of the Yugoslav leadership since it has been condemned by the 1948 resolution of communist and workers’ parties represented on the Bureau” (Ash 182).
“The conference of the four great powers, the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and France, at Geneva in July, 1955, was acclaimed by Khrushchev as ‘a new stage in the relations between nations’ and he described the leaders of the imperialist powers as ‘reasonable people who were trying to ensure peace’ – this on the eve of the Angle-French-Israeli attack on Suez!” (183).
“Instead of challenging the policy of nuclear blackmail which the United States government had used ever since the war to keep the world safe for the operations of monopoly capitalism, Khrushchev was going to use the Soviet Union’s nuclear capacity to get in on the act. This was the case as demonstrated later on when Albania’s opposition to the Khrushchev line prompted the threat from Kozlov, a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Party, that ‘either the Albanians will accept peaceful co-existence or an atom bomb from the imperialists will turn Albania into a head of ashes and leave no Albanian alive’” (184).
“Class struggle does not cease even after the liquidation of the exploiting classes. It simply takes different forms as the battle between the ideas, customs and habits of the old exploitative society and the ideals and aspirations of the new socialist man is fought out in every sphere of social activity” (101).
These are but a few passages that Ash provides on the topic of the split in the world communist movement. The author pulls no punches in calling out revisionism and injustice, defending the contributions of Joseph Stalin and the resolute fighting spirit of the Albanian Party of Labor. Ash wastes no time getting down to business in the examination of the socialist state structure that existed within Albania. He provides a short history of the first constitution drafted under the surveillance of the people’s democratic government. By providing a comprehensive list of sources from both inside and outside the small Balkan republic, the author describes:
“The whole document of fewer than a hundred articles takes up only 40 pages of a very small book. This conciseness and simplicity stem from the fact that, unlike most constitutions, there are no ruling class interests to be concealed in elaborate verbiage, no complicated divisions of power to the state’s interference in business and finance, no pseudo-democratic formulations designed to give people the illusion of governing themselves” (98).
“All the major democratic organizations which enable the Albanian working masses to exercise state power originated and developed in the heat of national struggle. As they came into being in answer to the national need they were tested in the fires of the liberation war involving the whole people. Out of the National Liberation General Council grew the People’s Assembly; and the National Liberation Committee appointed by the Council became the Government, Prime Minister and Cabinet, elected by the Assembly. The National Liberation Councils at village, district, and city levels developed in the People’s Councils which are the local organs of state power” (99).
“Every citizens having completed eighteen years of age, regardless of sex, economic status, social position, religious belief or any other consideration, enjoys the right to elect and be elected to any elective body in the state. Electors vote directly for their representatives whether as members of a village council, as people’s judges or as deputies of the People’s Assembly itself. Polling is done secretly by sealed ballot in special booths and is under the supervision of electoral committees appointed by the mass organizations of the Democratic Front – trade unions, youth and women’s associations and the working collectives of industrial enterprises, agricultural co-operatives, government ministries, army units and so on. These same mass organizations of workers have the right to present any of their members as candidates” (103).
Throughout the section entitled “Albania’s Socialist Society,” it becomes clear that Ash went to great lengths to study and expound on the social organization of Albania. The author describes the socialist and democratic nature of the whole society, from the mass organizations such as the Democratic Front, the trade unions, the Labor Youth Union, the Albanian Women’s Union and the Union of Artists and Writers to the organization of the Albanian Party of Labor and the structure of the state as a whole. There is vast description of all parts of Albanian life.
In the last section of the book, William Ash describes the quality of life in socialist Albania. Although a relatively poor and tiny country, the sheer amount of progress made since the book was written in 1976 is astounding to say the least. The author provides an objective analysis combined with facts and statistics to show the outside world just how powerful a nation can become once it adopts a Marxist-Leninist political and economic line. In terms of describing the educational system and the consciousness of the youth and women of socialist Albania, Pickaxe and Rifle: the Story of the Albanian People offers insight into how the youth took the reigns of their own future and denounced the feudal practices that were once widespread throughout the country. To offer an example:
“Organizations of youth and women and the trade unions were mobilized in this campaign under the slogan: ‘In order to build we must acquire knowledge and in order to acquire knowledge we must be able to study and learn.’ Tens of thousands of those previously illiterate were enrolled in night schools without giving up production work, graduating first from elementary classes, then from seven grade schools and even completing secondary and higher school courses. By 1955 illiteracy among all those under 40 had been wiped out and not long afterward it was abolished among older people too. The night schools were maintained to consolidate this achievement and to keep people, particularly in the rural areas, from slipping back again” (223).
Compare this type of system, this amount of democracy and freedom of action, this style of liberation to modern-day capitalist Albania or any Western capitalist country. The incredible amount of self-initiative in terms of building relationships and developing the mind is unheard of in any country today, where women are still subjected to the domination of the man and where the youth are constantly being subordinated to the institutionalized curriculum, whether it is productive and popular with those actually doing the learning or not.
“In his great speech to the Fifth Party Congress on November 1, 1966, he stressed the need of linking teaching and education much more closely to life and labour. Speaking not only as a Marxist-Leninist but as one who had been a teacher himself, at the Korca academy before his dismissal on political grounds, he explained the political necessity of an ‘unceasing development of education to meet the demands of socialist society;’ and pointed out that ‘Our schools, for all the improvement in teaching and education, have not yet rid themselves of bourgeois pedagogy and revisionist influences…It is indispensable to revolutionize further the educational system…It is particularly necessary to take radical measures for the improvement of ideological and political education and for educating youth through labour…There is still too much formalism and verbalism, passivity on the part of pupils and stifling the personality of the young on the part of the teachers, too much officialdom in the relations between teachers and pupils resulting in conservative and patriarchal methods of education…There can be no talk of revolutionizing our schools without revolutionizing the great army of teachers who must set the example of a communist attitude toward labour and life’” (225).
The above passage, quoting Enver Hoxha himself, sheds light on what education would look like under a socialist system: the youth and the teachers acting coming together as respectable equals to build and revolutionize a truly democratic and progressive school system. Offering constructive criticism on the subject of socialist education, Comrade Hoxha does not exhibit narrow-mindedness and pessimism on the role of the youth in building and shaping the society that will belong to them. Instead, he encourages them to open their minds and explore their creative will and natural compassion to rebel against reactionary, subordinating teaching methods. How many other heads of state would have said such things in the open?
“In the schools and in the University teachers and professors had to adopt new methods and learn to accept the criticism of students as part of their own socialist rehabilitation. A few found the extension of democratic centralism to the educational system, with students taking an active role in organizing school life, too much of a break with the old academic traditions they had hoped to see re-established. They were released to go into production work, perhaps, to return to teaching when they have learned from workers the socialist ideology of the working class. And students, too, had to learn more thoroughly that socialist education has nothing to do with getting a degree in order to become ‘a man of authority’ or to ‘secure a comfortable post with a fat salary’” (227).
“A student is judged not on the marks he gets in competition with his fellows but on the help he gives others in mastering subjects. So successful has the approach proved that in such places as the Tirana Secondary school of Culture students through mutual aid in lessons have realized a hundred percent promotion rate and earned commendation for the exemplary tidiness and protection of socialist property” (227).
“Courses in Marxism-Leninism were made a living part of the curriculum and not just a routine subject to be got through in a mechanical way. Texts and lectures on dialectical and historical materialism were related to Albania’s own revolutionary history and students and teachers learned to apply the principles of scientific socialism to their own problems and those of their society. And since practice is the essence of Marxism-Leninism, students and teachers began to participate more actively in the political and economic life of the country, leaving their books and laboratories to study the application of theory on the production and social front” (227).
A strong initiative towards learning, acquiring knowledge and conscious discipline on behalf of the students themselves, combined with the life experiences and teaching expertise of the educators must be the bedrock of socialist education.
The social status of women has always been an important topic for those studying Albania’s application of Marxism-Leninism. Before liberation, women were required to be completely subordinate to the demands and wishes of the male. The Code of Lek was the set of rules and guidelines that governed the family in feudal times. Passages such as “the husband is entitled to beat his wife and to tie her up in chains when she defies his word and orders”, and “The father is entitled to beat, tie in chains, imprison or kill his son or daughter…The wife is obliged to kneel in obeisance to her husband” indicate the shear hostility and oppression towards women. Fortunately, these enslaving principles began to be sharply criticized during the liberation war, as men and women stood shoulder-to-shoulder to free themselves of the fascist invaders. As such, Pickaxe and Rifle dedicates a chapter to the role of women in the socialist family by comparing the gains and progress of the national liberation war to the binding feudal culture beforehand.
“In 1938 there were 668 women workers in all Albania, mostly girls of 14 or 16 working a ten hour day for appallingly low wages. By 1967 over 248,000 women, which is 42% of rural and urban workers, were engaged in production work on exactly the same terms as men” (235).
“’Women workers,’ Stalin has said, ‘urban and rural workers are the greatest reserve of the working class. This reserve represents half the population. On whether this reserve of women is with or against the working class depends the destiny of the proletarian movement, the triumph or defeat of the proletarian revolution and the triumph or defeat of proletarian state power’” (235).
In addition to the major gains made towards women’s rights during the years immediately following liberation, the author also carefully documents the continuous progression and enhancement of the status of females in socialist society. Approved in June 1965 and put into action in 1966, a new family code was adopted, which reaffirmed certain rights guaranteed in the Constitution of socialist Albania. This new family code is as follows:
“• Marriage is contracted with the free will of husband and wife and rests on solid feelings of love, equality and mutual respect. Only monogamous marriages are recognized.
• Partners in marriage can choose as their surname that of husband or wife or each may keep his or her original name or add them together.
• A wife can choose her work or profession without her husband’s permission and the handling of the family income is managed by mutual agreement.
• Personal property held by either before marriage remains his or hers and anything acquired afterwards is joint property. All children regardless of sex are entitled to equal shares in the inheritance of joint personal property and the wife is the heir of first rank.
• Divorce is allowed when a marriage has lost all meaning and cohabitation has become intolerable. Causes for divorce are continuous quarrels, maltreatment, breach of conjugal faith, permanent mental illness or punishment for serious crimes. There is no distinction between husband or wife in the right to sue for divorce and the rearing of children is confided to that parent who in the court’s opinion is better qualified to bring them up.
• All parental rights belong to both parents equally and disagreements are settled by tutelage committees or by the courts.
• Single mothers enjoy all due respect and the state guarantees their economic security and protection. Children born outside marriage are equal in every way to those born within.
• Abortions are allowed after consultation with a committee of doctors. Birth control is a matter of personal choice. There is no family planning in the sense of national campaigns to limit births because Albania is an underpopulated country in which all births are welcomed” (238-239).
These progressive family guidelines, set in law, are a happy example of solving family issues the right way in the right social context. It could be claimed that law does not necessarily solve every issue and serve as the final and complete solution, but the fact that such great strides forward have been made in terms of equality of the sexes is definitely a solid indication of the Party and the state’s attitudes towards the role of women in everyday life.
Lastly, Ash focuses a section on what there is to do in Albanian workers’ leisure time. As a generally warm country with multiple beaches and resorts, the author uses the example of the Durres bathing resort to show that workers do in fact have time to relax or take a vacation. Durres stands out in this sense, however, in that it is Albania’s top beach resort and that it is only open to trade union workers, which was comprised of 99% of Albania’s workers. As confirmed not only in Pickaxe and Rifle but in Albania Defiant (1976) by Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle and translated by Paul Britten, Durres is not open for bureaucrats or tourists. It is exclusive in the sense that the best beach in the entire country belongs to the workers and the workers alone.
Aside from bathing resorts and vacations, there are a number of activities or festivities going on in the streets after the work day is over. Cultural centers, cafes, gymnasiums, and folk centers are open for all Albanians.
“At the end of the day’s work the whole population comes out into the broad boulevards, to stroll about greeting friends, to have coffee or something to eat in one of the many open-air cafes or restaurants in this warm country – whole families to three generations taking the fragrant summer air together or young couples walking hand in hand or, perhaps, happy bands of children weaving in and out of the crowds in some extemporized game” (217-218).
“There is something strange to the visitor from the West in seeing children running about through the streets in such abandon without any surveillance. In his towns they would soon be decimated by traffic. In Albania, after the end of the working day, there are no lorries nor motor cars to be seen and the streets and avenues belong entirely to the people for their communal perambulation which gives each wide thoroughfare the appearance of a fair ground” (218).
“In the sight of so many family groups of grandparents, parents, children and even children’s children walking, talking and taking refreshment together raises the question of why family relationships are so strong and satisfactory, the answer every one gives is that there is no economic restraint whatsoever compelling families to stay together. The only bond is that of mutual love and respect” (219).
“Or the evening crowds may seek various forms of entertainment in the local palace of culture where there are recitals, concerts, pageants or plays. They may go to cinemas where a growing number of the films shown are Albanian. They may enjoy the presentation in some large auditorium of that ever popular form, Estrada, which is the Albanian equivalent of the music hall – with acts by singers, musicians and acrobats, with dramatic sketches and comic turns. And in all these amusements and cultural activities the audiences are not merely passive in their enjoyment. Not only do they participate in the sense that every performance of any kind has developed collectively under the guidance of constructive criticism which everyone feels free to give but also because a large proportion of any gathering will belong themselves to some cultural group which no factory, school, office, co-operative farm or institution of any kind is without” (219).
Constructive criticism is a large part of socialist society, constantly reviewing and keeping what is progressive in the eyes of the people and renewing or doing away with what is not. What makes it especially notable is the fact that this is carried over to cultural and artistic life.
“National holidays celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic, historical anniversaries, victories, in the liberation war or in socialist construction raise to a higher degree the festive feeling to be encountered in the streets of the major towns. The broad tree-lined avenue leading from the statue of Scanderbeg in the centre of Tirana to the University on the outskirts of the city will be filled with representatives of the Democratic Front organizations, of factories and farms, of the armed services and young pioneers, marching past the reviewing stand near the Dajti Hotel under billowing red banners, shouting revolutionary slogans and paying their respects to Party and state leaders and guests from abroad” (219).
“All around the grove are bulletin boards with pictures of the activities of the co-operatives in the area and the achievements of the rural electrification programme. Strung overhead are banners inscribed with such slogans as Rroftë Partie e Punës e Shqipërisë – Long live the Albanian Party of Labor, Shqipëri, ‘land of the eagles’, is the Albanians’ name for their country; and among the dances performed by the men in the course of the merrymaking will be the famous eagle dance. Other banners wish a long life to Enver Hoxha or set out the main themes to be taken up in a brief political meeting by a representative of the Central Committee, perhaps the veteran partisan Birro Kondi whose brother also a great partisan fighter died in an accident after the war – ‘Without unmasking revisionism one cannot defeat imperialism’ and ‘the people of Albania and China’s millions are more than a match for any enemy’” (220).
“Then the vast crowed, more than 20,000, move to the long tables under the trees which are piled high with roast chickens and slabs of lamb, homemade bread, cream cheese, boiled eggs, tomatoes and corn on the cob. Vast quantities of very good cold beer are drunk during and after the feast to the sound of the constantly repeated toast Gezuer! – Good health! There is much moving about and groups at the tables are broken up and reform as old comrades are discovered and greeted affectionately. One of the good survivals of feudal customs, along with the open-handed hospitality one encounters all over Albania, deepened and given a new fraternal significance by socialism, is the close demonstrative friendship between men. Partisans seeing each other after an interval embrace and kiss warmly. Moving about as freely and greeted as affectionately are the Party and State leaders who have come from Tirana to join in the celebrations – the Foreign Minister who is also a deputy from this region, an ambassador, several members of the Political Bureau and Enver Hoxha’s younger sister” (220).
It’s very interesting to take note of the amount of simple pleasures there are to indulge in, and one of the most common joys in Albania involves the simple enjoyment of each other’s company. The workers are disciplined and hardworking, but they are neither puritanical nor austere. The embracing of the dialectical method can have far-reaching progressive consequences when applied to social practice, whether the practice pertains to culture, economics or the political system, or if it is used in simple social interaction.
In conclusion, Pickaxe and Rifle is an excellent, comprehensive account of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania through the eyes of an eyewitness who has visited the country on more than one occasion. William Ash provides in his work a very well-put-together and very sincere study of the socialist system in Albania by covering nearly every aspect of Albanian life and the amount of freedom and organization the working class gains under proper Marxism-Leninism. Ash’s book, from examining the political and economic system of Albania to the social, artistic and cultural life, Pickaxe and Rifle is a breath of fresh air in a society plagued by lies and misinformation about communist theory and practice.
Ash, William. Pickaxe and Rifle: the Story of the Albanian People. London: H. Baker, 1974.