From: Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
Lea Ypi and the Rehabilitation of Albanian Fascism

In France, the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen has surged in the recent parliamentary elections from 6 to 89 seats after she lost the run-off for the presidency against Emmanuel Macron. In Spain, the Vox party has entered the regional government of Andalusia. In Italy the Brothers of Italy are actively rehabilitating former dictator Benito Mussolini, featuring his granddaughter, Rachele Mussolini, as councilwoman in Rome. The EU’s FRONTEX is involved in illegally pushing immigrants back into the ocean, while the UK is sending them illegally to Rwanda. And then, of course, we are not even talking about the regimes in Poland, Hungary, and Serbia. The ever increasing wealth gap between the rich and the poor, combined with rampant inflation, a cost-of-living and housing crisis, and immediate and unquestioned acceptance of war as a natural solution to geopolitical conflict have once again provided a fertile breeding ground for what French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has called “the mobilization of the identificatory emotions of the masses”: fascism.

Fortunately, Albania is not suffering the same resurgence of openly fascist politics that is threatening the rest of Europe, but that does not mean we should ignore its rehabilitation. And in recent months, one of the vectors of this rehabilitation has been the novelist and Marxist political scientist Lea Ypi. I would like to open with a recent tweet by Ypi, showing two photographs: one taken in the President’s Office, featuring Ypi, Albanian president Bajram Begaj, US ambassador Yuri Kim, and Crown Prince Leka Zogu II; the other of Ypi smiling broadly next to Kim on Mother Theresa Square, right in front of the former Casa del Fascio, the headquarters of the former fascist occupiers of Albania. These photographs were accompanied by the following text: “It was very special for me to join @USAmbAlbania for the dinner & party in honour of 100 years of diplomatic relations, signed by PM Xhaferr Ypi on 28 July 1922. A complicated mix of histories (both personal and political) but no better time to celebrate diplomacy in the world.”

Screen Shot 2022 07 30 at 08.42.18

What brought these figures together in a single photograph? In order to answer that question, we need to understand the historical role of her great-grandfather Xhaferr Ypi, how Lea Ypi thrust herself into the heart of the Albanian state propaganda apparatus, and this “complicated mix of histories (both personal and political)” that is left without any further elaboration.

Xhaferr Ypi was Prime Minister during the regency of Prince Wied and as such responsible for establishing formal diplomatic relations with the United States in 1922, the relations celebrated in above tweet. During the 1939 Italian fascist invasion of Albania led by Count Ciano, Ypi, then chief inspector of the royal court of King Zog I, welcomed Ciano in Tirana. Although most of the entourage of the king followed him in exile after the invasion, Ypi had stayed in Tirana and Ciano made him the head of the provisional government. Ypi then promptly, on April 10, 1939, sent a message to Italian dictator Mussolini to express the loyalty of the Albanian people and to affirm Ciano’s program of “order, prosperity, political and social justice within the solemn frame of Fascist liberties.” He also broadcast a speech claiming that Albanians are unable to govern themselves and that Mussolini should save the country. Ypi then called a constituent assembly to establish fascist governance in Albania (Fischer 1990: 35). To use the name of such a figure in the same tweet as the verb to “honour,” I would say, does not attest to a “complicated mix of histories,” but rather to a very problematic view of the past and the dangers of fascism that we are facing at present. Certainly, there is a way to honor “100 years of diplomatic relations” without making reference, and implicitly celebrating, a fascist!

So let us now turn to what Lea Ypi herself considers this “complicated mix of histories (both personal and political),” and the most extensive record she has left of that mix, namely her autofiction work Të Lirë: Të Rritesh në Fund të Historisë, published in 2021 by Dudaj, appearing in English under the slightly different title Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, to great critical acclaim. The memoir recalls Ypi’s childhood in Albania as member of an “undesired family,” her infatuation with communism and Enver Hoxha, and the turns of fate brought by the end of the dictatorship in 1991. The book is clearly written for an international audience and abounds in a certain self-exoticization that is typical for this type of trauma literature, as already pointed out by Thomas Meaney in his review for the London Review of Books. Ypi’s family was “undesired” precisely because of its family relation to Xhaferr Ypi, a relation that Lea in her childhood only thought to be by name, not by blood. In her devotion to the communist regime, she hated her great-grandfather as much as any other correct-minded subject of the dictatorship. It was only after the fall of communism that Ypi discovered that Xhaferr Ypi was in reality her great-grandfather.

The contents of the book are less important than the way she chose to use it to insert herself into the Albanian cultural and political elite, which has fully embraced her in return. Remarkably, as a member of a family that suffered persecution under the dictatorship, Ypi presented the Albanian version of her book in November 2021 at the residence of the former dictator, Enver Hoxha, in the presence of Prime Minister Edi Rama, Minister of Culture Elva Margariti, Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, US Ambassador Yuri Kim, and EU Ambassador Luigi Soreca, during what was no doubt the most high-profile book presentation of the year. Hoxha’s residence is reserved only to events that have the explicit approval of the regime. Ypi herself was clearly taken by the occasion, standing in the spotlight of Albanian power, recounting how she as a child always wanted to visit the house of “Uncle Enver,” and that now, thirty-or-so years later, she was presenting a book there.

Perhaps Ypi thought that holding her presentation in the villa of a figure that caused so much harm to her family would be a form of exorcism, a final cathartic gesture. But instead, she regressed into the character of her own book, recollecting a childhood desire. The presence of the multitude of representatives of Albanian state power, including the heirs to precisely the communist leaders that persecuted her family, showed however that her book presentation was not at all hers, but served a very specific propagandistic purpose in which she was simply a willing collaborator. The Rama government, which during its long tenure has embraced many active political members of the former communist dictatorship, could of course not wish for a better cultural ambassador: formerly undesired family (suggesting a break with the past, modernity); avowedly left-wing (progressive but not communist!); and international accollades (useful to silence any internal criticism).

Within circles outside the political elite, the collaboration of a member of a supposedly anti-communist family with the coterie of the Socialist Party was received less well, so much so that Ypi did an interview with the very newspaper she writes for, The Guardian, to push back. First off, it should be noted that she pushed back in a foreign newspaper, not an Albanian one. This is precisely a propaganda tactic of the Rama government, which has used op-eds in foreign newspapers consistently to push back against criticism inside Albania. She thus already copies the tactics of those who embraced her. Then, in her defense, she claims that holding the book presentation in Hoxha’s villa was “like imagining Hoxha in hell, having someone from a family of dissidents promote a book about the Albanian legacy. It was symbolically really powerful,” and: “I’m very critical of the Albanian government, but people felt I was being manipulated or appropriated by them.” Yet one searches in vain for any public or scholarly criticism that Ypi has uttered against the Rama government. During the destruction of the National Theater, for example, she failed to support the many artists, actors, and intellectuals who signed an open letter in protest. And in a recent interview in Jacobin, which purports to address “postcommunism,” she glosses over recent Albanian political history (and most of the history of the left in the 20th-21st c.). In the same interview, she also makes the surprising claim of being “usually reluctant to talk about Hoxha as such,” which directly contradicts her own, quite explicit, musings in The Guardian of “Hoxha in hell.”

Although publicly claiming to be a “Marxist,” it should be specified that Ypi’s is not the traditional Marxism that is familiar to most of us. This is a point of confusion also for many Albanian commentators. In the last decades, Marxism and its philosophical offshoots have dedicated countless pages soul searching its relations with actually existing communist regimes, as well as the complicity of philosophy itself with fascism. Ypi’s scholarly work, by contrast, develops within the school of “analytical Marxism,” which tries to marry Marxism with the analytical philosophy prominent in the UK and US. Absent from this philosophical tradition are the fertile connections with psychoanalysis and cultural and literary studies, which operate from completely different bases than the barren landscapes of analytical philosophy.

The type of compromise that Ypi’s analytical Marxism tries to broker is reminiscent of the discourse of Third Way Labor policies developed in the late 1990s by former UK prime minister Tony Blair et al., in which a neoliberal economic policy of destroying public services is married to quasi-progressive socio-cultural policies in an attempt to find a way “beyond left and right.” The eventual result of this toxic compromise has been a general evisceration of social-democratic parties in Europe as they abandoned the working class, leaving free reign to fascist startups to sweep up the disenfranchised voters. As I have argued elsewhere, the Rama government is a direct ideological heir to this Blairite Third Way (Blair and his propagandist Alastair Campbell are enthusiastic advisors of Rama), and has further developed its political model of what Rama has called “the avant-garde of democratization.” This then explains the warm and mutual embrace of Ypi and the Albanian political elite – a matching ideological agenda purportedly “beyond left and right.” Whereas for Ypi this would lead to a form of democracy beyond the state, for Rama et al. it means the inverse, a state beyond democracy. The ambiguity of this position is nicely captured in the final statement from Ypi’s 2019 article “Democratic dictatorship: Political legitimacy in Marxist perspective“: “[T]he Marxist ideal of the truly free society […] invites us always to think with the state but always also against it” (Ypi 2019: 13).

Ypi’s failure to reflect on her own role as actor within Albanian state propaganda (and to think “against the state”), the important questions of fiction, memory, and reality (her Benjaminian defense is somewhat stale and unconvincing), and her blindness to the triggers of her own trauma, rationalizing a regression into childhood fantasy as a “symbolically really powerful […] imagining of Hoxha in hell,” are a direct reflection of her philosophical position. By evacuating the intervention into the material world, the element of praxis, from Marx’s work, analytical Marxism splits thought from action. This is precisely the psychotic split which characterized most of Ypi’s childhood as recounted in Free, which again is repeated in her inability to think of her concrete actions in response to the Albanian reception of her book within its context. This casts Ypi’s own statement in the Jacobin interview, that “Concepts, theories, or ideologies never enter a historical context in the way in which we would want them to,” in an ironic light. For the same holds for the “concepts, theories, or ideologies” contained in her own work, which have entered the present Albanian historical context in a way that is fully beyond her control.

And what has Lea Ypi’s embrace of the Albanian political elite, those smiles alongside ambassadors and politicians, led to? The uncritical rehabilitation of an Albanian fascist collaborator, folded into the celebration of 100 years of diplomatic relations with the country that has done most in recent years to support and promote the global rise of fascism, represented by a figure who singlehandedly managed to make the prospect of political change in Albania even less likely than it already was. She could have pushed back, but she chose not to. There is absolutely nothing to celebrate at our current temporal junction, and to hide behind cliches like “complicated personal and historical mixes” is a shameful act of cowardice. We must not negotiate diplomatically with fascism; we ought to resist it with all our might.