The Radical Left of the New EU: Between Communist Nostalgia and Postmodern Radicalism
Striking differences appear between the old and the new (post-socialist) EU upon examining the 2014 European Parliament election. If the election had taken place only in the “old EU”, the winner would have been social democracy with 27% of the votes, followed by the European People’s Party (24%), radical left (9%), and other five political camps (hard Eurosceptic, soft Eurosceptic, Greens, liberals, and far right), each around 7%. The election result from the “new EU” (enlarged in the years 2004, 2007, 2013)1 offers a radically different picture: Here, the parties assembled in the European People’s party got 43% of the votes, social democracy got 22%, soft Eurosceptic camp 12%, Liberals 9.5%, hard Eurosceptic 4.8 %, fascists around 2%, radical left 1.4%, and Greens 0.9%. The Greens and radical left have virtually no appeal in the new EU. Obviously, the political right of the old EU profited most from the 2004-07 enlargement.2 The only good news for democracy is that the far right likewise has no significant support in the new EU, except in Hungary.
Central and Eastern Europe has obviously not been a very receptive place for the radical left in the last twenty years, and there are almost no signs that this can change in the foreseeable future. The region seems to be dominated by neoliberal or national-conservative forces. How is this possible, if we take into consideration that citizens of these countries are poorer than the citizens of the old EU and that social inequalities are higher here than there? It seems that although poverty and social inequality might work in favour of the emergence of a radical left, there are other factors working effectively against it. In what follows, I will discuss them briefly. Then I will give a typology of how the post-communist radical left works in these conditions, looking especially at the most significant contemporary case, the Communist party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM).
The first factor obstructing the radical left is the weakness of democratic institutions, which dates from both before and after 1989. The difficulty after 1989 has been rooted in the conditions of economic decline and the lack of a welfare state.3 A second factor is the lasting appeal of neoliberalism, which is still seen as a counter-thesis to discredited communism. Third is the negative memory of communism. Refusal of everything on the left particularly dominates the middle classes, educated groups, and young generations, which are the sectors most supportive of progressive politics in Western and Southern Europe. The fourth negative factor is lack of the experience with right-wing dictatorships that has legitimized the radical left in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. The fifth factor might be the Russophobia, which seems to be increasing recently mainly due to the policies of President Vladimir Putin, who is often viewed in Eastern Europe as a reincarnation of communism. The last factor is the relatively weak impact of the post-2008 economic crisis, particularly in comparison to Southern Europe (with the exception of the Baltics, although it was overcome quickly in that case). No post-communist country experienced unemployment or indebtedness comparable to Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Even more, the crisis after the fall of socialism was definitely more disastrous and is still fresh in popular memory. Particularly, the very low incomes compared to the standards of the old Europe made the region less vulnerable to the post-2008 crisis.
Also prevailing social values do not favour the appearance of the left movements. According to different surveys, the new EU societies are marked by lower mutual trust and solidarity4 and lower will to participate in civic protests.5 The mistrust of political elites is stronger than in the old EU,6 but it does not increase the demand for a radical left, as the political elites are often considered “communist”. This was evident during recent protests against political elites (Albania 2011, Slovenia 2012-13, Romania 2012-14, Bulgaria 2013-14, Bosnia 2014, Macedonia 2015), which sometimes took very dramatic forms, such as shooting into the crowds in Albania which resulted in three deaths, burning public buildings in Bosnia, and the blockade of parliament in Romania and Bulgaria. These protests were, however, either apolitical, or taking a pro-EU or even anti-communist stance (e.g. Bulgaria). The leftist groups were unable to profit much from the events. Moreover, the northern part of the new EU (Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltics) did not experience this wave and showed rather public passivity even in comparison to the old EU (e.g. in the number of strikes).7
There are also legal obstacles to the existence of radical left parties. In the Baltic countries and Hungary, the very existence of the communist party is prohibited by law. No one dares to establish such parties in the Baltics. In Hungary the marginal Hungarian Communist Workers’ Party was forced to change its name to Workers’ Party in 2013. Also, usage of the symbols of communism, including the red star, has been prohibited in Hungary since 1993. In 2003, a representative of the Workers’ Party was sued for carrying the red star. Even the corporation Heineken was sued for its logo in 2005. A new ban of communist and Nazi symbols was approved in Hungary in 2013, but this time was overturned by the constitutional court. Baltic countries followed, banning symbols quite recently, with Lithuania in 2008 and Latvia in 2013. This has been criticized by Russian representatives, who view the communist symbols as “symbols of the fight against Nazism.”8 Poland prohibited the symbols of communism in 1997 and again in 2009, but in 2011 the constitutional court overturned the prohibition.9 In 2015, communist ideology and its symbols were also prohibited by Ukrainian authorities.
Based on these conditions all around the region, the radical left parties had difficulties establishing themselves. In the early 1990s, as the post-communist crisis came, it appeared that the post-communist parties transformed into social democratic parties would be able to gain hegemony after a short time in opposition (this happened in Lithuania, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia), or even without losing power at all (as was the case in Bulgaria, Serbia, and to some extent, Romania). However, the difficulties of transition pointed to the main weakness of the post-communist social democratic parties, which have been trapped between their welfare promises and neoliberal politics wherever they governed. Therefore, after several periods of governing, the social democratic parties generally went into deep crisis from which they never recovered (Slovakia 2002, Poland 2005, Lithuania 2008, Hungary 2010, Slovenia 2011), and the neoliberals or national-populists proved to be more successful political forces. The parties of the radical left had even more difficulty, as they generally did not succeed in taking over the former ruling communist parties and had to be established from scratch. Their results from the last national and the 2014 European elections are shown in the following table:
We can categorize the leftist radical parties into three groups with respect to their electoral performance: The first group consists of relatively strong parties of radical left coalitions which are able to win parliamentary seats. In this group, we have the Czech communists, a strong party retaining something of an old left identity, and possibly the United Left of Slovenia, the coalition established in 2014 from new social movements independent of the communist left. The second group are marginal parties running independently without chance for success, or even deciding not to run (Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland). These parties either have a Stalinist profile and participate in international events organized by the hard-line Greek communists (Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary) or they take the ‘democratic socialist’ stance and participate in the European Left Party (Estonia, Romania). A third group is made up of marginal communist parties, which however due to lower levels of anti-communism are allowed to participate in coalition with social democratic parties (Serbia and Bulgaria) or cooperating with the Russian minority (Latvia and formerly Estonia).
It is worth discussing briefly the most successful political force of the radical left in the region, the KSČM10 (a second recently successful case would be The United Left of Slovenia, discussed elsewhere in this issue). The KSČM is the only post-socialist political force outside former Soviet Union keeping its communist identity and, at the same time, having continuous parliamentary representation. In its strength and stability, it resembles the Russian and Ukrainian communist parties or to some extent the German Party of Democratic Socialism (since 2007, Die Linke). Unlike other former communist parties, the KSČM did not adopt the social democratic identity in the early 1990s, for several reasons. First, its reform wing, purged after 1968, was relatively weak. Second, its legal existence was secured in contrast to the banning of communist parties in Romania or Baltics after 1989 and 1991, so it did not need to step out of its communist identity. Third, in the face of strong anti-communist public sentiment, the party believed that taking on a democratic socialist profile would not bring new votes but would only threaten to distract the existing ones. The pervasive anti-communism also tightened the identity of party members and communists voters. Finally, the renewal of social democracy, which soon gained dominance in the centre-left space, made it possible for the communist party to survive as a medium-size force representing the 10-15% of voters who share nostalgia for communism and hatred towards the new regimes.
The party did not adopt the agenda of the new left (feminism, environmentalism, rights of sexual minorities, anti-racism, etc.), as it would scare its conservative voters, but at the same time, it pragmatically did not profile itself as Stalinist as did the Greek or Portuguese communists. For example, the KSČM did not join the party of the European Left in 2004, but unlike Greek and Portuguese communists, it took an observer status. It did not join the Stalinist Initiative of European Communists Parties established in 2013, although it participated at its first session. In 2006, during voting on the same-sex partnership law in parliament, 26 of its members were pro, 9 against and 7 absent.11 It sent a so-called “weak no” to the EU-accession in 2004, although four of its five vice-chairpersons were for it.
Although rather stagnating in its electoral results since 2002, there have been several signs of the party’s growing influence in national politics in the last decade: In 2002, it gained a vice-chairman of parliament and two chairs of parliamentary committees; in 2004, the first two communist city mayors were elected; in 2006, the social democrats declared their willingness to form coalitions with the support, although not direct participation, of communists; in 2008, its first participation in regional governments followed; in 2012, the party gained one head of regional government and formed coalitions with social democrats in 9 of 14 regional governments. The strength of the party is, however, limited by the fact that it can only make coalition with social democrats, as other parties refuse to participate. Its increase of influence has thus depended on the electoral victories of social democrats. On the other hand, it is weakened by having been in opposition at almost all levels of power for more than 25 years, and by a still significant anticommunism. It has an aging membership (average age was 72 in 2013), including only about 10,000 members under 60 with very few academically qualified people.12 The party therefore has difficulties presenting appealing candidates, and often runs family members of its leading politicians. The party leadership seems to be more interested in its own business activities than in doing politics (for example organizing contracts between Czech firms and firms from the former Soviet Union, China or Vietnam).13 The opinion prevails among the leadership that the KSČM will gain its votes anyway, whether active or inactive, due to the mistakes of governing parties.
The party was not willing or able to play an important role in the protests against the right-wing governments in 2010-13. The protests were formed rather outside political parties or around social democrats or non-parliamentary Greens or Pirates. The social movements especially mistrusted the party due to its lacking environmentalism, its support of Russia, and its unclear attitude towards the Soviet past. Another weak point of the party is its statutes, which on the one hand stabilized it at the time of its crisis in the early 1990s, but also ossified it. For example, the party congress takes place only once every four years, and the central committee is not elected by the congress but made up of the representatives of districts elected by the district committees. Moreover, party fractions are prohibited. Only one referendum has taken place in the party’s history, in 1991, even though such measures are provided for in the party’s statutes. In fact nowadays, there are no wings in the party. It is strongly in the hands of the party chairman Vojtěch Fillip, the vice-chairman Miroslava Vostrá, and the cooperating PR company.
Another unique case within the EU and therefore deserving a brief discussion is two small communist parties, in Bulgaria and Latvia, cooperating in coalitions with social democrats. The Bulgarian Communist Party has been, since 2001, part of a centre-left coalition, and its leader, Alexandar Paunov, was its only member of parliament in the last decades (2001-09, 2013-14). He was the only MP voting against the NATO and EU accession in the national parliament. As support for the Bulgarian Socialist Party declined, the communists lost their only seat, but they remained members of the coalition. The Latvian Socialist Party, for its part, served as a partner in the Harmony coalition representing the Russian minority. In the period 2009 to 2014, its leader Alfréds Rubiks, was elected as one of the two EU representatives in the European Parliament and joined the group of the European United Left (the second MP joined the social democratic group). Rubiks is a former communist major of Riga, who opposed Latvian independence and served two years in prison afterwards. As a person disqualified by law from running for office in Latvia,14 there were no obstacles to his running for the European parliament. We can conclude these alliances occurred in cases where the transformed social democratic party did not give up its communist roots entirely and is willing to cooperate with political forces deriving their identity from communist nostalgia. In other cases, it is the Russian minority that is willing to cooperate with the parties of the left. In this respect, the Russian minority differed from other minorities in Eastern Europe, which prefer to cooperate with the parties of liberal right (Turks in Bulgaria, Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia).
Although the political power of the radical left is limited in post-socialist countries, it has acquired a certain intellectual strength since the early 2000s. Its most significant case is the Polish NGO, Krytyka Politiczna, established in 2002, which is a very successful populariser of Western leftist thinking, publishes its own journal including translations of Western leftist authors, and organizes conferences. A similar case is the Czech association for leftist theory, SOK. Scholars like Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, and Gaspár Miklós Tamás have a strong influence on the Central and Eastern European left. In Hunagry, even a new left party, Bálpár, inspired by SYRIZA, was established in 2014. However, it is difficult to judge its chances so far. It is doubtful if the model of the successful Greek Coalition of the radical left (SYRIZA) can be applied in post-communist states. A similar attempt occurred also in Poland with Polska Razem [Poland Together], established in 2015, in this case not taking an explicitly anti-capitalist position but rather advocating grassroots activism and Green social liberalism. In the Czech case, it seems that the left will rather aim to change the non-parliamentary Green party, than try to establish the own organization.15 Radical leftist activists all around Eastern Europe dream of establishing their own SYRIZAs,16 but it is hard to say whether this dream will materialize, or will turn into another temporary fashion like Rifondazione Comunista in the 1990s.
Notes 1. 2004: Czech Republic, Poland, Slovkia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estnonia; 2007: Romania, Bulgaria; 2013: Croatia
2. This effect was further strengthened by the fact that smaller countries have comparatively more votes in the European parliament: The countries of post-communist Europe have only 20% of the inhabitants of the EU, but have 27.4% of the MPs in the European Parliament.
3. Grzegorz Ekiert, Roberto Foa, Civil Society Weakness in Post-Communis Europe: A Preliminary Assessmant, Carlo Alberto Notebooks, No. 198 (2011), 1-45.
4. Ronal Inglehart (et al.), Human Beliefs and Values: A cross-cultural sourcebook based on the 1999-2002 values surveys, (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2004), p. A 165
5. Ibid. E026.
6. Ibid. E075.
7. www.etui.org/Topics/Trade-union-renewal-and-mobilisation/Strikes-in-Europe- version2.1-January-2015
9. Dominik Hutko, ‘Symbols of Death’, Gazeta [online] (March 3 2013).
10. The party’s name, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, contains two historical regions of the Czech republic. This version was chosen in 1990, when the Communist party of Czechoslovakia disintegrated into the Czech and Slovak branches and the Czech branch wanted to reflect better the at-that-time strong attempts of Moravia to gain a certain authonomy.
12. Email corespondence between the author and the vice-chairman of the KSČM, Jiří DOlejš, June 2015.
13. Author’s email correspondence with former KSČM vice-chairman Vlastimil Balin, May 2015.
14. The law prohibits this to all former regime functionaries