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LeftEast in the Dialectics of the Region’s Left

Mapping, fragment, Kaunas 2016, Source: Peripheralising Europe flickr stream

LeftEast has been around for just over eight years. It was preceded by two summer schools in Budapest, where some of its future editors—leftist East European(ist)s—met in a moment of happy recognition. One of them, Florin Poenaru, also happened to be the editor of the Romanian site CriticAtac, which hosted another meeting of East European leftists in late 2012 where it was resolved to initiate a medium to translate our experiences across the region into a united narrative and front. By the beginning of 2013, the Romanian comrades had come up with the name for that medium (LeftEast) and Florin Poenaru and Mariya Ivancheva began posting articles in English. Another summer gathering—less a school, more a convergence—later that year, this time in Sofia, helped formalize the editorial collective and the overall mission. Since then, we’ve published over 1,240 articles by over 400 authors and had three more summer convergences, in Kaunas, Istanbul and Skopje, making them six and hoping for more after the pandemic is over: their archive is here. None of these are particularly round numbers to celebrate. And yet, for reasons that we’ll try to make clearer, right now is a good moment to return to the history that got us where we are today. 

With hindsight, 2012-2013 was a fortuitous moment to have founded such a platform. While the Arab Spring and the Occupy protest wave (or movements of the squares) were slowly unravelling, if leaving their powerful energy, messages, and institutional legacies behind, the protest wave in Eastern Europe was just gathering speed. Some of LeftEast’s first very articles reflected on Bulgaria’s “winter protests” whose socio-economic basis differed markedly from that of the anti-corruption-focused “summer protests” we quite literally found ourselves in the midst of during the 2013 Sofia convergence. Over the next few months, new episodes of mobilization across Hungary, former Yugoslav countries, and Turkey’s Gezi protests, as well as struggles in Greece and Syriza’s rise dominated our pages. After a while, we gave up on strictly defining ourselves through an East European geography or state socialist past and started referring to the areas of our interest nebulously as “the Region.” (Subsequently, we would debate expanding our “East” while pondering what this would mean for our editorial process, our largely East European(ist) readership, and the internal political process which would need to accompany such a change.) In addition to following the unfolding of social movements, we also began publishing historical, analytical and reflective pieces. 

LeftEast Summer School in Sofia, 2013. Participants gathered in the courtyard of Social Centre Xaspel after a long day of discussion and before setting out to the habitual daily visit to the Sofia ‘summer’ protests. Photo credit: Daniel Šarić

The winter of 2013 saw the Euromaidan, which provoked intense debates and sometimes splits in the region’s left. As we watched Ukraine become the site of an escalating civil conflict, followed by Russian incursion over the course of 2014, the mood darkened considerably. That was to be the last site of the 2012-2014 protest wave, which had also fed LeftEast with articles and energies.

LeftEast kept going, but the years that followed were somewhat lean. Even if important to write about, the daily horrors of neoliberalism and the increasingly dominant conservative, ethnonationalist and authoritarian reaction to them do not always make inspiring subjects. In addition to the dashed hopes of the left emerging triumphant from the protests, we also had to deal with many processes specific to running such a collective project. Our collective could not escape some of the dynamics that weigh heavily on such all-volunteer projects (and except for the summer schools, LeftEast’s economy has been entirely non-monetary), which this farewell letter of the editors of the NewLeftProject captures. Some comrades departed, the rest of us got older, with increased familial and professional responsibilities or focus on the ground activism that left less time for editorial work.

Žeimiai, near Kaunas, 2015, small group work discussing ruptures and convergence in individual and collective trajectories along our migration paths from Eastern and Southern to Northern and Western Europe. Peripheralising Europe enKaunter. Source: Peripheralising Europe flickr stream

An issue perhaps more relevant to Southeastern Europe and other peripheral locations, and affecting not only our collective experience, but also, more importantly, that of activism has also been emigration. The massive brain-and-energy drain engendered by the dearth of opportunities in many countries in the region, pushed many into employment in core countries in Europe and beyond: a process that has often curtailed intergenerational learning in our movements, dispersed and even lost at times, because of the trajectories of key activists into migration. Of course, some returned and brought new knowledge, and certain countries have had sizable activist communities that have preserved and are generously sharing the organising and activist research knowledges across generational and regional difference. But the fact is that many of us are no longer living in the Region. And while the new members who joined us from time to time brought fresh oxygen to our bloodstream and kept us from folding, it was difficult to regularly push past the sense of stagnation about the Region’s left and out growing sense of uprootedness from the struggles we so wished to be a more meaningful part of.

Yet, thanks to the networks and solidarities we had established and continued to cultivate, our platform remained a kind of conversation, a place to produce knowledge together-a commons among leftists of the region: articles still kept coming. Moreover, LeftEast was helped by a certain mainstreaming of left-wing ideas in the academy and beyond over the last decade. In a process that LeftEast has contributed to and benefitted from, the 30-40 vanguardists of the 2000s have given way to the 100-3,000 people broadly interested in the left. This is not unique to “the region,” but reflects a resurgence of left-wing ideas globally. For all it’s worth, scholarly conferences host a much greater number of Marxist panels and maybe the hostility such politics used to encounter in the East Europeanist field has somewhat receded. The change is most palpable with younger scholars. 

Istanbul, 2016, meeting at the Boğaziçi University campus the morning after the attempted coup d’état. Most participants had arrived the day before, others are still arriving or trying to make it over despite closed borders and cancelled trips. Source: LeftEast

Outside of the academy, there were at least two divergent trajectories along which the (broadly defined) left of the region was developing, and we tried in our editorial and summer convergences to keep these in productive tension. On the one hand, there were the party experiments, at ‘home’ and the ‘abroad’ where many of us found themselves living or politically active. Slovenia’s Zdrujena Levica (United Left), Macedonia’s Levica, Hungary’s 4th Republic (4K), the Polish Lewica Razem (Left Together) and the Croatian Možemo (We Can!)  some of whose leaders had joined LeftEast editors in events across the region, became the first East European parties we could really identify with. Of these, Zdrujena Levica managed to enter the Slovene parliament in July 2014 while half a year later Syriza came to power in a historic election (to soon experience historic defeat, not without the help of weak alliances in the region). Further on in 2015 and further afield, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the UK Labour Party and Bernie Sanders rose in the Democratic primaries in the US, spurring a hope that a genuine socialist could turn the ideological mishmash of some ex-communist ruling party from the region into a recognizably leftist entity. It hasn’t happened so far, yet Razem won parliamentary seats in 2019 and Levica and Možemo in 2020, and showed that the regional New Left wave, if still gaining speed, is not over.

On the other hand, different types of less visible,  sometimes ‘prefigurative’ otherwise truly transformative politics were developing through the housing, cooperative, migrant and feminist movements around the region. These movements have had their slow uptake, working patiently with those on the margins of society and party politics, and working toward the most central task for the Left: the task to change capitalist relations, which necessarily implies a good knowledge of and embedded, strategic organizational power within various segments of society. The crisis of social reproduction has been addressed by solidarity initiatives, often working transversally across the region: the Balkan Route mobilization around the Europe Border crisis; the housing movement opposing evictions and organizing occupations and solidarity actions touching national majority, minority and migrant populations; the feminist movement working across the region and beyond to thematize this crisis that we were facing already before the outbreak of the pandemic; and the cooperative movement focusing on how movements can sustain them/ourselves in situations of high adversity, poverty, alienation, and human produced climate conditions that lead so many to migration. These have all been the movements we—as an editorial collective and as individuals in our own context—have tried to focus on and support with our own limited means; the platform and our convergencies. LeftEast has made its own contribution to those fronts, developing a stronger focus on left feminism and struggles around social reproduction, a change mirroring organizing efforts in the region we cover. Our FeminEasts section collects materials on those developments, with our own Mariya Ivancheva among the founding members of the Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational (E.A.S.T.) network. 

The wars of position for the last seven years, however, may be once again giving way to wars of movement. The pandemic saw a decline in incomes worldwide while the number of billionaires has grown. Societies, already deeply divided, are now at a breaking point, with massively strained social and other safety nets. Pandemic restrictions, the climate of emergency, and the general confusion, have for now kept much discontent from boiling over into new waves of social protests. But the region’s air is pregnant with accumulated discontent and the protests earlier this year in Russia are unlikely to remain an isolated event. The left is certainly not the only force that will seek to influence or even lead them. In fact, the conservative-nationalist right has a head start, especially in our part of the world. It’s socialism or barbarism all over again. Yet, we are stronger now and more experienced than during the 2012-14 protest wave that swept the region, with multiple groups in each country, who have already done years of research and organizing in various fields, and a wider movement base. If and how the accumulation of this kind of knowledge, organizational and outreach capacities can be put to use, is, of course, an open question. Yet, looking back through our archive it is humbling and inspiring how much the movements in the region have achieved with how little resources, and it tells us one thing for sure: we will face whatever comes next better prepared and together. 

To prepare for this new conjuncture, over the last several months, LeftEast has been expanding its capacity. Our editorial collective experienced our largest growth, with the addition of Adela Hincu, Adriana Qubaiova, Nóra Ugron,Olena Lyubchenko, Sonja Dragovic, and Tibor Meszmann. Thanks to Bojan Ćinćur who volunteered his vast talents to bringing LeftEast technologically into the twenty-first century, we have now migrated to the stand-alone domain LeftEast.org: a move we had often contemplated in the past, but thought beyond our immediate capacity. We were sad to let go of CriticAtac.ro, our generous domain host for the last eight years, to whom we are grateful and indebted forever, and with whom we continue our cooperation and political and intellectual exchange. Part of our heart will stay there. Nevertheless, a new site will allow us to grow our rubrics, adapt to new ideas, accommodate better the new co-operations with transregional initiatives such as the East Central European Left Media collective and E.A.S.T. and archive our past better to share it for the purposes of the struggles to come.

Because LeftEast is not just ours. It is the product of all of the many authors who have contributed to it, the translators and copy editors who have stepped in, the organizers and participants in our convergences, and, of course, our readers. We hope that you will continue to contribute to LeftEast by sending us articles, by offering help with translations and feedback on the program, by joining the summer schools, and by sharing our pieces with others. To reflect on the moment and its closures and possibilities, we must do it together.