(This is the text of the CriticAtac conference delivered in Bucharest, April 18, by Dr. Attila Melegh, senior researcher at Demographic Research Institute in Budapest and associated professor at the Corvinus University)
When we look at the East European scene and ask what organized real left we have (not the liberal, cynical opportunistic one) the picture looks very bad. By the real left I mean the open and organized critique of capital: companies, technologies and related institutional structures which organize and regulate social and economic reproduction with intense, global and competitive exploitation of resources, consumer markets and workers. A real left which openly attacks a system which cares very little about allocations of income, goods and services toward marginal groups or larger masses of people living today or with regard to the future. It is an opposition to a system where large masses are allowed to agonize with all their human and political rights.
The social situation is dramatic, in which there is fight for left over resources with fake symbolic resources and enemies: like who is Romanian, Magyar, White, Gypsy, Orthodox or Whatever. There are huge (20-40%) “idle” classes at home, millions of Romanians, Hungarians, Moldavians, Bulgarians and Albanians form a huge, faceless domestic, rural and industrial servant group not only in Europe, but also in Israel, the US, Canada, Gulf states and even South Africa. Ukraine has more than 6 million citizens living abroad. Just Romania looses every year more than 10 people per one thousand (minus 200 thousand per year). As Böröcz shows in terms of remittance dependency (ratio of sent home money to GDP) East European states now beat the Philippines, which has been a state actively sending their own people abroad (Böröcz 2012). Albania is almost a world record holder (Tajikistan has taken this position). Eastern European societies have lost momentum and it seems there is no real left to come up with ideas which could serve as focus for real steps toward more humane social relations. Do not misunderstand me, these relationships are not about behaving nicely. Not at all: I mean a progressive and dynamic system based on complex and combined ownership, work etc which of course will not be without dramatic conflicts.
Concerning Eastern Europe my brief conclusion is the following for the current situation. The political left is in crisis and/or it is in a sleeping beauty situation, but the problems and the ideas of the left are openly articulated in the political arena. And we do not have an organized left because the critique and the problems have been offered free of charge to the Right and the Extreme Right. We need to take them back or better to say reformulate them in a way that they lose the tragic fascistic turns and contexts they gain by the political representation of the right. There are already good opportunities and the momentum is coming (or we have just missed them all the time). The discursive hegemony of the liberal apology has already collapsed to some extent, which can be an opportunity if we can stop now the emerging national-conservative-fascistic tide.
But let us see the crisis of the left here in Eastern Europe in details. The question is what we can learn about the crisis of the left in Eastern Europe if we compare of Latin America and Eastern Europe. For this we have an excellent opportunity if we compare the context and the politics of somewhat similar events related to the same neoliberal economic policies around in 1989 and 1990. Late 1980s and early 1990s this was the period of the victory of neoliberalism. The comparative analysis of this period can give a clue in understanding various dynamics.
I chose Caracas, February 27, the riots called “Caracazo”(Caracas blow) and the so called blockade by taxi drivers in Budapest October 25-27. 1990. In both Venezuela and Hungary there was a dramatic price increase of petrol and the governments opted for price liberalization, privatization, opening up markets after statist period (in Venezuela that was the case also since 1958) Both countries were close to each other in terms of GDP per capita. Actually Hungary was just catching up to Venezuela in terms of average wealth.
Figure 1. GDP per capita (Gheary Khamis 1990 USD), comparison between Hungary and Venezuela: 1950-2010. Source: Maddision databank
Both Venezuela and Hungary were highly indebted internationally and they were close not to pay the debt. Actually Venezuela suspended the payment for a while. In both countries the analyzed events were that of a shock and they were spontaneous. But there were dramatic differences in the dramaturgy and the politics of the events.
There is a dramatic and sharp contrast between the two series of events. In Caracas people started protesting because of the bus fares increase by bus owners and they started a riot, burning buses after poor passengers were pushed down when they were not able to pay. Rioters later looted and took home food into the poor districts from the richer ones. The government of Perez declared curfew and started shooting people. Soldiers shot at least 400 people, but the death toll could be much higher up to 2000. 400 is already a huge number. Chavez only escaped the moral dilemma of war crime orders just because he was sick at that time. Neoliberal policies were not changed (minor changes only, they slowed down privatization) and in 1992 there was the Chavez plot and these two events were the ones which lead to the so called Bolivarian revolution promoted by various leftist groups in 1998. Chavez is dead now, but it seems that the move toward the left is still not given up. People openly defend the type of “socialism” they experienced. Look at the media reports following the death of Chavez who was in power for 10 years. People openly say I defend it as I got various things from this system. Maduro has just been elected with a narrow majority, but still a majority. Cocoa plantation owners complain and they are supported politically by an ex East European immigrant politician. This is already a point as we have to answer why many East European emigrants have played a tragic role for instance in Latin America (or the US etc.). They often appear as representing the elite, they are anti-communist or they are simply aiming at terrorist activity. Even leftist Latin Americans became ultra anticommunist nationalists after spending some time here like Flores Rózsa who fought with the Croatians in the Yugoslav war, who was a supporter of Jobbik and who was shot by Bolivian special forces, where he went there to fight against Evo Morales. I always get anxious when East European emigrants reveal their global political perspective. We do have an instinct for very bad positions.
In 1990 inBudapest there was a spontaneous blockade by taxi drivers. The whole event was very peaceful, even the police said it would have defied orders from the government to use force. The conservative government of Antall was thinking about such moves to defend constitutional order nonetheless. The non conservative president intervened and took side not of the taxi drivers, but urged for peaceful solution. The video clearly shows that there was a widespread solidarity, but also an open opposition against the taxi drivers, who were clear emblems of would-be entrepreneurs, not of workers. They emblematized those ones who looked for new sources of living after getting out of the state economy during late state socialism and during its collapse. In 1990 the country was losing jobs already at a dramatic rate. In two years Hungary lost more than a million jobs. More and more people looked for taxi driving as a solution. The petrol price increase came during this process as part of an overall liberalization policy related to some supply problems from the USSR and due to the preparation of the first Gulf War. But as opposed to Venezuela and most Latin American countries) there was an unbroken consensus in maintaining liberalization policies. The government supporters shouted that they “did not want Balkans” meaning the lack of order, lower level of civilization and of course “Latin America” which they saw as far below the claimed European position. The opposition including Orbán himself criticized only why the government was lying, and why they did not properly explain things to people. The claim that the opposition Free Democrats organized the blockade is irrelevant in the sense that till the party existed (2009) it consistently supported the need for liberalization. Socialists also did not question the liberalization. According to the at that time opposition groups people would have understood the harsh measures if properly explained. In the cbainet meetings the issue of the shock to people was definitely not considered (see: http://atlatszo.hu/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/jkv901026.pdf). Everyone was for the economic liberalization, there was no political group opposing the policy of economic liberalization promoted by various international actors including, IMF, EU countries. There were just very sporadic calls for a general strike. Even the taxi drivers behaved as a single issue lobby group. It is revealing in the video cited above that the representative of the so called Workers’ Council was not able to figure out where to stand. This is emblematic: a worker’s council representative has no clue where to stand between economic liberalization and protesters, regardless of the clear signs of the huge problems emerging.
There was and there is left in Venezuela but there is still no left in Hungary in 2013. Why? Hungary has been following a different economic development? In case we look at the graphs of the two countries they look rather similar after 1989 with the exception of 2002 due to a quick fall in Venezuela from which it recovered quickly. Hungary had the same after 1990. Slight growth almost cyclical stagnation especially if we compare the performance of the two countries with that of the global economy. Could Hungary avoid the problems of economic liberalization and the later economic development? No it could not: the major structural problems are still with us and they are rather familiar issues in the semi-periphery. Then why do not we have a left like in Venezuela? Because a much bigger inequality exists in Venezuela? In some ways yes (especially at that time in 1989, 1990), but less dramatic if look at recent data. Thus Hungary has got into a worse situation while Venezuela improved its status in this respect. Because Venezuela was not coming from socialism, which demoralized the left itself? True and we will talk about the fact that the representatives of state socialism in Eastern Europe did their best to demoralize East European socialism. But Cuba could be very well seen in Venezuela and Cuba inspired the Bolivarian revolution and therefore we cannot say that there was no existing socialism in front of their eyes. Furthermore state intervention without democracy has been all the more well known to people in Venezuela since the 1950s. So they could have been afraid of a new form of state intervention. Because the repression was much more brutal in Vnezuela? True, and certainly when hundreds of people are killed by the armed forces, there is another political arena for those who oppose the regime. Even more we know that this violence and repression leads to further “revolutionary” violence. But take into account that in peaceful Hungary actually nobody dared to speak openly about the collapse of the labor market and socialist alternatives as opposed to Venezuela where actually you could be shot for such things. There was a complete consent over this issue. Everything market was applauded and everything critical was voiceless. My fellow Hungarian economists were applauding that people were pushed out and literally everybody supported the economic liberalization in 1990, including almost all parties even writers (I know basically three people altogether who had serious doubts among Hungarian intellectuals around 1989). The actual media hero of this 1990 blockade became a young entrepreneur called Palotás, who was negotiating on behalf of the entrepreneurs and who criticized the government from their point of view. Later he established the party of entrepreneurs. Great outcome of an anti liberalization demonstration.
There are a number of such answers focusing on the differences in the social and political context. But they are definitely not enough. In a certain sense we have a very strong left in Hungary. Viktor Orbán and the FIDESZ itself. Look at the following pictures of the huge demonstration organized by government supporters in January 2012. The main banner says: We do no want to be a colony. Great sentence if it is not promoted by semi-fascists like Bayer one of the key organizers. Later the Hungarian government put out anti-IMF plackards saying that Hungary should be respected, that family support should not be cut. So we have a left, just in the wrong clothes. Anti IMF demonstrators in 2012 had Szekler, Great Hungary flags to show that the subject of the resistance is the Hungarian nation. Not East European states, people, workers, idle classes, but (great) Hungary as such. And we also have to ask for what reason, for what social groups Orbán wants to see no intervention into Hungarian affairs? How it can be done that respect is demanded by a government which have tries to penalize homelessness, which has tried to reduce the media campaigns at election to the public tv completely under their control. It seems to me that this confusions is the key point. In Hungary the problems like in Venezuela led also to the need to do something about the problems created by economic liberalization, privatization, the collapse of the labor market etc. This is an iron law that enormous number of problems emerge and they look for some kind of a political representation. But they have been exported, pushed to the conservative, nationalist “gentlemanly” class (.i.e public employees, middle class pensioners etc.) and to the more radical right wing with lower social background. Right wing radical workers and rural people look for the fight against IMF, multinationals, banks etc. And it is not only a Hungarian problem. As Mariya Ivancheva very nicely wrote that social issues of the left are kidnapped by right wing groups even during the electricity demonstrations in Sofia.
Why the left has been and is losing everything? Why do we have just counterrervolutions, which take over some of the issues of the left. By counterrevolutions I mean combined efforts of various elite groups since the 19th century to (re) monopolize control over resources and to reduce or just freeze social emancipation. This happened in a context when technological innovation, international divisions of labor and crucially intense global competition among states, and various social groups led to dramatic transformation marginalizing large peasant and worker or even upper groups. They have been made like sack of potato (See Marx’s Burimeire 18 analysis on peasants) from which people may or may not become mobile on an individual ground and/or which have been looking for state support. In simple words these groups have been constantly decomposed. The social problems related to them and the existence of these groups lead to counterrevolutions which have a special local-global dynamic depending on various epochs of modern East European history. The key point is of course that not understanding the global-local interplays and looking for privileged positions in the local society the left has been weak, has willingly handed over some of its main issues to liberal and/or fascistoid conservative groups. Why? There are several factors and let me go through some.
For this we need to make some order in East European history, because we have some false illusions. In the history of smaller East European states after the First World War we always had longer periods of conservative and autocratic with some limited ideas of social care. This was the case of the Horthy regime in Hungary oppressing the Hungarian Soviet. The counterrevolutionary Horthy regime introduced limited landed estate reform and social security measures for the middle classes including the lower groups like the postmen. They had a general school reform in favor of people. This was a right wing, socially absolutely conservative regime trying to suppress communism and any attempt coming from the lower classes to do politics or to participate. Beyond local oppression it just wanted “international justice” to regain territories. There were more leftist regimes between the two world wars, which actually differed little from the above one, but at least they were not so anti-communist like the others. Like Stamboliyski who started national reforms in Bulgaria, who was trying to solve some peasant issues, health care reforms, and who signed the Nis treaty for which he was killed and then he was basically followed by various right wing nationalists. We can also refer to Pilsudski, who himself moved toward autocracy and nationalism. These regimes were opposed either from an anti-nationalist communist-social democratic point of view or by nationalist narodniks. Both of them were just partial critiques and dead ends for not seeing the global-local interplay of nations: Western imperialism, global hierarchies and the deconstruction of agrarian systems.
After the Second World War the global-local interplay changed again state socialism was enforced via geopolitical schemes between the SU and the US. This enforcement was of course not at all revolutionary. I do not want to go too deep into the nature of political violence of the late 40s and early 50s, but clearly it was not the political violence clearly linked to the oppression in the previous periods (like in Latin America, see Grandin, 2010), but as a political method used for rearranging the control over resources from above (like in many parts of the world within colonial-capitalism). Workers, victims of the previous epochs rarely demanded or forced the take over of private property or to compensate for their previous repression. People were happy to see land distribution, but in other segments there was great passivity even if it was in favor of the concerned social group. This period is of course the key argument against socialism inside and outside and I just would like to warn everybody that they should see this as a global epoch in which Western, Eastern and Colonial political violence had a global interplay. All need to be included into historical criticism, not only the communist one (Melegh 2012). And this is rarely done.
And there is one very important point. Namely that when socialism got through these societies and there was a chance to move toward participatory socialism like in 1956 in Hungary (and in Poland, or in Romania) there was a dramatic counterrevolution on behalf of the parties themselves as it was succinctly described by Gáspár Mikló Tamás (Tamás 2010). Yes Tamás is right. Biszku and Kádár made a counterrevolution in 1957 inHungary. They did this both in terms of national sovereignty, in suppressing workers councils and in subjugating the whole country into the yoke of an international competition with the West on the grounds of the West, and they helped maintaining a Soviet military control. They did this also via pleasing the population by better consumption levels and better welfare system. I do think that this was a very powerful mix and this scheme which almost automatically led to privatization and the collapse, is a key point in demoralizing the left.
We should not forget when Tito negotiated with Khrushchev in 1956 on Hungary, he was looking for guarantees for Yugoslavia and for some more money (See the study of Andrey Edemskiy in Fink 2006) . He had nothing to say in the defense of workers councils, which was his propagated ideal. Gomulka also quickly forgot the words he had to say about socially more cooperative rural sectors in October 1956 and just went on with mechanically tolerating peasant farm lands. When Lech Walesa and his fellow workers started their revolt in Gdansk, the ideals and forms of workers council was there and there was participation also, but this was crushed by the counterrevolution of Jaruzelski, who being an international outcast provided coal for Margaret Thatcher when she crushed miners. Nicolae Ceaușescu made also a counterrervolution a la East European style, as in the 1970s and 1980s he froze social relationships and siphoned out the capital in order to pay foreign debt. This was not just local communism. And it was not just bureaucratic totalitarianism as portrayed by Trockyite critiques.
This combined local and global repression made this period tragic. And this was not a failure of state socialism in itself. Böröcz has shown this with global statistics and we can see that state socialism could go ahead in terms of global development (Böröcz 2009, chapter 3). In the so called communist counterrevolutionary repression global capitalist competition played a role, regional block logic of socialism played a role and local factors like the fear of the elite from workers played a role. Locally there was a misunderstanding of global and local development coupled with cynical moves to maintain local party elite control and the wish of masses to achieve better consumption. And they forgot and consciously ignored capitalism outside Europe when they decided to get back to capitalist “normalcy”.
In their otherwise correct propaganda on capitalist inequalities party propagandists made another huge mistake. They just argued that Western capitalism was decaying and this was absolutely misleading. For this period the West could buy its own working class out of revenues coming global and neocolonial relationships. The West could also freeze global markets in the sense that cheap labor abundant regions could not capitalize from comparative advantages. By now this has changed and the West is losing because there is some market in the new international division of labor.
We always blame for these mistakes the party elite. But I think there was an even worse factor: the intelligentsia itself, which celebrates itself again and again as a humanizing force. We always ignore that even under state socialism they had a class position and most of the things they did was related to their strategies to maintain their privileged position (see Konrád-Szelényi 1979). Originally they were rarely from the lower classes as opposed to many real politicians like Kádár or Ceaușescu. Even when this intelligentsia became communist they did their best to get proper flats and villas to live in. There are an enormous number of stories how they managed to get villas of the marginalized intellectuals or other previous business people. This communist group and the repressed, not communist intelligentsia joined forces in the 1970s and early 1980s in order to make a come back and to construct a social position which is “truly professional” namely that they have a legitimate position even in “Europe” and the “West”. This was a strategy for which nothing was dear. This meant scholarships, ideas and political reform proposals which simply ignored the consequences locally. Let us have more market, let us have quality population reproduction, let us have stock exchange, let us join IMF etc. and this was done without any analysis what happened in other parts of the world, what it would mean locally (Melegh 2011). As they put it, let us be back in reality, meaning IMF reality. These privileged people were the IMF consensus makers and they were the ones who (rightly) thought that the change would work out for them. I have to say that this was tier mondialization as Claude Karnoouh put it, but without any intelligentsia thinking in terms of alternatives (Karnoouh 2003). Venezuelan army officers were better prepared for such moves. This is a great lesson we have to learn.
We have to clarify, that even today when EU is going down, with some and few notable exceptions the critical left of the Eastern Europe has not been able to give up ideas of a privileged global position and a related intellectual attitude. This is actually a caricature: we are in Europe, and the West and the EU is the civilizing factor. They will civilize (and finance) our capitalist elite and ourselves also to allow for real leftist criticism. This is a sheer nonsense and it is the actual denial of all things what we learn in the so called leftist tradition. Our comrades in Latin America, India and say Mozambique should burst into laughter when they see what we do. They do not see it or they do not want to see it. Thanks to God.
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Böröcz, József. (2012) Regimes of Remittance Dependency: Global Structures and Trajectories of the Former Soviet ‘Bloc’, Manuscript. 2012.
Fink, Carola and Frank Hadler, Tomasz Schramm (eds.): 1956. European and Global Perspectives, Leipzig 2006
Grandin, Greg and Gilbert M. Joseph, Eds. 2010. A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Karnoouh, Claude (2003). Eastern Europe at the Time of Disenchantment (From the fall of Communism to the Advent of a Third World Status) Social Justice: Anthropology, Peace and Human Rights 4, no. 3–4 : 228–267.
Konrád, György and Szelényi, Iván. The intellectuals on the road to class power. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
Melegh, Attila (2011) Living to ourselves. Localizing global hierarchies in state socialist Hungary in the 1970s and 1980s. Journal of Modern European History. No. 2 August
Melegh Attila (2012): A magyar és a globális ötvenes évek (Hungarian and Global Fifties). Élet és Irodalom LVI. évfolyam, 42. szám, 2012. október 19.
Tamás, Gáspár Miklós (2010) A Vörös Rém – Biszku Béla és 1956: forradalom tollal és fegyverrel. (The Red Monster – Béla Biszku and 1956: revolution with pen and arms). Magyar Narancs. 2010, 42 vol. 10 21.
 We can have a quick look into these events through youtube.. Caracazo February 27 1989, Caracas,, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDZNNPvBsRM
Budapest taxi blockade , 1990. October 25-27,