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What the Left Needs is to Reinvent Itself – An Interview with Srećko Horvat

Protestors in Bosnia and Herzegovina carry a banner reading: “The courts and the police are all protecting the gang in power!” (February 2014).

The following interview of Srećko Horvat by Magdaléna Hajdučková and Jaroslav Michl first appeared in Deník referendum, a Czech web-portal.

Magdaléna Hajdučková and Jaroslav Michl: The Left in post-socialist Central and Eastern European countries is facing a deep crisis. Hungary and Poland are on their way to becoming authoritarian regimes. What is your explanation of developments in those countries – which have already had such direct experiences of non-democratic regimes – orienting themselves once again toward an authoritarian state?

Srećko Horvat: We can only understand this if we are able to look at the historical sequence which started with the Fall of the Berlin Wall as the symbolic and physical disintegration of the socialist systems across Europe. What started in the beginning of the 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe was a short-lived period of the so called “End of History,”which in all ex-communist countries acquired the form of a so called “transition,”a highly ideological term which designated the transition from communism to capitalism. But instead of reaching the desired “West,”another totem of the “happy ‘90s,”what we can see today is a devastated economy and impoverished nations with massive unemployment or high emigration, mainly of young people. Basically we ended up in “the desert of transition.” The current rise of authoritarian regimes precisely in Central and Eastern Europe, has to be understood against this background. Add to that the ongoing crisis of the European Union, both economic and geopolitical, the never-ending refugee crisis, which is actually deepening and growing and global instability, and you will get the right ingredients for the current authoritarian “recipe.”I call it a “recipe,”because that’s what leaders like Viktor Orban, Sebastian Kurz, and their variants all across the globe are selling to the people, in the same manner that the “transition” was sold to us during the ‘90s. However, what we can see now is much more dangerous, because capitalism doesn’t need democracy anymore.

MH/JM: There isn’t any authentically left-wing subject in the Czech Republic. The communist and social democratic parties here tend to favor national socialist rhetoric lately, spreading their anti-immigrant and anti-Roma agenda and marginalizing or perhaps ignoring the need for a transnational solution of current issues. Acting in this way, they completely differ from the original idea of internationalism which the Left was built upon. What the Left achieved exquisitely was analyzing the situation in the era of crisis, yet it did not manage to speak to its target group. Does left-wing politics – as we know it in the West – have the chance to succeed in Eastern Europe countries? As it seems, in many cases the cost of success is partially taking over right-wing populists’ agenda.

SH: Well, this is precisely the historical responsibility in these countries, including the Czech Republic. Like everywhere else, social democracy has not proven ready to transform the system, but actually cooperated both in the so called “transition” period and in the vast privatisations and market reforms that lead to the current crisis. It seems as if precisely social democracy was the “transition” towards the current authoritarian system. And it is not just a phenomenon in Eastern Europe. Look at the rest of Europe, look at Sebastian Kurz’s Austria or look at the rise of the AfD in Germany. It is precisely social-democrats, with their belief that capitalism will always need democracy, that opened the door for these current tendencies. At the same time, it might look as if the more radical Left is missing in Eastern Europe. But look at Slovenia, where a radical left party simply called Left (Levica) just recently got almost 10% in the last parliamentary elections. In neighbouring Croatia during the last few years three new left parties were born, one called New Left (Nova ljevica), Worker’s Front (Radnička Fronta) and the municipalist movement Zagreb je naš. Similarly, in Serbia a wide-spread municipalist movement called Don’t Let Belgrade Down competed in the local elections and is now preparing for national elections. The true question is: why is the right-wing populist narrative still more appealing to the people? Is it precisely because we have lived in one-party Communism and the creation of a New Left is a difficult endeavour, or is it rather a global trend which is not restricted to Eastern Europe? If it is the latter, then the question remains about what the Left can do in order to create a unifying narrative which wouldn’t just be about resistance, but defiance. Which would offer not only a convincing narrative of how not to fall into the abyss, but concrete measures for how to get out of our current predicament.

A Workers’ Front (Radnicka Fronta) poster reading: “Down with the Bourgeois Parties!”

MH/JM: You established the DiEM 25 movement together with Yanis Varoufakis. What are your plans for the upcoming European elections? Are you aware of this movement’s activities in each country?

SH: During the last two years, since DiEM25 was founded in Berlin’s Volksbühne, the “theater of the people,”it has now not only members but activist groups and even political parties, something that we call an “electoral wing,”in all EU countries (including those that are not part of the EU yet or have exited like Britain), and at the same time we are in good cooperation with progressives across the Atlantic and working on better ties with the Global South. We believe in radical internationalism. At the same time, if we have learned one lesson from the Occupy movements, it is that pure “horizontality” is not enough, there is always a need for organisation and a decision-making process which would be more effective than assemblism or the format of World Social Forums, for all their achievements. This is why DiEM25 tries to enact both, it is a movement and will always stay a movement, but it also has an “electoral wing,”which will be present at some of the upcoming national elections in Europe, and will, at the same time, participate in the upcoming European elections in May 2019. You can call it the “quick march through the institutions”; maybe it can also be understood as a subversion of European elections, in any case, it is a transnational pan-European attempt to bring back hope to this continent.

MH/JM: In an interview book with Alfie Bown you point out that all the direct attacks on the capitalist system actually help it maintain the status quo, as it gives the system the opportunity to redefine and strengthen itself. Instead of that, what you offer is subversion, a way of thinking and acting which aims not to attack directly but to disorganise the system with its own weapons, from the inside. How, to be concrete, can each of us really act subversively?

SH: Subversion is a term which, like many other useful concepts such as “hegemony,”comes from Antonio Gramsci. In other words, the very term, at least in the meaning I tend to give it, was literally born in prison. This is not without significance. If you fight the system directly, the most probable place where you will end up is in prison. My point is the following: when you enact a direct confrontation with the system, unless it is a revolutionary moment which carries the potential to overthrow the existing system, the reaction is usually even more oppression. There are many historical examples, one of the latest being the period that started after ’68, the so called “German Spring,”but also terrorism in Italy, when the most radical segments of the Left thought that the only way to overthrow the system was through direct confrontation. However, they overestimated the readiness of the “proletariat” to join them, and at the same time underestimated the gigantic force with which the system would bring them down, again proving to the “proletariat” that “there is no alternative.”Didn’t something similar happen last year during the G20 in Hamburg? Yes, disobedience is necessary, but let’s not believe that by burning cars we will change the system. What we need is constructive disobedience. And at the same time, we need subversion. It means abandoning the idea that there is still an “outside” to capitalism. Take technology. You can’t defeat the current system by not using it. So we have to use it. But use it in order to hack and subvert the Algorithm.

MH/JM: One of the main pillars on which the success of Right-wing populist stands is the ability to spread fear and emotional responses in general. The ‘big topics’ of today – be it the refugee crisis or the approach to the EU – mainly use strong emotions. You mention, in your speeches and texts, that “if the politics and political philosophy on the Left is to be successful, it must take love seriously again.” And the passion it creates. Here we come to your book called The Radicality of Love. The main thesis of this book is that almost every revolutionary moment of recent history worked with emotions, passions and – love. What position is love in, in our current situation?

SH: Fear is the biggest asset of the populists. Without inducing fear, the populists wouldn’t exist. What the Left needs to do is to reinvent not only itself but also the way it approaches fear. My answer is love. But not in the naive and simple way of spreading love or even loving the enemy, but in a much more profound way that I try to explain and understand in “The Radicality of Love.”Even the whole book is insufficient to come closer to such a thing as love and in what way it can transform not only radical movements but whole societies, so to elaborate it here would be impossible. To be brief, if the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook “scandal” revealed anything, it is the power capitalists and the populists have in manipulating our emotions. In order to get out of this dystopia, we don’t have to “take our countries back,” but we have to take our emotions back.

Magdaléna Hajdučková is a sociology student at the University of Ostrava in Czech republic. Her main interests are migration, social and gender justice and power of discourse. Jaroslav Michl is a philosophy student at the University of Ostrava in Czech republic. His main interest are political philosophy and social theory, especially czech marxism of 20th century and post-marxism. Together they translated Srecko Horvat‘s book The Radicality of Love into Czech.

Srećko Horvat is a philosopher, author, and political activist. He was one of the founders of the Subversive Festival in Zagreb. His books include What does Europe want? The Union and its Discontents with Slavoj Žižek (2013), Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism: Radical Politics After Yugoslavia with Igor Štiks (2014), The Radicality of Love (2015) and Subversion! with Alfie Bown (2017).