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Why Globalise? 1989 in Eastern Europe and the Politics of History: Part III

In this three-part interview, conducted, transcribed and edited by Zoltán Ginelli, history professor James Mark talks about his latest book

James Mark is a British Professor of History at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the history and memory politics of state-socialism in East Central Europe from the perspective of broader global histories, transnational processes and comparative methods. In 2019, James finished working on two 5-year international research projects: 1989 After 1989: Rethinking the Fall of State Socialism in Global Perspective and Socialism Goes Global: Cold War Connections Between the ‘Second’ and ‘Third Worlds’. The two projects focused on how to reinterpret state socialism, the Cold War, the 1989–91 system changes and the postsocialist period in Eastern European history as part of global processes in the context of histories of colonialism and anti-colonialism. Recently, James Mark published several books, such as 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe (written with Bogdan Iacob, Tobias Rupprecht and Ljubica Spaskovska) and Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World (co-edited with Artemy Kalinovsky and Steffi Marung). Three further volumes are also in production. Readers might also be interested in the exhibition Tito in Africa: Picturing Solidarity organised by Radina Vučetić and Paul Betts as part of the Socialism Goes Global project, for which they produced an exhibition book (The Wende Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, Museum of Yugoslavia). The exhibition explored the visual language, political uses and afterlives of  the photography that accompanied the numerous African trips of Yugoslav president Tito in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of the development of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Previous interviews and introductions: | | | | |

ZG: Previously we discussed why the neoliberal transition after 1989 should be reinterpreted in a global historical perspective, and what alternative globalisation trajectories socialist globalisation was part of. We also spoke of how Eastern European postsocialist transformation could be understood from the region’s “in-between” – or semiperipheral – position in the world economy as regards to coloniality, race, and migration. Now let’s turn towards how these issues affect today’s politics more directly, and how the 1989 got globalised in the postsocialist period.

Perhaps many people thought that there will only be a few cases of successful right-wing, illiberal populist governments in Eastern Europe, but now we can clearly see how this has become part of a global trend. But in a global perspective we should also add that elements of this conservative right-wing populism, comes not only from Western neoliberalism as it developed by the 1980s, but – like illiberalism itself – from authoritarian capitalist development states in East Asian contexts, like Singapore.

Viktor Orbán visits Singapore after his Vietnamese trip. In his speech in the Transylvanian town Tusnádfürdő on 25 July 2014, Viktor Orbán defined Hungary as a workfare society and an illiberal democracy, pointing to China, India, Russia, Turkey and Singapore as examples. Source: Prime Minister’s Press Office / Balázs Szecsődi/MTI/MTVA

But what is perhaps also interesting is how these right-wing, conservative populists try to control and exploit existing discourses and historical experiences of race, whiteness and coloniality. The phrase we started with, which you mentioned, “we never had colonies”, and “we are not responsible for the consequences of colonisation and imperialism”. This is embedded in an anti-Western discourse:  “Brussels is the new Moscow”. This builds on the socialist-era understanding that Eastern Europe was a colony of the Soviet Union. This colonial discourse then gets mobilised against the “failed” neoliberal transition period and fears of Western globalisation to protect “freedom-loving” nations’ sovereignties and conservative cultures, with Viktor Orbán even calling 2010 a new system change of a right-wing revolution, which could fulfil the “true” promises of 1989 – so there was a “double system change”. What do you think are the reasons behind the success of these populist discourses that have emerged in reaction to the liberal heritage of the 1989 system change?

JM: There are many shades of this populist revolt. The most prominent are those on the right. Hungary is perhaps one of the most far advanced in this regard, Poland is some way behind but “catching up”. But it can also be found on the left, for example in the social democratic government in Romania. So I think it’s a regional phenomenon that transcends some parts of the political spectrum, and what unites these groups is a challenge to the transition paradigm: we don’t have to necessarily become like the West, but we don’t have to define ourselves according to the West’s standards anymore.

I think this is part of a broader, global revolt against the transitions and their political paradigms in the late 20th century. From Latin America to Southern Europe to South Africa and elsewhere you find perceived limitations of transition ideologies being challenged in diverse ways and from different parts of the political spectrum.

Last year for example in Chile, we saw the importance of returning to the unmet promises of democratisation: they didn’t really get rid of the Pinochet constitution, nor challenge the patterns of economic ownership that existed within the dictatorship, which then led to corruption and economic inequality. In South Africa, a younger radical generation in the African National Congress became very critical of the way in which apartheid ended and see the “Truth and Reconciliation” process as a poor substitute for economic justice, land reform and so on – it just entrenched massive inequality. These critiques hint at new political possibilities: we don’t have to ally ourselves to the idea of this inevitable market capitalist, transitional, “no alternative” neoliberal discourse.

A crowd of more than 1 million people protested against the government’s austerity measures in Chile on the streets of Santiago on 25 October 2019. From 7 October until the end of January 2020, violent deaths followed from several waves of protests demanding the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera, who is still in power today. Source: / Reuters

In Eastern Europe this revolt takes more of a right-wing form. This is partly because the left was very slow to address the problems thrown up by the financial crisis. Part of the reason for the lack of responsiveness was because of these continuities across 1989. These ideas were already circulating in some reformist circles before the Fall, and then former communists found it easy to transform themselves into liberal-leftist parties, which became the carriers of a kind of Blairite, globalising third way market liberalism. When the crisis came, they were too far down that road to turn around. The political right had already developed these alternative discourses and was much quicker to move in.

But, as you say: to understand these new political movements and their appeal you need to look at the region within broader global histories of coloniality and anti-coloniality, which they draw on to frame their new projects.

The long-term continuities between pre-communist, communist-era, and post-communist anti-colonialisms are very striking, and inform the politics of these new populist movements. Their object of anti-colonial wrath might have changed – it is no longer Berlin or Rome, and then Moscow, but now rather Brussels that is the imperial power to be contested – but defining one’s national identity through the external oppressor is still central.

We can certainly also recognise the legacies of communism in the present-day struggle against a “dissolute” West: whilst the communists complained of the West’s imperialism and racism, populists now critique a caricature of a multicultural, Islam-supporting and “gender-obsessed” Western liberal Europe failing to protect a white, Christian conservative vision of the continent.

Peace March in Budapest by CÖF, a Fidesz-loyal civil organisation, walking through the heart of the city on Andrássy Street on 21 January 2012. Source: László Beliczay / MTI

A popular internet meme illustrating the enemies of nationalism as seen by the far-right.

We might also look to dissident discourses to understand this. The idea of Central Europe was not always about demonstrating one’s natural Western orientation: for some dissidents in the late Cold War, it was also about distancing the region from both the West and the East. Some of the Polish opposition in the mid-1980s argued for a “Central-Eastern European Community” with a joint economy and common passport that is distinct from both East and West, and could protect itself against both in order to maintain freedom, peace, and prosperity in the region. And the racialisation of this new Europe was also already there in the 1980s, as I discussed previously.

But at the same time you’re right that at the centre of these claims is a denial of Eastern Europe’s coloniality. They argue that we are “different”: we are a separate cultural space, and we are different from the rest of Europe, because our nations never had extra-European empires. That’s also a claim about racial and national purity in the present: that we can be protectors of a white Christian Europe, because we do not need to assuage white guilt, as western Europeans do, as we have no imperial burden, and nor do we have a tradition of postcolonial migration. So we do not have any postcolonial responsibility.

This avoids many discussions of the region’s involvement in settler colonialism across the world, Eastern Europe’s ‘excess’ populations who moved to Latin America, North America, and elsewhere in the colonial and postcolonial world. It avoids the fact that Eastern Europe always participated in, and consumed, a much wider European colonial culture.

Hungarian settler colonists, who mostly fled to South America from annexed territories from Hungary after the Treaty of Trianon (1920). The photo depicts their colony in Brazil near the Paraguay border, Árpádfalva (Colonia Arpad). The majority of Hungarians immigrated to the USA, but after immigration policies became stricter by the end of the 1920s and the Trianon catastrophe Hungarians increasingly migrated instead to South America, Africa and Asia. Photo: Béla Bangha (1934):
Dél keresztje alatt: Feljegyzések egy délamerikai missiós körútról. Budapest: Pázmány Péter Irodalmi Társaság. Photo will be part of the exhibition The Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and Global South co-curated by Eszter Szakács and Zoltán Ginelli at the OFF-Biennale Budapest art festival.

This was expressed through fantasy and longing – think of the colonial literature, shows, exhibitions that you could have found equally in Western and Eastern Europe, as the work of Irina Novikova and others has uncovered. Coloniality was a shared experience: even if the region’s nations didn’t have colonies, they participated in trajectories and fantasies of being European colonials. For example, the most popular interwar Hungarian fiction writer Jenő Rejtő (P. Howard) depicted Eastern Europeans working alongside Western European empires, finding freedom and meaning as adventurers or as legionnaires, fighting side by side with colonial troops.

In some ways these became political fantasies too. After WWI, some countries, particularly in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, had substantial sections of their elites who desired colonies in order that their nations become fully European and have the material base to survive.

The communists’ desire for worldliness through alliances with the anti-colonial struggle after WWII was in part driven by a longer-term peripheral frustration to gain the privileges of mobility and influence that imperialism had provided Western Europeans. But today there is a politically very useful amnesia around this.

Our forgotten relations with the colonial and postcolonial world. Travel literature, novels and pulp fiction by Hungarian authors: the second row shows interwar pulp fiction, the fourth the Világjárók (Globetrotters) series by the publisher Gondolat (formerly Bibliotheca), the fifth row consists of books from the Útikalandok (Travel Tales) series of the publisher Táncsics. Materials will be part of the exhibition The Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and Global South co-curated by Eszter Szakács and Zoltán Ginelli at the OFF-Biennale Budapest art festival.

ZG: In Eastern Europe, after the “return to Europe” and Western realignment during the “transition” period, there developed a global realignment after the 2008 crisis, when partly due to disillusionment with the neoliberal period, these countries started to redevelop their global relations with non-Western countries and realign their foreign policies to relieve – or at least complement – Western dependency. For example, Viktor Orbán announced the “global opening” after 2010, and re-established contacts and increased trade relations with many African and Asian countries, some of which had been disestablished in the 1980s and 1990s – during the “return to Europe”.

How does your idea of the history of socialism as struggles over alternative globalisations contribute to understanding this new global manoeuvring? Can we draw historical parallels between this current opening up and previous ways of global integration, and the ways Eastern European countries try to globally position themselves today?

JM: We argue that the very notion of Eastern Europe is defined by in-betweenness: sometimes looking to the West, but sometimes looking elsewhere, eastwards, or the South, or often in hybrid forms. And there are competing political and cultural groups who contest the geopolitical positioning of the region. This is not a new idea of course, but in the Socialism Goes Global project we view this in-betweeness through the prism of the collapse of empires on a global scale in the 20th century.

We examined how actors in the region were caught between desiring to be colonial Europeans, looking westwards, and at the same time being anti-colonial, shaping their own liberations of their own nations from empire into an alliance with others that have similar decolonising experiences in Africa and Asia.  

With the collapse of the liberal world order in the mid-1930s, there is an increasing attraction for some in Eastern Europe to an anti-colonial position, because of the threat of Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy in their backyard, which echoes the broader global struggle against imperialism. You can see this in the massive outpouring of support in the region for Abyssinia’s struggle against Italian imperialism, for example. So this anti-colonialism precedes the communists, but is strengthened by the experience of occupation during WWII and liberation from Nazi rule. Then under the communists this becomes part of the political mainstream and is institutionalised in solidarity policies and movements with new African and Asian states.

But there is also an idea – albeit always contested – that being too close to the West will mean being confined to the periphery, and so they have to look East and South to help escape their backwardness. You then have a period when Westernisation becomes more and more important from the late 1960s, and 1989 becomes the high watermark with the transition ideology of Westernisation up until maybe the financial crisis between 2008 and 2010. Since then we’ve had a return to a hybrid situation, but most Eastern European countries aren’t turning away from the West per se, at least none of them wish to leave the European Union. It should be said that there is great scepticism in some countries, such as in the Czech Republic, where Václav Klaus is leading his Czech version of Brexit.

The Chinese One Belt One Road project, often referred to as the New Silk Road, is a macro-scale investment and geopolitical-strategical plan covering 60 countries on both land and sea. Its aim is to support Chinese expansion of markets and capital investments, particularly towards valuable European markets. Source:

But now Western integration is complemented by new alliances with China, Russia, or Turkey – not only in Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic, but also in the Western Balkans, where disillusionment with the prospect of joining the EU opened up space for greater geopolitical competition. We can see this in the growing relationship to China in the region. China has this 16+1 policy, in which it divides Europe into Europe 1 and Europe 2, basically rejecting the EU’s conception of Europe, and rather looks to countries, such as in the Balkans, in Central and Eastern Europe and outside of Europe, which used to be part of the socialist world and thus can form an entry point for Chinese business capital.

These are often rediscoveries of older relationships: you can find the remaking of earlier socialist relationships in Eastern Europe, rediscovered friendships through which they can understand themselves because of this earlier world. For example, in the revival of Russian African policy over the last decade, which to some degree relies on these earlier relationships forged in socialist internationalism. So these connections are made very concrete, to facilitate new investments and economic relations in the present. But you might have a better idea about similar things going on in Hungary.

Since 2018, Hungary is member of the Central Asian geopolitical organisation of the Turkic Council, whose members are Azerbaijan, Kazahstan, Kyrgyztan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. Since December 2019, Hungary has an office in Budapest, which is state-funded and its staff enjoys diplomatic immunity. Source:

ZG: In Hungary, you can see that the political leadership heavily relies on previous relationships to Asia, with China or Central Asia, for example, and draws on the tradition of Hungarian Orientalism, which partly consisted of interwar era Turanism, an ideology that proposed that Hungarian roots were in Asia. But socialist-era relations are appropriated too. These are used to construct this in-between “swing region” position you mentioned, which I would call ‘semi-peripheral’. There is also reliance on these previous socialist networks, but these structural manoeuvrings today are kept rather concealed under symbolically anti-communist, anti-migration, and nationalist identity politics. But these are also concealed due to the opposition’s West- and Eurocentrism, which recurrently dismisses Hungarian foreign policy in these countries as simply supporting authoritarian regimes or foreign Christian organisations and not investing in Hungarians and a European future.

But I also see parallels in how after 1989 Eastern Europeans needed new global ideologies to reconnect to these countries. Illiberalism is one of them, if we look at the Hungarian relation to Turkey, Russia, Brazil or East Asian states, but there is also the case of Christianity used in global diplomacy, because many of these non-European countries – despite Western projections of anti-Islamism – are actually dominantly Christian countries, in fact postcolonial ones. Think of Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, the Philippines, or growing Christianity in China. So there are these new, emerging global ideologies, which have replaced socialist internationalism and are the basis for new global connections.

But turning back to 1989 in this regard, there is also the question of how 1989 had a global effect and became a global ideology? It is of course central to Eastern European history, but it has been embedded in local, nationalist, and Eurocentric histories. But you mentioned how the idea, concept and liberal narrative of 1989 was mobilised in the Arab Spring during 2011, and elsewhere in the Middle East in order to spread the Eastern European experiences of becoming independent, free countries building liberal democracies.

JM: One of the reasons why 1989 remained such a powerful symbol is because the ideas it underpinned became central to the constitution of the West after the Cold War. In particular, it naturalised the coming together of liberal democracy and market capitalism, now extended by the West to a region that by and large welcomed this liberation. This particular assemblage had not seemed very likely before 1989, but as soon as it happened, it was mobilised in the service of a Western-led globalisation project.

I mentioned before how the African left saw 1989 as a disaster for them, because in the early 1990s the requirements of economic restructuring combined with what was then called “good governance,” was forced on Africa in order to reschedule debts and take up further loans.

In parts of Africa in the early 1990s there was resentment towards Eastern Europe that their experience was being used to force African countries – especially indebted ones – to undertake reform programmes that were not necessarily relevant to their cultural and political present.

1989 was also invoked by both liberals and neoconservatives alike to spur the West to understand new challenges to Western capitalist civilisation. Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush declared the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to be “World Freedom Day”. If the West’s resolve, fortified by the anti-communist struggle of the late Cold War, could be maintained – neoconservatives argued – then “freedom” could be brought to the Middle East.

A revolutionary generation of Eastern European elites were, until the 2010s, happy to perform this reading of 1989 on the global stage as they supported the export of Western market democracy.

Lech Wałęsa meets interim president Foued Mebazaa in Tunis to discuss Poland’s support in building Tunisian democracy. Source:

Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of Polish shock therapy provided advice on the privatisation of the Iraqi economy after the US-led invasion. Lech Wałęsa, a hero of Poland’s Solidarność movement and post-communist president, visited Tunisia during the Arab Spring to advise on undertaking a peaceful, negotiated transition in 2011. Yet following the failures of democratisation in the Arab Spring, and the rise of a new generation of anti-liberal politicians in Eastern Europe, there are no more triumphalist “global 1989” tours.

There is also the reaction of China, where 1989 is not as important as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which for them is the disastrous global event of the late 20th century that must never, never ever happen in China. Gorbachev’s failings became repeatedly played out as part of elite political training: there are still courses on this at elite party schools, military academies and so on. Xi Jinping, soon after coming to power in the early 2010s required his central committee to watch videos of what went wrong under Gorbachev’s leadership.

Signwalls covered with post-it messages by Hong Kong protesters. Photo: Jimmy Lau, Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution, 22 October, 2014.

We now see China very threatened by the revival of this 1989 ideology in Hong Kong. Alongside references back to struggles of democratisation at Tiananmen, we see many references back to the anti-communist struggle of the late 1980s in Eastern Europe in the ideology and repertoires of Hong Kong protesters. Here protestors imitated the “Baltic Way” of 1989 in their “Hong Kong Chain” exactly thirty years later on August 23, 2019. Whereas once Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians expressed their desire for independence from Moscow by linking hands across their Eastern borders, the citizens of Hong Kong formed a 30 miles chain across Hong Kong Harbour, seeking to preserve “one country, but two systems”. So-called “Lennon Walls”, once filled with messages of support from Czechoslovak citizens for their dissidents in the 1980s, now find new form in post-it notes plastered on the walls of Hong Kong metro stations. In the struggle to protect their islands’ sovereignty against the legal incursions of the last communist superpower, 1989 was still relevant.

But as the 1989-styled resistance to Beijing’s encroachment on the legal autonomy of Hong Kong has seemingly failed, major Western actors have moved in for – in many ways biased – support. Trump has recently signed into law a bill, The Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would produce annual reviews on autonomy to defend the liberty of Hong Kongers, but only in the context of U.S. trade wars with China and also of ignoring U.S. history of imperialist interventionism. Some on the British right, under the conditions of Brexit, are suggesting a rather different balance of support to that which is once provided Eastern Europe in the late 1980s: not full throated support for democracy movements, but rather the offer of a “charter city”, free of economic regulations and low tax, for Hong Kong refugees within the UK. The fantasy of Singapore-on-Thames can finally be made real.

In the 675,5km long “Baltic Chain” on 23 August 1989, the citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania demonstrated by holding hands to secede from the Soviet Union. The action was connected to the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union secretly agreed upon how to divide Eastern Europe.

Hong Kong protesters imitating the 1989 “Baltic Chain” form a “Hong Kong Chain” on 23 August 2019. Source: