The End of Postcommunism

Andras Bozoki is Professor of Political Science at Central European University, Budapest. He spoke at an EES noon discussion on September 24, 2004, while he was a visiting professor at Columbia University. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 306.

On May 1, 2004, ten countries joined the European Union (EU). On the day of the accession, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary all had Central-Left governments in power. One day later, Leszek Miller, the Polish premier was forced to resign. In June, Czech social democrat Prime Minister, Vladimir Spidla followed suit, and in August, the head of the Center-Left government of Hungary, Peter Medgyessy, was also forced to resign. "Too weak," "lacks energy," "cannot communicate effectively"—these were some of the accusations lodged against them. In spite of the fact that all three leaders where very popular at the beginning of their terms, it appeared that the initial success of their materialist-redistributive politics faded quickly. None of these countries was in bad shape economically—on the contrary, they were experiencing economic booms—yet political observers sensed that there was a crisis in the leadership. This situation had clear ties to EU accession. A national consensus supported the European accession almost everywhere: EU membership seemed logical and would clearly serve the common good. So, once the long-held goal of EU accession was achieved, why did these governments collapse? Was it just coincidence that all three were replaced by much younger prime ministers with very different outlooks from their predecessors? The answers to these questions are directly related to the fact that EU enlargement has brought the region to a new stage in its development, and one in which the former communists need to redefine their political roles. Indeed, this stage could be interpreted as the end of postcommunism.

After the fall of communism, Central Europeans had certain expectations from the new political elite and those in charge of the transformation: first, they wanted democracy; second, they wanted a market economy; third, they wanted a clearly demarcated political community and national identity; and fourth, they wanted their countries to "join Europe." Each wish contained one implicit desire: the desire for prosperity. Their experience being locked behind the Iron Curtain against their will was perceived as an historical injustice. Hungarians found it "natural" to demand that their living standards be raised to a level equal to that of Austria. Poles and Czechs believed that they deserved the same lifestyle as the Germans.

In the early years of the transition, Hungarians associated democracy with prosperity in their minds. People wanted democracy simply because they saw the wealth of the democratic countries. The term "capitalism" was viewed with disdain, but the phrase "well-functioning market economy" sounded like an admirable goal that would usher in prosperity. At the same time, people were absorbed with the task of redefining the concepts of national identity and political community because it was necessary to decide who could take part legitimately in the future prosperity. This push to clarify who could be a member of the "sovereign people" that make up the state eventually ebbed as European and Euro-Atlantic integration became a viable goal and the people were happy to identify with the strong and successful West.

As long as the expectations of the society were matched with international expectations, and as long as these expectations could be answered by formal, institutional arrangements, the technocratic and pragmatic elite of the Polish and Hungarian communist successor parties were politically successful. The reformed communists struck a note of accomplishment with their managerial style. The academic world cannot but acknowledge the proficiency with which the Polish and Hungarian Communist successor parties completed the democratic transition after 1989, demonstrating a readiness to reform and handled the crises of the 1990s. It was no wonder: the leaders of these parties—those politicians who were socialized in the post-Marxist, anti-ideological reform period—preferred to see themselves as "neutral experts." These pragmatic reformers abhorred political ideologies, since they still had the bitter taste of Marxism-Leninism in their mouths. Moreover, wherever they looked, they saw chaos and political crisis. First and foremost, they had to prove that they were able to think independently from the ideological outlook of the previous communist generation. They had to prove that they were able to identify a problem for what it was, without all the ideological dressing. They needed to prove that they could solve, or at least handle, the emerging issues. The great challenge of this generation was to conduct "crisis management" in the narrow space between confined political opportunities and economic rationality. While their predecessors were bound by their ideological thinking, the reformed communists were able to shed this yoke. Their mission was to see the light at the end of the tunnel at a time when the great majority was still stumbling in darkness.

By 1990, there was not one member in the Communist Party who still believed in communism. Marxism was but an empty theoretical shell. It was an unclear concept of progress with a fuzzy, linear understanding of history and no world-shaking contents attached to it. The general opinion in the years following the political transformation was that only the specific analysis of a specific situation, only conscientious management of the various crises, mattered. The post-communist political elite wanted a normal, consensus-driven world, free of ideologies. Thus the so-called "Washington consensus" was naturally embraced by these political managers, who accepted the international neo-liberal discourse and adopted it as their own. They strove to attract capital, reasoning that it would bring about a working society. The chronic patients of the transformation were injected with capital, while the labor force was tempered to be competitive by a crash diet and low wages. As far as a working democracy was concerned, it was readily available for those who bothered to vote.

This political mode could continue so long as political goals were identical to externally-determined transition course, which included institution-building, economic stabilization, democratic consolidation and EU accession. Following external prescriptions did not require articulating a clear political identity, and thus the political left prevailed. Meanwhile, for almost a decade the political right was occupied with rebuilding its base. Thus, it was the task of the reformed communist Left to manage the crises, to conduct the politics of privatization left unfinished by the rightist governments and to show a friendly face towards the West.

While in power between 1998 and 2002, the new Hungarian Right tested its newly-gained strength through provocative and confrontational behavior. It yearned impatiently to legitimize its proud and very distinct identity through any means. In its adolescent eagerness, however, it went too far. The fervor of its apostles divided the country into the decadent powers of the failed communist past and the bulging forces of the rising nation's future. It is no wonder, then, that the society returned to the well-known "old timers," the boring but normal political Left, first in Poland in 2001 and in Hungary the following year. The prevailing sentiment was that the time for symbolic politics was over, that it was a laughable residue of the past. To gain success, one simply had to show evidence of worthy accomplishments.

But, by 2004, the old paradigm of meeting external expectations while remaining "value free," "neutral" and "expert" failed. An overview of Central European politics over the last year shows that for the political Left to be successful, more was needed than remaining simply a "party of peace." The center-left coalition needed to become more than empty-vessel parties that could be filled with hot or cold liquid at a whim. The political right had recreated its identity, and now it was the turn of the other side to follow suit. Passing the external obstacles of EU enlargement was but one condition of progress. There is no value in the EU if it is only a gentleman's club for the wealthy. It was no accident, then, that for both the referendum on EU accession in 2003 and the European Parliamentary (EP) elections in 2004, the turnout was shockingly low in Central Europe. The people do not think these issues concerned them, at least not yet. They did not oppose them, but only gave their passive support.

Trouble for the reformed communists began in Hungary when Prime Minister Medgyessy introduced his concept of "welfare regime change," identifying a very serious social problem and confronting the greatest political debt of the new system. Democracy has no value for the people so long as a general poverty prevails. There is no value in the nations if—as the Hungarian writer Dezso Szabo wrote 90 years ago—"the national anthem is sung on empty stomachs." Having put the unresolved welfare question into the spotlight, it became obvious that one government and one parliamentary cycle was not enough to complete a change in welfare politics.

The inability to resolve the problem in the short term led to the present crisis of the reformed communists. Although in the 1990s they were successful in crisis management, new issues emerged that could not be resolved in the same old way. Increasingly, the correct reaction required strategic thinking, ability for innovation and commitment to a clear set of political values. The new issues were not about technocratic solutions, crisis management or modernization problems, but about the political contents of social democracy. Such values were not articulated by the "experts" anymore: the situation called for politicians. And cold "expertise" is irrelevant when it comes to choosing political values.

Nonetheless, the crisis, the transformation, the generational and philosophical renewal of the socialist parties is a promising process. It offers the hope that after 15 years of postcommunism, things have slowly fallen into place. One can finally anticipate that the political left will stop acting like the Right, and vice versa. Everything was the other way around in Central Europe throughout the 1990s: while the Left was busy privatizing, the Right was nation-building. A renewal is all the more timely now that not only the ex-communist socialist and social democratic politics must re-evaluate themselves, but the West is facing this challenge as well. Since the end of 1999, when the WTO faced riots in Seattle, neo-liberalism has faced a crisis. Although the influence of the anti-global movement decreased after September 11, 2001, the new social democratic politics of the once-successful "third way" must also be renewed. One must consider whether the fall of neo-liberalism will also destroy its central-leftist, alternative variants.

What happened in Central Europe in 2004 was the connection of the region to the present concerns of the western world. The long transition is over; the new problems of the region are not "transitional" matters anymore. Just as neither Germany nor Italy were called post-fascist countries in 1960, 15 years after the Second World War, so Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have shed the title of postcommunist states, 15 years after Communism fell. As far as politics and economics are concerned, these states are fully transformed, both structurally and institutionally. One should not talk about old and new democracies anymore, setting up a contrast between the two. True, our traditions are different, but our current problems are quite similar. These matters of concern should be approached in terms of "quality control" (examining the functioning of the democratic institutions) or as democratic criticism, but not with the "transition" approach.

There are many types of capitalism, and several forms of democracy. And it appears that the opportunities of the sort of externally-driven or "catching-up-from-behind" type of Central European technocratic democracy, which gains its identity solely from external sources and denies the autonomy and the social context of politics, has been exhausted. The postcommunist era has come to an end.