Eastern Europe and the new right

Issue 

Free to Hate: The rise of the new right in post-communist Eastern Europe

By Paul Hockenos

Routledge. 1993. $49 (hb)

Reviewed by Phil Hearse

As the mass anti-bureaucratic movement gathered pace in East Germany (GDR) in November and December 1989, hopes were high among socialists worldwide that a new, democratic, socialist society would result. The leaders of the movement, organised in the New Forum, were almost to a person opponents of capitalist restoration. Their objective was a democratic, but socialist, GDR.

Every Monday evening in the autumn and early winter of 1989, hundreds of thousands of people in Leipzig, the centre of the movement, demonstrated against the regime. But gradually the political character of the demonstrations changed.

The singing of the socialist "Internationale" was gradually replaced by West Germany's national anthem. Support for German unification and hostility to the left became so pervasive that the New Forum leaders lost all influence.

West German fascists were quick to see a new and fertile recruiting ground in the east, sending leafleters to participate in the demonstrations. They got a growing response.

Since then more than a dozen immigrant workers have been murdered and many more injured in pogroms by pro-Nazi skinheads in the former GDR, most notoriously in attacks on immigrant workers' hostels in Rostock and Solingen.

But open fascism is just the tip of the iceberg of the rise of nationalism, chauvinism and ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe. Ghosts from the past — anti-Semitism, hatred of Romanies, bitter conflicts between ethnic Hungarians and Romanians — have emerged again.

Paul Hockenos charts the rise of the new east European right. His message is blunt: "parties with racist and nationalist rhetoric find themselves squarely in the political mainstream". The democratic left is way behind the nationalist right wing, both organisationally and in mass influence.

To socialists and democrats internationally who watched the 1980s anti-bureaucratic movements with growing excitement, this outcome is a profound disappointment.

Paul Hockenos, east European correspondent of the US radical journal In These Times, provides a wealth of information on the new right in Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary. He identifies the social conditions which provide so much of the political ammunition of nationalism and ethnic hatreds — the unemployment, poverty and destruction of social welfare arising from the attempt to restore capitalism.

But this doesn't answer the basic question — why has this resulted in a surge to the right, rather than the growth of a new, democratic left? In answering this question, Hockenos' generally admirable book is at its weakest.

Broadly speaking, his explanation for the rise of the right is the lack of experience of Western-style "democracy", and the failure of the Western states — including the US — to rapidly integrate eastern Europe into the world capitalist economy and "security" structures like NATO.

He also highlights the extent to which the old bureaucracies, behind the "internationalist" rhetoric of Stalinism, themselves used nationalism and tolerated racism towards immigrant workers from Vietnam, Cuba and Africa.

Leaving aside the fact that integration into NATO and Western capitalism are reactionary objectives, these arguments don't go to the heart of the matter.

Faced with the social disasters resulting from the attempt to restore capitalism, the workers of eastern Europe are not turning to democratic socialism for two connected reasons. First, the very words "socialism" and "communism" have been discredited by decades of the Stalinist system — at least in Eastern Europe.

Socialists in the West generally underestimated the damage done to the consciousness of the working class in the post-capitalist states by this experience.

Second, as the east European regimes fell one by one, and as the Soviet Union itself fell to bits, the mass of the ordinary people had no practical socialist model to inspire them.

In the absence of any large industrial country in which a democratic socialist system actually exists, the masses of eastern Europe turned to capitalism, the nation and the church.

In the GDR in particular, the attractions of West German consumerism were overwhelming compared with the apparently abstract socialist ideals of the New Forum leaders.

Unfortunately, Hockenos deals only briefly with ex-Yugoslavia, where ethnic hatreds have extracted their highest toll. It is here that the most pernicious ideology to emerge from the fall of Stalinism — the idea of the "ethnically pure" nation — has emerged.

Neither does the book deal with the ex-Soviet Union, where Great Russian chauvinism inspires not only open reactionary nationalists like Zhirinovsky, but also sections of the Stalinist and semi-Stalinist left.

As Hockenos rightly points out, all is not doom and gloom. The fall of the bureaucracies has created new democratic freedoms, and in many countries there is a new, emerging left. Disillusionment with the market and attempted capitalist restoration has not just led to right-wing victories: it has also resulted in ex-Communist social democrats winning elections in Poland and Belarus.

In the German general election next October, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) will win hundreds of thousands of votes in the ex-GDR. And with the exception of the ex-GDR, there are huge battles ahead before capitalism can be restored in eastern Europe.

But for the most part the democratic left is small and isolated. The new left in Russia and Eastern Europe needs our solidarity and our practical aid.

More than anything, the working people of eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union need to see that internationally there is an alternative socialist vision, that capitalism is not all powerful, that there are new socialist forces organising and regrouping.

The task of defeating the far right in Eastern Europe is one for socialists and democrats worldwide. Paul Hockenos' information-packed book is a timely reminder of the scale of the task in front of us.

[Phil Hearse will be speaking on the rise of European fascism at the International Green Left conference in Sydney, March 31-April 4.]