The radical left is not only witnessing the global strengthening of the free market imperative at the expense of human rights – it is also suffering from it. This is most evident in the countries of the Central and Eastern Europe region in which traditional political subjects professing the ideals of socialism keep failing, owing to a whole range of specific factors that are both external and internal.
This paper aims to outline some of the factors in more detail using the example of the Communist Party of Slovakia. I do believe that a proper understanding of the causes leading to the failure of communist and workers’ parties in the Central and Eastern Europe region is also crucial to the future of the radical left in the countries of Western Europe and, in a broader sense, also to the radical left, as such. The paper also points out possible solutions to the current situation and the issues which, I believe, will have to be overcome in the near future.
An Example of Overwhelming Defeat for the Radical Left
The Slovak example deserves our attention since it can be considered a clear example of the victory of a handful of capitalists over the system which was able to bring dignified, carefree and full lives to millions of citizens. In other words, it is an example of an overwhelming defeat for the radical left which teaches us a whole range of lessons.
As we all know, socialism in Czechoslovakia was eliminated after the events of November 1989. The most recent research apportions the blame for this catastrophe to the Politburo leaders of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Czechoslovak intelligence services. People know, for example, about the role of Czechoslovak State Security (StB) agent Ludvík Živčák, who pretended to be the supposedly ‘dead’ student Martin Šmíd during civil disorders in November 1989. The false report about the murdered student drove hundreds of thousands of angry people onto the streets and contributed significantly to the discrediting of governmental circles.
Within a month of the event, Václav Havel delivered his speech fighting for the hearts of the public with these words: Twenty years of official propaganda claimed that I was an enemy of socialism, that I wanted to restore capitalism in our country, that I was in the service of imperialism and earned fat hampers from it, that I wanted to own various businesses and exploit workers in these enterprises, and so on and so on. All of this was a lie, as you will soon see…
The citizens of Czechoslovakia soon saw who was right and who had lied. But it was too late. Within a few days, Havel held the office of President and the laws were changed to put public property into private hands. Extensive privatisation went hand in hand with a hard anti-communist campaign. Despite all of this, the 1990 opinion polls showed that 41% of the population still preferred socialism, 3% preferred capitalism and only 52% preferred something in between the two. It is interesting that the 2013 opinion poll conducted by the Focus agency showed that as many as 67% of Slovaks thought that their financial standing prior to 1989 had been better. But this is not the result of a nostalgic optimism or historical unawareness, as the capitalist media try to interpret it. Despite strong anti-communist propaganda, people cannot ignore:
- an increase in the unemployment rate and low-wage work;
- deteriorating working conditions;
- an outflow of the young and qualified workers;
- a concentration of work opportunities in western Slovakia and, particularly, in the capital city, and the resulting emergence of impoverished areas and even whole regions;
- a lower availability of apartments owing to slow construction and high prices;
- a declining industry and agriculture;
- higher energy and basic food prices;
- declining levels in culture, sports, healthcare and the school system despite (or rather due to) the transfer of the great financial burden of funding these institutions from the state to the citizen;
- the absence of free, or at least affordable, leisure-time activities for children and youth;
- an increase in crime rate;
- a growing risk of drug addiction among young people;
- an adverse demographic trend;
- a deepening crisis regarding solutions for the Roma minority;
- a loss of national sovereignty.
All of these generally known facts, many of which are also true when it comes to other post-socialist countries, are listed to allow me to point out this paradox: despite these and other negative changes that capitalism has brought to a majority of the Slovak population, despite the prevailing affection for socialism, Slovakia does not have a single party in parliament which would profess removal of the current bourgeoisie dictatorship and adopt a more fair and democratic social system.
The last time a more radical agenda had representation in parliament was during the 2002 elections. This is how the Communist Party of Slovakia, which gained 6.33% of votes in that election, used to be perceived. Today, it is a marginal political party with preferences on the borderline of statistical deviation and, considering its internal development in recent years, its classification as a radical left party is definitely questionable. I would even go as far as to claim that there is no radical left-wing subject in Slovakia, whether in parliament or in the political scene, as such.
In sum, there is not a single political subject in Slovakia that would stand by the poor, the marginalised, or those with the worst access to education and healthcare. There is not a single political subject in Slovakia fighting for a dignified standard of living for pensioners, dealing with the idea of an alternative non-capitalist economy (e.g. cooperatives that Czechoslovakia used to take pride in) or reacting to supranational threats such as TTIP. Slovakia does not have politicians, or at least enough activists, who could draw attention to the relationship between the growing labour productivity and the growing gap between the poor and the rich. We do not have enough advocates for shorter working hours or better working conditions, or enough people with the ability to explain, for instance, the essence of the unconditional basic income.
The Causes of Defeat
As a small country, Czechoslovakia’s fate and political development has always been connected with events in the world. This was also true in the case of political changes that led to the fall of the whole Eastern Bloc. In the late 1980s, both the popularity of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and its support in Moscow started to drop rapidly as a consequence of the mistakes the party made and as a response to international events. Socialism in Czechoslovakia could not have been saved under the pressure which later led to the fall of the whole Eastern Bloc.
On the contrary, those who would profess their desire for a more just society had to go on the defensive after the Eastern Bloc collapsed. The heavy fire of the anti-communist propaganda soon denied them substantial voter support. The communists in the Czech Republic have at least managed to defend their position as the third strongest parliamentary party. But in Slovakia, the movement nosedived after their promising rise from the ashes in 2002. They were undermined by their internal conflicts and the existence of populist parties, such as Smer, claiming to be a people’s, pro-national and pro-social political subject. And it was the Communist Party of Slovakia that put the final nail in their own coffin when they failed to fix their internal issues, disqualifying them from a successful political struggle in this critical situation:
- They have continued to prefer their political games regarding politics, memorial events and formal statements over specific and grounded reactions to the then current events; loyalty to professionalism.
- They have not changed outdated processes which could not stand up in bitter political fights (communication, underestimation of politics in mass media).
- They have not reassessed their negative relationship to the youth (which naturally leads to a decrease in membership base and a loss of connection with the everyday real life of the working man).
- They are also disconnected from trade unions and academics.
- They have not been able to use self-reflection or to accept political liability for the long series of failures; they did not rid themselves of their fear of open discussion and different views.
Such a hopeless situation is not solely a consequence of incompetence, but also of the belief prevailing in the Communist Party of Slovakia that it is objective conditions that do not favour their success, which is even worse. In line with this thesis, they believe that people do not support the Communist Party of Slovakia because they still get on quite well.
However, this is a dangerous approach that is indirectly appealing for passivity and creating space for other political subjects, particularly for the far right, which were only confirmed at the last parliamentary elections in Slovakia. I treated this issue in more detail in an analysis of the 2016 Slovak parliamentary elections. But the roots of this state reach much deeper than just the Communist Party of Slovakia. I dare say that we can also blame Hegel’s influence on Marx’s work and the uncritical interpretation of Marx, which I analysed in more detail at a 2014 seminar about contemporary post-Marxism in Bratislava. Here I will offer a brief clarification of the basic propositions.
The first is the strong belief in the historical victory of socialism, which had a discouraging, if not destructive, influence on the political movements inspired by Marx’s legacy. In the opinion of US sociologist Imanuel Wallerstein "…belief in the inevitability of progress was a cause of substantial depolitization, particularly once the anti-system movement gained the state power".
Further, many accept Marx’s belief that technological progress will work more and more in favour of the exploited class over time. The opposite is true. The existence of combat resources is unimportant for any fight, including the class struggle, irrespective of how highly developed they might be, if there is no access to them and if they cannot be used. In other words, this is not about the level of technical progress as Marx thought, but the access to its fruits. The problem is that a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of capitalists improves access to the technologies and their use in favour of capitalists.
The third cause of the communist movement’s failure lies in the non-critical acceptance of Marx’s positive view of labour. We should not forget that the introduction of new processes and technologies leads to disorganisation and a reduction of the working class. The perils of the budding ‘unwork’ have already been mentioned by Debord, who notes that if labour is the decisive instrument setting man free from exploitation, its absence leads to the slave’s dependence on the master. The survival of the crowds of the unemployed, economically unnecessary people, now really depends on the generosity of the social system the capitalists maintain to the extent that it allows them to keep their power. Nevertheless, the amount of generosity on offer tends to fall down, not least thanks to continuing technological progress.
As we can see, the transfer of material wealth from a majority of the global population to the richest individuals goes hand in hand with the transfer of political influence, technological and military dominance in favour of the latter group, which helps it find new and more efficient methods of building their power and wealth. I therefore believe that the chances of the exploited majority saying ‘enough!’ and rising up against these oppressors are not getting better, but worse over time.
As I have already said, I believe that time is against us. That we will face stronger opponents over time and that these opponents will try less and less to hide the crimes against humanity wrapped in the packaging of a ‘fight against terrorism’ or ‘protection of democracy’. We will, therefore, have to take a much more active approach in our search for possible solutions that would lead to the strengthening of the radical left in Slovakia, as well as in the countries of the Central and Eastern Europe region and at the European level.
In light of growing inequalities in the distribution of the global wealth, the situation facing fighters for true democracy and justice is already critical. In this context, I believe that there is a clearly definable basic objective which has to be shared by the whole of the radical left. And that objective is to stop the accumulation of excessive wealth in the hands of several individuals which directly leads to the destruction of democracy, and is thus a threat to the rights and lives of millions of people, as well as the entire ecosystem. A whole range of fearsome examples of abuses of power are there, taken both from history as well as the present day. And their concentration continues to grow.
The battle to stop the accumulation of excessive wealth in the hands of a few individuals is inseparably connected to the effort for its subsequent just redistribution. But are there specific measures to support a just redistribution of wealth and to prevent its further accumulation in the hands of individuals? The answer to this question is not as difficult as it might seem: there are several. It just depends on whether their implementation has redistributive effects or supports the creation of parallel economic structures that prevent the excessive accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of individuals.
Measures with redistributive effects:
- Limiting wealth.
- A financial transaction tax
- A progressive tax.
- A ban on tax havens.
- Pikkety’s global tax on capital.
- Public control of financial operations (including participative budgeting).
Measures creating parallel economic structures:
- State ownership.
- Workplace democracy.
- Autonomous democracy.
I believe that there is one more area which deserves the attention of the radical left. I do not want to disprove the key role of the base, but I think that capitalists have developed the strongest weapon from that which has been left fallow by the radical left (with the exception of Marcuse and, particularly, Gramsci). The onset of postmodernism clearly demonstrated that the ability to persuade others of one’s own truth is much more important than actually being right. Therefore, I believe that, besides the emphasis on common economic and social objectives and measures, the radical left also has to coordinate its measures within the superstructure and, particularly, in the area of mass media.
Instead of Conclusions, Are We Capable of a Coordinated and Efficient Approach?
I believe that the basic approach that may lead to the strengthening of the radical left lies in the definition of the minimum basic objectives and the common measures to attain them. As such, this minimum must also include the above mentioned efforts to stop the concentration of excessive wealth in the hands of individuals which most probably drives our society to the arms of global fascism. Another minimum which should be agreed upon by the radical left covers the measures leading to just distribution of global wealth. The radical left can only attain its goals if it is supported by the masses. Therefore, the radical left has to learn how to communicate with the masses and build their trust, which calls for a different approach to field work and mass media.
Unfortunately, the radical left is currently far away from achieving this minimum. And this applies both to the national (Slovak) and the supranational (European) scene. As an example, I must mention that the support of cooperatives does not receive enough attention, if any, at any of these levels. This is happening at a time when we are celebrating the 170th anniversary of the establishment of the first credit cooperative society on the European continent which was, by coincidence, founded in Slovakia. My experience at GUE/NGL showed me how difficult, if not impossible, it is for the European left wing to agree on a joint approach to the issue of financial transaction taxes or tax havens. Not to mention different approaches to the environment or the more recent migration crisis. Looking at the quantum of factors separating the radical left, it is even more frustrating when we realise that capitalists need just one goal to unite against the working people: the pursuit of profit.
We do not have to follow the same train of thought as Streeck, Polányi or Piketty to understand the hazards that come with an ongoing concentration of excessive wealth in the hands of a few individuals. In the end, this risk, which is more than evident and omnipresent, was pointed out more clearly and directly by Marx and Lenin. Our role now is to resist it. I believe that it is possible if we employ an active, timely and coordinated approach.
But who could be given the role of coordinator of the radical left? GUE/NGL is falling apart and is exhausted by the European Parliament’s system of work. The wide range of the EL’s activities comes at the expense of a principled politics of the radical left. In my opinion, we lack a common European body, at least at the level of a working group (whether inside or outside of GUE/NGL), whose only goal would be to strengthen the European radical left and whose only role would be to establish, and build, contacts with partners, monitor and assess the political situation at a national and European level, and coordinate joint activities of the European radical left.