Post-communist parties in Eastern Europe

By the time real socialism collapsed in and around 1989, it had already become apparent that Marx would never be uniformly received in the real-socialist countries of eastern Europe. Even within the ruling communist-Marxist parties, opposing trends had emerged.

Background: How marxism was discredited prior to 1989

The collapse of each country’s own traditional post-Marxist dogma during the ‘purges’ led by Stalin, such as the removal of Poland’s communist ‘old guard’, was probably significant for the decline of Marxist movements as an organisational force. Furthermore, the condensed interpretations of Marx appropriated in agitprop often seemed to contradict the true nature of real socialism. In the consciousness of many, Marxist tradition was thus transformed into a foreign world view brought in from the outside. While it remained firmly rooted in some quarters of academia, among political activists and within the party apparatuses, it was here that Marxism was frequently used purely to legitimise certain actions against others and devoid of any real influence over how groups behaved.

Despite a multitude of what were undoubtedly emancipatory achievements and undeniable advances in the understanding of social science theory in the vein of the Marxist tradition, by 1989 the Marxist legacy had been largely discredited and commitment to its cause remained superficial. Although independent Marxist schools of thought existed, they did little to change this fact. Oskar Lange and Tadeusz Kowalik in Poland, Ota Šik (in the CSR until 1968), the Praxis School in Yugoslavia, Petar-Emil Mitev in Bulgaria and Georg Lukasz and János Kornai (at least early on in his career) in Hungary all embodied attempts to further develop Marxist approaches based on specific experiences. What these individuals have in common is that they all treated Marxism as a form of social critique, even within real socialism. This approach clashed with the matrix of ideology, Marxist theory, political interests and personal ambitions harboured by elements within the establishment that had emerged. As a result, the fundamental social questions of the period between 1945 and 1989 went unanswered or, if solutions were put forward, they were largely ignored. This mostly applied to:

  • the status of workers – labourers and farmers – as subjects of social change
  • the issue surrounding the driving forces behind a non-capitalist, non-competitive economy and its capacity for innovation
  • the ‘national’ question (it is important to note that the war between the Socialist Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan was one of the catalysts for the collapse of the USSR)
  • the unique characteristics of a specific post-bourgeoisie society
  • attitudes towards tradition, religion and the church.

However, it is also true that for all of these countries, Marxist tradition was simply one school of thought among many. The dominance of Marxist and/or Marxist-Leninist theory was merely an illusion. Alongside ‘western-orientated’ anti-Marxist and ‘left-wing’ opposition groups, there were other non-Marxist theoretical foundations based on religion and national traditions that were effective although often overlooked.   

The outcome: splits and the loss of the established base

The interplay of factors briefly outlined here resulted in groups that represented a non-capitalist view of society, or even those who consistently championed the social state as the way forward, being marginalised after 1989. The majority of workers and farmers had ‘forgotten’ how to intervene in political disputes as autonomous subjects. As a result, any opposition that invoked Marx simply lacked the necessary social base. Outside of academic niches, Marxists could only survive within (usually small-scale) unions and social movements. Projects involving journals, such as Kontradikce in the Czech Republic, Alternativy in Russia and Praktyka Teoretyczna in Poland, conferences that focused on the legacy of Marx or the Left in general, publications on such themes or ‘lone stars’ such as Slovenia’s Slavoj Žižek demonstrate that while the tradition is still present in the undercurrent, it is weak and has no ability to shape social discourse. 

As a result, the Marxist movement, which proved incapable of uniting the majority of former party members, disintegrated into several (at times, warring) parties. They are often considered less important than, for example, traditional Trotskyist or anarchistic structures, yet the collapse of Marxism did little to aid their cause. However, when this highly nuanced spectrum makes reference to Marx, it does so in a variety of ways and primarily through the prism of views put forward by Trotsky, Stalin or Hoxha. And in the shape of various factions that emerged following splits in Trotsky’s Fourth International, they also maintain networks with groups in other parts of the world. As is also the case in western Europe, these groups often play a key role in struggles, such as those involving companies or unions.   

With the exception of parties in the states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the CSR, the majority of communist parties (or their apparatuses) morphed into what were effectively social-democratic groups, if in name only. In most cases, they quickly took hold of the reins of power, were involved in doling out ‘shock therapy’ to their citizens and ultimately ended up taking the same path as their social democratic counterparts in western Europe, i.e. embracing the neoliberal business model. This required (and here it is once again important to include the former Soviet Union and the CSR) the elimination of anything that may grant legitimacy to opposition – and the Marxist tradition is one such form of legitimation. For the majority of those who advocated this path, renouncing Marxist theory went completely against their previous beliefs: in order to be credible, it needed to be celebrated as the radical shift that it was. As such, the relationship these parties and countries have with Marx is generally more tense and irrational than was (or is) the case in western Europe. The (sometimes temporary) banning of communist symbols in some of these countries is a physical manifestation of this problematic relationship.

In the states that formed following the collapse of the USSR, nationalist and staunchly neoliberal parties were the main groups to emerge from the ashes of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Social democratic tendencies remained relatively weak, although the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) went on to become a strong force of opposition in the Russian parliament. It unifies a broad spectrum of voices, ranging from Marxist to Stalinist, albeit without being able to offer an effective social alternative. The self-proclaimed communist parties of Ukraine and Belarus followed a similar path. 

The parties (or their apparatuses) in the former southern Soviet republics quickly became networks involved in establishing what were effectively nascent democratic political systems. In some cases, the resulting structure bore the hallmarks of an oligarchy. In the Czech Socialist Republic (CSR), the rupture within the communist party failed to materialise as the Social Democratic Party continued to operate in exile. Today the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia is a major opposition force in the country.

The future remains uncertain

It was only once the anti-globalisation movement began to have an impact on a global scale (as evidenced, e.g., by the European Social Forum) and efforts were made to ramp up the EU integration process that these movements generally started to once again become more visible in eastern Europe. Not only did this affect certain schools of thought such as critical Russian Marxism (as espoused by A. Buzgalin and the publication Alternativy), it also shaped new parties, e.g. the United Left (ZL) electoral alliance of parties in Slovenia. This new generation, the majority of whom have spent at least some of their university years either in western Europe or the US, mainly draws inspiration from Anglo-Saxon interpretations of Marx. In fact, the Marxist debate is currently being revived, especially in the Balkan region where such discussions are also more closely linked to political action.

However promising these developments may seem, it would be wrong to suggest that there has been a true consolidation of the movement. Although the Party of the European Left and its summer schools, the transform! network and the Historical Materialism project have managed to create room for dialogue between the various schools of thought that exist, the actual links between the separate groups and the role they play within individual countries have until now been weak and unable to exert any influence on social thinking