What happened to the left in Eastern Europe after 1989?

And what is its future?

Josip Tito
Slovenian girls wearing Yugoslav youth organisation hats attend celebrations of late communist leader Josip Tito's birthday in his native village of Kumrovac, Croatia [File: Nikola Solic/Reuters]

On October 26, at an official ceremony in Washington, DC, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic was presented with the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Award. Surrounded by high-level dignitaries, she reminisced about being a little girl born on “the wrong side of the Iron Curtain”, dreaming of going to places where “people were able to speak freely”. 

Kitarovic, however, was born in Yugoslavia, which was not behind the Iron Curtain and gave its citizens the right to travel freely. In fact, she herself was able to go to the United States in the 1980s on a high school exchange programme. 

Under this awkward slip of the tongue, which is not that rare for the right-wing Croatian president, there lies a major conceptual confusion, conscious or unconscious, caused by a concerted effort to cover up, distort and falsify history in order to influence politics. Historical revisionism focusing on the World War II and the following four decades of socialist rule has not only changed public perceptions of historical events, but has also affected politics in post-1989 Eastern Europe, and especially the left. 

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, heralded the collapse of state socialism throughout the region. For the first Slavic pope, John Paul II, the fall of communism was his greatest religious achievement, a miracle that Virgin Mary herself had a hand in.

As the old regimes were dismantled, Western experts streamed to the East to give direction to the local population on how to “Europeanise” and privatise. For instance, American feminists (who in their own country had never seen paid maternity leave guaranteed by law) flocked to Eastern Europe to teach women’s rights to women who would have had up to four paid years of maternity leave (if they wanted it). 

Under the veil of old and new anti-communist myths and mysteries, countries in the region embarked on a political and economic transition, which differed from country to country. In the former Yugoslavia, it left horrible scars due to the war and the genocide of Srebrenica. 

In the first phase of the transition, parliamentary institutions, which were practically frozen by the one-party system, were reactivated and a multiparty system re-established. The first elections brought to the scene mainly the less compromised socialist leaders and anti-regime dissidents from the 1970s and 80s. 

The former socialists were generally labelled “left”, albeit for not very sound reasons, since some of them soon clearly displayed their right-wing inclinations. This should not have come as a surprise: after all, the communist parties in the region often adopted policies more in line with right-wing ideologies. 

The dissidents, who up until 1989 had struggled for more humane socialism, were expected by the West to espouse more conservative, right-wing, and anti-communist views. So if they wanted to exploit political capital derived from Western backing and gain power, they had to turn to the right as well. 

Meanwhile, true anti-communism was resurrected from the debris of its 1945 demise through gradual revision of World War II history. In Slovenia, for example, the Nazis and the fascists are still acknowledged as enemies. But according to the revisionists, they respected the law and wanted only a peaceful occupation, under which the Slovenians would have lived comfortably under the cooperative Catholic Church’s wing. 

According to them, the communist rebels, who liberated Yugoslavia with some help from the Allies and the Soviet army towards the end of the war, were to blame for everything bad that ensued: socialism, federalism, equality for previously marginalised ethnic groups, post-war extrajudicial killings of suspected Nazi collaborators, etc. 

The indignation at “imposed” ethnic equality resulted in post-Yugoslav Slovenia in the exclusion of some 26,000 people deemed “non-Slovenian”. In 1992, a secret order was issued and distributed only to public servants, including the police, to revoke the rights of non-Slovenian residents who had not applied for Slovenian citizenship. As a result, many of the 26,000 lost everything – families, homes, jobs, access to health and social services. Many were forced to leave and were never compensated even though the Slovenian Constitutional court and the European Court for Human Rights ruled in their favour.

At the same time, in Slovenia and elsewhere, special attention was paid to victims of repression under the communist regime. Special institutions were dedicated to study the issue, state funding was allocated for the exhumation and forensic analysis of mass graves, and various monuments in their memory were erected. The scientific accuracy and professionalism of the research produced on the topic has been contentious and questioned in some countries.

In recent years, a true propagandistic media cluster has been established by the right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party with Hungarian money, which publishes the same material, demonising the left and stigmatising communism, the socialist past, Yugoslavia, all non-Slovenians, the LGBTQ community, refugees, Islam, women’s rights, etc.

There have been similar narratives and developments in other post-socialist countries. They have also been accompanied by the emergence of racist, neo-Nazi, sexist, patriarchal extremist groups and political parties, which have become increasingly violent. 

Thirty years after the fall of the wall, anti-communism in a Nazi-like format is gaining ground against parliamentary democracy in transition across Eastern Europe. It is quite fascinating that while each year the West celebrates the victory of the Allies over the Axis and the reconciliation with Germany (Italian fascism is almost forgotten in official rituals), it has failed to be alarmed by the rising revisionism in Eastern Europe. 

In the context of demonisation and historical distortion, no reliable and generally acceptable common ideological ground for the left in the post-socialist world has emerged other than the one that has been around for a long time – Marxism. Since it has been the main target of the anti-communist surge (although without any serious analytical debate), only the more courageous have engaged with it. 

Among the generation which lived under late-stage socialism and through the transition, there is some reluctance to do so, or at least there is a tendency to keep Marxism in a safe intellectual/academic space to secure the necessary objective approach and to prevent political vulgarisation.

Younger generations in the post-socialist countries have not adopted such elaborate mechanisms of circumvention, which in fact are a relic of the restrictions of the socialist era, so small groups of them in urban environments indulge in radical thinking without feeling a historical burden. Some have integrated into different anarchist, feminist and environmentalist groups.

Although engaging in electoral and parliamentary life is a more difficult and often not at all desired prospect for such circles, there have been some recent successes. In Croatia, the progressive environmental movement Mozemo and the leftist Nova Ljevica (New Left) party formed a coalition ahead of the European parliamentary elections; although it failed to win any seats, the alliance has the potential to present a new political project on the left. 

In Slovenia, the Levica (Left) party managed to pass the electoral threshold last year and entered Parliament; it has established a recognisable core of reasonable, humanist, socially, culturally and ecologically responsible discourse, often opposed to the old left of the Social Democrats party.

There have also been some left-leaning liberal political groups which have been able to put up a fight against the conservative right-wing forces dominating some Eastern European countries. 

In Hungary’s October local elections, such groups managed to organise and support candidates who beat Victor Orban’s totalitarian and nationalist/racist propaganda machinery to win a number of cities, including Budapest. In Poland, Pawel Adamowicz, a politician with a centre-right background who had embraced progressive politics, supporting refugees and the LGBTQ community, was re-elected for a sixth term as mayor of the port city of Gdansk in November last year. Just two months later, he was stabbed to death in public; a far-right group had earlier issued him a “political death certificate”. 

So in the face of conservative right-wing domination and far-right violence, what chances does the left have to establish a successful project in post-socialist Eastern Europe?

It does have one, if the youth takes over. The young generation seems ready to read history in an objective way with the help of the old, non-corrupted dissidents and able to put forward policies which do not compromise on human rights, social justice and ecology. 

To counter the atmosphere of hate and intolerance with its ever-expanding set of targets – communism, migrants, refugees, women, Islam, the Jews, etc – the left should combine its protest action – occupy movements, demonstrations, etc – with community-centred activity, intellectual production and ideological work focused on reimagining concepts of work organisation, class struggle and political power.

It must embrace environmentalism and lead the way on taking climate action. Indeed, the impending environmental catastrophe may end up inadvertently, setting the stage for a new progressive left to rise on the political scene in Europe and across the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.