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Why Has Authoritarianism Returned to Eastern Europe?


In Eurozine, historian and literary scholar Aleida Assmann offers a compelling and nuanced explanation for why right-wing authoritarianism is on the rise in Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland. Her piece is a response to another Eurozine article by legal scholar Stephen Holmes and political scientist Ivan Krastev that proposed its own explanation for this development; they argued that the turn towards “illiberalism” in Eastern Europe represents a rejection of the “imitation imperative” imposed on the region after the Cold War, when emulating the liberalism of the West was deemed the only viable option. Dismissing this explanation as “reckless,” Assmann instead suggests that it is not so much “liberalism” that is being rejected, but rather “neoliberalism.” Here’s an excerpt:

Krastev and Holmes characterise the illiberal transformation of eastern European democracies into authoritarian systems as a ‘counterrevolution against liberalism’. But setting up the ‘liberal versus illiberal’ opposition is not enough. To complete the picture, and to get a better handle on the collective psychology referenced by the authors, we need to add the term ‘neoliberal’.

What eastern and central European dissidents hoped and fought for was liberal democracy; but what they got was a neoliberal economic order that opened up new opportunities for the globalisation of capital. This was the other side of the 1989 coin. The process began in the 1970s in parallel to the Helsinki Final Act. The starting gun was fired by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who laid the foundations of unchecked neoliberalism. In this sense, capitalism was indeed victorious. Ever since, there has been no overarching strategy for closing the gap between increasing wealth and increasing poverty. In the process, German reunification erased many traces of the history of the East and the biographies of its citizens. Criticism of the repressive and doctrinaire GDR regime, justified as it was, tended to overlook this. Moreover, we should not forget that, for all its problems, state socialism also guaranteed rights to housing, healthcare and education. Though standards were often low, and higher education was withheld from bourgeois and dissident students, these rights were as self-evident in the East as free speech was in the West. With neoliberalism, all that ended.

A rift is opening up between ‘liberal’ in the sense of democratic, and ‘neoliberal’ in the sense of the ‘politically uncontrollable functional imperatives of a global capitalism that is being driven by unregulated financial markets’. Instead of speaking of an ‘imitation imperative’, which only amplifies polarisation between East and West, we should be discussing the possibility of a ‘solidarity imperative’ based on EU integration as a means of support and protection against global turbo-capitalism.

Image: Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and his Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. Via Politico Europe.


Once Gorbachev’s idealist, anti-communist pro-market perspectives unravelled socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, so carpet-bagging and asset-stripping capitalism came in, with all their attendant evils: exploitation, over-work, unemployment, alcoholism, drug-taking, disease, prostitution, etc. As Marx said, without the proletarian dictatorship “all the old crap will revive”.
What are people left with when the ideology and day-to-day life of socialist co-operation and comradeship are removed? Why, obviously, only envy and selfishness and their political expression - nasty, petty, tin-pot nationalism and “Europeanism” meaning “we’re part of the world’s master races who share in the wealth from the running of neo-colonies”.
But the biggest problem is that ALL monopoly-capitalism is in a global “over-production” crisis. Moron-Mussolini Trump is nominally in charge in Washington because the US Empire is suffering in the global trade war crisis - so where on earth is there room for the smaller countries of Eastern Europe and Central Europe (or even the UK, France etc) to make some good money??
That means there is the imminent danger all the time now of the suffering masses of Eastern Europe and the former USSR getting wise to how they have been ripped off historically by the ending of socialism and the return of capitalism. In many of these countries, opinion polls show very high numbers for how many feel they were better-off and happier under socialism.
Not surprisingly, that means that there is NO CHOICE but for the regimes in these countries to resort to extreme counter-revolutionary politics and repressive measures in all directions - fascism in other words.
And, funnily enough, things look pretty much the same in permanent “war on terror” USA, Brexit-crazed Britain, polarising France, and AfD-happy Germany (the Alternative for Germany is the same thing they had in 1933-45).
In the former socialist countries, the history of having socialist states whose parties never talked about world revolutionary perspectives but only about “the fight for peace” (which prevented all Leninist thinking), enough confusion still reigns for the masses to be stuck in ruts behind hopeless “liberal” or “left” thinking, when they are not metaphorically or literally being beaten over the head by foul anti-communist fascism. But their mass class experiences still count: they really did live under socialism for many years, without a capitalist class being in charge - so the religious backwardness has to be imposed a lot harder, the stinking tin-pot nationalism has to be drenching them just that bit more, the riot police have to be heavy-handed, and the need for their pathetic capitalist states to be close to counter-revolutionary Nato has to be that much more desperate.
For all the socialist states LEADERSHIPS’ revisionism, mistakes and crimes, up until Gorbachevism, they were trying to build socialism and prevent counter-revolution. Anti-communism wants to pretend that Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Solidarity in Poland in 1980s, Tiananmen Square mobs in China in 1989 were “progressive” movements (rather than all being counter-revolutions, run by fascism, the CIA and the Vatican). To do this, all anti-communists play down or completely forget about the millions killed in the Korean war, Vietnam war, Indonesia 1965, death-squads in Latin America, Western support for apartheid and other tyranny in Africa, CIA backing for military coups, etc, etc, etc. But now counter-revolution has had its way in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Liberalism is triumphant. Peace reigns on the planet; everywhere is sweetness and light… except, except, except…