An expanded version of piece published in NewsNet, journal of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, August 2016.

Eviscerating the Constitutional Court and purging the judiciary, complete politicization of the civil service, turning public media into a government mouthpiece, restricting opposition prerogatives in parliament, unilateral wholesale change of the Constitution or plain violation of it, official tolerance and even promotion of racism and bigotry, administrative assertion of traditional gender norms, cultural resurrection of authoritarian traditions, placing loyalty over competence in awarding state posts, surveillance without check — with such policies and more, right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland are engaged in a direct attack on the institutions of democracy. The ruling parties, Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) respectively, do not even claim to adhere to “liberal” democracy anymore. Are they committed to democracy at all? Both accept it now that elections have brought unchecked one-party rule by the party representing “the nation.” Otherwise, “democracy” appears to be only a curtsy to the political correctness they otherwise abhor.

Interestingly, both PiS and Fidesz believe they are in the forefront of a struggle not only against political liberalism but against economic liberalism. Indeed, one of the innovative features of the new right — as we’ve seen with such parties in western Europe or even with Donald Trump in the U.S. — is that it no longer allies naturally with neoliberalism. Gone are the days when right-wing populists placed their hopes with a revitalized free market. Those were the dreams from the early days of excitement after the collapse of state socialism, when the “new world order,” promised by triumphant globalists, lured those eager to revive their countries in both Latin America and eastern Europe.[1] Today, PiS and Fidesz proclaim the need for a “strong state” to galvanize “the nation” in order to “end dependency” and “modernize” “national capacities,” against “neo-colonial” efforts promoted by the West and the European Union (which they wish neither to leave nor to strengthen). Compared to such grand plans, political liberalism — democracy, that is — seems paltry and insignificant, just as pro-PiS scholar Tadeusz Buksiński vehemently asserted at a Poznan philosophy conference in July, when he didn’t reject claims concerning the attacks on established institutions but insisted that “democracy is beside the point! We’ve got to modernize the country anyway it takes.”

Despite defining themselves as right-wing, PiS and Fidesz have thus always gotten some support from leftists as well. Like the American voters who say they support either Trump or Sanders, so I have met PiS supporters whose second choice is Razem, the new, left party (not “new left” party) that formed only a year ago. We are reminded that fascism was also in part a left-wing movement (for the “little people,” but only of the “proper sort,” to use Jarosław Kaczyński’s term for those PiS supports).

We are also reminded that state socialism once got considerable support from right-wing nationalists. Indeed, an unexpected “gift” this regime-change-from-within[2] offers is a fresh insight into what made authoritarian “communism” work in eastern Europe in the past. The differences are of course huge: today there are no mass arrests, no foreign power forcing change, no obligatory ideology. But the similarities are what is so surprising, particularly given the uncompromising anti-communist pedigree of both parties: the emphatic dismissal of “liberal” (then, “bourgeois”) democracy in favor of a “real” one committed to “the nation,” the use of state power to create a new elite loyal only to the party in power, the veritable creation of a new “nomenklatura” by dismissing from non-political jobs experts deemed disloyal, replacing history written by historians with history written by party stalwarts and spread through media and schools, and the cult of infallibility with which the two pro-regime public spheres increasingly accord the respective leaders. Scholars today well understand that communism did not succeed in eastern Europe only through force and terror, but imbued itself into the social fabric through Gramscian measures like these.

Today’s right not only understands this too, but sees it as central. It knows that outright violence could ruin the entire project. Kto-kovo logic dominated after World War II, but the binding principle today is not democracy per se but non-violence and at least the illusion of choice. Or rather, this is what the confused center, to whom the right appeals, needs to reassure itself that democracy is safe. This is why opponents of Trump keep hoping he’ll resume his vile pugnacity. It’s also why Jarosław Kaczyński now refuses any official post, and has appointed anodyne personae as president and prime minister: he recognizes that his personality is too sour and dour for contemporary times. Today fascism must be ushered in with a smile.

Explaining the Right’s Rise

So how to understand what’s happening? The transition paradigm so prominent after 1989 saw eastern Europe moving seamlessly into a condition of “democracy,” apparently “consolidated” soon afterwards. Valerie Bunce and John Mueller noted early on that that establishing formal democracy, once the secret police were called off and a new political will appeared, was not as hard as some had imagined.[3] Jeffrey S. Kopstein and David A. Reilly argued that “geographic diffusion” made democracy almost inevitable in the countries bordering western Europe, and the many studies focused on the norm-enforcing pressures of the European Union agreed.[4]

So where does this new movement come from? The economy is probably the key place to look. Studying the contradictions between capitalism and democracy has never been a central aspect of the “transitology” literature examining post-communist developments. Scholars looked at different transformative paths, recommended rapid or slow privatization, noted “social costs” involved. But the basic insight that too much economic liberalism threatens political liberalism — a particular problem in eastern Europe given that it undertook its transformation in the heyday of neoliberalism, just when Keynesian models were being abandoned — has never been widely accepted or understood.

Those who retort that this “accursed neoliberalism” has brought basic increases in standards of living and deposited smartphones even into the hands of the unemployed are as clueless as those stalwarts of state socialism who insisted, against rising opposition, that thanks to their rule almost everyone now had running water and electricity. The economic problem today is not just the low wages that has already driven some 20 million easterners to the west since 1990, according to IMF estimates.[5] It is also the uncertainty about the future which the 2008 crisis (the region’s first bona fide capitalist crisis, as opposed to post-communist one) unleashed, and the endless pressure on all but the elite to be perpetually flexible, pliant, and docile on the job.

National issues are also a source of the new developments. The standard view is that these countries regained real national autonomy only in 1989. Yet for fifteen years afterwards there was also limited autonomy, as east European countries committed themselves to “do anything” to get into NATO and the EU, and endured quiet humiliation and bad terms of trade while being schooled.[6] New thinking about the role of the nation (and the downplaying of “civil society,” which for the right is a codeword for liberalism and a trap for foreign domination) is thus no surprise.

But why the crisis now? Earlier this year, James Dawson and Sean Hanley argued that eastern Europe was turning away from liberal politics because it had never really adopted them in the first place. They cite evidence of pre-radical right governments also running roughshod over critics and pushing through legislation against strong social opposition years before Fidesz and PiS made such practices explicit.[7]

Of course, hypocrisy at least pays homage to the norms it violates, while the new right simply abandons the norms and presents as models control by the “party of the nation” and the need for a “strong state” teaching people what to think. But why is there more popular support for such values today? Ivan Krastev’s response to Dawson & Hanley perhaps says it best, “Rising illiberalism,” he writes, “is less the result of weak elite commitment to the values of liberal democracy than of the failures of liberalism to deliver.”[8]

What didn’t it deliver? Community, solidarity. Liberal politics in fact has never been secure without them.

This basic truth was obscured in the immediate post-communist period, an anomalous moment when people believed free market capitalism, as the supposed enemy of their enemy, to be a panacea for all ills. But in the face of neoliberal reality — the marketization of housing and health care mocking notions of solidarity, precarious work as the rule rather than exception, unions marginalized and demeaned — that belief has come crashing down. Today it’s hard to find an article even in Poland’s liberal press singing the praises of the market, while even 15 years ago it was hard to find any criticism. In conversations with workers, which I’ve had regularly in Poland for the last 30 years, the change is even more dramatic. One tells me she can no longer stand to hear only bad things about communism because “yes, things were bad, but I could yell at my boss without fear of getting the ax, and co-workers supported me instead of thinking how they could replace me.”

Electoral democracy means a party will appear in which the disillusioned can place their hopes. In the past, those used to be left parties. But leftists in the late-communist world tended to become liberals — first political, then economic — and so far 21st-century leftists, mostly young people with graduate educations, have, in line with recent trends, tended to focus on identity issues rather than economic ones. The emerging Razem party in Poland is different. It is the first left-wing party in the region looking for its base of support outside the big cities with their tempting intellectuals and hipsters. It goes instead to the small, dying industrial towns (even those that have revived in the last decade are a pale shadow of what they used to be) which so far only the populist right has sought to attract. On this basis it has a real chance to enter parliament in 2019, though, given the decline of the left brand, is still a long way from constituting a serious challenge.

The Social Democratic Glue for Liberal Politics

Liberalism, of course, used to deliver on community and solidarity. But only when it was tied to social democracy after World War II. Since globalization and the consequent crisis of the left, the right has taken up this mantle — promising solidarity to a small and restricted community made up only of “people like us.” It is this connection of both left and right to community and solidarity that we need to unpack if we can understand developments in eastern Europe today.

One way to do so is by exploring west European interwar history, such as that laid out by Sheri Berman in The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century.[9] Berman makes the brilliant observation that, instead of the familiar Cold War association of communism with fascism, it is actually social democracy that is “similar” to fascism. For when the Great Depression ravaged European societies, it was only one or the other that took state power to provide community and solidarity — doing so, of course, in spectacularly different ways. Examining western Europe’s political response to the Depression, Berman’s insight is that it was not only liberals who argued that nothing could be done about it but orthodox Marxists too. The latter, fierce anti-Leninists but not yet social democrats, took the Depression to be proof of Marxist theory, and thus proof that nothing could be done to fix capitalism – or provide any community and solidarity — until socialism, which would happen sometime in the future. Only the fascists offered a program of action: take state power, impose dictatorship, and regulate (not eliminate) capitalism to serve a community. And they did serve their community — albeit one very narrowly construed! — with a generous welfare state that achieved massive support until the war.[10] Social democrats, Berman shows, emerged only in response to fascism, having agreed with fascism that capitalism could be regulated. And by doing so, after the war, it succeeded, at last, in consolidating liberal democracy.

So when social democracy no longer knows how to provide for community — and with neoliberalism promoting only individual answers and Leninism quite dead — today the successors of the fascist tradition reemerge strong. As in the past, they are ready to challenge both liberal politics and economics in the interests of a community that most certainly does not include all, but eagerly incorporates non-elites willing to go along. And so Poland and Hungary’s radical right in power not only tramples on democracy but imposes special taxes on foreign banks and corporations, forces lower utility rates (Hungary) legislates higher pay for short-term jobs (Poland), and endlessly challenges west European “domination” (more than a few supporters were ardent Marxists in the past). And though this is too little to bring about equality with the West, the program does appeal, even to moderates tired of hearing that their countries have no choice but to remain weak and poor and that all checks on capitalism are impossible and counterproductive. This doesn’t mean that liberals have disappeared. There are plenty still there, fighting hard against the right’s stunning crackdown on democratic norms they thought had become inviolable. But they do so increasingly unsure of their own alternative, accepting now that no simple return to the liberal past is possible.

Identity and Class

But why the hysteria around Islam? For it is undeniable that these two countries, with barely any Muslim population, have been in the forefront of anti-Islamism in Europe. Viktor Orbán took the lead in building fences to keep out refugees. Jarosław Kaczyński used some of the worst racist tropes in declaring refugees carriers of dangerous “parasites and protozoa.” Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski publicly declared himself an “Islamophobe” months before being appointed to the post. [11] Public media in both countries characterize those who do not accept “Islam” and “terrorist” as interchangeable as hostages to political correctness.

Here’s where “whiteness” is a helpful category, not often deployed in studies of the region since “whites” are basically all there are.[12] The point, however, is to think of whiteness as an asset easterners wish to deploy to assert their claim to equality with the West. Extravagant anti-Islamism is like the garish racism attributed to mid-19th century Irish immigrants to the U.S. The Irish, as is known, were not initially considered white by the dominant Anglo “native” population. And so in order to assert their claim to the privileges whiteness confers, Irish became some of the most lethal anti-black pogromists of the time.[13] Exaggerated anti-Islamism can be seen as easterners’ effort to demonstrate that they are “real” Europeans — white and Christian, the kind that in the west had the national dignity, good jobs, and social protection they think they should have, too.

Will things change? As world events and the current U.S. election now make clear, there is no return to the neoliberal status quo, at least in a way that sticks. A re-stabilization of inclusive democracy probably requires a broad understanding of social democracy as the glue (and not the challenge) to political liberalism, and a program to revive broad-based community and solidarity in a globalized world. Since these won’t come soon (globalization is the nut here: capital can’t be disciplined if it can eternally escape), the radical right, which can claim freshness (it’s been marginalized since the defeat of fascism in 1945) is likely to gain significant triumphs, for at least the next decade. And if it can resolve some problems for a large enough constituency — a big “if,” but possible in eastern Europe due to relative homogeneity — it may even flourish.

It’s common to say democratization is a never-ending process. That is especially true today. If the center cannot hold, and so far the radical right is the chief beneficiary, then we need a new vision and version of the left as well. The western left’s rejection of Soviet-type state socialism was both valiant and vital. Most of my own early writings, from the late-1970s to early 1990s, were an ongoing contribution to the critique of “really-existing socialism,” on the grounds that it had violated and abused virtually all left and progressive values. (The region at the time didn’t even have the redeeming health care sector that still marks Cuba.[14])

But new challenges loom. Today there is no left challenge to democracy. Instead, there is a fierce challenge from the right, which uses east Europe’s consensus against everything associated with the left to legitimate its own maliciousness. The Warsaw philosopher Andrzej Leder recently pointed out that while the Polish democratic opposition’s break with the left helped it immeasurably in the fight against the old regime, the continued shunning of the left only helps push dissatisfied youth into the arms of the authoritarian right.[15] The western left has no problems lauding its own glorious traditions while leaving no illusions of sympathy for Soviet-type socialism. In the east, that naturally been harder. But there is a worthy left tradition there that must also be tapped, since without that, frustration with neoliberalism will invariably lead to the right.

Some are beginning to do this. Kristen Ghodsee helps restore dignity to east European left history in an inspiring account of Bulgarian anti-fascist communist activists (with whom E. P. Thompson’s older brother fought and died).[16] Young scholars in the east, such as Anna Zawadzka, revisit the stories of maligned Jewish leftists in Poland, long smeared by the right and ignored by the left.[17] This is only a small piece of the puzzle, but clearly one of the lessons of the rising right, and of Berman’s important account, is that without a revival of the left, democracy has nowhere to stand.


[1] Kurt Weyland, “Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe,” Comparative Politics 31:4, 1999.

[2] David Ost, “Regime Change in Poland, Carried Out From Within,” The Nation, January 8, 2016.

[3] Val Bunce, “Should Transitologists Be Grounded?”, Slavic Review 54:1, Spring 1995, ; John Mueller, Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Jeffrey Kopstein & David A. Reilly, “Geographic Diffusion and the Transformation of the Postcommunist World, World Politics 53 (October 2000), 1-37; Milada Vachudova, Europe Undivided (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[5] Nadeem Ilahi et al., “Emigration Slows Eastern Europe’s Catch-Up With the West,” iMF Direct, July 20, 2016.

[6] Wade Jacoby, “Priest and Penitent,” East European Constitutional Review 8:1-2, 1999; David Ost, “Using America Against Europe,” in Mitchell Orenstein et al., eds., Transnational and National Politics in Postcommunist Europe (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

[7] James Dawson & Sean Hanley, “The Fading Mirage of the ‘Liberal Consensus’,” Journal of Democracy 27:1, January 2016, 20-34.

[8] Ivan Krastev, “Liberalism’s Failure to Deliver,” in ibid., 37.

[9] Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[10] Berman, Primacy of Politics, ch. 6; also Götz Aly, Hitler’s Beneficiaries (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[11] Dawid Warszawski, “Witold Waszczykowski: Szef MZS Islamofobem,” Gazeta Wyborcza, November 10, 2015.

[12] Hungary does have a Roma population of about 3 percent, and anti-Roma mobilization has been particularly important for the growth of the even further-right Jobbik party.

[13] David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (London: Verso, 2009; orig. 1991)

[14] Michael Weissenstein, “Cuba fighting Zika, winning the war,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, September 2, 2016.

[15] Andrzej Leder, “Puste miejsce po lewicy,” Krytyka Polityczna 44, 2016.

[16] Kristen Ghodsee, The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2015)

[17] “Tearing Off the Masks: Narratives on Jewish Communists,” Studie Litteraria et Historica 2, 2013, Warsaw.