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Post-communism triumphs by default

Polish voters, like the rest of the East, have no love for communism - but is there an alternative? Neal Ascherson reports
"PEOPLE at home are devastated - absolutely devastated!" said the Polish journalist. He was still in shock after the victory of Aleksander Kwasniewski in last Sunday's presidential elections. It had been bad enough when the voters reverted to post-communism at the general elections two years ago. Now they had chosen a post-communist president.

His question, in the anguish of the moment, was: how could we have done this to ourselves? But there is a wider question: does this thing we call "post-communism" really exist? These parties, now mostly calling themselves "social democrats" or "socialists", have a common ancestry in the communist parties which ruled the Soviet empire. But do they share anything else, and are they still of one family with the parties which hold power in China, North Korea, Vietnam or Cuba?

Post-communists now govern Poland and Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, Lithuania and Serbia. They dominate Belarus, although the last elections were declared invalid, and are the largest single group in the Ukrai- nian parliament. Communists (in this case, not significantly "post") came close behind Zhirinovsky's neo-fascists in Russia's 1993 elections. In Slovakia, Vlad- imir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, which dominates the government, is a melange of old communists and Slovak nationalists. Even in Germany, the PDS - repentant heir to the Socialist Unity Party which tyrannised East Germany - now scores huge minority votes in eastern Lander.

The message of all this is that post-communism is not a Sovietic monolith. It is not even a recognisable species. In different climates, it says different things and strikes any number of contradictory attitudes.

At the outset, there was striking similarity in the process of birth. Fallen from power, the party would usually throw out the old leadership, change its name, scrap the Leninist structure to allow internal debate and pledge itself to multi-party "bourgeois" democracy in a privatised free-market economy. But after that the parties diverged. Some have kept their early promises. Others betrayed them. In Russia, the Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov is almost Tsarist: it wants authoritarian government and the restoration of the empire. In eastern Germany, the PDS represents a regional backlash against west German "colonialism". In Hungary, as in Poland, the socialists or social democrats favour entry into Nato and the European Union, and seek to limit the price in poverty and unemployment paid for entry into the global economy: "capitalism at a human pace".

In Lithuania, President Algirdas Brazauskas and the post-communist government are com- mitted to defend national independence against Russia, and to reform the economy with deeds rather than the rhetoric of the previous nationalist government. In Serbia and Romania, post-communism functions as the instrument of chauvinist despotism. This wriggling, reptilian capacity to adapt is not as strange as it seems. Long before 1989, ruling communist parties were evolving to suit local conditions. The West preferred to regard them as obedient departments of a single empire, but by about 1970, communism as an ideology was dead. The only remaining believers were, ironically, the handful of "revisionists" and reformers who studied the early works of Marx and dreamt of restoring "Leninist norms of democracy" to the party.

The rest - the vast majority - were pragmatists. Some, especially local party bigwigs, built up immovable cliques of cronies who shared out luxuries and resisted all change. But others tried, within the narrow limits of what was possible, to modernise the economy and to conciliate the real feelings of the nation. Many communists shared the suppressed popular resentment of Soviet imperialism. They learned the risky craft of manipulating this resentment to strengthen their own position without provoking thunderbolts from the Soviet Union. This is why the single common thread linking almost all these diverse movements is nationalism. For communists find it amazingly easy to turn into nationalists. They can turn into good ones and dire ones, into westward-looking democrats or despots spouting the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing. Examples are all around us. Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Ion Iliescu in Romania,Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia all made an effortless transition to blood-and-soil nationalism, complete with snarls against minorities. In Lithuania, by contrast, President Brazauskas has shown himself a "civic" nationalist. Determined to protect Lithuania's independence, he has none the less throttled nationalist extremism and relieved pressure on the Polish minority.

For the older, more idealistic generation of communists in the West, this alliance is scandalous. They believed that the proletariat had no fatherland, that nationalism was a bourgeois disease whose consequence was fascism and war. But the truth is that communism in eastern Europe, in Russia and almost everywhere else in the poorer nine- tenths of the world has made common cause with nationalism.

Marx had not foreseen that communism would be greeted as a mighty ideology of development. But socialists in poor countries hoped that if their nation imitated the new Soviet state - mobilising its resources, breaking free from the exploitation of native and colonial capitalism - it could catch up with the developed world in one huge, sustained burst of effort.

In pre-1939 eastern Europe, the Left saw appalling problems of poverty and backwardness, which it thought could only be cured by planned and rapid industrialisation. They reasoned that only socialist revolution, taking a society out of the capitalist world economy and laying the foundations of a domestic industrial base - steel mills, chemical plants, heavy engineering works - could overcome that backwardness and bring a nation to its proper place in the world.

In other words, Soviet-style communism could look - from the outside - like a form of enlightened nationalism. It was to be a declaration of independence of the poor nations of Europe from the rich. It was even a sort of protectionism. It was not long before those hopeful prewar socialists found out the hard way what Stalinism meant for national independence. But those who survived the purges continued to dream that one day a purified communism would restore national rights.

The "why" of the post-communist restorations is not hard to understand. The first wave of post-1989 rulers was a heroic assortment of those who had fought communism in underground opposition. They were brilliant, but erratic; when they pitched their countries into breakneck transformation at the cost of a collapse of living standards, they turned out to lack the common touch which would have taken the people along with them. They seemed not to know what they were doing, and they quarrelled among themselves. After a few years of this, the "social democrat" parties seemed to offer not just a more bearable pace of change, but more professional government - and proper party organisation.

Post-communists, after all, could point to years of experience in running the country. They alone knew how to make things work. They had often misused that knowledge, but they undeniably possessed it.

They understood the economy, not least because in the last years of old communism millions of apparatchiks had migrated into semi-legal private business and industry. Party factory directors kept their desks and became private factory owners.

Critics complain about the moral sleaziness of all this. What about the crimes of the communist past? The files have been opened in only two countries - the Czech Republic and Germany. Elsewhere, ordinary people seem incurious about the past, anxious to forget.

Neither mild post-communism nor the crude, despotic kind is likely to revive the old Sovietic model. But there are already post-communist one- party police states, where semi-free econ- omies nourish seething corruption. They could be transitional, but they are more likely to be semi-permanent. The danger they pose is not revolution, but stagnation. Even in Poland and Hungary, the reign of "social democrats" and "socialists" may be a long one. This is not because they are so good. It is because the right is so bad.

Through most of central and eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, respectable right-wing and centre-right parties have failed to flourish. (A proud exception is the Czech Republic.) The right is a disaster area of tiny liberal sects, impotent lobbyists, Thatcher groupies and servile church parties - an area prowled by neo-fascist or ultra-nationalist monsters. Until some coherent version of Christian democracy or even conservatism takes firm root, post-communism will have no real rival. ( Graphic Omitted )