An urbane spectre with a suit and a laptop is haunting Europe

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The Independent Online
WHEN Karl Marx wrote in 1848 that 'the spectre of Communism is haunting Europe', he used words without his usual accuracy. What made Victorian capitalists shiver was not a shade risen from the tomb but a premonition about the future. To see the spectre haunting just about every country in Central and Eastern Europe, we have had to wait until now - almost five years after the funeral.

And it is the most urbane of ghosts. No gibbering, no rotting shroud. It wears a smart new suit; it laughs infectiously and runs up and down the steps of parliaments carrying a laptop and a copy of the Financial Times. It asks international bankers to lunch, and talks gravely about the need to restrain wage-push inflation. Only the sharpest ears can detect a faint clank of chains.

Communism, or what we uneasily call 'post-Communism', is back. The success of these parties which usually call themselves 'social democrats' (not even 'democratic socialists') is the most improbable event of the last two years. For the West, this is highly embarrassing. This was not supposed to happen.

'Reformed' Communists are going to dominate the next Hungarian parliament, after last week's first-round elections. Poland is governed by a left coalition in which post-Communists dominate. Lithuania has turfed out the Sajudis nationalists and elected the former Communist leader Algirdas Brazauskas as President. The reformed Communist Party in Ukraine, with its allies, emerged as the strongest bloc after the elections in March and April.

Communists in a variety of guises are recovering ground in Russia itself. In January, a parliamentary coup in Belarus effectively restored the reformed Communists to power. Even in Slovakia, polls suggest that the Democratic Left Party may emerge as the strongest grouping in the autumn elections. In Bulgaria, the Socialist Party (a Communist re-tread) is expected to oust the government in the near future. Romania, many would say, went through the bloodbath of late 1989 only to make a transit from Ceausescu Communism to the Iliescu variety. And in united Germany the PDS, successor to the Socialist Unity Party which ruled East Germany, has made striking gains.

This takes some explaining. The West, and the intellectuals of Central and Eastern Europe, thought that the 1989 revolutions and the collapse of Soviet Communism were final. A ruling party, wrapped in its discredited ideology, was thrown into the grave and a stake was hammered through its heart. But then came the spectre.

For this resurrection, explanations have already begun to appear. One, quite mad, reveals that the whole 1989-92 episode was carefully planned by the KGB; the fossilised Communist regimes of Eastern Europe had to be subverted so that a new and modernised version of the Soviet empire could be restored later. Other explanations have more to them. The most popular is the argument about a backlash against the free market.

This argument points out that the transforming of a planned economy into a free-market capitalist economy was bound to be painful. It would create winners, but potentially more losers: workers in unprofitable state industries; employees of collectivised agriculture; the lower ranks of the state bureaucracy; the old; the pensioned; and the socially helpless.

The losers (this explanation goes on) will start by trusting their new democratic leaders. But if they get nothing except unemployment, poverty and a crime wave, then they will go into backlash. In other words, they will return to the party perceived as the defender of order and protectionism: the Communists or their successors.

I like this theory because it tries to fit the facts. The idea about winners and losers is an old Communist idea, and none the worse for it. The first proponents of introducing market forces into socialism, 30 years ago, were Party economists who warned that, in the short run, a market economy would be in the class interest of the 'intelligentsia' (those with higher education) but against the interest of the proletariat. These Party reformers went on to suggest how to relieve class tensions. In return for putting up with the free market, the workers would be offered their own factories and enterprises. Would this bargain have worked? In retrospect, it seems unlikely.

But the winners-losers theory has problems. It is a class-based explanation, and the trouble is that the working class is not the main constituency for all these former Communist 'social democrat' parties. The real victims of the change to capitalism in countries such as Poland or Hungary - the unemployed or those already on low incomes - have tended to vote for the extreme right. Marginalised and terrified, they have turned either to charlatans offering them instant wealth or to ultra-nationalist groups who suggest that all their sufferings are the fault of Jews or foreigners. The people who have voted for the Democratic Left (Poland) or for the Hungarian Socialist Party are people still in work, members of trade unions, bureaucrats of medium and junior rank - and a surprising number of small entre preneurs who want a safer country to make money in.

In other words, these are not anti-capitalist votes, not even really protest votes. They are votes for going ahead with reform, but at a more cautious, less Thatcherite pace. They are the votes not of losers but of citizens who want a bigger share of the winnings. This explains why there has also been a move towards refurbished Communist parties in Lithuania and Ukraine, where the problem was not too much reform but the opposite - too little. It also helps to explain the exception: the Czech Republic, where the neo-Communist swing has been far less marked. The market reforms of Vaclav Klaus there have been ruthless and have created many losers. But the mass of employees and 'little people' feel confident that they can take part in this new economy and win with it.

The lesson here is that Communism was never as monolithic as it seemed. Since the Sixties, there were Party reformers as well as Party autocrats, and these reformers - with different degrees of caution - pushed the ideas of more national independence and more market forces, of less planning and less censorship. The 1989 revolutions overthrew the autocrats but left the reformers to rebuild Communist parties to their own tastes. They took the apparatus of totalitarian prophecy, false internationalism and central planning and dropped it in the skip.

This is the irony - the neo-Communists are seen as a safe pair of hands. They are cautious. They have experience in running things. They believe in gradual change, not revolution. They are not left-wing enough to be Social Democrats, but a bit too nationalist to be Christian Democrats. They are certainly not Thatcherites. But, adding up their policies, a weird but compelling parallel does emerge. These descendants of Marx and Lenin resemble nobody so much as one-nation Tories.