When Eastern Europe Left the World Behind

James Mark

Far-right leaders like Viktor Orbán claim to be reversing decades of Westernization. Yet Eastern Europe’s nationalist turn began even before 1989 — as socialist regimes abandoned their pretense of international solidarity.

People are seen by candles during a reenactment of the 1989 protest march to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague on November 17, 2019 in Prague, Czech Republic. Gabriel Kuchta / Getty

Interview by
Ondřej Bělíček

On the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, commemorations of the “end of communism” proved rather muted. The Washington Post lamented the dismantling of the democratic institutions so hard-won in 1989, accusing Hungary’s far-right premier Viktor Orbán of antics that would make his communist predecessors “blush.” Writing in the Guardian, liberal historian Timothy Garton-Ash also felt that the “dictators [are] coming back,” but insisted the “spirit of 1989” could resist the spread of so-called “illiberal democracy.”

Both readings conform to a commonplace understanding of what happened in central-eastern Europe after 1989 — a wave of democratic mobilization, cruelly beaten down by new Moscow-aligned autocrats who do not want to embrace “Western values.” This perception has been fueled by the public declarations of many leaders in the “Visegrád” countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia) who have insisted on the preservation of their Christian and national culture as against “globalism” and multiculturalism.

Yet as historian James Mark argues, it would be mistaken to understand these processes only in terms of their relation to the West — or as a purely post-1989 development. When we take a wider view of globalization, looking beyond European shores, we can see that even in the years up to 1989 Eastern Bloc countries were in full retreat from the kinds of internationalism to which they had long laid claim. In this logic, the current nationalist turn in countries like Poland and Hungary is less a break with the logic of 1989, than a way of entrenching it.

Co-author of the recent book 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, the historian spoke with Ondřej Bělíček, an editor of the Czech online daily A2larm.cz, about the “long transition” from the late socialist period to neoliberalism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of solidarity with the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s, and the new racist and nationalist offensive continuing into the present.


OB

The thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Eastern Bloc has sparked many publications and debates about this important event. Why do you think now is the right time to look more closely at the events of 1989? What has changed in the debate about this topic?

JM

Firstly, there is a new political context. Political parties like Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary are starting to rethink the region’s position in the world, critiquing Western liberalism and sometimes looking back to relationships with illiberal states that often have their roots in the late Cold War. Current Eastern European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have revived the late Cold War fascination that Communist leaders had with authoritarian (and often right-wing) modernization, and have declared that the region could benefit from copying elements of the economically dynamic illiberalism of Singapore or even China.

Such governments actually stand in continuity with some of the populist anti-Western traditions of pre-1989 state socialism. They have created stereotypes of a both weak and morally dissolute West unprepared to stand up for white, Christian, European civilization, and draw on tropes about “decadent” liberalism. Of course, these tactics were also used by communist leaders.

This led us to think about the longer-term perspective of geographical, geopolitical, and geocultural repositions in the region. 1989 is a high point of the period of Westernization — not only among dissidents, but also parts of the political elite. Once you perceive it in those terms, then the question becomes quite different.

From this perspective, 1989 isn’t the beginning of globalization in the region, as the very Western-centric view born of early 1990s globalization studies would have it. Rather, 1989 represented faith in a particular form of interconnectedness, and in some ways saw the deglobalization of the region, as economic and cultural ties to the Global South were cut in favor of a European orientation. So, we started to think whether there were also other forms of globalizations in the region before then, based around socialist internationalism and common issues of being peripheralized within the world economic system. The story of 1989 also has to be about how these other globalizations failed, or their meanings were eroded, or their supporters were marginalized.

OB

When did this erosion of the consensus about the events of 1989 begin?

JM

I think the political transformation since the financial crisis of 2008 has spurred some of these new questions. There are new visions of larger states. Whereas 1989 was about the fear of the big state, and breaking the power of the nomenklatura, the current moment is seeing the return of the larger nationalist, welfarist, and in some ways illiberal states in Poland and Hungary, promising to protect you from the impersonal and frightening forces of globalization.

Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland is offering a much larger welfare state — generous child benefits which enable rural families to survive on these alone — while also promising to keep out religious and racial others. Its claim is that the Catholic conservative nation will protect you from outside forces. Such divergences were also enabled by EU accession, when suddenly the pressures of conditionality — of having to perform Western liberalism in order to enter the European Union — disappeared, allowing a greater diversity of political voices to enter the mainstream.

We also see such governments claiming that they represent the fight for the true Europe, a white Christian, anti-multicultural, anti-LGBT Europe — a struggle which a dissolute West has supposedly abandoned. Are these phenomena the rejection of 1989 or are they in some ways actually embedded in that story of transformation? This was a central question for us.

OB

So, were these ideas included in the transformation process?

JM

The present political moment is partly the rejection of the pieities of the transition paradigm — by which I mean a relatively uncritical acceptance of Westernization, liberalism, and greater globalization. The West is not wholly rejected, of course, but increasingly post-Eastern Bloc states look to hybrid identities and policies. As Orbán put it, they are sailing on a Western ship with an Eastern wind.

We find this both on the Left and the Right, in different ways. Both increasingly say that Eastern European states no longer have to perform Westernness: they assert that they have the right to define their own type of economic system and the right to define what they mean by Europe. In this sense, there is a rejection of the powerful idea of transition that was first established in Latin America in the early 1980s.

And it’s interesting that now the whole apparatus of transition — and the stories and ideas that sustained it — is under attack in those places which world-systems theorists used to call the semi-periphery, that is, in Latin America, Eastern Europe, East Asia, and South Africa. We’re now seeing major protests — a much more global phenomenon — tied up with the idea that these transitions themselves created inequalities.

In South Africa, we see a younger generation of the African National Congress (ANC), who say — we gave up on these demands for collective justice when apartheid fell, but we should have asked for land reform, we should have asked for collective economic rights, instead we got the truth and reconciliation commission which might have uncovered some violent perpetrators, but did little to counter racial and economic injustice.

We see this also in the recent protests in Chile, where protestors are articulating the ideas that we never fully overcame the dictatorship, we still kept the dictatorship’s constitution and that we still kept the economic structures of that time. This critique of transition is global, with its own particular regional manifestations.

OB

In your book, you mention that many democratic approaches popular in 1989 — like direct democracy, workers’ cooperatives, or civic activism — were played down after then, with democracy instead being managed from above. Do you think that there’s some validity to the feeling many people in Eastern European countries have that the 1989 revolution was stolen from them?

JM

That’s a difficult question, because there is a lot of historical truth to that, but at the same time those kinds of arguments are being instrumentalized by the populist right at the moment. They talk about betrayed, unfinished revolutions, stolen by conspiratorial internationalist liberal elites — a claim often made with antisemitic undertones.

If we leave the politics of that aside, I think its absolutely right that the whole idea of the transition paradigm was about engineering a particular type of transformation “from above.” You see that from the early 1980s. Former Marxists and leftists in Latin America started to suggest new solutions for getting rid of their right-wing governments. They wanted to find ways of avoiding violence and finding common political spaces in which regime reformists and moderate sections of the opposition could come together. But they also wanted to deradicalize the violence of the anti-authoritarian left of the time. This slowly became what we now know as the “transition paradigm.”

President Reagan’s foreign policy increasingly moved away from supporting right-wing dictators to suppress Communism — realizing this was a policy that only further radicalized the Left. It was much better to deradicalize them and turn them into social democrats or liberals. The United States’s National Endownment for Democracy (NED) initiative supported this form of change. Money flowed into Eastern Europe to support such positions. The best funded was Solidarność in Poland, in order to move people away from leftist positions like socioeconomic justice and more towards individual civic rights. If you wanted to, you could perceive this as an international conspiracy (laughs).

And of course, in many countries there was no substantial popular revolution — although the pressure of crowds was important at some moments. Rather, roundtable negotiations with the regime were central, motivated in part by the fear of a return to violence, of populist nationalist sentiment that could not be controlled, and so it had to be engineered from above.

Historians Michal Kopeček and Vítězslav Sommer point out in their recent projects that there was a kind of authoritarian expert culture in 1980s Eastern Europe, trying to manage society from above. The transformation in the early 1990s was driven by this legacy. For example, Leszek Balcerowicz, the great architect of economic neoliberal reform in Poland, said: “Yes, democracy, fine, we need it for human dignity etc., as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our reform.” There was a strong thread of authoritarianism in the first years of the post-Communist transition. And in the first two decades after 1989, laws and institutions were imported as a requirement for accession into the European Union — with relatively little democratic input on the national level.

OB

The Velvet Revolution in Czech Republic is often presented, for instance by public service media, as a struggle by a narrow dissident group, that helped to undermine the position of the communist regime. These are the heroes of 1989. How important was the role that dissident groups played in this transition process between late socialism and neoliberalism?

JM

There is no one story. It varied by country. In some countries, dissidents played a bigger role than in others, and where they didn’t exist as organized groups — such as Romania — there was no negotiating partner and the revolution turned to terrible violence.

Its important to say that not until very late on were many of them pushing for the forms of constitutional liberal democracy that we see after 1989. Many of them came out of other traditions — they came out of 1960s reform socialism or were attracted by the collectivist agenda of economic and social rights, or found links with a growing neoconservatism in the late Cold War.

So, one of the most interesting questions is how a substantial portion of oppositionists came to support the type of settlement that emerged. One of the disadvantages of provincializing Eastern European history is that we undervalue the global impact of this region during this period. For example, dissidents played a major role in reviving the idea of “totalitarianism” in the 1980s. Dissidents didn’t only help their Western allies rediscover the idea of “totalitarianism,” but also forces elsewhere in the world.

For example, scholars Kim Christiaens and Idesbald Goddeeris have explored the new alliances sealed in the 1980s, for instance between Poland’s Solidarność and the Chilean resistance against Augusto Pinochet — one against a communist party and the latter against a right-wing dictator. Yet they found a common language in anti-totalitarianism, which they saw as outgrowing the stale fascist versus anti-fascist or left versus right divisions of the Cold War. Such relationships contributed to transnational debates in reimagining the meaning of political struggle. This was a really important shift in the political imaginary in the 1980s.

OB

Yes, and it seems that it is still a very powerful legacy. When Václav Klaus, the former prime minister and president of Czech Republic, criticizes the environmentalist movement — indeed, addressing a global audience — he uses the term “totalitarianism.” He’s basically saying that his experiences with Communism are similar to what he sees is happening now with the climate change agenda.

JM

Well, this doesnt surprise me from Václav Klaus (laughter). He came to Britain to support the Brexit Party, for example. Its also worth mentioning that his revival of such language is part of a wider right-wing populist libertarian interpretation of the struggle against communism and 1989. You can see it emerging particularly over the last year.

This is part of a much wider populist drift across the world, and in fact we have started to see this narrative of 1989 circulate amongst right-wing libertarians and pro-Trump “intellectuals” in the United States. So, for example, in October Maria Schmidt, who is one of the chief ideologues of the Orbán regime in Hungary, was given a whole column in the New York Times, exactly to give this account of 1989. And if you start to look online through right-wing libertarian populist, pro-Trump blogs, you start to see this new story of 1989 being replayed everywhere. So, it’s clearly part of a much broader transnational attempt to rethink what 1989 should mean not only for Eastern Europe, but also for the West more broadly.

According to them, the heroic struggle against Communist totalitarianism now provides inspiration for — and sits in continuity with — the contemporary right’s fight against what they want to frame as the leftist totalitarianism of gender ideology, cultural relativism, and cultural Marxism. 1989 thus becomes part of a global culture war.

OB

Let’s get back to the roots of this turn toward market capitalism in Eastern European countries. You also mention in your book that since the 1970s, there was a tendency to implement some aspects of market capitalism in centrally planned economic systems in Eastern European countries. How big a role did debt play in this process?

JM

Interestingly, debt doesn’t play such a big role in Czechoslovakia [the interview was conducted in Czech Republic]. Pavel Szobi has argued that Communist elites in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s thought they could still use their old factories from the 1930s and 1940s in order to catch up with Western economic progress, so they didn’t need to invest in this sector as much as their neighbors with a less advanced interwar legacy needed to.

In many other countries in Eastern Europe, huge amounts of cheap petrodollars, available after the Oil Crises of the early 1970s, were borrowed in order to update industries, so that they’d be able to compete on the world market. Debt played a major role, here.

The management of debt became absolutely central to the operation of a new form of financialized Western-led globalization that emerged in the 1970s. This was not, by and large, something that Eastern European economic elites had much experience of. So, they struggled to cope.

Far less restrained capital flows and debt became much more important and moved decision-making in the global economy to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which had virtually no Eastern European representation.

Moreover — and this is little noted — there were parallel debt crises happening in Africa and Latin America. Going global in our histories allows us to see such connections. Eastern European countries loaned a lot of money to Cuba, to various African countries, and to the Middle East, in order for them to get on their feet and develop. This was a very complex web of debt. At this point, Western institutions wanted their money back from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America simultaneously. Both sides prioritized paying back to Western institutions.

The result of this was that the bonds of solidarity that were developed after World War II were eroded and became much less important than paying back the Western creditors. It played a huge role in breaking up this broader idea of the anti-imperialist world and undermining alternative globalizations.

In order to cope with this, some Eastern European countries — Romania in the 1970s and Hungary in 1982, Poland in 1986 — themselves joined the IMF. This became a “school of capitalism” for these countries. It became the way of learning how capitalism was working and for preparing certain reform Communists for the change that was to come.

OB

So, the solidarity between communist states and the Third World was slowly disintegrating because of this spiral of debt?

JM

Yes, this world of indebtness produced many complex and superficially rather bizarre economic assemblages. One of my favorite examples is when, in order to get hard currency, the GDR (German Democratic Republic), started to build railway lines in Iraq using cheap Chinese labor. It then got the hard currency to pay Bavaria, which loaned it money in the 1980s.

This was a moment when labor migrants got treated in very different ways in Eastern Europe. Vietnam, for instance, sent almost a quarter of a million workers to Eastern Europe in the last two decades of state socialism. As Alena Alamgir has argued, they came at first to be educated in a fraternal socialist country, to then return and serve their revolution as more highly skilled workers. By the late 1980s, however, they were being used by Eastern European states as a cheaper labor force that could help pay off their host country’s debt.

So, the solidarity got hollowed out over the 1980s. We should also remember that 37,000 Vietnamese people were kicked out of Czechoslovakia in 1989 — as were hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Global South, across Eastern Europe. The United Nations reported on the scourge of racism that was sullying the name of an otherwise much-welcomed revolution.

Thus, from the perspective of the Flobal South, 1989 is often seen very differently — as part of the reconstitution of a white Global North. African politicians were the first to revive the term “Fortress Europe” in the late 1980s. In this view, both dissidents and Communists were actors in redefining Eastern Europe as part of a European space that is tightly bordered, Christian, white, and peaceful. The region is thus defined precisely by its rejection of socialist links with Africa — which had supposedly turned Eastern Europeans into “white negroes” — and a revival of its role as a bulwark for Europe against Islam. This vision of Europe started to emerge as part of a reaction to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the increasingly radical Salafism coming from Saudia Arabia in the 1980s.

So, a lot of the forms of Islamophobia we see now, a lot of the ideas to do with the deeply racially and civilizationally bordered Europe that we’re having to deal with now, actually have their roots in the late Cold War — both in the West and in Eastern Europe under socialism.

And I do want to emphasize that this kind of Islamophobia was also developing in the West. It’s very easy for Westerners to say, well OK, there is this kind of exclusionary racism within the European project, but you find it mainly in Eastern Europe, not here. They use Eastern Europe to assert their own “white innocence.” But I think that you find it across the continent in the 1980s.

OB

In other words, socialist countries in Eastern Europe were supporting the anti-colonial movements throughout the world — but when it was economically beneficial for them, they didn’t hesitate to trade with the regimes that they were fighting against?

JM

By the 1970s, many Eastern European states were relinquishing an approach based on political sympathies. In 1977, the Hungarian Central Committee officially abandoned its country’s prioritization of trade with socialist-oriented countries.

Even so, the extent of Eastern European involvement in capitalist foreign trade, often kept secret from their own populations, displayed an ever-greater cynicism. Many Eastern Bloc countries reestablished economic connections with Franco’s Spain in the early 1970s — leading to severe criticism from the Spanish Communist Party.

During our research, we were shocked to find that a large portion of Soviet diamonds were processed by De Beers in South Africa since the 1960s. By the late 1970s, most — but not all — Eastern European states had significantly reduced their anti-racist campiagning on the global stage. We also found out that from the 1980s, Afrikaans-language courses started at Soviet universities. Poland and Hungary started trading with apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.

1989 was certainly an important breakthrough moment, but it was part of a much longer transition. In fact, Communist parties themselves had been adapting their countries to a new phase of capitalist globalization that started in the early 1970s, long before the revolutions of 1989.