The return of the market system to Eastern Europe can be seen as largely a failure, even in its own terms. In a recent article, ‘Does Socialism Really Lead to Economic Failure?’, I presented figures from the Maddison Project that showed that only Poland and Romania had actually improved their relative economic position in relation to Western Europe by 2016 (1).
This seems to be corroborated by opinion poll evidence. A poll taken in 2019 showed a lot of ambivalence about how the 1989 events had improved the lives of Eastern European citizens. The poll was taken after years of high economic growth following the economic recession of 2008-9. Respondents in most countries, however, were still unclear about how much the change of 1989 had benefited ordinary people. In Hungary, only 41% thought that ordinary people had benefited from the change. In Slovakia, it was 42%. Unsurprisingly, given the economic failures before 1989, the figure was 68% in Poland (2). Yet across Eastern Europe we see little of the same ambivalence about whether the transition to a market economy was a good thing-70% of Hungarians and 71% thought that it was. The figure for Russia, however, was only 38%, the figure for Ukraine was only 47% (3).
Why should there be so much support for the transition to the market in Eastern Europe, outside the old Soviet Union? it is not just a matter of one opinion poll. We must note that there has been little revolutionary class struggle of any kind in Eastern Europe since 1989. Support for parties with any claim to being Marxist or communist is pretty low. Why would this be if the market system has been a disappointment for so many? Why are there not more people that want to ‘return to socialism’? Even those of us who believe that these countries were not socialist by 1989 must wonder why the people do not respond to the failures of the transition with a fight for real socialism.
In the rest of the world, we might say that everyone has been brainwashed into believing that people in the socialist countries were all wretched, ragged and starving and that this is why support for socialism is so low. There is much truth in this, but clearly this kind of false narrative is harder to sustain in a country that has actually lived through socialism.
One obvious answer is political repression. Across, Eastern Europe laws exist banning communist symbols or the expression of communist ideas. These countries are dictatorships of the bourgeoisie where the impossible ideal of democracy for all classes is not realised. Yet, we must say the dictatorship is not all that vigorous. Some have been prosecuted for promoting communism but Eastern European countries are not imprisoning people in the hundreds or thousands for this.
If the workers of Eastern Europe were exploited by capitalism, then Marxism tells us that class struggle should intensify and the individual liberties of the working class would soon fade away. The workers would be faced with the choice of fighting for their own dictatorship or enduring the dictatorship of the capitalists.
It is possible to cite nationalism as a reason for the rejection of socialism. The workers of Eastern Europe may be influenced by the historical association of socialism with outside ‘domination’ by the Russians. Maoists could certainly cite the appalling Soviet military adventure in Czechoslovakia in 1968. (This was a country, which unlike Hungary, had not fought with the Axis and was not in the process of slaughtering communists as the right-wing Hungarian rebels were doing in 1956.) Marxists, however, believe that the workers will ultimately act in their material interests, even if this is undermined to some extent by ‘false consciousness’. Nationalism could not comprehensively explain the very low level of support for class struggle in these countries.
What does explain the lack of a ‘return to socialism’ movement in Eastern Europe is EU membership. This explains why support for the market transition is significantly lower in non-EU Russia and Ukraine than elsewhere. The specific reason is freedom of movement. Clearly, in itself, freedom of movement goes some way to explaining the better economic position of people within Eastern European countries compared to Russia and Ukraine. It means there is less unemployment which means higher wages.
Crucially it makes every Eastern European a potential beneficiary of western prosperity. The West has grown rich on centuries of imperialist exploitation and unequal exchange whereas Eastern Europe has not (4). The average wage in the Czech Republic is about a third of the German average wage when measured at the exchange rate (5). Of course, lower prices in the Czech Republic make their living standards closer to those of the West. The purchasing power disparity does, however, create a huge advantage for the Czech worker who earns a wage in the West and then brings their money home. It provides a good safety valve for the worker who is discontented with exploitative working conditions in the Czech Republic. Rather than fighting industrial and class struggle at home, they can simply seek their fortune elsewhere. This safety valve, in turn, means that state repression against the working class of the Czech Republic is less necessary and the market system seems much more benign than the socialist system with its dictatorship of the proletariat.
Memories of closed borders are a vital reason for the lack of enthusiasm most East Europeans seem to have for returning to socialism. It was a cunning trick of the western Europeans to welcome those defecting from Eastern Europe in the Cold War at the same time as they kept tightening their immigration restrictions on the rest of the world, especially the Third World. Clearly, without Eastern European exit controls higher western wages would have attracted large-scale immigration from the East, embarrassing the East European regimes that were trying to argue their system was superior to the western system. (As I argued in my recent article, the East European countries were trying to catch up with the West without investing more of their national income than the western countries. This was virtually an economic impossibility.)
The question is can this ‘safety valve’ continue? European immigration was a big factor behind the Brexit vote. The economic downturn caused by Covid-19 has once more closed Europe’s borders. Will governments under pressure from right-wing populists be in such a hurry to re-open them as they contemplate severe economic down-turns? If they do, will there be a push to ‘review’ freedom of movement in order to protect labour markets in the rich countries as recession continues?
Of course, there is no real reason why western countries have to restrict immigration in order to protect wages and jobs. Universal national wage agreements and an expansionary investment policy can achieve this goal in a far more satisfactory way. Such policies are anathema to most of the neo-liberal minded EU governments though.
World recession and immigration controls may spell the end of social peace in Eastern Europe. Here is where the real danger of ‘false consciousness’ emerges. It is obvious that European economic misery will lead to the emergence of fascist demagogues in both West and East promising national socialism as a solution to the recession. Such false solutions must eventually be destroyed but in the short to medium term they can be highly destructive. A very watered down version of a chauvinistic type of ‘socialism’ exists in the programs of many populist parties already. The Polish Law and Justice party advocates a certain measure of state influence over industry, Orban of Hungary has introduced family orientated welfare schemes etc.
The East is poorer and generally less politically stable than the West so it is more likely that national socialism will succeed there. As history shows, only genuine socialism can defeat national socialism. The so-called democracies either capitulated to Hitler or sat the European war out until it was obvious that the Soviet Union was going to win. Once the liberal facade slips in Eastern Europe and the choice becomes stark, it will be time for communists to move swiftly to revive their movement.
(1) Ball, Joseph (2020) ‘Does Socialism Really Lead to Economic Failure? The USSR and COMECON Eastern Europe Before 1989’. Journal of Labor and Society, March 2020
(2) Pew Research Center, October, 2019, “European Public Opinion Three Decades After the Fall of Communism”, page 153.
(3) ibid., page 150-151.
(4) I explore this in: Ball, Joseph (2010) ‘The Need for Planning. The Restoration of Capitalism in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and the Decline of the Soviet Economy’. Cultural Logic: A Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice