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>Inside Lenin’s brain

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There’s a small striking black and white poster up in the lift with a familiar image of Lenin. I assume at first it’s for the Socialist Workers’ Party (‘…Lenin’s thoughts about the world crisis…’ yawn) and am a bit surprised that the SWP has any sympathisers at SSEES. But when I read on get the bit about Vladimir Illich’s views about advice about MPs expenses and passing exams being given by Lenin’s brain on tour having been specially revived and bio-engineered Russian scientists, it dawns on me that it’s a April fool, although as Soviet scientists do more or less try this in the 1920s, it’s perhaps not that wide of the mark. Maybe someone working in artificial intelligence could programme some online avatar to simulate what the leader of the world proletariat would say. No doubt what remains of the traditional student far left would welcome the advice.
I sit in a small pool of light in my office using the QCA program to ‘iterate’ between different comparative configurations. I’d like to think this the comparative political scientist’s equivalent of Lenin’s brain, but it isn’t and I end having to use my own rather more than I would like.
Luckily, I do get some answers, although not to the global crisis…

>Imperialism and anti-imperialism in the small hours

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It’s early morning but I’m wide awake and I can’t sleep, so I go downstairs to read. I finish off a couple of books I was reading, and almost got through, over the holiday. I always to try and read couple of non-academic books wholly unrelated to Eastern Europe, usually an impulse buy when I’m Christmas shopping or an impulse borrow from the local library. This year’s selections are a biography, Tim Jeal’s Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, and Stefan Aust’s recently reissued book about The Baader-Meinhof Complex about the far left terrorism of the Red Army F(r)action in 1970s West Germany.
Henry Morton Stanley turned out to be neither the pillar of the British upper classes nor the go-getting America newspaperman I had variously imagined (although he played both roles) but someone born poor and illegitimate in provincial Wales. Abandoned in a workhouse for most his childhood, he made his way, emotionally withdrawn but very determined – through the

the expanding late Victorian world and ended up in the USA, where he reinvents himself as Henry M. Stanley (assumed names, but later backed by a concocted story of adoption by a wealthy cotton planter); had a series picaresque not to say bizarre series of adventures as trader, gold prospector, deserterfrom both sides in the US Civil War before finally making it at the age of 30 as journalist and heading off to Africa for he journalistic scoop of the century: ‘discovering’ missionary and explorer David Livingstone, whom his best selling book subsequently mythologizes as a saintly figure.

He then turned explorer himself making two epic journeys (in opposite directions) between Zanzibar and the mouth of the Congo, sorting out the true source of the Nile and opening up central Africa for European colonialism. His candour and exaggeration of his ruthlessness in his books, says Jeal, left him with a reputation for brutality, argues, was basically undeserved. Despite laying the some of the foundations of King Leopold’s Congo Free State, he can’t, says Jeal reckons, be held directly responsible for the atrocities of Belgian colonialism in Congo, which later transpired, but was guilty of some political misjudgements.

This thoroughly documented shades-of-grey interpretation and mildly revisionist agenda came across as basically plausibe, although left the question of how (and if) we should judge Stanley, – as well as much of the psychology that drove him – hanging in the air. Most interesting (if underplayed in the book) was the political and social context of the time that emerges: public and political attitudes to Africa is far from the gung-ho imperialist racism overlaid by a patina of religiosity that we perhaps imagined. Indeed, what is striking is how strong altruistic, humanitarian and liberal impulses seem to have be, albeit it mixed with Realpolitik and economic self-interest. Uncomfortably, recasting some of the politically incorrect language of the time, Stanley (in Jeal’s account, at least) and others emerge as a worrying modern figures concerned to deliver failed and/or underdeveloped states on the global periphery from local warlords, bringing them the benefits of development (‘civilization’), open and global markets and combating mass people trafficking (abolition of East African slave trade).

Anti-imperialism in West Europe, this time in the form of protest against and outrage about the Vietnam War and depredation of the Third World were also a driving force the story of the Baader-Meinhof group and the radical left in 1970s West Germany, as told in Aust’s reworked The Baader-Meinhof Complex, now, of course, a glossy and violent new film. Unlike Jeal’s biography which loses a bit of readability by dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, Aust’s book has fragmented episodic structure, making for a fast and compelling read . It’s easy to see why it was filmed as blockbusting political thriller-cum crime story-cum reconstruction of the 1970s.

Aust clearly knows his stuff, however, having been personally acquainted with some the leading dramais personnae and obsessively followed up the RAF story through the three decades worth of research and interviews with cops and terrorists alike. Without being too didactic, the book debunks much of the (self-)mythologization of and violent chic of the RAF as misguided but pure martyrs, showing them as a strong on verbiage, low on ideology and strategy, high on brutality (emotional and physical) and at key moments sustained by East European secret services and factions of the PLO.

There are gaps in Aust’s vividly but briefly sketched account of the West German radical and ultra-radical left of the 1960s and 1970s . However with forty years’ hindsight the sociological and ideological sources of the RAF seem clear enough: orthodox Leninist vanguardism, Maoist voluntarism; anarchist ‘propaganda of the deed’ and New Left notions of radical political engagement as a form of personal therapy; the moral ambiguity of incompletely de-Nazified West Germany and the German Social Democrats’ coming to terms with it (many RAF members were briefly members of the SPD youth); and the New Left project of students, lumpenproletariat and Third World as a substitute for the Western working class’s definitive failure to show up (again) for its appointed historical role of revolutionary vanguard.

The psychology and background key RAF personalities, however, remain as much of a cipher that of the compulsively driven Stanley and his fellow explorers/adventurers, although both seem to share a self-destructive urge and strangely toxic mix of overblown moral certainty and callous brutality. However, I couldn’t help the rather odd feeling that world of the Baader-Meinhof Complex was utlimately more distant and unfamiliar – perhaps the word I am looking for is irrelevant – than of that Stanley and late Victorian imperialism/globalization in the making.

>Slovakia: Greens to take new direction?

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Slovak right-leaning/liberal daily Smer reports on the difficult relationship with Slovakia’s Green Party. While the Greens in the neighbouring Czech Republic are a key part of a centre-right coalition and relations with the opposition Social Democrats are pretty icy, Slovak Greens, more conventionally, have signed a co-operation agreement with Robert Fico’s governing centre-left Smer (‘Direction’) party. (Having flopped in the early 1990s – as happened in so much of CEE – the Slovak Greens were previously part of the not too successful centre-left e coalition with post-communists and social democrats before Smer came crashing onto the political scene, so there is a of precedent ). However, Prime Minister Fico’s criticisms of radical environmental protesters in the Tatra national park have not endeared him to his new allies in the small extra-parliamentary Green Party and raised doubts about the supposed ‘greening’ of Smer, a party better known for its nationalist and populist inclinations than its post-materialist concerns.

The Greens have also laid into the government’s motorway building plans and are none too keen on the current Minister of the Environment, Ján Chrbet, a member of the radical Slovak National Party (SNS) and his ‘populist’ allocation of EU environmental funds. Commentators quoted by the right-leaning Smer dismiss the party’s ‘greening’ as a superficial exercise designed to boost its social democratic credentials in the eyes of West European partners. Given the Slovak Greens’ dissatisfaction and reasonably good 2.7% rating in recent polls, it looks like they may be tempted to go elsewhere and perhaps try their luck as Czech style eco-liberal party.

>Slovakia: Empty lionizing of Dubček suggests social democracy lacks roots

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A recent issue of Slovak daily Sme contains a report of a speech by Slovak PM Robert Fico (full text here) to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Alexander Dubček, ill-fated leader of the Prague Spring and early figurehead of post-communist social democracy in Slovakia. As a man of the left, Fico, unsurprisingly has a positive take on Dubček whose thoughts he told his audience he and fellow leaders of SMER find alive and inspiring to this day and feel moral duty to continue them. Just what thoughts Dubček and his generation of Prague Spring reform communists more have to offer to contemporary Slovakia was, was however, left tantalizingly vague. Dubček, Fico told listeners, saw democracy as essentially an exercise in civilized dialogue. He was also a ‘leading figure in the European socialist movement’ and a humanist, aware of his responsibility for civilization, who believed in advancing knowledge through co-operation with scholars (s vedcami). Another speaker, Ivan Laluh, president of the Alexander Dubček Society , offered a similarly motherhood-and-apple-pie assessment of Dubček as standing for ‘humanism, social justice, decency and tolerance’ – which could apply to most European liberal, social democratic or (even) Christian Democratic politicians of any standing.
The awkward truth seems to be that, however sympathetically one might look at the tragedy of Czechoslovak reform communism – and it is something of a breath of fresh air to find more than the dismissal and amnesia characteristic of much Czech public debate on the period – it has little to say today. Dubček’s political inactivity during the ‘normalization’ period of the 1970s and 80s and short-lived political career after 1989 also amount to relatively little. So why the fuss? At one level, there is a simple a nationalist rationale. Slovaks Fico pointedly noted should ‘immerse ourselves more deeply in the thought of Slovak scholars and politicians, who have inscribed themselves on the consciousness of Europe’ even if – as in Dubček’s case – these are somewhat shallow waters. Dubček’s status in Slovakia is therefore understandably higher – Slovakia’s newest university in Trenčín was re-named Alexander Dubček University in 2002, an honour unlikely to be bestowed on any Czech leaders of the Prague Spring in their home republic.

Fico opponents might, however, detect a darker side in his comments that Dubček’s concept of democracy as civilized debate had not been attained in contemporary Slovakia as people were too intolerant and ‘too strongly intoxicated with freedom of speech’ which, translated, may mean there is too much criticism of his government in the media and society. Possibly, we should think back beyond the humanism and apple pie to remember the more authoritarian impulses during the 1960s of Dubček et al to regulate pluralism and debate so as to ensure they delivered social consensus around the ‘right’ result – something often overlooked in many accounts because the Prague Spring was progressive and democratically minded by the standards of communist one party rule in Eastern Europe. As Peter Siani-Davies’s excellent book on the Romanian Revolution reminds us the semi-authoritarian populism of the National Salvation Front in part had its roots in the technocratic authoritarianism and engineered dialogue to ensure Consensus of would-be communist reformers who opposed Ceausescu, as well as the country’s more obviously authoritarian and nationalist traditions.

In other ways, however, the vacuous lionizing of Dubček seem to underline the ideologically shallow roots of SMER and the Slovak centre-left. In the absence of a strong historic social democratic tradition, it has few models or historical figures to draw on not obviously compromised by association with the Stalinism of 1950s or the ‘normalization’ of the 1970s and 80s and ‘Europe’ no longer offers a comfortable template following SMER’s suspension from the Party of European Socialists. Moreover, as the current controversy over public remembrance of Andrej Hlinka awkwardly demonstrates, there are plenty of historic reference points for those of Catholic-populist-nationalist persuasion to fix on.

>European Socialists may soften line on Slovakia’s SMER

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Slovak liberal daily Sme reports that some Austrian and German Social Democrats are willing to consider re-admitting Robert Fico’s SMER into the Party of European Socialists, despite its coalition with the extreme, Hungarian-ophobe Slovak National Party (SNS), or at least to take some steps to normalizing relations. Pragmatic reasons seem to inform this step: Fico, despite some rather paranoid sounding attacks on the media, seems not in practice to have steered a reasonable respectable course policy-wise and keep SNS at arm’s length. Essentially, it appears they are buying into Fico’s justification that such a coalition can be innocuous and indeed means of managing extremists. The fact that SMER is riding high the polls and is clearly not going to disappear as a dominant political force might also have something to do with it. Will it I wonder lead to a broader reappraisal about Social Democrats engaging with the darker populist inclinations of working class voters and others left behind by reform?

PES will review SMER’s suspension at a meeting on 4 October. SMER’s only strong ally in PES at a party level have been the Czech Social Democrats.

>Slovak press sees Czechs as laggards despite latest reform package

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Slovak liberal daily Sme assesses the Czech reform package of flatter and lower taxation which has, as expected, just squeaked through the Czech parliament – although the headline rate of income tax seems lower in the CR (15% falling to 12.5% in 2009; 19% in Slovakia), it points out effective tax rates are higher as both employees’ and employers’ health and social security payments are included in the Czech tax base. Slovak corporation tax at 19% is still lower, although Czech rates are set to fall to that level over the next three years, and there are no taxes on share dividends. Twisting the knife, Sme notes that the real problem is that there is no strong reform coalition in the CR as there was in Slovakia in 1998-2006. However, if the price of such a coalition is the left blasting back into power a few years later a la Robert Fico, Czech free marketeers might do well do consider whether they in fact may have some hidden advantages, although, that said, the current consensus seems to be that Fico, despite posing as a kind of Central European Hugo Chavez, cannot and will not touch the main pillars of earlier neo-liberal reforms and Czech politics seems polarized even before any really radical reforms have been passed.

>Never mind the Sex Pistols, here’s … Robert Fico

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I travelled up to London on the train listening to an oddly alternating mix of Irish traditional music and the Sex Pistols on a cheap (and malfunctioning) MP3. This mix of lyrical national sentiment and take-me-as-you-find-me iconoclasm was not entirely inappropriate, as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in town – and (more importantly, if more briefly) was visiting SSEES, where as a Masaryk Scholar in 1999 he first set out the idea of founding the new political party, that became SMER – Social Democracy, now Slovakia’s dominant party – The plan was create a new force, which could deliver reform of the centre-left without becoming bogged down in the old nationalist vs. liberal, world vs. Vladmír Mečiar conflicts that characterized Slovak politics for much of the 1990s.

Somewhat distrusted for his populist leanings even as a rising star in opposition, since winning the 2006 elections, Fico has acquired the reputation of being something of the Johnny Rotten of Central European politics and has attracted similarly dreadful headlines. Forming what The Economist terned an ‘iffy and wiffy’ coalition with far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and Vladimír Mečiar’s declining ex-ruling party of 1990s, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) after last year’s elections, his party gained the dubious distinction of being the first member party to be booted out of the Party of European Socialists. Despite leaving much of the previous right-wing government’s neo-liberal welfare and tax reforms in place, foreign trips to Libya (where, as well as having warm words for Colonel Gadaffi, as did Tony Blair, he described the Bulgarian nurses and one Palestian doctor convicted on trumped up sounding charges of spreading HIV, as ‘perpetrators’ – much to the consernation of the European Parliament and wider EU for whom it is an obvious injustice and a cause celebre) sent signals that he was a bit more Chavez than Blair, as did opposition to proposed stationing of the US anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, warming the cockles of President Putin’s heart on a visit to Moscow – savvier comrades in the Czech Social Democratic Party simply sidestepped the issue by calling for a referendum; and a visit to the Cuba Embasssy in Bratislava to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Together with more minor signs and signals such as the BBC World Service suddenly losing its Slovak FM frequencies, the impression, fanned by liberal opponents, is of an emerging anti-Western, or at least anti-American, illiberal ‘Mečiarism lite’ out of step with the rest of the EU.

Fico in person, however, did quite a good job of puncturing this enfant terrible image and. unlike some politicians of a more liberal persuasion in similar circumstances, was more than willing to take questions and comments and argue his case. He justified the coalition in terms of stability and as the best option for getting key social democratic policies through, arguing that he had effectively cordoned off SNS and HZDS by having them in office, rather than keeping them out of government and stressed that his foreign policy was more European and less American oriented than that of previous governments. The Visegrad group still mattered for Slovakia and its European policy would reflect this. Overall, the session left me turning over some interesting thoughts about the nature of social democracy in CEE and its (possible) relaionship with nationalism, liberalism and populism, which distantly echo debates in Britain’s very own populist-cum-social democratic party, New Labour. Once again, as with home grown left-populists like George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan, I was impressed with an ability to put across position I was basically unsympathetic to.

Whether such political acumen is enough to shift his reputation as one of the bad boys of the region, indeed or more broadly to establish a pragmatic left-populist alternative of the kind Smer seems to represent as legitimate part of the European political landscape remains to be seen.