The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview with Eastern European Marxists

The Left and Marxism in Eastern Europe
Gáspár Miklós Tamás Interviewed by Imre Szeman

You now describe yourself as a Marxist, with plans for a Marxist theory group in Hungary in addition to your ongoing work as a writer and political commentator from the Left. Why Marx now? In Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, Marxist ideas and theories were hard-pressed to survive their connection to state socialism and the elimination of courses in Marxist-Leninism in universities. Even though the economic collapse has discredited neoliberal ideology -- at least its most extreme variants -- Marxism in the region is still linked with totalitarianism.

Indeed, as you know, there are ongoing attempts to formalize the connection between communism and fascism as little more than variations on the same totalitarian theme. Budapest's Terror House Museum makes no distinction between Bela Kun's 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic, Admiral Horthy's regency, fascism, and post-War communism -- it's all just "terror" by comparison to liberal capitalism. The "Prague Declaration" announced by the Czech Senate in June 2008 calls for the European Parliament to recognize communism and Nazism as aspects of Europe's totalitarian legacy. In Hungary, the Supreme Court has recently rescinded the sentence of one of the police officers who shot and killed communist and anti-fascist Endre Ságvári in 1944 -- a purely symbolic move whose implications for the Left are chilling.

What work do you hope that Marx and Marxism can do in this context?

To all this we may add that the Romanian Parliament has promulgated a solemn statement, based on a report by a committee appointed by the Romanian president, chaired by Vladimir Tismăneanu, professor of government at the University of Maryland, which states that communism is a crime against humanity or some such thing. (Professor Tismăneanu -- witness his articles and interviews in the Romanian press -- believes that people such as Slavoj Žižek or myself are a major danger to human freedom.) Similar decisions by the Polish Supreme Court are forthcoming. In Hungary, the hammer and sickle, the red star, the swastika, and the arrow-cross (the coat-of-arms of the Hungarian Nazis) are all banned as "totalitarian symbols." The European Court of Human Rights has exempted the red star and the hammer and sickle from the Hungarian ban, but the Hungarian state refused to comply.

Still, after all this, when a few of us have announced our allegiance -- which, of course, includes a repudiation of "real socialism" of all stripes -- our audiences weren't on the whole upset, but rather incredulous! Not so much for the apparent reason of the folly of joining the defeated (I, for one, feel defeated in my former avatar of an Old Whig, but certainly not as a revolutionary socialist) or of confessing to a belief compromised by the terrible things done in its name, but for the mere implausibility of having social and political principles of any kind at all! Most people don't regard Marxism as criminal, but as naïve. But this is people's opinion of liberalism or Christianity as well. Any view seemingly contradicting individual or collective selfishness or self-regard seems incredible. As I personally cannot be accused of any collusion with the former regime (except, rarely and absurdly, by very young Nazi slanderers who cannot spell "Capital") and as I have no reason for apologia in this respect, critics are content to call me out of date, as they fail to follow intellectual fashions that have reverted to the pre-1989 normality in the West: radical chic is on the left again. All this does not prevent the radical right to bay for my blood, but they have been doing this since I was a rather conservative liberal. This has nothing to do with my substantive view; nobody who is not an ethnicist can be exempt. It is even a smidgen nicer to be a Marxist than a liberal: at least I am not considered to be sold out to foreign capital, although I can still be slandered as being soft on Jews.

Which traditions of Marxism are you drawing on? Are there any contemporary writers or theories which you find especially useful, compelling, or relevant?

Several. Even when I was ideologically very remote from Marxism, I did not stop reading some of its literature. I was quite influenced by the early and middle work of Cornelius Castoriadis -- I also knew him, an astonishing man -- and Karl Korsch. Although I was personally close at one time to many people from the Lukács School, it is only now that I have read him with sustained attention. (His pupils have gone in the opposite direction, e.g., my erstwhile friend Agnes Heller has become a conservative with an increasingly strong Judaic interest, and a cold warrior après coup, who is bizarrely accusing her old friend and colleague, István Mészáros, author of Beyond Capital and guru to Hugo Chávez, of having been expelled from Canada as a Soviet agent -- Mészáros is an 1956 political émigré, an emeritus professor at Sussex University with impeccable anti-Stalinist credentials.) I am an avid reader of operaismo and of pre-Empire Negri, and also at the opposite end, the Wertkritik school, in my view the best heirs to Critical Theory (Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Michael Heinrich, but also the unruly genius, Robert Kurz, and the "cult" periodicals of this tendency, Krisis, Streifzüge, Exit!) as well as authors like Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, David Harvey, Michael Lebowitz, and various Marxists working in England too numerous to mention. The greatest impact came, however, from Moishe Postone's magnum opus. These choices may seem eclectic, but I don't belong to any of these currents. I am working on my own stuff and I am learning from all of them.

Your writing over the past decade has perceptively examined the rise of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe and Hungary. This is a development that has been relatively under-reported in the West; it has taken Berlusconi's anti-Roma policies to raise greater awareness about the rise in violence towards Roma throughout Europe and in the post-Soviet region in particular. The most obvious form of right-wing populism lies in the revival of xenophobia and ultranationalism in the region (for instance, it is now common to see t-shirts and bumper stickers with maps of Hungary prior to the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, even around Budapest). But you've pointed to other, somewhat subtler forms, too: Gyurcsány's proposal in 2008 for a "work test" for the unemployed, which was intended to establish who is competent to work, and which is just the tip of the iceberg of an ongoing withdrawal of the rights of citizenships and the rise of fascism in the region.

What accounts for this right-wing populism? In what ways do the failed promise of post-Soviet democratic renewal and the twenty-year drama of neoliberal economics contribute to its rise? (That is: in what important ways is this populism different than early forms in the region?) How and where do you see it expressing itself? What needs to be done to arrest it?

What you call right-wing populism, I think, erroneously, I call post-fascism (see my "On Post-Fascism" in Boston Review, Summer 2000). There are, of course, important differences between post-fascism and "classical" national socialism -- the former is not militaristic, it is not "totalitarian," and so on -- but the parallels are striking, too. That the enemy is both bourgeois liberalism and Marxism (which for the far Right means all varieties of the Left, from social democrats to anarcho-syndicalists, a usage inherited by the North American mainstream press which is in the habit of calling "Marxist" any peasant Jacquerie in the Himalayas if they're hoisting a red flag) is certainly telling, i.e., they are still romantically (and insincerely) opposed to all forms of modernity and are daydreaming about caste society, sacred kingdoms, the superiority of the warrior to "his" woman, racial purity, the cleansing properties of mother earth, and the like. As I am writing these responses, the phone rang, and a friend reported that posters with the likeness of Socialist Party candidates have been decorated with Stars of David of the prescribed (by the Gestapo) "canary yellow" hue, but then my own posters were so decorated in 1990 -- I was elected, however. This time, the affair is much more serious. The common element between "communism" and "liberalism" is the fantasy figure of the Jew (the candidates in question are reliable Gentiles) embodying mediation and universalism. Jews as physical persons are less threatened, though, than the Roma who are victims of racial killings and open discriminatory practices everywhere in Europe. (Also the Canadian government is restricting travel -- demanding visas -- from countries that the Roma are trying to flee.)

The reasons for this are crystal clear.

With the development of technology and the participation of the new industrial powers (China, India, and Brazil) in the international division of labor, with the increasing intensity and speed of work, with the lengthening of labor time in the global rust belt, the workforce is everywhere becoming "precarious" and unemployment is a universal fact of life for huge masses of people. Concomitantly, improving health stretches life expectancy to unprecedented heights. Health insurance, social services, and central state redistribution of resources are becoming ever more important, frequently the only reasonable source of livelihood for entire regions, social strata, and various populations and generations. There is a grim competition for state resources.

Mainly, the competing groups are the struggling and endangered middle class and the poorest underclass or, in global terms, the crisis-ridden North and the famished South. No capitalist state can afford to satisfy both. In keeping with the fundamental character of liberal societies, the transformation of Western liberal societies into white middle-class fortresses needs legitimation.

This legitimation is offered by various stratagems of "re-moralizing" politics, that is, of stigmatizing underclass, precarious, immigrant, and other ethnic minority populations as "undeserving poor," people abusing the social welfare system, work-shy, criminal, etc. Contemporary racism and "welfare chauvinism" is everywhere. The latter is typified by the Tea Party movement in the United States, where middle-class audiences and opinion groups are vociferously rejecting help for those (including other middle-class subgroups) that are outside the health benefit/insurance system. These are tacitly acknowledged as being black or Latino/a, allegedly protected in a partisan manner by a black president. Ronald Reagan's white working-class and lower-middle-class voters may be back. According to Karl Kautsky -- in a brilliant essay unearthed by the London periodical Historical Materialism (easily a competitor to Grünberg's Archiv) -- the answer to Werner Sombart's famous question as to why there is no socialism in the United States is blacks. This situation is now extended to the whole white world. The class struggle is foiled by the ethnic conflict, clearly exacerbated by deliberate and well-aimed political action -- in Western Europe chiefly against Muslim immigrants, in Eastern Europe against the Roma plus Northern Caucasus ethnics and Kosovar Albanian migrants. Nor are traditional enmities neglected: ethnic Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and the Ukraine are prevented from freely using their mother tongue in shameless violation of their constitutions and of international and European law.

The Left is everywhere faced with an intractable dilemma: how to achieve a political situation wherein the blue-collar workers of the global rust belt, the precarious sub-proletarians, the civil servants of various kinds, the students, and the ethnic minorities (including the migrants) are able to make common cause and turn against the system instead of turning against one another? This recipe has not been found. The post-Trotskyite Socialist Workers' Party in Britain and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (ex-Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) in France are forging alliances with Muslims -- but with those attacked by the other members of the Left for neglecting the plight of oppressed Muslim women and so on. Basically, the mainstream Left is increasingly using veiled racist (properly speaking) ethnicist/culturalist arguments. One of the two co-sponsors of the draft bill banning the Islamic veil in public places at the National Assembly in France is a communist. The other is, of course, a Gaullist. The far Left, though, is increasingly identified with ethnic issues and it is gradually slipping towards the ineffectual liberal rhetoric of human rights. The result is naturally the triumph of the likes of Sarkozy and Berlusconi and some of their even worse colleagues in Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and everywhere in Eastern Europe.

The social/ethnic discrimination has its secondary uses as well. It legitimizes a return to the police state that was hardly a real danger for majorities in the West. But it is now. Prisons chock-a-block with mainly ethnic sub-proletarians are not any longer a peculiarity of the United States. Left-wing radicalism is beaten by the wave of social and racial exclusion (and in some places by fascist activism) and so is the hope of egalitarian or socialist transformation.

The necessary fusion of the various sectors of the oppressed is -- again or, if you wish, eternally -- the problem of emancipation and, what is the same thing, of anti-capitalist combat, and this need a renewal of radical political philosophy -- beyond the already quite considerable results it has achieved, but which have failed to help to overcome this largest of obstacles.

What comes next for you -- politically and theoretically?

I think this flows from my previous response. It is increasingly necessary to create a theory that can overcome the perennial temptation of Rousseauian egalitarianism with its ineluctable aporias around the General Will, but which is nevertheless able to offer a normative view of communist society without utopianism. In the absence of that, the Left will be necessarily led back to a political practice aimed at a homogeneous society created against personal autonomy in order to get rid of the mortal sin of exclusion, humiliation, and injustice. If we have learned one thing from the twentieth century, it is that this is neither feasible nor desirable.

Nor is it tolerable that we should acquiesce in what I have called in a Paris conference (Puissance[s] du communisme, in the memory of our friend, recently deceased, Daniel Bensaïd, theoretician of the LCR/NPA and many other lives besides, at the Université de Paris-8, Vincennes Saint-Denis) une civilisation de merde. This is not to be borne any more.

For this, I feel we need a renewed interpretation of the state and of law, of labor and money, of justice and legitimacy. Most of the prevailing theories concerning these are tailored to suit the needs of liberal class societies that clearly are in a deep -- and by no means only economic -- crisis. This is work enough. I'll try at least to start it, and of course I am not the only one (far from it!) to be willing to engage in it. The results will have to come, since they are sorely needed.


Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a prominent dissident in the 1980s and a parliamentarian in the first years of the Hungarian government following the end of Communism, is a political philosopher. Imre Szeman is Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and Professor of English, Film Studies, and Sociology at the University of Alberta. The text above is a brief excerpt from Imre Szeman, "The Left and Marxism in Eastern Europe: An Interview with Gáspár Miklós Tamás" (Mediations 24.2, Spring 2010); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. Click here to read the full text of the interview.

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