It is commonplace, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to hear the events of that time described as miraculous, a dream come true, something one couldn’t have imagined even a couple of months beforehand. Free elections in Poland with Lech Walesa as president: who would have thought it possible? But an even greater miracle took place only a couple of years later: free democratic elections returned the ex-Communists to power, Walesa was marginalised and much less popular than General Jaruzelski himself.
This reversal is usually explained in terms of the ‘immature’ expectations of the people, who simply didn’t have a realistic image of capitalism: they wanted to have their cake and eat it, they wanted capitalist-democratic freedom and material abundance without having to adapt to life in a ‘risk society’ – i.e. without losing the security and stability (more or less) guaranteed by the Communist regimes. When the sublime mist of the ‘velvet revolution’ had been dispelled by the new democratic-capitalist reality, people reacted in one of three ways: with nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of Communism; by embracing right-wing nationalist populism; with belated anti-Communist paranoia. The first two reactions are easy to understand, and they often overlap (as in today’s Russia). The same rightists who, decades ago, were shouting ‘Better dead than red!’ are now often heard mumbling ‘Better red than eating hamburgers.’ The nostalgia for Communism shouldn’t be taken too seriously: far from expressing an actual wish to return to a grey Socialist reality, it is a form of mourning, of gently getting rid of the past. And nationalist populism, far from being peculiar to Eastern Europe, is a common feature of all countries caught in the vortex of globalisation.
Much more interesting is the recent resurrection of anti-Communism, everywhere from Hungary to Slovenia. In October 2006, large protests against the ruling Socialist Party paralysed Hungary for weeks. Protesters blamed the country’s economic crisis on its leaders, the Communists’ successors. They denied the legitimacy of the government, although it came to power after democratic elections, and when police were used to restore a minimum level of civil order, comparisons were drawn with the Soviet army’s crushing of the 1956 uprising. In short, it was said that the Velvet Revolution of 1989 had to be repeated since, beneath the false appearance of democracy, nothing had really changed, the same dark forces were pulling the strings of power. In December 2006, Poland strengthened the ‘lustration’ law, which made it illegal for collaborators with the Communist secret police and others linked with the old regime to hold public office.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on November 19th 2009.]