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  • Is Communism Returning?
  • Zhelyu Zhelev

In early 1990, carried away by the carnival atmosphere of the time, students and intellectuals all over Eastern Europe burned effigies and held symbolic burials of communism. I still have a souvenir of those heady days, a small can that holds “the last breath of communism.” Some of those who served as exultant pallbearers and gravediggers may be in this hall today; others, perhaps, cast their most recent votes for the parties of the ex-communists. One thing is sure: the specter whose haunting of Europe Karl Marx announced in his Communist Manifesto a century and a half ago looks less certainly laid to rest in 1995 than it did in 1990. Viewed in historical perspective, this should not be in the least surprising.

By the fifth year of the French Revolution, France had had two constitutions, Louis XVI had been guillotined, the Terror had devoured such darlings of the Revolution as Danton and Robespierre, and Babeuf had begun hatching his “conspiracy of equals.” Napoleon and the Restoration lay ahead.

By the fifth year of the Russian Revolution, the horrible civil war had just come to an end, war communism had failed, Lenin had announced his market-friendly New Economic Policy (NEP), and grassroots Bolsheviks had begun heatedly debating whether the NEP was or was not restoring capitalism. Stalin and the gulag lay ahead.

In the context of this revolutionary chronology, the return of communism today is hardly surprising. Revolutions, even velvet ones, [End Page 4] rarely meet the expectations that they raise. Disenchantment and pessimism creep in. This is when we realize that the old regime, whose death knell we have so eagerly sounded, is still very much alive. The euphoric sense that everything has changed is followed by a numbing suspicion that nothing has changed.

It is appropriate for historians and journalists to examine historical analogies in search of social and psychological explanations for the ex-communists’ return to power in Eastern Europe; politicians should be allowed no such luxury. I make this point because too many democratic leaders tend to act like political commentators, sociologists, psychologists, or cultural critics. They explain and analyze the emerging tendencies rather than trying in earnest to stem the tide.

After the victory of the ex-communist left in the 1993 parliamentary elections in Poland, an observer asked the rhetorical question: “Can you imagine Franco’s adherents returning to power in Spain just four years after his death?” In the context of this question, the left-wing resurgence in Eastern Europe seems anything but reassuring. Yet the democratic process in our countries is irreversible as long as there are political forces committed to the consolidation of democracy.

Competing Paradigms

There are two basic models for understanding the former communists’ return to power. One is the paradigm of recommunization, upheld mainly by the party of decommunizers, which sees a conspiracy by former communists to regain control. The other is the paradigm invoked by moderates, who interpret the return of the ex-communists as a “velvet restoration” that is actually an extension of the revolution itself, or a sign of its consolidation. According to this second model, democracy is now so securely entrenched that even if the communists win an election and return to power it will not make any fundamental difference to the nature of the regime: they will not be able to put an end to free political competition or reassert totalitarian social controls.

Both paradigms are political rather than intellectual, and relate directly to the specifics of different postcommunist countries. In Hungary, with its consensus in favor of democracy and markets, the paradigm of recommunization has few supporters; this is not the case in countries such as Bulgaria or Romania.

The decommunizers see no revolution, but rather a simulacrum of change that has allowed the ex-communists to convert political power into economic influence and sidestep claims for retribution and justice. The credibility of this thesis has grown as former communist apparatchiki and secret-police bosses have redistributed national wealth into their own pockets by manipulating privatization, thumbing the public in the eye and creating once again a society for themselves. [End Page 5]

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