Analysis: Left and right in divided Europe

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent

SKOPJE, Macedonia, July 18 (UPI) -- Even as West European countries seemed to have edged to the right of the political map, three polities of central Europe lurched to the left. Socialists were elected to replace economically successful right-wing governments in Poland, Hungary and, recently, in the Czech Republic.

This apparent schism is, indeed, merely an apparition. The differences between reformed left and new right in both parts of the continent have blurred to the point of indistinguishability. French socialists have privatized more than their conservative predecessors. The Tories still complain bitterly that Tony Blair, with his nondescript "Third Way," has stolen their thunder.


Nor are the "left" and "right" ideologically monolithic and socially homogeneous continental movements. The central European left is more preoccupied with a social -- dare I say socialist -- agenda than any of its Western coreligionists. Equally, the central European right is less individualistic, libertarian, religious, and conservative than any of its Western parallels -- and much more nationalistic and xenophobic. It sometimes echoes the far right in Western Europe -- rather than the center-right, mainstream, middle-class orientated parties in power.


Moreover, the right's victories in Western Europe -- in Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy -- are not without a few important exceptions, notably Britain and, perhaps, come September, Germany. Nor is the left's clean sweep of the central European electoral slate either complete or irreversible. With the exception of the outgoing Czech government, not one party in this volatile region has ever remained in power for more than one term. Murmurs of discontent are already audible in Poland and Hungary.

Left and right are imported labels with little explanatory power or relevance to central Europe. To fathom the political dynamics of this region, one must realize that the core countries of central Europe (the Czech Republic, Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Poland) experienced industrial capitalism in the inter-war period. Thus, a political taxonomy based on urbanization and industrialization may prove to be more powerful than the classic left-right dichotomy.


The enmity between the urban and the bucolic has deep historical roots. When the teetering Roman Empire fell to the Barbarians (410-476 AD), five centuries of existential insecurity and mayhem ensued. Vassals pledged allegiance and subservience to local lords in return for protection against nomads and marauders. Trading was confined to fortified medieval cities.


Even as it petered out in the west, feudalism remained entrenched in the prolix codices and patents of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire, which encompassed central Europe and collapsed only in 1918. Well into the 20th century, the majority of the denizens of these moribund swathes of the continent worked the land. This feudal legacy of a Brobdignagian agricultural sector in, for instance, Poland, now hampers the EU accession talks.

Vassals were little freer than slaves. In comparison, burghers, the inhabitants of the city, were liberated from the bondage of the feudal labor contract. As a result, they were able to acquire private possessions and the city acted as supreme guarantor of their property rights. Urban centers relied on trading and economic might to obtain and secure political autonomy.

John of Paris, which was arguably one of the first capitalist cities (at least according to Braudel), wrote: "(The individual) had a right to property which was not with impunity to be interfered with by superior authority -- because it was acquired by (his) own efforts" (in Georges Duby, "The age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1981). Max Weber, in his opus, "The City" (New York, MacMillan, 1958) wrote optimistically about urbanization: "The medieval citizen was on the way towards becoming an economic man ... the ancient citizen was a political man".


But communism halted this process. It froze the early feudal frame of mind of disdain and derision towards "non-productive", "city-based" vocations. Agricultural and industrial occupations were romantically extolled by communist parties everywhere. The cities were berated as hubs of moral turpitude, decadence and greed. Ironically, avowed anti-communist right wing populists, like Hungary's former prime minister, Viktor Orban, sought to propagate these sentiments, to their electoral detriment.

Communism was an urban phenomenon -- but it abnegated its "bourgeoisie" pedigree. Private property was replaced by communal ownership. Servitude to the state replaced individualism. Personal mobility was severely curtailed. In communism, feudalism was restored.

Very like the Church in the Middle Ages, communism sought to monopolize and permeate all discourse, all thinking, and all intellectual pursuits. Communism was characterized by tensions between party, state and the economy -- exactly as the medieval polity was plagued by conflicts between church, king and merchants-bankers.

In communism, political activism was a precondition for advancement and, too often, for personal survival. John of Salisbury might as well have been writing for a communist agitprop department when he penned this in "Policraticus" (1159 AD): "If (rich people, people with private property) have been stuffed through excessive greed and if they hold in their contents too obstinately, (they) give rise to countless and incurable illnesses and, through their vices, can bring about the ruin of the body as a whole." The body in the text being the body politic.


Workers, both industrial and agricultural, were lionized and idolized in communist times. With the implosion of communism, these frustrated and angry rejects of a failed ideology spawned many grassroots political movements, lately in Poland, in the form of "Self Defense." Their envied and despised enemies are the well-educated, the intellectuals, the self-proclaimed new elite, the foreigner, the minority, the rich, and the remote bureaucrat in Brussels.

As in the West, the hinterland tends to support the right. Orban's Fidesz lost in Budapest in the recent elections -- but scored big in villages and farms throughout Hungary. Agrarian and peasant parties abound in all three central European countries and often hold the balance of power in coalition governments.

(Part two will discuss on Saturday such topics as the new vs. the established and the beaurocrats vs. the politicians. Send comments to [email protected].)

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