Communists are the comeback kids

November 21, 1995|By Norman Levine

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Poland has chosen as its next president a former Communist minister, Aleksander Kwasniewski, over Lech Walesa, the chief of state and the person most responsible for destroying communism there.

In the Berlin elections last month, the former East German Communists emerged as the biggest gainers, increasing their vote to 14.6 percent from 1990's level of 9.2 percent. And irrespective of the Berlin elections, special features of the German electoral system ensure that the former Communist Party has seats in the federal parliament in Bonn.

The Russians go to the polls December 17 to select a new parliament -- and the Communist Party is favored to win the largest number of seats.

In Hungary, the government is ruled by a coalition made up of a Liberal Party and the former Hungarian Communist Party. The prime minister, Gyula Horn, is a previous Communist minister.

This revival of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia comes as a surprise to most Americans because, after the victory of Boris Yeltsin in August 1991, the United States was hypnotized by its global triumph over Stalinist dictatorship.

This triumphalist mentality led to the deception that -- with the coming of democracy and capitalism to this region of the world -- communism would simply evaporate like a bad dream.

Most of the former Communist parties have, instead, changed their names. The Polish party is called the Democratic Left Alliance, while the East German and Italian parties bear the name of the Party of Democratic Socialism. The Hungarians now refer to themselves as the Hungarian Socialist Party.

Only in Russia has the party maintained the Communist title, and only in Russia did this party celebrate November 7, the day in 1917 when the Bolsheviks under Lenin seized power.

Regardless of their current names, these parties are the successors of the Communist parties that ruled these countries while the Soviet empire existed, and all are examples of neo-communism. It is now necessary to account for the survival of post-Communist communism. What is living -- and what is dead -- from the Leninist-Stalinist past in these ideological offspring?

At the moment, what is dead in these neo-Communist parties is any adherence to the political structures of totalitarianism. They all proclaim their faith in a democratic order.

Moreover, they all accept some degree of property privatization and market competition. The inefficiencies of centralized planning are recognized.

In neo-communism, however, there lives a nostalgia for the social policies of the extinct Communist system. The collapse of Marxism-Leninism brought the introduction of market forces, the end of price fixing and a rise in prices. Pensioners and others living on fixed incomes are unhappy. Rents and health costs have risen, and unemployment is high during the transition to capitalism.

The loser's resentment

Neo-communism represents the resentment of the loser. It is a reaction against the difficulties of economic transformation, and a subculture of remembrance for the lost security of communism's social policies.

Berlin is a microcosm of this subculture of remorse. When I was there last month for the election of a mayor, one of the major planks of the Party of Democratic Socialism called for reinstitution of fixed rents. The residents of East Berlin, the former capital of Communist Germany, used to pay 32 East German marks a month for rent. With the unification of Germany in 1990, rent controls were abolished, and rents have risen to about 450 marks a month for a modest flat.

Meanwhile, reunified Berlin is experiencing a bullish construction boom as it prepares to again become the capital of Germany. But rent inflation creates a longing for what was.

The culture of nostalgia arises, too, from the insecurity brought about by high unemployment in the former East Germany. Every person in Communist Germany had a job, though not always a productive job.

With the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, the former East Germany lost its Russian markets. Because of its inefficiency and the low quality of its commodities, it could not find replacement markets in the West. Factories failed, and unemployment today stands at 12 percent in the eastern third of the country. Massive programs for the reduction of unemployment were the second-most important plank in the platform of the Berlin Party of Democratic Socialism.

The Western world must be aware of this rebirth of communism in the East. Parties with a Leninist-Stalinist past, even though they renounce it today, can easily revert to their former dictatorial principles.

Norman Levine, a historian, directs the Institute for International Policy at the American Graduate School of International Management, Glendale, Arizona.

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