"PEOPLE at home are devastated - absolutely devastated!" said the Polish journalist. He was still in shock after the victory of Aleksander Kwasniewski in last Sunday's presidential elections. It had been bad enough when the voters reverted to post-communism at the general elections two years ago. Now they had chosen a post-communist president.
His question, in the anguish of the moment, was: how could we have done this to ourselves? But there is a wider question: does this thing we call "post-communism" really exist? These parties, now mostly calling themselves "social democrats" or "socialists", have a common ancestry in the communist parties which ruled the Soviet empire. But do they share anything else, and are they still of one family with the parties which hold power in China, North Korea, Vietnam or Cuba?
Post-communists now govern Poland and Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, Lithuania and Serbia. They dominate Belarus, although the last elections were declared invalid, and are the largest single group in the Ukrai- nian parliament. Communists (in this case, not significantly "post") came close behind Zhirinovsky's neo-fascists in Russia's 1993 elections. In Slovakia, Vlad- imir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, which dominates the government, is a melange of old communists and Slovak nationalists. Even in Germany, the PDS - repentant heir to the Socialist Unity Party which tyrannised East Germany - now scores huge minority votes in eastern Lander.
The message of all this is that post-communism is not a Sovietic monolith. It is not even a recognisable species. In different climates, it says different things and strikes any number of contradictory attitudes.
At the outset, there was striking similarity in the process of birth. Fallen from power, the party would usually throw out the old leadership, change its name, scrap the Leninist structure to allow internal debate and pledge itself to multi-party "bourgeois" democracy in a privatised free-market economy. But after that the parties diverged. Some have kept their early promises. Others betrayed them. In Russia, the Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov is almost Tsarist: it wants authoritarian government and the restoration of the empire. In eastern Germany, the PDS represents a regional backlash against west German "colonialism". In Hungary, as in Poland, the socialists or social democrats favour entry into Nato and the European Union, and seek to limit the price in poverty and unemployment paid for entry into the global economy: "capitalism at a human pace".
In Lithuania, President Algirdas Brazauskas and the post-communist government are com- mitted to defend national independence against Russia, and to reform the economy with deeds rather than the rhetoric of the previous nationalist government. In Serbia and Romania, post-communism functions as the instrument of chauvinist despotism. This wriggling, reptilian capacity to adapt is not as strange as it seems. Long before 1989, ruling communist parties were evolving to suit local conditions. The West preferred to regard them as obedient departments of a single empire, but by about 1970, communism as an ideology was dead. The only remaining believers were, ironically, the handful of "revisionists" and reformers who studied the early works of Marx and dreamt of restoring "Leninist norms of democracy" to the party.
The rest - the vast majority - were pragmatists. Some, especially local party bigwigs, built up immovable cliques of cronies who shared out luxuries and resisted all change. But others tried, within the narrow limits of what was possible, to modernise the economy and to conciliate the real feelings of the nation. Many communists shared the suppressed popular resentment of Soviet imperialism. They learned the risky craft of manipulating this resentment to strengthen their own position without provoking thunderbolts from the Soviet Union. …