Comrades, come rally
Oct 26th 2006 | JOHANNESBURG, NEW DELHI AND ROME
From The Economist print edition
Fifty years after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising, communism is thriving
HISTORY is perhaps on their side after all. At their annual conference next month, delegates from 70-odd Communist parties will be in a buoyant mood. Memories of Soviet crimes are fading, America's stock is falling and the injustices of global capitalism make an increasingly easy target. Communists always had good songs. Their political tunes of justice and solidarity may still sound hollow to some, but they now resonate more widely.
The comrades' label has become remarkably elastic. Some retain both a monopoly of power and a belief in socialism (eg, Cuba); some are dictatorial, but enthusiastic capitalists (China, Vietnam). Those that had a monopoly of power but lost it sometimes stay true to old beliefs (like the Czech party). Others have kept the name but dumped everything else (Moldova's Communists, uniquely for eastern Europe, regained power through the ballot box, promised to create another Cuba, and then turned pro-Europe and anti-Kremlin).
Another group spent much of their lives as the persecuted opposition to an undemocratic regime, and retain an aura of heroism as they operate out in the open (South Africa, Iraq). Lastly come those who have simply won a share of power in an established democracy (Italy, India).
Without a Soviet Union to act as ideological enforcer, the communist tribe is more scattered than ever, and differences matter much less. Boundaries that were once stark are now fuzzy. India's once-warring Communist parties are now electoral allies and coalition partners. Babis Angourakis, the international officer of Greece's party, the KKE, says that origins are no longer an issue: any party “still fighting for a socialist transformation of society and defending the proletarian revolution described by Marx, Engels and Lenin” is welcome at the annual gatherings that his party launched in 1998. Eurocommunists can rub shoulders with Stalinists who would once have called them traitors; even different brands of Maoists turn up, ranging from the Chinese party to former admirers of Albania's Enver Hoxha.
Friendship has its limits. Nepal's Maoists, who have taken power in large parts of the country after a lengthy rebellion, have little to do with their nominal mentors in China. They will not be present at this year's get-together; other parties view their armed struggle with distaste.
One difficulty is which model to defend. Almost all communists praise Cuba, the last outpost of what was once the Soviet empire. But North Korea's bizarre mixture of personality cult and paranoia is a harder sell: most defend it as a victim of American imperialism; only a small minority insist that it is a workers' paradise. The world's biggest communist country, China, looks like the sort of society Marx criticised, not the one that he wanted to create. Libero Della Piana, the national organiser of America's Communist Party, says dryly that the Chinese enthusiasm for profit “is a source of discussion in the world movement”.
But the biggest problem, history, is no longer such a vote-loser. Many who lived in their shadow may regard the hammer and sickle as akin to the swastika, but elsewhere communism prompts not revulsion but an attractive frisson of naughtiness. It is a good way of annoying conservatives, Atlanticists and plutocrats. European communists such as Mr Angourakis are cock-a-hoop about their success in blunting an attempt by the centre-right parties in the European Parliament last year to equate communism with Nazism.
No more tradition's chains shall bind us
In much of the former Soviet empire, relabelled former communists plus their intelligence officers and other henchmen hold power. The Hungarian prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, infuriates his anti-communist opponents (who boycotted this week's official commemoration of the 1956 uprising) with his close family ties to the old Soviet-installed regime. Nobody else seems to care.
Reuters Give me that old-time religion
Some of that hold on power is fuelled by communist slush funds adeptly recycled into capitalist business. Hundreds of millions of dollars of such money have been flooding into Romania and Bulgaria as they prepare to join the European Union. “They're not stupid, these guys”, says one Balkan security official. “They got the money out to Austria before they lost power. And now they are sure that it will be a safe investment here, they are bringing it back again.”
The most spectacular example of the erosion of the anti-communist taboo is in Italy, historically the home of the most powerful communists in an advanced economy. No fewer than three parties with communist roots are part of Romano Prodi's left-of-centre government. Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's president, and Massimo D'Alema, the foreign minister, were both leading members of the old Italian Communist Party.
Its Eurocommunist members mostly re-emerged as the Democrats of the Left, the biggest party in Mr Prodi's coalition. But two groups of hardliners are also in the government. Communist Refoundation, the bigger of the two, got its best result for years in the parliamentary election in April, 7.2% in the election to the Senate, giving it 27 seats out of 315. Its leader, Fausto Bertinotti, is a strikingly patrician figure (a habitual feature of Italian proletarianism). He successfully appealed to a generally leftist constituency of pacifists, anti-globalisers and gay and lesbian campaigners. The party's most flamboyant lawmaker is a transvestite actor and singer. All very different from the puritan spirit of traditional communism.
The Refounded Communists have muscles to flex. Mr Bertinotti took from the Democrats of the Left the speakership of the lower house, a post that brings prestige and influence over the parliamentary timetable. Italy's tax-and-spend budget shows his influence, as does the halt to privatisation, which would have hurt his core constituency of public-sector employees.
In South Africa, by contrast, leading members of the Communist Party have turned into stern fiscal conservatives in the African National Congress-led government. But the rank and file, often active in the trade-union movement, is blocking labour-market reform, and chafing at an orthodox economic policy that it sees as too harsh on the poor and unemployed. The party is threatening to stand on its own in future elections, an option that would look more realistic if the ANC were to split.
India's two Communist parties are more powerful and more contradictory. Both use communist symbolism, but in practice support the mixed economy and rule of law. Their nationwide appeal means that they are an important electoral force at national level; their block of 50-odd seats forms a key part of the governing coalition led by the Congress party. They also run three states: Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal. This latter state has been ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for 29 years, with a remarkable mixture of strong party discipline and ruthless electoral tactics. Traditional left-wing policies such as land reform have now been supplemented under the state's chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, by a keen search for foreign investment, and support for privatisation—ideas that the party shuns at a national level.
Solid pragmatism in south Asia does little to excite the comrades in the wider world. Mr Angourakis reserves his greatest enthusiasm for the onward march of radical leftism in South America. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, once a hardline leader of the Soviet-backed Sandinista regime, is the favourite in the presidential election on November 5th. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez calls himself a “21st century socialist” but is adored by communists round the world, and returns the favour with subsidies for Cuba and comrades elsewhere in Latin America, especially Nicaragua.
Mr Angourakis says prospects are at their brightest since the “collapse” of 1991. The fate of hundreds of millions of people has worsened since the “counter-revolution” of that year, he says. Now the failure of “imperialist wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq creates new opportunities.
Hang on—the Iraqi and Afghan Communist parties were among the most determined foes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban respectively; America's invasion has put the Iraqi Communists in government. But on another point, most communists are clear; they eschew any alliance with jihadism or Islamic fundamentalism. Such opportunism, says one true believer disdainfully, is only for Trotskyists.
Cold war survivors
Let each stand in his place
Oct 26th 2006 | PRAGUE
From The Economist print edition
Some cold war skeletons are in surprisingly good health
MOST cold war institutions shrivelled in the 1990s, along with their superpower backing. The big communist front outfits that fought propaganda wars, awash with cash and stuffed with spies, have fizzled away in a mixture of apathy and swindles. This week's court-enforced auction of a hulking concrete pile in the heart of Prague belonging to one of them, the International Union of Students, was halted amid squabbles among its dozens of creditors.
On the other side of the barricades, the World Anti-Communist League changed its name and retreated to Taiwan, where it now, oddly, pursues cross-straits ties with “Mainland China”. The Captive Nations' Committee, which united émigré stalwarts, has all but folded, though the White House still dedicates a week in July to countries enslaved by communism. America slashed the budget for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Library shelves emptied of anti-communist tomes: Questions of Peace and Socialism ceased publication; so did Problems of Communism.
But RFE/RL continues trenchant coverage of Russia, and has launched new services in Arabic and Persian. Meanwhile solidnet.org, a website that co-ordinates the orthodox communist parties' international ties, may not be the Comintern, but it offers a pungent foretaste of a get-together in Lisbon next week: “Dangers and Potentialities of the International Situation, the Imperialist Strategy and the Energy Issue, the People's Struggle and the Experience of Latin America, the Prospect of Socialism.”
Friday, October 27, 2006