Who's left? Who's right?
Apr 23rd 2009
The enduring uselessness of traditional political labels
THE terms “left” and “right” and right don’t mean much in politics anymore and in the ex-communist world they are particularly confusing. Last week’s report in The Economist on Moldova described that country’s ruling Communists as a “centre-right” party, which attracted some sharp feedback. At first sight the idea of centre-right communists sounds as odd as “moderate Trotskyites” or “secular jihadists”. But most other conventional labels would fit the ruling crowd in Moldova worse.
The lamentably crude but sometimes convenient conventional political spectrum counts “left” (or sometimes “liberal”) as egalitarian, and thus sceptical of bankers and rich people, pro-social spending, pro-gay and dovish in foreign policy. “Right” (or sometimes “conservative” is pro-business, pro-family, and patriotically hawkish on defence and foreign affairs. That misses out whole chunks of the political debate. Are civil liberties a “left” or “right” issue? Cynics would say that it depends who’s in jail: Nelson Mandela drew most (but not all) of his support from one crowd, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from another.
The extremes still hold. It remains a safe assumption that ultra-leftists will sport the tattered remains of communist iconography (hammers, sickles, stars, AK-47s and the like). They will have complicated but enthusiastic views about Marxism and will hate everything America stands for. At the other extreme, ultra-rightists usually nurse sympathies for the Third Reich, hate Jews and most foreigners and want to restore their nation’s past glories. Both lots of extremists are riddled with squabbles and attract loonies.
The problem comes as you get closer to the middle. The political arguments in post-communist countries are not easily reducible into the classic left-right split. What do you call a party such as Vladimir Putin’s United Russia? In one sense it is profoundly conservative, in that it reveres the Orthodox church, dislikes public protest and hits every patriotic button in sight. But it has spawned a monstrous, predatory state bureaucracy and also shows a sweeping contempt for the rule of law. That is reminiscent of previous Kremlin tenants, one of whom, the arch Bolshevik and priest-murderer Vladimir Lenin, remains unburied on Red Square. Contemporary Russian history books even sanitise the Stalin legacy.
Similarly, the Moldovan Communists support business (particularly bits that benefit them) and have dumped Marx. They are keen on a strong Moldovan national identity (arguably another “conservative” point), and they certainly don’t want redistribution of wealth.
The ex-communist countries seem to need a different political grid, perhaps with multiple axes, rather than just the single one running from left to right. One axis on this grid would show whether the party defends or wants to change the status quo. Most Estonian political groupings are status-quo parties, for example. The Moldovan parties that want reunion with Romania clearly are not.
A second would concern rejection or nostalgia about the communist past. At one extreme would be, say Poland’s Law and Justice party, which affects to regard everything in and about the People’s Republic as a complete and utter sham (though this does not, it seems, include the academic qualifications that its leading members gained under that regime). Against that are parties that think that not everything that happened before 1989 was worthless. Hungary’s Socialists are a moderate example of that, the ruling party in Belarus a more extreme one.
A third axis would show corruption at one end and public-spiritedness at the other. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a Romanian scholar at the Hertie School in Berlin, compares parties in the eastern part of the region to medieval armies that “support themselves by plunder” by capturing state resources.
With five notches on each axis that makes 125 possible combinations. One of them should fit the Moldovan Communists.
Friday, April 24, 2009