Friday, April 24, 2009

Europe view on Left/Right


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.


The_Skeptic said...

I would argue that the problem is not so much the inadequacy of the left-right spectrum model in the context of Eastern European politics, as it is the immaturity of those political systems themselves. In some countries, real political cleavages among most parties are virtually nonexistent. In some cases, for example in Moldova this "consensus" may be nominal, where virtually all major parties, the PCRM included, have a nearly identical platform based on EU integration, "modernization of the economy," and other such vague proposals. In other cases, such as Ukraine, while ostensibly there are significant differences in the policies espoused by the various parties, once these parties come into power they all essentially implement the same set of policies, or if differences do in fact appear, these rarely reflect the formal divergences between the parties on those issues, and more often than not are based on either personal interests or unprincipled politicking. This problem is almost endemic throughout Eastern Europe, and is particularly acute in the states that emerged from the former Soviet Union.

Sean Hanley said...

This reflection is a bit behind the curve. Political scientists have for years ignored left/right, and indeed and all other conventional labels, for parties in both Eastern *and* Western Europe and views parties as located in at least two dimensions. Most typically one to do with economic redistribution and another do with social liberalism vs moral traditionalism, which covers most parties in most countries with reasonably accuracy. Other axes (anti-communism, pro-/anti-Europeanism) can be added in according to taste. A topical illustration of this multi-dimensional approach covering both halves of the continent can be found in the EUProfiler site, which plots the positions of parties contesting Euro elections across the EU27
A separate factor muddying the discussion is the extent to which parties compete on ideological lines versus the extent to which they simply divide up the spoils for different coalitions of interests. The latter pattern is more characteristic of, say, Russian politics, but has a historical pedigree in US big city politics.
Finally, it's worth treading very carefully with generalization about Eastern Europe. The "right" in the Czech Republic is very different from the "right" in Poland or Slovenia. Some parties (e.g. in Romania) may indeed akin to medieval armies living of the land, others are reasonable approximations of their W European counterparts.