What’s left of the left in Central and Eastern Europe?

Dr. Luke March, Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics; Deputy Director of the Princess Dashkova Russia Centre

It goes without saying that the left (in the form of governing Marxist-Leninist parties) was the dominant force in Central and Eastern Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. It also goes without saying that this legacy has been problematic for left-wing parties trying to regain support in the post-Soviet era. Nor was this taint confined to the East – globally, many left-wing parties suffered for the misperception that ‘socialism’ had died with Soviet communism. After all, this was the period of the ‘End of History’, ushering in the belief that (neo-)liberal values were dominant and that ideological challenges to capitalism had ended.

The international financial-economic crisis of 2008 onwards has revived interest in the left, not least because this should be the ‘perfect storm’ for left-wing politics: a crisis originating in unfettered market practices has led to widespread economic decline, social immiseration, unemployment and inequality – indeed, in many ways it appears to vindicate long-held left-wing arguments. However, across Europe, the obvious economic and social crisis has not yet produced consistent dividends for the left – a few victories here, a few defeats there, but nothing like a genuine upsurge.

Has the situation in the East been any different? On the face of it, no. There have been some notable gains (e.g. the Albanian Socialists winning in June 2013, the Romanian Social Democrats gaining government in January). On the other hand, social democrats are very weak in several countries (such as Poland and Hungary), and the broader left (the ‘radical left’ and Greens) are rarely strong. Indeed, the left has generally been out of government in Central and Eastern Europe since before the crisis and any major electoral dividend since the crisis is difficult to discern (see Table). What explains this?

Data are aggregate figures, from 20 former communist countries, gathered from www.parties-and-elections.eu. Data correct as at 10 July 2013.

What is the left in CEE?

As elsewhere in Europe, the contemporary left comprises three main party families. The social democrats are generally the dominant partner (except in the former Soviet Union, where they have weaker historical roots). Several of these parties are so-called ‘successor parties’ (i.e. former ruling parties whose leadership cadres jettisoned Marxism but still sought to exploit their parties’ former connections and resources). The radical left is stronger in the former Soviet Union (e.g. Russia, Ukraine, and especially Moldova, whose communist party is one of the most electorally successful in history), but far weaker in Central and South-Eastern Europe (with the main exception being the Czech Republic). The reasons are complex, but much is explained by a greater stigma outside the former Soviet Union (a perception that communism was a foreign importation and that the countries’ destiny was to ‘Return to Europe’ have succeeded in delegitimising the radical left). In contrast, (with a few exceptions such as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Latvia) the Greens are generally weak across the region. Again, history explains much. The liberalisation in the West in the 1960s that ushered in new ‘post-materialist’ (environmentalist, feminist, pacifist and individual liberty) movements had no analogue in the East, where the late sixties entailed a period of declining liberties (compare the different role 1968 played across the continent). The Greens emerged as a political expression for these new strata. Only now are sporadic environmental and sexual rights groups very tentatively gaining political relevance in the East, and the political-cultural environment they confront is often very hostile.

These three left-wing party families have differences between them that should not be minimised, and which explain some of the left’s overall weakness. All strands are ‘left’ in that they broadly stand for equality, social justice, international solidarity and community cohesion. The social democrats and radical left share a belief in an activist welfare state (although they differ markedly over its parameters), whereas the Greens distrust central state action and prefer localism. The social democrats are the most uncritically ‘Atlanticist’ (i.e. pro-US, pro-EU, pro- NATO and favouring institutions like the IMF and World Bank), the Greens more critical but not supportive of radical change; the radical left in contrast argues for a transformation of the international architecture (including the abolition of NATO). All three families increasingly criticise neo-liberalism and call for greater market regulation, but only the radical left supports an (often vague and unspecified) ‘transformation’ of capitalism. Needless to say, the relative emphasis placed on social vs. individual liberties, economic vs. environmental protection, and precise policies varies much between individual parties as well as the party families. For instance, the social democrats and Greens in CEE have generally been more neo-liberal and Atlanticist than many of their Western European counterparts, whereas the CEE radical left (the vast bulk of whom are communist parties) has, conversely tended to be more Sovietophile, materialist and traditionalist than those in the West (for example, parties such as the Portuguese Left Bloc and Icelandic Left-Green Movement are fully post-materialist feminist and environmentalist parties).

The left: four crises?

Why has the left generally failed to exploit the current crisis? Because it is suffering from (at least) four crises of its own. First, the post-communist legacy still entails a perception that left-wing economic policy prescriptions are unviable. This is perhaps scarcely credible given the current travails of neo-liberalism, but one only has to look at a reputable publication like The Economist, to see how even relatively mild Keynesian economic solutions are painted as obsolete throwbacks. Many left parties confront the hostility of major economic and media concerns who present tax-raising or protectionist policies as economically illiterate.

Second, although this hostility is evidence of a neo-liberal hegemony, we can hardly speak of a neo-liberal conspiracy when left-wing parties are complicit in their own misfortunes and have failed at providing a distinct vision. Many left-wing parties (particularly social democratic parties under the influence of Blair and Schröder’s so-called ‘Third way’) actively embraced the widespread deregulation of banks and markets and so become utterly implicated in the crisis of neo-liberalism that they now excoriate. Moreover, those parties that remained critical of neo-liberalism have a real problem in presenting a viable alternative. Critics such as The Economist may be painting a distorted picture, but the argument that in the era of globalisation and credit agencies market-regulating policies will cause capital and business flight and economic disruption cannot be merely dismissed. The left (and particularly the radical left) argues that transnational governance and regulation can help protect states against such exigencies. However, the painfully slow progress of the EU’s adoption of a financial transaction tax indicates the major problems about building the necessary transnational consensus over even minimal market regulation.

The third major crisis of the left is rooted in its changing social basis. The industrial proletariat has long been a minority in European countries, and changing identities have meant that social class is more fluid and less cohesively linked to party fortunes than fifty years ago. Affiliated organisations such as trade unions are often in long-term decline. Economic cleavages are just one of many in many countries. But if the left is not the party of the workers, what is it? What kind of new issues and new strata can it encapsulate to make up for the attrition of its social support? The emergence of the Greens in the 1980s was prompted in part by social democrats’ inability to address new socio-cultural changes in Western societies. The emergence of a new radical left in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany in the 2000s was similarly prompted by a perception that ‘neo-liberal’ social democrats were deserting their traditional supporters and policies.

The fourth crisis is that the left’s message is no longer distinct. This is clearly related to the fracturing of this social base. If the left no longer speaks for the workers, if equality is now considered economically illiterate, then the left often finds itself putting forward a message little different from its competitors. Indeed, since the 2008 crisis there has been a lot of ‘red-washing’ – i.e. competitors adopting policies which the left has traditionally regarded as their own. Leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were among the most forthright in criticising the excesses of the market (small matter that their policies did not substantiate their rhetoric). Similarly, a number of right-wing populists have embraced socially protectionist themes (for example the British National Party’s demand for ‘British Jobs for British Workers’), and so appeal to many former social democrat voters who feel that their parties’ embrace of globalisation has left them defenceless to foreign competition.

Problems and opportunities in the East

The left in Central and Eastern Europe confronts similar crises, but they take on a specific form. First, the communist legacy is more contradictory. In many countries it is much more divisive. Anti-communism is a distinct and constant feature of political discourse (e.g. in the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia). Radical left parties have sometimes been banned (e.g. in Romania), and in many countries barely exist. On the other hand, left-wing ideas have significant subcultural support (particularly in the former Soviet Union). The ‘successor parties’ were able to exploit popular yearning for pro-welfare policies and nostalgia for the stabilities of Soviet times in the 1990s, although the political boon of legacy has much declined two decades on.

Second, even more than in the West, has the Eastern left failed to advocate a realistic political or economic alternative. The general trajectory of transitions from communism has been (broadly speaking) rightwards, involving the building of capitalism and (in many cases) new nations. Those successor parties that entered government in the 1990s (such as the Hungarian Socialist Party) enthusiastically embraced what some commentators dub a ‘socalism of transition’: programmes of market liberalisation and orientation towards the EU and US that had little, if any, obvious left-wing content. These parties were thus implicated in neo-liberal policies at an even earlier stage than their western counterparts. The radical left, where it has existed in the East, has generally been strongly nostalgic, even revanchist (e.g. Russia, Ukraine), and as such has not been seen as a viable alternative government. In the one case where the radical left has governed (Moldova, from 2001-2009), its policies were scarcely identifiably ‘socialist’ (although there was a slowdown in privatisation). Finally, the East European Greens are generally more neo-liberal than their Western counterparts, taking on the ‘neither left nor right’ image that many of their Western counterparts have now abandoned. Indeed, many have participated in government with right-wing or liberal parties.

Third, if the Western parties have had problems with a changing social basis, the Eastern ones have faced the absence of any social basis whatsoever. After all, the Western left emerged as a product of historical labour-capital conflicts in the course of industrialisation, and once aspired to be mass parties emerging out of working-class movements. In most former communist countries (principal exceptions being Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria) the left was relatively weak prior to communist rule, and industrialisation was a product of, rather than a precursor to, the communist regime. The major mass movements in the 1980s and early 1990s were obviously against the communist system. In several cases (most notably Poland), the trade unions were an integral part of the anti-communist movement. Elsewhere, the mainstream trade unions remain heavily affected by their past as Leninist transmission belts – they are far more involved in the co-optation of workers and management in corporatist relations with the state than they are genuine defenders of workers’ rights. Accordingly, the trade unions are only very rarely willing or able to act as the fellow-travellers of social democratic or radical left parties as they are to varying degrees in the West. The Eastern communist parties are not workers’ parties at all – in many cases, if they have a consistent support base it is both pensioners and the former Party apparat (who often overlap).

Fourth, the left’s message in Central and Eastern Europe is still more indistinct than in the West. Polling data does show that a majority of the population in former communist countries does understand the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and are able to place themselves on a left-right scale (although to a lesser extent than in the West). However, the relatively fluid post-communist party systems have meant that consistent ideological positions are rarer: it is common for ‘left-wing’ parties to appropriate ‘right-wing’ messages and vice-versa. A particular problem for the left is a menagerie of ‘social populist’ parties using socially protectionist rhetoric alongside national-religious slogans. These parties may be more radically inclined (such as the former Polish Self-Defence party) or more centrist (such as Smer-SD in Slovakia, which initially took a ‘neither left nor right’ image before adopting a more mainstream social democratic identity). Eastern parties have a tendency to be more leader and less programme-oriented than Western parties. Moreover, there are a number of programmatic differences that tend to divide Eastern and Western parties that we have already hinted at: Eastern social democrats tend to be more uncritically Atlanticist than Western ones; Eastern radical leftists are undoubtedly more communist, traditionalist and socially conservative that Western ones, whereas Eastern Greens tend to be more focussed on political than social rights, and more Green than Red. All of these divisions make articulating a distinct message across Europe still harder.


The current juncture confronts us with a definite crisis of neo-liberal capitalism. Unfortunately for the left, it coincides with (and to some extent has exacerbated) a range of internal ideological and strategic crises. Although it presents the left with some clear opportunities, there is a high risk that it will fail to capitalise, and will cede ground to other parties (particularly those of populist protest). Certainly, there is no shared pan-European response to the crisis, not least because the left is divided into three distinct party families (social democrats, the radical left and Greens), who share some generic aims (e.g. social justice and opposition to neo-liberalism), but who have fundamental disagreements over the nature of these aims, not just between but within the party families.

Nevertheless, the prospects for the left should not be underestimated. At least in the West, where the left has far more stable electoral and social roots, it is hardly likely to disappear as an electoral force, and cyclical changes in the preferences of the electorate may well make the left an attractive governing option again (particularly if the current ‘age of austerity’ continues to immiserate European populations). But re-calibration between the different party families (e.g. greater support for the Greens and radical left) is likely to complicate matters in future – recent elections have shown that the era of social democratic dominance may be over and in future the left party families will increasingly need to search for consensus and cooperation. Moreover, the question of what actually the left can do differently from the right in office has not been resolved. In the East, the situation is more complicated, because all left party families except the radical left have weaker social roots and since the radical left is dominated by ageing communists, its future is far from assured. Accordingly, situations where the left can be all but annihilated as a result of corruption scandals (as in Hungary and Poland in the 2000s) may well recur. Against this, generational and cultural change may help the Greens to gain the prominence they did in Western Europe in the 1980s onwards. Newer post-communist radical left groups (such as Hungary’s Fourth Generation Party) may benefit as the communist-era stigma gradually declines.

For Russia, the left can present an awkward partner – in part because its own internal contradictions mean that a consistent ‘left’ policy across Europe is difficult to identify. It is undoubtedly true that the ideological proclivities of the current Russian authorities and the ruling United Russia party (e.g. their emphasis on the strong state and religious/cultural traditions) would mean that they are closest to conservative parties (it is no coincidence that United Russia sits in the conservative ‘European Democrat Group’ in the Parliamentary Committee of the Council of Europe). Of the left groups, the social democrats and Greens (in particular) tend to have a stronger normative accent on human rights issues that means that they are no less critical of Russia than many liberal parties (for example, it is the Greens that have voiced most dissatisfaction with Russia over the Pussy Riot case). Perhaps paradoxically, it is the radical left who have positions closest to Russia on some issues (particularly their criticism of NATO and EU militarisation). Some communist parties, although far from all radical left parties, remain instinctively pro-Russian. However, in general radical left parties’ marginal position in European politics makes them less viable as potential partners.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the political and cultural differences between Europe and Russia mean that even European conservative and nationalist parties have significant policy divergences from Russian views (for example, many tend to be strongly pro-American). All in all, Russia would be advised to cultivate a range of political partners, including the left. Above all, the left’s continued importance in many European party systems, East and West, and its regular participation in governance make it an important force with which for Russia should pursue pragmatic relations and dialogue.


This post was originally published by the Russian International Affairs Council. We gratefully acknowledge their permission to republish it.


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