Into the Dustbin of History

Migrants and refugees walk near razor-wire along a 3-meter-high fence secured by Hungarian police (R) at the official border crossing between Serbia and Hungary, near the northern Serbian town of Horgos on September 15, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCICELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images

by G. M. Tamás.

The ‘changes’ in Eastern Europe took place on the 200th anniversary of the French revolution. It seemed to many that it might be a second coming: a new revolution about, and for, human rights.

At the bicentennial, the consecrated and anointed masterpiece of popular historiography described the French – and implicitly, the recent East European – revolution thus:

The author did not want ‘…to imply… that nothing of consequence changed changed as a direct result of the first phase of the French Revolution. The liberties enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man for the protection of free speech, publication and assembly had brought forth a political culture in which the liberation of disrespect literally knew no bounds. […] The result was a polemical incontinence that washed over the whole country. […O]ne had to run very far indeed to escape the ubiquitous touch of politics. […N]othing outreached the long arm and booming voice of political harangue. This degree of mobilisation did not respect polite boundaries of privacy. Indeed privacy was itself suspect… Newspapers […] enjoyed reporting… stories of revolutionary Lysistratas who interrupted coition to reprove their husbands for taking oaths of loyalty to Lafayette. “Stop, stop, stop right there,” exclaimed one determined citizeness of the rue Saint-Martin in Paris…’ and so on.1

In the time-honoured manner of Burke, Tocqueville and Taine, human rights, direct popular power and the irruption of the masses in the public arena were presented both as sinister (totalitarian meddling with the intimacy of purdah) and as comical (theatricals; high-falutin chatter by poseurs, those horrible and vain intellectuals). ‘The West’ was at the same time egging on the liberal-democratic revolutions in the East and laughing their heads off at the earnest spectacle deployed according to their nominal principles. Having been an orator of the great demonstrations and gatherings in Budapest and other Hungarian towns in 1988/89, I was frequently interviewed at the time by Western journalists and diplomats whose supercilious smile suggested, ‘Are you taking seriously these platitudes we are paid to proffer?’

Philosophers and writers as influential public figures: this was an uncomfortable reminder of other revolutions that observers in 1989 were at pains to forget. Dissidents and marginals rising, if for a fleeting moment, to positions of power: this was not the orderly commercial society that that deeply conservative epoch had had in mind. Not reasoning and imagination were required, but tradition, adaptation and tranquillity. This point of view has proved ultimately victorious; the results are dismal.

For the re-establishment of tradition after the ‘interruption’ of a self-styled revolutionary régime could only mean artificial restoration which could only mean counter-revolution.2

Let us now consider the 99 years old revolutionary history of Eastern Europe. Without this, it would be quite impossible even to begin to understand the present crisis. But then revolutions are misunderstood. The most characteristic error has been committed by Hannah Arendt, following Burke; according to her the French revolution ‘…had emancipated nature… liberated the natural man in all men, and given him the Rights of Man to which each was entitled, not by virtue of the body politic to which he belonged but by virtue of being born’.3 This error, the very opposite of truth, has long been disposed of.3 It was the Old Régime which was grounded in nature and birth and blood (hence the privileges of the nobility, of ‘blue blood’), and it is the confusion of the natural and of the political that revolutions are directed against.

It was the separation of nature and the polis, unfinished by bourgeois revolution, that the European – East and Central European – socialist revolutions between 1917 and 1923 wanted to complete and sharpen. They all took place in monarchic and aristocratic societies with a strong state church. Privilege by birth – the fundamental injustice – has been always the primary target of all revolutions in history. In capitalism, this has taken the form of ethnic inequality and oppression, and expressed politically by colonial conquest and imperial war ‘between the nations’.

It is a scandalous short-sightedness of mainstream social theory and historiography to have ignored or forgotten that the revolutions started in 1917 were mostly revolutions against nationalism and war. The leaders and thinkers of the socialist revolution – Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, Lukács, Bloch – were those who, at the beginning a tiny minority, opposed the war and hated nationalism and imperialism. Peace has meant, then as now, internationalism. Marx and Engels had never been true internationalists and were at best ambivalent about colonisation. But the communists of 1917, 1918, 1919 have understood the dialectic of world market and circumscribed nation-state. We are taking ethnicism5 for granted and fail to understand how a thoroughly internationalist revolution could have been at all possible. Ethnic inequality, oppression of national minorities, racism in the colonies: these were the main enemy. The liberation of humankind from the inequality of nations, ethnic groups, races and religious denominations – this has attracted war-weary millions to join the communist cause.

Self-determination for all desirous to have it, peace without annexations and reparations, decolonisation: these were the aims inscribed on the red flags. This seems incredible today. The proponents of fascist counter-revolution and their apologists knew better.6 They knew that the world market which makes all that is solid melt into air needs a body underlying competition: and this body is the biopolitics of race. They knew why communist revolution had to be internationalist. Not in order to create a cosmopolitan world state, but to destroy cross-class solidarity and free the way before a class struggle to end all class struggle.

It is insufficiently understood that there are two fundamental aspects to capitalism: one is the world market and the other is the nation-state. It is the dialectic of the two – the most powerful combination of which has been named, somewhat inadequately, imperialism – that socialism was supposed to counter, and it was every time the particularist feature of global capitalism (the triad nationalism-racism-ethnicism) which has beaten socialism and saved capitalism and its political order that seemed, but it isn’t, separated from it.

Socialism first capitulated to nationalism in 1914 – and this has determined the fate of social democracy for another century – , then in 1927 with the announcement of the five-years plan, of ‘Socialism in One Country’, the exile of Trotsky and the betrayal of the Chinese communist revolution, then in the late 1930s during the Moscow trials, the politics of the Popular Front (the alliance with the bourgeoisie on an anti-German rather than anti-fascist basis) and the promotion of a philistine and conservative ‘Soviet patriotism’, the betrayal of republican Spain and, once again, of the Chinese revolution. (The result was Franco, Munich, the drôle de guerre, Pétain’s replacement of liberty, equality and fraternity with ‘famille, travail, patrie’ and the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.)

In 1945, the ill-informed Italian, French and East European resistance fighters thought that a new internationalist class struggle was on the agenda, but this was soon transmogrified into a crude anti-Western, mostly anti-American nationalism and a cult of 1848-style national independence, ‘peasant democracy’ and anti-Habsburg myth. Still, the memory of the ‘class’ mythology inherent in the workers’ movement still lingered, but in the Soviet bloc it was coloured by the idea that capitalism was essentially foreign, foreign not in the sense of ‘centre and periphery’, but in the Mussolinian sense of ‘proletarian vs. bourgeois nations’ and, later, by the Nazi notion of ‘old and young nations’ (cf. Das Recht der jungen Völker – the title of a 1919 book by Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, the theorist of the Third Reich: the young nations in question were the German and the Russian).

At the same time, there were attempts in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern bloc to create territorial and cultural autonomies for ethnic minorities (still called ‘nationalities’ in the Austro-Marxist fashion) together with federal systems of one kind or another. Ethnic discrimination was frowned upon. For a while. All these systems collapsed in 1989 together with the whole edifice of post-Stalinist ‘real socialism’, most awfully in Yugoslavia and in the Soviet Caucasus. The old Czecho-Slovak and Southern Slav nationalism disintegrated in a number of ethnic conflicts; even in the West, supra-ethnic nation-states such as Britain and Spain are losing their legitimacy and cohesiveness, too.

Classical ‘bourgeois’ nations (the model is, of course, Bonapartism and, to a certain extent, America) were supposed to neutralise status, ethnic, racial, regional, religious and gender inequality and thereby to develop cross-class national unity, a collective personality enabling the nation-state to action, especially against its foreign rivals, and to render class conflict inoperative. Class conflict was relegated to the realm of the ‘economy’, allegedly separate and independent from politics. This, in Western bourgeois societies was considered to be an element of ‘civil society’, the sphere of private interest and personal aspiration, devoid of legitimate and legal coercion by or upon the players, expressed by the unpredictable and stochastic freedom of the market and of Öffentlichkeit, while in the planned state capitalism of the Soviet bloc, class conflict was believed to have been resolved by the suppression of ‘private property’ while the separation of the producers from the means of production (the foundation of capitalist class society) continued unabated, and was politically formulated by another version of national unity, framed after the Twentieth Congress of the PCUS (1956) by ‘the state of the entire people’. Soviet-style societies had been led by good Jacobins who have indeed uprooted hereditary privilege, promoted a continuous circulation of élites and have kept up positive discrimination in favour of working-class boys and girls in educational institutions, but the fateful link between equality and nationalism remained decisive.

As the working-class credentials of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist states were undermined by proletarian and student riots or uprisings (1953, 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1981), the Soviet bloc – in keeping with the discredited, albeit substantially correct convergence theories – turned to welfarist-consumerist policies and then, being indebted to the West, to ‘market reforms’, that is, austerity and monetarism, like its bourgeois counterpart, only cursed with backwardness, low productivity and political immobility.

With the gradual disappearance of the political subject ‘proletariat’ in the West and its egalitarian absorption in the East, the collapse of ‘real socialism’ was seen exclusively as a political event, mainly a transition from a one-party régime to a competitive electoral one. The ruling ideology of 1989 was ‘human rights’, ‘national independence’ and ‘private property’, the familiar bourgeois idea, only 200 years later. As fast privatisation had meant unprecedented social tragedy and the penetration of global capital, together with a military and geostrategic takeover by the Western alliance, the new market capitalism was to appear, once again, as essentially foreign.

As the self-contradictory amalgam of ‘democratic nationalism’, European federalism and neoliberal globalism was forced upon the ex-Soviet nations, the new resistance fostered by local élites representing, usually, sub-national ethnic and middle-class aspirations (and the identification of the ‘country’ with the dominant ethnic or denominational group), the ‘spirit of 1945’ (democratic and anti-fascist egalitarianism) has been opposed to ‘1989’ (exactly as the ‘spirit of 1789’ has been opposed in Germany and Austria to the ‘spirit of 1914’, including by people like Max Weber and Thomas Mann). Hence the triumphant ethnicisation and racialisation of class conflict and social inequality (not only the victorious Western capitalists and the comprador bourgeoisie were deemed foreign, but also the poor: the Roma people and, increasingly, the immigrants are seen not only as undeserving, but also as racially alien, standing in for the whole underclass) and hence the uninhibited rehabilitation of the local fascist heritage. The open repudiation of every kind of universalism – and the Nazi identification of liberalism and Marxism, of capitalism and socialism with its anti-Semitic undertones – makes East European ‘public life’ a paradise for the disciples of Joseph de Maistre. This goes so far as the deliberate and vocal rejection of equality even as a remote ideal, not excepting ‘civic rights’. All the reactionary phenomena – misogyny, homophobia, racism, contempt for the poor, bureaucratic statism, deference to the mighty, repressive conformism, hatred of the intelligentsia, feudal nostalgia and, especially, the ethnic-racial closing of the cultural horizon – are rampant.

With the building of anti-refugee border fences, begun by the Hungarian government, now the latest European fashion, post-fascist Eastern Europe is the most valuable ally of Western islamophobia which has led to the abject defeat of the Eurocentric liberal ‘left’ here and everywhere. Particularly the heirs to the Evil Empire – I mean the Habsburg monarchy – , Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia (‘the Central Europeans’) are going through a moment of xenophobic and racist mobilisation never seen since the 1930s. It is worth noting that, according to the Right in the region, the influx of these obscure, fundamentalist, hidebound savages is caused by a surfeit of Enlightenment and cosmopolitanism and secularism. First, we have to defend our white, Aryan and Christian culture from the darkies and, second, according to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister (in his address from 28 February 2016) from liberals and from ‘the readers of Marx’. In a way, he is quite right: he knows that the enemy is internationalism, but he is lucky because that does not really exist any more. He and his allies are asserting the old verity according to which liberation and emancipation are opening the way to the barbarians, that is, to anybody outside the ruling class. Any hierarchical order seems egalitarian, compact and unitary if pitted against the outsider. When the French revolution declared that the nation was nothing else but the third estate, it had launched the opposite theory. The people was anybody apart from the ruling estates or orders. According to ethnicism, the nation is everybody who is white, Aryan, established-church Christian and at least middle-class, and the conflict is between them and those held to be foreign, regardless of their citizenship (of membership in the ‘political community’) but characterised by their race, mother-tongue, denomination, gender, sexual orientation; there is a biopolitical Fifth Column here of Untermenschen.

How can you repudiate and vindicate capitalism with the same gesture? By identifying capitalism with its political opposite. The trouble with capitalism is that there are foreigners and ‘readers of Marx’. The aim is to re-establish hereditary privilege and keep the market going. The price for this is to sacrifice even those derided bourgeois liberties that are in the way of contemporary capitalism en route, again, to tyranny. Eastern Europe has always believed that the evil is the foreign. It is now enthusiastically emulated everywhere in the absence of any countervailing force wirth mentioning.


1 Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Harmondsworth, London and New York: Viking Penguin, 1989, p.521

2 I have dealt with these matters in a number of writings, e. g., ‘The Legacy of Dissent’, in: Vladimir Tismaneanu, ed., The Revolutions of 1989, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, pp. 181-197; ‘Victory Defeated’, in: Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds., Democracy after Communism, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 126-132; ‘Counter-Revolution against a Counter-Revolution’, Socialist Register 2008, ed. Leo Panitch, Colin Leys, London: Merlin, 2007, pp. 284-294; ‘Un capitalisme pur et simple’, La Nouvelle Alternative, 60-61, March-June 2004, pp. 13-40; ‘Marx on 1989’, in: Gareth Dale, ed., First the Transition, then the Crash, London: Pluto, 2011, pp. 21-48.

Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

4 Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’ [1843], in: Early Writings, tr. Rodney Livingstone, Gregor Benton, Harmondsworth and London: Penguin, 1992, pp. 211-242. [1963], Harmondsworth and London: Penguin, 1990, p.

5 See my Les Idoles de la tribu: L’Essence morale du sentiment national, Paris: L’Arcantère, 1989 and ‘On Post-Fascism’, Boston Review, Summer 2000; ‘A Postscript to “Post-Fascism”: Preliminary Theses to a System of Fear’, Details, ed. WHW, Bergen Kunsthall, 2011, pp. 57-63; ‘Ethnarchy and Ethno-Anarchism’, Social Research, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 147-190; ‘Ethnicism after Nationalism’, Socialist Register 2016, ed. Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, London: Merlin, 2015, pp. 118-135.

6 See Ernst Nolte, The Three Faces of Fascism, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965. Cf. Nolte’s exceptionally interesting Marxismus und industrielle Revolution, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1983, esp. pp. 280-285, 557-482.

G. M. Tamás, Hungarian philosopher, essayist and public intellectual.

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