Shaking Hands with the Past: Introduction

This is the Introduction-chapter of the doctoral thesis written by Tomas Hellén in 1996. Information about the PDF, abstract, keywords and citation is found here.

Who but archive rats would fail to realise that parties and leaders must be tested by their deeds primarily and not simply byt heir declarations?

—Joseph Stalin

This study deals with political transition, continuity and change. More specifically, it scrutinises politics and society in three Central European countries—Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary—which in 1989, that ‘year of the avalanche’, abandoned political systems based on communist party hegemony and planned economic activity for liberal pluralism and market-mode transfer.

Many scholars and decision-makers opine that historical precedents combined with current economic statistics give more than enough reason to regard the prospects for democracy in Central Europe as very bleak indeed. Conditions for making Eastern Europe safe for democracy have been called no better after the fall of communism than they were at the end of the First World War—as one observer put it: ‘if economic prosperity, presumably assuredbya market economy, is essential for democracy, the prospects are grim.’ (1) Whether one agrees with that or not, it appears clear that the nature and strength of anti-democratic dispositions in the area is an enticing and important research topic.

This book is in some respects part of the flourishing ‘transitology’ industry, which deals with the modalities of the collapse of Real Existing Socialism and with the problems of creating new mechanisms. But it also goes beyond that. Despite the enormous efforts and resources devoted to the study of communism and the Socialist Bloc, few Western observers had anticipated what eventually happened in 1989-90. Adam Przeworski has asserted that the collapse of communism indeed signifies a ‘dismal failure of political science.’(2) Neither was the nature of Eastern European communism fully understood, nor the fact taken in that ‘[t]he conflicts that preceded communism have not been abolished during the four decades of state socialism. On the contrary, they continued to exist underneath the bogus veneer of Marxist-Leninist propaganda.’(3) And if the communist take-over did not mean a clean break with the past, what does that imply about post-communism?

The introduction of communism nevertheless constituted a major challenge to the semior underdeveloped societies of Eastern Europe, which until 1945 had been characterised by hierarchical authoritarian modes of government, charismatic leaders, and state-centred political and economic systems tending towards stagnation. Communism, through its modernising ambitions, blocked some aspects of the pre-1945 political cultures, but reinforced others. The new power elite was as authoritarian in its attitudes as the former ruling strata, believed in etatism—i.e. the primacy of the state in political, social and economic development—and understood redistribution by the state in a bureaucratic manner without reference to society. (4)

This study is one more of political continuity than one of political change. Two problems in particular need to be clarified. One is the legacy of the political and cultural past and its influence on the present, the tentative assumption being that political-cultural patterns, once established, possess considerable autonomy and influence over the development of attitudes and institutions. The second concerns empirical findings about Central European political cultures in the post-communist period, and contrasting them with features of earlier periods. We are thus concerned with ‘political culture’: admittedly a ticklish concept—not a theory in itself, but only referring to a set of variables which can be applied in the construction of theories.(5)

The hypothesis underlying this book is indeed one of an ‘augmented’ or ‘grand continuity’. In the first place, this refers to the ‘accident-proneness’ of the Central and Eastern European countries throughout the 20th century. Political life in the area has been characterised by unstable institutions, foreign intervention, centrifugality and wild swings between the extremes of the ideological spectrum, and by a general lack of moderation. The hypothesis of a grand continuity has a sub-plot concerning the communist rulers: the assumption that they, in the final analysis, were less revolutionary than they themselves—and certainly many outside observers, too—would have liked to think. This study aims to display the extent to which they adapted their policies and ideologies to the social order they were faced with. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue-, the communist world view was a less than consistent mix of Marxist social science, revolutionary radicalism, economic utopianism, authoritarianism, nationalism and Soviet intervention. It was also—and this should not be forgotten—to some extent a product of and designed to create mass-level support.

On the other hand, all was not continuity. The violent processes of social engineering — or, more bluntly: genocide and ethnic cleansing—during the 1940’s changed the ethnic composition in the region almost beyond recognition. During the following decades, the socio-economic structure was irreversibly altered as the communists vigorously pushed through their modernisation project. The policies of class war, crash industrialisation, collectivisation of agriculture, urbanisation and mass enrolment in education did make the Eastern and Central European societies more modern, creating sociostructural features that made them more susceptible to liberalist ideas of secularism, tolerance and participatory pluralism. The great paradox appears to be that the communist regimes in some respects became victims of their own successes, and in realising this gradually turned away from modernisation towards traditionalism. This process reinforced continuity in sociopolitical structures, by gradually bringing elements of the communist nomenklatura closer and even into the right-wing tradition or political culture.

* * *

This being fundamentally a comparative study, the analysis of the countries in the chosen set will be made in parallel, both thematically and chronologically. With the relationship between continuity and change being the main point of interest, it is only logical that the study basically is organised according to a chronological principle. Each epoch is discussed with reference to its contribution to the understanding of the transition from communism.

Traditional qualitative social science methodology dominates in this book, but is supplemented and reinforced by the use of quantitative data. The sources for both qualitative and quantitative data are mostly secondary, with the effect that much attention must be devoted to systematic criticism of sources. In fact, criticism of the sources is itself part of the method.

One important primary source of quantitative data are the 1972 and 1983 editions and supplementing databases of the World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators. These supply information on, i.a., political stability, social structure and economic developments during the era of communist hegemony. Another principal source of primary quantitative data is the set of East/West surveys conducted in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1990-91 under the auspices of the Times Mirror Centre for the People & the Press6, which is complemented by some country-specific survey data. These survey data track both wider attitudes and party-political affiliations at approximately the time of the founding elections of 1989-91. The results are then analysed with a comparative method and contrasted with action on the élite level.

Chapter 2 is devoted to a discussion of theoretical issues. The choice of country sample, which indeed encompasses only some former members of the defunct Socialist Bloc, will be elucidated. We will also look into the history, content and nature of the ideologies of the radical left and right from the late 19th century onwards, and attempt to find a ‘radical nexus’ uniting the extremes of the political spectrum. More specifically, we will look for the roots of the post-communist right not only in the pre-war semi-fascist and fascist movements, but also in the communist regimes and their attitudes towards the national and religious heritage. This approach comes close to the one frequently used in studies of Russia, where the embryo of the post-communist radical right is often seen in the nationalist wing of the CPSU. Consequently, the definition here of the ‘political right’ is broader than the one usually applied in a conventional Western context.

The analysis of the pre-communist and communist eras will mainly take place on the elite and the macro level. The reason is mainly practical: the absence of reliable and comprehensive survey-type data and of valid ecological electoral data. The chapters dealing with these periods will thus combine a largely chronological narrative with content analysis and examinations of socio-economic and demographic data. This method, while the only one available, has its obvious shortcomings. Yet in societies ruled by authoritarian means by a fairly narrow political and technocratic elite, intra-elite conflicts are both highly relevant from a power-politics perspective, and can be assumed to provide reliable indications of masslevel attitudes.

The history and theory of nationalism and xenophobia within the conservative, radicalright and communist framework is deliberated at length throughout the book. It is almost trite to note that Central Europe was a hotbed of inter-communal strife during the first half of the 20th century. Our hypothesis, however, goes beyond that. We will argue that nationalism played a major political role also during the era of communist domination: occasionally taking the form of anti-regime or anti-Soviet outbursts, at other times being exploited by the communists themselves in order to enhance popularity and legitimacy.

The focal point of the macro-structural analysis in this book is the general topic of modernisation, state-building and nation-building. One of our presumptions is that not only state-building in Central Europe, but nation-building as well was incomplete at the time of the communist ascent to power. The communists’ promise to speed up state- and nation-building was an important source of popular support. Socialism and membership in the powerful Socialist Bloc was also portrayed as vital for the defence against revanchism, propagated with powerful anti-Western and anti-cosmopolitan allusions. The attempts at accelerated nation-building also served as legitimisation for the repression of national and ethnic minorities and provided the thinnest of disguises for the xenophobic campaigns that the regimes or factions within them repeatedly orchestrated. Yet even if the communist governments fanned nationalism from above, they suppressed similar expressions from below, branding them as counter-revolutionary, bourgeois or even fascist.(7)

Chapter 3 deals with the period up until the end of the Second World War, and encompasses a fairly detailed comparative political history of Central Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Obviously, the main question posed in the chapter is why democracy in inter-war Eastern and Central Europe collapsed, giving way to authoritarianism. The inter-war crisis of democracy will be analysed using a range of macro-oriented structural theories, with the hypothesis that weak democratic institutions fell prey to a combination of internal and external pressures.

The following two chapters, 4 and 5, cover the period of established communist hegemony. Chapter 4 recounts the communist take-over and the formative years until the death of Stalin, while Chapter 5 runs up until the break-down phase of 1989-90. This apportion is not founded on, nor should it indicate, an assumption of discontinuity. It need, however, hardly be pointed out that the communist ascent to power was a watershed in the political history of Eastern Europe, while Stalin’s passing away led to huge political commotion in Eastern and Central Europe, causing a decrease in direct Soviet control and the gradual and reluctant acceptance in Moscow of the theory of national roads to socialism. In Chapter 5, particular attention is devoted to the major crises that shook communist Central Europe as a result of the dismantling of Stalinism in 1953-56, during the Prague Spring of 1968, and in conjunction with the Polish ‘long summer of discontent’ in 1980-81. Both chapters will also deal with the economic and social transformation processes instigated by the communists and their structural effects.

The final part of this book focuses on the evolution and programmatic approaches of the post-transition political forces, and correlates them with the attitude profiles of their supporters and the public at large. These findings will in turn be compared with the pretransition and pre-communist socio-political structures, in order to find indications of continuity and change. It should hardly come as a surprise that the political parties emerging onto the scene as communism went down the drain were at a loss for ideological points of reference. Some chose to attach themselves to ready-made Western models, others to the parties of the pre-communist era; a few even rejected traditional concepts of politics altogether, striving for some sort of anti-political ‘Third Way’ between—or above— communism and full-blown capitalism. In any case, the voters of the founding elections of 1990-91 were faced with almost blind choices between largely unproven entities. The discussion of post-transition politics starts already in Chapter 5 with an inquiry into the antisystemic opposition during the periods of crisis. This theme is then developed in Chapter 6. The discussion initially moves on the elite level, discussing the electoral themes and results; analysing the major radical and conservative parties; and scrutinising the potential for popular support in generic radicalism and traditionalism. The results are then related to the meso- and mass-levels by reference to the survey data sources mentioned above.


  1. Fischer-Galati (1992), 15.
  2. This debate was initiated by Lucian W. Pye’s March 1990 article on ‘Political Science and the Crisis of Authoritarianism’. Theodore Draper, in but one further indictment of the profession of social science claimed (in The New York Review of Books, June 11, 1992) that not a single American Sovietologist did predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. Berglund and Dellenbrant (1994b), 12, however, mention Richard Pipes, Andrei Amalrik, Francois Fejtd and Ewa Kulesza-Mietkowski among the handful of authors who foresaw the breakdown of the Soviet empire.
  3. Tismaneanu (1993), 2.
  4. Schopflin (1993b), 19.
  5. Cf. Almond (1980), 26.
  6. Data from the surveys have been provided by kind courtesy of Professor Russell Dalton, Politics and Society Dept., University of California, Irvine, CA.
  7. Hockenos (1993), 15.