One of the striking characteristics of the Good Society Debate was an often fundamentally different assessment between contributors from North, West, and Southern Europe and those coming from Central and Eastern Europe. To be very clear, we do not want to blame anybody for their views or analyses, but it is important to stress that closing the sometimes wide political cleavage running through Europe is one of the most important tasks for social democrats if a real European social democracy is the aim. What Carl Rowland, who himself lives in Hungary, referred to as a “core versus periphery” situation became also clear in some of the articles.
First, it was often stressed that different historic backgrounds mean that social democratic traditions are very different. Leszek Lachowiecki (Director of the Index Academic Centre) for instance strongly criticised social democracy in his native Poland when he wrote that “it is strange but true that Polish Post-Communists – having converted themselves into social democrats – have been in power for about half of the period since the downfall of their dictatorship. But in fact this group, which is led by people like Aleksander Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller, has hardly any genuine Communist roots either. The label of social democracy was acquired by these politicians for purely tactical reasons. In reality, they were leaders of a narrow group of technocratic businessmen (former apparatchiks of the ruling party), who sought to enrich themselves in the process of selling off state-owned industry. Having no ideological background and aiming exclusively at their own individual success, they have eagerly participated in the building of our current social and economical system, which could not be regarded as acceptable in any imaginable system of left values.”
A similar criticism was voiced about social democracy in Ukraine by Oleksandr Svyetlov, an adviser to NGOs and the Ukrainian League of Poilitical Scientists: “The SDPU(u) has been pithily described as being social-democratic to about the same extent as a guinea pig is a pig (M. Tomenko). It has also been described as a ‘bandit party’ (V. Malynkovich) and ‘oligarch’s club’ that has privatised the state (Y. Durkot). The party has made use of its staffing of public offices and state functions for the self-enrichment of its members; and it has promoted their business interests though the ‘privatisation’ of most of the lucrative state-owned enterprises, and the preferential allocation of the land in national parks for building private real estate.”
Mart Valjatage (Editor of the Magazine Vikerkaar) argued in his contribution that the Cruddas-Nahles paper and the Good Society Debate in general “does not pay sufficient attention to two issues that – unhappily – are influencing the political atmosphere in Europe today, especially in the post-communist countries. These are the issues of fear and security, and of memory and history. These two factors give sustenance to an angry political outlook that is heavily orientated towards the past and fearful of the future.” Valjatage further referred to history as a burden in the former communist countries when he wrote that “though the memories of Soviet communism have discredited some social democratic ideas in these [Eastern European] countries, the confusion of social democracy with communism is relatively easy to disentangle. But there has been a strong tendency towards becoming over-entangled in historical issues, particularly in poring over the lessons of the Second World War, and the relative evils of Stalinism and Nazism, and this feature of recent political discourse needs to be firmly resisted. History should be left to historians.”
But apart from important differences in social democratic traditions and national histories, there were also some deep-seated philosophical discrepancies presented by some contributors. Florin Abraham of the Ovidiu Sincai Institute in Romania for instance presented a viewpoint referring to the Cruddas-Nahles paper that few other commentators would share: “Another contentious thesis promoted by Jon Cruddas and Andrea Nahles is the need for the restoration of the primacy of politics, and rejection of the subordination of political interests to the economic. If we considered this idea in the arena of pure ethics it could be accepted as a desirable objective. But if we try to apply it concretely there are three possible options: (a) politics would turn into ideology, more specifically into communism; (b) since it is implicit in the drastic separation of economic interests from politics that the financial support of companies during electoral campaigns would not be permitted, parties could expect certain failure, as in the current conditions no single party can fund its electoral campaign solely through the contribution of its members; (c) we risk becoming hypocrites, in tacitly accepting the influence of economic interest groups over parties but publicly denying it. All three options are unacceptable.”
Christian Ghinea, Director of the Romanian Centre for European Policies (CRPE), put an equally controversial claim forward when he stated that “social dumping is the best thing that has happened to Romanian workers in recent years, as Western companies have relocated jobs here. Of course, we would prefer to have Western levels of income here, but the real choice is between the jobs we currently have and no jobs. (Although these salaries may appear derisory to people in the West, the wages paid by companies that have relocated to Romania pushed nominal income up by 75 per cent between 2005 and 2008). So, what is the best option for a Romanian willing to build the Good Society? – to prevent social dumping to protect Western jobs? I don’t think so.”
This text is part of a more comprehensive summary paper of the Good Society Debate. Click here to download the full paper.