US author John Feffer’s Aftershock is a howl of liberal outrage at the failures of liberalism in Eastern Europe.
In 1989 mass demonstrations, which intensified manoeuvres at the top, brought down the Stalinist dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc. In the wake of their collapse, Feffer travelled to the region to set up an office for the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
He amassed an impressive range of interviews from leading dissidents to ordinary people who had taken to the streets. In 2015 Feffer returned to interview them about the impact of the Eastern Bloc’s transition from “really existing socialism” to free market capitalism. He found optimism in short supply, musing that “this was definitely a glass-half-empty region of the world.”
In 1989 people were full of hope after decades of Stalinist oppression. Now black clouds of reaction gather over Eastern Europe with the rise of the racist and fascist right. As the subtitle of the book, A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams, suggests, it was a disaster for working class people.
Communist Party politicians became “democratic” politicians. Nationalised company managers became privatised company managers. Meanwhile production and living standards fell through the floor and unemployment and inflation rocketed.
For Feffer the groups left behind by the transition are “the erased, the precariat, those struggling to make ends meet in the countryside”. There are useful individual chapters on racism against the Roma, the fight for women’s and LGBT+ rights, the loss of industrial jobs and rural poverty. But the book lacks a spine to bind it together.
So what’s behind all of this? Feffer uses an analogy about Communism being like Aztec sacrifices. Bizarre, oh-so-clever stuff — but it doesn’t help explain what’s happened.
In reality, Russia and the Eastern Bloc were not socialist in any way, but state capitalist societies. A ruling class — the state bureaucracy — pumped profits out of the working class because it was locked into competition with the West. The revolutions of 1989 were a side-step from state capitalism to free market capitalism. Without a strong left, hampered by the shadow of Stalinism, much of the anger at the transition has been pulled rightwards.
Without a serious analysis, the book is stuck in a false dichotomy of liberalism vs illiberalism. So the backlash against austerity in Bulgaria and the rise of fascism in Hungary are all, for Feffer, part of the same populist response.
There are glimmers of hope, which Feffer notes, such as the successful movement to defend abortion rights in Poland. But for that anger to break through in a left wing direction will have to mean fully rejecting both the old Stalinism and the free market, not trying to reinvent liberalism.