Not much can be understood about the new role of the political left and right in Eastern Europe without taking into account two fundamental factors, generally ignored by both critical and enthusiastic observers of the post-1990 years. One is the historic trauma of the five-century-old division of Europe into two halves, effected by the Turkish occupation before and after the year 1500. It interrupted the Renaissance, and while the West cultivated its art, science, institutions, and law, development stopped in the devastated East. The “two Europes” remained essentially separate, and the separation was reinforced—and this is the second factor—along the same line drawn at Yalta, tor example, Vienna, which the Turks were unable to take then, remained also outside the Soviet orbit. From the Baltic to the Adriatic, the line of division is a geopolitical reality as well as a cultural barricade on whose two sides concepts and ideals do not possess the same meaning.

Two such concepts are the right and the left. In the West today, both concepts manifest themselves in a tamed form, the left as social-democratic, the right as liberal-conservative. There is hardly any difference between the two positions, between Clinton and Chirac, except the label: both policies are shaped by industrial imperatives and vague aspirations toward unity. For Clinton, the New World Order; for Chirac, the continent shaped in Brussels. In the West, the left has lost its Utopian drive since Moscow’s collapse, while the right denies any continuity with the recent past: Le Pen with Maurrassian nationalism. P’ini with fascism and the Movimiento Sociale Italiano, and the Allianza Popular with the Franco years.

The taming of political concepts in the West has no genuine counterpart in Eastern Europe, where the brutal antagonisms are now camouflaged but still visible beneath the politically correct labels. This is because left and right have deep, blood-soiled roots; and since they are only superficially economic in nature and in reality national-cultural, they are sturdy, hardly changing, “Yet the will to escape from decades of communism is such a basic, popular thrust from Riga to Sarajevo that neither left nor right wishes to think of Marxism. Nominally, at least, both embrace democracy, plurality of parties, and the free market, although this stance is not dictated by conviction but by Western pressure. At any rate, here the similarity ends; the two positions do not even dream of a synthesis. All told, the fundamental motives have remained much the same as they were before 1948, the year of communist takeover.

The leftist believes that the Marxist “experiment” was not all negative, and the intellectual echo from the West does not contradict this view. In spite of the Reagan/Thatcher years, the Western intelligentsia has hardly modified its Weltanschauung; its Utopian substantum has survived, and the intellectuals grant their favors to the Eastern European left, not to the right, which they equate with fascism. Proof of this is that no clamor for a “Nuremberg trial” followed liberation. The West opposed or ignored the case for such a tribunal on national levels, and the local potentates, the nomenclatura. understandably resisted it. Thus the rightist protest over this scandalous impunity died out: the constantly deepening economic troubles distracted people’s attention toward daily survival.

The left now pays lip service to pluralism, conforms to the multiparty system, and enters coalitions. Is this a temporary mask, a series of smart moves? At any rate, regardless of slogans and tactics, what takes place is not the kind of ideological taming familiar in Western politics, since “democratization” has hardly taken place in the public areas. In fact, it has remained superficial, a set of slogans, a key word for all players, good only to reassure Western circles about the “change” that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Keep in mind that the intellectual prestige of the left, which has produced such thinkers as Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch, and Milovan Djilas, no matter what direction their evolution eventually took, still bolsters Marxist intellectual respectability abroad and prestige at home, since they represent a thin veneer of urban intelligentsia in Eastern Europe’s largely agrarian societies. Their successors, often their very students, now of mature age and originating from the same narrow intellectual caste, contribute to the liberal course as if it were the logical and ideological sequel to a more experienced, wiser Marxism. In short, the ex-Marxist intellectuals have effected all over Eastern Europe a skillful transition to what the West likes to believe is social democracy. It continues recruiting on the left and is reckoned as an indispensable partner in any conceivable coalition. The bridges it has built (many of them still under the dying “old regime,” in fact with the party’s complicity, even encouragement) to Western liberal and social democratic circles now earn generous funds and free propaganda. Thus the left has emerged as a trusted partner of the West.

The right, on the other hand, is now relegated to the backwaters. For the Marxist left, the right used to be the enemy, but it is now a mere remnant, at most an impediment to “modernization.” What is the right, anyway? Like its Western cousins, the right in Eastern Europe is dubbed “extremist.” At best, it is regarded as a for its opposition to the two great options of the century represented by Moscow in the past, by Washington now. Rightists are seen as agents of anticulture since they reject modernity. Encouraging public opinion to accept this version of things are the elections proving that the right has only minimal support. Only in Russia does the traditional right command respect and gather votes, since there is an army, a veritable state within the state: the ultima ratio of the right in modern times. But in the countries we speak about, such an institution hardly exists, or it vegetates in a state of demoralized anarchy. The military is told to wait for better days and better pay—when it will be integrated into NATO.

The spectacular showing of the left in recent elections elicits several remarks. First, the political atmosphere is overheated because the right finds no expression, although, paradoxically, it is closer to these nations’ tradition and general character. Lech Walesa, as the recently ousted president of Poland, Bishop Laszlo Tokes, who ignited the anti-Ceausescu uprising in Transylvania, and Jozsef Antall, the first Hungarian prime minister (1990-1993), were nationalist and Christian and nearly cult figures in the eves of their respective nations. In this sense, the leftist electoral success may seem, in the long run, fragile and ephemeral. The voters seem to be aware that a rightist government cannot count on Western support, although they will quickly find out that a leftist regime is not much better situated in this respect. When this truth sinks in—and “united Europe” displays all its Western selfishness—the voters may reposition themselves.

Secondly, the suppressed national energies may find an outlet through a nationalist left. In ex-Yugoslavia and elsewhere, a hard-pressed left, communist or otherwise, reformulates its collective consciousness (the case of Stalin in the “great patriotic war”) and rediscovers the meaning and discourse of past sacrifice. The right, deceived so many times by its own weak or derelict Leadership, may not remain insensitive to these themes. Between the two world wars, nationalism was a monopoly of the right; why should it not become a leftist cause?

This picture is not very different from the 1930’s, except that the right/left lineup tilted then toward fascism with a strong social content. Today, it tilts toward a not quite definable leftism, perhaps in the experimental stage. But should a conflict spread over Eastern Europe, a situation impossible to isolate, say a war between a newly prepotent Russia and the Ukraine, or between Rumania and Hungary over Transylvania, we doubtless would see a realignment of left and right.