Reclaiming the Pride and Heritage of the Socialist Past and Future

How I explained Slovenia to my foreign friends

Authors of the Week: Slovenia

I must be honest with you, I don't know much about Slovenia. Is that where the Soviet Union used to be?” I catch a tone in their voice implying that ignorance, when it comes to certain places and topics, is not something to be ashamed of, it’s rather something to be almost proud of. Don't worry, ignorance is not one of my issues, unless it's my own.” I seldom make a new friend, after being sincere like that, but in case I do – the friendship has a good foundation.

Citizens of the United States have this folklore even on their own soil. Californians, Floridians, Texans and people from the East Coast can be caught claiming almost with a delight that they don’t have the slightest clue where Minnesota might be, they just know it’s cold out there. They say that even though it’s perfectly clear they do in fact have a pretty good idea where Minnesota is. Or Wisconsin. Or Idaho. Or Dakota. Both Dakotas. Saying they don’t know much about these places just means: We don’t have to know anything about you, because we don’t have anything to learn from you and you have nothing to give us. It’s a way of saying: We are better than you, our culture is more relevant, our economy is stronger and even our weather is better than yours. It’s also a way of saying: We can afford to be ignorant about you, while you can’t risk the same, because you’re striving to be like us.

In Europe, the emphasis is significantly different, as two different nationals are always implying they know each other way too well. The questions I find myself answering are noticeably more nuanced. A common example: “Have the conditions in your country improved lately?” I’m tempted to answer that last year’s massive flood damage is being effectively restored and that people recycle vigorously, but I know they’re not sincerely worried about the well-being of my compatriots. The question is there only to reassure them about the fact that they are still doing comparatively better. “You mean, the fact we switched from socialism to capitalism 30 years ago — no, there definitely hasn’t been any improvement whatsoever, but how is your country doing?”

The East-West or the South-North dichotomy will sooner or later be established in any conversation between two different European nationals, even between two friends. As me and my Dutch friend were finding ourselves in Portugal, we were making regular observations on how much poorer Portugal seemed to be compared to Holland. “Are you saying that the project of Dutch colonialism has, in its final consequences, been more successful than the project of Portuguese colonialism?” My friend hesitated for a second, acted like they were not in the mood for politics, but then realised they were supposed to laugh about the tasteless comparison of the outcomes of two historical forms of colonialism, that I had just made. So they laugh. They will fully reestablish their sense of cultural superiority again tomorrow, when the waiter in a restaurant will be slow to serve us. While I will defend the staff for working on their own terms, understanding I might not understand labour conditions and the culture of a place (worse even: I likely sympathise with the staff and find their leisurely manner somehow charming and profoundly more respectful than that of servers with robotic efficiency and fake politeness), my friend will use the opportunity to assert that Portugal does not seem to cultivate a top-notch customer service like Holland does. If at that point I’m really in the mood (I seldom am), I might try to start a conversation. “Did you know that while your ancestors were still actively making sure that the Black race in South Africa remained in chains, my ancestors were actively encouraging students from all over Africa to come study in Yugoslav universities?” If I said that, they would have giggled. It is, after all, laughable to hear an Eastern European activate any kind of sense of superiority towards the Western world, isn’t it.

Eastern Europeans today don’t celebrate achievements of socialism, at least not publicly and at least not if our Western friends are supposed to feel comfortable, instead of humiliated and ashamed for us. If we are to be considered respectful and decent, we must dare not offer our narrative on the history of the last 100 years of the Western civilization and certainly not on the history of our own. The discourse aiming at dominating and patronising Eastern Europe by the Western (or Southern Europe by its Northern counterpart) is one of modern Europe’s founding stones, not only by the advocates of the hegemony, but also because Eastern Europe has welcomed and internalised a sense of cultural inferiority. It is a historical and an ongoing process, rather than a condition. It starts way back in the Cold War period wherein the West commiserates with the East, mainly for general lack of goods (smaller cars, no bananas) and a seemingly more desolate reality. The dominance is perpetuated through local transitions into free market economies that involve the East desperately imitating the West by getting bigger cars, starting to import tropical fruits and even making it into the EU, all this while remaining disappointed and disenfranchised in the process of capitalist implementation. This blockism lasts as the West still scrutinises the East (cars remain somewhat older and bananas greener) for never being capitalist enough and being seemingly unable to shake its socialist historical burden off (proof: they don’t let foreigners privatise what there is left to privatise). The partitioning continues due to Eastern Europe’s tendency to negotiate with its own resentment for this “new world order” by reaffirming nationalist movements, eventually through official politics. Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are the first three countries displaying that in plain sight. The separation is consolidated, as the West is currently expanding its criticism towards the East for abandoning standards of democracy and “shared European values”, creating more definite break-ups than ever before, as the imitation project and the idea of unified Europe have now both been officially cancelled.

The split remains strong and Eastern Europe is the exclusive case study when it comes to measuring levels of capitalism adopted and levels of socialism removed. Meanwhile, new generations of Western Europeans are candidly questioning capitalism and inaugurating new politics of everyday life, ones that don’t just mirror the dreaded progressivist utopia, but that are in fact rooted in socialism, while further adjusted for use in a modern context (community action, social undertakings, cooperatives, state environment protection, universal basic income, a shorter working week etc.). Eastern Europe is considered to be in decline, when it is nurturing social politics; Western Europe is considered to be in progress, when it nurtures social politics. So much of modern European identity stemmed from this duality, conceived in the act of capitalism’s win over socialism and communism in the Bermuda triangle of the years 1989, 1990 and 1991, that Western Europe is now free to be rediscovering the charms of a fairer society, while the so-called “new Europe” has in fact become the main proponent of the wildest forms of neoliberal capitalism. If this increasingly illogical and hierarchy-defending division is dropped, say, tomorrow, what will even be left of Europe?

Tomorrow begins with reclaiming history, an exclusive task of the European periphery, especially the Eastern half that is deprived from self-narrative. It starts with swallowing some hard truths. What looks like a historical defeat of socialism wasn’t somehow, miraculously, a win for people who lost what they had built in 45 years. It wasn’t a defeat of some political idea or the communist parties across the continent, or of those dull men (always men) seemingly arguing, but basically agreeing on TV, it was truly what is feared most: a defeat of the people, of their values, principles and ethics, taking its toll on the ability to believe in anything. Taking over the narrative means recognising that adopting capitalism was the true self-imposed loss. Among other things, this tackles and dismantles rage, carried by bigotry and radicalising, and acknowledges the underlying cause: poorly processed grief and mourning. Reclaiming feelings of loss can become a ground for positive identification with one’s own history, heritage, sensibility and knowledge. Half a decade of European experiments with a true welfare state can be retold not as a lost cause, but as time during which Eastern European countries have built healthy foundations for their own future societies and shown a way into the future for the rest of the world. This much is clear: if socialism in the broadest sense is not the future, then there is no future, as any millennial will declare, but surely a 70-year old white male landlord and shareholder will disagree.

I’m a heir to culture that already had a taste of a finer, juster, more socially advanced society. I’m a heir to the cliché picture of it, the one with grey skies, bleak uniforms, funny looking cars and brutalist architecture, all that, but I’m also a heir to pioneers of social models, that are these days being reused and further developed for the future betterment of our societies. I’m a heir to candor, but also a heir to subtle irony, both extremes which are well-cultivated in my people’s tales and more useful now than ever, as it seems to be somehow vital for the peace and well-being of the continent to let North and West believe they are onto something completely new. After all, the more Western or Northern we go, the better the services provided, isn’t it so?