February 11, 2023 will be remembered as a black date in the history of the Bulgarian left. This Saturday’s meeting of the 50th Congress of the BSP marked the final emergence of a fascist vulture structure feeding off the remains of a 130-year-old party socialist organism. Alongside other excesses, a decision was taken to call a national referendum for and against ‘gender ideology’ in schools. It is a darkly reactionary decision, placing the party among the most outspoken representatives of the far right in the region and on the European continent.
When elections don’t work, we’ll do referendums
The case evokes parallels with Romania, where a referendum was called in 2018 on whether to change the constitution to explicitly state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, not between spouses, as defined in 1991. There are also obvious associations with Croatia, where another referendum was called in 2013. There, 65% voted to remove the progressive clause in the constitution that marriage is a union between two human beings, and to convert it into a union between a man and a woman. Another parallel? Hungary, where in 2021 a referendum was held to enshrine a law already passed to ‘protect children’ from ‘sexual propaganda”.
This is exactly what the BSP’s idea is all about – the suggestion that someone is somehow making children do something sexual against their will or that of their parents.
All three examples are initiatives that do not touch reality in any way, but instead function as a textbook moral panic to rally support for a government, state or party, which becomes dangerously close to fascist practices. These and other examples from the region, such as the anti-abortion legislation in Poland that is already killing many women. They place us in the unenviable company of ultraconservative policies that many in the BSP have endorsed since yesterday.
What is more appalling, the campaign that will necessarily accompany the calling of the referendum will whirl up yet another, new level of homophobic, transphobic and misogynist violence, as if the party’s ‘successes’ in this regard to date were not enough. That’s right – despite the party’s supposedly unquestionable achievements in “stopping genderism” for five years now, it still apparently continues to occur among Bulgarian children and families. This decision for a referendum, together with yet another expulsion of dissenters from the party, shows that the BSP has definitively broken with its socialist essence and that it is high time no one, including myself, had any more illusions on the issue.
The three lecturers
Of the three discourses that have existed until recently – the declarative, the pragmatic and the fascist – the fascist has prevailed. This is the most recent BSP: the party of “traditional family/Christian values”, of anti-immigrant rhetoric, of hatred of women and of virulent homo- and transphobia; the BSP of bombastic pseudo-democratic gestures, known since Hitler and Mussolini as plebiscites for mobilisation, instead of those annoying elections (which they don’t manage to win at anyway).
Ninova and company have forced us to finally forget about the first, the declarative BSP, the inherited-yet-to-be-passed BSP, the one that serves for representational needs and feeds the anti-communists. A kind of social democratic party, the kind that shaped history between 1990 and 2008-2016 (depends on who’s counting what). It becomes evident when turning to the first page of the statutes, reading the “Vision for Bulgaria” and listening to, for example, Kristian Vigenin discussing the general guidelines of the new political program. This is the discourse that is meant when someone says “the left” in the media, and the discourse that dissenting partisans think they are defending.
Ninova and company have trained us to stop noticing the second, pragmatic BSP, adjusting the declarative lexicon to the ruthless dictates of everyday neoliberal politics, as well as to the party’s available capacity – managerial and electoral, and probably also to the available level of ideological and political training.
The party by all means avoids redistributive policies, and therefore those that reduce inequalities (the zero point of socialism), and focuses on simple liberal measures that both do not irritate electorates and satisfy sponsors and oligarchs (or please some electorates without irritating sponsors). We find an example in the words of Irena Anastasova on Bulgaria ON AIR television after the congress session in question:
We are defending a left-wing policy and I do not know what other left-wing policy can be invented other than what the BSP is implementing – free nurseries and kindergartens, free textbooks up to grade XII, 300 BGN for every child up to grade IV, the minimum wage to be 50% of the average. Our main battle was also to exempt from taxes all young people up to the age of 26.
Let’s help Anastasova’s bewilderment and explain what the left, and more precisely the socialist left, has long invented. Giving, for example, 300 BGN to the child of both sanitation workers and the child of parliamentary workers means that the former can buy some critically needed school supplies or clothes to start the school year, while the latter can buy another pair of not-at-all-urgent brand-name sneakers. Having free nursery schools for those who have barely found a place as the only chance parents have of working, and for those who can pay unlimitedly for a nanny in our current situation, means that there will be no room in the nursery for at least one household in need. Exempting some from tax means taxing others, but as well as ever so thoroughly doing nothing about the proportional tax system it has introduced, the party regularly promises that it won’t touch business taxes either, even though for every £1,000 of profit made by the biggest businesses the state takes in just £3-£4.
And so the BSP becomes the “social vector” of a government, as the “healthy forces” in the party were saying last year, but not the socialist vector, or even the social democratic vector. This is the pragmatic talk – in constant readiness, by the way, for ever more unprincipled coalitions.
Towards fascist practices
At the congress meeting on Saturday, Ninova and company simply showed, more unscrupulously than ever, that there is now a new leading current and that when and if it decides, it will crush the other two.
Some must be surprised, some are gloating, others will have fun for a few days at the social, others don’t care, others applaud. The fact is, however, that what has happened is significant not only for one particular party, but it is also a symptom of a serious illness of the body politic in our country that needs to be understood and treated immediately. This is not at all a crisis of any party, because the BSP is not any party. For better or worse – and against the wishes of the on-duty anticommunist consciousness that dominates public discourse – history (and not only that of the early transition) is unequivocal: the BSP and Bulgarian parliamentary democracy are welded vessels.
A governmental crisis is a parliamentary crisis; a parliamentary crisis is a crisis of representation; and when the only nominally left party in parliament – of labour, of the ‘ordinary people’, of the people, of the exploited and oppressed – not only slumps from election to election without being able to mobilise representation, but also shows clear signs of fascist practices – then something far more significant is happening than just another occasion for malicious ridicule.
I will quote a famous quotation from Gramsci which I also used on the occasion of a sitting of the 49th Congress:
If the ruling class has lost consensus, i.e., no longer “leads” but “dominates,” exercising only coercion, it means precisely that the great masses have broken away from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old world is dying, but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a multitude of pathological symptoms appear.
At the very least, the delegates at the BSP congress can be considered a representative sample of a certain segment of Bulgarian society. These are 978 people who are, at the very least, politically engaged enough to walk to the National Palace of Culture and spend some time there – apart from their undoubted commitments, at least at election time – and more importantly: who at the very least do not object to an understanding of the left as the composite of the pragmatic and the fascist lexicon. These are nearly a thousand people with more or less resources and influence in communities across Bulgaria who are likely capable of provoking a referendum, or any other nationally significant event. Of these, over half don’t mind – or actively support – the notion not only that such a thing as “gender ideology” exists, but that it is a threat to children. People for whom being dominated (and probably dominating) is clearly a desirable state of affairs – whether in the person of Ninova and the Executive Bureau or otherwise.
What’s more: the oppositionists within the party, whether proclaimed or not, seem to object to the repressive style of the leadership, judging by the multiple positions and departures both in the days after the meeting in question and before, but they don’t seem to object to decisions like the one to instigate this referendum. I didn’t see a single person or grouping take a stand against the possibility of half the congress approving such policies.
It is hard to overstate what an exhaustion of democratic, ideological and socialist progressive potential these developments attest.
Until the decaying corpse of the party has done its work of fertilizing the soil, that is, until progressive entities of sufficient numbers and strength have emerged to be able to replace the vacuum left by the party with some form of social movements, it will be a long time. Alternatively, some other left-wing party to emerge will also take a long time; those declaring themselves at this stage are unpromising to say the least.
In other words, these developments portend not only another year of witch-hunt violence, but also another deepening of the political crisis. Neither the anticommunist discourse, which gloats, nor the civil discourse, which is discontented and reaches only to cries for more voting, are moved, and there is no third force. But there are consequences for all.
This article has first appeared in Bulgarian in Dversia magazine. It has been translated and republished by Cross-Border Talks upon the author’s permission.