Beyond anti-democratic temptation

The comeback of ethnocentric populism is disquieting, but does not necessarily mean the end of the liberal engagement the revolutions of 1989 inaugurated. It may as well be a short-lived return of repressed emotions and phobias, an effect of the disenchantment that follows almost every revolution.

In the winter of 1990, Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,1 published a special issue entitled ‘Eastern Europe … Central Europe … Europe’. Among the contributors to this historical publication were Timothy Garton Ash, Ivo Banac, Ernest Gellner, Bronisław Geremek, Tony Judt, János Mátyás Kovács, Jacques Rupnik and George Schöpflin. In the meantime, Ernest Gellner, Bronisław Geremek and Tony Judt have passed away. On 25 October 2018, the Central European University in Budapest announced the transfer of its teaching headquarters from Budapest to Vienna. George Schöpflin is a member of the European Parliament for Fidesz, Viktor Orbán’s party, which is directly responsible for the expulsion of this great intellectual hub and the demonization of its founder, George Soros.

The old East-West divide, which the resurgence of Central Europe was supposed to overcome ever since Henry Kissinger famously equated it with Eastern Europe during his 1990 trip to Warsaw,2 has turned out to be more obstinate than many liberal thinkers of those years expected. Instead of the Westernization of the Balkans, we have seen the weaponization of eastern European fantasies of salvation by political actors in the West, the US included. Steve Bannon, former top ideological advisor to Donald Trump, travels around Europe in order to promote paleo- and neo-Fascist ideas, proclaiming that Viktor Orbán is his favorite politician. At the same time, Orbán’s rightwing media are buying outlets in Macedonia and openly interfering with local elections.

Where does this predicament come from? In our view, the origins of the situation should be sought in the moral, political and cultural tensions of the post-communist condition.

The pessimists were right, but were they truly pessimists?

With hindsight, the author of a monumental history of postwar Europe, Tony Judt, was prescient.3 We pay tribute to the civil society paradigm, perhaps to a gullible ethical universalism, and therefore lose sight of the many vestigial symbols that stubbornly defy contemporary political and cultural allegiances and loyalties. More clearly, the post-communist transitions have been plagued by what we call the Fascist and Leninist debris. The first painful major sign came from former Yugoslavia when some members of the Marxist humanist Praxis school of philosophy turned into ideologues of Slobodan Milošević’s regime. It was Judt who wrote one of the most challenging texts on the global historical significance of the revolutions of 1989. We cannot help but notice his prescient conclusions, uttered as early as 1993/94:

Who in Europe today has the authority (moral, intellectual, political) to teach, much less enforce, codes of collective behavior? Who, in short, has power, and to what ends and with what limits. […] In the absence of any clear answer to this question, it seems only a little melodramatic to conclude that in a variety of ways Europe is about to enter and era of turmoil, a time of troubles. This is nothing new for the old continent, of course, but for most people alive today it will come as a novel and unpleasant experience.4

The New York University history professor was not alone in his quest for meaning. Writing in 1992, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski saw the post-communist landscape of Central and Eastern Europe as being plagued by enduring Leninist legacies. Institutionally, Kołakowski argued, communism had died. Morally, its pathologies continued to haunt the post-communist world. He cautioned against inordinate triumphalism and wisely took stock: ‘Euphoria is always brief, whatever causes it. The “post-communist” euphoria is over and the premonitions of imminent dangers are mounting. The monster is dying in its own monstrous way.’5

Almost thirty years later, a widening gap between expectations and achievements is fuelling general discontent and even street demonstrations across Central and Eastern Europe. The Romanian ‘cell-phone revolution’, which started in January 2017, is just one such example of major societal change. There is a growing sentiment that all politicians cheat and the political class has betrayed the people. In such a climate, former dissidents are often lambasted as naive and quixotic. Before Václav Havel’s death in December 2011, when he was suddenly lionized, many in the Czech Republic (including his arch-nemesis Václav Klaus) criticized him as an incorrigible idealist. Demoralized and disgruntled, most former dissidents have withdrawn from politics. The critically minded intellectuals who have been the most consistent advocates of liberal values have come under attack from both the far left and the far right. Many younger intellectuals in Eastern and Central Europe seem more interested in postmodern anti-capitalist sloganeering than in promoting the values and institutions of civic liberalism.

Kołakowski and Judt were not alone in highlighting these dangers. Both promising and disquieting, the post-communist condition has turned out to be socially unstable and psychologically discombobulating. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the annus mirabilis 1989, sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf feared that the rise of clericalist and militarist movements might be in the offing. Noting that ‘disenchantment’ in the wake of a revolution is ‘almost unavoidable’, he added:

Such disenchantment does not create a very favorable climate for the establishment of lasting democratic institutions. It is even likely to encourage radical minorities and individuals to seek power in the name of objectives and with methods which are anything but democratic.6


Fantasies of salvation redux

Contrary to early optimistic expectations (except for a select group of prophetic intellectuals like the one mentioned), a new authoritarian wave has gathered momentum in Eastern and Central Europe in the past years. The same can be said of western Europe.7 In contrast to the widespread euphoria of the 1990s (if we forget the Yugoslav debacle for a moment), contemporary Europe is experiencing the rise of populist authoritarianism rooted in an ethnocratic vision of politics which exalts organic communities while practicing exclusion. To the shock of many observers, a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán decided to erect a 175km wall intended to reject the refugee wave coming from Serbia. Orbán’s rhetoric is not merely conservative as some of his apologists have suggested,8 but rather a new form of xenophobic radicalism that Peter Viereck diagnosed as early as 1941 as meta-politics.9

The new authoritarianism is an expression of political anger, moral outrage, and apocalyptical expectations for an immediate break with the status quo.10 The PiS government formed in Poland in 2015 has merged traditional aspirations and goals of Endecja (the integral interwar nationalist party, ND, founded by Roman Dmowski at the turn of the century) with an emphasis on deep-seated, traditionalist Catholic values, often reflecting the Weltanschauung promoted prior to the Second Vatican Council.11 Both Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński resent what they perceive as the dangerous de-Christianization of Europe.12 Together with other factors, this resentment explains their attraction to majoritarian politics and to strongmen, including, in Orbán’s case, the rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. To understand this turn, it may be useful to revisit the classic book by Jacob L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, and his heuristically poignant concept of ‘totalitarian Messianic democracy’.13

In other words, liberal institutions and values, ostensibly consolidated in post-communist Eastern and Central Europe during almost three decades of democratic transitions, are now disputed, contested, and subverted. Some political scientists and commentators speak about regime change in Hungary, Poland, and more recently in the United States or Romania. Attacks on the independent judiciary have occurred in all of these cases. When confronted with strong criticism from European Union institutions, the leaders of what Orbán has proudly called ‘illiberal democracies’ retort defiantly that Europe itself is to blame, lofty ideals are invoked on behalf of national salvation, and the enemies that prevent its achievement are singled out: materialism, foreigners, moral decadence, intellectual corruption, social anomie, etc. Dutch cultural historian Rob Riemen writes about an eternal return of Fascism.14 Not the Fascism of the 1930s, to be sure, but an updated one, combining residual Leninism with racism, clericalism (if needed), panic-mongering, and the cult of ancestors.

Part of this neo-authoritarianism is linked to or can be explained through the deep discontent with perceived rampant corruption among ruling elites.15 Part is a result of failed expectations regarding the benefits from EU and NATO membership. Enthusiasm for the European Union and what it stands for has been in sharp decline in recent years in most post-communist countries, maybe with the notable exception of Romania (see the recent failed two-day same-sex marriage referendum, 6–7 October 2018). Add to this the impact of Russia’s slide into what the late Karen Dawisha called authoritarian kleptocracy, especially after 200016 and, under these conditions, what we regard as fantasies of salvation have become increasingly appealing to large social strata (or groups).17

Besides, it is no secret that political and economic power structures rooted in the old communist regime managed to survive post-communist transition and still exist today (we see) as a new avatar that is fully anchored in the economy and polity of the newly enlarged European Union. The Romanian political predicament, a case we have been following closely, suggests that the EU may have gotten more out of Romania’s accession than it bargained for. The terms ‘oligarchy’ and ‘oligarchic regimes’ were revamped by journalists and political scientists, particularly in Europe and the United States, to explain the transition of many formerly Communist countries, where the old regime’s refurbished networks of power merged with new economic ones to create an informal parallel governance system. In present-day Romania, these terms may be used to highlight a disturbing dynamic located not in the distant ex-Soviet space, but within the boundaries of the EU.

Old struggles, new struggles: The post-communist nightmare

In the aftermath of the 1989 revolution, the American political scientist Ken Jowitt saw Central and Eastern Europe as isolated and derelict, beset by memories that were still too raw and domestic bickering that seemed to have no end. In this sense, Sylvie Kaufmann, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde, was right to remind us recently of Romanian-born French political scientist Pierre Hassner’s use of the concept of ‘collective neurosis’, which he borrowed from the book The Misery of the Small Eastern European States, written by the Hungarian thinker István Bibó in 1946 – time and again, the existential angst of Central and Eastern Europe has led to political hysteria.18

However, 30 years ago, no one in the West could have been expected to see the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as legitimate candidates for membership in the exclusive club of the European Community. Such previsions were challenged by the years of bloody fighting in the former Yugoslavia. The wars of the Yugoslav succession, complete with genocidal massacres, consumed the 1990s, forced western Europeans to realize that leaving their eastern neighbors to confront the challenges of post-communism alone would mean risking a worsening of the chauvinistic and atavistic tendencies that had put the Western Balkans to the torch.

Acknowledging the watershed significance of Central and Eastern Europe’s integration into the European Union, Ken Jowitt altered his earlier pessimistic stance. His modified assessment is worth quoting:

I pointedly asked whether in the light of the cumulative Leninist legacies… there was any… point of leverage, critical mass of civic effort – political, cultural, and economic –that can add its weight to civic forces in Eastern Europe and check the increasing frustration, desperation, fragmentation and anger that will lead to country and region wide violence? My answer was yes, Western Europe! If Western Europe were to ‘adopt’ Eastern Europe, the negative outcome I foresaw could be avoided. And that is precisely what happened. The EU ‘adopted’ Eastern Europe.19

What in the early 1990s appeared as a daydream turned into reality not so many years later: In 2004, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined the EU. Three years later, Romania and Bulgaria followed. Lest we forget, the revolutions of 1989 had taken place in the name of a ‘return to Europe’, and that indeed is what eventually occurred.

Let there be no mistake: the EU’s role in fostering civic, democratic, and liberal values among the new members has been key. The events of 2012 in Hungary and Romania, for example –the onset of an autocratic, crypto-dictatorial regime in the former, and a failed parliamentary putsch meant to stop the rule of law from consolidating in the latter – would have been much worse had the EU not intervened with explicit injunctions and criticism. The onslaught on liberal values and institutions continued incessantly way into 2017, 2018 and 2019 in Romania and elsewhere. The EU also has had a big hand in stymieing more or less camouflaged attempts at reversing democratization.

Despite all the EU’s laudable particular efforts and its general value as a ‘firewall’ against full-scale authoritarian regressions, however, EU influence alone cannot be expected to bear the burden of forestalling every malign trend or blunting every anti-democratic temptation. For post-communist citizens who cherish liberal democracy, there remains much work to do.

In lieu of conclusions

The revolutions of 1989–91 began with an exhilarating sense of recovered liberty and a widespread belief that authoritarianism had been irreversibly defeated. Sociologist S. N. Eisenstadt accurately described those revolutions as non-utopian, non-teleological, non-ideological, and non-eschatological.20 As a rule, they were non-violent eruptions of civic discontent against the supremacy of lies and the rampant cynicism of the communist bureaucracies. The thrust of the mass protests favoured the dissident philosophy of freedom, civility, and dignity. Expectations ran high, and few were able to foresee the advent of ugly forms of populism, exclusiveness, and intolerance that Havel diagnosed as the nightmares threatening the post-communist future.

In Central and Eastern Europe over the past three decades, communism’s collectivist and egalitarian promises have risen again in the form of new salvation fantasies that attempt to synthesize far-left and far-right radical visions. Frustrations and malaise are rampant, and demagogues, as ever, ready to exploit them for their own cynical purposes. Some of these exploiters have ties to the old regimes. People who had been informers or propagandists for the communist dictatorships reinvented themselves as apostles of anti-western, anti-liberal ideologies, preaching a return to interwar fantasies of racial purity.

No doubt, the impact of Francis Fukuyama’s famous text stemmed less from its novelty and originality than from its ability to sum up the mood of the times. The end of bipolar antagonism was not meant to be a simple accommodation between the two systems, but the unconditional surrender of Bolshevism. The discussion was therefore about the sincerity of transformation at the top while not enough people questioned the democratic sincerity of the people in Central and Eastern Europe at the bottom. At the same time, the end of the Cold War dismantled even the last barriers to fully fledged globalization. Economic globalization – it was believed – would trigger corresponding political transformations, and basically a greater cultural homogenization.

Things did not happen this way, as we now know, and, having witnessed the end of a historical cycle rooted in World War I, we keep running through the lessons of 1989. The fact that these revolutions had been plagued by ethnic rivalries, by obnoxious political scandals or endemic corruption, by the emergence of anti-democratic parties and movements or the outbreak of authoritarian and collectivistic ideas, does not diminish at all the generosity of the initial message and its colossal impact at the time. Let us remember here that overcoming state socialism had been more difficult, and in the long run much more questionable, in precisely those countries of absent revolutions (the former Yugoslavia) or hijacked revolutions (Romania). We need to permanently emphasize such facts when it comes to discourses questioning the success of the 1989 revolutions. The East is definitely closer to the West than it was three or even two decades ago. NATO and the EU are robust institutions and their rules matter immensely in the Eastern and Central European political context. Nothing in history should be taken for granted. Yet, at this moment, the Orbáns, Kaczyńskis and Dragneas of this world notwithstanding, the disquieting comeback of ethnocentric populism could turn out to be a short-lived return of repressed emotions and phobias, rather than the end of liberal engagement inaugurated by the revolutions of 1989.

‘Eastern Europe ... Central Europe ... Europe’, ed. Stephen R. Graubard, special issue, Daedalus 119, no. 1 (Winter 1990).

Timothy Garton Ash, ‘The puzzle of Central Europe’, The New York Review of Books, 18 March 1999.

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

Tony Judt, ‘Nineteen eighty-nine: The end of which European era?’, Daedalus 123, no. 3 (Summer 1994): 17–18.

Leszek Kołakowski, ‘Amidst moving ruins’, in The Revolutions of 1989, ed. Vladimir Tismaneanu (London: Routledge, 1999), 51. First published in the Spring 1991 issue of Daedalus.

Ralf Dahrendorf, After 1989: Morals, Revolution, and Civil Society (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 12. See also Ralf Dahrendorf, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (New York: Times Books, 1990).

Michael Ignatieff, ‘Are the authoritarians winning?’, The New York Review of Books, 10 July 2014.

See Tibor Fischer, ‘Viktor Orbán is no fascist: He’s David Cameron’s best chance at EU reform’, in The Telegraph, 7 January 2016.

Peter Viereck, Meta-politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind (New York: Capricorn Books, 1965/Seventh Impression).

For movements of rage, see Ken Jowitt, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 306–31.

David Ost, ‘Regime change in Poland, carried out from within’, in The Nation, 8 January 2016.

R. Daniel Kelemen and Mitchell A. Orenstein, ‘Europe’s autocracy problem: Polish democracy final days?’, in Foreign Affairs (Snapshots), 7 January 2016.

J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (New York: Praeger, 1960).

Rob Riemen, To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

For authoritarian backsliding in Romania, see Marius Stan, Vladimir Tismaneanu, ‘Democracy under siege in Romania,’ Politico Europe, 13 August 2018.

Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (New York: Simon & Schuster, reprint edition, 2015).

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

Sylvie Kaufmann, ‘Europe’s illiberal democracies’, The New York Times, 9 March 2016.

Ken Jowitt, ‘Stalinist revolutionary breakthroughs in eastern Europe’, Stalinism Revisited: The Establishment of Communist Regimes in East-Central Europe, ed. Vladimir Tismaneanu (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2009), 23.

S. N. Eisenstadt, ‘The breakdown of communist regimes’, in Revolutions of 1989, ed. Tismaneanu, 89–107.

Published 28 February 2019
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Vladimir Tismaneanu & Marius Stan / Eurozine


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