Why the West needs Central Europe to stay in its Eastern European place

To understand why the imitation of western-style liberal democracy failed post-communist Central Europe, one has to consider the agency of the lead partner, the West. Mimicry is a strategy of colonial power, that stems from the logic of the dominant: it is encouraged on the condition that it fails.

The excitement when the barriers came crashing down – the actual wall in Berlin and the imagined Iron Curtain across Europe – soon cooled. The westerners were disappointed with the easterners, and the easterners were disappointed with their disappointment. 

This article is an edited excerpt of Ivan Kalmar’s book White But Not Quite: Central Europe’s Illiberal Revolt. Bristol: Bristol University Press (2022).

There was the usual scorn with which the privileged view those who are less rich and powerful, and who, as the more fortunate see it, have only themselves to blame. But, more importantly, full acceptance of East Central Europe was never in the interest of western business. Western multinational corporations were not out to take on new partners. They were looking for new markets and cheap labour in Europe’s East, much as they had always done in the global South. 

The universal contempt for a culturally and economically backward East in Europe is replicated in every place, along the way from England to the borders of Russia. Historically, the English felt it for the French and together the English and the French felt it for the Germans; now western Germans feel it for eastern Germans, who may feel it for Poles and Czechs the way they in turn feel it for Ukrainians and Russians. (While also western Ukrainians may feel it not only for Russians but, at least before the war, also for eastern Ukrainians.) 

This transitive Orientalism is for the most part unreflecting and unexamined by those infected by it. They include not only the right-wing illiberals but, perhaps even more so, the left and liberal Bildungsbürgertum, the educated classes or ‘intelligentsia’, who in each area see themselves as mediators between the local population and the prestigious culture of the West. The cultural capital they possess in the form of their familiarity with western cultural trends and languages (now mainly English), earns them at times the respect, and at other times the resentment of their compatriots, who may see them as betraying their native roots. At the same time, it makes them feel entitled to be taken seriously as intellectual equals in the West. That is exactly what they hoped would happen once the communist regimes fell and released them from their Cold War confinement in the Eastern Bloc.

TV programs over literary reviews

Sometime back in the mid-1970s, Milan Kundera walked the streets of Prague, still quietly splendid in spite of the baroque and art nouveau façades greying due to neglect by the incompetent and impoverished communist government. He and his walking companion agreed that, in the West, ‘culture no longer existed as a realm in which supreme values were enacted’.1

His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived in Paris in 1975, in his mid-forties, a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia. His French friends looked at him ‘indulgently’ and ‘with an embarrassment’ as he lamented the ‘tragedy’ of the communist regime closing all literary and cultural reviews. ‘In Paris, even in a completely cultivated milieu, during dinner parties people discuss television programs, not reviews’, he complained, feeling indignantly that even if ‘all the reviews in France or England disappeared, no one would notice it, not even their editors’. Kundera concluded that, in the West, culture ‘has already bowed out’.2

Perhaps. But there is another explanation, which surely at some level must have occurred to Kundera. It could be that it’s not that the cultivated diners of Paris or London had become uncaring about literary reviews, but rather, that they did not really care much about literary reviews published in Prague. Or, that they did not care about overtly self-important declarations by writers about their work as an actualization of ‘supreme values’, especially when contrasted with the dreadful low culture of ‘television programmes’. They may have dismissed that as something typical of the earnest intelligentsia of Eastern Europe. Indeed, Kundera’s sentiments were reminiscent of how Russia’s most famous dissident writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lambasted western ‘mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music’.3

Oxford disillusionment

Viktor Orbán arrived at Pembroke College, Oxford, in September 1989, in his mid-twenties. His project was to study the idea of civil society in European political philosophy, a topic close to the hearts of dissidents such as Václav Havel, who thought that civil society had been destroyed by the communists. He arrived with a scholarship from the Open Society Foundation, funded by his future nemesis, George Soros. Orbán barely stayed at Oxford for four of his intended nine months. 

He does not talk much today about his experience there; his reasons for cutting the visit remain for future biographers to investigate. There was an obvious practical reason for an ambitious young politician: the communists agreed to the demand for free elections, and he probably felt a path to a political career opening up. It would be interesting to know, however, more about his feelings upon arrival in England and during his stay there: was he, like Kundera, disappointed in the West he saw, compared to the West he had hoped to see? What was his reception as a fresh-off-the-plane ‘Eastern European’?

Look Thru Budapest by Pim Van Wingerden. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the event, all we know from the little that Orbán has revealed is that, as he put it, ‘Oxford was a very good experience, but I felt all along that, for me, this is not my place.’4 Being out of place was the common sensation on their first major experience with the West, for both Kundera, who chose to become a Frenchman, and for Orbán, who returned to a Central Europe that was itself now collectively experiencing an unprecedented encounter with the West. In 2017, Orbán described his disillusionment in terms that betray, many years later, something of the same sense of personal injury and shattered illusions.

Recall how back then, at the beginning of the nineties, most people – not only in Hungary but in all of Central Europe – considered it to be evident that what we needed was complete assimilation, adjustment, a kind of moulting: the shedding of old skin in order to grow a new, fashionable, western one. In a political sense, what followed from this was that quite simply we needed to do what they [the West] were doing. And then … we got together here and we reflected that we, the freedom fighters on this side of the iron curtain, might perhaps have something of value to say to that Europe which had lived for forty years already in peace, freedom, and prosperity.5

Thus does Orbán reject the wish of the early post-communist leadership, many of whom had been prominent dissidents under communism, to adopt the then current standards of a western liberal democracy. To them, this did not mean mimicking a foreign standard. It meant returning Central Europe to its historical home, the democratic West. To Orbán, now, they appeared as nothing but pathetic, failed imitators of a foreign model.

The ‘imitation imperative’

The idea of post-communist Central Europe as failed imitators has been raised to the level of an academic theory by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. Indeed, the two political scientists take an even more radical view than Orbán. The Hungarian leader objects to imitating the specific form of ‘the West’ represented by neoliberal globalization and the liberal elites. He does not mean at all to dissociate himself from the West; rather, he would very much like to lead the EU’s East and West on the way to a Europe remade according to his ideal of an ‘illiberal democracy’. Krastev and Holmes, on the other hand, interpret Central European illiberals as believing that any attempt to make the East be like the West is, to them, a priori a misguided imitation. In fact, they seem to believe this themselves.

In The light that failed: A reckoning6, Krastev and Holmes, a Bulgarian and an American, interpret the illiberal turn in Central and Eastern Europe as a misguided reaction against the post-1989 ‘transition’ from communism, which tried to adopt everything western and abandon everything that was not. As they put it,

According to the illiberals, the Western-inspired Imitation Imperative made it seem like destiny for countries to shed their hallowed pasts and adopt a new liberal-democratic identity which, if truth be told, would never be fully theirs. Shame at reshaping one’s preferences to conform to the value hierarchies of foreigners, doing so in the name of freedom, and being looked down upon for the supposed inadequacy of the attempt – these are the emotions and experiences that have fuelled the anti-liberal counter-revolution that began in post- communist Europe, specifically in Hungary, and that has now metastasized worldwide.7

The light that failed is one of the worthiest analyses of the foundations of illiberalism in ‘Central and Eastern Europe’. The introduction of affect, of shame in this instance, as key to understanding illiberalism is particularly valuable. Nevertheless, an ingrained Eastern Europeanism appears to prevent the authors from fully following up on their often-brilliant insights. 

Krastev and Holmes’ geopolitical perspective is reduced largely to the impact of what seemed like the crushing victory of western capitalism over communism in the Cold War. The triumph of the West, which Krastev and Holmes sum up under the label ‘liberalism’, seemed so spectacular that ‘liberalism’ had no alternative. Certainly, the peoples of formerly communist Europe had no alternative of their own. So they had no choice but to imitate the western model.

1989 heralded the onset of a thirty-year Age of Imitation. The Western-dominated unipolar order made liberalism seem unchallengeable in the realm of moral ideals. This ideological supremacy, in turn, conferred such normative legitimacy on Western institutional forms as to make copying them, for those able to do so, seem obligatory.8

Krastev and Holmes see Central Europeans as having honestly pursued not only the ‘technical instruments’ but also the ‘targets, objectives, goals and ways of life’ of the West. Central European ‘elites’, Krastev and Holmes suggest, earnestly accepted that western-style liberal capitalism was the ‘normal’ state of society. They felt that ‘copying’ the West as a model would be the only way to restore health to their societies, after what they regarded as the moral, political, and economic deformities of communism. Their self- respect was damaged when they found that the West did not accept their imitation liberalism as the genuine article. ‘The wave of antiliberalism sweeping over Central Europe reflects widespread popular resentment at the perceived slights to national and personal dignity that this palpably sincere reform-by-imitation project entailed.’9

Clearly, Krastev and Holmes do realize that western rejection played a role in the failure of East Central European ‘imitation’. But they do not attribute this to western motives, and certainly not to any self-serving economic or political ones. Rather, they suggest that all imitation, by its very nature, leads to insult and social strife. Citing the French philosopher René Girard (1923– 2015), they propose that conflict is inevitable given that imitation damages the imitator’s self-respect.10 It is for this reason that ‘even the best intentioned’ among the western advisers who guided the east Central European imitators ‘were unable to conceal the implied superiority of the model over the mimic’.11

A conversion experience?

Krastev and Holmes add that there are two types of imitation. One is where you want something and you copy someone else’s ends for getting it (an imitation of means), and another where you did not originally want it, but learn to do so. In this case, you’re imitating not just the means but the end; you imitate your model’s desires.

Krastev and Holmes explain that

The form of imitation most likely to generate resentment and conflict, according to Girard, is the imitation of desires. We imitate not just means but also ends, not just technical instruments but also targets, objectives, goals and ways of life. This, in our opinion, is the inherently stressful and contentious form of emulation that has helped trigger the current sweeping anti-liberal revolt.12

The authors suggest that Central Europeans feel a particularly acute sense of injury, because their sincere attempts at emulating the West were an imitation of desires themselves (‘targets, objectives, goals and ways of life’) and not just, as with East Asians, the means to achieve them.

Since they believe that Central Europeans had to learn to desire western ‘goals and ways of life’ from scratch, like a child learning appropriate behaviour from an adult, it is not surprising that they view Central Europeans’ encounter with reinstated capitalism as ‘veering close to a “conversion experience”’.13 ‘The core complaint motivating anti-liberal politics in the region today’, they suggest, ‘is that the attempt to democratize formerly communist countries was aiming at a kind of cultural conversion to values, habits and attitudes considered “normal” in the West’.14 ‘Central European elites’ were ‘hopeful converts who wished to lure their societies into a collective conversion experience’.15

Converts? Did either the elites or the ‘societies’ of Central Europe really need to ‘convert’ in order to have the same desires as people in the West? Krastev and Holmes do not spell out what western ‘values, habits and attitudes’ in the West may be, or why they should be considered uniformly present in the West and not at all in the East. 

In fact, they are mistaken. To be sure, before and after 1989 many, and almost certainly most, Central Europeans did desire what the West had and they did not. This is most true in the literal sense of having: Central Europeans wanted high-quality material goods and the material signs of a good life that were so much more common in the West. But wanting what someone else has does not necessarily mean having to be ‘converted’ to new desires. When a large shiny Mercedes sign was erected on the western side of the Berlin Wall in 1965, the ‘capitalists’ in the West didn’t have to do any missionary work to appeal to east Berliners’ desire for a fancy ride.

To be fair, Krastev and Holmes focus on conversion not to material goods as much as to the ideals of liberal democracy. But here their approach is just as problematic. We may overlook perhaps that Girard was interested in conversion, not to any particular mimetic desire, but from mimetic desire as such. When they speak of conversion, they mean it in the everyday, common sense, rather than specifically Girard’s. They mean that Central Europeans, who did not previously desire to have a liberal democracy, ‘converted’ to desiring it circa 1989 through imitating the West.

Certainly, not everyone in Central Europe has wanted a meaningful democracy – but does everyone in the West? However, Central Europeans did not have to imitate West Europeans to want liberal democracy. To those many Central Europeans who wanted and want a democracy based on the rule of law, it is not a western European ideal but a general European, and indeed a universal human one. 

Warsaw University during polish students’ demonstration, 1988. Rafał Werbanowski via Wikimedia Commons.

Kundera, Konrád, Michnik, and Havel would no doubt take some offence at the suggestion that they needed to convert to western ‘values, habits and attitudes’. Arguably (though here, too, caution is required), there is less of a history of the democratic ideal in Russia and the other predominantly eastern Orthodox postcommunist countries, which may go some way toward explaining why Central European ‘imitation’ would appear sincere compared to the Russian. But certainly for Central Europeans, the change from communist socialism to liberal democracy did not entail learning new desires.

Roots of democracy

Generally speaking, liberal democracy in the area has historical roots as deep as among its western neighbours (which means not very deep), and the legacy of liberal democracy has just as much had its ups and downs. The liberal constitution passed by the Polish parliament, the Sejm, in 1791 was the first written constitution in Europe. It established a constitutional monarchy along the general principles of Enlightenment liberalism, and on the model of the Constitution of the United States, a country in whose revolutionary war of independence the Polish military commanders Tadeusz Kościusko and Casimir Pulaski played an important part. Also in the New World, Polish soldiers sent to fight by Napoleon against Haitian rebels joined the Black slaves, earning them the honourable epithet, ‘white Blacks of Europe’, by the first head of state of the first Black republic in modern times, Jean-Jacques Dessalines.16

The Hungarian national movements in the mid-nineteenth century were part of Europe-wide romantic liberalism. The revolutionary leader of the country, Lajos Kossuth, was widely admired in Europe and the United States as a freedom fighter. Karl Marx’s close collaborator, Friedrich Engels, likened Kossuth to the great figures of the French Revolution, Danton and Carnot. No nineteenth-century writers contrasted the Hungarian and French rebels along East-West lines. A view of Eastern European as an area inhabited by a radically different, and inferior, Other – what I call ‘Eastern Europeanism’ – had not yet been born. 

The revolutionary year 1848 also saw revolts in the future capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, then an Austrian provincial capital with a large German-speaking presence. The demands of the uprising included full civil liberties, along with national rights within the Austrian Empire for both Czechs and Germans. The Free City of Krakow, too, rose to arms.

East and West, the demands of the liberal revolutionaries were often unsuccessful, and their revolt was suppressed. However, liberal political tendencies struggled on into the period between the two World Wars. The mixed record of interwar democracy in East Central Europe was hardly worse than that of countries in west Central and southern Europe. Poland and Hungary succumbed to authoritarianism, but in that they were no worse than, and were largely inspired by, Mussolini’s Italian fascism. Austria’s Catholic-tinged fascism, too, had great appeal in both Poland and Slovakia. And, of course, it was not in East Central Europe but in Germany that the most vicious form of fascism triumphed.

Interwar Czechoslovakia was, arguably, no less democratic than France. Neither country was able to hold on to its democratic system once Hitler’s troops marched in. Then the Vichy government in France, led by the war hero Marshal Philippe Pétain, replaced the liberal republic with a regime remarkably similar to those run in Central Europe by authoritarian leaders such as Hungary’s Miklós Horthy and Slovakia’s Jozef Tiso.

No one would argue that communism rather than liberal democracy would have been chosen by Central Europeans if the Soviet Union did not impose it. Czechoslovakia was the only Central European country with a strong communist party capable of winning elections, which is something that one saw after the war also in France and especially Italy. It is not unreasonable to assume that if the Soviet Union had not occupied East Central Europe, liberal democracy might possibly have flourished there as much as in the West.

Even Krastev and Holmes recognize, intermittently, that Central European reformers were not taking on western values as something new, but as a heritage to return to. The authors refer approvingly to the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, who understood the changes of 1989 as ‘rectifying revolutions’ or ‘catch-up revolutions’. In their view, Habermas saw these ‘revolutions’ as having the goal to ‘return Central and Eastern European societies to the mainstream of western modernity, allowing the Central and east Europeans to gain what the west Europeans already possessed’.17

Elsewhere, Krastev and Holmes suggest that, in East Central Europe, ‘imitation was justified as a “return to Europe”, and that meant a return to the region’s authentic self ’.18 But how can you return to something that others, but not you, ‘already’ possess? The implication is clearly that, yes, many and perhaps most east Central Europeans did think of 1989 as a return to their previous status as citizens of the West, but that they were deluding themselves. For their version of acting western was, in fact, nothing but a risible imitation. Here Krastev and Holmes themselves reproduce the act of exclusion that provokes the injured pride of Central Europeans; they, too, reject them as wannabes. In general, their ‘imitation’ thesis suffers from not seeing what things look like to the Central Europeans themselves: a major defect in the practice of social science, which is called upon to ‘recognize’ the groups it studies.19

An even greater problem is that Krastev and Holmes focus only on what Central Europeans did, thought, and felt. But neither the ‘transition’ to capitalism nor the turn to illiberalism was a tango for one. To understand these developments, we must also look at the lead partner: the West.

Capitalism and exclusion

A classic essay by Homi Bhabha, On mimicry and man, provides us with the tools we need to admit western power among the factors that enter into what might appear as Central Europe’s desire to imitate, or as Bhabha puts it, ‘mimic’ the West.20 Bhabha speaks perhaps from the position of the postcolonial intellectuals, who acquire the culture and many of the credentials of the white elite, but not its full acceptance. Instead, their acculturation is rejected as mimicry. ‘Colonial mimicry’ in general, writes Bhabha, is

the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.21

Bhabha shows how western supremacy in the colonial and postcolonial contexts hinges on non-western elites becoming almost an integral part of the West, but at the same time depends on maintaining the difference between East and West. Equality is promised, but delayed forever. It is worth looking at this pattern in some detail, because it is possible to apply the way that Bhabha grasps the imitation/ mimicry relationship between the West and postcoloniality, also to the relationship between the West and the post-communist space.

In the Central European as in the postcolonial context, it is not the non-western (or not-western-enough) others that see themselves as a mimic. ‘Mimicry’ stems from the logic of the dominant, which bars the Other from becoming ‘quite’ the same. ‘Mimicry emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge’, writes Bhabha.22 Psychologically, colonial power emerges as ‘the twin figures of narcissism and paranoia that repeat furiously’.23 What is narcissistic is the colonizer’s belief that they have reached the pinnacle of human development and as such must serve as the example to all. This leads to a missionary zeal to convert the Other to one’s own civilizational standards. What is paranoid is the fear that permitting complete sameness will end a privilege that is based on immutable difference.

Bhabha illustrates the tension between the narcissistic and the paranoid with the example of Charles Grant’s Observations on the state of society among the Asiatic subjects of Great Britain (1792).24 One dimension along which the West wished the colonial world to assimilate to it, but not quite, is the religious one. The mission civilisatrice of the northwest European colonizers was often also a Christian mission.

Grant’s dream of an evangelical system of mission education conducted uncompromisingly in English was partly a belief in political reform along Christian lines and partly an awareness that the expansion of company rule in India required a system of ‘interpellation’ – a reform of manners, as Grant put it, that would provide the colonial with ‘a sense of personal identity as we know it.’ Caught between the desire for religious reform and the fear that the Indians might become turbulent for liberty, Grant implies that it is, in fact, the ‘partial’ diffusion of Christianity, and the ‘partial’ influence of moral improvements which will construct a particularly appropriate form of colonial subjectivity. What is suggested is a process of reform through which Christian doctrines might collude with divisive caste practices to prevent dangerous political alliances. Inadvertently, Grant produces a knowledge of Christianity as a form of social control which conflicts with the enunciatory assumptions which authorize his discourse. In suggesting, finally, that ‘partial reform’ will produce an empty form of ‘the imitation of English manners which will induce them [the colonial subjects] to remain under our protection’, Grant mocks his moral project.

Bhabha is quoting Grant from the papers of the East India Company25, which hold an earlier version of the Observations than the more widely available 1813 issue, published by the House of Commons. In the latter, Grant speaks of the ‘imitation of English manners’ as the best option for Indians among European options to mimic. ‘Hindoos … now subject to Great Britain must, in their supposed new circumstances … continue to need the supply of many wants from that country’, says Grant, describing an acute insight into the effect of developing colonial markets as an export of consumer ‘needs’ along with the goods to supply them. He continues to say that if, as is to be expected, the ‘Hindoos’ will want British goods, then they must be protected by the most powerful ‘maritime power’, that is, Britain, from other colonial navies that would disrupt the supply. Consequently, ‘it is rather to be expected that their own interest, and the preference which their imitation of our manners have given us over other European nations, will jointly induce them to remain safe under our protection’.26

This portrayal of what Indians adopting British ways means for British power, both political and economic, is as clear as it is frank. Grant advocates for an ‘assimilation’ of the Indian subjects that knows its limits. In Bhabha’s words, ‘The ambivalence of colonial authority repeatedly turns from mimicry – a difference that is almost nothing but not quite – to menace – a difference that is almost total but not quite’27. Mimicry brings the colonial subject close enough to desire the goods and protection of the colonizers but creates, from the colonizer’s point of view, the menace of a closeness that abolishes economic and political privilege.

There is a close connection between race and capitalism. Stuart Hall writes that capitalism ‘has always advanced as much by way of the production and negotiation of difference as it has through enforcing sameness, standardization, and homogenization’.28

Racial difference is one of capitalism’s products. In capitalism, while the total amount of wealth is not a zero-sum game – competition is not always a matter of competing for a slice of the same pie – the winner is one who outperforms the competition. Capitalists seek new markets and new sources of cheap labour; they do not seek new competition. This is the underlying logic of capital expansion, whether by an enterprise, a country, or the ‘globalized’ system of regulated competition, dominated by US and west European capital and their established allies, and flourishing at the end of the twentieth and at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the saddest irony of the history of liberal democracy is that the states where liberal democracy has been most secure are the saltwater imperial powers on both sides of the north Atlantic, who have combined the increasing democratic empowerment of their own public with the domination of territories where democratic freedoms were denied to a population seen mainly as a source of cheap labour and a market for its cheap products. This two-faced character of western imperial power, that it grants democracy to its own but denies it to those under its economic and/or political sway, survives, as many observers have noted, into the postcolonial period.29

The expansion of western business requires the population to assimilate to western ways in order to promote new markets and to efficiently organize new workers, but it also requires them to keep just enough of a distance so they do not become competitors. Imitation is encouraged, so to speak, on condition that it fails. This self-contradictory pattern has been transferred, with the end of communism, to the ‘emerging markets’ of Central Europe.

White but not quite

Although it requires little comment to see how Bhabha’s analysis applies to Central Europe, there are certainly important differences. Central Europe, although peripheral to the core of western capital accumulation, is nevertheless a partially privileged region of global geopolitics, and as such has been and continues to function in ways that take part in the global North’s exploitation of the South. Contrary to common belief, Central Europe did historically benefit as a white European region from the West’s colonial adventure, and  continues to profit from its postcolonial privilege.

The Central European version of being ‘the same but not quite’ is white, but not quite. White but not quite is, still, white. Eastern Europeanism as a racism of degree does not compare in intensity and pervasiveness with colour racism. This provides Central Europeans aspiring to full acceptance in the white racial hierarchy with the opportunity to espouse the discourses of white racism in a way that is obviously not available to people who are not white.

The desire to be among the beneficiaries and not among the victims of white privilege goes a long way toward explaining the success of racist rhetoric among many Central Europeans. In a brilliant Czech-language essay, political scientist Pavel Barša discusses the ‘dissidents’ like Milan Kundera, who, as we have seen earlier, saw liberation from communism as a means to ‘return’ Central Europe to its rightful place in the West.

Central Europeans were returning to ‘their’ Western civilization, which by the fact of their return proved that it was the centre of the world. … The imperative of assimilating to Western norms and accepting neoliberalism was often justified by the contention that they were a necessary condition to ensure that we didn’t fall to the level of a ‘developing country’. The erstwhile ‘second’ world was to be split between those who would succeed in joining the ‘first’ and those who, declassed, are become part of the ‘third’. The premier task of Central European nations was to acquire a place in the first group and, at all costs, prevent possible demotion to the third.

When the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, tried in September 2015 to awaken in the countries of the Visegrád Four a consciousness of moral obligation to non-European refugees, and pointed to the fact that Western Europe had welcomed their refugees with open arms, he hit a wall of incomprehension. From the Central European point of view, Western Europeans had an obligation of hospitality towards these refugees who belonged to European civilization, which they compared with a far lesser obligation, if any, that we have towards fleeing adherents of Islamic civilization.30

‘The effect of mimicry on the authority of colonial discourse is profound and disturbing’, Bhabha suggests.31 Central European applicants to the western club belittle other applicants’ credentials by stressing their own ‘European’ racial privilege. The pitifulness of their position becomes obvious once their claim for full member privileges is rejected, condemning them as bad imitators, as eternally unsuccessful mimics.

 

This article is an edited excerpt of Ivan Kalmar’s book White But Not Quite: Central Europe’s Illiberal Revolt. Bristol: Bristol University Press (2022).

Kundera, ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’.

Kundera, ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’.

Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’.

Kéri, Orbán Viktor.

Orbán, ‘Orbán Viktor beszéde a XXVIII’.

Krastev and Holmes, The Light That Failed.

Krastev and Holmes, 12.

Krastev and Holmes, 5.

Krastev and Holmes, 26.

Doran, ‘René Girard’s Concept of Conversion’.

Krastev and Holmes, The Light That Failed, 11.

Krastev and Holmes, 12.

Krastev and Holmes, The Light That Failed, 9.

Krastev and Holmes, 10.

Krastev and Holmes, 25.

Pachoński and Wilson, Poland’s Caribbean Tragedy, 213.

Krastev and Holmes, The Light That Failed, 24. See also Krastev and Holmes’ discussion of ‘return’ on pages 32 and 47.

Krastev and Holmes, 11, emphasis added.

Tariq Modood rejects studies of British Muslims that focus only on how they are ‘othered’ by the white Christian majority, without recognizing the positive content of the Islamic heritage as it appears to British Muslims themselves: Modood, Essays on Secularism and Multiculturalism, chapter 4.

Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and Man’.

Bhabha, 126.

Bhabha, 126.

Bhabha, 132.

Grant, ‘Observations on the State of Society’.

East India Company, ‘Sessional Papers 1812–13’, chapter 4, p. 104.

Grant, ‘Observations on the State of Society’, 100, emphasis added.

Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and Man’, 132.

Hall, Mercer, and Gates, The Fateful Triangle , 118–19. Quoted in Virdee, ‘Racialized Capitalism’, 9.

See, for example, Mbembe, On the Postcolony; Mondon and Winter, Reactionary Democracy.

Barša, ‘Nulový stupeň dekolonizace’, 4.

Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and Man’, 126.

Published 29 September 2022
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Ivan Kalmar / Eurozine (edited excerpt)

PDF/PRINT

Newsletter

Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Viktor Orbán’s war on the media

Since his return to power in 2010, Viktor Orbán has meticulously unravelled the rule of law and media pluralism, while holding the EU at bay. A short history of a decade’s attacks on the free press in Hungary.

Discussion