Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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East European liberalism after 1989

One intriguing aspect of neoliberalism has been its attractiveness to a number of former communist countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In the absence of a strong liberal tradition in those countries it was hardly surprising that garbled versions of liberalism took hold in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. What in fact went under the name of liberalism pulled in two very different directions. The already weak manifestations of liberalism in Eastern Europe suffered an identity crisis in the post-communist search for new identities: its emblematic defence of individual liberty and social solidarity were consigned to civil society, while its equally characteristic championing of competition and private property were the province of a market society. The two parts shared little and were made to lead separate institutional and ideological lives.

The appeal of neoliberalism was understandable in countries whose economies had suffered under communism. The personal circumstances of most citizens made a consumer society on imagined ‘Western’ models of opulence particularly alluring. Citizens were prompted to search for a more efficient economic system whose fruits were tangible and immediate, and neoliberalism seemed to hold out the prospect of a fast fix. But the other direction some East European countries took was a flight from the oppressive and dictatorial states under which people had lived. Here liberals genuinely had to make up lost ground for the many decades endured under totalitarian systems, in particular the absence of robust, basic first layer constraints and procedures. The liberal language of human rights and of bringing back the rule of law and democratic constitutional arrangements was in the mouths of many (). As against the powerful state under communism, many liberals pinned their hopes on the strengthening of civil society as a refuge from the state. ‘Civil society’ was the prevalent term for the network of voluntary and private associations that made up society, in the civic and cultural as well as the economic spheres.

5. Shortly before becoming Czech president in December 1989, Václav Havel waves to crowds in Prague celebrating freedom after the collapse of communism.

In that soil, fourth layer welfare liberalism, relying as it did on the benevolence of an active and democratic state, but a state nonetheless, could hardly flourish. Both civil society and market society tendencies shared the quest to diminish the centrality of the state as far as possible, whether it acted for good or for evil. The state, in the words of the Polish academic Jerzy Szacki, was seen ‘as the agent of all social injustice’, a position quite out of step with left-liberal ideological and philosophical theories. Collective action was mistakenly identified with the socialist collectivism of the old regimes. Anything even remotely associated with collectivism was thus to be avoided.

The belief in the harmonious functioning of civil society without some state regulation amidst the complexities of the modern world was naive and illusory, as it previously had been in liberalism’s past history, when private and charitable institutions proved unable to provide solutions to the social problems of the 19th century. Indeed, neoliberalism now illustrated once again how dominant private interests merely moved in to fill the power vacuum caused by bypassing the state. At the same time, visions of civil society in Eastern Europe demanded levels of social homogeneity that fifth layer multicultural liberals would consider utopian and regard with suspicion. And the misleading idea that civil society was a parallel society, happily separate from the distasteful world of politics, implied that political issues did not permeate the whole of society. The discrete notions of the state, the government, and politics were frequently and carelessly equated. Liberalism failed to take deeper roots in Eastern Europe, while its ideas of liberty were pressed into personalized and idealized intellectual and artistic spheres.

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