Authentic Freedom

Authentic Freedom

Two recent memoirs by writers born under communism in Eastern Europe reflect on ideas central to the left: cosmopolitanism and socialism.

People flee on an abandoned cargo boat from Durrës, Albania, to Italy after the collapse of the pyramid schemes in 1997. ( Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images)

The Passport as Home: Comfort in Rootlessness
by Andrei S. Markovits
Central European University Press, 2021, 328 pp.

Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History
by Lea Ypi
W.W. Norton & Company, 2022, 288 pp.

Many people tend to think, and not without reason, of emigrants from former communist countries as right-wing. In that respect, two recent memoirs, by Andrei Markovits and Lea Ypi, are refreshing and surprising. Each induces us to reflect on a theme central to the left: respectively, cosmopolitanism and socialism, both of which are currently on the defensive.

Both authors were born under communism in southeastern Europe, on the periphery of the Soviet Union—Markovits in Romania, Ypi in Albania. Both came west early in their lives, though at very different moments—Markovits left in 1958, going first to Austria to complete his schooling, and then to the United States, and Ypi departed some forty years later, in 1997, to attend university in Italy. Both ended up teaching politics in Anglophone universities—Markovits political science and German literature at the University of Michigan, Ypi political theory and philosophy at the London School of Economics. Markovits’s book records his experiences as a child in Timişoara, as a schoolboy in Vienna, and then as a professor in the United States. Ypi’s is a coming-of-age story that encompasses her early childhood in Durrës, Albania’s second-most-populous city, under “Uncle” Enver Hoxha’s socialism, and her adolescence after the fall of communism, during which she observed the capitalist structural reforms relentlessly imposed by the West.

Emigration, Markovits writes, “entails both a strong pull and a push.” In his case, the pull was exerted through his father’s ambition for him to succeed in the United States (his mother died before he turned ten). For his father, it was “a mishmash of America, Britain, Canada, Australia—in other words the English-speaking democracies . . . that remained the only beacon of hope for those like us.”

His childhood days were happy and carefree, with a multicultural cast of characters. Yet there was unease at home: “I had always sensed from my parents that deep down they felt both insecure as Jews and untethered.” Although they lived in Romania, they spoke Hungarian, but they were “not Hungarian by virtue of something that remained unspoken, but that clearly was due to our being Jewish,” and they were also “not Germans, even though that high culture permeated pretty much everything my parents, my mother in particular, valued.” Markovits, however, “experienced this rootlessness, this un-belonging, this multi-culturalism, as something enriching, even liberating, never as being anchorless and forlorn.”

During his teenage years in Vienna in the 1960s, his perspective darkened. The teaching at his Gymnasium was authoritarian and stifling, and Jews were “a clear ‘other.’” It was only in the United States, where Andrei became “Andy,” that Markovits could once again enjoy his rootless cosmopolitanism. After studying at Columbia, he spent twenty-four years at Harvard’s Center for European Studies before moving on to the University of Michigan, where he has been for the past two decades. Cosmopolitanism, he writes, has caused him “much joy and little anguish” and has “widely enhanced my circle of friendships and given me access to cultures I otherwise never would have been able to penetrate.”

Ypi’s emigration resulted from the push of the 1997 civil war in Albania, which led to more than 2,000 deaths, and the surrounding economic crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of people lost their savings to fraudulent investment schemes. Though the effects of liberalization were dislocating, Ypi’s family had also experienced considerable difficulty during the communist era. She came from a line of intellectuals, and intellectuals lived under a cloud of suspicion. To make matters worse, her great-grandfather had been a short-lived prime minister in the 1920s and was viewed as a fascist. This family history landed his son, Ypi’s grandfather, in prison for fifteen years and crushed her father’s hopes to pursue his passion, mathematics. He “was told by the Party that he had to join the real working class because of his ‘biography,’” Ypi writes.

When Ypi was a child, her parents and beloved grandmother (the niece of a Pasha under the Ottoman Empire who had been educated at a French lycée) protected her from the danger certain to ensue from any knowledge that would unsettle her trust in the official public discourse. The adults talked in code, referring, for instance, to time in prison as “university studies.” It was only after the fall of communism that her “parents revealed the truth, their truth. They said that my country had been an open-air prison for almost half a century.”

With the arrival of capitalism, there was an invasion of financial advisers and a proliferation of pyramid schemes, in which most Albanians invested. Ypi’s family lost most of their savings to one such scheme. Around the same time, her father became the general director of the Port of Durrës, and his bosses told him to fire hundreds of Roma, mostly from low-skilled jobs. He promised he would but never did. Socialism, Ypi writes, “had denied him the possibility to be who he wanted, to make mistakes and learn from them, and to explore the world on his own terms. Capitalism was denying it to others, the people who depended on his decisions, who worked in the port.”

For many Albanians, the pull to emigrate from Albania was the image they had of Europe—a destination that became more realistic once communism fell, yet remained out of reach for many. “In the past, one would have been arrested for wanting to leave,” Ypi writes. “Now that nobody was stopping us from emigrating, we were no longer welcome on the other side. . . . We risked being arrested not in the name of our own government but in the name of other states, those same governments who used to urge us to break free.” The hope of reaching Europe could be sustained if “we worked hard enough, and waited long enough, just as we used to wait in socialist queues—without minding the time that passed, without losing hope.”

According to Ypi, she had initially planned to write “a philosophical book,” but “when I started writing . . . ideas turned into people—the people who make me who I am.” What, then, is the meaning of her story? The same can be asked of Markovits. Ypi’s discussion of freedom and Markovits’s meditation on cosmopolitanism are both wonderfully vivid and compelling. But both narratives, informed by personal stories, raise further questions.

Markovits describes himself as “a wanderer, an outsider, a profoundly and proudly rootless cosmopolitan.” He is “orthogonal to the dominant culture, a tad askew, unaligned,” and though he is “not excluded from the group, manages to remain detached.” And yet, how real is this detachment, and from what? Markovits says his passport is his home. Yet there is an unmistakable warmth with which he describes the various academic institutions that have welcomed and supported him. He writes of his continuing loyalty to Harvard’s Center for European Studies and notes the collegiality of other academics at home and abroad. He also describes the pleasures of discovering a new form of Jewish identity and learning to express that identity in ways that were unavailable in the Timişoara of his childhood.

The “un-belonging” he values does not seem to be the right description for his adult condition. Nor perhaps is “rootlessness,” which suggests the lack of something life-giving and generative. Maybe we should see his story as one of gaining a new grounding in institutions and social bonds that could afford him the very independence and agency—in short, the freedom—he had long prized.

That grounding is not available to most citizens in the world, let alone to the ever-greater mass of migrants. It is the freedom of transnational academics, who are part of the social class of elites able to enjoy their detachment from—and study of—nationally based solidarities. In debates with German leftists, Markovits has criticized their adherence to a “völkisch definition of citizenship and belonging” and endorsed, as an alternative, Jürgen Habermas’s Verfassungspatriotismus (constitutional patriotism).

Are these really the only alternatives? Must acknowledging the persistence of national ways of belonging that many people value be völkisch and essentialist? Can a cosmopolitanism for our times really be organized around the mere commitment to principles? People often attach intense value to their cultural memberships. Welcoming this fact indicates that one doesn’t just tolerate plurality and diversity but embraces them—a sensibility that encourages sympathy with national minorities such as Kurds, Palestinians, Tibetans, and immigrants to other nation-states. The only cosmopolitanism worth defending today is one that not only accommodates those whose professional and social status enables them to live detached from national identities but also recognizes the innumerable ways in which people either embrace a national identity or lead hybrid lives that enable them to combine, fuse, and inhabit several.

Teaching Marx at the London School of Economics, Ypi tells her students (correctly, I think) that socialism is “above all a theory of human freedom, of how to think about progress in history, of how we adapt to circumstances but also try to rise above them.”

Freedom, she argues, 

is not sacrificed only when others tell us what to say, where to go, how to behave. A society that claims to enable people to realize their potential but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing is just as oppressive. And yet, despite all the constraints, we never lose our inner freedom: the freedom to do what is right.

Ypi has written elsewhere that her conception of socialism is inspired by Marx’s vision of communism (of which he notoriously tells us little, not wishing to write “recipes for the cook-shops of the future”), seeing it as an “emancipation” from capitalism, in which “authentic freedom” is fully realized. This freedom can exist only when “my decisions are made in a way that is free from fear, need, bias, prejudice, manipulation, and so on.” It requires a society in which “the structural roots of conflict progressively disappear and justice in its relation to coercion is no longer needed,” where “political conflict, understood as conflict rooted in certain material conditions and in the existence of social classes, comes to an end.”

In Free, Ypi writes that her decision to teach and study Marx puzzled her mother, who once drew “attention to a cousin’s remark that my grandfather did not spend fifteen years locked up in prison so that I would leave Albania to defend socialism.” All the same, Ypi also found herself at odds with the Western leftist friends she made after leaving Albania. These self-declared socialists failed to see the relevance of her story. “‘What you had was not really socialism,’ they would say, barely concealing their irritation.” Their socialism was “clear, bright, and in the future. Mine was messy, bloody, and of the past,” its failures to be explained by “the cruelty of our leaders or the uniquely backward nature of our institutions. They believed there was little for them to learn.”

For Ypi, liberalism is remembered only as bad news. She tells the story of Albania’s transformation from the open-air prison of “actually existing socialism” to the ravaged landscape of shock-therapy capitalism, the latter guided by “experts” who attempted to apply the same neoliberal formula to every post-communist state. She paints an unforgettable portrait of one such expert; he cannot recall the names of the various places where he has stayed and erupts in anger at men who insist that he dance at a dinner in his honor. “I equated liberalism,” she writes, “with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, selfish enrichment, cultivating illusions while turning a blind eye to injustice.”

Yet “in some ways,” she continues, “I have gone full circle.” “My world is as far from freedom as the one my parents tried to escape,” Ypi writes. “Both fall short of that ideal.” Part of the reason that she wrote Free was to understand the particularities of each of those failures.

In a recent piece in this magazine, Michael Walzer treats liberalism less as a theoretical system than as a distinctive style of thinking and acting politically. A liberal perspective qualifies and constrains our moral and political commitments. Walzer reminds us of the Italian anti-fascist leader Carlo Rosselli’s book Liberal Socialism. “The day will come,” Rosselli projected, “when this word [liberal] . . . will be claimed with proud self-awareness by the socialist: that will be the day of his maturity, the day when he wins emancipation at least in the domain of the spiritual.” With this recognition, socialism becomes “liberalism in action,” for there is no real liberty for the majority of people without a minimum degree of economic autonomy. For Rosselli, liberalism meant political parties played by agreed-upon rules. It meant “to restrain competition . . . within tolerable limits [and] to permit the various parties to succeed to power in turn.”

A liberal in this sense keeps in sight the dark side of politics, of which Max Weber warned, “the world is governed by demons and . . . he who lets himself in for politics, that is, for power and force as means, contracts with diabolical powers.” Corruption, violence, and tyranny are so easily unleashed when elites arbitrarily acquire power, no less when they act through the state in the name of a noble cause. These are dangers to which the theoretical system of Marx, like the communist states it inspired, is largely blind. On the assumption that these dangers are real and perennial, there will always be a need for constitutions that protect individual rights and for institutions of civil society, including a free press and unfettered opposition.

These are standards, of course, by which many avowedly liberal governments also fall short, and Ypi insists that we keep these experiences in mind. “It is easy to say, ‘What you had was not the real thing,’ applying that to both socialism and liberalism, to any complex hybrid of ideas and reality,” she writes. “It releases us from the burden of responsibility. We are no longer complicit in moral tragedies created in the name of great ideas, and we don’t have to reflect, apologize, and learn.”

Ypi’s memoir provides vivid testimony of the largely dismal record of socialist states, yet she maintains a buoyant commitment to Marx’s vision of authentic freedom in a truly human society—a commitment that is impressive and much needed at the present, dystopian time. The philosophical book she was originally planning to write was, she tells us, “about the overlapping idea of freedom in the liberal and Socialist traditions.” (I observe that she writes “overlapping,” not “contrasting.”) I hope she will still write that book and that it will set out a compelling vision of liberal socialism.

Steven Lukes is the author of numerous books and articles about political and social theory, morality, relativism, Marxism, and power.