A Missed Opportunity

A Missed Opportunity

A response to Dimitrina Petrova.

Participants in the 1989 roundtable negotiations in Poland

Dimitrina Petrova’s “The 1989 Revolutions and the Roots of Illiberal Populism,” which originally appeared online at Dissent under the title  “The Egalitarian Promise of 1989—And Its Betrayal,” is a fine piece. Petrova’s prognosis is surely correct: some of the most noble and exciting promises of the revolutions of 1989 have not been realized in Eastern Europe; the transition to liberal democracy and to capitalism has generated winners and losers; as a consequence there is substantial political alienation and resentment throughout the region; and right-wing populist demagogues such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński have exploited this disaffection to achieve political power and move their countries in a more authoritarian direction.

At the same time, I find Petrova’s way of framing the situation in terms of the malfeasance or negligence of liberals to be unfortunate, especially as a Dissent piece. I think this framing misrepresents the way many have long understood the transition, especially in the pages of Dissent. I think it misrepresents the challenges faced during the transition, and does so in a way that surprisingly echoes the discourse of the right-wing populists themselves. And I think it thus gives short shrift to the positive developments that must be defended, and to the work of activists—like Petrova herself—whose efforts are unintelligible outside of these positive, if fragile, achievements.

Is Celebration of Liberal Democracy Really a Dominant Trope?

Petrova begins by announcing the need to revise our thinking:

The ideological victory of liberal democracy over communism shaped the way in which historians, politicians, and social scientists made sense of the events of 1989. But there is a strong case today for a revised look at the revolutions of 1989—a critique of the way the prevailing narratives and theories have presented these revolutions as essentially a transition from the tyranny of the party-state to a free and democratic society.

She is surely correct that many ideologues, both in the region and in the West—most famously Francis Fukuyama—long treated the downfall of communism as a kind of new dispensation, and failed to reckon with the limits and challenges of the transition. But it is simply wrong to claim that most intellectuals simply celebrated “the ideological victory of liberal democracy.” From the first cracks in the Berlin wall, Dissent in particular has featured extensive critical commentary on the transition. Two examples will suffice: (1) in its Fall 1991 issue the Dissent board published an open letter, “Democratic Vistas,” that criticized the fact that the fall of communism was giving way to “unregulated capitalism,” and committed the journal to challenging this development; (2) in Fall 2009, Dissent published an article by Vladimir Tismaneanu, “Two Decades After the Fall: Lessons from the Upheaval,” that centered on the difficulties, perplexities, and limits of the transition to liberal democracy, and registered the backlashes to this, including “The ‘moral revolution’ championed by the Kaczynski twins in Poland.” I myself published an entire book over two decades ago, Democracy in Dark Times, centered on the very dark situation of democracy in both the East and the West. In short, there is little that is new in Petrova’s prognosis. Many intellectuals and social scientists have long noted the grave challenges to democratization in Eastern Europe. Obviously the situation today is especially grave, and this makes the warning sounded by Petrova valuable. But the dimensions of the problem have long been understood.

Echoing the Rhetoric of the Right

Petrova’s diagnosis centers on the failings of “the elite,” who in her telling prized liberty over equality, and thus presided over, and benefited from, the institution of neoliberal capitalism. In doing so, she argues, these elites were not simply short-sighted, they were morally negligent in their failure to appreciate and to realize all that was promised by 1989. Obviously, the matter at hand implicates deep and complicated questions about historical causality and the requirements of political responsibility in facing difficult choices in a fast-moving and unprecedented situation. These are matters of legitimate debate, and indeed such debates have been featured in a wide range of scholarly and public intellectual journals for at least the past quarter century, from East European Politics and Societies to Journal of Democracy to the New York Review of Books to Dissent itself. I would simply note here three things: (1) Petrova’s framing ignores the ways that liberal democratic intellectuals central to the transitions worried about these issues, acknowledged the limits of their efforts and the constraints of the global economic and political system, and wrestled in practice with these issues. Here I would simply note the excellent 2014 volume translated and edited by Elzbieta Matynia, An Uncanny Era: Conversations Between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik. (2) The way that Petrova writes about “post-communist elites,” and the ways that they seized advantage from liberalization, tends to lump together two very different groups: the former anti-communist dissidents who were persecuted under the old regime and who participated in “velvet handshakes” in order to assure a non-violent transfer of power in the shadow of Soviet tanks, and members of the communist nomenklatura who often benefited from the privatization of formerly state-owned assets. This blurring of these two very different groups is analytically dubious. And while this is surely not Petrova’s intent, it has the effect of reiterating one of the principal charges made against the Havels and the Michniks by the Orbáns and Kaczyńskis: that as liberals (or leftists or Jews or clients of Soros) they were soft on the communists because they didn’t care about ordinary people, because they were not true members of their nations. (3) This framing is the framing of today’s right-wing authoritarians, some of whom played secondary roles in 1989, and all of whom seek to slander the former anti-communist dissidents and to claim the mantle of “authentic revolution” for themselves and their xenophobic and culturally conservative agendas.

It is surprising to see this way of writing about “post-communist elites” in Dissent, because from the beginning Dissent featured prominently the perspectives of the Eastern European dissidents, and because many Dissent writers have been especially attuned to the ways that many (not all) of the dissidents were traveling a path similar to the one charted by Irving Howe and his colleagues (from Lewis Coser to Michael Walzer) since the journal’s founding—the path from some kind of Marxism to some kind of left liberalism or democratic socialism (to use the language of Michael Harrington). This path involved serious participation in and experience of Marxist politics; a serious reckoning with the intellectual traditions of the left and especially with the libertarian dimensions of Marxism; and a very strong critique of the oppressive dimensions of communism.

The central frame of Petrova’s piece—that communism promised equality, that 1989 was for most people about the effort to realize such egalitarian promises, and that post-communism subordinated equality to liberty—ignores, and thus diminishes, the efforts of many of the anti-communist dissidents, in 1956 and in 1968, to realize a socialist humanism, and also ignores the understandable impact of the failure of those dreams. Havel and Michnik and their colleagues knew their Kołakowski. They knew Marx’s critique of the simple egalitarianism of “crude communism” in the Paris Manuscripts. And they rejected, on principled and experiential grounds, the very idea that meaningful equality was possible without liberty, and especially without a free civil society. When Petrova says that post-communism has privileged liberty over equality, she misses the opportunity to explain the necessary linkage between these two values, and she also misses the opportunity to forthrightly acknowledge the importance of legal and civic equality as an essential kind of equality.

The Contemporary Challenges

The most unfortunate consequence of this missed opportunity is that Petrova fails to give sufficient weight to the importance today of “putting liberal democracy first”: defending liberal democratic values and institutions from the authoritarians who would destroy them in the name of a debased conception of “equality” linked to an equally debased conception of “nation” and “homeland.”

This is particularly ironic because Petrova herself is not simply someone who participated bravely in Eco-Glasnost, perhaps the most important Bulgarian civil society group to oppose communism in 1989; she is today a heroic defender of these very liberal democratic values and institutions, something one wouldn’t know from reading her piece. I note her involvement with Rights CoLab, an organization that, according to its website, “advances human rights by fostering collaboration among experts across the fields of civil society, technology, business, and finance. Together we build new ways of organizing civic engagement and leveraging markets to improve the impact, resilience, and sustainability of human rights initiatives.” I note with genuine admiration her biography posted at this site, which cites her work with the European Roma Rights Centre, the Equal Rights Trust, and the Bulgarian Helskinki Committee, and also note the support given to this work by the Reagan-Fascell Fellowship that she held from the National Endowment for Democracy in 2018.

Finally, I note a terrific piece published last year by Petrova on “Strategic human rights litigation in tough times,” in which she notes that “The integrity of the justice system and judicial culture are the most important factors to be taken into account when investing in strategic litigation,” and argues that using the courts to fight rights abuses is a necessary though by no means sufficient strategy for resisting the “majoritarian illiberalism on the rise in so many regions of the world.”

Petrova, in short, appears herself to be continuing the legacy of Havel, Michnik, and other well-known former-dissident activists and architects of the liberal democratic transition, even as she continues her own earlier activism under current conditions.

To say this is not to diminish the distinctive perspectives and accomplishments of the younger generation to which Petrova belongs and for which she speaks. Petrova is absolutely right to critique the limits of the liberal democratic transition in Eastern Europe and especially to emphasize the importance of promoting a politics of solidarity and greater social and economic equality. But she is wrong to imply moral negligence and to in effect issue a blanket condemnation of post-communist liberalism. A new generation of Dissent readers and writers need, and deserve, a fuller and richer account of the entire trajectory of post-communist transition in Eastern Europe; of the trials, tribulations, and sometimes tragic (and tragically mistaken) choices experienced by the genuine heroes of 1989; and of the liberal democratic values that would seem to ground some of the most important and meaningful forms of their own activism, in defending the rights of minorities, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and the rule of law itself.

To put this another way: the transition to liberal democracy in Eastern Europe did not betray the promise of 1989. But, like the promise of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the promise of 1989, as an unfulfilled promise, remains a source of inspiration, contestation, and aspiration. And the unending challenges of democratic politics remain before us. On this I assume Petrova and I agree.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is a member of Dissent’s editorial board who has been writing for the magazine for over three decades, and who still remembers when he considered himself a “young” contributor.

Read Dimitrina Petrova’s original article and her reply to Jeffrey Isaac.