Yes, We Should Put Liberty First

Yes, We Should Put Liberty First

A reply to Jeffrey Isaac.

Participants in the 1989 roundtable negotiations in Poland

I am grateful to Jeffrey Isaac for responding to my essay. I wrote the essay in order to make three points regarding the nexus between the 1989 revolutions and the origins of illiberal populism in Central and Eastern Europe. However, already the first paragraph of my critic’s response forebodes that all three of my points have been lost on him. Isaac misrepresents and banalizes my analysis and then judges that there is “little that is new” in it. He attributes to me a “framing,” which, he says, is “in terms of the malfeasance or negligence of liberals.” Explaining in such terms anything in post-communist developments couldn’t be further from my thinking. Yet while much of Isaac’s text arises from ignoratio elenchi, aka missing the point, some of it contains justified critical observations that require my clarifications.

My three points concern: 1) the failed equality promise as a driver for mass participation in the 1989 overthrow of communist regimes, and the reasons why it is significant for understanding subsequent fluctuations of popular resentment; 2) the early 1990s pattern of anti-meritocratic mobility as a root cause of the surge of illiberal populism one generation later; and 3) the need for liberty to take priority today, particularly for those who want to fight for equality.

Regarding my first point, Isaac misidentifies the subject of my discussion. He believes I am talking about the “promise of 1989”—equality, allegedly—and that in my view, “1989 was for most people about the effort to realize such egalitarian promises.”[1] However, I explicitly assert the opposite. The new consensus born in 1989—or the “promise,” if you wish, of 1989—was not equality that had already been discredited by 1989 but “normality” and fairness as to who gets ahead in life and especially who becomes a member of the elite. The promise of equality was made by communist regimes and not by 1989 or elites formed during or after the revolutions. My analysis refuses to take for granted the astonishing phenomenon of mass participation in the 1989 revolutions. I ask why in 1989 so many of our compatriots supported us, the dissident liberal intellectuals (I was thirty-two in that year, a not-so-young activist in dissident groups and philosophy professor working on the Frankfurt School and other Western left-wing teachings). My answer is that mass participation itself resulted from popular resentment against the communist nomenklatura insofar as it had failed to deliver the equality it had promised and tried to realize, rather than the liberty it had also promised but never tried to realize.

My interpretation differs from what I called the “prevailing narrative,” which the media coverage of the thirtieth anniversary of 1989 last November abundantly confirmed, according to which people—not dissident intellectuals but all people—rebelled against the lack of freedom. Today’s dominant narrative about the history of 1989 has eclipsed a key evolution during the 1970s and 1980s in Eastern European communist societies—the process of delegitimization of the regime on account of the unfulfilled equality agenda, accompanied in a double helix with a parallel process of class formation during the same period. It has further eclipsed the subsequent evolution of popular resentment in the early 1990s. As Isaac has failed to understand my point, his instructive reading list on “the limits and challenges of the transition” is irrelevant. To challenge the originality of my thesis would mean to point me to readings that deconstruct the prevailing historical narrative about the making of the 1989 revolution itself.

When Isaac asks, “Is celebration of liberal democracy really a dominant trope?” his question is irrelevant to my discussion. Isaac reprimands me that “it is simply wrong to claim that most intellectuals simply celebrated ‘the ideological victory of liberal democracy.’” Yes, it is wrong, and I claim no such thing. I write that the ideological victory of liberal democracy had certain consequences—which of course does not mean than “most intellectuals” celebrated it! The fact that, as Isaac rightly notes, after 1989 many intellectuals on the left did something other than “celebrate the victory of liberal democracy” is beyond the point.

Having misunderstand my first point, Isaac unsurprisingly fails to appreciate my second point about the changes in the pattern of mobility and the experience of unfairness in the early 1990s. My view differs from existing interpretations explaining the dynamics of post-communist resentment through the optics of growing inequality, winners and losers, crashed expectations to reach the living standards of the West, or the gravitational pull of the past. Unlike these, I put at the center the specific formative experience, in the early 1990s, by a critical mass of people, of humiliating unfairness. During the 1989 revolution, people gave up on socioeconomic equality but not on the expectation of fairness as to who will succeed in life and who will enter the elite. The new “normal” society was supposed to bring the opportunity to ascend the social pyramid to anybody with effort or talent, but instead two types of people were perceived as succeeding: ex-nomenklatura with their inherited and converted privileged statuses, and unscrupulous newcomers taking advantage of the shady period of unclear rules during private capital accumulation. The experience of unfairness is an assault on dignity, a traumatizing experience by all accounts. For many people, the trauma led to a persisting sense of victimhood, which in time morphed into outward aggression and victimization of the “other,” particularly ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities, refugees, and other convenient scapegoats. A generation later, when the new social hierarchies had settled in, their unholy origins led to blanket blaming of elites that had emerged during, and presided over, the transition. At that point it was too soon to forget but too late to undo the unfairness, and parts of the public in the region started lumping together all elites of the 1990s, blurring internal boundaries and casting them as “liberal.” Global trends strongly influenced this discourse, but a homegrown history of resentment played a part. In any case, I don’t know how my interpretation, which speaks in terms of the sociology of social mobility and the social psychology of coextensive popular perceptions, can be presented as if I myself (rather than sections of the publics I refer to) blamed today’s illiberal populism on anybody’s “malfeasance or negligence,” let alone that of “liberals.”

Isaac criticizes me for lumping together the former anti-communist dissidents and members of the Communist nomenklatura. His misreading of my text may, however, rest on a widespread misconception that liberal intellectuals, including ex-dissidents, were a part of the new socioeconomic and political elites of the 1990s. This is an assumption with which I strongly disagree. When referring in my essay to “post-communist elites” that “managed the transition in their favor,” I describe them briefly as including a very significant proportion of ex-nomenklatura, plus “new” elites. But the latter were not “liberals” or “liberal intellectuals” in the sense of believers in liberal democracy (as opposed to proponents of then-ascending economic neoliberalism).

In the longer original version of my essay, I had described in more detail the structure of the post-communist elites of the 1990s, but this section had to go in the name of brevity. To elaborate briefly, I regard the post-communist elites as consisting of former nomenklatura and all the rest whom I have dubbed “blue elites”[2]—i.e. all those who had no links to the “red” pre-1989 nomenklatura. The “blue elites” in each post-communist country had a complex structure, but most were newcomers who had been passive before 1989 and had become “democrats” overnight. In the first months after the overthrow of communism, the “blue elites” contained small groups of former liberal dissidents, but these quickly dwindled.

In the early 1990s, like many others, I was asking myself why former liberal dissidents, as a rule, had remained outside the new political and economic elites. There were various explanations at the time—e.g. that the habits created by negative moral critique of communism did not predispose ex-dissidents to managerial roles and to participation in the positive, assertive, efficiency-oriented culture. I disagreed and argued that the reason for our expeditious marginalization had more to do with the discomfort, for most members of the new elites who had never opposed communism, of sharing their day-to-day lives with ex-dissidents. After all, an ex-dissident in an office is an constant reminder of the past, as if personifying the reproachful question, “Where were YOU during communism?” One or two individuals in each country were ritually elevated to positions of highest symbolic authority, including presidents Havel in Czechoslovakia and Zhelev in Bulgaria. Celebrating the exceptionality of a handful of brave individuals and not allowing a strong presence of ex-dissidents in their midst was, for the new “blue elites,” a coping mechanism.

Isaac accuses me of echoing the conservative right, with its blanket condemnation of elites and liberals. This strategy of critique, let’s call it “echoism,” bothers me as I keep coming across it in left-liberal writings of the last decade. Though intellectually cheap, it has a chilling effect on free debate. As I clarified above, I don’t accuse post-communist liberals of anything whatsoever, but what if I did? Does the very suggestion that liberal elites bear a responsibility turn one into a right-wing populist? If the use of terms or even frameworks “owned” by the opposite ideological camp ejects the speaker across the frontline, what kind of discussion is that?

My third point concerns the role of liberty today. I do not differ from liberal intellectuals in my belief that without liberty, equality is of no value and can be outright oppressive. Isaac is right when he says that I fail to give sufficient weight to the importance today of “putting liberal democracy first.” In the last sentence of my essay, I wrote that “in order for equality to make its comeback, a popular mobilization for liberty must open the way.” To me this sounded like a necessary, sufficient, and obvious conclusion of my analysis but Isaac made me realize that I should have been less economical. Yes, we should put liberty first today because it is threatened and because without liberty, the struggle for equality is either unfeasible (because of suppression of civic activism) or not worth fighting (as it might lead to a debased version of equality). Moreover, I believe that today we need a kind of a neo-universalism that would reinvent rights and liberties as universal values. Having returned to my native Bulgaria after more than two decades in the international human rights movement, in April 2019 I launched BOLD, Bulgarians Organizing for Liberal Democracy. Isaac’s critique taught me that I should strive each of my political writings to be an epitome of my politics and for this I am particularly grateful to him.

[1] Initially, as Isaac notes, my article appeared under the title The Egalitarian Promise of 1989 and Its Betrayal. This was due to an editorial error for which I received an apology from Dissent editors, and the title was changed. Isaac wrote his reply before the change of the title but revised it after the editors explained to him what had happened. I mention these facts because it is thinkable that the original title created a cognitive bias that prejudiced Isaac’s reading.


[2] In a series of articles on the “blue elites” published in the early 1990s (not available online) I have analyzed the structure of post-communist elites in Bulgaria, relying also on data from two massive multi-country studies of social mobility and elites conducted by Iván Szelényi’s team, of which I was a member coordinating for the Bulgarian part of the project.

Dimitrina Petrova is a human rights activist and scholar based in Bulgaria who has written on the history of opposition to communism.

Read Dimitrina Petrova’s original article and Jeffrey Isaac’s response.

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