Central and Eastern Europe

The ideals of 1989 turned upside down [Interview]

Philospher Boris Buden explains the failure of post-communism.

You are known as a critic of the post-communist transformation. To what extent was your political trajectory a response to the outcomes of the “transition”? Did the violent break-up of former Yugoslavia influence your perspective?

The results of the first so-called democratic elections left no illusions whatsoever. It was clear to me that what they called democracy would be nothing but the continuation of the Second World War in order to retroactively change its outcome. Those who were defeated in 1945 re-emerged now as the winners who took everything, only to destroy it. Croatia, and not only Croatia (I would even go as far to say the whole of the former Yugoslavia) is totally devastated, economically, culturally and above all morally. It is also politically deadlocked – in a bunch of small quasi independent nation states that compete in their inability to provide a decent standard of living to their citizens; the worst case being in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is simply suffocating under the regime imposed on it by the so-called international community, which was designed to end the war but not to enable a normal life.

So you are critical towards the influence of the West as well…

It was not only the violent break up of Yugoslavia that sobered me. In the mid 1990s, I was a fellow in a very distinguished institute in Vienna, amongst a bunch of very young American academics all working on their PhDs focussing on the post-communist transition in Eastern Europe and on topics such as the development of civil society in Hungary, independent media in a post-communist state, the transition from state to private property, etc. What they were actually doing is something which is known as “area studies” in the US. I was struck by their bigotry, ideological narrowness, and the emptiness of their thoughts on post-communist East. It looked as though they already knew everything about it and came to Europe just to add a touch of empirical authenticity to their theses and to show off that they were “personally there”.

I had the impression that I was in the most dogmatic school party, completely detached from reality and concerned only with its own ideological reproduction.

But there was one more moment that shocked me; one, which was rather disgusting. They were slobbering all over the Eastern European women who they alleged to be better in bed and easier to get than their Western contemporaries. They even made several excursions to Prague at that time. This classical orientalist fantasy was truly disgusting. In short, I stopped liking democracy, or rather the transition into democracy, very early on.

You’ve written that inhabitants of post-communist countries were transformed into “children”. The “child” is a well-known metaphor connected with colonialism. To what extent do you think that post-communism is a colonial project? 

I found it in the metaphors used to describe the process of post-communist transition: “first steps of democracy”; “a democracy in nappies”; “in the school of democracy”; “democracy taking its first lessons” etc. The first thing at stake was the fantasy of a new, fresh, innocent beginning. The figure of the child is its perfect embodiment. It is turned completely to future, relieved from every responsibility for the so-called totalitarian past, and at the same time cleaned from all its dirt. And in the case that there are problems ahead, that the new democratic order doesn’t function properly, one can always say that these are simply the childhood illnesses of new democracies.

But there is another side to this. A child cannot take care of itself; it cannot make its own decisions, take responsibility for its own life. It needs a tutor, a guardian, it must be patronized, etc. In other words, it is not mature. This is the logic of transition: those who were mature enough to topple down were feared by the most powerful western nations. And yet, these totalitarian regimes suddenly become children, in need of assistance and help. But this story is not only about the evil western powers conquering the world. It is also about the crisis of the very concept of sovereignty, about the fact that sovereign power has moved away from traditional nation states to transnational centres of financial power like World Bank, IMF or even to not fully institutionalized, ad hoc coalitions under euphemistic names like “international community” or “the coalition of willing,” who impose their will on the world beyond any legal framework.

Are we experiencing a sort of “new colonialism”?

This situation is different from the old colonial one. If the answer to colonialism and the anti-colonial struggle for independence was fought in the name of the freedom of a nation, the liberation of a nation from a foreign, colonial power cannot be repeated today. The sovereignty of a nation is no longer a weapon that is able to harm the new centres of transnational power. We may call it a “post-colonial” situation, but we are still searching for a more political, agonistic concept that would properly express these new antagonisms and the new political stakes.

What do you mean by “the end of post-communism”? Does the end of post-communism mean that Central-Eastern European countries have stopped imitating the West?

The end of post-communism is a condition whose meaning cannot be limited only to the post-communist countries in the same way as the fall of communism can be and subsequently, the so-called post-communist condition is of global importance. What we still call the West was as much post-communist as the societies, which, in 1989/90, the communist rule (or if you like, the actual existing socialism) collapsed so spectacularly. Post-communism was a condition of an unconditional belief in democracy and capitalism, free from crisis and basic conflicts. It was also a belief in their universal translatability; the whole world was expected to embrace and implement western style democracy and identify with the promise of capitalist prosperity, as the societies of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the communist regimes so enthusiastically did. It was only a matter of time until the whole world would become a sort of the global West and enjoy eternal peace, democratic freedom and unstoppable capitalist growth. The fading away of this belief, which already today appears to us to be so naive and delusional, is what I call the end of post-communism.

The short summer of the post-communist utopia is over.

This has become obvious not only in the failed translations of western democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan and the tragic outcome of the so-called Arabic spring, which repeated only the same failure as in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia, but also in the global financial crises, the crisis in the EU, etc. This is not the consequence of a cultural and civilizational backwardness of non-western societies, but rather of the decay of the original thing itself that has made itself untranslatable.

Why is the western original in decay?

I spoke in my book about the missed revolution in the West as the source of the problem. Instead of narcissistically looking for a simple confirmation of their own already existing systems of capitalist democracy in the East European revolutions during 1989/90, the West should have identified with the new democratic potentials that had been liberated in this revolution. Let me give you an example: what is so great about the fall of Berlin wall? The fact that people themselves revolted against it and tore it down in the name of a certain universal freedom: the right to move freely. How is it that the West, which, as it seemed back then, to be the very embodiment of this ideal together with the liberated peoples of the European East, builds walls much higher than the Berlin Wall around themselves? I’m not only referring to the fortress of Europe but also on the US-Mexican border, as well as political arrangements that directly aim to limit the freedom of movement of people while facilitating the freedom of movement of capital. Thousands die on this wall and today we are silent about it. It’s no wonder that people around the world now see in that call for freedom shouted on the ruins of Berlin Wall nothing but a dirty political lie. This turn of an ideal of freedom, believed to having been realized in the democratic revolutions of 1989/90, into its particular, egoistic negation also marks what I call the end of post-communism.

How come Europe and the West keep building new walls, bigger than the one that used to divide Berlin?
How come Europe and the West keep building new walls, bigger than the one that used to divide Berlin?

Each post-communist country has experienced wild capitalism, nationalism, and racism. However, today we are seeing similar trends in western countries as well. Don’t you think that post-communist countries are ahead? Do they serve as some sort of “avant-garde” for the West?

You are absolutely right. We are experiencing a period of historical openness, which includes the possibility of a regressive and extremely dangerous outcome of the process that once started with the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. In short, instead of capitalist prosperity, eternal peace and guaranteed freedoms, we could be facing a sinister prospect of a deepening and widening of the capitalist crisis, of growing religious fundamentalisms in the very heart of what is called the “western democratic world”, of all sorts of neo-conservative political mobilization that aims at limiting the existing freedoms and rights, including some forms of a creeping fascism. This also is one of the main symptoms of the end of post-communism, namely a realistic prospect of a dystopian outcome of the democratic revolutions of 1989/90. I mean, if we have already agreed to call these changes a revolution, we might also think of the possibility of a counter-revolution.

Do you think that post-communism also meant destruction of the enlightenment and its ideals, like the belief in people’s equality?

A good example for this is provided again in the former Yugoslav territory. The anti-communist movement that claimed victory over communist totalitarianism in 1989/90,  has deep roots in what we might call historic fascism, specifically in the Quisling regime, which was defeated in 1945. On the other side, Yugoslav historic communism cannot be separated from its democratic, popular, anti-fascist roots. Not only had it succeeded in mobilizing the masses on a wide platform of economic, social and generally civilizational progress, but also in the name of ethnic and cultural tolerance (it was truly a multiculturalist project) it had become a genuine engine of overall modernization and liberalization. Not only can it retroactively claim achievements such as economic prosperity, free education, social security, etc. it also brought to these areas secularism, the liberation of women, and guaranteed the freedom of movement and even substantial freedoms in the sphere of cultural and artistic production.

It sounds like a paradox, but the atmosphere in the cultural and artistic spheres 40 years ago in former Yugoslavia were more liberal than today.

So, just imagine the situation in which a powerful political movement, capable of mobilizing wide masses and being supported by political parties, a significant part of the elite and large institutions of civil society, such as the Catholic Church in Croatia, can claim that all of these achievements and values are nothing but the features of communist totalitarianism, which we have to get rid of as quickly as possible in the name of democracy. And just imagine, this is not imagination but reality.

With the end of society and the dismantling of the welfare state, we have a situation in which solidarity vanishes. What comes after solidarity?

There is no lack of solidarity today. However, the question is, what is the medium of its articulation? It is, as you say, no longer society. The new breeding ground for solidarity today is identity. Ethnic and religious communities for instance are very often based on exclusivist, xenophobic, fundamentalist, racist or fascist forms of solidarity. The problem is that these forms of solidarity have no social meaning whatsoever. To put it simply: it is not solidarity but rather the society itself that has vanished; it has been destroyed systematically by neoliberal, neoconservative politics, whose important component is the anti-communism element, which I mentioned before. How has it survived the death of its enemy for so long? Why it has never been disarmed and demobilized after its spectacular historical triumph? What is actually its job if it hasn’t finished it yet? Whom or what does it target today, when there is no communist threat whatsoever on the horizon?

After the end of “communism”, any utopia that would legitimize and transcend the whole of society has been exhausted. As a consequence, the utopian or collectivist dreams have been denounced as naive or extremely dangerous. Is there still any hope to construct some sort of a new utopia? Or even a better society? 

What I have said for solidarity fully applies for utopia as well. It hasn’t simply disappeared either. Rather it has changed the medium of its articulation, which is no longer society.

Utopia has found its afterlife in the limitless space of what we call culture today.

It has left the container of society, which has become too narrow a ground for its imagination. So, there is still hope for a better life but it has detached itself from social projects. Even the fantasies of radical change are talked about again, but on the other end of time. Now it is the past that has become a new promised land of utopian imagination where everything might have been different than it actually was. Another example is today’s growing genre of the so-called “what if” or, as it is also called, “alternative histories”; a sort of historical fiction written mostly by professional historians that retell well known historical events from the perspective of “what might have been if”—if for instance Socrates was killed in the battle at Delium, 424 B.C, if Pontius Pilatus didn’t order Jesus Christ’s crucifixion,if Napoleon would have invaded North America, if Abraham Lincoln had not freed the slaves, if Great Britain made peace with Germany in 1940, etc. Thus, there is no problem in imagining a radically different world, a world without philosophy, Christianity without the Crucifixion or a reality in which we could buy Obama as slave on eBay. It is only up to our imagination to radically change the past. So the slogan of the new utopia says: “another past is possible”. This is what I critically call retro-utopia … Why does our utopian imagination so desperately look for a change in the past? Is this because there is nothing we can do about our future?

This text originally appeared on A2larm.


Jaroslav Fiala
Political scientist and editor-in-chief of the Czech progressive daily website A2larm (www.a2larm.cz). He publishes essays and articles on Czech and world politics and lectures in history and political science at Charles University, Prague. He is a Fulbright alumnus and deals with the modern history of Latin America, United States and Europe.