European Union

Buden: Eastern Europe must forge its own future [Interview]

Philosopher and cultural critic Boris Buden speaks about post-communist countries ‘path to Europe’ and its colonial consequences.

Mislav Marjanović: You are well known as a harsh critic of the European Union. The day before Croatia officially joined the EU, you were a guest on the popular Croatian TV talk show “Nedjeljom u dva” [On Sunday at two p.m.] in 2013. In those days, the Croatian political elite had created a euphoric atmosphere around this event, but you were skeptical of this “big moment of Croatian history”. It would seem that the last two years have given weight to your position, not to mention the way in which the European Union is falling apart today. Can you explain your reasons for criticizing Croatia’s decision to join the European Union?      

Boris Buden: Originally I understood the concept of Europe within a very particular historical situation; the situation of a post-communist transition towards democracy. This is what it was called in this Eastern part of Europe, this post-communist, Soviet space. The core idea was the transformation or transition from communism to a capitalist democracy. However, nobody mentioned capitalism at that time, only democracy.

And freedom, human rights…

is a writer, cultural critic, and translator. His essays and articles cover topics related to philosophy, politics, translation, linguistics, the post-communist condition, and cultural and art criticism.

Yes, and a free and independent press, a functioning civil society, the rule of law, etc. At the time, this was called “the path to Europe”, which is in fact very interesting, because all this countries in fact belong to Europe. This “move” towards Europe was conceived in cultural terms, in terms of cultural progression or development. The German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, coined the concept of the “catch-up revolution” (die Nachholende Revolution) to define the democratic revolutions of 1989. The idea was that the revolutions that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 opened the way for the societies of Eastern Europe to catch up with the missed, modernist development of the West. From this perspective the West was an example of normal modernist development. The communist countries of the Eastern bloc had been prevented from following this path of development by totalitarian rule.

The process of becoming European, of becoming a member of the EU, was actually understood in terms of cultural progression, though it was not a path towards a better future, but a progression towards a reality that existed in Western Europe, a process of “catching-up”. One implication of this ideology is that the space of Eastern Europe became united under the notion of “belated modernity”; it was defined as a space where the development of modernity had been delayed. In this way, societies, people, politics, identities, and intellectual, cultural, and artistic production all became labelled as “belated”.

So your thesis is that there was, in fact, modernity in the East under Communism?

The consequence of viewing Eastern Europe as “belated” is the implication that the populations of Western and Eastern Europe don’t share the same history, the same temporality.

Absolutely. The problem in Eastern Europe extends much further than an absence of modernity. This concept of “arrested development” is a classic neo-colonial concept; the colonial “other” is both distant and backward. Though many anthropologists would deny it today, this questionable colonial-anthropological idea constructed its “object of research” as not only in another space (another culture, in Africa, or Asia for example), but always in another time too. The consequence of viewing Eastern Europe as “belated” is the implication that the populations of Western and Eastern Europe don’t share the same history, the same temporality.

However, you maintain that they do, in fact, share a common history? Can you give an example of this?

Yes, I am critical of the concept of “belated modernity” and the discourse with which it is associated. The case of the former Yugoslavia easily offers proof for the East’s heroic moments of its modernization. In comparison to other countries in Eastern Europe, the former Yugoslavia experienced classical modernist development in culture, in modern arts, and especially in architecture. Furthermore, the concept of the welfare state was shared in the West and in the East. Though this welfare system was located on the Eastern periphery of Europe, as Rastko Močnik would say, it was still the same idea. However, this common past was suddenly forgotten and everything was redefined in terms of catching up with the West.

But the problem is that this logic distorts the perception of history in Europe. It denies both halves of Europe a common history. On the one hand, this concept denies the value and meaning of Eastern European history because it is “belated”. It is a history that is better forgotten. On the other hand, the West constructs itself as an ahistorical space, which is beyond history, which is not within a historical time, but is a measure of time defining temporality for all other spaces. So the concept of this transitional process of catching up with missed development, which characterizes this “path to Europe”, is in fact completely ahistorical and also unpolitical.

Can you explain further how this concept of “belatedness” is unpolitical?

It means that this concept negates the notorious fact of “primitive accumulation” of capital; mass, criminal privatizations stretching from Russia to the former Yugoslavia. The expropriation of the means of production was especially destructive in the former Yugoslavia because there was no state property there. This is something that has been erased from our memory. We speak of privatization, but we forget that the factories, hotels, and even land, was actually “social property”, owned by workers. It was possible to know exactly who owned these factories ; employees who worked there or used to work there, and not the state. This was even juridically recognized. There was former private property, which was nationalized after 1945, but property that was built afterwards, by the workers themselves, became “social property”. And, not to forget, Yugoslav socialism was a market socialism, not a command economy socialism in which the state controlled production and wages.

We completely agree that there is no alternative, no historical and political contingency ahead of us, but yet, looking into the past, we see how better worlds and pasts are possible everywhere.

So, for instance, one of the first decisions of the newly elected Croatian parliament was not to privatize but first to declare all social properties “state property”, that is, the so-called etatization of the economy was the first step, privatization was the second. This structurally and ideologically important step has been forgotten. Nobody talks about this state intervention in society. Liberals have forgotten that it was actually the nation state that played the role of the expropriator.

Let’s return to the process of the modernization in the East, in addition to this aspect of Yugoslav modernity you have just mentioned. Anticommunist intellectuals, such as nationalist intellectuals in Croatia, or almost every intellectual in Poland, no matter whether they are nationalist, liberal or left-wing, would agree that there was some degree of modernity in these countries. However, they would argue that this modernization occurred in spite of communism. In the post-war period, all of Europe was subjected to the process of modernization. Furthermore, they would argue, if these countries had not been communist, they would have experienced a greater degree of modernity and “freedom”. How do you respond to this argument?

Well, this argument conceives of modernity as a non-antagonistic, non-political, and non-conflictual historical process, which is not the case. Modernity is a process of conflict, of civil wars, for instance. As you probably know, today it is possible to speak not of WWI and WWII, but of the so-called “European civil war” that started in 1914 and ended in 1945. Two mutually-exclusive ideologies clashed during this period; communism and fascism. In other words, the process of modernization is also a historical, political process, and to project some sort of idealized past onto our understanding of the history of Eastern Europe, is completely illusory.

This idea of retrospectively evaluating the history of Eastern Europe reveals how a historical and political contingency that has been completely erased from contemporary memory has been projected onto the past. We cannot imagine a better world today; we cannot imagine functioning political and social solidarity within today’s society. We cannot imagine living without capitalist crisis and debt, without predatory neoliberal capitalism. We cannot imagine an alternative. So we completely agree that there is no alternative, no historical and political contingency ahead of us, but yet, looking into the past, we see how better worlds and pasts are possible everywhere.

The primary role of the nation state of smaller European nations is to integrate the economy of this state into what is known today as ‘global capitalism’. In order to enable the extraction of national resources.

I think that one can ask, especially in the case of the former Yugoslavia — who should have been this agent behind the process of modernization. It should have been the capitalist bourgeois class and the bourgeois intelligentsia. Yet it was precisely this class, this intelligentsia, which failed during the period of the WWII, especially under the quisling regimes in former Yugoslavia, to oppose fascism. They failed to liberate the country from fascist occupation. Not only did they fail, this class was split in two, and a large part of this intelligentsia was either opportunistic or openly supported fascism. On the other side, Germany and Italy were occupied in order to introduce democracy. These questions, thus, should always be analyzed in a very concrete situation. However, what I perceive to be especially problematic is the way in which everyone agrees on the possibility of a different past and yet, at the same time, would never entertain the thought of some radical change in our concrete reality or in the future.

Do you believe it is possible to imagine alternatives to the current system, a better European Union today?

Of course it is possible. But it is a political question. There are political projects that organize and mobilize to democratically change the political structures of the EU. They hope to achieve greater transparency, to strengthen democratic structures, and to promote classical democratic and liberal ideas. Imagining a different structure is a matter of political conflict, because the question of whether or not it is possible to change this system involves the negotiation of political forces which are opposed to such changes. In the end this is a matter of political struggle, and not a question of the desire to change.

I would love to live in a Europe that would not only be more democratic, but that would also take care of those regions which are less developed, or which have a different policy on migrants, or a Europe that would manage the effects of economic-financial crisis better, instead of violating the sovereignty of Greece, for instance. Which raises another question; the question of who is sovereign in Europe and what constitutes the true role of the nation state.

And if the nation state is not sovereign, what role does it play?

I have already mentioned one of the roles the Croatian nation state played at the moment when it was established; expropriation. Actually the primary role of the nation state of smaller European nations, including Poland, is to integrate the economy of this state into what is known today as ‘global capitalism’. In order to enable the extraction of national resources. Small nation states have become spaces of extraction, where capital extracts goods, grabs properties, and exploits cheap labor, for as long as it can.

As you mentioned, there are some movements that wish to change the European Union into a more democratic and economically just association, to make it more social, like DiEM. But it seems that such left-wing movements or parties are without real meaning, and that nationalist parties all over Europe are more successful in addressing people’s frustration and dissatisfaction. Why is this nationalist rhetoric so attractive?   

Well fascism is well known for its attractiveness, it would not be the first time that fascism has attracted many people, as it did in Italy in the 20s, in Germany in the 30s, and in Spain. People supported fascism. So the question each of us must answer is how to deal with the crisis of Europe.

[easy-tweet tweet=”For better or worse, a new Europe will emerge from this struggle. “]

We are witnessing processes that were unimaginable only a few years ago. The disappearance of the so-called political centre is happening all over Europe, but it is not confined to Europe. The rise in popularity of figures such as Donald Trump in the States, and even Sanders, reveals the crisis of the political system, of democracy, within the context of neoliberal transformation. These are the dangers faced by Europe today. People are slowly beginning to understand that Europe is no longer a normative power; it is vulnerable to political challenges. Europe is a political entity in deep crisis; it may fall apart tomorrow, it may survive or it may even turn towards fascism. It would not be the first time that Europe has found itself united under fascism. Adolf Hitler united Europe under fascist rule and found supporters in almost every European nation; some were willing to send soldiers to defend this vision of Europe in Stalingrad against Asiatic communist totalitarianism. What we see today is that Europe is a matter of political struggle; for better or worse, a new Europe will emerge from this struggle.


Mislav Marjanovic
Mislav Marjanović is an editor of