Betraying the Revolutions?

By Anna Grzymala-Busse, Stanford U

This article was originally published in the January 2018 edition of NewsNet.

The following Presidential Address was given on November 11, 2017 at the 49th Annual ASEEES Convention.

Since this year’s conference theme invited them, I will indulge in some transgressions. Comparing the incomparable and exploiting the centenary of the Russian Revolution, I will take a look at two very different upheavals—1917 and 1989—and examine the paradoxical results of both.

If we compare these two revolutions, two striking aspects are the ideological novelty each project represented—and the degree of elite consensus or conflict that followed. The regime project of 1917 was innovative, unprecedented, and highly contested. 1989, in contrast, with its tropes of a “Return to Europe,” was an attempt to rejoin and to follow an existing template. Subsequently, the result of these revolutions was that the innovation of 1917 produced enormous conflict—and 1989 resulted in a surprising degree of elite consensus, one that would prove self-cannibalizing.

Thus, 1917 was a radical ideological, economic, social, and political transformation. The entire revolutionary regime project was unprecedented, unique, and novel. The promises of peace, land, and bread may have been familiar—but the commitment to a radical new organization of political, social, and economic life was not. The Revolution itself was one where conflict and violence were frequent on both the mass and elite level, and complex and contingent episodes left politicians, soldiers, and workers careening from one unexpected turn to another.

The outcomes, of course, are depressingly familiar: war, collectivization, and authoritarian repression, rather than the promised redistribution and empowerment of the people. Yet precisely because the Revolution was such a radically new project, there was enormous conflict and disagreement over both its direction and how to achieve it. The conflict raged over the nature of the project, and who would execute it; over land and collectivization; over the state and its reconsolidation; over the party and its direction; over industrialization and economic policy; over civil society and its reassertion; over nascent forms of civic self-organization and how they could navigate the new environment. And as a result, commissars vanished, as did millions of others, in fits of revolutionary violence and subsequent authoritarian terror. Innovation begat conflict, which led to the annihilation of the involved elites, and the insane persecutions of the masses over whom they would exert control.

The collapse of communism in 1989, in contrast, was a rejection of the very Soviet imperial project that 1917 generated. It was neither an innovative nor a particularly violent revolutionary episode. Instead, it was dominated by a nostalgia for a past that never was: the counterfactual of a region that did not experience the four decades of murderous imperial communism. The “Return to Europe” became a dominant trope, established through elite negotiations, mass mobilization, and the stirring images not only of a rising civil society, but of leaders across the generations and regimes calling for freedom and reform.

The “return to Europe,” as articulated by Havel, Michnik, and others, was not an ideological innovation, but a rejoining of a community of existing social democracies and modern economies. It had diverse but familiar meanings to its advocates: a rejection of the communist era; a reassertion of European practices and norms; the adoption of liberal democracy and market economies; and above all, a reversion to a status quo ante—an irretrievable alternative history of a Europe undivided, where the postwar trajectories of these countries were not warped by the imposition of an alien and authoritarian regime.

The result was an ideological consensus among the political and cultural elites. First, the consensus on the return to Europe meant the widespread adoption of liberal democratic institutions (if not always practices). Parliaments, constitutions, anticorruption bureaus, and regional governments were all duly established and empowered. Second, it meant the implementation of free-market policies, by governments that were nominally both Left and Right, in the absence of any possible ideological alternative. International organizations, whether the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or the European Union itself, played a role in generating this consensus, by offering rewards to those who succeeded in the reform process and incentives to those who lagged behind.

The crowning moment of the elite consensus was the accession to the European Union. Here, over the course of several years, mainstream political elites articulated an unwavering commitment: there was no alternative but joining the European Union, an unalloyed good that would benefit these countries enormously— not least because it would finally confirm their status as returnees to Europe.

Yet this mainstream agreement on liberal desiderata had a paradoxical effect. The one set of critics to emerge during the 1990s and early 2000s was made up of illiberal parties, which were often populist and frequently extremist. We saw the rise of several parties that criticize the elite consensus and view it as a corrupt and tacit conspiracy between the governing elites on the one hand, and the international forces that would rob these countries of sovereignty on the other. Such parties, whether Samoobrona in Poland or MIÉP in Hungary, were often dismissed by the mainstream elite parties as marginal extremes, protest parties that could not possibly represent the broader populace. Yet even as these parties articulated otherwise unspoken grievances and concerns, other political parties began to co-opt their message— actors such as the Party of Young Democrats (Fidesz) in Hungary, or the fragmented right-wing forces that eventually coalesced to form the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland. In other words, the liberal consensus generated an illiberal—and fundamentally destructive—backlash.

The resulting irony is that the early “poster children” of reform—places like Hungary, Poland, or the Czech Republic— are precisely where we see the populists move from the margins of political life to the center of government. Fidesz, PiS, and their counterparts fulfill the two criteria of populist movements: first, that they harbor a deep skepticism regarding the corrupt elite cartel; second, that their primary political category is “the people,” who are pure and good, in contrast to the elites that have failed them. The problem with the populist conception of politics is two-fold: a) an anti-institutional stance, since political and economic institutions are the product of degenerate elite cartels (here, often between communist and “opposition” elites), and b) the desire for an unmediated expression of the will of the people—which all too often translates into the politicization and colonization of state institutions to comport with the “general will”—understood by their party proponents to be identical with a partisan mandate.

So how did we get here? The scruffy young revolutionary, Viktor Orbán, who so charmed international observers in 1989, gradually coopted his erstwhile competitors, such as the Christian Democratic or Smallholders’ Parties. Over the course of the 1990s, he transformed Fidesz from a party of young liberals to one of committed nationalists and populists. As Hungary steadily moved towards the EU, Fidesz called for the defense of Hungarian culture and traditions in the face of European hegemony and democratic formalism. It made steady electoral gains, and achieved the two-thirds supermajority of seats in the Hungarian Parliament in 2010 and again in 2014. Meanwhile, PiS in Poland was conservative and populist from the start. It viewed the post-1989 changes in Poland as an illegitimate compromise between communist and liberals that sold out Poland’s interests. Its chair, Jarosław Kaczyński, openly denounced the post-communist elite “układ” (arrangement, or cartel) and divided Poland into the better kind of party loyalists and the “worse sort of Poles” who had the temerity to criticize him. After a brief and disastrous stay in government in 2005-2007 (PiS succumbed to the coalition infighting that had been prevalent in Poland), the party won the 2015 elections with 38% of the votes and 52% of the seats—an unprecedented parliamentary majority that allowed the party to govern alone, with no cumbersome coalition partners.

In both cases, the parties had come to power thanks to the faults of the mainstream parties that had preceded them: parties that articulated the pro-European, pro-liberal policy consensus but also had succumbed to deceiving voters, encountering economic difficulties, and simply exhausting the political formulas that kept them in power. The result was that Fidesz and PiS could come to power with few credible opponents that could take votes away from them—and with the parliamentary authority to remake the institutions in their respective countries.

In both Poland and Hungary, accordingly, Fidesz and PiS have made full use of this newfound discretion to erode the policies and institutions that the earlier elite “cartel” had imposed, and to remake political and economic institutions to reflect the “popular will”— understood to be identical to the partisan interests of the governing parties. In keeping with the critique of an elite establishment cartel and the degenerate institutions that this elite consensus produced, Fidesz and PiS began to systematically dismantle the formal institutions of liberal democracy.

For both Fidesz and PiS, the first targets were the courts, and judicial autonomy. The number of the supreme court judges, their terms and retirement ages, and the very domains over which they would exercise judicial review were all reviewed and duly curtailed in ways that brought the judiciary firmly under the political control of the governing parties. Monitoring and oversight institutions were weakened and politicized. Non-state actors, such as the public media, non governmental institutions, and universities were the next targets. Journalists and program directors were summarily fired for their political unreliability, news programming came under renewed scrutiny, new registration requirements were imposed in Hungary for civil society and religious organizations, and the Central European University became the target of a new set of educational laws that were designed to register it out of existence. Fidesz used its supermajority to introduce a new constitution in 2011, one that skewed the playing field towards Fidesz whether in or out of office. New supermajority requirements for ordinary legislation, such as government budgets, mean that even if Fidesz is not the governing party, it effectively retains a legislative veto for the foreseeable future. As befits a party of lawyers, each of these steps was done with exquisite care and the requisite enabling laws. As is less fitting, these steps also introduced targeted, retroactive, and ad personam laws, in violation of basic norms of liberal democratic rule of law. The nationalization of sensitive economic sectors in Hungary, from pharmacies to energy, served the needs of the governing party and enriched its extensive network of elites, activists, and hangers-on.

All these formal steps had their counterparts in the repeated violations of the informal norms of liberal democracy—the opposition was no longer included in sensitive parliamentary committees, the governments now made its massive advertising buys exclusively with allied media and ad agencies, new “astroturf ” organizations arose with government funding to replace the “degenerate” grassroots ones, and conflict of interests norms came under fire.

As if this depressing catalog were not enough, there is evidence of coordination between Fidesz and PiS. Their leaders have held multiple meetings, their strategies follow an identical sequencing and targets (a populist template, as it were), and they have repeatedly stated that they will support their shared vision in the European Parliament and other international forums, committing to mutually veto any potential sanctions by the European Union. The EU, for its part, has shaken its fist but never gone as far as the second step of Article 7 sanctioning procedures, which would have invoked the unanimity rule—and its effective veto by Poland or by Hungary. Moreover, there is a recent addition to the Polish-Hungarian axis, in the person of Andrej Babiš and his ANO party in the Czech Republic. A figure like Trump or Berlusconi, Babiš is a successful businessman who nonetheless credibly portrays himself as an outsider. As minister, he denounced the European Union as “meddling” in Czech politics, and the Czech parliament as a mere “talking shop.” One wonders what he will do as premier.

In the end, then, the 1989 consensus over the “return to Europe” has generated its own backlash—a highly corrosive set of political forces that eroded liberal democracy in the region and systematically began to dismantle the institutional achievements of the postcommunist era. It has produced a spate of illiberal parties in the region, who are busy undermining the institutions of democracy that were built by this earlier consensus. One would not wish the violence that followed the 1917 revolutions on any country—but some of the vibrant debates and elite clashes may have been useful.

The final irony is that the populist turn in East Central Europe has now become a “return to Europe” of a different sort. In the rest of Europe, similar dissatisfactions have been brewing with what is widely regarded as the depoliticized agreements of complacent elites. Popular grievances include immigration, a straining welfare state, and the technocratic attacks on national sovereignty by European Union directives. As a result, support for populist parties everywhere in Europe is growing. In the old member countries, it has more than tripled since 1990 and the 5% that these parties then commanded. In the new member countries, it started off at higher levels, at around 15%, and has more than doubled (See Figure 1.)

In the end, then, the region is “returning to Europe”—or perhaps Europe itself is returning to an earlier time, when polarization and illiberal critiques of democracy held sway. This is not the first or last set of revolutionary promises that have been betrayed. But the irony is that a return to the familiar and the democratic should produce a backlash that is new, illiberal— and returns the region to the very authoritarian rule it had rejected in 1989. An unhappy transgression, indeed.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies and Senior Fellow at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.