Liberalism's Morning After In Eastern Europe

WARSAW: Throughout the postcommunist world faith that liberal politics and economics could deliver prosperity and decent societies at the same time no longer seems as convincing as it did in the euphoria of 1989. Liberalism’s dynamic, sadly, may be spent. New shrill voices are rising to fill the void in human nature left by communism’s collapse.

Only a few years ago freedom of speech, free markets, the right to be left alone were treated as sacred. Everything from the West was good, everything that reminded us of the East was bad. We should have known that loving too much often ends up in hatred and rejection, but we still commit this mistake in our private and public lives. It is impossible to fix a date when the pendulum swung back, but something happened around 1993 in Poland, as it is happening now (for a variety of reasons) in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Hungary as well. Liberalism is beginning to mean being permissive, relativist, amoral, homosexual, pedophiliac; and liberals are portrayed as proponents of pornography, abortion, and free love.

It would be understandable -- and rather unimportant -- if such attacks came merely from the old, traditional, and nationalist sectors of society, those parties that cling to ancient taboos everywhere. But in Poland, and elsewhere I venture, this is not so. Some of the best graduate students in Warsaw University nowadays produce quite serious publications that put practically all blame for the world’s ills on liberalism. Their ultra-conservative professors applaud these rants, and although they pay lip service to liberal ideas, they speak less about John Stuart Mill than about obscure 19th century German conservatives. The highly emotional American critic of most things liberal or modern, Alan Bloom, is the god of the young. To be a follower of Joseph de Maistre, the standard bearer of the French counterrevolution, is more fashionable than to praise the more reflective Alexis de Tocqueville.

Why, then, do young people so newly come to freedom begin to reject liberalism in such a wholesale fashion? Fascination with liberal freedom came in Poland and elsewhere at a peculiar moment. Old social structures were destroyed, socialist customs and habits vanished overnight, former norms and unwritten rules were abandoned. In the postcommunist social revolution (less often noticed than the political and economic upheavals) families and communities were undermined and (at least in Poland) the Church was too involved in politics to help.