Concilium Civitas Almanac 2020/2021 – Professor Jan Kubik „Against the Imitation Thesis: A Critical Reading of The Light That Failed by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes” –

Against the Imitation Thesis: A Critical Reading of The Light That Failed by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes.[1]

Jan Kubik, Rutgers University and University College London (UCL)

In their influential book, The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy (2019), Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes propose an original and provocative interpretation of the rise of right-wing populism in post-communist Europe. Their main thesis is succinctly presented in an earlier Guardian article:

No single factor can explain the simultaneous emergence of authoritarian anti-liberalisms in so many differently situated countries in the second decade of the 21st century. Yet resentment at liberal democracy’s canonical status and the politics of imitation in general has played a decisive role [emphasis – JK]. This lack of alternatives, rather than the gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism, is what best explains the anti-western ethos dominating post-communist societies today.[2]

In the book the argument is formulated slightly differently:

This absence of alternatives, we submit, even more than the gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism [emphasis – JK] best explains the anti-Western ethos dominating post-communist societies today (2019: 5).

The quoted paragraphs include four points that constitute the essence of the authors’ argument: (1) no single-factor explanation is sufficient for such a complex phenomenon as the rise of anti-liberalism and authoritarianism; (2) the most important factor is resentment directed at liberal democracy’s hegemony that is being presented as the only way forward without alternatives; (3) in the emergence of this non-alternativity ‘the politics of imitation has played a decisive role’; and (4) the ‘gravitational pull of an authoritarian past or historically ingrained hostility to liberalism’are less important than the other three factors. In brief, the authors’ compound thesis can be formulated thus: people of East Central Europe have turned to populism driven by resentment directed at the ‘there-are-no-alternatives’ dictum to imitate Western liberalism.

There is a puzzling tension in this thesis. The tone of certainty with which Krastev and Holmes advocate their main point (‘the politics of imitation in general has played a decisive role’) coexists with the acknowledgement of an uneasy tension between their argument and a more reasonable supposition – which I share – that any serious explanation must be multifactorial (‘no single factor can explain’).[3] How do they know that what may be called ‘reluctant imitators’ resentment’ is the most decisive factor? Where? When? Has it been decisive across all the countries of the region throughout the whole post-1989 period? Has the Eastern, post-communist part of the continent been really experiencing, everywhere and all the time, a uniformly dark ‘thirty-year Age of Imitation’ (2019: 5)?

Since I do not find any systematically gathered supporting evidence for the answer they assert, I am not convinced they are right. I do not know which factor is most important across all the countries and throughout the whole post-1989 period and have not seen any analysis yet that would convincingly isolate one. What follows is not intended to negate this factor’s impact, but merely to challenge the idea that it is more important than others and works in all contexts and situations. The Krastev–Holmes thesis needs to be tested against alternative hypotheses and the role of other factors needs to be carefully scrutinized in order to see if their main point holds water. I see five areas where other factors and alternative arguments can be found. Limited by the size of this contribution, I will merely sketch them.[4]

Argument from the perspective of political philosophy: conflated meanings of liberalism

As other reviewers have observed, it is hard to avoid the impression that in Krastev and Holmes’s work, distinguishable facets of liberalism are conflated or at least insufficiently separated from each other.[5] In the most general sense, liberalism has three meanings. First, it means a feature of the political system (liberal democracy) in which the rule of the majority is constrained by a system of checks and balances, most crucially the rule of law. It is political liberalism. Secondly, liberalism is a form of social philosophy, a type of culture or social imaginary in which the value of individual choice and the right to individual self-determination and reinvention are central. Let’s call it cultural liberalism. The third form of liberalism, in its most recent reincarnation known as neoliberalism, is an economic programme or regime that asserts the power of markets as the most efficient panacea for economic and social ills.[1a] It is economic liberalism.

The contrast between these three dimensions of liberalism comes into sharp focus when we consider their alternatives or archrivals. The antithesis of liberal democracy is authoritarianism, cultural liberalism clashes with cultural conservatism, while the chief adversary of economic liberalism is economic nationalism or some form of socialist or social-democratic state interventionism, designed to smooth out the market’s imperfections, at the minimum.

Putting aside the problem that each dimension of liberalism may underpin a different set of convictions and political actions that often clash with each other, let’s ask several important questions: Do we know which of them is rejected by various actors? Is the same ‘cocktail’ of various liberalisms rejected in Russia and in Poland? Is it therefore possible, for example, that some people reject cultural liberalism while supporting its political version? I like to think that the line separating conservatism from right-wing populism is usefully drawn by answering this question. Conservatives reject the former and accept the latter, while right-wing populists, particularly the most extreme ones, tend to reject both.

According to Krastev and Holmes, one of the reasons for some East Europeans’ unhappiness with liberalism is that it abandoned ‘pluralism for hegemony’ (2019: 6). For me this phrase obscures more than it illuminates because the way liberalism is implemented in practice cannot be fully grasped if its three versions or dimensions are not considered separately, at least initially. To begin with, it is hard to imagine political liberals, also in Eastern Europe, abandoning their ambition to be hegemonic; giving up on this ambition means yielding to authoritarianism.

(Some) political liberals’ enthusiasm, driven by their misguided faith in the end of history, has indeed led on occasion to the inadequate cultivation of pluralism, and this generated anger and powerful reactions on the side of conservatives or populists, opening up a culture war. But the question that needs to be asked is whether there is a symmetry in the way both sides engage in this war. The answer is strongly coloured by the observer’s own ideological predilection, but I believe that liberalism, as practised in East Central Europe, for example by Václav Havel and his followers, has not always meant closing the doors on alternativity or attempting to achieve hegemony; (political) liberalism has been envisioned, perhaps not systematically enough, as a political frame not just an ideology, a frame that allows alternativity to be expressed and performed.

The difficulty of political liberalism is that its central tenet, the provision of procedural guarantees designed to prevent majority rule from morphing into tyranny, can and often does become a target of political attacks. And in order to defend this and other tenets of their creed, liberals need to argue for setting boundaries to the democratic discourse and practice. They need to try to censor certain types of speech and thus, in so doing, become susceptible to the accusation of hypocrisy, because any form of censorship can easily be interpreted as an attempt to achieve hegemony. Paradoxically, if the EU requires ‘imitation’ it is precisely here, in the area of maintaining legal and regulatory standards, while right-wing populists concentrate their attacks against the EU on the socio-cultural (against cultural liberalism) and economic (against neoliberalism) fronts.

For example, liberals argue that: (1) meting out historical justice must not be based on the concept of collective responsibility and has to be channelled through accepted legal procedures; (2) nurturing of national identity does not need to be a priority that overshadows other concerns (for example with human rights), nor must it lead to the cultivation of ethnic hatreds and an exclusionary vision of the social order; (3) protecting and cultivating religious faith and identity is best relegated to the sphere of private decisions and there should exist a strict separation of the state and the church; and (4) the discrimination of atheists or adherents of minority faiths needs to be delegalized and condemned. Those who believe in these principles, the liberals, are attacked for adhering to them by some (most?) conservatives and all right-wing populists, regardless of whether these principles are seen as imported from the West as imitations or as products of domestic intellectual and political traditions (arguably weak). I submit that their essence is primary, while their origins are secondary. In other words, populists and some conservatives do not reject political liberalism because it comes from the West, but because it is … liberal. Its Western origins are seen as a defect, but what is assumed to have catastrophic consequences is its purported ultimate goal of destroying traditional values, ways of life and communities.

Right-wing populists and some conservatives consider cultural liberalism, again regardless of its origins, as an ideology that is fundamentally inimical to the traditions that are assumed to be organically evolved and by now indispensable products of regions, localities and – in particular – nations. Krastev and Holmes emphasize the particular source of the anti-liberal ire: the demand to imitate not just the means but also the ideals of the West. They write: ‘The imitation of moral ideals, unlike the borrowing of technologies, makes you resemble the one you admire but simultaneously makes you look less like yourself at a time when your own uniqueness and keeping faith with your group are at the heart of your struggle for dignity and recognition’ (2019: 9). I would argue somewhat differently. In the eyes of liberalism’s critics, the realization that one’s dignity is threatened by the liberal project has less to do with the project’s putative provenance in the West and more with its origins in the misguided thinking and the nefarious designs of liberal elites, foreign or domestic. The reaction is sometimes driven by anti-Westernism, but always by anti-elitism. Incessant attacks on Donald Tusk in Poland were often based on the logic that is subtly different from the one put forth by Krastev and Holmes: he was demonized not because he came from the West or because he was imitating the West, but because he became indistinguishable from the West; his intellectual path led him eventually to self-exclusion from the ‘healthy’ national community that is culturally anti-liberal, the argument goes. When he was attacked for being an ‘un-Polish Westerner’, it was not because of his Western (conservative) liberalism, but because – it was argued – his grandfather’s service in Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht (a distorted claim) made Tusk impure as a non-conational, not as a liberal.

The introduction of economic liberalism (neoliberalism) and its effects are the subject of intense debate. Neoliberalism’s left-leaning critics often see it as the source of all the ills that they detect in the post-communist world. On the other hand, many of its defenders can be quite dogmatic and unable to see that there are areas in which purely liberal solutions generate excessively high social costs – the Polish economist and statesman Leszek Balcerowicz being for some the prime example. I do believe, however, that economic liberalism is often blamed for problems unrelated to its tenets, for example for corruption of insufficiently controlled governmental officials in countries where the system of democratic checks and balances is weak. See more on this in the section about the political economy below.

Argument from the perspective of political science: anaemic politics

One does not have to be a ‘politics-is-war’ Schmittian to assume that the essence of politics is a competition structured by political cleavages that simultaneously reflect and mould social and cultural cleavages. And while in the political struggle all actors rely on social or cultural divisions, some engage with them to amplify their impact on politics to the point where the whole liberal democratic system becomes unstable and begins to unravel.

Krastev and Holmes do not spend much time analysing the impact of the tenor and structure of domestic politics on the intensifying anti-liberalism, often in all of its three varieties. The portrayal of public life in the former communist world in their study is politically anaemic. There is very little sense of people’s varied and changing political sympathies, divisions and patterns of mobilization. As I see it, liberalism in East Central Europe is in trouble not because it has been imposed from the outside, but because – regardless of its origin, homegrown or imported – it has encountered both a radicalizing cultural/ideological resistance, often rooted in (some) local cultural and political traditions, and relentless political mobilization led by its opportunistic or sincere opponents. On my reading of the evidence, people turn against liberalism in many places not because they are told by Westerners that they have no choice but to imitate Western methods and ideals, but because they are told by domestic politicians and influencers (particularly religious leaders) that Westerners insist that they imitate the West and accept liberalism, an ideology that is going to hurt them. No wonder that, after a while, some/many people eventually begin to doubt liberalism’s appropriateness for the region and reject at least some of its tenets.

A political trick used by right-wing populists everywhere is not only to convince a sufficient number of people that cultural liberals threaten the very existence of the cultures that people take to be natural and within which they feel secure, but they also create as much confusion as possible around the meaning of liberalism. In order to accomplish this goal, they employ the populist ideology’s masterstroke that is particularly detrimental for democracy: while presenting liberals as terminators hell-bent on destroying traditional cultures, right-wing populists do whatever they can to blur the distinction between cultural and political liberalisms. I once asked publicly a Hungarian official about Viktor Orbán’s concept of illiberal democracy. The answer was that the prime minister and his government are illiberal only in the sense of being conservative and do not undermine any rules of the liberal political game. The practice of the Hungarian government of course defies this claim, but a large section of the public is ill equipped to see the problem, as they have a hard time understanding the difference between the two liberalisms. The media and educational systems, increasingly controlled by governments in the countries ruled by right-wing populists, do their best to make sure that the civic knowledge necessary to make such a distinction is not available.

‘An anti-liberal backlash was arguably an inevitable response to a world that had been characterized by a lack of political and ideological alternatives’ (2019: 5), write Krastev and Holmes. Whose world is it? It was, arguably, the world of many, perhaps most, advisors and project managers who arrived in the post-communist world shortly after the 1989 revolution. Many of them, but not all – as I know from experience – simply knew very little about the region’s map of traditions and political cultures. But it was not the world of all the people on the ground. It is a place in the Krastev–Holmes argument where the spectre of Orientalism is perhaps most pronounced, as Eastern Europe appears to be a strangely uniform political desert, where people have no original political and ideological programmes, convictions or sympathies, and seem only to be able to react to or rebel against ideological or cultural trends arriving from the West. Liberalism, the central tenet of the dominant post-1989 culture Michael Kennedy (2002) called ‘transitional’, promoted from the West, was indeed often presented as the only alternative by the dominant elites of the early post-1989 period, but if we take the agency of East Europeans seriously, we need to ask how they construed the liberalism that some of them started eventually rejecting. What have they come to understand as liberalism over the years and what was it, in particular, that provoked their ire? My research and conversations tell me that the intellectual process leading up to a deeper understanding of liberalism and its possible shortcomings has been quite different in, say, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Albania.

Argument from the perspective of political economy: diversity of economic blueprints and regimes in the region

The precepts of economic liberalism (neoliberalism) definitely constitute the core of post-communist economic programmes, but from the outset they have been constrained by various welfarist protections[6] and – more centrally for my argument – there have emerged very significant divisions between the different versions of post-communist capitalism and their specific realizations. Inspired by Karl Polanyi and some earlier work of Ivan Szelényi, Gil Eyal, Eleanor Towsley and Lawrence King, but also by the literature on the varieties of capitalism, Dorothee Bohle and Béla Greskovits distinguish and carefully analyse three types of capitalism in East Central Europe (including the Baltic states): ‘a pure neoliberal type in the Baltic states, an embedded neoliberal type in the Visegrád countries, and a neocorporatist type in Slovenia’ (2012: 22). Given the different institutional and cultural environments, the reception and application of liberal economic blueprints in each of these three subregions must have proceeded along distinctly different paths. Before we accept the thesis on imitation, we need to reconstruct this variance, because in each of the three post-communist capitalisms neoliberal ideology played a different role as it was combined with different domestic conditions, often including proactive local actors.[7]

A series of systematic studies on the transformations of the welfare state after the fall of state socialism has yielded powerful criticisms of the three key components of the Krastev–Holmes thesis. The first criticism concerns the underlying assumption of their analysis that economic liberalism (neoliberalism) has achieved unbridled hegemony in the region. Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman (2009: 341), for example, show that in East Central Europe from the outset in 1989 the neoliberal programme has been tamed by the solidly – by comparison with other regions undergoing economic transformations – established welfare regimes. Earlier Kaufman remarked: ‘If we take the long view over the past fifteen years, it is clear that the ECE countries have by no means shrunk into the kind of “residual” welfare states that some critics of “neoliberalism” had feared at the onset of the transition’ (2007: 116).

Secondly, the thesis that the region’s economists and economic reformers had to imitate Western models due to the lack of homegrown economic traditions (including liberal ones) has to be mitigated and reconsidered in the view of strong evidence that economic processes in the region, including post-communist liberalization, have been powerfully shaped by long-term historical trajectories. It is a point made by Bohle and Greskovits (2012) and Haggard and Kaufman (2009: 344), and masterfully argued in reference to the history of the region’s welfare states by Tomasz Inglot. These ‘emergency welfare states’, as Inglot calls them, ‘are usually heavily influenced by one dominant national, social policy blueprint [original emphasis], but their actual institutional foundation and ensuing policy-making patterns reflect a long history of difficult adaptation and ideational compromise, periodically also involving voluntary and involuntary exposure to foreign influences [emphasis – JK]’ (2008: 308). Imitation is not the dominant mechanism of cultural change in places where long-term historical patterns are influenced from abroad only ‘periodically’, as Inglot argues.

Thirdly, it is also not the case that economic liberalism was everywhere simply copied from abroad. In some countries, perhaps most prominently in pioneering Poland, but also in Hungary, the reforms were designed primarily by domestic experts whose work was informed by their intimate knowledge of local conditions and – in the Polish case – the fear of impending hyperinflation. Their work was certainly guided by the principles of neoliberalism, but it was not a heedless imitation of ‘Western’ blueprints. I had a chance to discuss this matter with Leszek Balcerowicz, the chief architect of the Polish ‘shock therapy’, and his alleged economic guru, Jeffrey Sachs, and both confirmed that when the latter arrived in Poland, the former’s team had a comprehensive reform programme ready, after several years of systematic studies.

Argument from the perspective of political geography and political ethnography: the devil is in the detail (of the region’s diversity)

As I often tell my students, there was no state socialism (or actually existing communism), but only state socialisms. The post-1945 social, cultural and political trajectories of, say, Poland and Bulgaria or Romania and Czechoslovakia, were quite different. There were various levels of acceptance of the Soviet-type system, various types of adjustment to its requirements, and – perhaps most importantly – different patterns of anti-communist mobilization. These distinct pre-1989 trajectories have had a strong impact on the divergent paths of post-communist developments, as the voluminous literature on historical legacies shows. Writing in 2007, Milada Vachudova, Grzegorz Ekiert and I reflected on the diversity of post-communist experiences and diverging paths of political development, sometimes leading the newly independent countries towards democracy and sometimes away from it. Already then, 13 years ago, it was clear that ‘post-communist countries [could] claim both the best and the worst record of transition from authoritarianism to democracy’ (2007: 9). We concluded that ‘The most obvious fact is that fifteen years after the collapse of communist regimes, there is a wide range of political systems in the region that can be grouped in three categories: democratic, semidemocratic, and autocratic. While some countries enjoy high-quality democratic institutions, others suffer under authoritarian regimes of various hues’ (2007: 11). We also reviewed several explanations of this diversity and emphasized the significance of historical trajectories. Now, 30 years after the fall of state socialism, this diversity not only has not diminished but has become more pronounced, as Russia, Belarus and the post-communist Central Asian states have become even more authoritarian, while the Central European democracies and members of the European Union have drifted apart from each other in all rankings of democratic quality.[8]

The support for and identification with ‘European values’ and the EU as an institution varies among the citizens of the former communist countries, across both time and space, as is meticulously documented by the Eurobarometer. Given the regional diversity noted above and the changing patterns of public opinion, it is impossible to understand the fate of liberalism in the post-communist world without taking these disparities and fluctuations into consideration. Liberals and their programme face quite different challenges in authoritarian Russia or Belarus than in still democratic and pluralistic Poland or Slovakia. Such challenges, no doubt present during the accession process to the EU (1994–2004 for Poland), intensified in the 2010s, but it is an uneven process and some indicators show actually deepening pro-Europeanness. For example, in Poland, which is ruled by right-wing populists whose anti-EU rhetoric is sometimes deafening, in the fall of 2019 as many as 81% of citizens declared that they ‘feel they are a citizen of the EU’ (the EU average was 70%), while 50% admitted that the EU ‘conjures up positive feelings’ with only 9% expressing negative sentiment (the numbers for the whole EU were, respectively, 42% and 20%).[9]

In their analysis, Krastev and Holmes do not take these increasingly divergent situations into account. The problem begins with their inconsistent demarcation of the social entity or region they analyse. Sometimes it is ‘post-communist societies today’ (5) or the ‘post-communist world’ (12), thus also the Central Asian societies of the former Soviet Union; but sometimes it is ‘post-communist Central and Eastern Europe’ (45). Some arguments are about ‘the East’ (1), while others are about ‘Central Europe’ (26). The people whose experiences are dissected are ‘East Europeans’ but more often ‘Central and East Europeans’ (21), while the anti-liberal revolt that is observed happens in ‘the East’ (21). This fluidity of references is unfortunate because it obscures the point Ekiert, Vachudova and I believed to be central: that there are distinguishable and consequential patterns of post-communist developments that differ from one subregion to another. Lumping them all together prevents us from reconstructing different causal sequences and distinct cultural worlds within which liberalism is embedded or rejected.

Focusing on the political and economic geography of East Central Europe alone turns our attention to another important source of diversity: adoption of different economic policies. While after 1989 some countries of this region, such as Slovenia, have been influenced by the Scandinavian model, others, such as Estonia and Latvia, developed their economies along the lines of the more free-market and relatively minimal state intervention of the American model (Bohle and Greskovits 2012).

Finally, political geographers remind us there is another level of analysis that needs to be taken into account: the extraordinary internal diversity of many countries. It is enough to consider the political maps of Poland and observe the dramatic contrast between the parts of the country that emerged from the Russian, Austrian and Prussian partitions of the 19th century. This indicates not only the enduring significance of historical legacies, but also makes it clear that while liberalism, particularly its cultural version, has been seen predominantly as an alien and dangerous ideology in some regions and localities, say, in southern and eastern Poland, in western and northern regions it has been accepted and cultivated by the majority of the populace. This observation brings us back to one of the central points of my analysis: in order to understand the dynamics of politics and culture in any region or country we need to focus on cleavages not averages. The latter obscure the basic political reality – competition and conflict, while thinking in terms of the former is necessary to grasp their essence and dynamics.

Argument from the perspective of cultural sociology: is the East so different from the West?

‘The core complaint motivating anti-liberal politics in the region today is that the attempt to democratize formerly communist countries was aiming at a kind of cultural conversion to values, habits and attitudes considered “normal” in the West’ (Krastev and Holmes 2019: 10). It is not clear whose complaint this is. Is it a generalized complaint of the ‘average’ East European supporter of anti-liberalism or rather a complaint used strategically by right-wing populist politicians?[10] The problem with the first option is that there is scant sociological evidence that during the first years of the post-communist transformations many people noted, let alone criticized, such ‘cultural conversion’. In many, if not most, regions of East Central Europe, a broadly liberal Western culture was accepted by a lot of people, while others did not spend much time reflecting on the issue, preoccupied with other concerns. Writing in the early 2000s, David Laitin observed that in some dimensions of their cultures, people in the then candidate countries such as Poland were closer to the cultures of the ‘original six’ EU countries than were the cultures of such ‘late entrants’ as Spain or the United Kingdom. He concluded that: ‘The Eastern Europeans today, in significant numbers, seek to become part of a European national culture that is clearer to them than it is to everyday West Europeans’ (2002: 78). At the same time, Laitin warned that this may change under the impact of concerted indoctrination campaigns by the opponents of European integration. He was prescient.

Vladimír Mečiar in Slovakia and Andrzej Lepper in Poland, prominent politicians of the first wave of East Central European populism, presented eclectic programmes, nonetheless flirting with anti-liberal stances. Laitin’s fears were confirmed by the much more consistent and consequential politicians of the second wave of populism, such as Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczynski. Their full-blown right-wing and anti-liberal populist programmes containing frequent accusations of foreign interference and the demand for forced imitation eventually started having a transforming impact on the political cultures and opinions of significant segments of the population. It is, however, important to note that in many cases the ‘they’, identified as culprits behind the call to cultural conversion, have been domestic not foreign. Kaczynski, for example, pontificates about the ‘rotten’ West, but equally frequently about the Poles of ‘a worse sort’. In brief, the complaint about the expected or demanded cultural conversion seems to be a domestically generated rhetorical strategy rather than an actual Western ploy.

There is, however, a very important issue here. The argument that some kind of cultural conversion is necessary to achieve Western-style normalcy in order to ground democracy in the society’s culture is controversial and has generated extensive debate. But a substantial body of empirical evidence confirms the idea that effective democratization requires a specific pro-democratic cultural ‘infrastructure’. Such evidence can be found, for example, in the World Values Survey (Inglehart and Norris 2003). I have discovered through my own ethnographic work that some regional cultures in Poland are much more congruent than others with the requirement of procedural discipline that improves the functioning of democracy (Aronoff and Kubik 2012). Following Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s (1996: 6) argument about the significance of ‘attitudinal democratic consolidation’, I believe that an institutional scaffold of liberal democracy is more secure when it is supported by a specific pro-democratic culture that includes such values as tolerance and forbearing (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018) or respect for the rule of law, the central value of political liberalism. The populists who reject the point that liberal democratic values are necessary or at least highly desirable for the proper function of liberal democratic politics are aiming at weakening democracy. That conclusion is clearly supported by their governing practices.

As argued earlier, the portrayal of Eastern Europe that Krastev and Holmes paint contains an anaemic account of domestic politics that has since 1989 been more dynamic and diverse than they allow. Likewise, their depiction of national cultures suggests more homogeneity than actually exists. They do not dwell enough on the empirically observed fact that there were and are subcultures, groups and social categories that do not see ‘habits and attitudes considered “normal” in the West’ as alien or abnormal. In a nutshell and somewhat imprecisely, my argument can be formulated thus: East Europeans are divided, and while some of them find liberal values alien if not reprehensible, some others accept them as cornerstones of their own cultural and political orientations. This is an old conflict that manifested itself for example in the struggle of Slavophiles and Westernizers in Russia, national-populists and urbanists (Népiek és urbánusok) in Hungary, the inward oriented Sarmatians and the more cosmopolitan adherents of the Enlightenment in the pre-partition Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The causes of the post-1989 cultural war are therefore complex and it is not easy to sort out to what degree this war is a continuation, thus a legacy, of earlier divisions and to what extent it is instigated by those who rebel against what they perceive as the externally imposed dictum to imitate the West. I doubt that we will ever have a fully satisfactory answer to this dilemma of legacy versus imitation, but I believe that the central issue in Eastern Europe that drives much of its culture and politics is not a rebellion against dictated imitation, but a deep and historically grounded conflict between two orientations, one associated with Enlightenment ideals and liberalism and another predominantly traditionalistic, nationalistic and authoritarian.


Each of the five academic fields of study I examined provides conceptual or empirical arguments that shed doubt on the validity of the Krastev–Holmes thesis. Political philosophy warns against conflating the three distinct meanings of liberalism. Political science calls for focusing on social and political cleavages and on the centrality of political strife in which liberal and anti-liberal sentiments are strategically manipulated. Political economy teaches about the variety of capitalisms and thus also selective and distinct realizations of the neoliberal blueprint. Political geography and ethnography remind us of the significance of regional diversity. And cultural sociology, with its constructivist bent, calls for recognizing various meanings attributed to liberalism, the impact of historical legacies and the significance of ‘pro-democratic cultures’ for the consolidation of liberal democracy. It also warns against treating the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ as undiversified cultural and political wholes.

Relying on the insights derived from these five disciplines, I have formulated my own preliminary thesis that can be summarized in the following manner: the delayed and gradually strengthening right-wing populist reaction to the initially hegemonic transition culture, founded on the precepts of liberalism,[11] has been predominantly shaped by several historically grounded and politically exploited anti-liberal, authoritarian (to various degrees) and traditionalistic cultural scripts. Such scripts, derived from and congruent with many, but not all, regional and local cultures, have been revived, modernized, transmitted and cultivated by right-leaning political and cultural entrepreneurs (for example, many Catholic priests in Poland). This deliberate reproduction of conservative and traditionalistic cultures transpires (or not) at different levels or scales, some of which are local or regional, while others are national or even transnational. As a result, pro- or proto-populist cultures emerge and intensify, although they are unevenly distributed throughout the region and thus create conditions for the gradual emergence of right-wing populist politics that are more intense in some regions or social milieus than in others. For example, it is quite clear that pro-populist cultures are much weaker in major cities or even smaller towns, while they take hold in most rural areas. We also know that less educated people – more men than women – find them appealing.

On my reading of the existing evidence, it is not the case that ‘the people’ of East Central Europe rejected liberalism or the Western dictum to imitate it as there are no alternatives; some of them did, others did not. The ideological and political cleavage that subsequently emerged is the most important feature of the political, social and cultural landscape in many countries of the region. Over the last few years conflicts across this cleavage, embedded in powerful historical legacies, have become so intense that it is justifiable to talk about a ‘culture war’ and a dangerously ideologized, thus hard to bridge, political conflict. The key problem is not imitation, but rather polarization. And in stoking this polarization, the central argument of right-wing populists is not based on the complaint about what ‘the West’ does (it requires imitation) but about what it is: liberal and thus decadent and rotten.


Aronoff, M.J. and J. Kubik (2013) Anthropology and Political Science: A Convergent Approach. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Bohle, D. and B. Greskovits (2012) Capitalist Diversity on Europe’s Periphery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ekiert, G., J. Kubik and M.A. Vachudova (2007) ‘Democracy in the Post-Communist World: An Unending Quest?’ East European Politics and Societies, 21 (1), 7–30.

Evans, P.B and W. H. Sewell, Jr. (2013) ‘Neoliberalism: Policy Regimes, International Regimes, and Social Effects’. In Social Resilience in the Neo-Liberal Era, edited by Peter A. Hall and Michèle Lamont. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 35–68.

Haggard, S. and R.R. Kaufman (2009) Development, Democracy, and Welfare States: Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Inglehart, R. and P. Norris (2003) ‘The True Clash of Civilizations’. Foreign Policy, 135 (March–April), 63–70.

Inglot, T. (2008) Welfare States in East Central Europe, 1919–2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katzenstein, P.J. (2003) ‘Small States and Small States Revisited’. New Political Economy 8, no. 1, 9–30.

Kaufman, R.R. (2007) ‘Market Reform and Social Protection: Lessons from the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland’. East European Politics and Societies, 21 (1), 111–25.

Kennedy, M.D. (2002) Cultural Formations of Postcommunism: Emancipation, Transition, Nation, and War. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

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KrastevI. and S. Holmes (2019) The Light that Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy. New York, NY: Pegasus Books.

Laitin, D. (2002) ‘Culture and National Identity: “The East” and European Integration’. West European Politics, 25 (2), 55–80.

Levitsky, S. and D. Ziblatt (2018) How Democracies Die. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Linz, J.J. and A. Stepan (1996) Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

[1a] Evans and Sewell (2013) very usefully distinguish four facets of neoliberalism. They see it as economic theory, political ideology, policy paradigm and social imaginary. There is not room here to present their analysis. They argue that the implementation of neoliberalism, whose theory ‘stresses the welfare-maximizing consequences of market exchange’ (2013:36), has quite different effects in different countries. I agree with this conclusion.

[2] Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, ‘How liberalism became ‘the god that failed’ in eastern Europe’. Guardian, 24 October 2019,; accessed 16 September 2020

[3] This is fully articulated on page 13 where they write about ‘all due awareness of [their thesis’s – JK] one-sidedness, incompleteness and empirical vulnerabilities’.

[4] I will unpack this argument and propose a different interpretation that should be treated as a hypothesis at this moment, since the research projects I co-direct that should help adjudicate between the Krastev–Holmes thesis and my own are not yet completed (the POPREBEL and FATIGUE projects received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Grant Agreement No 822682 and No 765224. This document reflects only the author’s view and the REA is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains). See:; accessed 15 September 2020). I will present some comparative data, but my attention will be focused mostly on the Polish case.

[5] Kováts and Smejkalova 2020, Elżbieta Korolczuk 2020. (accessed 15 September 2020).

[6] Katzenstein (2003:22) observed at the beginning of the 2000s ‘that “to call all of the Central and East European regimes neoliberal” [. . .] stretches the concept unduly. If we had to choose one label under which to subsume their different experiences, then it would probably be “European-style welfare capitalism”.’

[7] ‘Without doubt, manifold external influences and the region’s legacies have impacted these countries’ own transformative agency since the breakdown of socialism. Yet external pressures and inherited constraints have to be reconciled with the fact that the region’s new social order exhibits nontrivial variation in patterns of capitalism with profound implications for economic and political freedom, stability, and welfare. This diversity and frequent conflicts over various features of capitalist models speak for the crucial importance of political agency, not its absence’ (Bohle and Greskovits 2012: 3).

[8] See Freedom House (, Nations in Transit 2020 (, V-dem (, or Bertelsmann Transformation Index (; accessed 15 September 2020).

[9] Standard Eurobarometer 92. The key indicators. Autumn 2019

link (accessed 17 September 2020).

[10] Krastev and Holmes seem to vacillate on this issue. On page 12 they write that the problem of imitation exists ‘according to the populists’.

[11] See Kennedy (2002) and my essay in the first (2019–20) Concilium Civitas Almanac.