How populists and conservatives win the liberals in Poland, Hungary, and Russia

Poland, Hungary, Russia: what forces, ideas and processes have led these countries astray from the path of liberal development

Authors:

Mihai Varga and Katharina Bluhm

Back in the 2000s and even more so in the 1990s it hardly seemed possible that the times would come when liberalism would seriously be challenged. Most European countries still had political landscapes that espoused diverse political currents, from social to Christian democracy, but the principles of liberal democracy, building institutions to safeguard political, cultural and religious pluralism seemed to apply across the continent, or power-holders at least paid lip service to them. Liberal democracy most often went hand in hand with market economy: Despite many differences between European countries in levels of welfare expenditure and consultation of trade unions and business associations in important decisions, market economies converged in regarding private actors as the key actors of the economy, and in restricting the state’s involvement in the economy away from industrial and towards fiscal and monetary policy.

Yet the western-driven pursuit of liberal democracy and market economy, which began with the freeing of financial markets from national boundaries and the fall of the Southern European dictatorships in the 1970s, and culminated with the experience of an enormous expansion after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, is currently being met with increasing criticism and rejection by an illiberal counter-movement. The financial crisis of 2007–2009 was a central event for this, seemingly providing evidence that liberalism was indeed in trouble, and its precepts for the economy the main culprit for the crisis. Furthermore, there was also a much-discussed “crisis of democracy”, manifesting itself through a deteriorating relationship between what were once mass political parties and their supporters; and in the increasing power of supra-national organizations such as the European Union, that seemed to entrench on the prerogatives of existing democracies.

In response, an increasingly complex counter-movement to liberalism developed across the European continent, taking the form of a practical questioning of central institutions and approaches, but also – and perhaps most importantly – taking place at the ideological level. Scholars, media, and mainstream politicians across Europe were quick to squeeze such ideological departures from the recent liberal vision of the polity and market economy into the notion of populism. Yet while highlighting important commonalities, populism does not capture the depth or detail of the contestation that liberalism is now being met with in post-communist Europe. Described as a “thin-centered” ideology (Mudde 2004, Freeden 1998), populism needs “thicker” or “full” ideologies in order to achieve concrete political goals (Stanley 2008).

Scholars, media, and mainstream politicians across Europe were quick to squeeze such ideological departures from the recent liberal vision of the polity and market economy into the notion of populism.

This is where our research comes in (Bluhm and Varga (eds.) forthcoming in 2018), developing a series of projects on how contestations of liberalism unfolded in three post-communist states: Poland, Hungary, and Russia. Perhaps important to note, it is often precisely these three countries that are singled out today, both in academic research as well as media accounts, as being at the forefront of illiberalism. We argue that it is conservatism that became the “thick” ideology to complement populism in challenging the liberal order in recent years. Conservatism has become a joint reference point for the ideologues and activists who use it not only for self-identification but also for identifying each other – including their counterparts abroad.

The term “populism” neglects self-identification as well as the attempts to turn conservatism again into an ideology that challenges the existing liberal order. The rightwing parties in Poland (“Law and Justice”, or PiS) and Hungary (Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz) play here a leading role. However, despite the growing literature on these two cases, the conservative milieus and intellectual circles that have paved the way to PiS and Fidesz success and still provide an important supporting milieu are under-researched. Equally under-research are also the ideas and thoughts that give the political turn in Poland and Hungary its intellectual foundation and legitimacy. What our analysis reveals is that contrary to a vast literature on these countries that almost exclusively focuses on illiberal political parties and their leaders (Jarosław Kaczynski and Viktor Orbán), illiberalism is not reducible to these actors. In fact, it is a broader phenomenon, largely shaped by intellectuals of conservative leanings growing irritated about liberalism’s perceived and resented domination ever since the 1990s. In other words, the contestation of liberalism was well under way long before Kaczynski and Orbán returned to power in the 2010s.

Russia is usually excluded from research on populism. Yet in Russia too, and roughly at the same time as in Poland and Hungary, new intellectual circles and milieus have emerged, perceiving themselves as conservative in a new way. They rejected western “liberal-conservatism”, especially its “neo-liberal” and “post-modern” shift of the last three decades. Whether Vladimir Putin and the “party of power” (United Russia) have an ideology – and even more importantly, follow one – is heavily disputed. However, Putin’s openly conservative “turn” after 2011 grew out of a longer development that started here too in the early 2000s. Russian conservatives, same as their Polish and Hungarian counterparts today oversee an impressive conservative infrastructure of think tanks, foundations, clubs and publishing houses, partly supported and co-opted by the ruling elite, but in fierce competition with other elite fractions over the way ahead for their country. In what remains we briefly present the actors of the conservative intellectual current in each country and give a glimpse at their ideas.

Russia is usually excluded from research on populism. Yet in Russia too, and roughly at the same time as in Poland and Hungary, new intellectual circles and milieus have emerged, perceiving themselves as conservative in a new way.

Hungary

In Hungary (as in Poland), a first generation of conservative intellectuals emerged in close relationship to what was perceived as liberal domination in the main, “dissident”, publications that prepared the demise of communism. This first generation focused on the dissemination of Western conservative thinking through translations of Leo Strauss, Edmund Burke, and Michael Oakeshott, as well as its own theoretical work in political philosophy. During the early 1990s, the members of the first generation secured teaching positions at the larger universities in Budapest. András Lánczi, perhaps the most prolific intellectual figure of conservative convictions and the author of the “Conservative Manifesto” (2002), began teaching at the university later named “Corvinus” from 1991, heading the political science department there from 2002 and becoming rector of Corvinus in 2016.

A second generation emerged from the Fidesz youth organization Fidelitas – many of its members also took classes in the history of ideas and political philosophy taught by figures such as Lánczi, and Attila Károly Molnár at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest. Members of the second generation developed an active blogosphere and numerous publications. Meanwhile, members of the first generation secured important positions in academia and government: for instance, Tibor Navracsics from Corvinus became department head in the Prime Minister’s office (1998/99), as Minister of Justice (2010–14) and of Foreign Affairs (2014–16) under the second and third Orbán government before he went on to become European Commissioner for Culture and Education; Another prominent figure, Orbán’s professor at the Bibó Kollégium, István Stumpf, served as head of the Prime Minister’s office under the first Orbán cabinet (1997–2001) and since 2010 has been the Fidesz-appointed member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court.

Most importantly, key representatives of the two generations combined their forces in the Századvég think tank, the main beneficiary of government consultancy contracts since 2010 and the most important political foundation closely associated with Fidesz, ever since the establishment of the party. Initially, “conservatism” hardly referred to more than anti-communism, but since the 2000s it was the due to the efforts of conservative intellectuals that something like a ‘conservative’ agenda developed around the notion of restoring state capacities that conservatives thought liberals – with their focus on institutions-building and checks and balances – had largely damaged. Most importantly conservatives thought that the state needs to and is capable of pursuing “national interests”, interests that the state itself can identify. The most important prerequisite that Hungarian conservatives identified for the state to be able to define and pursue national interests was a thorough liberation of state structure from personnel and practices connected to previous regimes, while reorienting the new state on a Christian basis. Interestingly, other issues often covered by conservatives in the other countries we study – the socio-economic outcomes of the transition, the excesses of market economy and the domination of Western multinationals throughout the post-communist region – are in the logic exposed by Hungarian conservatives of secondary importance, and can only be addressed by a state that has regained its legitimacy (through the reforms presented above).

Poland

Polish conservative thinking developed around Warsaw and Krakow into a political and intellectual current that became a major influence on PiS in the 2000s, and paved the way for that party by formulating in advance many of the positions later on embraced by PiS. Unlike conservatives in Hungary and Russia, Polish conservatives sought direct participation in politics by setting up a number of smaller parties, culminating with the official incorporation of a conservative position into PiS structures in 2003. What proved however more enduring was the activity of numerous intellectuals of conservative convictions that up to this day initiate and shape public debates through a prodigious publishing activity.

While Krakow has boasted a strong scene of conservative intellectualism around the Jagiellonian university ever since the 19th century, after 1989 it became a hub for some of the most outspoken intellectuals supporting conservatism and PiS in particular. With the Center for Political Thought (Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej), a conservative think tank established in 1992, Krakow reunited already from the 1990s on some of the country’s most vocal intellectual conservatives: philosophy professor Ryszard Legutko (Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the late President Lech Kaczynski and Minister of Education in the first PiS government), sociologist Zdzisław Krasnodębski (with fellow sociologist Piotr Gliński member of the Program Board of the Law and Justice party in 2014), former dissident, journalist, and head of the national television station (2006-7, during the first PiS government) Bronisław Wildstein. It also included Warsaw-based philosophers Dariusz Gawin and Marek Cichocki; the latter two initiated the creation of a host of conservative think tanks and publications also in Warsaw. Here too, as in Hungary, an older generation of intellectuals presiding over institutes and publications was supplemented by a generation of younger intellectuals and activists. A prominent example is Ordo Iuris, an organization of young law scholars, several of whom graduated from the Catholic Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, and who brought into life the legislative initiative for the total ban on abortion in 2016. The initiative sparked massive protests throughout the country.

A common position of Polish conservatives is the charge against the negotiations between communist power-holders and liberal opposition that paved the way for the country’s peaceful transition away from communism. For conservatives, the negotiations of the late 1980s allowed the political survival of communists, and the enduring reach of their ideas and influence. Yet in the eyes of conservatives it is not just that liberals failed to contain the communist influence, but they are also guilty of a certain closeness to communist positions: in the words of Legutko, the first president of the Center for Political Thought, “Both systems [communism and liberal democracy] are strongly and – so to speak – impatiently intruding in social fabric” (Legutko 2016), a “social fabric” that conservatives intend to defend, including by taking issue with the excesses of market economy. At the heart of the conservative agenda lies the concern for the Polish state, which should be the natural expression of the afore-mentioned “social fabric”. Conservatives perceive the very idea of a sovereign state to be threatened by the deepening integration within the European Union (in particular by the single currency).

A common position of Polish conservatives is the charge against the negotiations between communist power-holders and liberal opposition that paved the way for the country’s peaceful transition away from communism. For conservatives, the negotiations of the late 1980s allowed the political survival of communists, and the enduring reach of their ideas and influence.

And by the increasing market power of international and western corporations, something that conservatives think should be opposed by strengthening national capital. While in Hungary conservative intellectuals of the first generation shun the concept of modernization, Polish conservatives embraced “modernization”. What they reject is the concept of “imitative modernization”, a type of modernization that they accuse liberals such as Leszek Balcerowicz of having wrongly pursued. Instead, some of the most influential voices proposed already in the mid-2000s a type of modernization that addresses the social “disintegration” of the country, the growing “discrepancy” between elites and the people that they believe fostered a level of “national awareness and bonding” far inferior to that of Western Europe (Krasnodębski 2006). The big steps towards a more generous social policy in Poland taken by the PiS government (such as increasing child allowances and lowering the retirement age) should be seen in this light, of “modernizing” measures with a “national” bent. As recently formulated by prime-minister Mateusz Morawiecki in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel: “I count PiS as being among the parties that want to correct the unjust consequences of the transformation of 1989” (Morawiecki 2018).

Russia

It is not just the PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary that openly commit themselves to follow an ideology they refer to as “national” or “social-conservative”. In Russia too, it is conservatism that features most often on the lips of ruling elites: Vladimir Putin placed himself at the forefront of conservatism by voicing strong support for “conservative values” in 2012 and by recommending selected Russian pre-communist conservative thinkers as required reading for the Russian elite. While before 2012 the conservative political identity of United Russia was formally and symbolically distinct from the president, conservatism now received, in the words of Leonid Polyakov, “a stamp of approval from the very top of the Russian government”. The story of conservatism’s ascendancy in Russia is extraordinary. The Russian conservative scene has its roots in the Communist Party, which at the latest since Stalin and World War II, has continually been a “patriotic”, national-imperial party that linked its progressive rhetoric to conservative values and cultural ideals. This legacy prepared the ground for Russia’s new illiberal conservatism, but does not explain its character. Its genesis is the result of an interaction between the ruling elite and intellectuals and milieus that try to unite under the brand of conservatism since the early 2000.

The story of conservatism’s ascendancy in Russia is extraordinary. The Russian conservative scene has its roots in the Communist Party, which at the latest since Stalin and World War II, has continually been a “patriotic”, national-imperial party that linked its progressive rhetoric to conservative values and cultural ideals.

As in the other cases, two generations play a major role in creating a new illiberal Russian conservatism that formed varying coalitions. The first generation consists of political activists of the 1990s, in opposition to Boris Yeltsin’s and Yegor Gaidar’s reforms from early on (Aleksandr Dugin, Aleksandr Prokhanov) or who first joined the reformist camp but got quickly frustrated with the reform path and the undemocratic way in which Yeltsin pushed it through (the economists Sergey Glazyev and Mikhail Khazin). In contrast to its Polish and Hungarian counterparts, the opposition of the 1990s was still in search for a new cover and traveled under different labels such as Eurasianism, national bolshevism or orthodox-monarchism, until it eventually associated itself with the Communist Party against Yeltsin’s liberals.

The second generation entered the scene after 2000 already under the umbrella of conservatism. Many intellectuals of this younger generation, who – mostly born in the 1970s – were too young to participate in the battles of the 1990s. They quickly received indirect support from the presidential administration, satellite parties and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in creating political clubs, journals, internet platforms and news agencies, and even a few think tanks. One of these think tanks was the Center and later Institute of Dynamic Conservatism that was proclaimed to be the “platform of a new generation of conservatives” founded by the philosopher Vitaliy Averyanov, publicist and economist Andrey Kobyakov, and the journalist Vladimir Kucherenko (well-known to Ukrainian readers under his pseudonym Maksim Kalashnikov).

In 2005 the institute published an approximately 800 pages-long book titled “Russian Doctrine – a Weapon of Consciousness” to which new Russian conservatives from both generations contributed. The analysis and reform proposals were discussed at length in different circles in which the later Patriarch Kyrill I. participated. One of the contributors to “Russian Doctrine”, Mihkail Remizov founded around the same time an own think tank “Institute of National Strategy” (ISN). Together with Boris Meshuev, he sought to establish a less religious, more-nationalist-than-imperialist strand of political conservatism that sees the American paleo-conservatives and France’s Front National as its natural allies. Yet the initial joint platform of new conservatives did not prove sustainable. While the founders of the Institute of Dynamic Conservatism merged with the Izborsk Club that was founded by Prokhanov with support of national-conservative elite members in 2012, Remizov and Meshuev joined the editorial board of the newly established Essays on Conservatism of the “Foundation – Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research” (ISEPR). The ISEPR can be seen as an attempt to counterbalance the dominance of the Izborskians over the definition of the history of Russian conservatism.

Russia differs from Poland and Hungary as Russian conservatives starting point is not the continuity between communism and liberal democracy. They regard the 1990s as a dramatic break with a more glorious past, including the Soviet Union that managed to expand the world power status of the country.

Russia differs from Poland and Hungary as Russian conservatives starting point is not the continuity between communism and liberal democracy. They regard the 1990s as a dramatic break with a more glorious past, including the Soviet Union that managed to expand the world power status of the country. Although critical towards communism because of its rejection of the market economy and private entrepreneurship, they agree with the Soviet model as it gave the state the leading role in socio-economic development. Conservatism for development (and without liberal democracy) is a core formula of Russian conservatives that implies a sometimes harsh criticism of Russian elites for establishing an oligarchic state capitalism that prefers to invest its oil rents outside the country. The latter provide the grounds for arguing that the “liberals” in the ruling elite, NGOs and members of the so-called “creative class” act as “compradors” of foreign (western) interests. Conservative economic positions combine with a return to “tradition” as a source for development and regaining social cohesion that in its homophobic anti-genderism resembles the situation in Poland, Hungary and around the Western European New Right.

In lieu of conclusions: A growing “Conservative International” around Ukraine?

A central thesis of our research is that with the “renaissance of conservatism” in these countries we are witnessing variations on a new, illiberal conservatism that challenges the status quo from within the capitalist order and traditional cleavages between left and right and reasserts the importance of the sovereign state. The new conservative thinking has themes, ideas and core concepts in common that are related to the communist and post-communist past and reflect severe disappointments with the results of the transition and the way western integration took place. The insistence on state structures, national interests, and a reform agenda focused on personnel purges are important elements that conservatives share.

The new conservative thinking has themes, ideas and core concepts in common that are related to the communist and post-communist past and reflect severe disappointments with the results of the transition and the way western integration took place.

At a first look, these commonalities could spell trouble for Ukraine, to the extent that conservatives indeed manage to translate their ideas into state policies and to the extent they unite across borders. And yet in spite of their very similar trajectories, their different geopolitical positions and weight also produce decisive differences that make alliances unlikely. The Kremlin’s attempt to use conservatism to forge a “Conservative International” is for obvious historic reasons not so appealing to Poland’s new conservatives, especially after 2014 and the Ukraine crisis. Key voices of Polish intellectual conservatism – such as Marek Cichocki — still perceive even Germany to be a better ally for their country then Russia. Hungarian conservatives too, despite Viktor Orbán’s occasional reverences vis-à-vis Putin, prefer to build alliances with conservatives in countries other than Russia, and in particular in Poland. For today’s Ukraine, as for the Baltics States, a conservative International has even less appeal. Rather than the prospect of a “Conservative International”, we think that the potential lesson for Ukraine is that the strengthening illiberal conservatism stylizes itself as the legitimate representative of the “social question”, the thoroughly neglected issue of growing social and regional inequalities and poverty. Liberal democrats ignored that question at their own peril.

Literature

Bluhm, Katharina, and Mihai Varga (eds.). forthcoming in 2018. New Conservatives in Russia and Eastern Europe. London and New York: Routledge.

Freeden, Michael. 1998. “Is nationalism a distinct ideology?”  Political studies 46 (4):748-765.

Krasnodębski, Zdzisław 2006. “Modernizacja po polsku.” In Drogi do nowoczesności. Idea modernizacji w polskiej myśli politycznej, edited by Jacek  Kloczkowski and Michał Szułdrzyński. Kraków: Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej.

Legutko, Ryszard. 2016. The Demon in Democracy. Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, Encounter Books. New York.

Morawiecki, Mateusz. 2018. Europe Has Run Out of Gas. edited by Jan Puhl: Der Spiegel On-line.

Mudde, Cas. 2004. “The populist zeitgeist.”  Government and opposition 39 (4):542-563.

Stanley, Ben. 2008. “The thin ideology of populism.”  Journal of Political Ideologies 13 (1):95-110.

 

Main photo: depositphotos.com / Madrabothair

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