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Europe: from revolution to counter-revolution

Liberal values have been betrayed and we are witnessing a concerted effort to dismantle the system created after the fall of the Berlin Wall – a counter-revolution.

lead EU Council headquarters, front row French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, December 14, 2017. Monasse Thierry/ Press Association. All rights reserved. The first in a series of eight heartfelt letters to the late European guru, Ralf Dahrendorf (who himself wrote an analysis of the turbulent period following the fall of the Berlin Wall in the form of a letter) – in Jan Zielonka’s new book, Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat – published this week by Oxford University Press.

Dear Ralf,


Several hours after the Brexit referendum results were announced students and tutors from your St Antony’s College gathered in the European Studies Centre. Most of those present, a pretty international crowd, were depressed, some even had tears in their eyes. They could not believe that the majority of British voters opted for leaving the European Union. They could not understand why a mountain of rational arguments in support of the remain vote fell on deaf ears. Why was a vast body of statistical evidence showing the costs of leaving the EU ignored? How could seemingly pragmatic Brits refuse to trust them: the academics, the journalists, the experts? And why had shady politicians such as Nigel Farage, Andrea Leadsom, and Michael Gove prevailed over the winners of recent parliamentary elections, David Cameron and George Osborne? Most of these questions remained unanswered.

Just before the Brexit referendum I was in Italy where the Five-star movement led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, won control over Rome and Turin in local elections. In Rome the social democratic administration has been accused by the Five-star movement of nepotism, incompetence, and corruption. The election results were an unexpected blow to the leader of the Democratic Party, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Stunned Italian commentators were bluntly told by Grillo: ‘You are unable to comprehend the birth and rise of my movement because you are translating everything into your own language. You are simply cut off from reality.’ A few months later Matteo Renzi stepped down as Prime Minister after failing to win a majority for his constitutional reforms in a referendum.

After the Brexit referendum I flew to Poland where opposition parties accused the winner of the previous year’s elections of orchestrating a constitutional coup, paralyzing the judiciary system, and purging public media of suspected critics. ‘I am not a dictator,’ Jarosław Kaczyński told daily Rzeczpospolita. ‘Poland is an example of democracy and an island of liberty in a world where freedom is in short supply.’

What is going on? Who is wrong and who is right? How does one establish truth in this era of post-truth? Have European voters gone insane? Are Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, and Jarosław Kaczyński prophets or frauds? Do these three above-mentioned political experiences have something in common? Do they show a new development in European politics, and if so, how do we name it? We clearly live in turbulent times with highly uncertain outcomes. Long-standing assumptions do not hold any longer. Symbolic politics has taken over from real politics. Everything seems possible at present. And yet, we need to make sense of the history rolling over Europe with a force and pace unknown since you wrote Reflections on the Revolution in Europe nearly three decades ago. We need to make sense of the history rolling over Europe with a force and pace unknown since you wrote Reflections on the Revolution in Europe nearly three decades ago.

Let me return to your concerns and put the current developments in the context of the 1989 Revolution that you examined. I do so because I believe that we are witnessing a concerted effort to dismantle the system created after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are witnessing a counter-revolution.

What happened in Great Britain on 23 June 2016 is only one of many episodes heralding the rise of a powerful movement aimed at destroying the narrative and order that dominated the entire continent after 1989. Under attack is not just the EU but also other symbols of the current order: liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics, migration and a multicultural society, historical ‘truths’ and political correctness, moderate political parties and mainstream media, cultural tolerance and religious neutrality. As the cited Italian, British, and Polish cases show, there are local variations of this movement, but the common denominator is the rejection of people and institutions that have governed Europe in the last three decades. Moreover, let’s not delude ourselves by pointing to the results of the 2017 elections in the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom. Mark Rutte, Emmanuel Macron, and Theresa May have embraced some of the counter-revolutionary rhetoric to win the popular vote. Rutte castigated migrants, Macron bashed traditional parties, and May embraced a hard Brexit. Mark Rutte, Emmanuel Macron, and Theresa May have embraced some of the counter-revolutionary rhetoric to win the popular vote. Rutte castigated migrants, Macron bashed traditional parties, and May embraced a hard Brexit.

Can liberalism survive with so many illiberal ornaments? Should liberals rejoice because soft populists prevailed over hard ones? Even in prosperous and stable Germany, the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag with nearly a hundred seats in the 2017 elections. Angela Merkel remained in power, but her party and social democratic allies suffered a historic defeat.

We should also consider the broader geopolitical context. Illiberal politicians are ruling with the voters’ blessing in Europe’s two largest neighbours, Turkey and Russia. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America also has grave implications for the old continent. The US may well be separated from Europe by the Atlantic, but the US is a quintessential European power; no major decision is taken in Europe without America in mind. Donald Trump talks like many European counter-revolutionaries and when running for the presidency he was publicly endorsed by such prominent European insurgents as Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. 

The meaning of change

Why is this a counter-revolution? There are neither barricades raised on European streets nor sit-in strikes in factories. There is no particular ideology inspiring and uniting protest movements. There is much talk about anti-politics, but those who lead the protest create parties and try to win elections. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that revolution or counter-revolution must always involve mass mobilizations and violence culminating on a certain date.

Communism collapsed with little if any violence. Poland’s Solidarity movement was able to organize mass strikes in 1980 not a decade later. Change came chiefly through pacts between old and new elites and through elections. And yet it is hard to deny that this relatively peaceful process changed Europe beyond recognition. History did not end, but the old order has gradually been replaced by a new one. Although some of the former communists were able to stay in power, they were able to do so only after endorsing the new liberal order. This is why you rightly called it a revolution despite all qualifications. And, since you wrote your book in 1990, the revolution has greatly progressed.

The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated, Germany has been reunited and the European Union as well as NATO have been vastly expanded. Western armies, laws, firms, and customs moved eastward. Many people enthusiastically welcomed new regimes in their territory, but some felt disadvantaged either because of their ethnic background (e.g. Russians in Latvia, Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina) or because they lacked adequate professional skills to function in the new competitive environment. A long-standing balance of power in Europe has been effectively reshuffled. Russia soon began to see herself as an underdog, but also France found herself in a weaker position vis-à-vis Germany than was the case before.

Geopolitical revolution has been followed by economic revolution. With the fall of communism some of its more universal ideals came under fire: collectivism, redistribution, social protection, and state intervention in the economy. This paved the way for neo-liberal economics to assume a dominant position throughout the entire continent, not just in Great Britain. Deregulation, marketization, and privatization became the order of the day even in states run by socialist parties.

The private sector has subsequently expanded at the expense of the public sector. Markets and market-values moved into spheres that used to be the domain of the public sector in Europe such as health, education, public safety, environmental protection, and even national security. Social spending has been contained if not slashed altogether for certain disadvantaged groups. Even in countries such as France or Spain, once home to powerful unions, less than 10 per cent of the workforce is unionized now. Membership of Poland’s Solidarity trade union has fallen fivefold since 1989. Today less than 5 per cent of Poland’s workforce is unionized.

Across Europe, politics was increasingly presented as an art of institutional engineering and not as an art of political bargaining between the elites and the electorate. More and more powers were delegated to non-majoritarian institutions – central banks, constitutional courts, regulatory agencies – to make sure that reason rather than passion guides political decisions. Politics giving in to public pressure was considered irresponsible if not dangerous. Majorities were said to spend money they didn’t have, to discriminate against all kind of minorities, to support such ethically knotty causes as the death penalty or torture. Citizens were to be educated rather than listened to. The notion that public interests need to reflect public wishes has been questioned. Interests were said to be best identified by experts: generals, bankers, traders, lawyers, and, of course, leaders of the ruling parties. Citizens were to be educated rather than listened to.

The EU with its enlarged powers following the 1991 Maastricht Treaty has been a prototype of a non-majoritarian institution led by ‘enlightened’ experts largely independent from electoral pressures. True, the European Council consisted of democratically elected politicians, but the introduction of majority voting has made it difficult for member states to veto some decisions. In fact, national executives proved eager to bypass their respective parliaments by making deci- sions in the European Council.

Historians may question my periodization. Liberal ideals have influenced different generations of politicians since the Age of Enlightenment. Parties which formally called themselves liberal had more power before 1989 than after. Neo-liberal economics had been on the rise in Western Europe for a number of years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The liberal type of democracy was born in Eastern Europe in 1989, but in Western Europe it was born much earlier. That said, 1989 represented a symbolic triumph of liberal ideals. With the fall of the Berlin Wall liberalism became ‘the only game in town’ across the entire continent. Post-communist states have become the most enthusiastic advocates of neo-liberal economics. They also embraced the process of European integration with the greatest fervour. Different streams of liberalism merged into a single pan-European ideological project; formerly distinct political groupings of the centre-left and centre-right have united under the liberal banner; the liberal order has been embraced in such distant geographic locations as Lisbon, Helsinki, and Bucharest. In this sense, the liberal revolution has indeed been built on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, even though history does not end or begin on any particular date.

Targets of contestation

You, Ralf, may find my description of liberal rule over the past three decades too harsh and one-sided. Yet, unless you assume that the insurgents have divine powers of deception, it is hard to explain why voters began to desert the liberal cause. Something must have gone very badly wrong, don’t you think? It is hard to explain why voters began to desert the liberal cause. Something must have gone very badly wrong, don’t you think?

The legacy of the past three decades is not only negative, of course. The Soviet system was inefficient, unjust, and oppressive; there is no reason to be nostalgic about its demise. Neo-liberal economics proved able to generate growth and innovation. And the dangers of a majoritarian politics acting with no constitutional or fiscal constraints are real. Why should a government of the day be allowed to create debts that have to be repaid by the next generations of taxpayers? Its democratic mandate, however strong, relates to the current, not the future generation of electors. And if the winners of elections try to curb the rights of religious minorities or the rights of women, should this be allowed?

Even the opaque democracy in the EU can be defended. As Robert A. Dahl rightly argued, larger units are obviously further away from their citizens, but they are in a better position to cope with global pressures for the sake of their citizens. There is an important trade-off between citizens’ participation and system effectiveness.

However, this is a rather generous evaluation of the post-1989 order and does not take into account power politics. Each revolution produces winners and losers; the latter ought to be accommodated in some way or else they rebel. Satisfying losers is never easy. West Germany has invested a huge sum of money in East Germany, but despite all the investments some citizens in the eastern part are still resentful about the post-1989 changes. They may be free and affluent at present, but they feel like second-class German citizens. Clearly, accommodating losers is not only about money. Poland has grown more than any European country over the past decade, yet in 2015 the majority of Poland’s electorate supported a counter-revolutionary party campaigning on an anti-liberal and anti-European ticket. They found the elite successfully ruling Poland more interested in the opinion of international rating agencies, foreign press, and European bureaucrats than in that of their own ordinary citizens. Warnings that this regime change would generate dire political and economic consequences were ignored.

Most other parts of Europe have not done so well economically as Germany and Poland, which obviously made it easier for the critics of the (neo-)liberal revolution to thrive. Consider, for instance, Hungary where the combination of weak state capacity, incompetent economics, and corruption paved the way for an authoritarian, if not autocratic, leader such as Viktor Orbán. Portugal, Greece, and Spain found themselves insolvent following the 2008 global financial crisis. With GDP plunging and unemployment sky-rocketing it was obviously impossible to keep everybody happy. Those dependent on the shrinking public provisions, those with no skills to compete in the market, or those squeezed by mobile migrant labour were ready to switch their vote to political entrepreneurs who opposed the dominant order. Even relatively affluent countries such as Italy, France, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have found it difficult to avoid pressure coming from anti-establishment parties.

The Euro crisis and the subsequent refugee crisis demonstrated that the new order is less effective and liberal than claimed by its proponents. ‘Post-capitalism’ and ‘post-democracy’ are clearly inferior to the original brand. The two crises also highlighted the growing imbalances among individual states of Europe. There are not only creditor states and debtor states, but also decision-makers and decision-takers. Some even talk about a German (accidental) empire in Europe. Moreover, the two crises showed that European leaders are unable to reverse their course and adopt more effective actions. Strict rules of the Fiscal Compact Treaty left virtually no space for indebted countries to adjust their economic policies and there is no agreement on how to handle migration in a humane and effective manner.

Migrants from Ethiopia in Calais one year on from the demolition of The Jungle, attempting to cross the border to the UK. Joe Giddens/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Greece is no longer allowed to take sovereign socio-economic decisions, but the policies imposed on it by fellow Europeans are clearly not working.

The case of Greece is very illustrative here. Greece is no longer allowed to take sovereign socio-economic decisions, but the policies imposed on it by fellow Europeans are clearly not working. After three successive and expensive bailouts there is little hope that Greece will ever repay its debts. Nor is it credible to claim that Greece will effectively control its borders after numerous EU summits telling Greece what ought to be done. No wonder the handling of Greece has disappointed many Greeks whose views were ignored after the 2015 referendum and the 2014 elections. Frustrated also are the voters in countries effectively ruling Greece because they clearly are not getting proper returns on their investments.

When faced with the electoral pressure from the ‘new kids on the block’ the established right- and left-wing parties chose to jump into bed together rather than admitting past mistakes and reversing their policies. We witnessed such previously unimaginable alliances as those between the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK in Greece and between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the post-communist Democratic Party in Italy. This only reinforced the impression that old ideological dividing lines are gone and have been replaced by a new (neo-)liberal notion of normality or, if you wish, rationality. The official narrative became black and white. The establishment insisted on continuing with projects that gave Europe ‘prosperity and peace’ and it accused critics of trying to undermine its noble efforts. Self-reflection, let alone self-criticism, have been missing.

The EU was proclaimed to be the engine of cooperation and those who criticized it were called agents of Putin. The fact that the EU has recently generated major conflicts by mishandling the Euro crisis, the refugee crisis, and to some extent also the crisis in Ukraine has been ignored or denied. Basic facets of neo-liberal economics were still treated as sacrosanct even though this type of economics contributed to the financial bubble of 2008 and caused hardship for millions of Europeans. Nor was there an acknowledgement that the existing system of parliamentary representation needs to be fundamentally rethought. Curbing the powers of central banks, constitutional courts, the EU, and other non-majoritarian institutions has not been seriously contemplated, let alone orchestrated by the mainstream parties. Basic facets of neo-liberal economics were still treated as sacrosanct even though this type of economics... caused hardship for millions of Europeans.

With the passage of time, unsolved problems started to mount and the official rhetoric became more aggressive. Questioning the established taboos was portrayed as irresponsible if not insane. The rulers were prepared to offer some cosmetic concessions to an ever more desperate electorate, but so far no serious plan B has been proposed by the winners of the 1989 revolution. The electorate has been remarkably patient for some time, but it has slowly started to desert the established parties. This has opened a window of opportunity for alternative politicians. They have promised that a change of a government would mean a genuine change of policies if not the existing system altogether.

The counter-revolutionary insurgents

The counter-revolutionary politicians represent a very mixed bag. They include such diverse characters as Marine le Pen, Beppe Grillo, Matteo Salvini, Geert Wilders, Gerolf Annemans, Alice Weidel, Alexander Gauland, Christian Thulesen, Jimmie Akesson, Timo Soinini, Norbert Hofer, Nigel Farage, Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, Robert Fico, Andrej Babis, Alexis Tsipras, and Pablo Iglesias. Their personal backgrounds and ideological roots are very different: from neo-fascist to neo-communist, from libertarian to conservative, from anti-austerity to anti-Muslim, from nationalist to secessionist. Some are moderate, while others are hardliners. Those who managed to take control of their countries talk and act differently from those who are still campaigning from the sidelines. However, they all have one thing in common: they are against the order installed after the 1989 revolution. They attack not only those who ruled Europe after 1989, but also their key political projects: European integration, constitutional liberalism, and neo-liberal economics.

Migrants have been at the centre of political campaigns for most of the counter-revolutionary insurgents, because migrants represent a quintessential product of the post-1989 policy of opening borders, of protecting minorities, and of forging economic interdependence. Some of these politicians may well be racists, but there is no evidence to suggest that xenophobia is the main reason for their anti-immigration stance. I consciously excluded from the above counter-revolutionary list of politicians those who are primarily driven by ethnic hatred, such as Ilias Panagiotaros of the Greek Golden Dawn Party and Gabor Vona of the Hungarian Jobbik Party.

Of course, throwing into one bag such diverse politicians as Jarosław Kaczyński and Alexis Tsipras is problematic. The former is ultra-conservative, while the latter is radically leftist. Kaczyński sees Russia as a threat, while Tsipras sees Russia as an ally. Kaczyński wants to soften the nasty edge of neo-liberalism, while Tsipras is fundamentally opposed to neo-liberal economics. Kaczyński would like the EU to be more detached and intergovernmental, while Tsipras would like the EU to be more compassionate and federal. Kaczyński is wholeheartedly against accepting refugees, while Tsipras is calling for a just and effective system of reallocation of refugees. And yet, it is difficult to deny that both Kaczyński and Tsipras loathe the elites that ruled their countries for the past decades and they both aspire to transform their respective countries in a fundamental way. They make concessions when pressed by such powerful figures as Angela Merkel or institutions such as the EU or the IMF, but this does not mean that they are giving up their struggle for a fundamentally new regime in their respective countries.

The counter-revolutionary politicians are often called populist. This term is misleading and stigmatizing and fails to identify the key objective of these politicians, namely the abolition of the post-1989 order and replacement of the elites associated with this order. I find numerous statements of these politicians highly objectionable, but this does not mean that their critique of the current order is not valid, at least in some part. The ruling political and intellectual elite is all too keen to call all kinds of critique ‘populist’.

Populists are said to propose simple solutions to complicated problems. However, there is nothing wrong with simple solutions if they are just, efficient, and adopted according to democratic procedures. The minimum wage and inheritance tax represent widely used, simple solutions for coping with complex inequality problems. Should they be called ‘populist’ and therefore abandoned? Populists are said to use moralistic rhetoric, make unrealistic promises, and launch unfair personal attacks on their opponents.

Sadly, all these characteristics can be attributed to most current politicians and not just to the group discussed here. Ahead of all national elections politicians from different parties make empty social promises. Bombastic and moralistic rhetoric is also part of the liberal repertoire. Consider the ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Smearing political foes is a routine part of all political campaigns. Consider the way the liberal intellectuals and politicians describe their ‘populist’ opponents. A meeting between Nigel Farage and Julian Assange in March 2017 was compared to a Hitler–Stalin pact by Nick Cohen in The Guardian. Farage, according to Cohen, ‘exploits chauvinism and plays on racial fears’, while Assange ‘provides support services to the gangster capitalists of the new Russian empire’. ‘Extremes merge. Red bleeds into black,’ concluded Cohen. I guess the author of this article sees himself not as a populist, but as a liberal.

Populists are said to overemphasize the cleavage between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’; the former is being demonized and the latter idealized. In their view, politics should be an expression of the volonté générale of the people. The people may not be as ‘pure’ and ‘sensible’ as populists claim; likewise, the elite may not be as ‘corrupted’ and ‘inefficient’ as they assert. Yet, the distinction between the people and the elite is quite legitimate, and democracy should make sure that the former have some control over the latter. This is not to endorse a plebiscitarian notion of democracy, but to argue for democracy that is responsive to electoral wishes and that gives the electorate meaningful means of changing the elites in power and their actual policies. The distinction between the people and the elite is quite legitimate, and democracy should make sure that the former have some control over the latter.

Margaret Canovan once pointed out that democracy has two facets: redemptive and pragmatic. The former sees the people as the only source of legitimate authority and promises salvation through the policy of popular mobilization. The latter sees democracy as a form of government with institutions limiting power and making it effective. Populists are trying to emphasize the former aspect and to exploit the gap between the promise and performance of democracy. Is this such a deplorable strategy, I wonder.

Of course, much depends on the details. Populists often use an extremely hard language appealing to the dark side of human instincts in defiance of the recognized moral and political norms. In fact, this is their purposeful strategy. Challenging the notion of established normality requires crossing the border of political correctness. Liberals may find it morally disgraceful and aesthetically displeasing. They may portray ‘the ugly others’ as irresponsible and dangerous. I don’t deny that there are often legitimate grounds for such portrayals. Yet, those ‘others’ are increasingly more skilful at winning elections. As Simon Jenkins put it succinctly in the Guardian: ‘Those others are not “populist”– the latest buzzword of intellectual abuse –  they are just popular.’ ‘Those others are not “populist”– the latest buzzword of intellectual abuse –  they are just popular.’

In the summer of 2017 the counter-revolutionary insurgents were already running a government in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Greece. They were part of a government in Finland, and were propping up a minority government in Denmark. In Italy the Five-star movement and in the Netherlands the Party for Freedom were the main opposition parties, while in France the ‘populist’ candidate came second in the presidential elections, defeating leaders of all other established parties. In Great Britain ‘populists’ were able to carry the day in the Brexit referendum and gained ground in both leading parties, Tories and Labour. In the Autumn of 2017, the Euro-sceptic ANO party of the billionaire Andrej Babis won the parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic, and the elections in Austria and Germany recorded notable achievements of right-wing ‘populists’ from the FPÖ and AfD parties.

The last case shows that the counter-revolutionary influence can hardly be measured by electoral performances only. They set the tone of the political discourse and establish which issues are debated; they give voice to people’s anxieties and expose liberal flaws; they arouse the politics of fear, acrimony, and vengeance. Nigel Farage was not even able to win a seat in the British parliament, and yet it is hard to overestimate his impact on the result of the Brexit referendum. The fact that mainstream liberal parties in France were not able to put forward a strong enough candidate to challenge Marine Le Pen is also telling. I am happy to give Emmanuel Macron the benefit of the doubt, but he is still a rather mysterious political entrepreneur: an ex-banker rising to political prominence through the Socialist Party which he then betrayed to form his own political movement, En Marche! (Forward!), which he defines as neither left nor right. When Macron won the Presidential election, Italian newspapers labelled him a savior of Europe, but several weeks later some of them accused him of declaring war on Italy and European principles. This is because Macron refused to help Italy cope with refugees, broke a deal with the Libyan rival leaders without consulting Italy, and nationalized a French shipyard to avoid an Italian take-over.

Self-proclaimed liberals have also progressively adopted rhetoric that resembles the populist one by any standards. This was most striking on the eve of the Dutch elections in 2017. In order to see off the threat of Geert Wilders, the Liberal Party (VVD) adopted ‘a strategy that could have come from President Trump’s playbook’, to cite the New York Times. In his victory speech the VVD leader, Mark Rutte, declared that the Dutch voters had put a halt to ‘the wrong kind of populism’, implying that there is a good and a bad kind of populism, the former represented by himself, and the latter by Wilders. VVD’s coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Party (CDA), has also entertained a nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric. In the new Dutch parliament, MPs representing hard and soft populist parties have an overwhelming majority. The Labour Party, which led the Dutch government for most of the past three decades, has seen its parliamentary representation virtually wiped out; they have only nine MPs now. In 2012 they won thirty-eight seats, in 1998 forty-five seats, and in 1989 forty-nine seats. A similar decline of the liberal left is progressing in many other countries of Europe. The most striking example is Poland where no single left-wing liberal was able to win a parliamentary seat in the 2015 elections. Self-proclaimed liberals have also progressively adopted rhetoric that resembles the populist one by any standards.

Traditional parties, especially on the right, not only entertain illiberal rhetoric and policies, but they also form political alliances with those whom they call populists. This happened first in 2000 in Austria when the Austrian People’s Party formed a government with Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria. Silvio Berlusconi ruled Italy with the help of Lega Nord and after the 2015 elections the Finns Party entered coalition government with two centrist parties. These coalitions between soft and hard ‘populists’ have not led to the death of the latter, but blurred the difference between the two groups. Some soft populists became hard populists in time. Poland’s PiS party and Hungary’s Fidesz party are good examples. The Italian Lega Nord has been transformed from a soft populist separatist movement into a fully-fledged populist movement imitating the French Front National. That said, the main cleavage and contest in contemporary Europe is not between soft and hard populists. The real contest is between the winners of the post-1989 revolution and those who intend to topple them and dismantle the post-1989 system. The latter may well be ‘populist,’ they may form tactical alliances, they may be neo-nationalists or post- Marxists, but they are first of all counter-revolutionaries with a mission. Tories and Blairites label Corbyn a populist, but his views on migration, minority rights, parliamentary democracy, and foreign intervention are less populist than those of his critics.

This probably also applies to Jeremy Corbyn, who took over the leadership from the liberal wing of the Labour party with a programme reminiscent of the pre-1989 or even pre-1968 era. Corbyn has unmasked major flaws of the liberal revolution without questioning some of the core liberal principles. Tories and Blairites label Corbyn a populist, but his views on migration, minority rights, parliamentary democracy, and foreign intervention are less populist than those of his critics. Corbyn’s programme may be unsuited for tackling modern transnational economics, but his focus on inequalities, workers’ rights, and the predatory behaviour of financial services can hardly be called illiberal. One can even argue that Corbyn has shown traditional liberal parties the way to get out of the current gridlock. However, I should quickly add that Corbyn does not call himself a liberal and does not strive for a liberal renaissance. In this sense, he is a counter- revolutionary, albeit of a special kind.

Identifying priorities

Destroying the existing order is one thing and constructing a new one is another. Contemporary counter-revolutionary forces know better what they are against than what they are for. Details of their current agendas do not form a coherent whole, and they are pretty vague. Those who studied the party manifestos of counter-revolutionary movements concluded that they allow a lot of room for statements on everyday political matters that may not always be consistent with the mainstream party line. Moreover, each of the counter- revolutionary movements has its own local priorities that would be difficult to bring into one line in a broader European context. Marine Le Pen works closely with Geert Wilders, for instance, but not with Jarosław Kaczyński, Nigel Farage, or Alexis Tsipras.

More crucially, the record of counter-revolutionary forces in office is disquieting, to put it mildly. In Poland the centre-right liberals from the PO party may well have failed to make the public media free from political interference, but the PiS counter-revolutionary party has transformed these media into a propaganda arm of its fundamentalist faction. The Greek counter-revolutionary Syriza party promised to correct the wrongdoings of the past, but has instead attempted to introduce a media licensing law that would reward their political cronies. This attempt has been halted by the Greek constitutional court, something which could not happen in Poland where the PiS party paralysed the constitutional court immediately after coming to power. Both PiS in Poland and Syriza in Greece have also tried to appoint their political associates to all important (and even unimportant) posi- tions within the civil service. They both tried to gain control of publicly owned enterprises and even private banks, albeit with no signs of reversing neo-liberal policies. Both PiS and Syriza progressively embraced a nationalist agenda blaming Europe for all their own shortcomings.

The counter-revolutionaries have not behaved any better in other countries. The Italian Five-star movement won the 2016 election for the city council in Rome, but the first few months of its reign was characterized by remarkable chaos and incompetence even by poor ‘Roman’ standards. Above all, there is a long, disturbing, and ever-growing list of autocratic policies by the Hungarian party Fidesz. Senator John McCain has even called their famous leader a ‘neo-fascist dictator’.

All these and other flaws of counter-revolutionary parties should not make the established parties complacent, however. There is hardly any evidence suggesting that the ‘liberal’ policies of the last two or three decades are back in vogue among Europe’s electorate. If the established parties are able to hold onto power, it is because they progressively embraced illiberal rhetoric and policies. True, Alexander Van der Bellen won the 2016 Austrian presidential elections without trying to water down the liberal agenda, but his uncompromising stance was uncommon and his victory was narrow and hard fought. One should also ask the question ‘how could Norbert Hofer, a politician with an extreme-right background, be so close to the presidential office in one of the most affluent and stable European countries?’ The counter-revolutionary forces are far from conquering the entire continent, but they are able to shape the public discourse and push the established parties into a frenzied retreat. This is not because insurgents have an inspiring programme and charismatic leadership. This is chiefly because the liberals are doing so badly. I am a convinced liberal like you, Ralf, and I am deeply concerned about the rise of illiberal politics.

Have liberals lost the plot or is my description somewhat prejudiced? Perhaps I am too hard on liberals and too lenient on the counter-revolutionary forces. I am a convinced liberal like you, Ralf, and I am deeply concerned about the rise of illiberal politics. As a ‘child’ of the 1989 liberal revolution I do not want to see civil liberties being curbed again, the rule of law dismantled, media freedom strangled, and walls reappearing across the continent. That said, I am not interested in entertaining a nostalgia for the lost era of liberal glory. The proponents of the liberal propaganda of success ought to ask themselves a simple question: if the last three decades of liberal rule was such a great accomplishment, why have so many people started to hate liberals?

We need to understand what liberalism is and what it is not. We need to decide which streams of liberalism we want to refute and which to support. For the last three decades, liberalism was an ideology of power and empowering; everything was liberal in some sense; questioning liberal principles was uncommon; even former communists jumped on the liberal train together with ordinary opportunists hoping to advance their careers. I feel little in common with these liberal fellow travellers. I want to understand what we could have done better and I have no intention of concealing our mistakes. Only after serious self-reflection would we be able to conclude if liberalism is worth fighting for. This is in line with the famous imperative of Socrates, to ‘know thyself ’.

I have big problems with liberals castigating ‘populists’ and then behaving suspiciously similarly. I take issue with liberals switching from noble public schemes to backroom manipulation. You may say that I have a naive vision of politics. Does everyday politics not require compromises? Is it not better to support a lesser evil? My normative reply is as simple as the pragmatic one. Soft forms of ‘populism’ do not belong to the liberal repertoire, however defined, and they proved self-defeating in political practice. This does not mean that there is only one sacred and non-negotiable dogma that we can proudly call liberalism. Nor does it mean that all varieties of liberalism are worth fighting for. This means only that bashing the counter-revolutionary forces on its own is not likely to lead to the liberal renaissance. If the counter-revolutionary forces are doing well because liberals are doing so poorly we need first of all to address the liberal failings. This letter is therefore about healing or re-inventing liberalism. If the counter-revolutionary forces are doing well because liberals are doing so poorly we need first of all to address the liberal failings.… 

In the Europe of the 1960s and 1970s much of the liberal discourse was about the welfare state and the idea that mutual responsibility, the recognition of interdependence, and a sense of community were the means to support individual development. This discourse has gradually evaporated since 1989. Neo-liberals (under the influence of Reaganomics) have introduced a false dichotomy between liberalism and communitarianism. The former was to be all about individuals: ‘there is no such thing as society’, famously declared Margaret Thatcher. As a result, the liberal project has left individuals lost in the maze of powerful transnational markets and deficient transnational institutions. Increasingly citizens find themselves isolated and deprived of public protection be it in the field of economics, law, or administration. We undermined national borders without creat- ing effective transnational public authorities. The counter-revolutionaries are probably naive to think that a return to nation-states will solve any major problems, but I wonder whether liberal freedoms can still be protected in a Europe we liberals have created. I also wonder whether liberalism can effectively be defended without a collective will, solidarity, and hope bordering on myth. We failed to create a European civil society and a European public authority able to push forward the liberal project. No wonder more and more European citizens are abandoning us and are instead endorsing outdated but familiar policies of national glory, moral community, and walls separating one group from another. No wonder more and more European citizens are endorsing outdated but familiar policies of national glory, moral community, and walls separating one group from another.  

Of course, we may think that the electorate has made wrong choices, and democracy is not merely about ‘the voice of the people’. Yet, it is hard to imagine a democracy that does not respect electoral outcomes, and liberals are not likely to get voters back on their side by insulting them and calling them foolish, incapable, and naive. Defeated liberals should ask themselves the question ‘why have the citizens voted for the counter-revolutionary forces and not for us?’ Liberal oligarchy as practiced after 1989 is certainly one of the reasons and ought to be repudiated by liberals themselves. Unless liberals are able to make citizens feel that their voices really count, the counter-revolutionary forces will push for a pure electoral democracy with no respect for minority rights, checks-and-balances, and the division of power principle. …

In 1963 Karl Popper, one of the leading liberal intellectuals, identified two contrasting attitudes in the field of politics:

The first is that of the politician who thinks that all he does is well done, and that none of our troubles are due to his mistakes, but, rather, to unavoidable misfortunes, or to the conspiracies of his opponents, who are bad men. The opposite attitude is that of the man who, aware of his fallibility, knows that he is bound to err; who is constantly on the watch for his own mistakes, because he knows that this is the only way to learn, and profit, from experience; and who hopes that his opponents, by their criticism, will help him discovering [sic] his mistakes.

Popper found the latter attitude more appropriate for liberals like himself. I follow his dictum in this letter.

Thanks go to the author and the OUP for permission to publish this extract from Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat, Oxford University Press, February 2018.

Cover of Counter-Revolution: liberal europe in retreat, 2018, OUP.

About the author

Jan Zielonka is Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford and author of Is the EU Doomed? (Polity Press, 2014).

Read On

Jan Zielonka’s new book, Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat – published this week by Oxford University Press.


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