Is Liberal Democracy Aready History?


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April 26, 2022

Is Liberal Democracy Aready History?

  • de-democratization
  • Ira Katznelson
  • Jerzy Szacki
  • Liberal Democracy
  • social imaginary

There’s a dark joke that the Polish dissident thinker Adam Michnik likes to tell: 

If in 1987 God had asked the Poles what their three most fervent wishes were, they would have replied: First, we want to live in a country with no political prisoners. Second, we want a country without censorship and foreign armies. And third, we would like the Soviet Union to fall apart. And the good Lord listened to Poland, and all three wishes came true. We got our freedom. But today God is asking the Poles: what have you actually done with that freedom?

It was three decades ago, in 1989, that a new kind of revolutionary imaginary— not just a theory—seemed to take root, one that projected a new beginning and demonstrated the possibility of comprehensive systemic change without bloodshed. Velvet or otherwise un-radical, this kind of revolution became a “site” of tangible hope in many places, as it was a site in which words have power, in which people are allowed to speak and are listened to, and where they realize their agency through instruments other than weapons. “Negotiated revolution” is not an oxymoron, but is still an extraordinary event when it happens, as dictatorships are by definition opposed to any spirit of dialogue or compromise.

It was then—early 1989 in the case of Poland, under enormous pressure exerted by society, including an earlier wave of nationwide industrial strikes—that the Communist regime agreed to talk with its subjects at a Round Table in Warsaw. Hannah Arendt would have called it a “privileged moment,” which is when people act together in concert and rational argument prevails over recourse to violence. That sense of a privileged moment, a sense of wonder and incredulity, seemed then to be universally shared, just as it did four years later after the similar roundtable in the Johannesburg suburb of Kempton Park that in 1994 ended apartheid in South Africa. Today, those emblematic moments that brought new beginnings have lost their aweinspiring aura, and instead are now disregarded or even snubbed.

Although the way in which the momentous transformations in Central and Eastern Europe were triggered—and were then worked out—varied from country to country, to the rest of the world communism appeared to have collapsed miraculously on its own. Once the Berlin Wall came down, a metaphorical Iron Curtain was lifted and a radical break with the past was accomplished. What a victorious triumph of liberal democracy, what a perfect backdrop for proclaiming the end of history!

But in fact the Berlin Wall did not just collapse on its own. Rather, it was the gradual building of a new imaginary that had put into motion what Adam Michnik, one of its architects, called a self-limiting revolution.¹ It envisioned a new beginning and a peaceful, yet fundamental, systemic change that would replace authoritarian rule with democracy—and without bloodshed. Though there were plenty of sceptics, the strategy proposed in his iconic 1976 essay “A New Evolutionism,” quickly noticed by the European and American left, was not a fantasy, as it turned out to be quite workable.

Again, at the very foundation of this negotiated revolution was a crucial social imaginary, that is, a pre-theoretical configuration of meaning that conveyed an aspirational belief of the era—that is, the late Cold War era—and served as a kind of mental scaffolding. Crafted gradually by the people themselves and from the point of view of the communist state clearly subversive, it brought to their lives a sense of coherence and reason. This future-oriented social imaginary was democracy. And as it quickly turned out, that imaginary—with its power to illuminate an otherwise desolate social reality—became vital for people, not only in this part of the world. People everywhere associated it with various freedoms they did not have, but also with the economic affluence, the vivid colors, and the happy lives seemingly available to those who lived in the then so-called West. Democracy as captured by this imaginary was simply a more dignified and therefore happier place.

The signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 made that social imaginary more tangible and solid. It is important to remember that the final act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was an extraordinary event, as the signatories included for the first time heads of states from behind the Iron Curtain. Still, nobody suspected then that the widely publicized signing of the special chapter on human rights would encourage new forms of citizen engagement outside the exclusive purview of the Communist state. It was a bold move whose full implications were not recognized until later. But it is clear today how much the inclusion of human rights instruments, followed by the emergence of Helsinki Watch Committees that monitored compliance with the accords, helped to open up throughout the region an embryonic public sphere within which a degree of citizenship could be exercised. And it is clear today how this laid the groundwork for the already existing—albeit vague and generic—democratic imaginary to acquire a liberal rights dimension.

And this realm of audaciously claimed liberal rights gradually became infused with a very strong social justice component; after all, Poland’s self-limiting revolution was instigated by workers of large factories in the mid-1970s, who a few years later mobilized the entire society and enabled them all to think about, and learn about, basic democratic practices. This happened through their Solidarity Trade Union movement, a rational-legal construct, a liberal remedy against abuses of power, but driven by a romantic spirit of freedom imbued with solidarity and compassion. One should be reminded that the second phase of the strike at the Gdansk Shipyard, with its key demand for freedom of expression, would not have taken place if not for four women—a nurse, a tramway driver, a crane operator, and a newsstand vendor, who at different exit gates convinced their colleagues leaving the shipyard that they ought to support other, smaller factories on the Baltic coast who were still on strike and whose wrongs had not been addressed, and persuaded them to return to the shipyard to continue the strike.²

Indeed, solidarity, specifically social solidarity, was its newly discovered and suddenly cherished treasure that supplied liberal democracy with some much-needed warmth. No matter how briefly it lasted, that marriage of liberal democracy and social solidarity was never a mésalliance—as both had the same Enlightenment based pedigree. And during those magnificent 16 months when the Solidarity Trade Union functioned legally—that is, until martial law was imposed in December 1981, ending what I call the early period of performative democracy—it was a solid and rather happy marriage.

Arendt, with her knack for sharp distinctions, is helpful in illuminating the phenomenon of solidarity in her book On Revolution, in which she writes that pity is a sentiment, whereas solidarity is founded on reason. It is only out of solidarity that communities of interest can be deliberately and dispassionately established so that they can speak and act out politically.³ While the idea of solidarity appears to be closer to that of brotherhood than to the idea of liberty or equality, Arendt would insist that it is a rational, deliberate decision that then guides our actions.⁴

Still, solidarity introduces a critical corrective to the cold liberal concept of freedom, turning it into an embodied freedom I would like to call active freedom. Such freedom, nurtured by the principles of dialogue and solidarity, furnishes a more caring liberal imaginary. With its capacity to build real bonds with other people, active freedom lessens anxiety or even fear along with the loneliness of the individual, and opens more plausible prospects for those who have never had it.

And it was this solidarity-imbued liberal-democratic imaginary that became both locally potent and globally contagious. And though it assumed an array of forms and idioms, as it surfaced under varied conditions of authoritarian rule, it shared an important global dimension: it reflected some basic, and perhaps naïve, belief that there were indeed places—“normal countries”—where human rights are observed along with social rights, where government is of, by, and for the people, and where democracy is actually practiced. And one should not dismiss here the extraordinary power carried by the image of a “normal country,” whether envisioned in Bratislava, Johannesburg, Manila, Dili (in case we do not remember East Timor), Krakow, Kiev, or Cairo.

Even if this had only been a general longing for freedom, one could still see in it a broad cry for liberal democracy, and we have to acknowledge—having seen it through the first decade of this century—that such a cry appeared to be fairly universal. Well, it did happen, though as Agnes Heller—a brilliant philosopher who died in the summer of 2019—boldly and bitterly stated in her last essay, How Liberty Can Be Lost: in some places, such as her home-country of Hungary, freedom came “for free,” like a gift, almost overnight.⁵

Well, that was NOT the case in Poland, where, I would like to argue, the citizens themselves had been peacefully challenging the system for more than a decade and brought about a change of regime, disassembled the immensely concentrated power structures, and launched fairly swiftly (and much to their own surprise) a real process of systemic transformation. The final act of the process took place at the Roundtable, and that did not happen overnight either. It is hard to forget that though politically representative, the Roundtable was absurdly and disappointingly gender exclusive—an ironic projection of the times to come, in which the liberal democratic state succeeded in criminalizing its female citizens’ reproductive rights.⁶

We must not forget, however, that on the very same day, 4 June 1989, that marked the beginning of democracy in Poland—when the Poles went to vote for their Solidarity candidates in the Soviet bloc’s first partly free elections negotiated at the Roundtable—the massacre in Tiananmen Square took place, “The Square of Heavenly Peace.” And so that very same day also marked the bloody end of another pro-democracy movement and the beginning of a bizarre system blending repressive communism with party-owned capitalism. One wonders, especially today—when our fundamental systemic change is taken for granted and the wisdom of negotiated revolution is being questioned and contested—one wonders whether the tragedy in Tiananmen Square had any sobering effect on people in this part of the world.

Reading an essay by the late Professor Jerzy Szacki, “Dreams and Reality of Polish Democracy,” published just one year and a half after the elections, one might gather that, sadly, no such sobering had taken place. Yet it was Szacki himself— clearly disenchanted by the way subjects who had just become citizens appeared to handle themselves in the crucial post-revolutionary period—who provided just such a sobering in his essay. “The achievements of our revolution are genuine and considerable, and realistically,” he argued, “they could not be much greater. Yet, they are plainly inadequate when measured against the expectations and hope that made them come true in the first place.” And then he offers a remark that for many observers may strike a chord today: “A magnificent society, admired by the whole world, has turned into an unpredictable mass that poses a danger to its own existence.”⁷

Szacki, a distinguished professor of sociology at Warsaw University who happens to have been my mentor, focused on what he called the revolutionary illusions developed during communist rule and further solidified in the period of the post-Solidarity revolution. The leading illusion was a self-idealized image of society itself as valiant, virtuous, true, completely unified in its struggle against the communist evil, and thus a society that in no way could have been implicated in the maintenance or support of the communist ancien regime. Indeed, warns Szacki, such illusions are written into the history of every revolution, as it quickly discovers that reality is quite different from the hitherto prevailing mental constructs. This and other illusions, Szacki argued in early 1991, influence our thinking about change, and constitute major hurdles on the way to democracy in Poland.

His diagnosis was dismal: it is too early for democracy. “The majority has indeed regained its voice,” he said, but “only insofar and inasmuch as it opposed the old regime and demanded something completely new. That’s all. There is no reason to believe that it wanted or wants to realize one or another concrete program that could be seen as an expression of the general will.” Paradoxically, concluded Szacki, in such a situation democracy still has to be imposed on a disoriented majority.

Indeed, if one recalls the struggles to constitute local self-government in Poland in the early 1990s, one remembers that its beginnings were pretty tough going. And one would have to recognize that the process that was to break the emblematic feature of communist rule, that is, so-called democratic centralism, was curated—and then enforced in 1990—by a rather small group of dedicated academics led by Professor Jerzy Regulski of the Polish Academy of Science, who had been working on strategies for decentralization of the state administration since the 1980s. And indeed, the legal enactment of a system of Territorial Self-Government in March 1990 could have resembled more closely an imposition than the accomplishment of an enthusiastic citizenry.⁸ Yet the changes that seemed to happen almost overnight were indeed revolutionary, as they were about sharing power and resources. It is because of these early fundamental arrangements secured by law that people were able to quickly take charge of the localities in which they lived. Thirty years later, territorial self-government is one of the dimensions of democratic governance in Poland that is most cherished, constitutionally guaranteed, and staunchly defended by its citizens!⁹

Still, in August, September, or October 1989, no one was completely certain how things would go, and even twenty-something months later, when Szacki wrote his piece, it was still not clear just how high the society’s learning curve would have to be. Things were confusing, people were anxious as the old order was being dismantled, and the future was hazy. And yet—as it turned out—the learning curve did not have to be very high, since the democratic imaginary and some democratic practices developed during the sixteen months of Solidarity had already been planted. Centered around freedoms, democratic rights, solidarity, and some makeshift entrepreneurship, what I have called their “mental scaffolding” persisted and was even solidified during martial law, steadily providing people with a sense of hope and direction. And it was here in Poland, bolstered by that mental scaffolding, that people gradually began to shed their fear. And it was here that civil society—a long-neglected idea and phenomenon— was reactivated, and began its global renaissance. It became clear: private actors (even under intolerable constraints) can act on behalf of the public good.

In the meantime, a major recrafting of the sociopolitical landscape took place: fair and free elections were conducted regularly, new democratic institutions and processes were established, a major decentralization of power took place, numerous political parties emerged and disappeared, re-privatization was launched, and a new constitution was drafted. As tough as it was for many throughout the 1990s, the economy gradually improved, Poland joined the European Union, and the idea of freedom became something more palpable.

When one visits this country today, one visits a vibrant and prosperous place. The economy has been booming for a long time, and the Warsaw stock exchange, located on a prime real-estate site—oh, the irony: the former national headquarters of the Communist Party in Warsaw!—is doing exceedingly well. The borders in Europe are no more; and as an average Pole, one does not have to feel like a poor cousin when visiting Berlin or Paris.

Yet many have found themselves perplexed by what looks like an antidemocratic backlash—here, and throughout the region . . . and in fact everywhere. So what happened to that democratic imaginary that had such power to mobilize people here, and then across the world? How is it that democracy has made such a U-turn, and that so many are now struck dumb watching its massive reversal? And how come de-democratization, under various guises, is taking place virtually everywhere?

What Went Wrong?

It is not particularly comforting that John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers, the second president of the United States, and a brilliant thinker, in an 1814 polemical letter to Congressman John Taylor, had already articulated a dark vision: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Let me pause for a moment with a classic tragedy: You perhaps remember the first act of Hamlet, when the prince, trying to tell his friend Horatio that uncanny things are happening in the royal court of Denmark, whispers: “the time is out of joint . . . ”

The times seem to be out of joint, indeed, but since I am a political sociologist, I’d like to flesh out that phrase—at this point, briefly—with some assorted findings and insights.

The 2018 Freedom House report was truly frightening. For the second year in a row, there are more consolidated authoritarian regimes than consolidated democracies, and I quote: “Contempt for independent institutions and open discussion has become entrenched from Central Europe to Eurasia.”¹⁰

Indeed, governments’ takeover of the judicial systems, appropriation of public media to serve the ideological needs of the ruling party, smear campaigns against nongovernmental organizations, repressions of academics and institutions of higher learning, and violations of ordinary parliamentary procedures, have brought about a dramatic deterioration of democracy everywhere.

Still, how is it that over the last few years our precious and widely shared democratic imaginary has been undermined and is now being dismantled?

Why is this society—once so united in dethroning the long rule of Communism— now so fiercely divided?

Why is the diversity of people, opinions, cultures, and beliefs so shunned? Where has generosity gone?

Why is the vital liberal norm of mutual tolerance and forbearance vis-a-vis political opponents vanishing?

Why is it so difficult to dismiss the widespread belief in a conspiracy against the nation?

Why are the liberal media, and former dissidents who languished in prison for their pro-democratic posture, treated with such vitriol, and why is violence entering the “square of politics”?

For Arendt, with her insights into the circumstances conditioning unfreedom, the shutting down of the living space of freedom means unambiguously the beginning of tyranny.¹¹ Today, her observations sound unnervingly close to home: “The preparations have succeeded,” she wrote, “when people have lost contact with their fellow men, as well as the reality around them; for along with these contacts men lose the capacity for both experience and thought.”¹²

The situation is particularly alarming as today’s fierce political divisiveness looks like a caricature of the Schmittian concept of the political as necessarily based on a sharp distinction between friend and enemy. But never mind theory: wherever we live, we wake up daily to see the precious political middle ground dramatically shrinking in both new and old democracies, whether in Poland or in the United States. And what emerges as a most unsettling irony is that the anti-democratic mobilization we are now seeing everywhere, and the undermining of the liberal democratic imaginary, are being facilitated and legitimized by the very freedoms gained in this part of the world exactly thirty years ago.

I would like to refer briefly to three contributing factors that I feel have set the stage for this shift in the imaginaries and for the related processes of de-democratization.

In My View, the Primary Factor Is the Crisis of Solidarity

Polish historian, former dissident and political prisoner, and a brilliant critical thinker, the late Karol Modzelewski has provided us with a vivid pointer here. Looking back at the French Revolution, he observed that all that is left today of its appealing grand trinity—liberté, égalité, and fraternité—is liberté.

There is no doubt that, in the process of transformation to liberal democracy, égalité and fraternité, the key principles of Solidarity’s nonviolent revolution accomplished exactly two hundred years after the French Revolution, have vanished. For Jozef Tischner, a Catholic priest, progressive thinker, and a student of leading Polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden, “solidarity” meant “to carry another’s burden.”¹³ Well, that solidarity, so carefully nurtured during the 1980s, is gone. Yet freedom—precious to the liberal world—needs solidarity, the rights it brings along ought to be available to large social groups, and indeed the Polish workers understood well the importance of both its social and moral dimensions. After all, the last workers’ strike in late 1988 in the Nowa Huta Steel Mill was conducted under that very rallying cry: “There Is No Freedom without Solidarity!” (Nie ma Wolności bez Solidarności).

While the Solidarity movement, as it was understood in Poland, was deeply invested in the struggle for liberal democracy, there was a failure on the part of all too many to retain its original commitment to solidarity with a small s.

Social solidarity, a value of no particular importance to classical liberalism but one that greatly broadened its meaning in Poland in the 1980s, has been hastily abandoned to give priority to economic freedom. Indeed, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, concerned exclusively with the needs of the individual, became the bible for economic reform in the region. It was clear that for Hayek the marriage of solidarity and liberalism was illegitimate. And today in the context of raging neoliberal capitalism, it is forgotten.

To be sure, the swift implementation of economic reforms in the early 1990s in Poland stopped a catastrophic economic collapse. Known as “shock therapy,” it privatized the inefficient state-run industries and freed up the markets. But that happened at the cost of squandering the treasures of social solidarity and the sense of community that people had so deeply experienced in the 1980s. Jerzy Szacki commented then that the Solidarity revolution “had transformed itself, imperceptibly, from a workers’ revolution into a revolution of owners, or more accurately, owners-to-be.”

Thirty years later, today’s freedom needs solidarity. Today’s liberal democracy, while constituted around liberal freedoms and individual rights, and supported by liberal confidence in the capacity for self-improvement and self-realization, has to recognize the urgent need for social solidarity, not just in an economic sense but broadly understood—and needs to commit itself to it.

These are not new assertions, and the discourse often related to developments in this part of the world is not new either, as it goes back to the early years of democratic transition, 1989–1991. The world was still captivated by the democratic opening occurring here, and many progressive western scholars looked to the Polish experience as a source of inspiration and a possible ally in recharging their own critical thinking on the social and the political that in the West had found itself in crisis.

In 1996, a book by Ira Katznelson, Liberalism’s Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik, was published by the Princeton University Press. Though the title seemed clearly to allude to the already legendary Club of the Crooked Circle, a remarkable forum for fairly open discussion in post-1956 Poland, Katznelson’s book was an invitation to a special hearing on liberalism. His invitation was issued on behalf of that magnificent, invincible, incorruptible generation of 1968 American progressives, associated in the case of Katznelson with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to its peers in Central Europe, to join in a re-thinking of the project that could be broadly labeled as the world’s liberal left.

The students on strike at Columbia University in New York and those marching on the streets of Paris were only in a very general way sharing the aspirations of students protesting that same Spring in Warsaw and Prague, but by the end of the century, in each of these contexts the generation of ’68 had become more than just a legend. Havel was president of his country, Michnik was head of the most influential daily in the region, Joschka Fisher was the leader of the Green Party, and Katznelson, a respected political scientist, was dean of the New School for Social Research. More recently, he has been president of the American Political Science Association and then president of the Social Science Research Council. But it was at the New School that Katznelson had first met dissident intellectuals from the region, and these encounters, with visits to Warsaw, Prague and Budapest, resulted not only in friendships, but in serious reflection by this scholar of political thought who is also engaged in the challenges of our times. Polish readers know Ira Katznelson’s name from the legendary seminars with prominent intellectuals hosted by John Paul II and documented in a book published in Poland as Conversations in Castel Gandolfo.

Katznelson’s Crooked Circle of Liberalism is a very personal reconstruction of twentieth-century discourse on liberalism and socialism. Yes, he refers to Mannheim, Dewey, and Isiah Berlin, but what he offers is an open-minded rethinking of both traditions through the lens both of his own personal experiences and of recent developments in the former communist bloc. Exploring the possibility of a public philosophy based on an amalgam of liberalism and socialism, Katznelson discusses afresh certain dimensions of both traditions to show how they could complement each other. “After all,” he writes, “1989 imparts complex lessons: the dangers of some strands of the Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment’s indispensability; the value of individualism, but the imperative of collective solidarity; the delegitimization of an empire, but then the costs of national self-determination; and, indeed, the welcome end of an ideology of grand narratives but also the vacuity of democratic politics in the absence of the markers only political ideology can provide.”¹⁴

His was an attempt to find an answer to the problems that trouble advanced democracies: increasing inequality, growing poverty, the failure to recognize difference and otherness, and situations of helplessness framing the lives of people. One can only speculate that it was this very concern that provoked an extraordinary gesture on the part of the Polish Pope, when in the summer of 1998, on saying goodbye to the participants of the Castel Gandolfo seminars, he asked Katznelson to stay for a few minutes, and then thanked him “on behalf of the Polish nation” for his book on liberalism.

Indeed, Liberalism’s Crooked Circle was written with real sympathy for both the actors and the changes taking place in Poland, and with a considerable degree of optimism. The wall that divided the world was gone, the one-party system had collapsed, the Cold War was over, and now one could begin—along with new friends from the East—to repair that home we all live in. Liberalism, writes Katznelson, drawing on his American experience, prepared a solid groundwork for such a home, but it was not sufficient for those who lacked the means to move in to it, to insulate it, or who for whatever reasons could not finish building it.

“I believe,” wrote Katznelson, that “liberalism needs socialism (though not only, and not just any, socialism) as a partner to provide moral and practical elements it cannot supply on its own to help guard its crooked circle against illiberal adversaries.”¹⁵ This is a new opportunity for us, the democratic left in the United States—Katznelson seems to be saying—but also for you who managed to dismantle communism, and who now in liberated Poland are building together this new common home. Take a look at our worries, and we’ll look at yours, or even better, let’s take a look at them together.

Three years later, in a first and otherwise sympathetic Polish review of the book, one could read: “A voice from the other side of the Atlantic asking that we search for affinities between the two doctrines, liberalism and socialism, sounds alien and unnatural; after all, we have gotten accustomed to thinking of them as extreme opposites.”¹⁶ In 1999, it was still hard not to agree with such a verdict. After all, the “actually existing socialism”—a term that had become popular during the Brezhnev era—was the reality that people had just broken out of. It was simply anathema, an unacceptable concept, and a compromised word that people were allergic to.

Katznelson understood this, of course, and he patiently explains that his socialism is self-limiting, and his liberalism is treated with similar reservations. In his project, such liberalism and socialism could enter into a dialogue, a kind of partnership in which both sides complement each other. Such a partnership between two modified assumptions mutually enriches both parties, and can offer, as the author argues, not just a bigger but a more inclusive space than that offered by liberalism alone. Moreover, he suggested twenty-three years ago that a politics of caring could also safeguard the space that might otherwise be furnished by undeniably illiberal projects.

Looking back—and strictly speaking—the ultimate betrayal of the principles of social justice took place here in Poland approximately a decade ago. At that time, the economic crisis of 2008 had barely affected this country, and the signs of prosperity were visible everywhere. However, the governing center-right party, while justifiably proud of its Solidarity pedigree, was still suffering from a post-socialist hangover and clearly did not have the foresight to consider easing the conditions of those who were being left out: the very poor, who had quickly become invisible; the elderly; or those recent graduates who, in a booming economy, had found employment but worked on temporary, fixed-term contracts known as trash contracts, with no benefits or work security. Was this a crime of negligence?

Whether a policy or a blindness, the effect was the same: this was an exclusion from the democratic polity that has brought about the consequences we are living through today.

The Second Contributing Factor I Would Like to Consider Is a Cultural One

It involves a relatively new shift of the imaginary that dramatically sharpened with the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, and it entails a shift in temporalities: The new vision of the social order is oriented more toward the past than toward the future. It is the outcome of such a shift that Szacki was worried about when he wrote that “a magnificent society, admired by the whole world, has turned into an unpredictable mass posing a danger to its own existence.”¹⁷

This was not necessarily true of all countries, but it was most certainly true of post-1989 Poland, where liberal democracy—a very recent arrival—began to lose out to a competing, long-established, and powerful imaginary, that of the nation and ethnonationalism.

Even today Europe is still an abstract concept for many here, one that is no match for the idea of the nation, along with its narrative of national suffering that everyone here knows best. The Second World War mass execution of twenty-two thousand Polish Military officers by the Soviet secret police (more than four thousand in the Katyn forest massacre), is obviously NOT an abstract concept. Rather it is a tragic story, forbidden under Communism yet kept alive for generations, if only through whispers. So, when in 2010 that airplane full of government officials on its way to a fiftieth-anniversary Katyn commemoration crashes near Smolensk, it reopens the wound, causes brand new pain, and naturally brings people together. Soon, conspiratorial theories have a heyday.

And suddenly, for those who have been feeling left behind, everything becomes clear again. The unfamiliar and daunting post-transition world makes sense once more: We are living in the midst of yet another conspiracy against the Polish nation. We are on a mission again: We speak with ONE voice to defend the threatened cohesiveness of our national community, our culture, and our right to a way of life based on Christian values. We are against the moral relativism of the ruling elites, their promotion of secularism; here we are against corruption and governing practices that nobody can follow; here we are against our sense of being marginalized and abandoned in our own country. We are not against democracy: our voice matters, our participation matters! What we are against is . . . liberal democracy. The message is, liberal democracy is a conspiracy, and the real conspiracy, a primary sin, began with those 1989 Roundtable negotiations with the Communists.

We know from multiple studies conducted in the last few years in various countries that in the balance sheet of what people want the most today—freedom or security—the wish for freedoms, whether negative or positive, gives way to the desire for security. Insecurity is often caused by the unknown. And the very processes of systemic transformation, and for that matter entry into the European Union—for a society locked for nearly five decades in what was to have been an everlasting system—these are sources of anxiety and fear. Fear of the unknown.

The refugees, whom most people see daily but only on TV, are the ultimate Unknown, the ultimate Other, and a perfect incarnation of all fears—the fear of losing absolutely everything. It is in such a context that people turn to leaders who, brimming with confidence, say “Give me the power and I will take responsibility for your future.” Have you heard of “authoritarian democracy”? Like “negotiated revolution,” it only sounds like an oxymoron!

The third and final contributing factor, in my view, has to do with the uncanny era of post-factuality that we find ourselves living in, whether the lies are furnished by the winners in the hacking competitions organized at universities across Russia, or by the false statements by government officials reproduced via state-controlled media or on myriad social media platforms. With the archipelagos of social media— which often, ironically, further isolate and divide us—this is the soup we are swimming in today.

The hostility toward free media is combined with open animosity toward independent journalists everywhere, and this severely limits the possibility of knowing. Poland, with its illustrious history of underground publishing to counter the censorship of the communist state media, has recently dropped again in the World Press Freedom Index to 59th place, where it is preceded by Madagascar and Fiji.¹⁸ Freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and the freedom to dissent are the key principles of active freedom, and of the capacity for honest dialogue within society. Any silencing of such dialogue causes the shrinking of the public realm while interfering with and limiting our comprehension of the world: we believe we know but we do not.

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” wrote Hannah Arendt, in a remark that in the age of Trump sounds like a direct warning, “is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction . . . and the distinction between true and false . . . no longer exist.”¹⁹

And yet there were thinkers in this part of the world, thinkers who became role models to many, like Jan Patočka, his student Vaclav Havel, or the Polish sociologist Stanislaw Ossowski, who, despite all odds, sharply opposed any compromises with the truth, who spoke against the technology of half-truths. And there were plenty of average people then who knew how to distinguish a truth from a lie. It was in the 1950s that Ossowski expressed the conviction that “the political pressure that deforms the outcomes of research or hampers their development was not a necessity in the period of building socialism, but a mistake resulting from not appreciating its long-term effects.” But it was exactly such pressure that caused him the loss of his professorship at Warsaw University during the Stalinist period.

Those were not just the experiences of academics, and that’s why the 1981 Congress of the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity declared in its program that “our society wants, and has a right, to live in truth.” Indeed, living in truth, illuminated by the writings of Vaclav Havel, became a key element of the democratic imaginary.

But didn’t we academics, intellectuals, and public servants also contribute to yet another crime of negligence here? After all, we did settle for a diagnosis that for many in this part of the world a life without dialogue, a life in certainty and monologue, seems reassuring and convenient; while for others, the only true reality is that of a postmodern chaos in which it would be futile to frame the world as coherent and knowable. In both cases, any effort to build bridges in today’s bitterly divided societies thus appears to be a nonstarter.

So then, just as truth gets contaminated before our eyes daily, there already functions, and in some places even prospers, a bizarre form of contaminated democracy, a construct that smuggles in an ersatz democracy of various kinds—such as blended democracy, illiberal democracy, sovereign democracy, national democracy.

So Is Liberal Democracy Already History?

Well, we realized quite quickly that Fukuyama’s confident response to developments that brought about the end of the cold war—and for that matter history as such, with all its strife and evil—was overly exuberant. In fact, the big questions have been neither settled nor solved, and the critical crisis of liberal democracy and solidarity today makes it impossible to address constructively the major issues we all face, such as cataclysmic climate change or the massive movement of people.

Liberal Democracy has plenty of enemies, and if the revolutions of 1989, as I argue, were the upshot of a new and globally expanding democratic social imaginary, we are now facing an uncanny era of counterrevolution. “Uncanny,” in that the regimes suspicious of democracy continue to conduct their business under the generic banners of democracy.

As Michnik recently put it bluntly, and in market terms: “There exists a demand not only for freedom, but also for fascism.”²⁰

Are there any reasons for hope? Yes, though we need to go back and try to meet with those others whom we lost half way through our “democratic transition.”

Nadine Gordimer, the 1991 Nobel Prize laureate in literature from South Africa, opened one of her essays on apartheid with the sentence, “Men are not born brothers, they have to discover each other.” She is talking here about the solidarity we have lost, an essential treasure of democracy that we need to rediscover.

We have to find our way back to that infrastructure of democracy, the mental scaffolding we once relied upon that gave us so much hope. Once we find our way, we will meet cohorts of new actors, coming in many colors. But above all there are the women leading the way almost everywhere. Women on strike, women marching in “black” protests, women marching with umbrellas, women nurses, women teachers, women politicians. And people on wheelchairs in front of parliaments. And the LGBTQ crowds with their rainbow flags making themselves visible through Pride Parades. And there is an astonishing presence of children in the public square—children determined to fight for their future in communities without guns, or without air so poisonous it kills. And citizens of Hong Kong, who are there to shield the rule of law from the rule of a one-party state. And citizens of Sudan, who organized night protests to pressure the generals to hand over power to civilians. And there’s the extraordinary resurgence of confidence in local self-government, whether in Warsaw, Istanbul, or Budapest, and in the power of the citizenry, as in Rio and Prague.

These are the new keepers of the flame. Their actions safeguard, but above all further endow and expand, the potential of the liberal democratic imaginary that can still guide the aspirations and hopes of this age. I agree with Szacki, who ends his essay by saying, “I will not prophesy further, for I cling to the hope that our lot is to suffer uncertainty, but not hopelessness.”

I wonder what this wise social thinker would say, were he with us during these days of the coronavirus. I think his response would be even more cautious than before, as there are clear signs that the pandemic has emboldened dictators everywhere to see in the imposition of a state of exception, emergency, or natural disaster a conveniently legal way to shut down the public square, limit citizens’ freedoms, normalize surveillance, and advance the de-democratization process.

But I am certain that Szacki, if pressed, would have agreed that the traumatic experience of isolation, the utter dependence on others whom we do not know and perhaps do not agree with, and the vanishing of economic security, have prepared conditions for a positive disruption, an awakening of the many who otherwise would have been indifferent or even hostile towards the world beyond the gates of their parish, state, or ethnic community.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that our future will not be marked by the experience of the pandemic, a time when social solidarity has not just been a strategy of resistance but also of survival. The universal is not an abstract concept anymore, as it has become something very tangible, with new kinds of solidarities emerging in which neglected principles of social justice, gender justice, environmental justice, and inter-generational justice are acquiring a robust and urgent meaning.

A lot of uncertainty, but not hopelessness: no, this liberal democracy is not history quite yet.


1. The phrase “self-limiting revolution” emerged in the debates of the early Solidarity period as  part of a larger political and strategic controversy that could be summarized in one question: revolution or evolution? Among those involved in the debate were Jacek Kuroń, Jadwiga Staniszkis, Lech Wałęsa, and Adam Michnik. The seeds of thinking in terms of a self-limiting strategy were already present in Michnik’s classic essay “The New Evolutionism” (1976) and were then spelled out in various underground publications with articles like his “The Polish War: A Letter from Białołęka, 1982.” Both texts are published in English in his Letters from Prison and Other Essays (University of California Press, 1986). Jadwiga Staniszkis’s well-known book Poland’s Self-Limiting Revolution, edited by Jan Tomasz Gross, was published by Princeton University Press, 1984.

2. The women were Alina Pieńkowska, a nurse, Henryka Krzywonos, a tramway conductor, Anna Walentynowicz, a crane operator, and Ewa Ossowska, who sold newspapers at a newsstand. Interview with a key organizer of the strike, Bogdan Borusewicz, Gazeta Wyborcza, August 18, 2000, also “Powstanie Gdańskie,” Wprost, Nr. 1185, 21 sierpnia, 2005. I write more about this in Performative Democracy (London: Paradigm, 2009), 20

3. H. Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 88.

4. Ibid., 88–89.

5. A. Heller, “How Liberty Can Be Lost,” Social Research: An International Quarterly 86, no. 1 (2019): 1–22.

6. Elzbieta Matynia, “Feminism between the Local and the Global: A Task of Translation,” in Women’s Movements in Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms, ed. Amrita Basu (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010); “Engendering Democracy: Women Artists and Deliberative Art in a Transitional Society,” in E. Matynia, Performative Democracy (London: Paradigm, 2009).

7. Jerzy Szacki, “Polish Democracy: Dreams and Reality,” Social Research 58, no. 4 (1991): 712.

8. A reform of local self-government designed to break the monopoly of a hitherto omnipotent state—through a shift in policy regarding, among other matters, public expenditures, accountability, and governance over public services—was launched in early 1990 by the first post-Communist government, led by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Jerzy Regulski, a professor of urban economics, was nominated as governmental plenipotentiary for the reform of local self-government, with his dream team of collaborator-experts who had also been participants in the Roundtable negotiations with the Communist government in early 1989. The team included a jurist and newly elected senator Jerzy Stępień; a lawyer and expert in public administration, Michał Kulesza; and Walerian Pańko, professor of legal science.

9. Nate Schenkkan, “Confronting Illiberalism,” Freedom House Report: Nations in Transit 2018, (accessed 14 February 2020).

10. H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951), 466.

11. Ibid., 474.

12. J. Tischner, The Ethics of Solidarity, 1981 (2005, trans.), 37.

13. Ira Katznelson, Crooked Circle of Liberalism: Letters to Adam Michnik (Princeton University Press, 1996), 45.

14. Ibid., 51.

15. Wojciech Orliński, “Wolność, Równość, Liberalizm,” Gazeta Wyborcza, 24 July 1999.

16. Jerzy Szacki, “Polish Democracy: Dreams and Reality,” Social Research 58, no. 4 (1991): 711–22.

17. 2019 Report published by Reporters Without Borders,(accessed 14 February 2020).

18. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 474.

19. Michnik’s presentation at the Democracy Seminar meeting, New School for Social Research, New York, 4 October 2019.

20. Ibid.

Elzbieta Matynia is a Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies, and director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York. Her research in the sociology of arts and politics focuses on democratic transformation, and more recently, retreats from democracy, in Eastern Europe and beyond. Her two recent books bring together the theater of politics, performance art, and citizens’ agency. An Uncanny Era (Yale University Press, 2014) presents post-revolutionary conversations between Europe’s most emblematic former dissidents: Czech playwright and president Václav Havel and Polish political thinker Adam Michnik. Her Performative Democracy (Paradigm, 2009) explores a potential in political life that easily escapes theorists: the indigenously inspired enacting of democracy by citizens. Written by one who experienced an emerging public sphere within pre-1989 Poland, it seeks to identify the conditions for performativity in public life. She is currently working on a book with the tentative title “Democracy after Violence.”

This article was originally published in East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, Vol. 34, Number 3. (August 2020).


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