Totalitarianism in Europe is not finished

With professor Aviezer Tucker (Harvard University) on the legacies of totalitarianism.

Tucker LegaciesProfessor Tucker, your recent book "The Legacies of Totalitarianism" published by Cambridge University Press is considered to be a milestone in scholarship devoted to our understanding of societies of Central and Eastern Europe.In what way can your analysis of legacies of totalitarianism enrich political theory or even political philosophy?

It tests conventional ideas and theories about liberty, rights, justice, restorative justice and property rights in a new historical context, far from the English, French and American contexts where most of these theories were born. Some of them cannot survive this harsh environments, others need to be revised. I proposed how.

Would you tell us how did you approach such a broad topic and what major challenges you had to overcome?

Political philosophy and theory hardly reacted to post-totalitarianism. Jeffrey Isaac called it “the strange silence of Political theory.” Some immediate theoretical responses merely reaffirmed truisms that had been known long before 1989. The collapse of command economies confirmed Ludwig von Mises’ criticisms of socialist economies from 1922, the insurmountable difficulties in making economic calculations and planning without a pricing mechanism. On the left, the distinction between Marxism and Social-Democracy or liberal socialism that has been the staple of the “New Left” since the 1960ies was emphasized again, in an attempt to resuscitate a left alternative either as a variety of liberalism or at least as consistent with it. But the crisis of Social Democracy preceded the end of totalitarianism by fifteen years and had endogenous reasons.

A political theory and philosophy of post-totalitarianism and the legacies of totalitarianism is also a revisionary critique of received political theories and philosophies that were developed against other historical circumstances but fall short of heuristic, descriptive or normative applicability to post-totalitarian conditions. This book will likely disappoint readers who expect ideological affirmations of faith. I delve into political philosophical and theoretical issues that do not clearly favor one ideology or another, though I hope to have undermined some received ideological dogmas in the process.

Post-totalitarianism was fashionable in the nineties. This led to many publications in the immediate aftermath of totalitarianism, especially in comparative politics and political economy. But this flowering was cut short abruptly by the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, followed by two wars, and then the economic recession. Attention, academic fashions, and media interest shifted away from post-totalitarianism. Even Putin has not managed to restore funding and public interest so far. The first decade after totalitarianism was too short to see where trends were heading and allow meaningful hindsight.

My purpose in this book was to fill in this theoretical and philosophical vacuum and present a theory of post-totalitarianism. I explored how the post-totalitarian political experience should inform traditional topics and theories in political philosophy such as rights, justice, justice in rectification and restitution, property rights, the idea of the university and philosophical education, and theories of ideology and language and the critique of democracy of illiberal thinkers like Habermas, Derrida and Zizek, which I interpret as preserving aspects of totalitarian thinking.

What are your main conclusions?

I argue that democracy in post-totalitarian central and east Europe was the unintended consequence of the adjustment of the rights of the late-totalitarian elite to its interests. The late-totalitarian elite was usually indifferent to democracy, it wanted private property but was hostile to economic free competition and the impersonal rule of law. It preferred a system of economic inequality and a clientelistic social model, the rule of well-connected individuals intertwined with the state from which they appropriated assets and to which they passed on liabilities. Consequently, the elite’s interests were not affected usually by the form of government. They needed little from the government, and they could buy it through bribing politicians and civil servants, forming “joint ventures” with them or their family members, financing political parties, and influencing elections through ownership of mass media. Democracy may be then an unintended effect of the elite’s relinquishment of direct political domination in favor of economic appropriation.

The transition from late-totalitarianism to post-totalitarianism was the spontaneous adjustment of the rights of the late-totalitarian elite to its interests, its liberation, the transmutation of its naked liberties into rights, most significantly, property rights. This social mechanism, the adjustment of rights to interests, explains the end of totalitarianism and has interesting theoretical implications for supporting choice theories of rights against interest theories of rights, and for finding the republican concept of liberty as non-domination more heuristically useful than the liberal negative liberty as non-interference, at least in the post-totalitarian context.

Justice is a scarce good. Its scope and depth are balanced against its accuracy. The legacies of totalitarianism included a severe scarcity in the supply of justice and an elevated level of demand for justice. Righting the wrongs of totalitarianism was deep and broad scoped. Post-totalitarian governments attempted to supply this demand under conditions of extreme scarcity of resources for justice by compromising on the accuracy of justice, producing what I term rough justice. I apply this non-ideal theory of justice and elaborate on how rough justice operated in post-totalitarian societies, respectively, in attempting to punish the perpetrators and compensating their victims. Justice was rough in restitution and had very limited scope in retribution. I explain how and why and debunk some of urban myths about lustration. Rough justice in restitution and privatization participated in causing a realignment of political positions with theories of property rights, historical theories of property rights have come to support redistribution as compensation for victimhood and consequentialist theories of property rights came to support inequality because it generates economic growth and efficiency irrespective of the origins of property rights.

The legacies of totalitarianism appeared not just in “grand” aspects of social and political life like social stratification, the composition of the elites, divisions of rights and liberties, forms of justice, and property rights, but also in the realm of the everyday, how post-totalitarian citizens interacted with each other and with institutions and how public institutions attempted to survive and preserve their privileges and elites in new post-totalitarian contexts. Continuity overwhelmed change in post-totalitarian institutions that were protected by subsidies and protectionism from external pressures. I examine how post-totalitarian institutions of higher education weathered the storm of political change, survived and protected themselves, and at what cost. The discussion of higher education demonstrates not just the institutional legacies of the old totalitarian state but also that totalitarianism in Europe is not finished. New totalitarianism in higher education, including the abolition of academic freedom, is exported to post-totalitarian Europe from the West through models of New Public Management which is nothing more than Communist central planning under a new label.

Probably the most long lasting and deceptively hidden legacies of totalitarianism have been its deleterious effects on the way people think and argue and on their use of language. Totalitarian modes of thought, ideology, and language were not exclusive to countries ruled by totalitarian regimes. Parts of the Western European intelligentsia partook in the totalitarian intellectual project without living in a totalitarian system. Their totalitarian frame of mind has had similar post-totalitarian legacies. I examine some of these legacies, the promotion of the use of logical fallacies to argue for ideological conclusions, and the divorce of language from reality achieved through the use of dialectical language that identifies between opposites. I illustrate these legacies with the writings of a Czech former secret police officer and Habermas on democracy and the writings of Derrida and Žižek about personal responsibility, dissidents, and totalitarianism. I conclude with tying together some of the themes that span the whole book about liberalism, republicanism, dissent and post-totalitarianism in light of the recent rise of populist authoritarianism in Europe. I call for building an alternative opposition on the legacies of dissent.

Tucker AviezerAviezer Tucker

  • associate, Davis Center, Harvard University
  • formerly worked as an Assistant Director, The Energy Institute, The University of Texas, Austin. 
  • taught in Cologne, Germany, New York University, Queens’ University, Belfast or CEVRO Institute, Prague.
  • studied political science at  Columbia University and philosophy at the University of Maryland
  • author of The Legacies of Totalitarianism: A Theoretical Framework, (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Panarchy: Political Theories of Non-Territorial States (Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought), 2015, Plato for Everyone, (Amherst NY: Prometheus Press, 2013)
  •  faculty of the Philosophy, Politics, Economics program at CEVRO Institute, Prague

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