Can Europe learn from communism?


The fact that we were right in practice was barely noticed by our critics. Life was made hard for us by our nice colleagues, who repeatedly expressed their outrage at our nastiness, in order to put their own niceness on display. It was in those days that I learned just how nasty niceness can be. From the moment in 1980 when I came out as a defender of conservative values against the socialist orthodoxy, my life has been one long succession of attacks, designed to undermine my standing as a public intellectual.

 Strangely enough, my first true experience of intellectual freedom was in Poland, where I travelled to speak at conferences and private seminars, arranged by a small circle in Britain who, like me, were keen to make contact with their fellow dissidents behind the iron curtain. In Poland the universal contempt for the communist system meant that students and professors were ready to discuss all the issues of the day. Conservatism, to them, was not a sin or a heresy, but a possible worldview, all the more interesting for being condemned by the communists and despised by the Western Left.

Travelling around the countries of East and central Europe in those days, carrying the message of an alternative philosophy, was one of the most liberating experiences of my life (the dangers and privations notwithstanding.) I came to believe that I might be right in theory, and not merely right in practice.

We have lived through all that, but it seems to me that the lesson still needs to be learned. Before 1989 our continent was divided between totalitarian socialism and free democracy, and although the Left-wing intellectuals defended the first of those, they all lived, if they could, in the second. Today the division is not between different areas of our continent. It is a division between two conflicting outlooks.

On the one hand there is the adherence to the nation state, with its language, institutions and religious inheritance. On the other there is the cosmopolitan vision of a transnational order, a borderless economy and a universal law of human rights. Both outlooks grew from the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century – and the tension between them is enduring and unresolved.

There is no way to understand our continent today if we do not recognize that it is an association of nation-states, each with its territory, customs, language and indigenous religions – assets that define the loyalty of its residents and their shared sense of home. But we must also recognize that the legal and political institutions of our continent have turned in a cosmopolitan direction.

This is less true in the UK, perhaps. But it is certainly true of continental Europe; and it is particularly true of the former communist states. The law and jurisprudence of the European Courts enabled the former communist countries to fill the legal vacuum created by the Communist Party. And this in turn enabled them to enter the global capitalist economy with relatively little friction, but also, alas, with far too little awareness of the social and cultural cost of it.

There is, at the heart of the European project, an agenda which was set without reference to the specific needs and values of the European nations.

Regardless of their social and religious inheritance, the people of Europe are being pressured to recognize rights that derive from abstract ideas of freedom and autonomy, and which defy the norms of the indigenous religions: rights to abortion, surrogate birth, euthanasia and so on, which are inevitably controversial in countries that have depended for their cohesion on their religious inheritance.

These rights form part of the worldview of the governing elite, who can legislate above the heads of sovereign governments. Moreover, the governments of the European nations have been asked to renounce the primary right of sovereign states, which is the right to determine who resides within their borders.

The freedom of movement provisions of the Treaty of Rome were conceived at a time when the signatories enjoyed a comparable standard of living, with more or less full employment and similar welfare systems. There was no temptation to move, save for the specific purposes of an existing job.

Now, however, freedom of movement means a massive one-way shift of populations, out of the former communist countries, into the West, and in particular into Britain, whose government sets a very low barrier to entry. This is one cause of the Brexit crisis.

But it has also had a serious demographic effect on the Vyšegrad countries, which have lost many of the best and brightest of their young people, at a time when both economic take-off and defence against the Russian threat require a full cohort of the young and a full commitment to rebuilding the national economy.

Furthermore, the dissolution of borders has made it all but impossible to maintain a national immigration policy. The EU has tried to gain control of the situation by distributing migrants according to a quota system. But Mrs Merkel’s open invitation to the Syrians, the influx on the Hungarian border, and the big business of people smuggling in the Mediterranean have between them made such a policy unviable.

The situation is especially alarming for the former communist countries – for the very reason that communism made it both impossible, and in any case unattractive, to migrate into them from anywhere outside the Soviet sphere. Hence this unforeseen price of freedom has come as an enormous shock, both politically and psychologically.

Paradoxically communism, although established as an international movement and claiming to abolish all sovereign boundaries, helped to preserve the nation state. For the nation was an enduring reality around which resistance could shape itself and, when combined with the powerful resurgence of Catholic faith in Poland, proved decisive in the overthrow of the communist tyranny.

Resistance to mass immigration has attracted the charge of ‘racism and xenophobia’ from the EU, with moves to expel Hungary’s Fidesz Party from the EPP, and even to expel Hungary itself from the European Union. This in turn has hardened Viktor Orbán’s government in its attitude, and led to growing resistance to immigration throughout the region.

The issue has also been absorbed into the wider conflict between the national and the international perspective, itself reaching back into the past of our continent and into the dark and difficult emotions that tore the continent apart during the 20thcentury. The result has been a sudden and radical change in the language and direction of political conflict throughout Europe, with the European elite condemning the ‘populism’ of national movements, which in turn condemn the elitism of the European political class.

This conflict has played itself out with increasing anger and confusion in the UK, between the proponents and the opponents of Brexit. The charge of ‘populism’ is levelled against movements for national independence and national renewal largely in order to discount the fact that they enjoy popular support: a majority voted for Brexit; but liberals discount their vote, because it is ‘populist’.

 For there are two ways of appealing to the people – indirectly, through the institutions that safeguard the liberal voice, and directly, by asking them what they think.

Direct appeal to the people is rejected as dangerous. After all, they do not know what they think, or if they do know, it is because they think the wrong things. Only when guided and tempered by a liberal constitution can the people be trusted – and that means filtering their raw emotions though a fine mesh of liberal hesitations, so that only a harmless stream of sentiment trickles forth.

The same charge of populism is levelled at the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and at Fidesz in Hungary. Both are accused of making too direct an appeal to the sentiments of the people, and in particular to their sentiments of belonging.

But ordinary people cling to forms of membership that are local, bounded and difficult to translate into bureaucratic norms. Their values are shaped by religion, family, language and national history, and they do not necessarily recognize the force of transnational obligations, or universal codes of human rights, especially when those codes are in direct conflict with the specific obligations of family and faith.

It seems to me that the conflict between the Left intelligentsia and human nature has shifted from the sphere of socialism versus capitalism to this new sphere, of enlightened liberalism versus residual nationalism.

What the liberals condemn as populism is really the attempt to retain old and inherited sentiments of identity and belonging. And what the people condemn as elitism is really the enlightenment conception of a universal and borderless political order, in which conflicts supposedly vanish because their cause – which is the competitive network of national loyalties – has been swept away.

The EU was founded by people moved by that enlightenment idea – and who saw nationalism as the force that had unleashed the century of European wars. Looking back on it, however, it is just as reasonable to see the idea of a universal and borderless form of politics as underlying the imprisonment of East and Central Europe by the communists.

Nationalism of the German kind was certainly destructive; but so was internationalism of the Soviet kind. Why not recognize that, in themselves, neither is more destructive than the other, but that each can become destructive, when wound into a totalitarian project, in which dissent is not permitted and the people are no longer allowed to express their views?


What I find most interesting in the new confrontation, however, is that the intellectual Left has again assumed the high ground, not being prepared to concede the democratic legitimacy of the movements that it dismisses as ‘populist’, and is determined to frustrate any attempt by those movements to establish themselves in government. The same annihilating rage that was directed against conservatives like myself in the 1970s and 1980s is being directed now against the supposed populists, and – not surprisingly – there is a growing tendency for the populists to give back as good as they get.

The resulting rise in temperature is one of the factors behind a loss of confidence in the EU, which seems to have precipitated a conflict that it cannot manage. And it is a conflict that is revealed in all the rapid changes that our continent is now undergoing.

 This conflict is particularly important for the post-communist countries, since the one thing they lacked in 1989 was a clear idea of what they are, and what unites the people in a body politic.

The communists had an agenda, in which the people were conscripted to a cause that was clearly unachievable and in any case hopelessly out of date. They offered no other concept of identity, than the all-comprehending purpose of the communist millennium. All those factors that might have persuaded people to adhere to that purpose – culture, art, music, religion, history – had been driven underground, and the joyless surface of everyday life contained no promise of a future, other than this one.

Inevitably, therefore, the people were looking for a new politics of identity – something that would hold them together as a ‘we’. This was the one thing the EU was unable to provide. It gave them an avenue into the global economy, and a route away from their home, but no new way of belonging where they arrived.

As the disappointments accumulated, it was the hope of belonging that beckoned. Where is home, and who defines it?

Global capitalism is no answer, since it merely voids the world of loyalties and puts everything, human relations included, on sale. This surely is what is legitimate in those old Leftist criticisms: that the human heart has no real place in the global economy – the heart that so many of us observed in those who fought the communist tyranny in Eastern Europe and who hoped that, when the mask of dictatorship fell at last, the smiling face of the nation would be revealed beneath it.


My view is that this situation should be seen as an opportunity and not as a crisis. After 30 years of confusion, the people of Eastern and central Europe are beginning to understand that they are heirs to two great achievements: on the one hand, the nation state as a form of social and political identity; on the other hand the Enlightenment conception of citizenship, in which each assumes the full responsibilities of social membership under a shared rule of law.

The two achievements are forced into conflict with each other, in part because the EU wishes to dampen or even destroy the national idea. But properly understood they are two sides of the same coin.

 We must recognize that, without national identity and the loyalty that stems from it, there is no way to build a society of citizens. Democracy and the rule of law are realities only if opposing sides can live with each other on terms.

The great error of the communists was to eliminate opposition, to conscript the people into a ‘unity’ that they had not chosen and were not allowed to question. The great benefit of democracy is that it makes opposition possible and also legitimate. But this has the consequence that, in a democracy, more than half the people at any moment might be living under a government that they did not choose, maybe a government that they hate.

What makes that possible? Why do democracies not break down, under the pressure of popular dissent?

The answer is simple: they don’t break down because the loyalty of the citizen is not towards the government, but towards something higher, something that is shared between all the citizens, regardless of their political beliefs and inclinations. This higher thing is the nation, the entity to which we all belong, and which defines the first-person plural of democratic politics.

Without this shared ‘we’, it is impossible for democracies to endure – and it is precisely by destroying this ‘we’ that the communists were able to retain their grip on power, ruling as a pure ‘they’ of dictatorship.


It seems to me therefore that the so-called populists are right to emphasise the nation state as the fount of loyalty, and that their enlightened liberal opponents should acknowledge this, and cease to use the European institutions as a way to punish the governments that lean in this direction.

And reciprocally those who wish to revive the national ideal, and to affirm the rights of national sovereignty, should listen to the voice of the liberal enlightenment – and accept that national sentiments must always be tempered by the recognition of others out there, who do not and cannot share them.

The need to affirm national sovereignty, and the need to conform to the universal standards of citizenship are the two great gifts of the European political inheritance. They are mutually dependent. We should stand against those who wish to prize them apart, so as to condemn one or the other of them as an offense against the people.

After all, it is the people who have most to lose from any conflict between them, and the job of the politician is not to stir up conflict but to soothe it. It is my hope that we have arrived at the point when this will be possible. Then, at last, the poison administered by the communists will have been flushed from the system.

This article is an edited version of the speech Sir Roger Scruton gave as keynote speaker at the 4th Summit of Speakers of Central and Eastern European Parliaments. And has been published in UnHerd. 

You can read a Polish translation here. 

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