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Vol 3, No 2
15 January 2001
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The Meaning of Liberalism:
East and West

Zdeněk Suda & Jiří Musil, eds
CEU Press, 2000
ISBN 9639116548

Andrea Mrozek

This book was inspired by an international seminar, "The Prospects of Liberalism in Post-1989 Europe," which was organized as part of the research and study project "German Society and Politics in the European Context," held in Prague in July 1996. Published in 1999, the book examines the state of various "isms" of post-Communist / post-Cold War Europe: socialism, nationalism, radicalism, republicanism, conservatism, communism. It purports, however, to address the fate and future of one particular "ism": liberalism.

Zdeněk Suda notes in the introduction that the book is admittedly and intentionally narrow in scope: its purpose is to compare and contrast the way in which liberals in the West and liberals in the East—meaning the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain—think about "the working of pluralist systems and the conditions of their satisfactory performance" (p 1).

The introduction provides a broad, if somewhat vague and unfocused, overview of the "socio-philosophical landscape" of Europe in the 1990s. Suda points out that there are four major currents of thought which have had to share center stage. These are liberalism, socialism (divided between democratic socialists and the "remnants" of Soviet-inspired "real" socialism), conservatism and populism.

The faithless West

Where Western liberals, Suda claims, have no faith whatsoever—only suspicion of any and all kinds of socialist theories and programs—liberals in the East tend to see some value in the theories and possibilities of certain programs, believing that it was the Soviet-style totalitarian form of socialism that was wrong. In essence, the claim is made that Western liberals are suspicious of planned intervention in the economy and society, that is, socialism, in any form at all.

Eastern liberals, on the other hand, Suda says, see things differently. Their perceptions of socialism are "shaped by the particular experience acquired by them in the course of the struggle against Communist totalitarianism. They know, better than anybody else, that the Soviet model of Communism—so-called real socialism—is economically unworkable and politically unsupportable" (p 3).

However, while the book is supposed to address the future possibilities of liberalism in the East, in comparison with the West and in the context of various other "isms," most, if not all, of these terms remain poorly defined. One might expect the introduction to offer more concrete, more nuanced definitions of these terms. Instead, it seems as though Suda was more intent on ranking liberalism.

Statements such as the following do much to betray the bias of the book:

The perspicacity of the liberals, however, has only set them further apart from all other social thinkers of our time, including those who, in the recent global conflict of ideologies, fought on the same side. (p 3)

Yet, notwithstanding the undisputed edge liberalism can count upon in this respect at present, its lasting prevalence as a universally accepted world-view is in no way guaranteed. (p 5)

Whether East or West, liberalism is best, period. The introduction lends a rather uncritical look at liberalism, on a level so specialized that it is bound to address only those already initiated into the realm of social theories in the 20th century. The book is a sermon from the believers to the converted.

After the introduction, the book is divided into three general sections: the first is called Contemporary State of Liberal Theory, the second Liberalism in the West and the third Liberalism in the East.

Social shortcomings

Robert Grant's essay on "Liberalism, Value and Social Cohesion" offers a critical view of liberalism and shows its possible shortcomings in the context of society. Grant asks what the implications of liberalism are for social cohesion. He also asks, "On what kind of freedom are people in general really prepared to stake their lives?" (p 80).

Grant considers aspects of liberalism and freedom, but more importantly, he underlines his comparisons with current examples and poses questions that put liberalism in a modern context:

Would anyone seriously go to the gallows to defend, say, the right to abort an unwanted fetus? Or to exhibit indecent works of art in public spaces? Or to insult others' religions by blasphemy? If liberals really cared for such things, they would be prepared to suffer for them, just as the anti-Communist dissidents of Eastern Europe suffered...
(p 81)

His conclusions are also critical:

There are and have been many kinds of liberal, some of them wholly admirable... But the dominant kind today is the one who airily tolerates virtually any kind of licentiousness but will not tolerate—in fact will actively persecute—what he calls 'judgmental' attitudes. (p 81)

Robert Grant's insightful perspective on liberalism does not carry over into the majority of texts in this book and represents one of the few high points. Let us take a look at some more sample essays from the book.

Liberalism in the post-Communist age

Michel Girard contributes a piece to the section Liberalism in the West called "Two Dilemmas of Liberalism: Historical Exhaustion and Internal Division in a World of Globalization." Girard's concern for the "future of the liberal enterprise" is twofold. He wonders first how the high-minded idealism of liberalism can be bridged with the nitty-gritty world of post-Communist Europe. He questions how liberalism can be both idealistic and realistic at the same time, thereby presuming that the ideal and the real are two completely separate realms. Why presume that once an ideal turns into reality, it will lose its appeal?

Second, Girard worries about the threat of "internal division" as caused by globalization; the threat of division between the "twin forms of liberalism-economic liberalism and political liberalism." Is Girard able to prove that the threat of globalization is so great? He seems to suggest that the globalization of the economy may actually be contrary to the basic principles of economic liberalism.

He writes:

Political liberalism is not and cannot be simply the homologue of economic liberalism. In fact, political liberalism is never entirely reducible to the rational behavior of free individuals, moved only by their relentless pursuit of the maximization of utility. (p 148)

Girard concludes that "economic globalization thus seems to have favored the political opponents of liberalism by reinforcing the illiberal power structures from which their opponents drew strength." (p 149)

Here, too, is an entirely theoretical argument, without a single example from today's political context. His concerns, therefore, never strike the reader as pertinent, nor as verifiable in the modern context.

The shift from Marxism

Finally, let us examine one contribution from the Liberalism in the East section. Ilja Srubar writes under the title "Neo-Liberalism, Post-Communist Transformation and Civil Society." He starts with the basic premise that one of the most important aspects of the post-Communist era has been the shift from Marxism to "neo-liberalism" (p 223). He defines this shift as that of a "transition from the dogma of planning to the dogma of the free market" (p 223).

This is another highly abstract, philosophical discussion in which the author dismisses this neo-liberalism, because it harks back to Marxism itself:

By its radical economism, its inclination to dogmatize, and its unconcerned, dismissive attitude towards concrete individual and group interests, Hayek's neo-liberalism fits without difficulty into particular patterns of the Marxist and real-socialist tradition. (p 227)

Unanswered questions

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What, finally, will a reader gain from this book? What can she learn about the post-Communist era, in the East or the West? Where do the comparisons between East and West lie? How do, or should, the individual countries attempt to liberalise their economies? How should they move from Communism to democracy?

This book fails to address any of the above questions. The discussion remains so entirely theoretical that the non-specialist may not read past the introduction. Each essay is disconnected from the last, and, ultimately, the book is disconnected from the real political world of liberalism in either the East or the West today.

The claims made in the introduction of liberalism victorious are not upheld by the present-day political situation (see Kai-Olaf Lang's article "Falling Down" on the decline of Central European liberalism in CER, August 2000); the reader wonders why. And after reading this book, readers will continue to wonder.

"A Liberal is someone who fails to take his own side in an argument." (p 55) Unkind but true words from John Crowley, writing in his essay "Liberal Values, Liberal Guilt and the Distaste for Politics." This book upholds that old adage.

Suda and Musil might have been better off getting a conservative, a socialist, a romantic or any of the other adherents of "isms" to put together this collection for them.

Andrea Mrozek, 15 January 2001

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Nuclear Neighbourhood

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Lenin: A Biography

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The Meaning of Liberalism

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Hungarian Oil Scandal

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After the Rain

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Germany: Playful Politicians

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Mixed Nuts

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