Reviews Conservative national narratives in Poland, Russia and Hungary. “We are the norm!”

New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe. Eds. Katharina Bluhm and Mihai Varga (London: Routledge, 2019), 309 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:3 pp 76-80
Published on on October 25, 2021

No Comments on Conservative national narratives in Poland, Russia and Hungary. Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

With conservatism and nationalism growing in popularity across the globe, explanations for authoritarian developments in Central and Eastern Europe which rely on the region’s exceptionalism – the anti-democratic after-effects of socialism or a supposedly greater susceptibility to ethnic conflicts – appear less plausible. This situation may prompt students of the region to engage more directly with those social and political processes as well as ideologies that have accompanied the rise of authoritarian practices in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, scholars of authoritarianism and populism might be well-advised to engage with the Russian and East Central European experience as a lens to make sense of similar developments elsewhere. This may engender a more profound understanding of the ideological texture and the economic strongholds of the transnational authoritarian right.
The anthology New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe makes for an important stepping stone in this direction. It’s main strength lies in its combination of general political sociology with a sensitivity to local specificities that comes with an area studies approach. As such, it stresses the differences between conservative politics in Poland, Russia and Hungary. Conservative national narratives in the three countries diverge significantly in their framing of the socialist past and fascism during the 1930s and 40s. Moreover, the countries’ national economies are positioned very differently in terms of their transnational influence and key industries. These differences notwithstanding, the anthology’s umbrella focus on post-socialist states in Eastern and Central Europe is justified: In all three cases, the “new conservatives” derive their legitimacy from a widespread and profound disenchantment with the consequences of the post-1989 economic and social transformation (p. 2). Moreover, in all three cases, conservatives have responded to this disenchantment by replacing political liberalism (not capitalism) with authoritarian nationalism. In contrast to the international orientation of socialist and liberal ideologies, “new conservatives” preach the importance of preserving the supposedly unique national traditions and authentic national character of the constitutive people. The new conservatives regard such emphasis on “one’s own” national unique selling proposition as a means of strengthening the national economy in the face of global capitalist competition. The new conservatives’ turn towards nationalism and authoritarianism is therefore is not to be understood as a backlash against global capitalist competition, but as a novel way to frame this competition before the eyes of the world and the electorate as a “special path of development”.

The most pronounced insistence on a special path of development can be found in Russia. Already in the early 2000s, this trope became central to government policy through the euphemism of an economically, culturally and politically “sovereign democracy”. As Katharina Bluhm points out in her contribution, new conservatives in Russia portray all those who stand up for personal freedoms, equal rights, or environmental protection as enemies of this “sovereign democracy”. They interpret such commitment to liberal values, human rights and equality as a deviation from an alleged true human nature and a social order that would organically correspond to it. Against this backdrop, they attempt, among other things, to control women’s reproductive decisions and reinforce a binary view of sex and gender (p. 45). They refer to declining birth rates among “ethnic Russians” and those ethnic groups that have traditionally settled on the territory of the Russian empire and its successors, to underscore the urgency of a special Russian path that safeguards the nation, understood as a cultural and biological entity.
In her contribution, Ewa Dąbrowska impressively shows a similar tendency for the new conservative discourse in Poland. New conservatives claim that the Polish economy and society are in need of moral renewal. The 1990s are portrayed by the governing party PiS (“Law and Justice”) as a time of decline. In the light of this apparent decline, Polish new conservatives seek to modernize the economy according to what they call a genuine Polish-Christian benchmark. They portray Poland in analogy to a person, a subject that must regain its own personality (podmiotowość) and agency (sprawczość) in the world (p. 105).
Alongside Ewa Dąbrowska, Aron Buzogány and Mihai Varga elaborate on how new conservatives seek to morally justify economic concepts in relation to the common national good. In their contribution on Hungary, they show how the politics of the ruling party Fidesz seek to establish a moral state, based on traditional and authoritarian values. Such a “moral state” is not only supposed to strengthen Hungary’s national economy, but also to overcome the “immoral” heritage of socialism and liberalism (p. 81—82). Hungarian new conservatives refer back to the anti-modernism of Western conservative intellectuals such as Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt to normatively bolster their idea of a moral Hungarian state. Interestingly, while they support the course of Viktor Orbán — to revive Hungarians’ “Eastern roots” and counteract those cosmopolitan values allegedly damaging Hungary during both the communist and the postcommunist liberal democratic history of the country — they do not even come up with an “Eastern imprint” on these basically Western ideational foundations (p. 85).

However, another inherent contradiction of Orbán’s rule seems to be missing from the analysis. While the authors highlight Hungarian new conservatives’ critique of neoliberal market-orientation, which has allegedly served mainly foreign business interests and damaged the Hungarian national interest, they do not mention that despite such criticisms — which were central to Orbán’s election campaign — the government has continued to implement neoliberal policies. As Ágnes Gagyi and Tamás Geröcs show in an LeftEast article, published on January 1, 2019, while Orbán used anti-neoliberal rhetoric to come to power, many of his economic policies did not break with neoliberalism. Evidence can be found in the government’s tax policies — only a 3.6 % tax rate is effectively paid by the largest manufacturers in Hungary (mostly German companies) while a universal income tax of 15% is paid by employees. Even more drastically, labor policies such as the Overtime
Act, better known as the “Slave Law”, which requires employees to work 400 hours overtime
per year if their employers demand it so and wait for their payments up to three years, testify to continued flexibilization and deregulation rather than to the proclaimed break with neoliberalism. It seems that as Irina Busygina and Mikhail Filippov show for Russian new conservatives in this volume, “‘conservatives in power’ (that is, in government) will continue to use conservative ideas for politics, while at the same time promoting liberal economic policies” (p. 173).

In all three countries discussed in the volume, the new conservatives focus their attention on the alleged and real dependency of their respective national economy on a dominant economic center. In this respect, their debates recall the Wallersteinian distinction between dominated peripheries and a hegemonic economic center. Their critique of liberalism thus often displays a counter-hegemonic style. Moreover, new conservatives in all three countries criticize liberalism as a dangerous political ideology, including liberal freedoms. Liberalism’s underlying values are portrayed as endangering both their countries’ national economy and alleged national uniqueness. When new conservatives advocate for a strong, authoritarian state, they do so also, as Bluhm and Varga rightly point out in the conclusion, to strengthen the national economy in international capitalist competition (p. 283). The demand for an authoritarian state is thus also to be understood as an economic policy aiming to strengthen the local economy vis-à-vis dominant economic centers and global corporations. At the same time, a strong state is supposed to safeguard the uniqueness of “the nation”. Preserving national uniqueness is so central to new conservatives because they regard this uniqueness as being threatened by the aim of economic development. The demand for a strong state is connected with a revival of “national traditions” (p. 281).
Thus, new conservatives in all three countries promote an allegedly idiosyncratic and “sovereign” national development in opposition to the supposed erasure of national uniqueness through universal liberalism and Western-led globalization. For this purpose, they use neocolonial expressions to highlight both their genuine concern for an allegedly threatened national sovereignty and their declared readiness to defend it (p. 2). They frame this alleged foreign threat to national sovereignty not only in economic and power political terms, but also as a moral emergency: The authoritarian state is portrayed as having the moral task of preserving the constitutive people’s ethnic composition, the traditional gender binary and sexual morals, if national sovereignty is to be successfully defended. The theme of a struggle for national liberation against a liberal, neocolonial economic and value system runs through new conservative discourses in all three countries, as the volume’s contributors show. Against this backdrop, establishing a strong authoritarian government appears to be a necessary national act of resistance against dubious anti-national efforts. Regardless of whether opposition members at home or competing economies are suspected of being “behind” such efforts: An authoritarian state is supposed to prevent “its nation” from disappearing from the world’s cultural and economic map.
What is the added value of uniting the contributions of this volume under the concept of a “new conservatism”? Concretely, the editors follow Karl Mannheim’s influential conceptualization of conservatism as a “reflexive political ideology”, i.e. as the product of purposeful intellectual work (p. 10). It follows from this that new conservatism is more than a “style of thought”. It is, as the editors argue, a countermovement to liberalism that has a social basis. As such, new conservatism rests on identifiable “knowledge networks” that attempt to reinterpret liberalism. For instance, new conservative knowledge networks portray the postsocialist 1990s as a period of both economic and moral decline.

Compared to existing analyses of what could be called the region’s anti-liberal turn or democratic backsliding, the volume’s approach has several advantages. The framework of new conservatism reveals the narrative that is shared by new conservative protagonists in all three countries. According to this narrative, social change is only justified if it restores a supposedly “natural order” (p. 11) which is imagined as being enshrined in a country’s traditional national character. The chosen approach thereby makes it easier to detect the transnational dimension of new conservatism within Central and Eastern Europe. However, it also enables researchers to trace political networks across continents. An apt example of such a trans-continental network is the World Congress of Families, where US-based evangelicals meet with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. A conceptualization centering on nationalisms and nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe would obscure this international dimension of the phenomenon. New conservatives pursue a decidedly international agenda.
Second, the editors’ approach helps to distinguish between new conservative ideology production, government policies and new conservative mobilizations. This distinction is crucial, because new conservatism should not be equated with the authoritarian practices pursued by the Polish, Hungarian and Russian governments. The second part of the volume examines such “translations” of new conservative thought into social and economic policy agendas. It shows that new conservative agendas are usually more radical than the government policies they ultimately shape. The approach taken here avoids the common pitfall of overestimating both the power of individual new conservative ideologists and that of authoritarian leaders who seem to be infatuated with new conservative agendas. The contributions show that they seldom succeed in actually producing the political outcomes they wish for on the drawing board or in public speeches. Concrete government policies often feature only a watered-down variant of new conservative programs. This may be connected with the fact that longstanding liberal economic beliefs among government advisers — as Irina Busygina and Mikhail Filippov show — often make it difficult for new conservatives to shape their government’s economic policies.

Importantly, this second part highlights the unintended consequences of new conservative and neotraditional agendas as well as the — often economically motivated — limits to their implementation on the federal and local level. Anthropologist Tobias Köllner’s contribution stands out here. It shows how even citizen initiatives may demand a more radical new conservative politics than actors close to the state and local government. His contribution discusses a local protest against the construction of a pharmaceutical plant in the pilgrimage town of Bogoliubovo (in Vladimir Oblast, Russia). The plant was designed to produce toiletry products — and condoms. Astonishingly, the protests against the production of condoms in Bogoliubovo (the city name translates as god-loving), which were mainly organized by local Orthodox activists, were not supported by the responsible eparchy. The latter did not want to interfere in economic decisions (p. 249). Here again, readers are cautioned not to overestimate the degree to which new conservative actors influence outcomes. When matters of economic development and growth appear to be at stake, new conservative actors closer to government organs may pursue a less radical agenda so as not to provoke government and business officials — who often work closely together or pursue both careers at the same time.
Thirdly, in connection with the previous point, the volume underlines the importance of shifting the focus of analysis to new conservative institutions and actors beyond government. Central institutions of new conservative ideology production such as think tanks, foundations, clubs, civil society actors, and media outlets become the object of analysis. This approach also helps to distinguish between different new conservative factions. In particular, the first part of the volume, which traces the “genealogies” of new conservative thought, highlights the lines of division between different actor coalitions. The focus on “new conservatism” makes it possible to study the current rise of authoritarian practices in Eastern and Central Europe as a political program that seeks to create a new order. In that respect, it offers one way to overcome the tendency to explain authoritarian developments by collecting evidence of democratic deficits. By analyzing the agendas and visions of new conservatives, the volume may not explain, but certainly suggests which political utopias motivate think tanks and government advisers in this region and beyond. Katharina Bluhm’s contribution to this first part of the volume reconstructs the visions that new conservative actors have of Russia and the world. She positions herself strongly against the tendency to treat the work of ideology producers as a mere “façade”, created to conceal “real” power-political ambitions. She argues that we should take conceptual ideologists’ proposals for societal transformation seriously (p. 46) — even though their translation into policy programs entails adaptations to apparently and actually existing socio-economic realities.
One might object that the term “conservatism” downplays the authoritarian and nationalistic character of the aims pursued by self-proclaimed new conservatives. While conservative leaders of liberal democracies, such as Konrad Adenauer or Margaret Thatcher, sometimes serve as examples for conservative political modernization agendas in the region, it is crucial to be aware that conservatism as a school of thought and a political movement is rooted in the Counter-Enlightenment. Thus, when new conservatives place the collective right to national self-determination above personal freedoms and human rights, they continue an anti-democratic line of conservative tradition that places national belonging and deeds for the nation above individual human rights and individual integrity. As the well-known thinker of the Counter-Enlightenment Joseph de Maistre wrote in 1797:

The Constitution of 1795, just like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In the course of my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians etc.; I know, too, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never met him in my life; if he exists, he is unknown to me.

It is precisely from this tradition, rejecting the reality of a pre-national human being, that the new conservatives take their cue.
One aspect which is neglected by the volume reviewed here is the centrality of patriarchal rule for new conservatism. While several contributions discuss misogyny as an intrinsic component of new conservative thought, above all Agnieszka Wierzcholska’s engaging chapter on the Polish gender and abortion debate, the volume omits to theorize the gender dimension of new conservative ideology. It remains unclear to what extent both conservatism in its general form and in its specific new manifestations in contemporary Poland, Hungary, and Russia depends on and reproduces a gender order that is hostile to women. While the volume intelligently discusses how new conservatives paint a picture of crisis, including a crisis of the nation, of the family, and of the population (p. 229), a thorough theoretical incorporation of this gender dimension into the concept of new conservatism, as elaborated and used by the contributors and editors, would have been useful. If more attention had been paid to conservatism’s gender dimension, this might also have facilitated a discussion of the central role played by folkish frames in new conservative agendas. To give an example, in all three cases new conservatives portray immigration as a threat to the ethnic composition of the constitutive people. This also applies to Russia, where advocacy for a multiethnic state and people is accompanied by severe restrictions on immigration (p. 288). All new conservatives deem women to be responsible for securing the survival of the nation’s constitutive people, whether defined in multiethnic or in ethnically homogeneous terms. To be sure, this is not a regional specificity. Many branches of conservatism promote the subordination of reproductive freedoms to the apparent needs of the people and the fatherland.
The analyses in this volume, discussing new conservatism in its Polish, Hungarian and Russian varieties, are crucial for a better understanding of the global rise of authoritarian and nationalistic practices and politics. New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe makes for a compelling read not only for area studies scholars, but also for students of political science, sociology and gender studies. They might profit from seeing authoritarian developments elsewhere through Russian and East Central European eyes. ≈


1 Olga Malinova, Konstruirovanie smyslov. Issledovanie
simvolicheskoi politiki v sovremennoi Rossii (Moscow:
INION RAN, 2013), 181.
2 Cited and translated by: Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked
Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas.
Second Edition, (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2013), 104.


  • by Anna Schwenck

    Cultural sociologist in the Collaborative Research Center “Transformations of the Popular” at Siegen University. Her postdoc project deals with the nexus between popular music, populism and political violence in Germany and South Africa. Drawing on the results of her PhD, she is about to complete a book on Russia‘s flexible authoritarian regime and its legitimacy among promising youth from the provinces.

  • all contributors

New Conservatives in Russia and East Central Europe. Eds. Katharina Bluhm and Mihai Varga (London: Routledge, 2019), 309 pages.