Accessibility links

Political Philosophy And The Revolutions Of '89: An Interview With Professor Anthony O'Hear


"Hardly any political scientists or philosophers predicted the fall of communism," O'Hear says. "Yet it collapsed into dust over a few weeks...None of the so-called experts foresaw it."

"Hardly any political scientists or philosophers predicted the fall of communism," O'Hear says. "Yet it collapsed into dust over a few weeks...None of the so-called experts foresaw it."

Anthony O'Hear is editor of the journal "Philosophy," published by the Royal Institute of Philosophy in Britain, and professor of philosophy at the University of Buckingham. He recently participated in a conference on philosophical questions in Prague. RFE/RL's Executive Editor John O'Sullivan took the opportunity to question O'Hear about the impact of the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 on philosophy and political philosophy.

RFE/RL: Hegel's philosophy was greatly influenced, I understand, by the emergence of Napoleon as a world historical figure. Have the events of 1989 had any comparable effect on philosophy in the last 20 years?

Anthony O'Hear:
I'm sorry to say that in the philosophical world I inhabit -- broadly the Anglo-American analytical philosophical tradition -- this great event of 1989 has passed more or less unnoticed, even though it is surely a world-historical event in Hegelian terms. This is perhaps because the underlying presumption of most Western political philosophers is that some form of egalitarianism is the ideal position in politics.

This is not exactly Marxism, but it presumes that what you have to do in political philosophy is to finesse egalitarianism so as to allow people as much liberty as possible. And my view is that this approach bears so little relation to any reality – political or human – that in a way they did not really notice what was going on in the Soviet bloc and so they were untroubled by its disappearance.

Anthony O'Hear
RFE/RL: But surely other schools of philosophy had to pay attention because the regimes that collapsed in 1989 were explicitly founded upon the philosophy of Marxism. Has not that had an impact on Marxist thinking?

O'Hear:
Yes, I think it has had an impact on Marxist thinking, but less so in Eastern Europe than in the West. From my visits to Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet Union, my impression was that although diamat [dialectical materialism] was taught everywhere as a compulsory topic and formed obviously part of any philosophical program, nobody actually believed in it there.

RFE/RL: Are there still citadels of Marxist belief in the West?

O'Hear:
There are certainly philosophers who were sympathetic to Marxism and probably still are. Today, however, most of them would not go along with the centralization that it implies and probably they would be much less certain about any idea of historical predictability. That said, their basic intuition that some form of progressive egalitarianism is the ideal toward which we should be working clearly overlaps with Marxism.

RFE/RL: Where does that leave words like conservatism, liberalism, socialism? Surely, they must have a meaning very different from that they possessed in 1970 when there still was a functioning communist world.

O'Hear:
Certainly that clear contrast between liberal capitalism and "really existing socialism" no longer exists. The Cold War has finished. We don't see ourselves fighting an enemy of that sort. What has happened in Western politics as a result – in Europe and Britain, anyway – has been a coalescing towards a middle ground.

We hear a lot of phrases such as the third way and compassionate conservatism. Most politicians with a chance of being elected try to get the benefits both of socialism in the sense of state welfare-ism and of the free market. They don’t realize that there may be contradictions and tensions between these various positions. Voters have only a choice between slightly different ways of finessing these rather unsatisfactory compromises.

What's rather disappointing about politics in the West is that there isn't really a genuinely socialist position on the table nor, equally, a position that would be within the classical, liberal free-market conservative tradition. In Britain, for instance, the Conservative Party is as explicitly committed to state health and education and welfare provision as its opponent, the Labour Party. They just promise to do it a bit differently.

RFE/RL: But doesn’t this broad ideological consensus between the parties make government more efficient and less disruptive?

O’Hear:
Quite the contrary. The absence of real debate makes sensible reform very difficult. The state education system, which I know quite a lot about, is almost a total failure. Yet almost no politician is really prepared to say that. What should happen is that parents should be given control over their children's education by some such device as educational vouchers they could “"spend" in the school of their choice.

I say that from the standpoint of a conservative or classical liberal who believes that children are not the property of the state. Maybe it has a duty to see that they are educated but nothing much more than that. Socialists and social democrats will disagree. But the point is that because no one does disagree or debate the virtues of different reforms, the educational system continues its slow decay.

One of the problems which exists in liberal democracy in the West -- and I am becoming more and more convinced of this -- is that they lack something vital, indeed, to return to your first question, something philosophical.
RFE/RL: But surely this situation -- different parties effectively pursuing the same policies but rhetorically exaggerating their differences -- has to be a temporary state of affairs. After all, politics is an arena of conflict -- conflict of ideas as well as of interest groups. Skeptical of predictions though you may be, what future divisions do you see emerging in European politics?

O'Hear:
Most voters seem to me to be pretty fed up with the inefficiencies of state provision, particularly in health and education, and also with the amount of pettifogging regulation that goes on. Socialism has gone from Europe only in the sense that the state does not own the big industries anymore. But it regulates everything to death; the European Union is the regulator par excellence.

Ordinary people may not have the means or the intellectual equipment to articulate this, but as things get worse -- and they are getting worse -- that will eventually produce a situation in which voters listen to genuine alternatives.

RFE/RL: It seems to me that you are saying that the idea of liberal democracy is running out of steam, at least in its European homeland. So what prospect do you see for it being successfully spread to other parts of the world? And what would you say to those democrats who live under authoritarian governments?

O'Hear:
I would say some very simple but powerful things. First, even given the criticisms I have just made of Western Europe, people there are freer, more prosperous, probably even happier than under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. They lead better lives than under the alternative regimes where people are suffering all kinds of oppression and hardship and poverty.

Second, I would advise them -- if I may be so presumptuous as to advise people in much more difficult situations than me -- to think carefully about the underlying principles of Western democracy. This rests on assumptions about individuals being free but also responsible for their own lives.

Third, if freedom, responsibility, and thus democracy are to flourish, there have to be as many independent institutions as possible -- institutions autonomous from the state, producing separate focuses of power, separate ideals, and separate allegiances, not necessarily conflicting with the state but at least balancing the tendency of the state to take over everything.

Today, institutions like the law, the army, cultural institutions, professional bodies, even sport, are almost totally nationalized. They are not really independent or autonomous institutions. So I would suggest attempts to build up a sense of autonomous institutions and allegiance to them.

RFE/RL: Let us assume that you see the restoration of these independent institutions and a recovery of the spirit of liberal democracy within Europe. We then have to ask: What is the future of liberal democracy in the world? Twenty years ago, Francis Fukuyama suggested that liberal democracy no longer had an ideological competitor. All countries would gradually become liberal democracies. World history in the sense of great clashes of rival ideological systems had come to an end. That hasn't happened -- at least yet. Do you see it happening? Or do you see the emergence of a rival ideology to liberal democracy, playing the role that Marxism once played?

O’Hear:
Although Fukuyama's book was a very interesting one, I think he displayed a poverty of imagination in it in two respects.

First, large-scale predictions made by philosophers or commentators are very unlikely to be true because -- and this is a hopeful thing -- human beings are free even when they are oppressed, perhaps especially when they are oppressed. They will always seek alternatives and they will always defy predictions.

Just to go back to 1989. Hardly any political scientists or philosophers predicted the fall of communism. It certainly looked impermeable when I visited the Eastern bloc. Even people there thought it was going to last a very, very long time. Yet it collapsed into dust over a few weeks. It was an amazing event that shows one of the pitfalls of political science and philosophy: None of the so-called experts foresaw it. And those who did, like President [Ronald] Reagan, [British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, and Pope John Paul were generally reviled by experts and academics.

Second, to go back to Fukuyama’s poverty of imagination, he did not even seem to notice that there had been an Islamic Revolution in Tehran, nor therefore the rise of Islam as a radical force. This is today a big alternative to liberal democracy, one which is infiltrating the Western bastions of liberal democracy via immigration.

We now hear extraordinary predictions, such as that in a few years Rotterdam will be half Muslim. I don’t know if this is true, and whether or not it is a good or bad thing. If it is true, however, it will certainly change the character of Holland. Furthermore, within these groups are people not committed to the forms of life of Western democracy. People are perhaps beginning to wake up to that.

RFE/RL: Why should this be such a problem? In the past, societies such as France and Britain had little difficulty in assimilating immigrants and turning them and their children into Frenchmen, Englishmen, etc. What has changed?

O’Hear:
These societies have changed. One of the problems which exists in liberal democracy in the West -- and I am becoming more and more convinced of this -- is that they lack something vital, indeed, to return to your first question, something philosophical.

For a very healthy society you need more than just a political ideal. Liberal democracy in its origins was always underpinned by Christianity, and in particular by a Christian sense of the transcendent dignity of the individual. We're not equal in any other respect except before God -- and we are all precious for God even if we are not precious for anybody else.

This kind of underlying idea is really necessary to provide the context in which liberal democratic ideals can flourish. So I would hope for a revival of something like Christian practice.

RFE/RL: Suppose, however, that this revival does not occur and that the tendencies we see at the moment in European democracy continue. Let me put one more political word on the table for your final reflections -- namely, bureaucracy. Won’t bureaucracy then replace liberal democracy of the active, self-reliant kind that you favor?

O’Hear:
Bureaucracy, yes, and decadence. One of the more alarming predictions made by the Christian novelist and apologist C.S. Lewis -- a prediction that people of other religions would probably endorse -- concerned what would happen when what he called "men without chests" appeared, i.e. men without any kind of moral or religious fervor.

My own view is that what would happen -- rather, what is happening -- is that people might be content materially but they would live without ideals, except perhaps for a little hand-waving in the direction of ecology. Into this kind of emptiness, their desire for comfort would really be all that is left, all that preoccupied them. And as you have said, that would invite in an ever-increasing bureaucracy to provide their wants and to preside over them.

De Tocqueville warned us many years ago against this. It would be a benign despotism, but a despotism nonetheless.

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG