Can Europe learn from communism?

by ROGER SCRUTON

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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.

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