Illiberalism’s True Colors

Nineteen-fifty-six—when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary—was, according to the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the year “British communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.” If 2016 did not constitute such a year for conservatives in the West, then perhaps 2022—when Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine—will, at least for those who claim the mantle of nationalist populism

The Soviet invasion of Hungary split the Left. After 1956, many Marxists in the West realized they could no longer support or even remain ambivalent about the Soviet Union, prompting them to rethink or abandon their political commitments. Like the Marxist Left in 1956, the nationalist-populist Right today is being fractured by the imperialist actions of an illiberal Russia. Once again, the stakes of the debate over the fate of the western liberal order have been brought into sharp relief by the bloody reality of its alternative. Will the New Right, like the Old Left, emerge chastened and transformed as a result?

The Left’s nervous breakdown began in February 1956, with Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the speech, titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” Khrushchev revealed to the world many of the Stalin regime’s crimes. But Soviet Russia’s crimes would not end with Stalin: Before the year’s end, Khrushchev himself would order tanks into Hungary to suppress the Budapest uprising—described by the Communist Party as a “fascist counter-revolution.” In fact, it was a student-led workers’ rebellion against Hungary’s Soviet government.

Much like Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022—also based on false accusations of “fascism”—the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 was predicated on a strategic miscalculation. Soviet troops “expected a police action,” as Hobsbawm puts it, but instead “found themselves faced with a revolution, which quickly spread from Budapest to the rest of the country.” Rather than giving way to a superior military power, “brave and ingenious urban guerrillas succeeded in fighting to a standstill Soviet troops,” before being ruthlessly suppressed by another onslaught of Soviet troops in early November.

The invasion—which killed thousands of Hungarians and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee the country—compelled the Soviet Union’s western apologists to come to grips with the imperialist ambitions of this totalitarian regime. Besides its geopolitical consequences, the events of fall 1956 fractured and ultimately transformed not just the British communist party but the politics of the Left in the West more generally.

Of course, there was ample evidence prior to 1956 that the Soviet Union was not, in fact, ushering in a socialist utopia but was instead a brutally repressive and hierarchical regime with expansionary ambitions—from the Moscow Trials to the labor camps to the Great Purge to the Nazi-Soviet Pact. And there were left-wing and even some communist critics of the Soviet Union before the Hungarian Revolution as well.

Most famous, perhaps, were the Trotskyists—followers of the exiled Leon Trotsky, who criticized Stalin’s “bureaucratic collectivism” as a betrayal of the Revolution. There were also the “Western Marxists,” from the Frankfurt School theorists in Germany to the radicals associated with Socialisme ou barbarie in France, who rejected Leninism, Stalinism, and the economic determinism of so-called “vulgar marxism.” And there were a variety of leftists who rejected not only Soviet-style communism but also Marxism tout court.

Prior to 1956, however, a number of prominent left-wing intellectuals in the West, from Jean-Paul Sartre to E.P. Thompson to Hobsbawm himself, still evinced an ambivalent, if not outright positive, attitude toward Soviet Russia. They were, to use a vernacular formulation, if not pro-Soviet Union, then at least anti-anti-Soviet Union. Some, like Sartre’s former friend and collaborator, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, had abandoned ship earlier in the decade. Others, like Hobsbawm himself, would cling to a delusional belief that Soviet Russia was somehow the torchbearer of their utopian aspirations up until 1968, when the USSR led an invasion into Czechoslovakia to squelch another uprising during the Prague Spring.

For many, however, it was the events of Fall 1956 that represented, so to speak, a time for choosing. Faced with the bloody reality of Soviet aggression against a proletarian uprising, the sins of the West could no longer be used to rationalize passive approval of totalitarian communism. Left-wing critiques of the neo-imperialism of western liberalism “rang hollow when the Red Army was mowing down Hungarian workers.” It was worse than moral equivalence. As Hobsbawm would later admit, “Hungary was, in some way, the betrayal of everything we’d actively believed in.”

The ranks of the anti-Soviet and anti-communist Left swelled in the months and years that followed, with some becoming Trotskyites, others “post-Marxists,” and still others social democrats, with some defecting entirely to liberalism. For those who remained on the radical left—rather than embracing the reformism of social or liberal democracy—it was no longer sufficient to stand athwart capitalism or to reject right-wing authoritarianism. It became necessary to define oneself in opposition to, and guard against, a totalitarianism from the Left as well.

Thus, although the Hungarian Revolution was by no means the sole or determining cause, it was nevertheless an important and symbolic factor in the political realignment that culminated in the creation of the New Left in the 1960s and 70s. It is no coincidence that “micro-strategies,” “local deconstructions,” and “localized narratives” became watchwords of the new movements for social change, over against a more old-fashioned emphasis on class conflict and universal history. The latter ideas were increasingly associated with an untenable economic determinism and the “totalizing” if not totalitarian inheritances of the Enlightenment’s failed “grand narratives.”

Where an older generation of leftists looked to central planning, disinterested expertise, and the collectivization of economic forces in the struggle against the capitalists, a new generation saw bureaucracy and technocracy as equally oppressive expressions of the same totalitarian logic. What was needed in response was “participatory democracy,” not the dictatorship of the proletariat. Whatever one makes of these intellectual and political developments, they are clearly distinct from traditional Marxism in general and Soviet communism in particular.

As the Left made its postmodern turn away from classical Marxist concepts such as “ideology” and “class consciousness,” it became increasingly interested in culture—turning instead to “alternative lifestyles,” “sexual liberation,” and “self-realization” as “strategies of resistance.” This, too, can be understood as continuous with and a development of the political disillusionment exacerbated, if not precipitated, by the events of 1956. To this extent, at least, the New Left agreed with the Cold War liberals who announced the “end of ideology”—with the exhaustion of the totalizing worldview provided by Soviet communism.

Since 2016, many of those affiliated with “post-liberalism,” “national conservatism,” and “the New Right” have come to believe that the Right’s association with liberalism was a Faustian bargain.

Daniel Bell, whose book The End of Ideology popularized this thesis, warned of what might come next. He discerned the emergence of a new set of “mass ideologies,” which, unlike the totalizing ideologies that shaped the 20th century, would not be driven by abstract, universal ideals. Instead, they would be “parochial, instrumental and created by political leaders” motivated by “economic development and national power.” And he feared that the “fusion of passion and ideology, of blood and race, that we saw first in the ‘reactionary modernism’ of the National Socialist regime” would “now reappear in the new spasms of rage throughout the world.”

The emergence of nationalism across the globe since the end of the Cold War would seem to confirm Bell’s predictions. And Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, spurred by the neo-imperialist ambitions of an authoritarian nationalist, may vindicate his fears. Thus do nationalist populists in the West, in a tragic echo of history, find themselves in a position today strikingly analogous to that of the western communists in 1956, faced with a real and bloody alternative to the liberalism they deplore.

Conservatives in the West have always had an ambivalent relationship with liberalism, seeking a balance between rights and responsibilities, individualism and community, tradition and progress. During the Cold War, however, this precarious balance was stabilized by a common enemy, Soviet communism, in contrast to which political and economic liberalism appealed even to those traditionalists who might otherwise be wary of liberalism’s underlying principles. Yet, with the exhaustion of Cold War ideologies, and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the fissures within this “fusionist” agenda became apparent once again. 

Since 2016, many of those affiliated with “post-liberalism,” “national conservatism,” and “the New Right” have come to believe that the Right’s association with liberalism was a Faustian bargain. Liberalism, on this telling, is a totalizing force that, in its inexorable expansion outwards, erodes community and tradition, leaving a hollowed-out polity of atomized individuals bound together by nothing but procedural norms that masquerade as morally neutral. Traditional conservative principles such as prudence, moderation, and devolved authority are no match against this Leviathan, so that strength, national identity, and even centralized, federal action come to be seen as necessary bulwarks against liberalism, Left or Right. 

In this context, it is no surprise that some politicians, pundits, and intellectuals affiliated with the New Right have come to see such nationalist strong men as Viktor Orban or even Vladimir Putin as fellow travelers. They applaud these leaders’ willingness to “stand up” against the moral perversities of liberalism—Orban champions what he calls “illiberal democracy”—and unabashedly defend their countries’ own national interests against the liberal cosmopolitanism they see embodied in the European Union and NATO. Thus, in the days and hours leading up to the Ukrainian invasion, Steve Bannon praised Putin for being “anti-woke,” while Tucker Carlson opined that Putin posed no threat to Americans and characterized the tensions between Russia and Ukraine as a “border dispute.” 

It is not that nationalist populists have failed to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Politicians and pundits, from Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini in Italy, Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen in France, to Tucker Carlson himself, have condemned the violence against Ukraine. Even Orban has cast his lot with the European Union as against his erstwhile ally. And some have since tried, albeit rather awkwardly, to modify or recast their ‘anti-anti-Putin’ stance. Meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine has thrown nationalist-populist critiques of liberal tyranny (not to mention apologias for Putin) into a very different light. 

Put simply, these critiques—much like the communists’ critiques of liberal imperialism after November 1956—ring hollow while the Russian military is mowing down Ukrainian civilians. That is of course not to say that western liberalism is now (or was in 1956) immune to criticism. But recent events in Eastern Europe vitiate the sophism that the decadence of the West somehow precludes defending liberalism, especially when faced with the moral atrocities committed by illiberal regimes. This was a point made powerfully several decades ago by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski—another disillusioned Marxist who became one of the most eloquent critics of Soviet communism.

In his 1986 Jefferson lecture, “The Idolatry of Politics,” Kolakowski dismissed as a fiction the liberal belief that liberal democracies are “value neutral.” Liberalism is not, he pointed out, “‘neutral’ in matters concerning basic values,” such as freedom and tolerance. And he criticized what he called the “suicidal” and “self-degrading movement[s] of the Enlightenment.” In particular, he warned of the dangers of relativism, of the potential for “personal rights”—and especially property rights—to undermine distributive justice, and of a naive faith in the progress of civilizations. So far, so “post-liberal.” Yet, Kolakowski went on to point out that,

However distasteful our civilization might be in some of its vulgar aspects, however enfeebled by its hedonistic indifference, greed, and the decline of civic virtues, however torn by struggles and teeming with social ills, the most powerful reason for its unconditional defense (and I am ready to emphasize this adjective) is provided by its alternative.

Much like the Left after World War II, the Right has spent the last few years—quite understandably—preoccupied with the ills, excesses, limits, and pathologies of the liberal world order. Some have gone so far as to denounce liberalism as such, as irredeemably individualistic, materialistic, relativistic, or tyrannical. Meanwhile, history has served up another bloody alternative to that world order from the East —and with it, another powerful reason for defending the liberalism of the West.