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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert


31 October, 2000 - 00:00

I recently held a small debate with a young national democratic leader, during which he expressed a conviction that struck me deeply. To be exact, he generalized the idea that I am wrong in the following words, “And, in general, liberalism has long been in a deep crisis.”

Much to my regret, I must immediately accept this fact.

Liberalism is declining not only in Ukraine but also in the Western world. The era of liberalism ended immediately after the First World War: it is in fact at that time that the Liberal Party of Britain, the country of classical liberalism, gave way to socialist Labor as the main rival of the Conservatives. In Europe, the parties which directly appeal to liberal political values, can only hope for third roles. It must be admitted, however, that their votes can be decisive under conditions of an unstable balance. For example, this is the case of the Free Democratic Party of Germany: backed by a small intellectual and middle-class electorate, it nonetheless decided the outcome of more than one round of the struggle between the CDU-CSU and the Social Democrats. By this realistic reminder, I would like to remind Ukrainian politicians with liberal ambitions that their choice will mean refusal to form a mass party. In this country, too, the liberal idea will not find mass support today.


However, before comparing our domestic, to put it mildly, very unique prospects with European reality, let us do credit to the undeservedly forgotten traditions of Ukrainian liberalism. By virtue of the cruel and irreconcilable relations in Russian imperial politics, the word “liberal” sounded derisive: liberals were hated by both monarchists and revolutionaries. Nobody mocked at the liberals more wittily than Saltykov-Shchedrin, himself more liberal than revolutionary, and the many generations of Soviet people inherited from their school days contempt for “flabby and rotten liberalism.” Incidentally, these two epithets were equally applied to the intelligentsia, which makes us raise a question of whether we are also throwing away intellect and good manners together with liberalism.

In the Ukrainian political tradition, liberalism is represented by such names as Mykhailo Drahomanov, Maksym Kovalevsky (both of them led the all-Russian Empire liberal opposition in exile), Bohdan Kistiakivsky, Mykhailo Tuhan-Baranovsky, Mykola Vasylenko, and Volodymyr Vernadsky. Almost all these people were at one time or another close to the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), labeled anti-popular by the Bolsheviks and anti- Ukrainian by the Ukrainian nationalists. How much derision was aimed at the policy of trivial and provincial “details “ and simultaneously in the zemstva and other local-government bodies in which the liberals concentrated their work! And who has duly appreciated today the contribution made to politics by the moderates, the provincial intellectuals, fanatical in everyday work, who in fact helped set up a network of zemstvo-run schools and hospitals in Ukraine and tried to eradicate mass illiteracy, a task as difficult as wiping out trachoma or scabies. At that time, revolutionaries ridiculed the campaigns of mass politicized banquets, where anti-government speeches were thinly disguised behind the jubilee toasts. But the then era of dangerous banquets was so much unlike the current era of pie-eyed presentations.

I wish Chernihiv residents knew about Ivan Petrunkevych, former head of the local zemstvo, an older friend of Vernadsky’s, and one of the organizers of the Constitutional Democratic Party. I wish Poltava had not forgotten the former zemstvo head, Fedir Lyzohub, later Hetman Skoropadsky’s prime minister, as well as his brother Dmytro, a Russian populist terrorist hanged in Odesa (their Sedniv home was often visited by Taras Shevchenko, a friend of their father’s; we do not remember very well, either, their father, the well-educated descendant of an old Cossack family).

Our history is like a neglected and weed-infested country graveyard with unmarked graves.

Let us make a historical excursion into the Galician Social Democracy. The very name of this party compels us to trace its political ties with the present: the term national democrat has suddenly become popular today. It should be noted the old Galician National Democracy has no direct equivalent in today’s politics. In its time, the party’s orientation was identifiable by its chief goal: to defend the interests of the Ukrainian community in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in general and the province of Galicia, which also embraced southeastern Poland, in particular. The political and cultural center of this Austrian province, including its Polish element, was Lviv, not Krakow, so the Polish- Ukrainian relations were entangled here in a gnarled sociocultural knot. The Ukrainian national democrats in Galicia had an irreconcilable rival in the person of the extreme nationalist Polish National Democrats (endeky). The national democrats of Eastern Galicia cooperated with the Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) Church, which, with due account of the then Vatican’s conservative attitudes, determined the national democrats’ positions. At any rate, the latter cannot be called a liberal democratic party, for ultramontane conservatism was also inherent in our national democrats. This party’s heir in the inter-war Poland was the so-called UNDO (Ukrainian National Democratic Union) whose traditions can hardly be traced in our today’s realities. The problem of the Galician national democratic legacy today is the problem of the roots of Ukrainian conservatism rather than that of Ukrainian liberalism.


Then let us return to the political present. In all probability, the Reforms and Order Party and its parliamentary faction can be considered today the main contender for the role of a liberal party. But, from the viewpoint of European tradition, there is a puzzle here. In Europe, there were reform-minded parties opposed by parties advocating law and order: the former and the latter can be arbitrarily called liberals and conservatives, respectively. In general, the tour of Ukraine’s parliamentary guidebook calls up rather Oriental associations, for they have the Party of Justice and the Party of the True Way. We also have a fraction composed of those belonging to no factions. The formation of a bloc of all countries belonging to no blocs once evoked the grins of mathematicians and logicians who were well aware of paradoxes of such kind conglomerations. Today, almost all parliamentary factions are formed under this such slogans as the sweet overall motto of work, renaissance, etc., and seem to be destined to unite those who came there because they had no other place to go.

But let us leave the political sherbet and get to the essence. Europe prefers simple names which allow classifying parties from left to right on the political spectrum by force of tradition. Then why do Western liberal parties have their old positions and are barely visible in the political spectrum?

Let us first ask ourselves a question: what is the destiny of the ideology not organization? Have the slogans that once rallied together the great masses of people been forgotten?

The main idea of liberalism is to enshrine individual freedom. The priority of the person makes liberalism an individualistic concept which, nonetheless, differs from anarchism by relying on the state legal order. While conservatives are characterized primarily by a certain style of thinking, mentality, and general preferences, liberals proceed from clearly-defined moral and legal principles which lay the groundwork of the liberal order. These are the principles of freedom, property, security, and the right to oppose violence. Liberalism clearly differentiates between the political rights, which enable an individual to take part in administering the state, and the civil rights which promote the building of a civil society, the true basis of democracy.

The main slogans of Western liberalism were worded in the late eighteenth century Declaration of Rights of Man proclaimed by the French Revolution and enshrined in the US Constitution. As time went by, it became clear that the fine words of the American Constitution about human rights also extended not only to the white but also to so-called colored citizens, and, later, that the word human also applied to women. While the circle of the subjects of rights and freedoms has expanded and the rights themselves specified, the old foundations of liberalism have neither disappeared nor degenerated: they have been imbedded in the foundations of European civilization.

Conservatism, earlier based on the aristocratic, clerical, and military- bureaucratic circles, and backed by the peasantry, has totally changed its fundamental ideas and turned into neoconservatism symbolized in the 1980s by the names of Thatcher and Reagan. The point is the order, which Western conservative forces were to protect, was based on the ideological principles of liberalism.

What is also happening is a tremendous evolution of socialism in the liberal direction. Even when seeking power and brandishing the threat of revolution, European socialists have tried to refrain from bloodshed and yeilding to violence. The program of socialist transformations in the late twentieth century leaves intact the private property without which man loses independence from the powerful state machinery and other authorities.

But not everybody can possess property large enough to ensure personal independence. The system of rights and freedoms in itself leaves defenseless those who have nothing but their working hands. Social justice does not live according to liberal principles alone.

We can say that old liberalism came to an end when Europe entered the period of mass movements and democratization in political life. Our Ukrainian liberals should bear this in mind. Mass movements have never based on the principles of liberalism. The slogans of freedom and rights only inflame the hearts of the millions when struggle against obtuse despotism is in progress. Under normal conditions, it is easier for conservatives and socialists of all hues, rather than for pure liberals, to find the mass voter. The liberals will only be followed by the intellectual elite and the refined part of business circles. Liberal political structures now seem to perform a conservative function, protecting the ideological and legal foundations of a civilized society. These goals are insufficient to set in motion the large electoral masses.

The political life of Western societies is as intense as ever. It becomes necessary from time to time to seriously reform the norms of economic and political life, which kindles new heated political battles between the advocates of reforms and the defenders of the old order, who fight for different options and social objectives of reforms. The poorer strata of the population have to press actively on politicians to have their interests taken into account. In these tense situations, liberals are often, and deservedly so, condemned by society for their traditional principle of noninterference in the whirlwind of economic development and laissez faire, which approximately means “let it be.” It should be noted the word liberal is far from always being treated as a compliment in the contemporary West, although this does not occur in the traditional Russian spirit. Liberal economic reforms arouse criticism because they rely too much on the market mechanism and do not pay due attention to governmental and non-governmental institutions. In particular, the commissions of economists, set up by the Socialist International, have been criticizing reforms in the postsocialist world for their thoughtless economic liberalism. We must decide from the experience ourselves have whether this is fair or not. I suspect the majority of my even not terribly competent compatriots will say this is fair. Incidentally, the perestroika period economic reforms could be called naive liberalism, for they pinned hopes on the limitless curative effect of grafting market relations onto our completely state-run economy. The far from naive managers, taking advantage of the absence of relevant standards and institutions, made short work of the whole economy in an instant, leaving only such traces as offshore bank accounts. Is this the end of liberalism?


From the viewpoint of profound social movements, political atmosphere, and public opinion as the main political factor, rather than of political institutions, the situation looks entirely different.

Let us note that there are almost no big and influential party newspapers in the Western world. Most newspapers, such as The New York Times, Le Monde, Neue Zuricher Zeitung and others, which could be better described as liberal not in the sense of party affiliation but from the standpoint of the principles of liberalism, which have become the true foundation of Western political and public existence.

Public opinion has structural specifics of its own. It is never determined by political bodies. On the contrary, these specifics orient themselves toward the dominant moods.

Public opinion and the press which inspires it do more than political parties ever can: they mold the political space of society.

There are things that cannot be done in European politics. For instance, one cannot enter into a coalition with people like Haider. European society was indignant not with the Austrian neo-Nazis — we have what we have — but the respectable Austrian conservatives who breached the rules of propriety inherent in the political space of Europe.

The Communists, strange as it may seem to some of our radicals, have been allowed to sit at the European political table. But it is impossible to forge coalitions with people of the Milosevic type, which Russian political leaders fail to understand.

The principles of liberalism are as indispensable as political air, although nobody tries to form a party of combatants for fresh air. In this sense, liberalism is immortal. Liberalism is dead, long live liberalism!

By Myroslav POPOVYCH, philosopher