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The Counterrevolution

At the end of 50 years of modern liberal revolution, fear of an unknown new order propels authoritarian nationalists with a disheartening message to women and other beneficiaries of social progress

Paul Berman
March 08, 2017
David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
In Central and Eastern Europe, the uprisings turned out to be spectacularly successful, except in a few dark corners—successes that added up to the largest and most beautiful international political revolution in the history of the world. Prague, Czechoslovakia, November 1989.David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
In Central and Eastern Europe, the uprisings turned out to be spectacularly successful, except in a few dark corners—successes that added up to the largest and most beautiful international political revolution in the history of the world. Prague, Czechoslovakia, November 1989.David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

We have lived through the age of modern revolution, and during these last months we have entered the age of counterrevolution, and this is true all over the world. The modern revolution got underway half a century ago and, for a long while, seemed hard to define. Its center was in the wealthier and democratic countries, but in those places, the revolutionaries indulged in an old and amusing tradition of insurrectionary behavior, originally identified by Karl Marx, which was to cloak themselves theatrically in the costumes of other times and places. The revolutionaries were, in reality, university students and other young people of the middle or later 1960s. But they presented themselves as members of the workers’ soviet in Petrograd in 1917, or perhaps as figures from a Chinese poster. Or they presented themselves as Algerian insurgents from the years after World War II, or as Cuban guerrillas of the 1950s. Perhaps they were hippies, in which case they were Apaches with headbands or yogis from India. And the costumes made it hard to see what they were doing.

And yet, together with their more soberly dressed allies, they were, in fact, bringing about the revolution—not the revolution of their crazy dreams, but something authentic, even so, and authentically up-to-date. It was the liberal revolution. It took place in every one of the democratic countries around the world, and sometimes in semi-democratic places. The revolution offered rights and recognition to one new portion of the population after another—naturally, in different ways in each country. In the United States, where the liberal revolution proved to be exceptionally robust, it demanded rights for the oppressed African-Americans, which required a restructuring of major portions of American society and of the culture—therefore was genuinely a call for revolution and not just reform. The agitations over that one demand inspired simultaneous agitations on behalf of various other portions of the population. The demand contributed to the parallel demand for rights and recognition for women, which likewise required a fundamental restructuring of things. Movements arose issuing demands that, until that moment, had scarcely been imagined—demands for the rights of gay people, and of people with various impairments, and onward, after many years, to the transgendered, whose existence was previously all but unknown. The modern revolution became, in this fashion, a revolt that was also a revelation—a revolt against social and cultural hierarchies of many kinds, including the previously invisible kind. It became a revolt against the very idea of hierarchy, as shown in the revolt against the men’s business suit, bourgeois symbol of hierarchical power. Those developments reshaped large parts of the world during this past half century.

Such was the modern revolution in its first, brightly-lit stage. In its second stage, the revolution spread geographically into the shadows of the authoritarian and totalitarian countries. It did so initially in the form of tiny and modest protests for a limited number of political rights—though always with sentiments of solidarity and sympathy that tied the modest protests to developments in the democratic countries. The modest protests took root in a substantial number of regions, and, in the years around 1989, the protests blossomed at last into open insurrections in every part of the nondemocratic world except the Arab zone. In Central and Eastern Europe, the uprisings turned out to be spectacularly successful, except in a few dark corners—successes that added up to the largest and most beautiful international political revolution in the history of the world. And the overthrow of the European dictatorships led to still another stage of the grander liberal revolution, which was constructive, sometimes with utopian overtones.

Its product was the European Union, beginning 1993. The EU offered a new model of society, appropriate (or so it was imagined) for the entire world—a system of confederated states with guaranteed rights of many sorts, relying on technocratically-devised social and economic regulations and on a shared spirit of reason and cooperation. Institutionally, the EU descended from proposals offered after the Second World War by Christian Democrats and other conservatives in France, Germany, and the Low Countries. Philosophically, the EU descended from Kant and the Enlightenment. Doctrinally, it descended from the European workers’ movement of the 19th century and the Socialist International, circa 1890, whose founding congresses proposed the first sophisticated sketch of a secular, egalitarian, scientific-minded, democratic, international, and modern Europe. The EU proposed solutions to some of the worst problems of the last 200 years and more, and not just of the 20th century. It offered an end, at last, to the disastrous right-wing vs. left-wing wars that had begun in the French Revolution—a vast achievement, akin to the ending of the religious wars of a few hundred years before. It offered an end to the boom-and-bust business cycle that had likewise gotten its start a couple of centuries earlier. And the EU proposed to do all this by fostering an economic culture of innovation and the free circulation of goods, capital, labor, and ideas, with everything to take place within an international framework of carefully devised trade pacts, for the universal benefit. Such was the ideal.

In these ways the EU represented (and still represents, in a sickbed fashion) the highest political, social, and cultural development that society around the world has ever seen. Nothing about its achievements were or are marginal or provincial or eccentric, in the style of, say, the libertarian collectives in Catalonia in 1936, or the Scandinavian mini-social democracies in the 1970s and ’80s (though I do not sneer at Spanish libertarians and Scandinavian socialists). The EU was and remains vast and variegated. And its successes proved to be dynamic. Eastward it expanded into the zone of the ex-Communist world—expanded because people in the eastern countries demanded the same kinds of prosperity and social and cultural wholesomeness that Western Europe appeared to have achieved.

Protests blossomed at last into open insurrections in every part of the non-democratic world. From left, Tahrir Square, Egypt; Berlin, Germany; Tiananmen, China; Prague, Czechoslovakia; and Maidan, Ukraine.
Protests blossomed at last into open insurrections in every part of the non-democratic world. From left, Tahrir Square, Egypt; Berlin, Germany; Tiananmen, China; Prague, Czechoslovakia; and Maidan, Ukraine. Photos: Chris Hondros/Getty Images, Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images, Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images, Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images, Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.

The revolutionary impulse expanded further, too, until, with the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the liberal revolution seemed, at last, to have penetrated the Arab world, an enormous development. And the revolution continued to flow eastward in Europe, until, with the Maidan revolution in Kiev in 2014, the wave lapped at the frontier of Mother Russia herself, the historic center of world reaction. The liberalism of the Maidan revolution was exceptionally lucid, too—a revolution that broke out because a corrupt and authoritarian government, beholden to the Russian dictatorship, had refused to enter into the kind of trade treaties with the EU that modern liberalism pictured as the best of hopes for a free and prosperous society. The rubber tires and piled-up wood of the barricades of Kiev—those were the ocean debris flung up by revolutionary liberalism at high tide.

But maybe the moment should not have been so exhilarating. It ought to have been obvious even in 2014 that, around the world, the anti-liberal counterrevolution was gathering force—the counterrevolution that was already emerging in the form of ethnic nationalist parties in different parts of Europe, together with the resurrection of the historic parties of the extreme right, together with the rise of movements for breaking up the European Union—even if, back in 2014, hardly anyone could imagine similar developments taking place in the original revolutionary homeland of the worldwide liberal cause.


What has brought about the counterrevolution? Fear has brought it about—a vague and unarticulated fear that life has spun out of control: a fear that assumes a different shape in each country, yet is visibly shared across half the world, such that people who experience the fear naturally feel a solidarity, even across the national borders. And what has brought about the fear? The liberal revolution itself has done this—its aspirations, its successes, its failures, and the gap between aspirations and realities.

In economic matters, a fear, five times over: the fear that automation, computer efficiencies, and the globalized division of labor are replacing good jobs with bad jobs. The fear that an entire storied social class, the industrial working class, is being shrunk or eliminated, along with its social and political achievements, its privileges, historical sense, culture, and institutions. The fear that, amidst these developments, the aesthetic and spiritual qualities of skilled manual labor are being lost. The fear that, under the modern dispensation, the technocrats and bureaucrats who mandate these many developments have no sense of the human costs. The fear that trade pacts and other instances of economic planning are, on top of their other flaws, a lie, designed merely to benefit the tiny few, and not society as a whole—as shown by, say, the European Union, whose policies, nominally in the name of the union, somehow conform to the interests of Germany and its banks, and not to Greece and other poor countries. Five fears, then, which go on flourishing even if it is also true that, in some countries, unemployment is low and many people are at least getting by—five fears, which, in going unaddressed, combust finally into outright panic.

In military matters: the fear that liberalism’s confident sense of military prowess is likewise a lie. The confidence arose in the Balkans at the end of the 1990s, where NATO and the United States demonstrated that with an application of modern and sophisticated methods of warfare—precision operations, well-planned troop placements, relatively low casualties—a benighted region of the world could be rescued from barbarism and shepherded into the fold of liberal progress. But the military triumphs of 1999 no longer count as recent history. The subsequent major interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the minor intervention in Libya, and the deployment of a military-backed power-politics diplomacy in Syria led merely to, respectively, perpetual war, a violent muddle, and the worst humanitarian disaster of the modern age. Everything led to increases in Islamist terrorism. Everything led to waves of refugees so large as to be demographic. Every military failure was mirrored on the local scale by police errors. And all of it led to still another panic—the panic that comes from recognizing that not even the United States can win its wars, and neither can NATO, even if NATO is thought to be history’s most successful military alliance.

Which of those failures—the economic failures or the military and police ones—has proved to be the crucial factor in generating the present-day panic? I half suspect that ultimately the crucial factor may turn out to be something else entirely, namely, the liberal revolution in gender roles and women’s equality. Does this seem odd to say? I think that, in the United States, some of us may have imagined that, in our own corner of the world, the general principle of women’s rights carried the day long ago, even if we recognize that success will require another hundred years. Our confident feeling on this matter is a main reason why, in the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump seemed to so many of us to be headed for an overwhelming defeat. His demeaning comments about women and about his opponent appeared to disqualify him from office, simply on grounds of manners.

Every time Donald Trump spoke, he struck a blow against the modern idea of women’s place in society.

And yet, we ought to have reflected that in other parts of the world, the advances in women’s rights and equality have aroused feelings of perplexity, consternation, indignation, and rage, and have never stopped doing so. The Islamist movement is the extreme example—a movement that has flourished precisely in response to the advances in women’s rights, out of a belief that women’s rights figure within the larger imperialist and Crusader plot against Islam. But Islamism is unique only in its paranoia and cult of violence. A baffled outrage at advances in women’s equality animates a few peaceable corners of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel as well, and it animates the populist and Catholic right-wing parties of Central and Eastern Europe. Here, at last, has been an ecumenical response—which ought to have led us to suppose that America might not be so different. Trump has taught us a lesson in this regard. He is the American unexceptionalist. The very commentaries and behaviors in regard to women that we imagined would doom his political career turn out to have been keys of his success, as much and probably more than his tirades against Mexicans and Muslims. Every time he spoke, he struck a blow against the modern idea of women’s place in society. He discovered he could do it merely by demonstrating that, on a debate stage with the most accomplished female political leader in the history of the United States, he could casually withdraw the simple courtesies that signal respect—and thereby increase his popularity.

Then again, I wonder if something larger still doesn’t loom behind each of these issues and controversies, a failure at still a deeper level, something epistemological, which generates a deeper panic yet. This is the panic that arises when people can no longer be sure of the nature of reality—when no one seems to be in charge of distinguishing the real from the imaginary. The failure is philosophical for some people on the intellectual left, with its home in the humanities departments of the universities, and it is theological for other people, with its home in the established churches and their crumbling foundations. But also it is an institutional crisis, and it is visible everywhere, and certainly so in the United States. It is a crisis in journalism. Almost half of the newspaper editorial jobs in America have disappeared over the short course of the present century, together with a large number of newspapers. The towns that used to have a respected newspaper of their own have no such paper today; the cities that used to have two now have one; the cities that used to have three, now have two. And the surviving papers, even the greatest of them, are smaller and feebler. Television journalism: a similar story of decline. The trade unions used to offer news commentaries of their own, but the unions and their newspapers have gone into a still greater decline.

Where do people learn about the world, then? Whole sectors of the population float on tides of electronic rumor and mischief, where the panic is promoted. In Donald Trump, those people have elected one of their own. And for those people, panic becomes self-sustaining. It is a stimulant. It is a variation of the opioid epidemic. Panic solves their problem. The liberal revolution has accomplished many things, but, as everyone has always recognized, liberalism does not address the profound questions of life. Liberalism prefers to leave questions of meaning to other people to answer. And people have come up with an answer. It is the answer that is suggested by panic. It is hatred. Do you feel a spiritual void? Hatred will fill the void. Therefore people hate. They hate foreign factories. If they are Americans, they hate Mexicans and Muslims. If they are English, they hate Poles and Pakistanis. If French, they hate Gypsies and Arabs. If Germans, they hate Turks. If Dutch, they hate Moroccans and Tunisians. Various populations hate blacks, and hate Jews. The Muslim immigrants are specialists in hating Jews. The haters hate women who have achieved an equal status with men. A magnificent graph of these hatreds could be drawn up. It would be a map of hell. But also it would be a map of emotional fulfillment. Hatred is thrilling.


In each country, the prevailing spirit of fear exudes its own provincial odor. Still, it is remarkable that all over the world, apart from a few zones, the fear has led to the same foreign-policy political conclusion. This is the idea that if there is an attractive leader anywhere in the world, it is Vladimir V. Putin. The sympathy for Putin has the odd quality of being far-right and far-left at the same time, naturally with most of the energy to be found on the far right, given Putin’s ideas, which appear to be far-right in a 19th-century Russian version.

The ethnic right-wing parties in Europe, from Hungary to France, see in Putin an international leader. Some of the smaller far-left parties—the heirs of Communism in Germany and France—see in Putin an anti-imperialist, resisting the tide of liberalism. Syriza in Greece has looked to Putin as a savior. And there is the American warmth for him, which is mostly right-wing but contains a small and hesitant left wing as well—a magazine leftism that regards Putin as a victim of unjust condemnation on the part of liberals or as a leader trying to resist the further aggressions of Western imperialism. The American warmth for Putin naturally figures as the weightiest element of all on the world scene, and also as the most astonishing, given that, in the American political tradition, the philo-Russian strand has always been tiny, restricted in the past to the microsect of American Communism. But times have changed and, in regard to Russian dictatorship, the heir to Earl Browder and William Z. Foster has turned out to be the party of Ronald Reagan, as no one would have predicted.

Crudity, vulgarity, simplicity, the iron heel—this is the appeal. Counterrevolutionary movements in support of patriarchy, nationalism, and authoritarianism have arisen in, among other places, (from left) Russia, France, the United States, the Netherlands, and Hungary.
Crudity, vulgarity, simplicity, the iron heel—this is the appeal. Counterrevolutionary movements in support of patriarchy, nationalism, and authoritarianism have arisen in, among other places, (from left) Russia, France, the United States, the Netherlands, and Hungary. Photos: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images, Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images, Stephen Brashear/Getty Images, Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images, Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images.

Exactly why Putin excites a worldwide enthusiasm may not be obvious at a glance, given that Russia has not prospered. It is true that Putin has succeeded in establishing a degree of order in the face of various terrorists, but his anti-terrorist campaigns have been dreadful in the extreme. In Chechnya, Putin may have killed 10 percent of the population, which hardly anyone seems to remember today. Nor do his armed forces exhibit qualities that ought to arouse admiration. In Mosul and Aleppo today we have been witness to a comparative display of American and Russian military strategies and capabilities, and the display has been entirely to Russia’s discredit. The American-supported campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Mosul has proceeded slowly because, on one hand, the purpose has been to assemble a political force capable of leading the city into a better future, and because, on the other hand, the American bombings have been conducted (we have reason to believe, or to hope) with care and precision, in order to minimize civilian deaths. Here, in Mosul, is an exhibition of a modern military-political effort. In Aleppo, by contrast, the Russian bombings appear to have been indiscriminate, meant not so much to defeat the Islamic State as to defeat the enemies of the Baathist dictatorship, whose own killings have been monstrous. The Russian bombings, the Baathist bombings, the Baathist prisons with their mass slaughters—these have been military reenactments of the worst of the 20th century, worthy of Stalin and the fascists. And yet, around the world, it is Putin’s military actions that arouse admiration.

How can that be? It is incomprehensible. Even so, everyone comprehends. Putin’s appeal is the appeal of dictatorship. It is the appeal of patriarchy restored. It is the appeal of a retreat from liberal democracy—a retreat from the social and cultural advances of the last 50 years, from the culture of innovation and openness, from feminism, from gay rights, from tolerance in general. It is a retreat even from military progress—a retreat from the fussy little moral and political considerations that have slowed down the American-led campaigns. Crudity, vulgarity, simplicity, the iron heel—this is the appeal. To the frightened and disappointed person who is cowering in fear at the many failures of the liberal revolution, to the person who has been left in darkness by the collapse of newspapers and authoritative information, to the person who cringes at the diminution of the father’s role and the husband’s role and the brother’s role, to the person who feels that his world has collapsed—to that unhappy person, Putin offers reassurance. He does not promise a better world. He offers the consolations of masculinity. And around the world, the parties of the counterrevolutionary movement of our time, the right-wing populist parties, occasionally the neocommunist parties, together with their ally, the new-leaf GOP—all of these groups join together in saluting the president of the Russian Federation, the world’s most prestigious leader in this reactionary year 2017.

The liberal revolution lasted 50 years before the undercurrents of counterrevolution began to sweep it away. How long will the counterrevolution go on? We only know that we do not know. Six months before the 2016 presidential election in the United States, not a single respected political analyst predicted the outcome with any accuracy. This does not mean that in the United States political analysts are stupid. It means that we have entered an era in which the analytic categories of the past do not reliably apply: one more occasion for fear.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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