Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Imperative of Cultural Reformation


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


The Revolution of 1989 in east central Europe, and the successes and failures of democratic and market transition that have taken place in the region in the five intervening years, are classic illustrations of the principle articulated by Paul Tillich: politics is a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is cult, or religion. The mega-politics of Marxism-Leninism collapsed in east central Europe when a sufficient critical mass of people said “No” to the system, on the basis of a higher and more compelling “Yes”: a “yes” to some basic truths about human beings and their communities. If the enduring result of that revolution is to be something unprecedented in east central Europe—a band of democratic states, prosperous, at peace with their neighbors, flourishing internally in their cultures, and committed to tolerance and a genuine pluralism-then the foundations will have to be laid in the cultural and religious subsoils of those societies. A democratic Republic of Procedures, dedicated to serving the lifestyle whims of the Imperial Autonomous Self, the great god I, is no more possible in east central Europe than anywhere else. To consolidate their transition to democracy and the free economy, the nations of the region must build within themselves a new sense of social solidarity.

The most obvious political imperative for the genuine democrats in east central Europe is to build broad-gauged and stable political parties capable of challenging the ex-communists. But even this basic task of organizing engages issues at a deeper, socio-cultural level. I once asked a former Czech dissident, Michaela Freiova, why the ex-dissident parties had split, and split, and then split again, over what we in the West would consider minor points of difference. Her answer was intriguing. In the resistance, she said, “we only had convictions, we didn’t have institutions. And so we learned to trust convictions rather than institutions.” That faith in convictions made the collapse of communism possible; that distrust of institutions helped to make the ex-communist come-back possible.

Democratic politics in post-communist central and eastern Europe also suffers from what might be called the Continental Disease, which is really the French Disease, the Disease of Political Abstraction. More times than I can count, over the past five years, I have been in conversation with east central Europeans who seem utterly convinced that if they could only get the theory right, this time, everything else would fall into place: governmental institutions, economic structures and practices, all the rest of it. There is little sense, in the region, of the Anglo-Scottish-American Enlightenment, with its emphasis on experience, practical reason, learning from doing, moral common sense: building the free society from the bottom up, so to speak, rather than from the (abstract) top down. That is why it is so critically important for the new democracies of east central Europe to learn from the American experiment: not because Americans have gotten everything right (for we have clearly gotten many things wrong), but because American democracy was formed by the common-law tradition, by localism, by voluntarism, by those Tocquevillian “mediating institutions” that stand between the individual and the state. Those socio-cultural institutions and traditions could be of considerable importance to east central Europe today; but post-Enlightenment Continental political theory is almost wholly ignorant (or, worse, dismissive) of them.

To put it another way, the solidarity through which the consolidation of democracy and the free economy in east central Europe can be secured will be a solidarity built through subsidiarity: through the creation, where necessary, and the revitalization, where possible, of those natural, organic, and voluntary institutions and networks that make up “civil society.”

Many east central Europeans feel, and not without reason, that they have been abandoned by a West that once described itself as their ally in the great struggle against communism. And no doubt more energetic efforts could have been made to pull down Western trade barriers to east central European goods; more investment capital could have been forthcoming; more attention could have been paid to the region’s security concerns; we could have indulged in less fretting about Russian sensibilities.

But there is another, equally crucial level of Western engagement with the new democracies in east central Europe, and it has to do with this business of civil society. Yes, American capital and managerial know-how and technological innovations are important to the new east central Europe, which can also learn from our experience of democratic politicking. Most importantly, however, Americans and east central Europeans need to be in conversation about the restoration and reformation of democratic cultures, here and there. And on this front, the highly cost-effective work of the National Endowment for Democracy remains indispensable, for NED’S work in the region is precisely at the crucial level of civil-societal institution-building.

Western Europe, alas, seems destined for yet another decade of self-absorbed decline. The future of Western democracy—which involves the revitalization of individual responsibility and the strengthening of local institutions, in a great act of moral-cultural reformation and renewal—will be determined in the first part of the twenty-first century by Americans and east central Europeans. It is a partnership in which we, in the United States, will be paying off a great debt incurred in 1989, when the countries of east central Europe, by throwing off the Communist yoke non-violently, made an extraordinary contribution to our security—and to the restoration of the democratic ideal in the world.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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