As I write I have in front of me a number of statements, articles, and conference projects—and more are coming to my attention almost daily—indicating what amounts to an invasion of Eastern and Central Europe by Western zealots, do-gooders, investors, gurus, and sharks. They emanate from American and West European offices, banks, institutes, universities, and other headquarters of alleged aid projects, some plainly admitting their interest in profit, others camouflaging their motive behind the usual moral propaganda.
A few samples. The Dawson Newsletter issues “an invitation,” signed by Dr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., to its readers “to consider what forms the reconfiguration of Europe could take,” and asks “what to do with so much fresh energy and the good will of a new morning?” Jacques Attali, ex-advisor to president Mitterrand, has left his job and is now heading a worldwide Development and Reconstruction Bank (with the initials “BERD”) that will invest in the Eastern and Central European countries, but makes its loans conditional on the adequate “display by these countries of a democratic restructuring and observance of human rights.” Even Robert Bellah writes in the March issue of the New Oxford Review that “if we are exhilarated by the triumph of capitalism [in Europe] rather than by the triumph of democracy, we are showing a singular lack of self-critical awareness.”
What is common to these three men is the assumption that emerging Europe constitutes a territory open to foreign interference. Who grants the Dawson Newsletter readers the right and the competence to consider the “reconfiguration of Europe” and of course eventually to give advice? What kind of democracy and human rights protections will satisfy Monsieur Jacques Attali and convince him to make investments, which is obviously not a matter of human rights but of business? And, I am sorry to say, why does Mr. Bellah think that democracy would be exhilarating to these nations? They may answer with Vergil: “Timeo Americanos et dona ferentes!” There are such things as poisoned gifts.
All this and much more is a case of déjà vu, reminiscent of when Woodrow Wilson wanted to teach high principles to these same nations and ended up abetting innumerable holocausts. It also reminds us of post-1960 Africa, decolonized by men with high principles who dictated the exact shape of things to come among the continent’s tribes and ended up imposing beastly tyrants on them, or, in the best cases, allowing them to fall back on their old structures and traditions. If there would have been a BERD bank, distributing manna according to Africa’s compliance with Western standards of democracy and human rights, the bank’s assets would have remained undisbursed.
I am sure Mr. Bellah wrote the above sentence in good faith, because he is steeped in a democratic world view. But has he reflected on the possibility that while he is critical of capitalism, other people and nations may be critical of both capitalism and democracy? It comes down to this: why do we so matter-of-factly assume that the emerging nations of Europe are interested in democracy? Because they have the Greeks, the Romans, and Christianity in their tradition, like we do? But Greek thinkers and Roman jurists actually rejected democracy, and Christian philosophers are not known, until Jacques Maritain, to have favored it. Does Eastern and Central Europe’s tradition contain the seeds of democracy? Hardly; perhaps the Czechs (but not the Slovaks); the Poles had a very bad experience with it; the Hungarians never really tried; the Rumanians paid lip service to it only. It is with capitalism as it is with democracy: everybody wants private property, but this desire is a far cry—as Mr. Bellah’s Hungarian friend confirmed—from a “market economy” and from “capitalism.” Private property is to capitalism what leisurely morning exercise is to training for the Olympics.
This is not to say that the nations of Eastern and Central Europe have not practiced democracy for centuries, in their own way—in village communities, assemblies, personal relationships. What they have not had is Leviathan, an ideological mechanism that stops not at the voting booth but invades the family, the classroom, the courts, and every aspect of public life. Those nations do not want and do not need our kind of democracy. Mr. Bellah speaks of small communities, involvement, neighborliness. The essentially peasant civilizations of this area of the world know these things intimately; they have practiced them for a thousand years, partly having learned them in the course of occupations by foreign powers and foreign ideologies. They do not need Western advice on how to live and how to be human, sociable, gentle, severe—or, for that matter, angelic or beastly. They are like everybody else, like Westerners, like Americans. Minus the meddlesomeness.
Most advice-givers argue that we (we who?) should not repeat the mistakes of the past, by which, very unilaterally, they mean that the West should protect Eastern and Central Europe from new totalitarianisms. How moving! Why did the West not display such a laudable attitude at Yalta, or in 1956, 1968, 1981—these dates marking the servitude imposed and reimposed by that great Western ally, Soviet Russia? In a word, the present solicitude “stinks.”
Does the do-gooding West not understand that by gently forcing, with dollars and sticks, Europe to adopt the West’s way of life and ideological convictions, it prepares a repeat of the period between 1920 and 1940, precisely the period to be avoided? Let me explain. There were many do-gooders at Versailles in 1920; Lloyd George remarked that President Wilson came there as the “personal spokesman for the Ten Commandments.” They were as guilty as anybody else for the successive phenomena of humiliations, inflation, the collapse of the middle class, the rise of Hitler and communism, and finally the war. Yet, what the West is preparing now shows that nothing has been learned, or that what was learned has been forgotten. Given another ten years of the treatment now proposed, in the name of Western benevolence, and you will see extremist parties once again. No, history does not exactly repeat itself; there will be no Weimar Republic or Nazis. But there just may be a gathering of disgusted elements who are willing to embark on a new adventure, turning on BERD bankers like Mr. Attali.
A kind of self-imposed censorship prevents me from listing examples of the behavior of Western presslords, joint-venturers, investors, and propagandists. Besides, there are always those who behave in an exemplary and constructive fashion, and do not step on sensitive toes. Let’s hope that they will know how to moderate their colleagues’ ardor. This can only begin when the West stops giving advice to the intelligent people “over there” about how to conduct their own affairs. For example—the last one—there are now educational groups in these United States who plan “traveling seminars” that would “save” the school systems of these nations from their recent heritage and inculcate them with the right content and the correct methods of education. Can anyone believe that in its present shape American education has anything to teach the world, that it can serve as a model? Even under communism schools “over there” taught more history, geography, languages, literature, even Latin than I ever saw in American high schools and colleges. There were some grotesque cases when the teacher, a party hack, arrived in class in worker’s overalls and before starting to teach hung his Kalashnikov on the wall. Students remained wooden-faced, read novels brought from home, and gave the required answers when called upon to recite. They didn’t even bother to make fun of such a man.
The less we preach to these nations, the better. Instead of the machine gun, they may see the dollar sign on the wall.