Between Utopia and Disillusionment: A Narrative of the Political Transformation in Eastern Europe

By Henri Vogt | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Individualism as a Utopia

I must confess that the subject of the individual and individuality is now
coming into its own with unprecedented force in my country. In the past,
the totalitarian regime suppressed the individual and individual initiative
in all spheres of life, political and material on the one hand, and emotional
and cultural on the other. Not merely was the word ‘individualism’ a term
of abuse, but accusation of free expression of human potential, talents or
interests could provide grounds for persecution. To save our society from
catastrophe, to revitalize it and to create a new intellectual climate, the
question of the individual has to assume truly central importance. Russia
cannot be drawn into European civilization (and I see no other way out of
the present crisis) without adopting certain values fundamental to that
civilization. (Gurevich 1995: 4)131

This is how the Russian historian Aaron Gurevich saw the state of his country a few years ago — a lot of what he says would certainly apply to East and Central Europe as well. Indeed, the importance of individualism has no doubt significantly increased and is still increasing in the post-communist countries. This has been, on the one hand, a ‘natural’ result of the disappearance of the old order, a system of coerced collectivism, and, on the other hand, a central goal towards which people have been striving — from a normative perspective, à la Gurevich, it is something towards which they should strive ever more resolutely. The present chapter aims to describe and conceptualise the nature and consequences of this new individualism. This is done with a specific question in mind: how does the increasing level of individualism relate to the development of democracy, democratic citizenship and political culture in these countries?

It is apparent that Gurevich’s call for more individualism does not necessarily represent the views of the majority of Eastern Europeans. On the contrary, the notion of individualism has echoed negatively in many an ear during the first post-communist decade. The legacy of communism has often been so strong that absorbing or learning the new patterns of individuality has proved surprisingly demanding, much more demanding than people expected at the outset of the new era. In many cases this learning process has practically failed, which may then have led to disillusionment, as described in the previous chap-

-180-

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