More than a tragedy, a war is by definition a sign of misunderstanding. When you cannot solve a problem with words, you may try to solve it with aggression. However, a leader proceeds with war only when he believes that he has the support of his heartland. This is exactly what President Putin is relying on during his invasion of Ukraine; he did not expect such strong negative reactions in his own homeland, in Ukraine, and in the world. His decision is astonishing, because it is obviously inhuman and against the sense of all persons of good will. Yet, in spite of all these concerns, he has decided to wage war against his neighbour. This extreme case of state aggression against a sovereign nation and its civilians compels European conservatives to reflect upon our basic values and the role of conservatism today.
It seems that the Russian regime has made efforts to build up its intellectual hinterland, and to reach out to conservatives in Western and Central Europe. We frequently meet Russian colleagues at conservative gatherings. Some Westerners are eager to defend Russian positions in debates. The same strategy was used by the Soviet regime to attract top left-leaning intellectuals, as well as the general public in the West. The aggressive and radical leftist ideologies in the West prepared the ground of the success of Russian propaganda today. Let us, therefore, discuss the role and function of conservatism, and its relationship to the centres of power in our respective regions: Western, Eastern, and Central Europe.
My impression is that the conversation on conservative values between Western and Central Europe began only recently. Budapest and Warsaw are now the focus of conservative attention. Leaders like Mr. Kaczinski of Poland and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can achieve objectives that Western conservative leaders could only dream of. They are ready to argue against illegal immigration and quotas, to deny the legitimacy of LGBTQ+ activities in their schools, and to defend traditional family values. While the policies of these Visegrád countries do not only consist of typically conservative measures, they are still popular among Western conservatives, both in the political elite and among the general public, because of their brave stances in these ideologically key questions. This turn towards Central Europe by conservatives in the West is in response to its decline in a post-Brexit, post-Trump, and COVID-19 era. The Left’s ‘woke’ culture and media has provoked the Right to build their own networks and media platforms. There is now a real thirst for new ideas and role models within the movement, and Central Europe seems to provide them.
But why have we left Eastern, and specifically the Russian, conservatives out of our European discourse? To understand this, let me talk first about my own region. Central European countries suffered immensely under Soviet rule, and as a result, they still find it difficult to trust Russia politically. It was Russia that invaded many of the countries earlier, it brought communism to this region, and it is Russia that still today has a former KGB agent as its president.
As for you, Western conservatives, you are probably uncertain whether a proper form of European conservatism is even possible in Russia, where a political culture of authoritarian rule survives. This directly contradicts European values, cherished by conservatives as well, like the rule of law and press freedom, among others, as understood in the 21st century.
To answer this, let us first identify the minimum threshold of an acceptable conservative position within European political culture, either as it is practised in the West, the East, or Central Europe. I propose that an anti-communist and -imperial position is a good foundation for a conversation between European conservatives. This is because I think that European conservatism is the most reliably anti-communist political venture. It serves as the glue for adherents of different persuasions and cultural backgrounds.
The basic insight of anti-communism is the rejection of the totalitarian state: we cannot accept that state aggression against its citizens or against its neighbours is acceptable. The conservative trust in the rule of law, a respect for customs, and the importance of dialogue does not allow the use of force to oppress alternative views and ways of life, in or outside its borders. You can immediately recognise the same political impulse which characterised the communist and Nazi regimes.
Yet to accept the fact that the distinguishing mark of respectable conservatism is both an anti-Nazi and anti-communist attitude is, I imagine, a rather great challenge for Russian conservatives. Stalin’s cult is based on his defence of Soviet Russia against the Nazi occupation in World War II. Many ordinary Russians are proud of their Stalinist heritage and the memory of the great Soviet Union. However, it is crucial for pan-European conservatism that you, conservative friends in Russia, accept that the loss of the Russian empire is not something you should regret, if it was based on force and authoritarian methods of governance.
There is, in fact, a common lot for the American, the British, and the Russian conservative: all the three of you have to dismiss the conquering pasts of your home countries. The U.S. is a special case. It is crucial for the future of conservatism that you too, American friends, become self-critical of your own heritage, especially about many hawk foreign-policy stances. For U.S. imperialism will be seen in a different light after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The televised reports of the attack showed in real time the utter absurdity of a nuclear power invading a smaller country and brutally handling, even killing, its civilians in order to gain political control over the territory.
In other words, conservatism needs to learn lessons of self-discipline. An important part of this lesson is to keep a safe distance from political leaders and their respective demands of saving the world or making themselves understood, irrespective of the price paid by ordinary citizens. Even realist or pragmatist discourses of self-interest cannot explain certain types of decision and state action. A conservative discourse of national interest, when advocated by a major power can easily lead to fatal results in its geopolitical consequences. It is therefore absolutely necessary for conservatives in the West to be critical about their own leaders and to learn how to assess potentially fatal political judgments, even if they are based on pragmatic considerations of national self-interest.
With all this in mind let us return once again to the present case, dear friends! We should welcome the fact that after the first shock of the news of the invasion, representatives of the Russian intelligentsia have already shown signs of realising Putin’s fatal mistake. Many have expressed those critical views publicly.
The next question is whether Russian conservatives are able to distinguish their measured, sober-minded position from the ambitious, overheated, and irrational policies of their war-mongering leader and the propaganda of the state-owned media. If you succeed in making that distinction, dear Russian conservatives, you should make your voice heard, both at home and internationally, in a tone which is distinguishable from the state’s own channels of communication. When you see the footage of the invasion, you surely realise that this is a conquering war; this is hardly compatible with your conservatism, which is based on traditional Christian values. The task is to clarify your own position and make obvious its distance from that of the propaganda of a military superpower, from the belligerent ideology of your country.
Yet both of you, my conservative friends from the West and from the East, can ask how a conservative from Central Europe like myself identifies his own position. Central Europe is situated in a geopolitical pressure zone, surrounded by Russia and Germany—and for some time even Turkey. My own home country, Hungary, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy until the end of World War I had to suffer first the loss of much of its population and territory as a result of the Trianon Treaty of 1920. Later, in World War II, both the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian regimes occupied my country, one after the other. In both cases, puppet governments of the state served foreign interests, betraying Hungarian citizens. The Nazi occupation led to the Holocaust, the brutal murder of more than half a million Hungarian Jews, assisted by the Hungarian state. During the Soviet occupation, the whole country suffered great economic, social, and cultural losses, together with immense persecution and diverse forms of violations of the law.
In spite of this troubled history, Hungary and most other countries of the region joined NATO and the European Union as soon as they were allowed to do so (it took 14 years to get the green light). Yet conservatism was a swear word for decades after World War II. This was partly the result of the failure of conservative circles to clearly distinguish themselves from anti-Semitic ideologies during the interwar period. Some went so far as to support the Nazi regime in Germany. Conservatism lost much of its credibility, as a result. Later, the communists banned all free discussions of politics, most especially conservative intellectual efforts.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, conservatives had to confront what came to be called the conservative paradox: following those decades of Nazi and Communist rule, there was not much left to conserve (see András Lánczi’s Konzervatív kiáltvány, Attraktor, 2002). One had to examine one’s own intellectual traditions to filter out what was worth preserving, to discover the real merits and achievements of one’s heritage.
If I am not mistaken, Central European conservatism is in a phase of rebirth. In that process a discussion with Western friends is most probably helpful for both sides. Let me invite you, therefore, Russian conservative friends as well, to join us in this European discussion about the role and function of conservatism in the late modern world. I hope that this brutal experience of an international catastrophe, caused by your country’s invasion of an independent Ukraine, can help to jump start a continental discussion about European conservative values today. After all, we conservatives of different persuasions, from the West, the East, and Central Europe, have a common responsibility: to do our best to conserve our political culture, as polished by the ideas of conservatism.
Ferenc Hörcher is a political philosopher, historian of political thought, and philosopher of art. He is a research professor and head of the Research Institute of Politics and Government of the University of Public Service, and senior research fellow of the Institute of Philosophy, in Budapest. His last two books were: A Political Philosophy of Conservatism: Prudence, Moderation and Tradition (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020) and The Political Philosophy of the European City:From Polis, through City-State, to Megalopolis? (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2021).