"How many divisions did you say the Pope had?" At the Potsdam Conference in 1946, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin reportedly said this, rhetorically and scornfully, to British prime minister Winston Churchill, at a time when Stalin was facing criticism from many, including the Pope, because he had begun to merge orthodox churches forcibly in the Soviet Union. The arrogant certitude with which Stalin spoke resurfaced in June when Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, told Financial Times with similar self-assurance that liberalism as an idea was obsolete.
Putin pointed out the “overwhelming majority" now opposed ideas that promote the rights of refugees, migrants, and sexual minorities. In so doing, Putin was striking right at the heart of the central pillar of human rights—everyone is equal and everyone has rights. And states have an obligation to make sure that those rights are protected and not harmed either by the state or by others, and the state has to take proactive steps so that the rights are safeguarded and people are able to exercise those rights.
That idea is progressive (but hardly leftist) and what underpins it is universalism, not western values. Those are core foundations of the universal declaration of human rights and that declaration encompasses the values of the world, not any specific region, and nor are they drawn from any religion.
Earlier in June, in the pages of this newspaper, numerous opinion pieces have excoriated Indian liberals. As the argument goes, liberals have truly lost the plot and the resounding victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the parliamentary elections only confirms this. India seems to be one of the chapters in an ongoing saga—with the kind of leaders elected in the US, the UK (selected in that case, not elected), Hungary, Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, and Myanmar, besides the Russian Federation and the unelected leadership of China.
It would seem that the liberal idea, which was on the ascendance with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of Communism, has finally run out of steam. Older, meaner, atavistic ideas—of nationalism and fascism—are rising again; neo-Nazis were gaining votes in elections and popularity, and the architecture that held together the international order is being assaulted. Putin seemed certain it would crumble soon.
To be sure, the liberal triumphalism in the late 1980s was irrationally exuberant, and probably unwarranted. Granted, Mikhail Gorbachev had unveiled his idea of perestroika (restructuring) and called for glasnost (openness) with the hope of reforming Soviet Union, but his aim was not necessarily to usher in democracy. It was to make the Soviet Union less harsh and more efficient. Instead, his reforms led to its disintegration. At that time, historian Francis Fukuyama exultantly declared the end of history, saying that humanity was reaching the “end point of ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of government." Samuel Huntington poured some cold water on the exuberance, saying that a clash of civilizations was inevitable.
The attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September, 2001, shattered the gloating. In attempting to protect the rights of civilians against terror, western governments—once at the forefront of liberalism—began restricting personal freedoms, making illiberal ideas attractive. Surveillance returned; privacy was violated; search-and-seizure warrants were sought; discrimination between types of foreign visitors, immigrants, and refugees began; dissent stamped; and free speech was attacked. It was all allegedly temporary... only to protect the people.
But as Benjamin Franklin had warned once, those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. (To be fair, Franklin was writing about arcane provisions in Pennsylvania over the ability of a legislature to impose taxes and not necessarily about upholding privacy, but his words have become the clarion call for all those who defend personal freedoms.)
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Rebirth of fascism
Ideas like fascism and Nazism were assumed to have died in 1945—its body mutilated in Rome, or dead in a bunker in Berlin. But they resurfaced in ugly forms with the fashionable tag ‘neo’ attached. You found them among shock-jock radio hosts who influenced far-right nationalists in the US, who then mowed down people who didn’t look like them at shopping malls, or who read screeds on the internet and went to a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, to shoot worshippers, or at a summer camp for children outside Oslo, Norway. Or in India, spreading their hatred insidiously and quickly through WhatsApp forwards, through distorted history, as the sales of Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, remained buoyant.
But it is facile to assume that liberalism has become obsolete or is going to disappear. Ideas don’t die. Ideas that make people free, which make people believe they are free, which empower people to act in ways to protect their freedom, don’t vanish.
In 1983, the French philosopher Jean Francois Revel wrote a book called How Democracies Perish, which argued that the discipline of the Soviet Union would ultimately prove superior over the cacophonous nature of democracies. The Soviets knew what they wanted; they had a long-term plan; they went about to achieve it; they did not tolerate internal dissent that could derail their one-way journey towards success. Democrats, on the other hand, kept arguing and challenging one another; they refused to let one leader take all decisions; they bickered over possible outcomes; and they slowed down response mechanisms. In Revel’s universe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would dither while the Warsaw Pact would march. So ran the fear. And then Gorbachev happened—and the rest, as Fukuyama might say, is history.
However, history has taken a different turn now. Pessimism is once again back in fashion. The gloom across liberal intelligentsia is palpable. We are returning to the 1920s and 1930s is a favourite leitmotif across Europe. Boris Johnson may indeed redraw the map of his disunited kingdom. Donald Trump may win again. Narendra Modi has won again, and the paralysis that has struck the Congress Party makes some think that in 2024 the BJP might even win more than 400 seats. (As Harold Wilson said in another context, a week is a long time in politics; predicting what might happen in five years is a fool’s errand or an astrologer’s prerogative).
Is there, then, a historic inevitability and is civilisation’s future going to be the Hobbesian nightmare—short, brutish, and nasty? What are the Jeremiahs and Cassandras (gods in Greek mythology who have the gift of prophecy) saying that we aren’t listening to?
Resistance to strongmen
Who knew that a man jailed on an island and forced to break rocks at a limestone quarry for more than two decades would not only emerge out of that jail, but cast aside personal bitterness and make peace with his erstwhile tormentors, stressing reconciliation? And Nelson Mandela did just that. Who would have thought that a pipe-smoking playwright, jailed for disturbing the peace, would one day wave from a balcony in his city’s main square, and draw a heart on a piece of paper for anyone who asked, and bring about a velvet revolution? And that’s what Vaclav Havel did in Czechoslovakia.
A few decades earlier, who would have imagined that a 61-year-old vegetarian, wearing loincloth and not much else, carrying a walking stick would stand on a beach and lift salt from that coast and sink an empire? And yet, that’s what Mohandas Gandhi did. Who would have imagined that students who saw their revolution in an umbrella would bring one of the most dynamic cities in the world to a standstill, insisting on change? We don’t yet know the outcome, but that’s what the leaderless people in Hong Kong are doing.
We will never know the name of the man who stood in front of a tank in Beijing, at Tiananmen Square, who forced a tank to move sideways on that day in June 1989. What became of him, nobody knows, but that image is etched in our minds as an iconic memory, inspiring others to carry the torch of freedom.
Think of Alaa Salah, the 22-year-old Sudanese journalist, wearing white, who climbed atop a car this April and told the general who had ruled her country for a quarter century to leave. (Within days, he quit). And remember Olga Misik, who is 17, who sat in front of riot police in late-July, reading aloud the Russian Constitution. The power of an individual facing the might of weaponry. Think of Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, Arun Ferreira, Stan Swamy, and others, jailed for speaking out for the vulnerable.
These are the heroes of our time. They afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, in the words of Arundhati Roy. They keep the idea of liberalism and individual rights alive. They defy the state, stand in front of tanks, wave Constitutions in the face of riot police, harangue a leader by standing atop cars. They dissent; they disagree; they challenge, they refuse to compromise; and they remind us about the need to debate and argue.
The power of openness
In Salman Rushdie’s 1990 novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech is called Khattam-Shud. He rules the land of Chup (silence). It is a land that’s outwardly peaceful but conceals an inner fragility. Such societies, the novel shows, force the citizens to live a life full of lies. The cheer is contrived, the harmony is forced—like in a North Korean mass parade.
Open societies look unruly and messy, where everyone contradicts everyone else, where nothing is sacred. But that anarchy gives those societies an inner resilience, a certain strength. That strength is built on the courage that each individual has to speak without fear—not through swallowing words, not by looking around to see if someone is watching.
When Morarji Desai became prime minister in 1977 after Indira Gandhi’s defeat, he said he wanted an India free from fear. His government itself collapsed due to a set of inevitable internal contradictions, but on that day in March 1977, those words sounded so pure and so true... like the words of Indian-born writer Ved Mehta’s young niece, who told her uncle, “main election se badi khush hun" (I am so happy with the elections), as they saw rapturous Indians celebrate the end of the Emergency.
Rushdie writes in his novel: “All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship…. The Chupwalas (those from the silent land) turned out to be a disunited rabble, suspicious and distrustful of one another. The land of Gup (talk) is bathed in endless sunshine, while over in Chup, it is always the middle of the night."
Liberalism helps cast aside the dark cobwebs of ignorance and lifts a society from its meaner instincts which insist that the old order must prevail; old hierarchies must continue; that might is always right; and those who speak differently, think differently, eat differently, pray differently, love differently, or look different must comply, obey, and follow the rules set by those with power, those in majority.
Majoritarians may strut and fret their hour upon the stage as though there is no tomorrow, but there is always a tomorrow. Recall what Gandhi said: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it— always."
In the 150th year of Gandhi’s birth , and so close to India’s own day of independence, those words have a special resonance to the land of his birth—and even for the world. Gandhi wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t infallible. But there are few better paths towards freedom than the one he walked on, often alone. This is not the time, nor the place, for liberals to throw their hands up in despair and surrender and accept fate. Doing so would be profoundly illiberal. Walking on that path of peace and non-violence is hard, but sometimes it is the only way.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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