Anne Applebaum is the author of the prize-winning ‘Gulag: A History’, ‘Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956’ and ‘Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine’. Her latest book, ‘Twilight of Democracy – The Failure of Politics and the parting of friends’, (Allen Lane, 2020) – is not quite in the same league.
As in any decent book there are a number of oddities. For example, she refers (p 86) to the “Gaelic fringe”, rather than “Celtic fringe”; on p 132 she mentions the South Tyrol “that has sometimes been Austrian” (it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for centuries up to 1918 and is still something like 70% German-speaking); and on p 160 someone is described as “… an attorney at a tony law firm”. (Answers on a postcard, please).
However, these are minor blemishes.
The book starts with the euphoria at the fall of the Berlin wall, then records how those celebrating the event at the Applebaum/Sikorski country retreat in Poland (the author is married to Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs under Donald Tusk), all ‘liberals’ of one sort or another, have now ceased to be friends. Many have been seduced by national exceptionalist doctrines.
So, friends have parted, although it has to be added that the author had some extremely unsavoury right-wing friends and colleagues, eg Simon Heffer of the Spectator, Daniel Hannan (ex MEP) and Johnson, whom Sikorski knew through the Bullingdon club, and who hardly qualify as any sort of ‘liberal’. Then there is the unspeakable John O’Sullivan, one of Thatcher’s speechwriters (a guest at Applebaum’s wedding), now in Budapest working for the Danube Institute which “exists, in practice, to make the Hungarian government presentable to the outside world”.
Applebaum is very perceptive about the Brexit debate in the UK, easily dismissing the myth of loss of sovereignty – “Nobody in the EU imposed rules on Britain: European directives are agree by negotiation and each one of them has been accepted by a British representative or diplomat” – and dwelling on the sadomasochistic proclivities of politicians at both ends of the spectrum.
She quotes a group of pro-Brexit MPs saying, “The British are among the worst idlers in the world” and that they needed a shock, a period of hardship, of challenge. At the other end of the spectrum a different sort disaster fantasy held sway. Corbyn “hailed from a Marxist tradition that had historically welcomed catastrophe because catastrophe can lead to radical change”. I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I don’t remember asking to be punished.
But it’s hard to see what any of this has to do with the “failure of politics” (has it failed?) or why democracy is facing “twilight”. Applebaum says, “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will”. But even a cursory glance at the history of Eastern Europe since the garden party back in 1989 shows that any society can turn against dictatorship and embrace democracy. “The ancient philosophers always had their doubts about democracy” she continues – quite possibly because the so-called ‘democracy’ of Athens was pretty rubbish.
But why should we accept as gospel truth, without testing it, what someone in the distant past may have said or thought? This is to fall into the Lord Acton trap. In a letter to a friend in 1887, Acton wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. This is often repeated like a pompous, mindless mantra, but any one of us can think of hundreds of examples of why what Acton said cannot be taken as law and indeed is verging on the nonsensical.
A number of other observations carry more weight: “Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity”; “…soft dictatorship does not require mass violence to stay in power. Instead, it relies upon cadre of élites to run the bureaucracy, the state media, the courts, and, in some places, state companies”; and “The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is its simplicity”. It is this sort of thinking that has led to the rise of the awful Orban in Hungary.
Movements, whether simplistic or complex, come and go but principles – eg liberalism and democracy – remain constant. Some tighter definitions are needed. I think Applebaum is a very important commentator, and I certainly wouldn’t want to belittle her, but I got the feeling that a lot of the book was about her pissedoffness with former friends. Perhaps she’s simply not very good at picking her friends.
The book certainly didn’t bear out her contention that we are living in the twilight of democracy or that politics has failed. A disappointing book, although perhaps its true importance for progressives is the glimpse it gives of divisions or potential divisions on the right: populists have an encouraging habit of bickering with each other.
It is important for us to exploit these divisions to have any hope of reversing Brexit. Rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Borrow, don’t buy.