Books editor’s blog: open society’s survival is worth fighting for

An openness and willingness to question oneself are the foundations of democracy and should be defended robustly, argues Michael Ignatieff, president of Hungary’s Central European University, in a new book

October 4, 2018
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After an unsuccessful bid to become prime minister of Canada in 2011, Michael Ignatieff wrote a striking book about his experiences: Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics. He had failed to realise, he wryly admits, that modern elections are basically “reality shows” and that his initially rather “academic” approach – “believing that every voter deserved a Socratic dialogue of many minutes’ duration” when out canvassing – was hardly likely to bear fruit.

At the time, Ignatieff told Times Higher Education that he was “totally done and dusted” with practical politics and was happy to be back in a university setting. He is still working within the academy, but as president of the Central European University in Budapest he has hardly managed to escape political pressures.

Indeed, given the hostility to his institution of Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, he recently reported: “If by January 2019 I don’t get…an agreement with the Hungarian government [relating to a rule requiring overseas universities to have a base in their home country]…I can’t accept new students in Budapest. So I’ve got a gun to my head here.”

All this forms the context to an important new book, Rethinking Open Society: New Adversaries and New Opportunities (CEU Press), edited by Ignatieff and postdoctoral researcher Stefan Roch. In his introduction, the former returns to Karl Popper’s 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, which defined a form of politics utterly opposed to both Nazism and Stalinism.

Other thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin developed a similar liberal vision around the same time, broadly sympathetic to the welfare state though putting greater stress on liberty than on equality. Since George Soros, the founder of the CEU, was once a student of Popper’s at the London School of Economics, there is a direct link between such ideas and the university Ignatieff runs.

The open society ideal, his introduction goes on, now faces much opposition, not least in eastern Europe, where “the failure of liberals to develop political instruments of power prepared the ground for other political forces with more effective organizations and a shrewder sense of the fears and anxieties unleashed when the certainties of the communist order were swept away…After the uncontrolled migration surge of 2015, open society advocates rapidly lost the battle for Eastern European hearts and minds.”

Ignatieff acknowledges a number of “justified criticisms” of “open society ideals” (some of them developed in greater detail by other contributors to the book, which is based on lectures and debates held at the CEU in 2017 and 2018). Yet he still argues that such ideals “should continue to inspire us”, given that openness and a willingness to question oneself are “constitutive of the democratic temper”.

He also wants “CEU, like any university worthy of the name, [to] stand for values without allowing itself to become a prisoner of politics or ideology”. These are surely causes worth fighting for in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

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