A commentary on Tomas Hellén’s scientific writings from today’s perspective

Tomas’ research career was short, but he managed to publish some important texts on European politics that are worth reading even today. The Handbook of Political Change in Eastern Europe (1998), in which Tomas was co-editor with Sten Berglund and Frank Aarebrot, became an international success, even leading to two later editions (2006 & 2013). The book (or book series) has been one of the foremost reference works on the development of Eastern Europe’s democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the annus mirabilis of 1989.

The conceptual framework that the trio of editors developed was ‘simple and effective’: the book consists of country chapters with a central connecting term – cleavage – a societal gap or dividing line. The idea was thus to analyze what cleavages had arisen in conjunction with the democratization process and what historical roots they had, and how all this affected the emergence of a functioning party system and people’s political involvement in the new circumstances. The tragedy is that just a few days after the book’s manuscript was completed, Tomas passed away without ever getting the chance to hold the heavy book in his hands.

From today’s perspective, however, it may be even more interesting to read Tomas’ doctoral dissertation Shaking Hands with the Past: Origins of the Political Right in Central Europe (1996). The book is highly topical given the developments we have seen in Hungary and Poland and to a lesser extent in Slovakia and the Czech Republic in recent years – that is, in the very countries that Tomas analyzes in his comparative study. He shows convincingly how strong dividing lines there were in these societies in the early 1990s; the ‘real socialist’ system had not succeeded in eliminating all historical and class differences. And even at that stage, during those first years of building the new system, it was obvious that a certain propensity for right-wing radicalism or anti-liberalism existed in these societies and notably among ex-communists.

What is particularly important in the book is that Tomas think in terms of continuity, not change. Cultural attitudes and patterns in society change slowly, they are to some extent non-sensitive in relation to the institutional solutions and changes that arise on the surface. Tomas is thus of the same opinion as such contemporary well-known authors as Ralf Dahrendorf and Claus Offe, who already a few years earlier strongly emphasized that the political-institutional transformation in Eastern and Central Europe could be over in a couple of months, while rebuilding the basic structures of the economy would take a few years; the profound cultural change would, by contrast, be a matter of several decades. We have probably seen in recent years that these authors had a significant point indeed.

How are these views reflected in current research? In a small journal meta-analysis that I did on the articles in the most important Eastern European specialized journals (volume 2018-19, one year), it became clear that the developments we have seen in the Eastern European countries in recent years are now being reflected upon with deep concern. In about 40 percent of the articles, the starting points or conclusions were clearly negative in relation to the development of democracy, and it was practically impossible to find an interpretation with a genuinely positive attitude towards the overall evolution of these societies.

It is clear that what has happened in Poland and Hungary, and in some other countries as well, over the past decade, should not be neglected – it is truly worrying in many ways (although, for example, economic development has been relatively positive in these countries). However, one can still easily get the impression that some of the critical scholars have not been able to think in terms of continuity and deep cultural gaps in their analyses. There is therefore the risk they end up drawing conclusions based on the norms and values of their own societies. The problem of methodological nationalism is, I believe, what this is called in professional jargon. Today’s researchers might have better avoided it, had they been acquainted with Tomas’ fine book.

There is also another underestimated dimension in today’s research on democracy in (Eastern) Europe: freedom has remained a central value in the continent, but people, Europeans, interpret their personal and political freedom in very many different ways. Researchers and debaters should be more aware and responsive to this diversity in their analysis. The overall picture of what has happened to European conceptions of democracy in recent years would thereby become more nuanced. Tomas would certainly have appreciated this argument.

Henri Vogt

February 23rd 2021

Henri Vogt has been Professor of International Politics at the University of Turku since 2010. He was present at Tomas Hellén’s doctoral dissertation on June 7, 1996 and together with Mikko Lagerspetz he wrote the chapter on Estonia in The Handbook of Political Change in Eastern Europe (1998).

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Academic publications by Tomas Hellén

Sten Berglund och Tomas Hellén (red.) 1992. Val och vägval: en studie i demokratins villkor, Esbo, Schildts.

Hellén, Tomas, 1994. Vad kan göras åt arbetslösheten? Rapport från Nordiska rådets sysselsättningskonferens i Lyngby den 11-12 april 1994, Nord 1994:17, København, Nordiska ministerrådet. [link]

Hellén, Tomas 1996. Shaking hands with the past: origins of the political right in Central Europe, Helsinki, Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters. [link]

Berglund Sten, Hellén Tomas & Frank Aarebrot 1998. “Foundations of Change” in Berglund, Sten, Hellén Tomas & Frank H. Aarebrot (ed.) 1998. The handbook of political change in Eastern Europe, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 1-12. [link]

Hellén Tomas, Berglund Sten, & Frank Aarebrot 1998. “The Challenge of History in Eastern Europe” in Berglund, Sten, Hellén Tomas & Frank H. Aarebrot (ed.) 1998. The handbook of political change in Eastern Europe, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 13-54. [link]

Hellén Tomas, Berglund Sten, & Frank Aarebrot 1998. “From transition to consolidation” in Berglund, Sten, Hellén Tomas & Frank H. Aarebrot (ed.) 1998. The handbook of political change in Eastern Europe, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 365-377. [link]