Geremek, Bronislav: Europe and the Challenge of Democracy

Aula Magna, University of Turin, October 30, 2007

geremek1Freedom and democracy are normally taken to be the child of Western civilization, a heritage of European history. Now when I was in Beijing in the 1990s and raised the issue of the universal nature of human rights, hoping the Chinese politicians and ideologists I was speaking to would subscribe to the view, they retorted that they human rights varied. In fact they added, civilizations define them each in a different manner, according to their traditions: in the Confucian tradition fundamental human rights could best be described as person’s right to feed to their satisfaction, to have clothes to dress and a roof over their head. According to my Chinese speakers, rights referred to freedom and democracy, so dear to the Western tradition, came second after fundamental rights, and could be seen as opposing the imperatives of social and economic development. Freedom and democracy were seen as foreign. The outcome of a cultural and historical tradition which was not theirs. The Eurocentric democratic and free market or libertarian doctrine upheld by Western historians and ideologists was fine for those who formulated it but those rights were not universal and that there were ‘Asian rights’ which were opposed to them.

In 1998 Amartya K Sen, a Bengali lecturer teaching in British, American and Hindi universities was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for having proved the theoretical and empirical link between democracy and an effective fight against major famines. According to Sen, democracy is not merely a matter of free elections: it requires decision making, public debates and the principle of social choice, the respect for individual freedom, the plurality of ideas and political practices.

A political culture with these far reaching boundaries, underlies social progress and according to AK Sen it is a universal value the roots of which can be found in Asian. African and European civilizations. His theories refute those who believe the West has a civilizing mission, a duty to promote democracy the world throughout and also to use economic and political (i.e.: using weapons) . Having said that Europe is where the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights are the rooted deepest. The European Union has made these principles the tenets of its neighboring policy, aid to developing countries, trade and economic cooperation. That notwithstanding these principles have not always been part of the conscience and identity of Europeans : it was moulded over time and by way of complex historical evolution.

In European history, the development of mutual understanding and the exchanges between human communities have been the result of means of social communication becoming universal, of the progressive acceptance of common standards making it possible to go beyond political, linguistic or ethnic borders. For instance that was the case of weights and measures which for had been local for a long time, their value being attributed in a rather arbitrary manner which gave rise to endless conflicts. In recent times most European countries have adopted the metric system as a weights and measures standard. Could one metaphorically compare the development of weights and measures to that of democracy? Of course, as modernity progresses, the democratic organization of the public space increasingly appears as a universal value. This is the truth of thesis underlying ‘The End of History’ although it referred to the history of ideas rather than to the social sphere. It would be mistaken to think that all the civilisations of the world mean the same when they talk about democracy. However, it would be just as wrong to believe that any of its forms (or variations) could be used as a yardstick for the others. For instance it would be a rather far step if one were to compare Thucydides (who in his famous funeral oration for Pericles opposed the rule of the majority to despotic and tyrannical systems) to the 2000 Warsaw Declaration toward a Community of Democracies.

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