After the Wall: Finding Common Good in Post-Communist States

Story posted May 06, 2009

By Emily Graham '11

With the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, post-Communist states have been flooded with new freedoms, new ideas of liberty, and new definitions of statehood. But those freedoms have brought new challenges. Post-Communist countries are now struggling to redefine a common good when the state no longer dictates the political, social and economic direction of the country.

These were some of the topics discussed during a recent conference, "Redefining the Common Good After Communism," which took place on the Bowdoin campus on May 1, 2009, International Worker's Day.

The conference, which was held in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, was organized by Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Government Laura Henry, and Kristen Ghodsee, Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies. A keynote speech, "Capitalism and the Common Good: What's Left of Marx?" was delivered by Ronald Suny, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago.

The conference enabled 10 scholars from institutions around the country to add fire to the debate on post-Communist politics, against the backdrop of a capitalist world in the midst of an economic recession. The instability of current conditions raised pointed questions about state provision of social rights such as housing, education and employment. (Read abstracts of their talks.)

Scholars approached the concept of the "common good" from widely divergent perspectives. Lectures ranged from discussions of the role of massive oil companies such as Lukoil in shaping the nature of culture in Russia, to the impact of tourism on Croatian society.

Much of the debate among the scholars focused on the influence of trans-national governmental bodies of the West on developing post-Communist states. Many of the panelists said they found in their research that Western initiatives aimed at improving post-Communist states actually have yielded unintended negative results.

Associate Professor of Government at Clark University, Valerie Sperling, noted in her lecture, "Protecting the Russian Common Good... in France: Russia and the European Court of Human Rights," that the European Court of Human Rights' rulings on Russian cases affected change only in individual lives, but did not encourage the Russian government to alter its policy in any way.

The panelists also differentiated between the post-Communist states of Eastern Europe and those states that did not gain ascension into the European Union (EU). Most agreed that the EU continues to dictate how its formerly Communist member-states should define the common good and limits the scope of discussion on the topic.

Contrarily, several of the scholars noted that Western political bodies often encouraged states transitioning from Communism to abandon all previous practices, even those that were effective. Elaine Weiner, Associate Professor of Sociology at McGill University, noted that post-Soviet states that sought to join the EU were forced to abandon their gender-equality policies and adopt those of the West. Weiner highlighted some evident incompatibilities between the West and post-Communist states. Panelists who discussed non-EU members noted that these states tend toward authoritarian regimes that seek to unilaterally define the common good for their citizens.

The conference rounded off a yearlong series of events marking the opening of the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good in the fall of 2008. The Center helps faculty members to connect their teaching and research to issues of the public good, and coordinates service and community engagement opportunities for Bowdoin students, faculty and staff.

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