Richard Rose: Overcoming anti-modernity
Richard Rose

“The most straightforward way to understand how
people have coped with transformation is to ask them.”

A renowned political scientist, Richard Rose has published more than 40 books on a vast number of topics ranging from the conflict in Northern Ireland over the welfare state to democratisation and Europe. Born in the United States, Rose moved to the UK when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. He now heads the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Aberdeen. The centre’s website lists a vast amount of surveys on various topics related to the countries of Central Eastern Europe, the Baltics, South-eastern Europe, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

In his book “Understanding Post-Communist Transformation. A bottom up approach” Richard Rose looks at the experiences of ordinary people during what he – like Janos Kornai – calls “the great transformation of Europe”. The book draws on more than 100 surveys and 120,000 interviews in 20 countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union from 1991 to 2008.

Rose’s book is an illustrative journey back in time to the early days of the transition. It shows how different society in communist Eastern Europe actually was – not only in terms of political orientation and economic welfare, but in terms of the way people lived. Rose maintains that the communist states of Eastern Europe were not modern societies.

“Communist societies were not modern in the European sense. Even through they had mass education, big cities and jet aeroplanes, the harsh application of Marxist-Leninist principles created something different, an anti-modern society.”

A modern state has to be a Rechtsstaat, argues Rose: a state in which the rule of law controls what state officials may and may not do, a political system that avoids arbitrariness and unreliability in political rule. The communist system, unconstrained by laws and rights of the individual, was the opposite.

“In the absence of the rule of law, subjects could not rely on bureaucrats to deliver services to which they were entitled by law. To get things done required much more time and energy than when dealing with a modern bureaucracy working with the predictability of a vending machine. People who wanted to benefit from what the planners decided turned to an economy of favours in which [connections] counted more than rules.”

Another striking (anti-modern) feature of the East European transition societies was food production. In a modern society only a small part of the population produces food. During the early 1990s, however, according to Rose’s research, from half to four fifth of households in post-communist Europe were growing food. Strikingly, “a household’s economic circumstances [had] no effect on the decision to grow food.”

A third very interesting finding was the structure of a typical household’s economic activities. Rose distinguishes between three types of economies: official economies (activities on public record), unofficial economies (with money changing hands, but not on public record), and household economies (repair, other help and barter among friends and relatives, none of it involving money). In a modern European society, most people earn their living from only one economy – the official one. In transition economies this is different:

“In an economy in transformation, the most risky strategy to maintain welfare is to rely solely on individual earnings in the official economy. When the New Europe Barometer asked people at the start of the transformation – Do you earn enough from your regular job to buy the things you really need? – everywhere two-thirds or more said they did not.”

In Hungary in 1992 only 11 percent of respondents said they earned enough from their regular jobs. Delving deeper into the issue, Rose breaks down the three main categories and defines a total of 9 economies.



OFFICIAL economies: legal monetized (97%)
Member of household has regular job 72
Receives pension, welfare benefit 39
SOCIAL economies: non-monetized a-legal (90%)
Household production food, housing 68
Exchange help friends, neighbours 64
Queuing more than an hour a day 23
Gets, gives favours for free 15
UNCIVIL economies: monetized, illegal (34%)
Pays, receives bribes 21
Job in second, shadow economy 19
Uses foreign currency 2

* Mean for Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia; 1992 data (“uses foreign currency” 1993).

The number of households engaged in various economies is striking.

“It was common to be active in all three types of economies – official, household and uncivil. This was the case in two-thirds of households in what was then Czechoslovakia, in just over half of households in Russia and 3 in 7 in Bulgaria. Households involved in only a single economy were deviant: in 1991 and early 1992 only 2 per cent in Czechoslovakia and 3 per cent in Russia were involved in just a single economy.”

This legacy, combined with the legacy of a state that – besides being hostile and unaccountable – lacked the rule of law, helps to explain why East European societies often found it difficult to establish and to trust the institutions of a free market democracy.

  • Richard Rose, Understanding Post-Communist Transformation. A bottom up approach, Routledge, 2009.
  • Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Aberdeen, where – for a small fee – one finds a vast amount of surveys on various topics for the countries of Central Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Southeastern Europe.
30 June 2009