Was institutionalized communism a necessary evil?
The legacy of 1989
Revolutions for Europe
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In order to live up to the claim to be a community of values, the European Union should pay more attention to the legacy of the revolutions of 1989. The experience of the peoples of East Central Europe shows that radical political upheavals can be achieved by peaceful means. In this respect, the “conservative” revolutions in Eastern Central Europe represent a challenge for the classic revolutionary paradigm since the French Revolution: In contrast to 1789, the events of 1989 demonstrate that a new beginning is possible without a radical break with the past.
(Eastern Europe 5-6 / 2004, pp. 31–46)
European integration has brought radical changes to contemporary Europe. The concept of national state power changed dramatically as the existing borders of the nation-state became less important. The systems of government in the member states had to meet the needs of ever greater economic and political integration, which led to a new type of policy at European level. The enlargement of the European Union intensifies these processes, just as it marks the end of the divisions in the East-West conflict. It is intended to fulfill the original objective of European unification in a variety of ways, namely to overcome the legacies of the Second World War. Measured against these consequences, the changes brought about by European integration appear truly revolutionary. And as in any good revolution worthy of the name, the hope now goes that its results will be preserved in a new European constitution. However, it does not seem appropriate to speak of a revolution in relation to the creation of the European Union. The new political entity may well be “insecure and unsettling”, but it is not revolutionary, at least not in terms of the methods by which these far-reaching changes were brought about: they were the result of negotiations, not street fights. They were introduced very carefully and gradually, by elites who were careful not to upset political stability by radically changing the existing political order. This is reminiscent of another series of revolutions that cannot quite be counted as revolutions: the one in East Central Europe in 1989. That is one of the reasons why the European Union would be well advised to take inspiration from the ideas and ideals that the people of the led the former Eastern Bloc in their struggle for freedom and the rule of law. Another reason is more direct: the enlargement of the European Union can only succeed if it also builds on the experiences of all the nations that have now become its new members. This article seeks to show that certain key concepts developed by dissidents in East Central Europe in their struggle against communism are still relevant to contemporary Europe. This statement is so obvious that it needs no further justification were it not for the fact that the legacy of 1989 has not (yet?) Found its proper place in Europe. The legacy of 1989 is often either ignored or misunderstood. Revolutions that did not want to be The revolutions of 1989 do not easily fit into existing ideas of revolutionary change in Europe. They were “self-limiting” revolutions with little or no violence, no radical break with the past, and little to no revenge against those responsible for the injustices of the old regimes. In direct contrast to the revolutionary regime change that the communists carried out after the Second World War, the revolutions of 1989 were characterized by restraint rather than radicalism. They were, as Gale Stokes astutely observed, revolutionary in a negative sense, burying any realistic hope that the teleological experiment of using the human mind to reshape society as a whole might succeed. In this way, they weakened the revolutionary tradition usually traced back to the French Revolution, based on the belief that radically new ideas could give rise to radically better societies. Revolutionaries Who Didn't Want To Be By comparison, the dissidents in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary who had been catapulted to the fore of these revolutions were very atypical revolutionaries. People like Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik in Poland and György Konrád in Hungary saw their struggle against the omnipotent communist state as an "anti-political" struggle for authenticity and not as a struggle for political power. Accordingly, they were very reluctant to take clearly defined ideological positions. Instead, they appealed to a set of humanistic tenets on the assumption that a regime based on hypocrisy, greed, and conformism could be defeated by a love of truth and an understanding of basic human dignity (hence Havel's talk of "living in truth"). These ideas may have been honorable, but to many Western observers they appeared antiquated and unsuitable as a basis for a coherent and clear political program. Accordingly, intellectual dissidents and their ideas were not at the center of scientific interest before and (not even) after the collapse of communism. According to Winfried Thaa, truth and lies, authenticity and social schizophrenia [...] have been central concepts of dissidence in Soviet rule since the beginning of the 1970s, but [they] played almost no role in Western research on communism. The neglect of intellectual developments among intellectual dissidents in East Central Europe by Western scholars was even easier to justify after the collapse of communism. There wasn't much to investigate, they argued, because the 1989 revolutions in East Central Europe and Eastern Europe did not generate any new ideas. Jürgen Habermas, for example, identified a peculiar feature of this revolution as early as 1990: “the almost complete lack of innovative, future-oriented ideas”. Against this background, it was most plausible to explain the revolutions of 1989 as "catching up revolutions", as revolutions that simply enabled the societies behind the former Iron Curtain to join the rest of Europe on its endless march into modernity. 1989 and the theories of modernization This interpretation had the great advantage that it fitted the experience of 1989 into the existing historiography of European history, which is based on theories of modernization. Although most observers rejected Francis Fukuyama's thesis of the end of history as overly simplistic, they were less reluctant to see 1989 as the culmination of all the historical processes that began in 1789. While the French Revolution marked the birth of modernity, 1989 brought Europe into a state of maturity. In this version, the path of European civilization to ever greater progress is only interrupted by the tragic accidents of National Socialism and Communism. Typical is the assessment of François Furet, who believes that the revolutions of 1989 were imbued with "the famous principles of 1789 in a fresh way and with renewed universality": by starting to leave behind the long and tragic detour of communist illusion , we are confronted more than ever with the great dilemmas of democracy as they emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and found expression in the ideas and course of the French Revolution. Furet's view is not unfounded and agrees with the opinions of some actors in the revolutions of 1989. György Konrád, for example, remarked that their timing, “two hundred years apart, represented an edifying encounter with, or: an homage to, that revolution, who was the first to proclaim human rights ”. Indeed, the most popular slogan of these revolutions, "the return to Europe", can be seen as an invocation of the principles normally associated with the legacy of the French Revolution: the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity. The Poverty of Modernization Theories Nevertheless: the reference to modernization theories and the French Revolution as the exclusive paradigm of radical political change obscures some special features of the revolutions of 1989. These theories concentrate on abstract historical forces and are therefore ill-suited to the effect of those unpredictable factors that make social change such a fascinating and unpredictable subject of investigation: the role of personalities and their ideas or the role of cultural and political identities. In general, modernization theories can do little to help us understand the possibilities of challenging repressive political structures from within. It is telling that the modernization theories, while most of their supporters were unable to predict the collapse of communism, offer with hindsight the most plausible explanation for the "inevitability" of the collapse. Furthermore, 1989 overruled one of the most important principles of 1789 or at least made it completely implausible: the principle proclaimed by revolutionary leaders and thinkers from Robespierre to Lenin to Žižek that radical social change is only possible as a result of violent struggle. The moderate “revolutionaries” in East Central Europe refused to use and justify revolutionary violence as a means of liberation. The revolutions in East Central Europe of 1989 mark the end of this revolutionary tradition, which saw the revolution of 1789 in France as its defining paradigm. 1989 as conservative revolutions? Paradoxically, then, one of the most interesting innovations of the 1989 revolutions was the fact that they did not produce a body of bold new ideas that could be used as models for a new society. If anything, they were backward-looking, even conservative in that sense. This in turn, without wanting to offend Žižek and other contemporary political scientists lamenting the decline of the revolutionary spirit, is the key to understanding the success of these revolutions. Historically speaking, it would not have been unusual for these revolutions to fail - it is their success that is remarkable and requires explanation. It was precisely because these revolutions were unoriginal and backward-looking that they were so successful. Ironically, the events of 1989 could probably be better described using the term “revolution” in its original meaning, as a return to an earlier state. This is the kind of revolutionary change that has been defended by critics of the French Revolution, such as Edmund Burke. Burke's famous debilitation of the ideologically inspired excesses of violence of the French Revolution is clearly echoed in the central insights of dissidents in East Central Europe: the concept of a “self-limiting revolution”, the idea of a “return to normal” and the ideals of an ethical civil society and “anti- Politics". 1789 as a deterrent example? Since the publication of Burke's reflections on the French Revolution, proponents of revolutionary change that were simultaneously aimed at freedom and equality have grappled with a fundamental dilemma of liberal democracy: the fact that democracy can destroy freedom. Thinkers of such diverse stripes as Alexis von Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, Hannah Arendt and Fareed Zakaria have warned of the danger that the power of the mob can replace the power of the law - the problem of "tyranny of the majority". The leading dissidents in East Central Europe had learned this lesson well. For example, Michnik writes in his comments on the virtues of democracy: Democracy is not identical with freedom. Democracy is freedom enshrined in law. Freedom in itself, without its restriction by law and tradition, leads to anarchy and chaos - where the law of the strong applies. That does not mean that the post-communist states in East Central Europe can always be sure of the validity of their newly established liberal democracies - the rule of law remains an ideal that one has to approach again and again - but measured against their historical forerunners they were The 1989 revolutions were surprisingly successful in enshrining the principle of freedom in law. This did not happen by chance, for it was in line with the efforts of the main actors to impose revolutionary change without revolution. In this sense it is appropriate to describe the East Central European events of 1989 as "anti-revolutionary revolutions", "revolutions within the framework of the law" or - to repeat my thesis - conservative revolutions in the sense of Edmund Burke. 1688 and 1776, not 1789 Indeed, Burke can be seen as a defender of the ideal of freedom - if not equality - and a certain revolutionary change that he saw best realized in the British Glorious Revolution of 1688. As the full title of Burke's influential work suggests, there was another dimension to his criticism of the French Revolution that is often overlooked in discussions of modern revolutions, namely his concern for protecting the gains of the revolution in Britain. Burke's fundamental insights can also help understand the unique characteristics of 1989 by providing alternative reference points such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776. As Krishan Kumar noted in relation to the aims and methods of these revolutions There are some significant similarities between 1989, 1776 and 1688: When the revolutions of 1989 were about democracy, constitution, citizenship, rule of law, protection of civil rights and the establishment of pluralistic civil societies, one can hardly think of more appropriate parallels than the English and American ones Revolution. Tocqueville's somewhat idealized portrayal of the American Revolution of 1776 as a type of revolution that “did not enter into an alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy, but whose course was, on the contrary, shaped by the love of order and law” can be applied to 1989. In 1776, as in 1989, the “revolutionary” leaders were aware of the dangers of a radical break with the past and therefore decided in favor of a “limiting revolution” in which concern for political stability slowed the spirit of innovation. Based on this, Michnik argued: “Solidarity never has the vision of an ideal society. She wants to live and let live. Their ideals are closer to the American Revolution than the French. ”Similarly, Burke's account of the 1688 Revolution, which focuses on trying to preserve“ old irrevocable laws and freedoms ”, can be related to the notion of the “return to normal” in the countries of East Central Europe. When the Czechs, Poles, Slovaks and Hungarians got rid of their tyrannical regimes, they believed, rightly or wrongly, that they were simply demanding back their old freedoms. Accepting this view of 1989 could lead to a reassessment of the historical precursors of revolutionary changes, as Hannah Arendt called for many years ago. She deplored the fact that intellectuals in the West were so obsessed with the legacy of the French Revolution that they tended to view all other events, including the American Revolution, through the prism of 1789: The sad truth is that the French Revolution, which ended in catastrophe made world history, while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, remained an event of little more than local significance. According to Arendt, the American Revolution was more successful than its French counterpart because it opened up new opportunities for citizens to get involved in politics actively and as equals before the law.By focusing more on political freedom than on social equality, the American Revolution opened up a space for authentic political engagement. As Winfried Thaa has convincingly pointed out, the revolutions of 1989 can be seen as a late defense of Arendt's attempt to challenge the dominant concept of revolution in Europe with a “revolutionary concept that does not focus on the upheaval of the social order, but rather, based on that American Revolution, the re-establishment of the political space ”. In either case, both revolutions, 1776 and 1989, can be described as self-limiting revolutions. Self-limiting revolutions The idea of a self-limiting revolution arose in part as a pragmatic response to a new geopolitical situation in East Central Europe. After a series of unsuccessful uprisings against the authoritarian communist regimes of the Soviet type (1953 in the GDR, 1956 in Hungary and Poland and 1968 in Czechoslovakia) it became clear that no significant changes in the political system in the countries of East Central Europe would be possible as long as the Soviet Union was in place was determined to maintain control of their satellite states. And yet the actions of the hesitant revolutionaries in East Central Europe were not only shaped by such pragmatic considerations. Equally decisive or more decisive was their conviction that they would have to exercise restraint in their own political struggle in order to avoid "the very negative experiences of all unrestricted social revolutions of the Jacobin-Bolshevik type". They were also convinced that it must be possible to challenge the “post-totalitarian” communist regimes from within by peaceful means, if only enough people were determined to do so. These were the considerations behind Havel's momentous essay Moc Bezmocných (Eng. Attempt to live in the truth), in which he rejected the use of dogmatic-ideologically inspired violence: This already results from the [...] already mentioned skepticism about that way of thinking, which is based on the belief that a really significant change in society can only be achieved if (in whatever way) a change of system or government is implemented and that this change - as a so-called "principle" - justifies it also the "less principled", that is, to sacrifice human life. Respect for one's own theoretical concepts wins the upper hand here over respect for human life; but precisely therein lies the potential danger of a new enslavement of man. Michnik's rejection of the ideal of revolutionary violence associated with the French Revolution was even more explicit: "To believe that a revolution will overthrow the dictatorship of the party is both unrealistic and dangerous," he argued, because "those who use violence to storming today's Bastilles will probably build even bigger and worse Bastilles ”. As a consequence, the political opposition was willing to limit its use of power, even after the actual collapse of communism. They went to great lengths to preserve “the fiction of legal continuity with a past without legality”. As Arato notes, this is one of the remarkable legacies of 1989: it is the great contribution of the East and East Central European struggle for legality amid the radical upheaval that without having inherited republican institutions, the new can be built without being completely with the old break. The anti-communist revolutionaries were ready to negotiate with their former communist enemies because they feared that the alternative would have plunged them into chaos and anarchy. The actors “tried at all times to carry out a revolution without a revolution”. Not only the dissidents, but also the masses on the streets did not want a complete revolution in the traditional sense, but simply a "return to normal". Return to “normal” The notion of a return to “normal” or “return to Europe” may have been very ambivalent, but it resonated with a large majority of people. Many Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians wanted a feeling of normality to re-establish themselves after the “foolish experiment” of communism. The fact that this normalcy is equated with the way of life in the established Western democracies, and therefore might be far removed from any past or present experience of the peoples of East Central Europe, did not prevent anyone from considering the return to normalcy as natural. It meant a return to a past that may never have existed. As the Polish sociologist Jerzy Jedlicki dryly noted, Poland was always about to return to Europe, even though it had never actually been there. Yet it was precisely this perception that enabled Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians to see their struggle for freedom in line with the best aspects of their own national traditions. In Burke's words, the nations of East Central Europe were simply claiming back their old freedoms. In this way, the idea of a return to normality linked the project of post-communist change, directed towards a liberal-democratic future, with the pre-communist past. Yet it was not just the pre-communist past that was a point of reference for evaluating liberal values. The new leaders also tried to encourage people to support liberal values by recalling the unsuccessful uprisings against communism. This return to the best aspects of the resistive past was apparently in conflict with the second characteristic of conservative revolutions, namely the search for the fiction of legal continuity with the lawful and unlawful communist regime. Of course, the impulses involved here were contradicting one another: one could not preserve "pasts" that were so radically different from one another, even mutually exclusive. And yet you did it, even if it led to grotesque scenarios. Suffice it to recall that Václav Havel, despised by the communists as the leader of Charter 77, was elected to the office of President of Czechoslovakia by the communist (!) National Assembly in December 1989. Indeed, there is another irony that makes the 1989 revolutions conservative in Burke's terms. While the 1989 revolutions shared a number of the goals of 1789 that Burke had opposed at the time, many of the two hundred year old radical ideas seem far less radical today. For example, Burke opposed democratic ideals and the modern concept of citizenship because he believed that these enlightened ideas were too radical and endangered freedom. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine that he would have far less objection to them today. Two hundred years after the French Revolution, the ideals of the French revolutionaries have become part of a “European” or Western tradition, and most people today are by no means to consider democracy and freedom to be incompatible. Anti-Politics and Civil Society With the continued popularity of the concept of civil society, which transcends ideological boundaries, it is easy to forget that the concept was originally based on a very conservative ideal - the belief that free societies depend on private virtues. According to Burke, good character and virtue are not the result of an abstract ideal of humanity. They can only be promoted now and then within very small communities of citizens, in small associations in which everyone knows their place and which move in concentric circles from family to neighborhood, from neighborhood to city and from city to nation and the rest of the world Expand the world. One does not become virtuous simply because one has understood or accepted the wisdom of Rousseau's volonté générale or of Kant's categorical imperative. Similarly, there is no great use for Hannah Arendt in invoking noble principles of freedom if the political space is not also created in the social sphere in which authentic action by independent citizens can take place. This thinking too resonates in the beliefs of the dissidents who assumed that communism could only be defeated by a change in the "hearts and minds" of individual members of society. Only then would post-communist change take hold. For this reason, Havel called for “moving from an abstract political vision of the future to the concrete person and the effective defense of this person“ here and now ”. Political engagement should be the result of concrete acceptance of responsibility. That was the ideal of an ethical civil society. In its initial form, the concept of civil society was not intended to be revolutionary. Civil society should not turn against the state, but should complete it. This was the tradition "inherited from Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment, Burke, Hegel, and Tocqueville". As one of the leading Hungarian intellectuals, G. M. Tamás, explained, the dissidents in East Central Europe creatively adopted this concept for their own purposes and turned it against the restrictive communist state. This antagonism between state and society is more reminiscent of Thomas Paine than Burke, and it is therefore not surprising that left-wing intellectuals in the West took great pleasure in the East Central European concept of civil society. Thomas Paine is the one who stated in Common Sense that "society is a blessing in every state", whereas "governments in the best state can only be a necessary evil". The dissidents' suspicion of the communist state and its official ideology, Marxism, found expression in the idea of anti-politics. The anti-politics were directed not only against the state, but against all forms of institutionalized politics. Anti-politics were hostile not only to communism, but to any dogmatic political ideology. Nevertheless, it would be a gross misunderstanding to regard the ideal of anti-politics as apolitical. On the contrary, it enabled the action of the individual to acquire authentic significance through liberation from the constraints of institutionalized politics and schematic thinking within an abstract ideological framework: in this sense the personal became political. The ideal of anti-politics encouraged people to act “as if they were free” and to take on the responsibility that this freedom brings with it. Anti-politics was therefore not an unprincipled politics, but simply a "politics without cliché". Europe as a community of values If at all, the dissidents in East Central Europe were less reluctant to occupy fundamental positions in their political struggle than their Western counterparts. This is evident in the ongoing debate about the goals of European integration and the means to achieve them. While the debates in the West seemed to focus on the technical aspects of integration, the East Central European intellectuals repeatedly stressed that Europe should be viewed as a community of common values and should therefore be defined by a number of fundamental principles. Bronisław Geremek recently demanded: If the European Union is to overcome small nationalism and be united by a shared and binding purpose, then it must give up the rhetoric of the accountants and speak in a language that understands what is good and bad, what is beautiful and ugly, what is right and wrong. A similar argument, criticizing the technocratic nature of the European Union, can be found in Havel's commentary on the Maastricht Treaty. Although Havel was impressed by the inventive constitutional provisions of the treaty, he was left with the impression that something important was missing: I had the feeling that I was looking into the inner workings of an absolutely perfect and extremely ingenious modern machine. To look at such a machine must be a great pleasure for any admirer of technical innovations. But for me, whose interest in the world is not limited to admiration for well-oiled machines, something very important was missing, something that, in simple terms, could be called a spiritual, moral or emotional dimension. The contract addressed my mind, but not my heart. Increasingly, this problem is also being acknowledged in the West. Larry Siedentop, for example, laments "the lack of an exploratory discussion of European integration - a discussion that would bring to light the underlying assumptions about human well-being - [which] in itself is symptomatic of the crisis in European beliefs". Against this background, the experiences of the dissidents of East Central Europe in their struggle against tyrannical regimes can be instructive in reminding Europe of its original purpose. In connection with the debates about the European draft constitution, the question of the meaning and purpose of integration is once again gaining in importance. Will an enlarged Europe take on the legacy of 1989? The signs so far are not very promising. The experiences of the post-communist nations of East Central Europe do not occupy a prominent place in the discussions about the emerging European identity. Habermas ’latest attempt to form a European identity is based on his anti-American stance, on the idea of secularization, the ideal of the welfare state and the struggle of European peoples for peace, but is directed against, if at all, the intellectual dissidents in East Central Europe. Although Habermas deals with the historical developments of the 20th century as well as the “experiences of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century”, he never mentions the struggle against communism or what I call the legacy of 1989. Instead, he looks to the peace demonstrations in February 2003, which took place simultaneously in “London and Rome, Madrid and Barcelona, Berlin and Paris”. For Habermas, the coordinated action of the demonstrators meant the long-awaited emergence of a European public. The preamble to the draft treaty for a European constitution is even more ahistorical. It lacks any specific references to the historical experiences that shaped modern Europe. It does not mention World Wars I and II, or the 1989 revolution. This may be another missed opportunity, given that the success of the current European project has no reference to the defeat of two great totalitarian challenges faced by the liberals The freedom of the 20th century is not to be understood: National Socialism and Communism. The current draft of the preamble is an extremely uninspired technocratic document that will hardly satisfy any East Central European intellectual who is looking for a “spiritual, moral or emotional dimension” of European integration. If the European Union is to become more than the sum of its parts, a community of peoples and citizens instead of just an association of nation states, then it must also be built on the ideas and ideals which inspired the dissidents in their struggle against communism . The debates on the institutional composition of the enlarged European Union should not divert our attention from fundamental questions about the purpose of integration. If we follow Bronisław Geremek's advice, we have to ask: “Why do we want to live together? What is the point of European integration? ”In order to answer these questions, consideration should be given to the lessons that the people of Eastern Central Europe learned in their struggle for freedom, which many of them saw as a struggle for Europe. Translated from the English by Stefanie Lotz, Frankfurt
Full text as a file (PDF, 602 kB)
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