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Between Past and Future

Sorin Antohi

I. Meanings of 1989: Present Significance of the Past

1. Between Past and Future

Agnes Heller

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1With the exception of the moments of our birth and our death we are always “between past and future”. Our acts are not only oriented toward the future, they are also motivated by an image of the future; recollection is not only oriented to the past, it is also motivated by the image of the past. Since one acts in the present and recollects from the present, recollection is also motivated by the image of the present and of the future, and action by the recollection of the past. There is a commonplace that—contrary to many other commonplaces—is blatantly untrue; that is, the commonplace that the past is necessary because it cannot be changed, only recollected, and that the future is free, for one can shape it according to one’s choice and will. This commonplace is the application of positivist conceptions of nineteenth-century natural sciences to history and to the human condition in general. It is based on the identification of causal determination and necessity, on a tautology that claims that if sufficient reasons existed for something to happen, it happened by necessity, and if something happened, there were always sufficient reasons for it to happen. Still, it could have happened otherwise, and in this sense it was not necessary, for the determining causes are normally entirely heterogeneous. They are like dice thrown from unrelated dicecups. Human will and determination are also dice of a particular dicecup of a particular throw. Moreover, past events could not only happen otherwise, but they are also constantly changed, since every act of recollection modifies them. One can tell the same story in a thousand different ways.

2And what about the freedom of the future? This is as questionable as the necessity of the past. True, the future is free insofar as it cannot be recollected. It is open, for many dicecups still wait to be thrown, among them the cup that is governed by human will and decision. Still, there are dicecups from which the dice have already been thrown. These cups entail the general conditions for the future of the present: for example, that a person has been thrown by the accident of birth in such-and-such a year in such-and-such a country, place, et cetera. Every individual is thrown into the world by accident, yet it is in this world that one has to grow, to act, and to decide. Freedom, however, has an entirely different status in the modern world than in all preceding ones. In a nutshell: modern individuals are thrown into a world that is founded on freedom. Yet freedom is a foundation that does not found. As a result, individuals themselves have to contribute to limiting their own conditions for their own actions.

3This conference is not just entitled “between past and future”, but also points at a certain period of time of exactly ten years—the years between 1989 and 1999. Whose past and whose future are we discussing? The past and future of Central-Eastern Europe, or more precisely, the past and future of the so-called Central-East European new democracies. They are also frequently referred to as posttotalitarian states and societies, an expression that was formerly applied, in my mind wrongly, to the paternalistic variant of totalitarianism. Both “new” and “post” are temporal expressions; they indicate societies that come into being after a certain past, having left that past, and having embarked upon something new. Yet there remains a difference in meaning if one speaks of posttotalitarian societies or new democracies. Both expressions indicate that a new kind of society was born roughly ten years ago. But the expression “posttotalitarian” emphasizes the relationship of these societies to their past; they were born after a totalitarian state and society. Yet the description is not indicative of the future. If one speaks of new democracies, one places the social and political entities in question exactly between past and future. They are new, and essentially different from the past, because they are democracies. The term posttotalitarian defines the identity of the main sociopolitical situation; it suggests that the throw from the dicecups of the main political and social institutions is still pending, that certain conditions for the future of the present are not yet in place. The term new democracies suggests that the dice from the dicecup of the main political institutions have already been thrown, that certain fundamental conditions for the freedom of political actions are set.

4Every new democracy is between past and future. This conference speaks of new democracies that are posttotalitarian and are situated in the center, or eastern center, of Europe. The topic itself entails a certain interpretation of the past and a certain way to presuppose conditions of the future. First, to speak of countries and nations between past and future as “new democracies” places emphasis on the political factor—it is a political identification. If one says new democracies, one means that the past and the future are entirely different. The past is nondemocratic; the future is democratic. In relation to the past one gives account of a rupture; in relation to the future one presupposes continuity. The new democracies are newborn, without a proper time of pregnancy, but rather only a short period of incubation.

5In traditional political terms one can rightly speak of revolution when referring to the experience of these countries. Political revolution is not identified by an uprising or by acts of violence. It is simply a change of sovereignty. New democracies are based—at least roughly, whether one likes the expression sociologically or not—on popular sovereignty, whereas totalitarian states are based on party sovereignty. It is legitimate to neglect this considering that there were many variants of totalitarianism, from terroristic to paternalistic, for even the most paternalistic version—the Hungarian—was grounded in party sovereignty. Pluralism existed, yet the party decided how far it could go. Popular sovereignty, a multiparty system, periodical elections, a parliamentary system, representative government, civil rights, human rights, and so on—these institutions in these states stand for something entirely new. The term new democracy, which indicates that there has been a total political break with the institutions of the past, speaks also of the expectation of continuity in the future. The countries of Central-Eastern Europe are new democracies now, yet they will mature as time progresses. Perhaps after another ten years, no one will speak anymore of new democracies, at least not in reference to the Central-East European states.

6One may view these new democracies, between past and future, from two perspectives: first, in relation to their past, and second, in relation to their future. In the spirit of my introductory remarks I will formulate the question as such: Can the past of the new democracies be understood as necessary, is their future free?

7The question is put in such a way that there can be no misunderstanding. The temporal terms “past” and “future” are not employed here in the spirit of the grand narrative. By past, I mean not the bygone ages, and by future, not a Utopian vision of something beyond our horizon. By past, I mean the past of the present; by future, the future of the present.

8Was the past of our present necessary, just because it happened the way it happened? I do not think so. There were conditions already thrown, but there were still—if not continuously, at least sometimes—other dicecups, the throws of which had several potential outcomes. For example, the hopes of many Russians for the end of the terror in 1945 and of Hungarians for liberation in 1956 were not entirely absurd. The Soviet system could have collapsed in 1956 as easily as it could have survived the year 1989. The throw of the unrelated dicecups was against us in 1956 and for us in 1989. That the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 was in this sense a contingent event. One could say that these considerations are just ontological games and entirely without any practical relevance. One cannot write alternative history—or rather, one cannot write alternative history on the ground of “what would have happened if; yet one can indicate alternatives in history, not just for theoretical but also for political—and perhaps sometimes even for ethical—reasons. In Hungary, for example, one has encountered and can still encounter nostalgia for the past, reinforced by anticapitalistic rhetoric—we are told how well people lived in the last years of the Kádár regime, and how the West has destroyed the progress made at that time. One could ask: What would have happened if the revolution of 1956 had been successful? Our standard of living was at least equal to that of Austria at the time. Who destroyed the livelihood of the Hungarian people?

9As individuals constantly change their own past, so do social actors, trends, and ideas. East European actors change their past in recollection, historiography, and political ideology. Conflicts of the present and prognoses for the future of the present are also intimately connected with the interpretation of the past.

10As far as politics and economics are concerned, the new democracies of Central Europe now exclusively refer to the single-party system and the state-controlled command economy in the past tense—these institutions no longer exist. Single-party systems became extinct ten years ago, and state-controlled economies gradually withered during the ten years between past and present as market economies and private property replaced them. Yet the question is constantly raised, and not without reason, whether or not the past is still in the present—and if yes, how.

11This question implies several subsequent questions. First, can one speak of the completion of systemic change (rendszerváltás or rendszerváltozás in Hungarian) if the former social and economic elite remains in place? Second (and this question is not entirely unconnected to the first), can such systemic change be accomplished without simultaneously altering attitudes and mentalities? Third, is the past in the present only the future of the previous system, or does it entail something else, more, and different (such as traditions, ways of life, cultural priorities, and spiritual aspirations)? Needless to say, questions about the past in the present and the answers to those questions substantially influence questions concerning the future of the present—ideas, strategies, options, wishes of political and social actors—that is, the outcomes of the rolls of the dice.

12I mentioned traditions. Traditions are past-oriented, but the past is not entirely homogeneous. Although there were times in the histories of totalitarian systems during which societies seemed to be entirely homogenized, totalitarian regimes had their own past—their own pre-Soviet past, which they continued to carry in their present—that is in our past. Those traditions have also lived on, though in many instances in altered form. What happened with this past in the present tense of new democracies?

13At this point, I need to say a few words about modern imagination. Modernity is fragmented, and modern imagination is not homogeneous. I make a rough distinction between two main tendencies in modern imagination with their respective institutions of imagination: technological imagination and historical imagination. Technological imagination is entirely future-oriented. In the spirit of technological imagination, the newest is always the best—be it the newest invention, the newest prototype, the newest discovery, the newest fashion, the newest book. The spirit of the technological imagination is the spirit of progress, the betterment of society. Every conflict is a sign of malfunction and is related to a problem that needs to be solved, especially social problems. Technological imagination is future-oriented, optimistic, and rational. Science, the dominant worldview of modernity, shares the spirit of technological imagination and is the offspring of it. In contrast, historical imagination is past-oriented and tradition-oriented. In the historical imagination the oldest—buildings, paintings, families, histories, and historical claims—is normally also the best, the most beautiful, and the most valuable. The most valuable traditions are those of bygone times. Historical imagination is frequently employed ideologically; for example, in the Balkans today, every ethnic or national group legitimizes its claim for territory with history, with historical past. Nationalism and racism are deeply rooted in historical imagination. However, it would be unwise to conclude that historical imagination is dangerous; without it there is no poetry, religion, ethics, ceremonies, symbols, allegories, holidays. Neither would hermeneutics exist. Without historical imagination problem-solving would entirely take the place of meaning-rendering. Additionally, though historical imagination provides modern wars with ideologies, technological imagination provides them with weapons. One can also refer to historical imagination as romantic in a broad sense and conclude that two kinds of enlightenment—historical enlightenment and technological enlightenment—are fighting a constant battle in modernity.

14I needed this short detour to make the following point: In Central-Eastern Europe between past and future, during the first ten years of the new democracies, the fight between historical and technological imagination has been brought to the forefront. It stands to reason why. In a single-party system, a unified ideology dominates that synthesizes historical and technological imagination. According to Marxism, universal progress is caused by the development of forces of production and their clash with the relations of production, and after achieving proletarian liberation from the straight) acket of capitalism, the modern forces of production will be successfully controlled and developed ad infinitum by socialism and communism. Needless to say, in this scenario technological imagination contains historical imagination, and vice versa. Since a dominating ideology no longer exists, the unity of the two imaginary institutions is past and gone. New democracies also have been normalized in this respect. In a democracy, which breeds the pluralism of opinions and views, historical and technological imagination frequently collide, sometimes even within the same individual’s soul.

15There are some areas in all the new democracies in which historical and technological imagination clash. Since my experience is Hungarian (and I think that in Hungary this conflict is tougher than in some other new democracies), I limit my examples to the Hungarian case.

16Let me return for a moment to the presupposition that the future is free. I have already stated that this is not entirely the case, for the throw from unrelated dicecups is never simultaneous. Several dice have already been rolled—for example, had the Hungarian revolution succeeded in 1956, the economic and social conditions for the new democracy would have been entirely different. The new democracies of 1989 were thrown into circumstances that now provide the conditions for free action, yet also put limits on several decisions and actions. Some of those conditions have nothing to do with the matters I am going to discuss, but others do.

17There are no natural social or political systems in the sense that no social or political system is more adequate to human nature than any other. However, the individual is a fairly elastic animal and can adopt various life strategies, ways of acting and thinking. What was not natural yesterday may be natural tomorrow. But it takes time to adjust, and every adjustment is readjustment. How fast one can adjust depends on several circumstances, but primarily on how partial or total the readjustment needs to be.

18In the new democracies adjustment is partial, for one has to adjust from the requirements of nondemocratic and economically noncompetitive—yet already modern—social and political systems, to other, differently democratic and economically competitive, social and political systems. Although the readjustment is partial, it still needs time and cannot happen as abruptly as the change of political institutions and economic systems themselves. One can perhaps import the wording of a democratic constitution and can introduce fair laws in a short time, but one cannot produce law-abiding citizens. One can privatize enterprises, but one cannot introduce the entrepreneurial spirit from one day to the next.

19Fifty years ago, between 1948 and 1949, the people of Central-Eastern Europe had to readjust to the introduction of the Soviet system.

20The adjustment occurred under constraint and with fear. But up to a degree it happened. Yet, at least in matters of daily life, a whole generation (or rather two generations) adjusted and accommodated itself (or themselves) to the given circumstances, and afterwards to the paternalistic version of the single-party system. Seemingly inconsequential issues are far from being inconsequential: how to get an education, how to get a job, how to find an apartment, how to go on vacation, how to visit a doctor, how to get to a hospital. Ten years ago, very abruptly, the unpopular but familiar world collapsed; individuals had to learn new rules to new games. Some learn with ease, some with difficulty, and others not at all. A part of society will be absolutely lost, particularly because certain workplaces are disappearing due to contemporary technology; there is a loss of human value. If one looks at this development from the viewpoint of technological imagination alone, one could conclude that everything has its cost, and one must pay the price of progress. The spirit of progress requires adaptable individuals, for they are the ones on whom the future hinges.

21Historical—or romantic—imagination does not accept this argument; rather, it avers that one should not pay the price of progress. What is progress, anyhow? If the lifeline of a nation is cut, and whole social strata become impoverished, useless, and perhaps homeless, there cannot be progress. Many of those who assume the attitude of historical imagination place more emphasis on the importance of life than on freedom. Technological— or rationalistic—imagination nowadays is universalistic in Central-Eastern Europe (though not at all times and not everywhere). This is understandably so—technology binds and bolsters the world: all computer engineers speak the same language, and the economy is global. Romantic imagination is more traditional; it prefers to speak the mother tongue. It fears that succumbing to universal—that is, global—intercourse threatens the survival of specificity and individuality. It wants to protect national traditions from the intrusion of the international market, particularly from the global media and the Americanization of culture. It also wants to protect certain features of daily life, such as the traditional family.

22Historical imagination can pave the way for fundamentalism, but it is by no means always and in principle fundamentalist. Moreover, technological imagination also can evolve into a kind of fundamentalism. The conflict between technological and historical imagination is present in all modern societies. The specificity in Central-East European societies is, however, that the conflict is carried out under the burden and pressure of adaptation. Technological imagination enforces rapid adaptation; historical imagination supports resistance or makes the case for the deceleration of the process of adaptation.

23But adaptation is also heterogeneous, as is resistance against it. To what does one need to adapt in the time between past and future? To democracy; to the rule of law, including civil and human rights; to a market economy, including the global market; to the latest technology. Yet these institutions rarely require direct adaptation; rather, adaptation occurs through the filters of everyday life and behavior—the so-called inconsequential, yet not so inconsequential, issues that I already mentioned: how to seek employment; what school to choose for one’s children; whether or not to bribe the police officer, civil servant, or official in order to get something that is legal, but takes ages to be achieved through legal means; to protest or not to protest if facing injustice; to speak out in defence of one’s own case or for the case of another; to hire personnel based on professional qualifications or on political connections. For example, in the current present, efficiency is necessary, but the individual is often faced with a choice between the moral and the practical. An additional conflict exists: the ramifications of one’s actions based upon those that are familiar in the past. Freedom of speech is now practiced, but one may not exercise this right, being afraid that the specter of the past will appear in the present. To sum up, the past remains present—and limits the present—in at least two different ways: first, in the preservation of traditional attitudes and behavior, which adjust to new circumstances in a Hegelian way; and second, in the fear of both the ghosts of the past and of the risks of the future.

24The past has a strong presence in intellectual life as well. Central-East European societies have been fairly apolitical, precisely because everything—or at least too much—was politicized. Art, education, and the economy were political matters. Now that totalitarianism, even in its paternalistic version, is past and gone, the apolitical character of totalitarian society survives in the minds of average citizens. They are contented with—and are even proud of—not caring about politics, far more than is desirable for a healthy democracy. In contrast, intellectuals became overpoliticized in the old regime, and the old tendency remains in force; they regard everything as a matter of politics. To complicate matters, everything is regarded as a matter of party politics. Public life is divided along party lines, especially in Hungary, and the sympathizers of a party behave as if they were party intellectuals in the historic sense. The old distinction between the so-called constructive and destructive criticism has not withered.

25Until this point, I have discussed briefly the past of the present and the past in the present. Now I briefly turn to the future of the present and the future in the present.

26Let me stress again that as the past is not entirely necessary, the future is not entirely free, for there are constraints; there is a finite space for action to change things. It is of the greatest importance in the new democracies to determine where those limits are and what constraints exist. Constraints cannot be described in terms of necessity or determination; they are the framework, the limit, on the space for free action while preserving the freedom of action. In the new—yet not quite established—democracies, great uncertainty prevails concerning the establishment of free space; yet to accept a limit or a constraint does not mean to resign freedom. One can assume—though nothing is certain—that those constraints are presently immovable because they do not seem to be movable by actions within the new democracies, but nothing in the world is absolutely immovable. When one uses the term new democracies, the word “new” is the attribute of democracies. It does not add to the essence of the thing but does not detract anything from it either. New democracies and old democracies are democracies all the same. Sometimes the new institutions are even more democratic than in traditional democracies. How can one then explain the feeling, which has been expressed many times by several intellectuals, that this democracy is somehow not “real”?

27I have already mentioned one of the reasons. The institutions are in place, yet the attitudes necessary to maintain these institutions are sometimes absent. Yet there is another reason. In totalitarian times, even during its paternalistic period, Central-East European intellectuals viewed democracy in a rosy light. It stood for the perfect political order. Yet a political order is by definition imperfect. By realizing that the new democratic order is imperfect, the answer is readily at hand: it is not democratic enough. To balance those inflated expectations, one could perhaps refer to Churchill’s well-known bon mot: democracy is a fairly bad political institution, yet still the best ever invented. One could add that it is the best for a very simple reason—modernity can best reproduce itself within the framework of democracies, for the institutions of liberal democracies have the greatest potential to secure the freedom of the individual. This freedom is relatively stable, first because freedom of the individual does not depend solely on the political order, but on society and on the institutions of the intimate sphere as well; and second—and this is the gist of the matter—because democracy is an imperfect political order, as all political orders are.

28Although the grand narrative was rejected by Central-East European intellectuals a few decades ago, its vestiges are still lingering in their imagination, first and foremost in the foible for the metaphysical category of perfection. Where there is perfection, there can be neither action nor criticism, yet irritation for imperfection remains. Only where there is unjust distribution can one make a case for distributive justice; only where many things are wrong can one make the case to set it right. Democracy opens the door for making such claims; it opens the territory of future-orientedness in politics, for the not-yet. Democracy, while offering space for the dynamics of modernity, gives the future-orientedness in politics an ontohistorical foundation.

29Thus, the future of the present presupposes the future in the present. Democratic institutions are the embodiment of the future in the present, for they offer the opportunity not just for future-oriented action, but also for future-oriented negation. Yet future-oriented action, and future-oriented negation, too, must have limits; they must be limited by certain conditions. Liberal democracy is an institution that freely sets the limits to its own freedom.

30I earlier mentioned economic constraints, including the constraints of the global economy. Economic constraints are relatively or partially external to the modern state, just as many other institutions of technological imagination, such as science; otherwise they could not be universal. An external limit is not self-limitation, although it can be related to self-limitation. The legal order is self-limitation; human rights are self-limitations. That freedom itself is based on self-limitation is as old a wisdom as the idea of liberal democracy. But old wisdoms also need to be repeated sometimes.

31Let me return to a short sentence I formulated close to the beginning of this paper: The modern world is grounded on freedom. But freedom is a foundation that does not found. As a result, the modern world is unfounded; it needs to found itself, it needs to give itself its own foundation. For without a foundation there is no theory, no world and, of course, no politics. The foundation is the arche, the final and ultimate principle, on which other principles need to be measured, to which other principles need to have recourse. Without grounding, one will enter a chain of determination without end. And since this does allow for a political order, there will be a nondemocratic order.

32One of the greatest political inventions of modern times is the kind of constitution that works as a political foundation. It is not a natural foundation, for as the name suggests, it is constituted; yet after having been constituted, it becomes quasi-natural. In the modern world, freedom can be founded if the constitution is behaving like the arche, the fundament to which all laws have to take recourse. Further, the legitimacy of actions taken and decisions made for the future from the vantage point of the future can be limited by this foundation alone. The foundation can also be modified, but it is better to modify it infrequently. It is not the most important matter whether the foundation is a written constitution or not, but that individuals are aware of the limits of contestation and that the future of the present is a future within this limit. The constitution and the spirit of the constitution, as Montesquieu once said, is the foundation of modern democracies.

33The ten years between 1989 and 1999 were indeed the years between past and future. What was at stake was learning how to live constantly and continuously between past and future: how to cope with the tension between historical imagination and technological imagination; how to accept life in a state of uncertainty, in the process of constant trial and error, in contingency and freedom which sets its own limits. One adapts to a transitory period when one discovers that it is not a transitory period, because modernity is not to be understood as a transitory period that finally leads to an earthly paradise. The possibility for betterment always exists. The present always can be better than it is. But even if it will be better, and should be better, there always will be suffering, nuisance, injustice, and pain. And there will be losers. This is not transitory. Modernity does not enjoy a privileged position in history.

34Still, the new democracies of 1999 have reason to celebrate. Traditional novels end with weddings: lovers divided by tough luck, conspiracy, and misunderstanding finally meet each other before the altar and on the nuptial bed. Very rarely does the author offer the reader a look into the lives of the married couple ten years after. For ten years of marriage after the happy day of the wedding would show that nothing happens exactly as expected; it would show disappointment, quarrels, sadness, moments of regret, and nostalgia for the honeymoon. And still, this is real life—engagement is just a preparation, and the wedding is a happy moment that shines beautifully in our memories. This has also happened in the new democracies. There were weeks of jubilation, of passionate hugs and enthusiastic intoxication, but now the Central-East European countries have already been married to liberal democracy and the market economy for ten years. These ten years could not have matched those dreams. Those who were promised the rose garden were cheated or were mistaken. Rose gardens on earth exist only in the totalitarian mind. Yet things can be better than they are, and they should be better.

35One can celebrate the first decade, the first essential anniversary, with a promise: to make the marriage work with less suffering, less pain, less remorse and also with less nostalgia—but not with fewer quarrels. Because without altercation there cannot be a good marriage between free and independent minds.


Agnes Heller is Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the New School University, New York. She also teaches at Eötvös Loránd Universtiy, Budapest and József Attila University, Szeged.

© Central European University Press, 2000

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