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Between Past and Future

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Sorin Antohi

II. Winners and Losers in the Great Transformation

9. Fighting for the Public Sphere: Democratic Intellectuals under Postcommunism

Vladimir Tismaneanu

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“Wherever knowing and doing have parted company, the space of freedom is lost.”
Hannah Arendt, On Revolution
“I am convinced that the contemporary world, beset by so many threats to civilization and seemingly incapable of confronting these dangers, demands that people who understand something about this world and what to do about it have a much greater influence on politics. I was convinced of this even as an independent writer, and my participation in politics has only served to confirm it.”
Vaclav Havel, 1994
“Democratic revolutions of oppressed and self-oppressing societies bring all manner of unsavory matters to light.”
György Konrád, 1989

1In March 1996 a conference took place in Budapest on a fascinating topic: intellectuals between morals and politics. The organizers (from the Hungarian edition of Lettre Internationale and Collegium Budapest) asked the participants—among them many illustrious former dissidents of Eastern and Central Europe, as well as a number of western writers— to examine the role of the intelligentsia at the end of this century. Some of the participants insisted that the declining role of intellectuals in the East is only an expression of normality. Thus, the mayor of Budapest, Gábor Demszky, insisted that in Hungary not only former dissidents but also nationalist intellectuals have left politics. The view he expressed at the time was that the peaceful Hungarian revolution was over, and there was no need for any “teachers” or “fathers” of the nation. Adam Michnik echoed this theme and criticized many former dissidents who simply could not adjust to the new conditions of democratic normalcy. In his view: “the heroes fought for freedom, but do not love freedom.” He gave the example of poet Zbigniew Herbert, whose radical anticommunism amounted to a deep distrust for the democratic values and institutions that allowed the former communists to return to power.

  • 1 Tony Judt, “Beyond Good and Evil: Intellectuals and Politics at the End of the 20th Century”, (pap (...)
  • 2 See András Bozóki, ed., Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe (Budapest: Central European U (...)
  • 3 Ferenc Fehér and Ágnes Heller, The Postmodern Political Condition
  • 4 For the importance of critical intellectuals’ critique of populist authoritarianism and the contin (...)

2French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut spoke about a widespread melancholy, East and West. In his view our world was devoid of “great causes”, a point echoed a few years later by historian Tony Judt when he spoke about the transition from a “highly politicized to a de-politicized world1”. The moral lesson of dissidents (itself a “meta-narrative” of sorts) was not fully grasped and therefore swiftly jettisoned; more than a critique of the monopolistic Leninist regimes, the philosophy of civic emancipation advocated by Eastern Europe’s critical intellectuals bore upon the fate of modernity and our understanding of the relationship between means and ends in the organization of social space. Perhaps the best brief description of the postcommunist condition was given by Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev who said that when we speak about politicians in Eastern Europe today, we mean former communists, and when we refer to intellectuals we have in mind former dissidents. The question remains: Between lionization and vilification, what is the role—or better said, the responsibility—of critical intellectuals in these societies?2 Is Vaclav Havel an incurably naive and sentimental moralist when he calls on former dissidents to remain involved in politics? Or, resuming a question addressed by Agnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér, “How can one be dissatisfied in a satisfied world?”3 Shouldn’t they rather challenge, as Slovak writer Martin Šimečka movingly suggested, the “provincialism and stupidity” of the new authoritarian, populist, and ethnocentric movements in the region?4

  • 5 See Vladimir Tismaneanu, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist (...)

3The dissident as a hero turned out to be a political myth in Central and Eastern Europe, but the myth raised these societies to a higher level of moral self-awareness5. Since the collapse of communism, most former dissidents both opposed the restoration of the old regimes and defended the liberal principles of universal equality under law, even for their former jailers. This may have cost them electoral votes, but their consciences remained clean. Eastern Europe has a memory of despotism and political dissent that no other part of the world can claim. Precisely because they knew better than anybody else the nature of the old regimes, the humiliation imposed on the individual in the name of collective salvation, former dissidents are the proponents of a liberalism based on memory and caution.

  • 6 See Olivier Mongin, Face au scepticisme: Les mutations du paysage intellectuel ou l’invention de l (...)

4The revolutions of 1989 were first and foremost revolutions of the mind, and critical intellectuals played the role of “revolutionary subjects”. In the aftermath of 1989, an important transformation of identity occurred within this group: critical intellectuals converted into something that was long absent from East-Central (and arguably West) European experience, namely democratic intellectuals6. In the midst of the difficult transition, democratic intellectuals serve to remind society that no goal is so important as to justify the sacrifice of individual freedom. Non-Machiavellian political practices (what used to be called “antipolitics”), with their wager on pluralism, diversity, and the rejection of ascribed collective identities, will remain timely. The decline of the public intellectual, a phenomenon noticed both East and West, is not a sociological fatality. The ongoing tension between proponents of an open society and their rivals (a contradiction more salient, but not at all limited, to the postcommunist world) makes the role of democratic intellectuals as significant as ever.

Intellectual Daydreams under Communism

  • 7 See Milan Kundera, “Tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books (26 April 1984): 33-38.

5In the 1970s and 1980s it became trendy in some quarters to revere the Austro-Hungarian “Golden Age” with its real or invented cosmopolitan and tolerant traditions. Central Europe was ascribed with all the lost legacies of civility, cultural experimentation, scientific innovation, and individual rights within the rule of law. Although there were many contributors to the manufacture of this myth (Philip Roth’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series and Nobel Prize winners Czeslaw Milosz, Elias Canetti, and Isaac Bashevis Singer), perhaps the most eloquent soothsayer was Milan Kundera, whose “Tragedy of Central Europe” seemed to forever define the topography of the region. Central Europe, or to use Kundera’s original metaphor, the “abducted Europe”, was turned into a cultural myth, galvanizing both western and eastern intellectuals, from Susan Sontag to Danilo Kiš7.

  • 8 See György Konrád, “L’Europe du Milieu, patrie intérieure”, Cadmos 39 (Fall 1987): 25-38; Radu Ste (...)

6As long as Central Europe remained a cultural (literary) myth, no one could attack the critical intellectuals of the Warsaw Pact countries for harboring political illusions8. Had they not dreamt about Central Europe, civil society, and antipolitics, about a universe of autonomy and diversity, they would have been condemned to spineless vegetation. By eulogizing civil society and Central European traditions, they proposed political and cultural archetypes, normative ideas fully opposed to the uniformity and stultification required by Sovietism, and they also ascribed special status to the critical intellectual as a moral “tribune”. To use Polish poet Stanislaw Baranczak’s inspired metaphor, critical intellectuals continued to “breathe under water” and to generate ideas and values for which they gained respect from less active individuals, the inhabitants of the “gray area”.

7These writers and dissidents were admired, if not always loved, by their countrymen. Even rulers were interested in their ideas, as newly opened communist-era archives bear witness. They were seen as moral heroes, though few would take the risk to publicly endorse their gestures. Dissidents risked their jobs, friends, and even freedom. The fact that these individuals were underappreciated in the mid-1990s should not make us oblivious to their prerevolutionary credentials. Critical intellectuals did matter under communism; as an ideocratic regime, communism took ideas—especially oppositional, alternative ideas—seriously. The ideal of growing civic activism from below allowed individuals to escape ubiquitous bureaucratic controls and engage in spontaneous forms of association and initiative.

8Not so long ago, in the pages of the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash wrote poignantly about the uses of adversity and acquainted western readers with the main ideas that eventually subverted the Leninist order. A frequent visitor to the region, well-connected to every important person associated with Eastern Europe’s cultural underground, Garton Ash did more than anyone to make the political writings of Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, and György Konrád well-known and valued in the West. Not only did he write about the region, but his essays were widely discussed and commented on by those whom he praised as moral and political heroes. Thanks to him (and to other writers like Andrew Arato, Neal Asherson, Tony Judt, John Keane, and Jacques Rupnik), dissidents were rightly seen as paragons of dignity within a morass of cynicism, duplicity, and conformity.

  • 9 See Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolutions of ‘89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, B (...)

9Then, suddenly, civil society became political reality. As communist regimes fell one after the other in the almost surreal revolutionary avalanche of 1989, there were no political counterelites to take over (Poland was somewhat of an exception). There was no full-fledged counterideology, unless we consider the generous calls for truthfulness, pluralism, and authenticity as political doctrines9.

10Never before perhaps in human history have so many individuals been so swiftly and traumatically exposed to earth-shattering transformations of their whole existential world. All the ideologically imposed norms and slogans were exposed as lies. The hour had arrived, it seemed, for these societies to finally live in truth. But the revolutionary euphoria associated with the fall of communism was short lived, and discombobulation, frustration, and bitter disappointment have marked its aftermath. The moral polis heralded by Eastern Europe’s dissident writers has not come true. Instead, there is noise, discomfiture, and a lot of nostalgia for the “good old days” of the past.

  • 10 See Gazeta Wyborcza, 28-29 January 1995, quoted by Michal Cichy, “Requiem for the Moderate Revolut (...)
  • 11 Borusewicz, “Tygodnik Powzechny”, in Cichy, “Requiem”, 149.

11All established ranks, statuses, traditions, hierarchies, and symbols have collapsed, and new ones are still tottering and quite problematic. Envy, rancor, and resentment have replaced the values of solidarity, civility, and compassion that once drove the East European revolutionaries. Long disguised by Leninist propaganda, inequality emerged as a shocking reality. As Polish sociologist Jacek Kurczewski noted: “Poverty is accompanied by envy, a feeling that becomes dominant in times of economic change. The feeling expresses itself not so much in a striving for communism, but in a defense of socialist mechanisms of social security under conditions of a capitalist economy and suspicion of everyone who has achieved success in these new conditions10.” Greed, corruption, and abuses of power are all-pervasive, affecting all political parties, left and right. Thus, veteran Solidarity activist Bogdan Boru-sewicz wryly admitted: “We were convinced that when communism collapsed and the USSR fell apart, then the best people would step forward to rule well and honestly. It turned out that people remained people, and the shortcomings we were used to blaming on the system are simply embedded in each person, me included11.” Much of the idealistic ethos of the revolutionary upheaval evaporated and left room for bitterness, suspicion, and paralyzing self-pity. In Poland and Hungary as much as in Romania or Bulgaria, contemplating the rise of the new bourgeoisie, overwhelmingly recruited from the communist economic nomenklatura, led to mass feelings of frustration. Instead of promises of emancipation and revolutionary change, many individuals are now sharing a psychology of helplessness, defeat, and dereliction.

Metaphysical Mud-slinging

  • 12 See Slavenka Drakulic, Café Europa: Life After Communism (New York: Norton, 1997)

12The rampant indulgence in “metaphysical mud-slinging” indicates a temptation to dismiss the moral credentials of precisely those people who had championed dissidence under the late communist regimes. This resentful trend is intensifying further, and the return of former communists to government positions in Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland exacerbates factionalism among former anticommunist forces. There is a contagious need to assign guilt and demonize those held responsible for the current troubles. Manichean visions are resurfacing in a world that seemed to have had enough of such dangerous temptations. Populist ideologies, radical mythologies of victimization and persecution, offer necessary alibis for new exercises in hatred and exclusion. History is often rewritten in order to accommodate self-serving national legends of heroism, and the calls for lucidity are denounced as harmful to the health of the ethnic community12.

13Among those trying to assess the future of the postcommunist societies, two main schools have emerged. Optimists share a belief in the vitality and viability of liberal institutions and values, while skeptics despair at the host of former Leninists who have converted themselves into ethnocentric radicals, rabid chauvinists, clerical fundamentalists, fascists, and other varieties of antiliberals. The optimists see Central Europe quickly joining European structures, adopting and developing western values and institutions, and enjoying the benefits of market economies. Pessimists notice that privatization goes slowly and erratically, and its main beneficiaries are primarily the former communist hacks, ex-secret police officers, conmen, or mafiosi. Furthermore, they see political society in these countries increasingly marred by venomous hostility, pseu-doprinciples, and the rise of irresponsible nationalist demagogues. For them, prospects for liberalism are dim in countries other than the relatively successful Central European triangle (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland) and the Baltic states.

Citizen-Scholars Needed

14This discussion, which I deliberately oversimplify, contrasts those who think that it is high time for former dissidents and human rights activists to leave politics to the professionals with those who still see a pressing task for the democratic intelligentsia to advocate the needs and interests of civil society. In other words: Do intellectuals still matter in postcommunist societies?

  • 13 See Bernard Guetta, “Pologne: La normalisation démocratique”, Le Nouvel Observateur (23-29 Novembe (...)

15Throughout Eastern Europe, intellectuals seem to have lost the war. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s long expected return to Russia provoked no soul-searching national debate on the country’s past or present. Solz-henitsyn even went so far as to make public his decision not to vote in the December 1995 parliamentary elections because of his disgust with the dismal state of Russian politics. In the presidential election of June 1996, he lukewarmly supported Yeltsin, whereas Yelena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov’s widow, and Sergey Kovalev, Russia’s preeminent human rights activist, refused to vote for any of the leading candidates. It is hard not to feel sad, even desperate, at the political resurrection of so many former collaborators of the deposed regimes. The price of normalcy seems to be the institutionalization of oblivion. As French journalist Bernard Guetta asserted after the 1995 Polish presidential election: “The war is over. Poland has chosen a normal man for normal times. Everything is fine and it is very sad13.” The pendulum has swung from the initial idealization of dissidents as prophets of truth, as the voice of the powerless, to the ongoing trend toward their dismissal and even vilification. The current prevailing view of dissidents as “losers” must be challenged. Their role and the values for which they have long stood are fundamental to the outcome of the ongoing political struggles.

16It is the optimistic school that equates political normalcy with the end of political involvement of the East European intelligentsia. The problems of Central European democracies, they argue, should be analyzed and solved by professional politicians. Needless to add, where one can find these well-trained, skillful, and morally reliable individuals remains a mystery. Optimistic pessimists, like myself, take issue with this approach and wonder if the prospect of a political order rooted in morality is by definition doomed. It is thus disturbing to see that even some of the most articulate western analysts of the region have come to the conclusion that antipolitics is a failed project. If I refer more frequently to Gar-ton Ash, it is precisely because I respect his acumen and perspicacity, his empathy for the moral dilemmas of these writers and philosophers, and because I ask myself: What happened that made him so distrustful of the same values he so eloquently cherished several years ago? Does he think that the political confrontation is over and that a constitution of liberty has indeed been achieved in these countries? Can one separate political participation from political critique? True, East European intellectuals briefly brought to power by the wave of 1989 were not always good politicians; they made some terrible mistakes. But should they now be banned completely from politics?

  • 14 See Timothy Garton Ash, “Prague: Intellectuals and Politicians”, the New York Review of Books (12 (...)
  • 15 It is noteworthy that Judt, known for his criticism of the dissidents’ “naive idealism”, has signi (...)

17Precisely because of their independent position, their readiness to challenge the idols of the tribe, former dissidents remain vitally important. Building on their years of opposition to the authoritarian system in the name of human dignity, pluralism, and freedom, they can now shine their lanterns on hypocrisy, bureaucratic manipulation, and ideological conformity in present day politics. In early 1995, Garton Ash unambiguously wrote: “You do not have to be a president or a prime minister to change consciousness. In fact, you may stand a rather better chance if you are not14.” Public intellectuals should thus resign themselves to their newly prescribed position of spectateur engagé (a hint to the memoirs of the late French sociologist Raymond Aron); however, whereas this detachment might arguably be justified in developed democracies, it is highly questionable that the new polities in Eastern and Central Europe can so easily dispense with the moral injections so needed during the transition15.

  • 16 See Tony Judt, “The End of Which European Era?” Daedalus 123:3 (Summer 1994): 1-19.
  • 17 See Jirina Siklova, “Backlash”, Social Research 60:4 (Winter 1993): 737-49
  • 18 Irena Grudzinska Gross (remarks made at a workshop on political psychology of postcommunism, Budap (...)

18The intensity of the attacks against them, the vicious ironies and dismissive tones, suggests that their enemies understand this situation quite well. In fact, I propose that anti-intellectualism in postcommunist societies is intimately linked to antiwesternism and antiliberalism. The political setbacks of the dissidents are accompanied by widespread disaffection with delays in European integration of these countries as well as the lack of altruistic, decisive Western commitment to their economic recovery16. Many citizens in these countries expected the states of the European Community to act as quickly and as generously toward them as they had in the past toward Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Dissidents were the proponents of Western values, and as many people have come to resent what they perceive as Western indifference, these very intellectuals are held in contempt, accused of groundless idealism, utopianism, and wishful thinking. As their very existence is a constant reminder of how few really resisted communism, it becomes fashionable to discard their altruism. People have learned how to hate and scorn them17. This explains much of the reorientation of the Polish electorate in the November 1995 presidential elections. Poles have been disappointed with Western reluctance to speed up Poland’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. One can thus notice in most of these countries a new wave of resistance to Western values and a mounting criticism of those elites directly associated with liberal choices18.

  • 19 See Adam Michnik, Letters from Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives (Berkeley: Univer (...)
  • 20 This point is discussed by Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of C (...)

19It was one thing to get rid of the old regime, with its spurious claim to cognitive infallibility, and a much more daunting task to erect a pluralist, multiparty order, a civil society, a rule of law, and a market economy19. Freedom, it turned out, is easier to gain than to guarantee. The events of 1989, unlike previous historical convulsions designated “revolutions”, were not inspired by any systematic blueprint, by any plan for political or spiritual salvation. They were anti-ideological, antimillenialist, anti-Jacobin, and anti-Machiavellian. They did not proclaim the advent of the New Jerusalem, the Third Rome, the Empire of Reason, or the Republic of Virtue. Their leaders were not driven by an appetite for power or by Utopian fervor. They were indeed reluctant revolutionaries who understood the perils of dogmatic hubris. For them, the ideocratic state was the devil incarnate, the imposition of a secular religion as the basis of politics, instead of contract or consensus20. This postmodern repudiation of any predictive teleology, of any world historical determinism, was both their moral strength and political vulnerability. It was the triumph of poetry over ideology or, if you prefer, of surrealism over realism.

20From Prague to Berlin to Vilnius, philosophers, historians, journalists, poets, balladeers, jazz musicians, and rock singers became leaders— at least for a few days or months. As the ecstasy faded away, most dissidents were eliminated from the front stage, then blamed for all imaginable sins. The less impressive the anticommunist background of their critics, the shriller their voices. But again, does this mean that democratic intellectuals have ceased to influence the political process? What is then to be made of the key political role played in Poland by an outstanding medieval historian like Bronislaw Geremek, one of the main strategists of the 1989 round table agreements, later the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Polish parliament and the country’s current foreign minister? Aren’t former dissidents like Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski still significant voices in articulating political criticism and orienting the public debate?

  • 21 For the significance of Michnik’s ideas, see Ken Jowitt, “In Praise of the ‘Ordinary’”, introducti (...)

21Nowadays it is increasingly fashionable to lament the naivety of critical intellectuals. They are chided for failure to establish a new set of values and for lack of nerve in confrontations with mounting populist waves. Instead, shouldn’t they be held accountable in light of what they actually stated in their pre-1989 writings? Thinkers like Konrád or Michnik never claimed that they were interested in becoming leaders of their nations21. János Kis, the first chairman of Hungary’s liberal and prowestern Alliance of Free Democrats, never saw himself as a national savior, but as a political philosopher. Dissidents have generally disliked collective emotions and refused the exploitation of individual charisma for political purposes. The main contribution of these intellectuals was to ensure the peacefulness of the revolutions. They wanted to avoid any form of Jacobin terror, and in this they fully succeeded. Their self-imposed mission was to continuously remind their fellow citizens of the values that inspired the revolutions, and therefore they consistently rejected the vindictive logic of mob justice.

1989 Redux

22The revolutions of 1989 are now subject to all sorts of revisionism; even their moral roots are questioned. All kinds of bizarre stories are now circulated about what presumably happened in 1989: the end of communism was simply a gigantic hoax, a secret police operation, a grotesque masquerade engineered by factions within the former elite. Conspiracy theories abound in which the traditional reference to the “Yalta betrayal” is replaced by the new myth of “Malta”, the December 1989 summit at which George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev allegedly agreed on the future of Eastern Europe. This political myth has an all-explanatory power: it defines the source of evil, makes sense of the former communists’ economic empowerment, and justifies civic demobilization. “Why fight when the end of the game is preordained?” many East

  • 22 See Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism (New York: Random Hou (...)

23Europeans ask. Journalist Tina Rosenberg has noted: “What the world did not know about Malta, but about half of the Czechs I interviewed seemed to know, is that Gorbachev there had promised Bush to topple communism if the communists were given their nations’ wealth and therefore retained power in its new currency22.”

  • 23 See Jane Perlez, “The Fist in the Velvet Glove”, New York Magazine (16 July 1995): 18.

24Perhaps these were not even revolutions, since so many of the former apparatchiks achieved success within the new order. Such disillusionment, in turn, creates anger and need for a scapegoat. Intellectuals are thus described as quixotic dreamers, unable to articulate pragmatic strategies of change. Their moral concerns are decried as proof of wim-piness. Former Czech prime minister Vaclav Klaus, a flamboyant free marketeer and staunch advocate of decommunization, is usually portrayed as a realistic, down-to-earth, and therefore successful politician compared to Havel, the tweedy intellectual. But the Czech case is in many respects unique, as it has shown little resurgence of the authoritarian populism overtaking Croatia, Russia, Serbia, and Slovakia. Moreover, in spite of his Thatcherite rhetoric, Klaus did not dismantle the social safety net inherited from the previous regime; under Klaus state spending in the Czech Republic remained at approximately fifty percent of the gross domestic product. His classical liberal agenda is a polemical device to contemptuously mock Havel and his supporters for comprising a “moralizing elite with perfectionist ambitions” and for their devotion to human rights and civil society23.

State Artists or State Jesters?

  • 24 See Václav Havel, Summer Meditations (New York: Vintage, 1993), especially the epilogue, 123-28; a (...)

25The main split in the region is not between communists and anticommu-nists, but between assertive nationalists (often allied with former communists) and the besieged liberal forces. The former denounce critical intellectuals precisely because they have refused to abandon their creed—their belief that truth has to be defended against all imperatives of realpolitik. They are again seen as troublemakers, sterile daydreamers with little grasp of the intricacies of the political game. Their calls for tolerance are turned down as dangerous to the survival of the ethnic community. In their post-1990 books, György Konrád and Václav Havel, intellectuals who most poignantly formulated the language of dissent, lamented the declining status of intellectuals in Eastern Europe. Both authors are struck by the ambiguities, disappointments, and pitfalls of postrevolutionary times. They look to their legacy of dissent as a well-spring of moral inspiration, and both see the memory of the communist experience as uniquely important for avoiding new mythological fallacies. Konrád and Havel have come to see many of their ideals scoffed, denied, and battered, but they still cling to their hopes of building states based on intellectual and spiritual values24. Their critics’ ironies notwithstanding, they epitomize the need to preserve that peculiar East European social role: the critical intellectual as political activist, as defender of the values of modernity.

  • 25 See György Konrád, Melancholy of Rebirth: Essays from Post-Communist Central Europe (San Diego, Ca (...)

26Even if one finds some of Konrád’s reflections too sanguine, especially his belief that anti-Semitism will remain a peripheral trend in Hungary, one cannot but admire his enlightened vision of a liberated political community. Students of the transition will learn more from his writings than from countless arid, scholastic attempts to apply western concepts or mathematical formulae to a profoundly novel situation. The intellectual’s main vocation is understanding, Konrád argues, and he sees this role as essential if politics is to have any meaning: “The intelligentsia is the keeper of legitimacies: it provides grounds for morality, argumentation for the law, exegesis for religion, allegories for ethics, and analysis for politics. In other words, intellectuals peddle clear consciences and guilty consciences25.” Thanks to intellectuals, citizens can make fundamental distinctions between good and bad actions.

27The causes of current confusion are based in the moral phenomenology of the East European intelligentsia. For decades this class was divided between those who accepted collaboration (Mikl6s Haraszti’s “state artists”) and those who rejected the pact with the communists (Leszek Kolakowski’s “jesters”). Among the latter, there were many disenchanted Marxists. Breaking with the magic world of ideology and engaging in the rebellion of the mind, they discovered the force of critical reason. Under postcommunism, these intellectuals have tried new political forms and styles (civic forums, for instance), and they have voiced strong reservations about the conventional dichotomies in terms of left and right. Taking into account the growing crisis of ideologies and parties in the West, can one fault them in this commitment to moral values?

  • 26 See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1977); Jeffrey C. Isaac, Democracy in D (...)

28We cannot risk idealizing professional politicians who in this century have so frequently displayed both soullessness and thoughtlessness. It was, after all, the narrow-mindedness of Germany’s political elite and its failure to detect the totalitarian nature of Hitler’s party-movement that created the conditions for the Nazi takeover in 1933. Yes, intellectuals may err, but at least in the Central European case they invoke a heritage of heroic resistance to autocracy. They have, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, a revolutionary tradition whose treasure hasn’t yet been lost26. Thus, Konrád’s call for a democratic charter, a nonparty civic initiative committed to the values of pluralism, is clearly linked to Havel’s appeal for a spiritualization of politics. Otherwise, we are forever annexed to instrumental rationality, condemned to remain cogs in the wheel manipulated by anonymous, irresistible forces.

  • 27 See Wolf Lepenies, Inaugural Lecture at College de France, European Chair (21 February 1992). Roma (...)

29German sociologist Wolf Lepenies described intellectuals as “the species that complains27”. At the same time, their complaints deny the frozen order of things and pierce the fallacious walls of immutable structures of domination. Democratic intellectuals are here to defend the political legacy of the Enlightenment against the new waves of atavistic passion, tribalism, nativist populism, and racism. Why did so many Westerners get excited at the moment of the antiauthoritarian revolutions of 1989 after all? Simply because a cohort of senile bureaucrats were kicked out of power?

  • 28 See Michael Ignatieff, “After the Revolution”, The New Republic (19-26 August 1996): 42-45; Ernest (...)
  • 29 For the importance of freedom of the press in postcommunist societies, see G. M. Tamás, “Victory D (...)
  • 30 Quoted in Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe ( (...)

30The answer is surely more profound, and it is linked to the fact that the revolutions of Eastern Europe have rehabilitated the notion of citizen as the true political subject. Their main liberal component consisted of emphasis on the right of the individual to be free from state intrusion into his or her life28. This celebration of negative liberty was accompanied by an equally important focus on the revival of civic initiative and the restoration of substantive positive freedoms, especially the freedoms of association and expression29. The uprisings were the palpable expression of a need to reinvent politics, to insert values that transcend immediate pragmatic and ideological considerations into real life. Vaclav Havel’s presence in the Prague castle is a symbol greater than his physical person enjoying (or abhorring) the presidential prerogatives. It is indeed miraculous that, out of the lowest levels of human destitution, out of the murky world of decaying Leninism, an experience of solidarity and civic fraternity could be restored. This is the deeper meaning of Havel’s famous pledge in his presidential address on 1 January 1990: “I do not think you appointed me to this office for me, of all people, to lie to you30.”

  • 31 See Marshall Berman, “Modernism and Human Rights Near the Millenium”, Dissent (Summer 1995): 333.

31The struggle for this new politics is far from over. Because the stakes of the game played in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are so high, the withdrawal of intellectuals from politics would be disastrous. The values formulated during the odyssey of dissent remain as urgent as ever: transparency of human relations, trust, and dignity. Marshall Ber-man is right that the 1989 revolutions have vigorously reconfirmed the philosophy of human rights as the basic intellectual foundation of modernity: “The hopes of 1989 will be harder to fulfill than the activists of that year believed. Yet those hopes refuse to die, and even their failures turn out to make them strong31.”

  • 32 See “Rival Visions: Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, with a commentary by Petr Pithart,” Journal of (...)

32Indeed, Eastern Europe’s critical intellectuals first discovered the values of citizenship under conditions of mental subjugation and an unremitting onslaught on autonomy. Their memories (unlike those of their Western counterparts) are marked by opposition to ideological follies and social engineering. They know the full meaning of being unfree. They are not political greenhorns, for which they are often criticized by former communists. They may be reluctant to take jobs, but this is not because of lack of expertise. Their modesty should not be taken for incompetence, in the same way the former communists’ arrogance should not be seen as professionalism. Insisting on the need for intellectuals to remain politically active, Havel referred to a former colleague who turned down his invitation to fill an important government position. The friend invoked the well-worn argument that “someone has to remain independent”. But what responsibility is about is the opposite. Havel correctly pointed out that, if all democratic intellectuals would follow this escapist example, “nobody will be able to remain independent because there would be nobody in power who would make possible and guarantee your independence32.”

  • 33 See Andrew Wachtel, Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugosl (...)

33Serbia, where the betrayal of the intelligentsia and its capitulation to populist adventurers has resulted in countless disasters, exemplifies Havel’s theories. After all, we shouldn’t forget that intellectuals can be as much proponents of human compassion as of venomous hatred. It was the Serbian intelligentsia that produced in 1986 the memorandum of the Academy of Sciences that, for all practical purposes, delineated the genocidal delusion of ethnic cleansing. But they did it as enemies of civil society, not as its most loyal supporters33.

  • 34 Take, for instance, the cases of two brilliant intellectuals—Gabriel Liiceanu and Andrei Pleşu—in (...)

34With his reflexive, ironic, and less explicitly militant demeanor, Konrád may be the spectateur engagé that Garton Ash seems to favor. His ideas are gentle, his writings are extremely elegant. The problem is, however, can one counterpose Konrád to Havel? In fact, engaging in practical politics is more often than not a matter of personal psychology—some people are naturally disinclined to commit themselves to public service34. But this should not be presented as a sociological imperative. From Shelley to Michnik, writers have had a role in denouncing injustice and imagining a less immoral order.

Critical Intellectual Versus Clever Lunatic

  • 35 Konrád, The Melancholy of Rebirth, 87

35Whom do the new postcommunist authoritarian groups and movements abhor the most? The democratic intellectuals, of course, eternally stigmatized as troublemakers, aliens, and Jews. But this scorn makes the “missionary” status of the East European intellectual valid again: critical stances toward chauvinism, despotism, and intolerance remain as important nowadays as they were a decade ago. Fully aware of the fragility of the newly established democratic institutions, Konrád captures this danger: “Our lives can be affected by a clever lunatic whose artistic forte happens to be mass destruction, the destruction of foreigners and his own kind, mixed. We are affected by the new collective identities that up and decide that they are incompatible with their neighbors and think nothing of killing to gain sway over them. In Eastern Europe these collective identities are particularly explosive. In their hysteria they feel surrounded by enemies and therefore in dire need of cleansing their ethnic-national-religious-linguistic-tribal ranks (a process that includes rewarding the politically loyal). While communist dictatorships wither on the vine, their internationalist ideology no longer viable, national dictatorships are blossoming35.”

  • 36 See Jerzy Szacki, “Polish Democracy: Dreams and Reality”, Social Research 58:4 (Winter 1991): 712.
  • 37 See Petr Pithart, “Intellectuals in Politics”, Social Research 60:4 (Winter 1993): 751¬61.

36The long glorified “society”, whose side dissidents took in their struggle against the communist state, turned out to be the source of much antidemocratic nostalgia and emotion. As Polish sociologist Jerzy Szacki put it: “Somehow, imperceptibly, a magnificent society, admired by the whole world, has turned into an unpredictable mass posing a danger to its own existence; it can be said, in its defense only that, for a long time, it was subjugated under communism36.” Under these circumstances, intellectuals have to remain pedagogues, always watchful for the slide into new forms of barbarism. In what used to be Czechoslovakia, the Civic Movement (Havel’s party) lost because it did not know how to explain to voters how difficult decommunization is and the dangers related to revolutionary justice. They refused to engage in lynchings and were widely perceived as soft on communism37.

37Ironically, dissidents were punished for having failed to take revenge on their former tormentors. But this is exactly their moral lesson, and in the long run one can expect that people would realize the deep morality involved in the philosophy of forgiveness (which does not mean forget-fulness). Dissent fights for the survival of memory, and intellectuals have a special position in the organization of the difficult but inevitable confrontation with the past. After all, it was Russia’s foremost intellectual, the physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, who fully engaged in articulating the liberal agenda for the burgeoning democratic forces in his country. Havel, Kuroń, Michnik, Sakharov, Zhelev— these names represent an international community of like-minded spirits opposed to atavistic collectivism and other trends inimical to an open society.

A Common Moral Voice in Society

  • 38 See Ira Katznelson, Liberalism’s Crooked Circle: Open Letters to Adam Michnik (Princeton: Princeto (...)
  • 39 Havel’s remarks quoted by Garton Ash, “Prague”, 38; for an illuminating analysis of the “third way (...)

38Speaking to the PEN World Congress in Prague in November 1994, five years after the “velvet revolution”, Havel boldly identified the purpose of this new chapter of antipolitics, adapted to the challenges of the post-cold war era, and called for a full commitment by intellectuals to the creation of open societies. They, the critical intellectuals, had been the ones who had debunked the old ideocratic regimes. Now their role, East and West, is to be moral critics of the existing order, which is always imperfect and calls for improvement38. They should not replace the prince, but complement him, and if need be, take him to task. Their role is not to withdraw in gratuitous contemplation or even celebration of the status quo. The discourse of rights, the defense of modernity’s agenda against obscurantist reactionaries—this is what democratic intellectuals can and should do. Thus, they ought to, Havel argued, “gradually begin to create something like a worldwide lobby, a special brotherhood or, if I may use the word, a somewhat conspiratorial mafia, whose aim is not just to write marvelous books and occasional manifestoes but to have an impact on politics and its human perceptions in a spirit of solidarity and in a coordinated, deliberate way.” As resolute defenders of the open society, they have to oppose the illusions of a presumed “third way”, a theme espoused by leftists and rightists alike39.

39Is this too much of an ambition? Will politicians listen to their suggestions? We don’t know, but it would be proof of unjustified timidity to simply say that intellectuals should stay away from politics, that they are professional outsiders rather than insiders of the political game. Some authors think that, because of their different language and reflexive abilities, the role of intellectuals is to be moral critics of politics rather than involved actors. In such a view, the traditional roles of intellectuals in Eastern Europe (voice of the oppressed, priest, prophet, militant, ethical advocate, substitute politician, or even antipolitician) have fallen away with astounding alacrity. But, one may ask, have they? The struggle is not over in that part of the world, the battle over history continues, and democratic intellectuals remain crucially important for dispelling the new illusions and mythological chimeras. After all, this is true even in advanced democracies like France, Germany, or Italy, as demonstrated by endless and much-needed debates over Vichy, resistance, collaboration, historical consciousness, and memory in general.

  • 40 See Aleksander Smolar, “Opposition to Atomization”, Journal of Democracy 7:7 (January 1996): 37-38

40It is true that parts of the original vision of civil society as defined by dissidents have become obsolete. Actual political choices have dissolved the previous suprapartisan vision of the moral countersociety. But, as Aleksander Smolar writes, the new order cannot function democratically in the absence of determined civic engagement in favor of the values of private property and open society: “The civic principle is not just a principle of equality; it also creates the normative basis for the inner integration of civil society as well as its integration with the political system. The development of civil society, the consolidation of democracy, and the closer identification of citizens with state institutions—all these require counteracting the atomizing tendencies that the huge changes of recent years (however necessary and ultimately salutary) have set in motion40.”

  • 41 Jacek Kuroń (remarks at an international conference on Eastern Europe, University of Central Flori (...)
  • 42 See Philippe Schmitter, “More Liberal, Preliberal, or Postliberal”, Journal of Democracy 6:1 (Janu (...)

41Ideas and patterns of resistance cannot simply vanish as figments of imagination. As Jacek Kuroń puts it, it is great ideas that shape world history41. The besieged legacy of dissent deserves to be defended, not ridiculed. It would be indeed preposterous to simply jettison its moral endowment only because nowadays it seems less appealing and less enthusing than a decade or two ago. Intellectual history evolves in cycles, and it is clear that these ideas will make a comeback, if only because the Western vision of public good and the current political structures seem themselves quite fluid. The issue is not to endorse antiliberal but more liberal ones. Indeed, as Philippe Schmitter argues: “Far from being secure in its foundations and practices, democracy will have to face unprecedented challenges. Its future...will be tumultuous, uncertain and very eventful42.”

42Intellectuals who enter politics—like the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel, Hungary’s Árpád Göncz, Poland’s Jacek Kuroń, or Romania’s Andrei Pleşu—need not become tainted. The choices may often be dramatic, even tragic, but this is not to say that politics is ontologically a sullying enterprise. Humans make it either pure or squalid.

  • 43 See Konrád, The Melancholy of Rebirth, 18-19.

43To those who think that the dissidents’ search for subjective freedom was just an isolated intellectual exercise, with no aftermath in the depressing world of postcommunist settlings of scores and moral turpitude, Konrád answers: “Modern East European humanism, which came out of the dissident democratic movements and matured by battling the strut, spasms, and hysteria of collective egos, has taken deep roots in our culture, and without it Hungary 1989 could not have taken place....[T]his year’s peaceful revolutions—our own and the analogous ones in a number of Central and East European countries—have opened a new chapter in the history of European autonomy43.”

44This is indeed the major point: If the revolutions of 1989 restored the sense of morality in politics, if they offered the individual a sense of fraternity in the political rather than ethnonational community, then the current nationalist frenzy should be seen as a counterrevolutionary stage.

45Thus, more than ever, democratic intellectuals are needed in politics if this most ancient human affair is to be a more hospitable place for truth, trust, and tolerance.

Notes

1 Tony Judt, “Beyond Good and Evil: Intellectuals and Politics at the End of the 20th Century”, (paper presented at Tannen Lecture, Bloomington, Indiana University, 18 February 1999).

2 See András Bozóki, ed., Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998).

3 Ferenc Fehér and Ágnes Heller, The Postmodern Political Condition

4 For the importance of critical intellectuals’ critique of populist authoritarianism and the continuous need to articulate the liberal alternative to such trends, see Timothy Garton Ash, “Surprise in Central Europe”, New York Review of Books (March 1999); see also the special issue “Intellectuals and Social Change in East-Central Europe”, Partisan Review (Fall 1992).

5 See Vladimir Tismaneanu, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) as well as the thoughtful reviews of this book by Steven Fish, East European Constitutional Review (Winter 1999); and Arista Cirtautas, American Political Science Review 93:1 (March 1999).

6 See Olivier Mongin, Face au scepticisme: Les mutations du paysage intellectuel ou l’invention de l’intellectuel démocratique (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1994

7 See Milan Kundera, “Tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books (26 April 1984): 33-38.

8 See György Konrád, “L’Europe du Milieu, patrie intérieure”, Cadmos 39 (Fall 1987): 25-38; Radu Stern and Vladimir Tismaneanu, “L’Europe Centrale: Nostalgies culturelles et réalités politiques”.

9 See Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolutions of ‘89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (New York: Vintage Books, 1993); Vladimir Tismaneanu, ed., Revolutions of 1989 (London: Routledge, 1999), especially the essays by Chirot, Eisenstadt, Garton Ash, and Isaac.

10 See Gazeta Wyborcza, 28-29 January 1995, quoted by Michal Cichy, “Requiem for the Moderate Revolutionist”, East European Politics and Societies 10:1 (Winter 1996): 145. For similar views on the rampant cynicism and moral squalor in post- 1989 Romania, see H.R. Patapievici, Politice (Bucharest: Editura Humanitas, 1996); as well as Mircea Mihăieş and Vladimir Tismaneanu, Neighbors of Franz Kafka (Iasi, Romania: Editura Polirom, 1998).

11 Borusewicz, “Tygodnik Powzechny”, in Cichy, “Requiem”, 149.

12 See Slavenka Drakulic, Café Europa: Life After Communism (New York: Norton, 1997)

13 See Bernard Guetta, “Pologne: La normalisation démocratique”, Le Nouvel Observateur (23-29 November 1995).

14 See Timothy Garton Ash, “Prague: Intellectuals and Politicians”, the New York Review of Books (12 January 1995):

15 It is noteworthy that Judt, known for his criticism of the dissidents’ “naive idealism”, has significantly nuanced this approach in his recent book. See Tony Judt, Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Centwy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Judt, Havel, and Camus share the same ethos of civic responsibility and commitment to the defense of individual rights.

16 See Tony Judt, “The End of Which European Era?” Daedalus 123:3 (Summer 1994): 1-19.

17 See Jirina Siklova, “Backlash”, Social Research 60:4 (Winter 1993): 737-49

18 Irena Grudzinska Gross (remarks made at a workshop on political psychology of postcommunism, Budapest, Collegium Budapest, 21 March 1996).

19 See Adam Michnik, Letters from Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Ralf Dahrendorf, After 1989: Morals, Revolution and Civil Society (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997

20 This point is discussed by Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 175-91.

21 For the significance of Michnik’s ideas, see Ken Jowitt, “In Praise of the ‘Ordinary’”, introduction to Michnik, Letters from Freedom; and Jacek Dalecki, “Political Evolution of Polish Dissident Adam Michnik” (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1997). I want to thank Jeffrey C. Isaac for having brought to my attention and sharing with me Dalecki’s excellent doctoral thesis.

22 See Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism (New York: Random House, 1995), 116-17. The same could be said about Romania, where the obsession with the “Malta conspiracy” has imbued the political discourses of both neofascism and neocommunism.

23 See Jane Perlez, “The Fist in the Velvet Glove”, New York Magazine (16 July 1995): 18.

24 See Václav Havel, Summer Meditations (New York: Vintage, 1993), especially the epilogue, 123-28; and Václav Havel, Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (New York: Knopf, 1997).

25 See György Konrád, Melancholy of Rebirth: Essays from Post-Communist Central Europe (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 1995), 82.

26 See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1977); Jeffrey C. Isaac, Democracy in Dark Times (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998

27 See Wolf Lepenies, Inaugural Lecture at College de France, European Chair (21 February 1992). Romanian trans. in Polis 1 (1994): 5-17.

28 See Michael Ignatieff, “After the Revolution”, The New Republic (19-26 August 1996): 42-45; Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals

29 For the importance of freedom of the press in postcommunist societies, see G. M. Tamás, “Victory Defeated”, Journal of Democracy (January 1999).

30 Quoted in Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 157

31 See Marshall Berman, “Modernism and Human Rights Near the Millenium”, Dissent (Summer 1995): 333.

32 See “Rival Visions: Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, with a commentary by Petr Pithart,” Journal of Democracy 7:1 (January 1996): 17

33 See Andrew Wachtel, Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia (Stanford University Press, 1998

34 Take, for instance, the cases of two brilliant intellectuals—Gabriel Liiceanu and Andrei Pleşu—in post-1989 Romania. The former chose to deal with politics as a committed spectator, whereas the latter has played an important political role, first as minister of culture in the early 1990s, then as minister of foreign affairs after 1997.

35 Konrád, The Melancholy of Rebirth, 87

36 See Jerzy Szacki, “Polish Democracy: Dreams and Reality”, Social Research 58:4 (Winter 1991): 712.

37 See Petr Pithart, “Intellectuals in Politics”, Social Research 60:4 (Winter 1993): 751¬61.

38 See Ira Katznelson, Liberalism’s Crooked Circle: Open Letters to Adam Michnik (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

39 Havel’s remarks quoted by Garton Ash, “Prague”, 38; for an illuminating analysis of the “third way” illusions in Romania, see Adrian Marino, Politica si cultura (Iasi, Romania: Editura Polirom, 1996). A distinguished literary historian and theorist who spent more than ten years in communist jails, Marino has become, after 1989, a main proponent for an ideology of the democratic center and a strong advocate for the values of liberalism and Enlightenment. This is especially important in a country whose intellectuals (or many among them) have long been seduced by the ideas of philosopher Constantin Noica, a critic of western consumerism, positivism, materialism, and “democratic mediocrity”. For Noica, see Katherine Verdery, National Ideology under Socialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); and Sorin Antohi, Civitas Imaginalis: Istorie şi utopie în cultura română (Bucharest: Editura Liters, 1994), 175-208.

40 See Aleksander Smolar, “Opposition to Atomization”, Journal of Democracy 7:7 (January 1996): 37-38.

41 Jacek Kuroń (remarks at an international conference on Eastern Europe, University of Central Florida, Orlando, 5 January 1995).

42 See Philippe Schmitter, “More Liberal, Preliberal, or Postliberal”, Journal of Democracy 6:1 (January 1995): 16.

43 See Konrád, The Melancholy of Rebirth, 18-19.

Auteur

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of government and politics and the director of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is also the editor of the journal East European Politics and Societies.

© Central European University Press, 2000

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