Version classiqueVersion mobile

Between Past and Future

Sorin Antohi

III. Vulnerabilities of the New Democracies

15. Politics and Freedom

Ivan Vejvoda

Texte intégral

“Our people are not politically educated, which is no reason for surprise; since political education is arrived at through the prolonged use of social and political rights and freedoms, and is fostered by schools and books. Only it is terrible to even contemplate for how long the Serbian people have been alienated from not only political but also human rights and liberties, how many obstacles the people have had to confront on the political terrain in these parts of the world when they have more or less recovered their long lost liberty, and how few good schools, honest teachers and good books they have had in the past. Until social and political education reaches the majority of the people, until then they will not be free and autonomous, and their inner liberty will be constantly exposed and a permanent prey to power mongers and to state cunning and art. Until this is achieved there shall be no spirit of freedom, without which there can be no true social and political freedom.”

  • 1 A. Tokvilj, O demokratiji u Americi, Drzavna stamparija (Belgrade, 1872),

1These few succinct thoughts, written by Nastas Petrović and published in Belgrade in 1872 in a short preface to his translation of Alexis de Toc-queville’s “Democracy in America1”, do not solely depict the problem of modern day freedom and modern politics in the country where they were published. In spite of individual efforts (such as those of Petrović) and collective desires for freedom, peace, and stability, historical ebbs and flows have given precedence to wars, invasions, and occupations, to the absence of possibilities for rational and efficient economic development, for the creation of a stable state with consolidated democratic institutions, rules, and procedures. Thus, in these societies, such a state of affairs has been created whereby civic and political rights and freedoms, a free and open public sphere in which there are competing social, economic, and political visions, programs, and projects, seem to be a more or less distant prospect.

2Nonetheless, for a long time in this geographic area there has also been awareness that without civic and political liberties, there can be no spirit of freedom to foster the appearance of a democratic political culture and, linked to it, social and other improvements. It seems, though, that we are in many ways as distant from those goals as we were in the latter part of the nineteenth century, at the time of Nastas Petrović.

3The historical experience of the twentieth century has been one of two attempts to return to undifferentiated communities and to recreate homogeneous collectivist societies. Beyond their mutual lesser or greater differences, Nazism and communism were both regimes in which the key dividing line for modern democratic politics between state and civil society was obliterated and its appearance impeded. This antimodern or conservative tendency created (in the case of communism) a regime based on the idea that there existed a true theory of history, that in secular matters one could rationally orient social life, and that leadership in political, social, and economic affairs should be delegated to the experts of that theory, technicians of that particular rationality—that is, to the communist party, and within the party to (in Stalin’s words) the “coryphaeae of Marxism-Leninism”. Such a worldview led to an extreme and all-encompassing retrograde development of society.

4The decade-long establishment of democratic institutions, rules, and procedures in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has not been able to change overnight what communist rule and its totalitarian logic (C. Lefort) had accomplished in transforming the political, social, and civil behavior of individuals during its many decades of existence.

  • 2 Václav Havel, “The Post-Communist Nightmare”, New York Review of Books (27 May 1993); Joseph Brods (...)

5In a polemic conducted between Joseph Brodsky and Václav Havel under the revealing title “Post-Communist Nightmare” the debate centered on the heritage of communism and the participation of large strata of society in the support and legitimization of the ancien régime. While Havel stressed the fact that communism had been imported, imposed on the people, and thus was foreign to these societies, Brodsky retorted: “True our particular [commun]-ism wasn’t conceived on the banks of the Volga or the Vltava, and the fact that it blossomed there with a unique vigor doesn’t bespeak our soil’s exceptional fertility, for it blossomed in different latitudes and extremely diverse cultural zones with equal intensity. This suggests not so much an imposition of something, but our -ism’s rather organic, not to say universal, origins”. And, pleading for an understanding of the roots of people’s acceptance of communism in these societies, Brodsky underscored: “And if self-examination is unlikely (why should what’s been avoided under duress be done at leisure?), then at least the myth of imposition should be dispelled...Why don’t we simply start admitting that an extraordinary anthropological backslide has taken place in our world in this century, regardless of who or what triggered it? That it involved masses acting in their self-interest and, in the process of doing so, reducing their common denominator to the moral minimum? And that the masses’ self-interest—stability of life and its standards, similarly reduced—has been attained at the expense of other masses, albeit numerically inferior? Hence the number of dead2?”

6To contemplate the possibility of democracy in postcommunist societies means foremost to confront the problem of understanding why and how the longevity of such a regime was at all possible. Without studying the macro- and micro-physics (M. Foucault) of communist power, the unrelentless instrumentalization and manipulation of politics, the manner in which a legitimation basis for the regime was assured, the sense of social security the regime created by anaesthetizing the need for what had been known since the ancients as vita activa—that is, for an active participation in public life for the common good and general interest— there is no understanding of the difficulties and pitfalls confronting the democratic invention. This is a process that, along with the creation of institutions, should enable the “reanimation” of a society whose social fabric, social bonds had decomposed and been rendered impotent.

7The indifference expressed by large parts of the populations in the Central and East European countries during the final years of the communist regime’s existence consciously or unconsciously sustained self-exclusion from public affairs coupled with the ban placed by the regimes on any “real” political activity—that is, on participation in decisionmaking processes dealing with crucial questions pertaining to the nature and type of regime in which individuals would like to live. On the other hand, in certain countries existing political energies were oriented toward new/old orthodoxies of a nationalist kind and thus again were diverted from questions of individual and societal freedom, of political liberty, civic rights, and democracy.

8Hence, to a greater or lesser extent, societies exiting communism are disabled societies. The capacities of individuals, groups, and associations of society as a whole vis-à-vis the state and all its forms of rule and power and politics are still weak at many levels. This general remark should be tempered by stating that the experiences of, for example, Albania, Azerbaijan, or Georgia are not those of the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Poland. The object of this paper is not to dwell on this otherwise necessary analytical approach to differences appearing among each of the individual countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the past ten years since 1989.

9We are witnessing in the former Yugoslavia and in some of the successor states renewed attempts at realizing homogeneous, undifferentiated communities based on ethnic criteria. The reappearance of the need for transcendental determinations of power testifies to the reappearance of the need for new certainties—this time not divine or communist-teleological, but ethnic; certainties seen as the safe haven away from the cold winds, high seas, and uncertainties brought forth by a nascent democracy and a mixed/market economy as an open, unlimited field for the actions of individuals, the expression of their aspirations, and a “well-understood interest” (Tocqueville).

10What we have today in the case of ethnically or nationally driven politics is that rulers, this time legitimately elected in more or less free elections (an important issue that cannot be dealt with here), are again concentrating all political and state prerogatives into their own hands and are making decisions concerning the destinies of whole societies while marginalizing parliaments, public opinion, and other key intermediary institutions. They present this as being in the utmost national interest. Society has weak forces to resist; it has little capacity to articulate the evident but unexpressed demand for a return to something one could conditionally and rather simply name a return to normal life. The degree of uncertainty that reigns everyday life, the fear that exists because of the possible worsening of circumstances and of institutions of power (a fear inherited from the ancien régime), the insecurity that arises from this situation at the individual, group, and collective level incapacitate the appearance and germination of forms and dynamics of a new noninstrumental pattern of political action.

11The result of these processes is a combination of the consequences of modernization at the level of the individual combined with the negative political legacy of the ancien régime. In the communist regime of the former Yugoslavia a respectable level of modernization of social and economic life was achieved, albeit under a soft version of totalitarianism. A level of inclusion in international economic and cultural currents was attained, but without the essence of modernity—that is, democracy, democratic institutions, rules and procedures, and an amnesia of the otherwise meager democratic traditions of the past. What remained was an awareness of the existing “liberty of the moderns” (B. Constant). Modern liberty entailed that the individual could pursue one’s self-interest without coercion to engage in public (political) affairs. Ancient democracy fostered active public engagement as the utmost virtue. After the modern democratic revolutions, the forging of a democratic political culture and democratic institutions along with the progressive development of forms of representative democracy, individuals were freed of the need to constantly be active and vigilant concerning public affairs. This enabled them to concentrate their energies on other nonpolitical spheres of activity. What occurred was the differentiation and relative autonomization of social spheres of activity. In communist regimes, though, there was no such parallel development. On the contrary, the sphere of the political remained outside the reach of the common mortal, who was nonetheless able to pursue self-interest (depending on the country) to variously limited degrees.

12This situation and experience of politics—in which the individual was forcefully “politicized” through the party and its transmissions and harnessed to the project of creating a “new community”, a new homogenized collectivity on the basis of the creation of a “new man”— substantively determined the relationship of individuals to politics and the political. The devastating influence of these processes and of that experience can be seen today when a renewed pattern of vita activa and vivere civile is indispensable to the opening and “rehabilitation” of society, in view of a dynamic that will create spaces for political and public liberty for the benefit of the common good.

13We are witnesses to a state of pervasive anomie, apathy and “minding one’s own business”—all with the aim of preserving oneself from the destructive forces of the present. It is the “liberty of the moderns” that is being practiced without the existence of the other half of modernity, without the Sittlichkeit (Hegel) of democracy. There are no stable guarantees for that “modern liberty” in a situation where under a type of authoritarianism certain spaces of liberty are allowed, but where the need for enlarging spaces of political and public freedom is not recognized or tolerated. On the contrary, the degree of attained freedom is being curtailed. Many individuals tend to protect themselves by concentrating on (retreating into?) their professions, attempting in an oblique manner to contribute to the emergence of autonomous spaces or spheres of activity in which the manipulative aspect of politics cannot penetrate and from which at some hypothetical point there could occur feedback—in an as yet unclear way—into processes for the forging of new, more rational forms of politics.

14There is a sense of fear and apprehension concerning involvement in politics because it is thought that not only will there be a “dirtying of hands”, but that any such direct present engagement might impede the emergence of political rationality through its tainting by political instru-mentalization. It is in this way that the urgent endeavors of the present are being delayed and the furthering of political modernity is being retarded.

15In 1819 Benjamin Constant noted: “Individual the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its guarantee, consequently political liberty is indispensable”. But a little further he admonishes:

  • 3 B. Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns”, in Political Writing (...)

“The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily. The holders of authority are only too anxious to encourage us to do so. They are so ready to spare us all sorts of troubles, except those of obeying and paying! They will say to us: what, in the end, is the aim of your efforts, the motive of your labors, the object of all your hopes? Is it not happiness? Well, leave this happiness to us and we shall give it to you. No, Sirs, we must not leave it to them. No matter how touching such a tender commitment may be, let us ask the authorities to keep within their limits. Let them confine themselves to being just. We shall assume the responsibility of being happy for ourselves. Could we be made happy by diversions, if these diversions were without guarantees? And where should we find guarantees, without political liberty? To renounce it...would be a folly like that of a man who, because he only lives on the first floor, does not care if the house itself is built on sand3.”

  • 4 A. de Tocqueville, De la democratie en Amerique Volume II (Vrin, 1990), 93-117, 263-70.

16Disregarding the other differences existing between Constant’s frame of reference and that of postcommunism, on which we are focusing here, clearly there can be no liberty for the individual, no lasting freedom to meaningfully engage in one’s own life and professional activity without guaranteed political liberty that presupposes a free public sphere. It is illusory to believe that only by engaging in the “liberty of the moderns”, without the underpinnings of a meaningful politics, there can be any substantive improvement at the individual or more general societal level. Similar warnings were being voiced in Constant’s time by Tocqueville in his considerations on the role of individualism in modern society4.

  • 5 T. Pangle, The Ennobling of Democracy—The Challenge of the Post-Modem Age (Baltimore and London: J (...)

17It is evident to anyone who does not view social processes in post-communism in a simplified or schematic way that the renewal (forging) of politics, the “ennobling of democracy5”, the redignifying of politics, requires vigorous efforts, a prolonged period of state and societal stability, and a certain level of economic prosperity and certainty.

  • 6 Particular emphasis has recently been put on research into this issue. See, for example, J. R. Mil (...)

18The legacy of communism6 is present in a capillary form in many social domains, but the changes brought about by 1989, the new spaces of freedom with its difficulties and challenges, have given postcommunist societies a chance to engage in the process of uncovering and inventing solutions for their present and near future on the basis of existing democratic models and prior historical experiences.

  • 7 Adam Michnik, “The Velvet Restoration”, The East and Central Europe Program Bulletin 5:16 (October (...)
  • 8 Michnik, “The Velvet Restoration”, 7.
  • 9 Tokvilj, O demokratiji u Americi, Drzavna stamparija, II-III.

19The velvet revolutions and velvet divorce (Czechoslovakia), the period of velvet restorations7, and all subsequent alternations in power are a testimony to the great changes and to the difficult rooting of a modern political dynamic over the past decade. In several postcommunist countries, parties that were communist before 1989 came back to power and were then defeated. The difference is that they ruled without having reinstated a communist regime after their return and by adapting to the new pluralist order within which they had competed for power in elections and won. Adam Michnik warned that “although restorations do not reinstate the old order, they may provoke gangrenes within democracy8”. Gangrenes are of course possible, especially if “power mongers and state cunning” (Petrović9) take over the whole space of political activity and monopolize key segments of the public sphere such as the media. Society and the individuals that constitute it, even in the darkest of times, endeavor to live their “independent” lives as best they can, but if there is not even minimal awareness or energy to engage publicly and voice grievances and demands for greater freedoms and rights, for the respect of the common and individual good, then social and political dynamics are stifled and new openings are put off for an undefined future.

  • 10 Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 11
  • 11 Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 11-12

20In her book on people in dark times, Hannah Arendt wrote: “History knows many periods of dark times in which the public realm has been obscured and the world becomes so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty10”. The situation today is in some ways similar. The spirit of freedom, which is the framework for a stable peace and for the possibility of furthering individual and social existence, can exist if the bases of political rights and freedom and a democratic political culture can start putting down roots. Without it there is no prolonged freedom for the (modern) individual. War and violence (whether of state or social origin) are in every sense destructive elements for any normalization of political processes and a renewal of politics. Arendt in the same text stresses that those who have lived in such dark times are inclined to despise the public realm “in order to arrive at mutual understandings with their fellow men without regard for the world that lies between them” and concludes, “in such times, if things turn out well, a special kind of humanity develops11

21Maybe dark times, experiences of extreme suffering, bring forth an understanding that through friendship and survival a path leads to a renewed vivere civile, to civility and democracy. There is no straight road, but a constant reinvention of the least damaging route towards a tolerant and decent society.


1 A. Tokvilj, O demokratiji u Americi, Drzavna stamparija (Belgrade, 1872),

2 Václav Havel, “The Post-Communist Nightmare”, New York Review of Books (27 May 1993); Joseph Brodsky and Václav Havel, “The Post-Communist Nightmare—An Exchange”, New York Review of Books (17 February 1994): 29

3 B. Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns”, in Political Writings, ed. B. Constant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 323, 326.

4 A. de Tocqueville, De la democratie en Amerique Volume II (Vrin, 1990), 93-117, 263-70.

5 T. Pangle, The Ennobling of Democracy—The Challenge of the Post-Modem Age (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

6 Particular emphasis has recently been put on research into this issue. See, for example, J. R. Millar and Sharon L. Wolchik, eds., The Social Legacy of Communism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

7 Adam Michnik, “The Velvet Restoration”, The East and Central Europe Program Bulletin 5:16 (October 1994): 1-4, 6-7.

8 Michnik, “The Velvet Restoration”, 7.

9 Tokvilj, O demokratiji u Americi, Drzavna stamparija, II-III.

10 Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 11

11 Arendt, Men in Dark Times, 11-12


Ivan Vejvoda has taught political science and European studies at numerous universities, most recently at Smith College. He is a member of the Institute for European Studies in Belgrade and is currently executive director of the Fund for an Open Society in Yugoslavia.

© Central European University Press, 2000

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search