Can Europe Make It?

1989: the end of what?

It is not merely a bad mood that makes East Europeans look beyond ’liberal democracy’, but the unresolved political dilemma of modern society.

G. M. Tamás
8 November 2019
Heiner Müller speaks at the Berlin demonstration, November 4, 1989.
Heiner Müller speaks at the Berlin demonstration, November 4, 1989.
Wikicommons/ Bundesarchiv Bild. Some rights reserved.

In more civilised, dimly remembered times one could find reactionaries who understood socialism and did not concentrate criticism on chimeras. Bertrand de Jouvenel (Baron de Jouvenel des Ursins) was one such remarkable conservative thinker – a dashing man-about-town who had become a committed, convinced, card-carrying fascist for a while and, in consequence, after the second world war had to spend his life in a sort of internal exile.

Still, he was invited to deliver the Boutwood Lectures at Corpus Christi in 1949 which later appeared as The Ethics of Redistribution (1953, 1990). There, right at the beginning, he made an extremely important tripartite distinction between the three main kinds of “progressive” politics.

The first he dubbed “agrarian redistribution”, or an “agrarian egalitarianism” present in history from times immemorial. This is the traditional redistribution of land in every new generation, which creates an equality in seed capital, but no equality of income: de Jouvenel calls it an equality of rewards.

The second kind is socialism proper which does not aim at equality and redistribution and, especially, does not aim at increasing wealth at any price. “Socialism aims even higher than the establishment of ‘mere’ justice. It seeks to establish a new order of brotherly love. The basic socialist feeling is not that things are out of proportion and thus unjust, that reward is not proportional to effort, but an emotional [I would rather say: moral] revolt against the antagonisms within society, against the ugliness of men’s behaviour to each other.” It is not necessary to revert to an earlier or “primitive” state – socialists can accept complex, interdependent societies – but men (and women) should serve one another even through modernity “in newness of spirit” as “a ‘new’ man who finds his delight in the welfare of his brethren”. The pattern is “the Pauline pattern of law and grace as transformed by Rousseau. For Rousseau, social progress increases strife, [for] it arouses man’s desires. [...] Rousseau’s answer to this... was the displacement of man’s centre of affections, love of the whole being substituted for self-love. This is the fundamental pattern of socialist thought.” But Rousseau (and Marx) also believed that social antagonism arises from “objective situations”, chief among which is private property that will have to be destroyed.

And Bertrand de Jouvenel adds: “Such a community works. It has worked for centuries, and we can see it at work under our very eyes in every monastic community [where] material goods are shared without question because they are spurned. The members of the community are not anxious to increase their individual well-being at the expense of one another, but then they are not very anxious to increase it at all. [...] In short, they are members of one another not because they form a social body but because they are part of a mystical body. Socialism seeks to restore this unity without the faith that causes it.”

Whoever has studied radical revolutionary communism as I did, knows that this was indeed the mindset of the true rebels, “the dead on furlough” whether they were anti-Marxists like Gustav Landauer or Marxists like Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch, from 1917 to 1923. And this was behind the heroism and cruelty of the revolutionaries, the cult of sacrifice and martyrdom and self-abnegation. This was the modern Ebionist heresy (Ebionites in the second century AD considered poverty a blessing or a virtue and did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, “ebion” being Aramaic for poor).

The third kind, according to de Jouvenel, is what people would call “left” today, a redistribution of incomes serving egalitarian goals, mostly through taxation and social aid to the poor that leaves capitalist private property mostly in place in order to achieve “freedom from want”. This is associated with a number of other egalitarian policies such as universal suffrage, the suppression of hereditary privileges, the creation of an egalitarian social culture without deference and contempt and the like. All this is predicated upon a shared belief in the inherent goodness of creature comforts and of the easing of pain. This is what people call social democracy or, in America, “liberalism”.

Soviet-type systems

The Soviet-type systems were a combination of all three variants but particularly of the last two. It was archaic agrarian reform, the egalitarian redistribution of lands which won the Russian and the Chinese peasantry for the cause of socialism and it obliterated the chief source of injustice, the large landed estates, hated for millennia together with the most hated class, the great aristocracy. At the beginning, the idea of peasant co-operatives seemed to be reconcilable with a system of equality of rewards. But this aspect soon disappeared.

From the start, there was a conflict between, on the one hand, the intrinsic socialist idea of “brotherly (and sisterly) love”, that is, the exclusion of social conflict which would have also meant the exclusion of the state and of war – and, on the other, the progressivist and positivist idea of ever-increasing material improvement for all, based on technological (thus, scientific) development. The communist party was hesitating between the two – and then it was forced to do something very old-fashioned.

Explaining why the Second Coming was postponed was a major headache for the Church, and the deferral of communism likewise for the Party.

As in all apocalyptic religions, the problem of deferred salvation was posed again. Explaining why the Second Coming was postponed was a major headache for the Church, and the deferral of communism likewise for the Party. Until that moment – when abundance, health, happiness, pleasure, freedom will finally come – some people had to be forced to work extremely hard under the iron control of the repressive apparat. After Stalin’s death, this deadly system tried to bribe “the working people” into acquiescence and obedience through an increased consumption and an ever greater autonomy of private life (much greater than western theorists of “totalitarianism” could imagine) through amusements, trips to the seaside, mountain-climbing and the cult of fulfilling monogamous heterosexual relationships within a clean cozy home with an icebox and a wireless set.

But at the same time there was a grim communist clerisy with the “values” of brotherly and sisterly love ( the this-worldly asceticism of socialism rather than of a Weberian-Puritan accumulation and frugality) within a separate mystical body politic, that looked upon the consumerist masses given over to physical gratification with barely disguised contempt, like the clergy always looks at the laity. The name or, rather, pseudonym for these second-rate comrades was of course “the petty bourgeois” as if they were remnants of an individualistic and carnal bourgeois past, although they were in fact the creation of the egalitarian-redistributive order installed from “above” (observe please this term) whose parents were not bourgeois, but mostly God-fearing, collectivist, conservative peasants who were pretty suspicious when it came to bodily delights.

“Petty-bourgeois” to them meant exactly what the Quakers and the Methodists have meant by “worldly”. So we should not think that the antipathy of the communist élite for consumerism, welfarism or market reform stemmed exclusively from their fear of losing power; it also had moral and philosophical justifications. Moreover, indulgences were gone into, joyous but restrained carnality was allowed – like forced labour earlier – in order to keep power, but this – for the communist true believers – was a rotten compromise, as dirty as the prison camps that were considered necessary to impose doing good on the ignorant and the unwary who should have been taking up heroic overwork freely to complete their historic mission. In these circumstances, the toiling masses could not possibly avoid falling into various alarming phenomena of “false consciousness”, anti-socialist fantasies and generalised decadence.

So we should not think that the antipathy of the communist élite for consumerism, welfarism or market reform stemmed exclusively from their fear of losing power; it also had moral and philosophical justifications.

“False consciousness” is merely another name for what the church has called “error”. So the solution of the communist clerisy was education, agitprop, ideological indoctrination (mission and preaching). It was soon to be called simply “culture”, and was to be the principal justification for the system, at least in the eyes of the communist élite. This was not of course unique to communists.

On November 11, 1928, the tenth anniversary of the Austrian revolution, in Red Vienna, in the great room of the Musikverein, there was a concert for proletarians. The programme: Schoenberg, “Friede auf Erden”, songs after poems of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and Mahler’s Second Symphony for soloists, choir and orchestra, with Anton Webern conducting.

Even today, even for cognoscenti, this would be a rather difficult evening. But to the educational geniuses of the Vienna city hall this did not matter. People’s taste, especially of those of the social vanguard, of the industrial proletariat, should be corrected and they must be offered the highest spiritual quality. After all, they are not the petty bourgeois who are content with operetta and the latest hits from the talkies.

Lukács’s idea of an “imputed consciousness” of the proletariat – that is, the empirical, factual, observable world-view of the working class replaced by true philosophy – in the absence of the spontaneous and profound transformation of society after a victorious revolution, had to be imposed as a sort of educational dictatorship. This was served by a “cultural revolution” without precedent through hundreds of thousands of new schools, adult education, indoctrination courses, museums, concert halls, “houses of culture”, archives, immense book and film production, thousands of lending libraries, choirs (millions learned to read music and to play an instrument), popular science, mass production of manuals, textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopædias, histories undergirded by critical editions and vast collections of documents, cheap popular editions of classics in unheard-of print runs, vocational training: all this available for pennies or for free.

The French Revolution destroyed the main institutions of the old world – the monarchy, the church and nobility – and with them the last traces of birth privilege as law (felt for millennia to have been the greatest injustice done by the ancients) in a few years. The Russian Revolution, and its German and Hungarian sequels, by its abolition of the difference between legitimate and illegitimate children, by divorce and abortion on demand, by permitting homosexuality, by decreeing equal social rights for women, by glorifying free love, by including children in school governance and outlawing physical punishment even within families – although long forgotten, this was one of the main causes of the anti-communist outcry, on top of the abolition of private property and of military and academic ranks and of all traditional honorific titles and deferential habits – did the same service for the East and for all places that were no longer bourgeois republics.

None of this, or almost none, was preserved by the time (in 1956) when as a result of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and of the Hungarian revolution, the post-Stalinist phase of “real socialism” was inaugurated, when these societies, egalitarian and educational dictatorships all, entered their conservative period. These based their state system, including hidebound sexual politics, on the interdiction of dissent, instead of mobilisation through faith and terror: demobilisation instead of mobilisation, conformism instead of heroism, formal loyalty instead of fanaticism, mass fun instead of nighttime GPU interrogations. This post-Stalinist society – that ceased to exist thirty years ago – was authoritarian (militarism, police state, censorship, “political psychiatry” etc.) but the lofty and merciless communist vanguard had vanished, its legacy (much falsified) transformed into a largely symbolic tradition instead of a living political ideology. Its leaders hated nothing more than the New Left – confronting them with their nominal articles of faith – and they grew quite fond of their nominal enemies in “the imperialist camp”, and vice versa.

Western response

The leaders of the Western powers esteemed this a reliable and predictable order and, when the changes came in 1989, George Bush (and his men, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft), Mitterrand and Thatcher said quite openly that they did not want the chaotic dissident opposition to take over. They reassured the last “communist” (market reformist) governments of their friendship, appreciation and support. They also clearly opposed German reunification, which was greeted with icy silence from the German social democrats, with disgust from the Greens and with dubiety from the CDU, with the exception of Chancellor Kohl (though he, too, hesitated not a little).

When the changes came in 1989, George Bush (and his men, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft), Mitterrand and Thatcher said quite openly that they did not want the chaotic dissident opposition to take over.

When one reads the series of thoughtful anniversary articles of the moderate German left-wing press, for example the taz and Der Freitag, it is easy to see why this was so: the West Germans, when taking in the reality of East Germany, were at the same time discovering their own repudiated past: the GDR in the 1980s was as grey, poor and respectable as the Federal Republic had been in the 1950s. Also, it was disconcertingly German. The phrase “Deutschland, einig Vaterland” (Germany, united homeland) comes from the GDR anthem (“Auferstanden von Ruinen”) written by two formerly émigré communists: Johannes R. Becher, a former expressionist (and President of the Writers’ Union in the East as well as minister for cultural affairs), and Hanns Eisler, a former collaborator of Adorno and Brecht.

East Germany which, by virtue of being a socialist workers’ state, saw itself as inherently and essentially anti-fascist, did not go through the western soul-searching about the Nazi past and had none of its hang-ups. Who would have dared in the West to call their defence forces the Nationale Volksarmee and its security apparatus the Volkspolizei? Who would have dared to reintroduce Prussian military pomp with brass bands and Grenadier paraphernalia and reclaim the national literary and philosophical heritage as the centrepiece of a national-proletarian identity? There was more talk in the GDR of Luther and Goethe and Herder and Fichte than in the West. It looked so disconcertingly old-fashioned and seemingly unaware of historical complexities, almost naïve.

The most committed Eastern communist author, Heiner Müller, was much more deeply German than the melancholy Western progressive mourners of Germany, Siegfried Lenz or Martin Walser (also Brecht in his chorales was heir to the Lutheran hymnal, to Bach, and to German baroque poetry, more profoundly German than Gottfried Benn). Like Syberberg, Heiner Müller appropriated the alleged “demonism” of German history with a ferocity which has shocked the German-speaking world.

So, East Germany represented the unrepressed past – also the reproach, inaudible in the West, of “German democracy”, undoubtedly founded on the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and on the defeat of the German working class – that nobody wanted or wants to confront, even today.

At the same time, East Germany was more defeated, too, than embraced, with the destruction of its economy, the mass emigration of its youth and with the unwillingness to integrate it. (Of the 120 section chiefs of the German federal government, 3 are East Germans, and not one single member of the federal government is, only Frau Merkel. Almost everything of importance is Western-owned.) German unity is considered an utter failure by a crushing majority of East Germans. But then such is the case with the “régime change” or “transition” in all the East European countries where, without exception, majority opinion considers the former system vastly superior to the present one, including among about half of those born after 1989.

A peculiar malaise

Apart from the overreported economic discontent (comparatively, East Europeans do indeed live less well than before 1989, even if you don’t take into account social and regional inequality and the sorry state of social services) – the apparent reasons for the malaise are peculiar.

The odd combination of the official revolutionary and conservative attitudes in “real socialism” gave these societies a sheen unlike any other. Compared to it, the present looks to our contemporaries like barbarian vulgarity with a low quality of everything, “culture” being the East and Central European word for what people think they are missing. There are of course national differences – Hungary being an egregious (negative) example – but the lack of a respectable press and publishing, the rampant provincialism (in spite of censorship, information about world affairs and about “abroad” in general was plentiful in comparison) going together with the disappearance of just about everything apart from American commercial television, film and YouTube.

The colonial ultramodernism, mocked so effectively by V. S. Naipaul, is conspicuous: backpacked vegan joggers and bikers abound, people who are slavishly following every fashion they imagine (often mistakenly) to come out of San Francisco and Berlin, while mining the wisdom of Wikipedia. They might also believe that Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn are “Marxists” and that the Pope and Greta Thunberg are members of the Illuminati.

All the same, people’s longing for something that for want of a better term I must call “more noble” is obvious.

Needless to say, this is exploited by irresponsible and corrupt demagogues, especially but not exclusively of the Right. “Democracy” is a laugh: but for this the democrats of the first hour are blamed, not the new tyrants. Press freedom is demanded by tired young men and women who do not believe that it is possible that any public discourse could be independent of vested interests. Sovereignty is claimed only for what is private, intimate, personal and emotional, while subjectivity is despised and thought to be nothing more than a cluster of vagaries put together from jagged fragments of genes, instincts and the prevailing social trends. Ultimately everyone just wants more money and more sex. And so on. In such an atmosphere, rages of various kinds dominate.

Collective intelligence

But our crisis is specific.

It is made specific by our past.

A past of confinement, servitude and suffering, certainly. But if we don’t remember its particular sources, this specificity will be disregarded, to our peril.

A past of confinement, servitude and suffering, certainly. But if we don’t remember its particular sources, this specificity will be disregarded, to our peril.

As I said, “real socialism” was ambiguous, both revolutionary and conservative. Equality was not its real ambition. But for what Bertrand de Jouvenel simply called “brotherly love”, material equality was a poor substitute. This equality was of a peculiar kind, as it was based on a non-recognition of superior claims arising from superior status, these claims being common to most known complex (“civilised”) societies. The acceptance of leadership is not the same thing as the acceptance of aristocratic excellence, of virtue linked to clan or caste. Leadership is a function, a calling, a profession, deserving of no particular respect. (Do not forget that in post-Stalinist societies there was no “charismatic” leadership, and charismatic leadership is not aristocratic anyway.) Even today, East European societies are less respectful and less deferential than Western ones. All that talk about “Byzantine servility” and an Eastern cultural yen for tyrants is just undeserved ethnic contempt and “Orientalism”, that does not even merit a mention.

The Party

Also, practically nobody will pause for a moment to consider what the main institution in these societies, the “communist” party – The Party! – really meant. (Slavoj Žižek's favourite quote, “Die Partei, die Partei die hat immer recht” [from an extraordinary choral work, music and lyrics by Louis Fürnberg], “the Party is always right”, refers primarily to the Central Committee. But this is not what I have in mind. In Fürnberg’s astonishing song, the Party is likened to a mother with strong arms who keeps us warm when it is cold outside and who will caress us tenderly. Like that! That is what I mean. After all, millions were members, not to speak of the Communist Youth League and other auxiliaries. As I have never been a member (on the contrary), I have no personal experience of this.

But this was the quintessential conduit of “civil society” under non-bourgeois and non-liberal, non-democratic conditions. Communal life (and here I don’t make any distinction between the Party and the official trade unions, “socialist brigades”, patriotic workers’ guards and the like) was organised tightly and citizens came together in an ordered way to discuss, mostly along prescribed lines, public affairs, current or transhistorical. As the Party – like the whole workers’ movement – was not set up territorially, but existed in the workplace (especially large industrial and commercial state companies and other state institutions), cells were socially homogenous, albeit male-dominated. But work (or “the economy”) was not divorced from politics, culture and science. The non-economic relevance of employees through membership in a “guiding force” defined as such in the Constitution – employees who also conceived of themselves as owners, however symbolic – this gave them a feeling or, if you wish, an illusion of shared power and of participation in an enlightened collective intelligence.

As this was never publicly and officially enunciated, except in Party poetry like in Brecht’s famous or infamous lines from his Lob der Partei (In Praise of the Party): “The individual can be annihilated/But the Party cannot be annihilated/For it is the vanguard of the masses/And it lays out its battles/According to the methods of our classics, which are derived from/The recognition of reality” – we anti-totalitarian dissidents could ignore it in all its respects, noticing only the repressive party apparatus, as if the communist party would not have been the largest ideological mass organisation outside the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox church, which also cannot be reduced to the clergy and to the Inquisition.

The Party was essential for avoiding the consequence of the capital relationship (decisive in “real socialism”, too), i. e. the reduction of the producers to atomised “private persons” who would then be confronted by the awful majesty of state ownership, state planning and state steering of human activities. Political power was understood as being over the state, but not simply by a ruling class as such, but by an association with a spiritual dimension in which all members believed they shared: de Jouvenel’s “mystical body” as a body politic.

Through the decline and fall of the Party, many have felt that they are robbed of power, of political potency and agency, at least in a strong symbolic sense.

Through the decline and fall of the Party, many have felt that they are robbed of power, of political potency and agency, at least in a strong symbolic sense.

What remains is the power of the state, of law, of capital, none of which is shared by civil society, which is by definition non-political (a definition not accepted by any socialist current but which prevails in the present order). Thus, what we intended to be a liberation from centralised coercion, was perceived – concomitant with a sigh of relief – as a weakening of compound social power.

So it is not merely a bad mood and disenchantment that makes East Europeans look beyond “liberal democracy” (although, alas, in the wrong direction mostly), but the unresolved political dilemma of modern society.

In capitalism, humankind has escaped personal dependence on the lord and has been able to renounce the recognition of the lord’s higher social and metaphysical rank. But the price for this – the price for equal dignity – has been paid in the currency of a willingness to act through mediation: for example, the market mediates between producer and consumer, script will induce an intellectual dialogue between people who do not know each other, art as an institution will mediate creative and emotional urges through a separation of painter and viewer, actor and spectator.

On the other hand, the tension or ambiguity between “brotherly love” (the communist utopia of relinquishing separation to become “as one” and disregard les nourritures terrestres) and egalitarian redistribution within “real socialism”, once the revolution designed to bring forward a communist society built on directness, on the absence of mediation and separation, had failed – this has forced people to abandon their critical faculty, their personal sovereignty, their hesitation, doubt, uncertainty, improvisation, inconsequence, whim, sudden change of course or, at least, any intimate relation of subjectivity with what is public and what is common.

It has introduced us to a powerful mirage of the “collective” which is still sorely missed. This was a tragedy, and this fall – symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall that had to separate the remnants of direct and narrow commonality from the windswept, cold world-at-large – is a tragedy, too. And for those who don’t even dare to call it a tragedy, it is nothing more than senseless humiliation.

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Anthony Barnett Founder of openDemocracy, and author of ‘Out of the Belly of Hell: COVID-19 and the humanisation of globalisation’, which looks at how social movements since 1968 have reshaped the world.

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