The end and the beginning: lessons of 1989

The epic upheaval of 1989 was a time when east Europeans lost their fear, overcame their moral frustration and political impotence, and regained a central role in the political sphere. The heart of this series of profound events survives across twenty years, says Vladimir Tismaneanu.
Vladimir Tismaneanu
2 November 2009

Two decades have passed since the chain of dramatic events in east and central Europe that led to the accomplishment of what most had regarded as unthinkable: the collapse of communist regimes, the end of a system that had seemed destined to last forever. Indeed, the very idea of a post-communist situation appeared before 1989 to be utopian. Communism may have been a terminally sick system, yet the possibility that it would disappear was widely dismissed in policy and academic circles in the name of pragmatic realism.

True, some dissidents (such as the Russian, Andrei Amalrik) and scholars had seen the end coming. In 1988, I published a book called The Crisis of Marxist Ideology in Eastern Europe: The Poverty of Utopia in which I argued that two factors were leading to an imminent collapse: the ideological erosion that had engendered a fatal "legitimacy crisis" of the communist regimes, and the rise of alternative movements and ideas ("civil society").

In the book, I focused on various cases, including the little studied independent peace movements in what was then the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It was clear to some of us that the ruling elites - those bureaucracies that the historian Stephen Kotkin calls "uncivil society" - had lost the indispensable self-confidence essential to their ideological commitment (see Stephen Kotkin (plus contribution by Jan T Gross, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment [Random House, 2009]).

There was no zeal anymore; the Marxist-Leninist official creed had become a collection of trite slogans. The Mikhail Gorbachev factor (renunciation of the Leonid Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty) and Pope John Paul II‘s emphasis on the sacredness of truth further catalysed the revival of social forces that aimed to dismantle the system.

The prevailing bleak outlooks dissolved in the course of months, then weeks, then days. The revolutions of 1989 irretrievably shattered Leninism and opened the path to the self-empowerment of the citizens of the eastern European countries. In doing so they made a vital intellectual breakthrough: the rethinking of the notion of citizenship, which had been systematically subverted and negated by communist regimes.

The great refusal

The struggles that followed in the post-communist period centred on the concepts of civility, memory, justice, and accountability. Politics, culture, social relations - all were connected in one way or another to definitions of what it means to be a citizen. The immediate aftermath of 1989 revealed that two possible paths lay ahead: one where the revolutions succeeded in instilling a sustainable sense of civic belonging, another where the revolutions themselves were sidetracked - and even negated, aborted or abducted. All in all, it seems that Ralf Dahrendorf's synthetic formula remains brilliantly enduring: "citizens in search of meaning". The crucial challenge after 1989 was that of successfully (or at least satisfactorily) building a moral and political consensus based on shared trust in accountable institutions and predictable procedures (see Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel [Free Press, 1992).

Post-communist societies are imperfect. But, to paraphrase Adam Michnik, they are composed of regular people and are defined by "normal" conflicts. As Ken Jowitt once said, in order to survive "democracy needs ordinary heroes". Democracy has a paradox built into it: "without heroism, public virtues cannot be sustained; they gradually deteriorate into egoistical calculi of social, economic, and political self-interest. The individual is replaced by the self." At the same time, though, "a charismatic hero abhors, in fact is incapable of, democratically appreciating the deficiencies of average people" (see Ken Jowett, foreword to Irena Grudzinska Gross ed., Adam Michnik, Letters from Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives [University of California Press, 1999]).

Indeed, Ralf Dahrendorf was not mistaken: the 1989 revolutions destroyed the old regime, but they could only painfully construct the utterly strange and often perplexing world of liberal democracy. This road of transition led eastern Europeans into disenchantment with "extravagant hopes for a new world of unconstrained discourse, equality and fundamental democracy" (see Ralf Dahrendorf, After 1989: Morals, Revolution, and Civil Society [St Martin's Press, 1997]). But this if far from implying that the revolutions failed. It was precisely their goal not to succumb to new utopian schemes, and in this respect, they succeeded. They did not extol a "republic of virtue", they rejected fundamentalist, neo-Jacobin temptations.  

Instead, these revolutions opened the path to democratic normalcy, to the revitalisation of societies that still bear the stigma of the communist-totalitarian experience. Apocalyptic forms of radicalism have not managed to prevail. The "moral revolution" championed by the Kaczynski twins in Poland has not resulted in a national catharsis. On the contrary, people have expressed fatigue, exasperation, and annoyance with self-righteous populist manoeuvring. Democracy and memory are intertwined, but confronting the traumatic past does not mean the need to encourage vindictive passions. I explored these issues in my book Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism, and Myth in Post-communist Europe (Princeton University Press, 1998; paperback 2009).

The post-communist world

After 1989, the region's reality was inevitably eclectic. The Leninist dissolution produced a void that has been gradually filled with both pre-communist and communist traditions: from nationalism (either civic or ethnic) to conservatism, from neo-Leninism to quasi-fascism. These twenty years have been characterised by a fluidity of beliefs, partisanships and political engagements. In a sense, it could be said that the former Soviet bloc is an ongoing experiment in democratic politics.

A key unresolved issue in most of the region's countries is the problem of an unmastered totalitarian past. This has proved to be a formidable obstacle in the way of establishing a lasting connection between democracy, memory, and civic activism. But I consider that it is possible to achieve this resolution, and provide a new foundation for individual and collective identity as a result, on the basis of all the resources (negative and positive alike) that a national history can provide.

Besides the trauma of the early Stalinist days, all the countries in question had and still have to deal with "the grey veil of moral ambiguity" that was the defining feature of "really existing socialism" (see Tony Judt, Postwar. A History of Europe since 1945 [Penguin, 2005]). These societies and most of their members have a bad conscience in relation with the past. A new solidarity based upon the duty of remembrance is still awaited, but its nourishment has the potential of advancing political goals that lie beyond the priorities of the present murky and (it can seem) never-ending transitional period.

The negative effects that accompany entrenched societal amnesia must not be underestimated. The lack of real public debates and sober analyses about the past (including the acknowledgment by the highest state authorities of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by communist dictatorships) fuels silent - or not so silent - dissatisfaction, even revolt; and this in turn allows new demagogues to accede to state power. A case in point is Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia; an essential ingredient of the legitimacy of his "managed democracy" is institutionalised amnesia, the falsification of the 20th century history, of the Soviet past, and particularly of the Stalinist genocide(s).

Post-communism did bring with it (Tony Judt, again) "a new wooden language of public policy with very little meaning or concern to many citizens." Yet it is also vital to recall that the very "illusions" of 1989 about what was to come were vital to the defeat of Leninism. It was the year when most eastern Europeans stopped being afraid, when their moral frustration and political impotence vanished, and they regained a central role in the political sphere. The core evidence for such a statement is that most of the nightmarish scenarios for the region - which gained life against the background of the Yugoslav wars - have turned out to be wrong. In conclusion, I believe that the lessons of the 1989 upheaval are in fact unquestionable arguments in favour of the values that are currently considered to define democracy. 


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