Vladimir Tismaneanu
Fantasies of Salvation

Can we really say, together with Tony Judt, that 'Janos Kis and George Konrad in Hungary, Adam Michnik in Poland are already in political terms "yesterday's men," consigned once again to the margins of their own political culture'? Konrad never aspired to become a politician, and his political views continue to inspire crucial debates in Hungary. Janos Kis left the chairmanship of the Alliance of Free Democrats in favor of an academic career in political philosophy but his party became in 1994 a partner in Hungary's government coalition. Gabor Demszky long involved in the samizdat culture and prominent Free Democrat, is the highly popular mayor of Budapest. Not all dissidents have left the scene, not all of them are losers. And the need for public moralists is more pressing than ever, East and West. Their role is essential, especially now, when angry populist, anti-liberal movements have emerged that attack the very principles cherished by the men and women of the revolutions of 1989.

After all, why did so many Westerners get excited at the moment of the anti-authoritarian revolutions of 1989? Simply because a cohort of senile bureaucrats were kicked out of power? The 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 in the emphasis on the right of the individual to be free from state intrusion into his or her life.30 This celebration of negative liberty was accompanied by an equally important focus on the revival of civic initiative and the restoration of substantive freedoms, especially the freedom of association and expression. 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 January 1, 1990: 'I do not think you appointed me to this office for me, of all people, to lie to you.'

The 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. Eastern Europe's critical intellectuals (unlike their Western counterparts) know the full meaning of being unfree. They are not political greenhorns, as the former communists often like to deride them. 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.

It is difficult to deny that dissent has by now created its own political tradition in the societies of East-Central Europe. Moreover, as Michnik has noted, the European tradition (including the universalistic and tolerant strands of Catholicism) is the spiritual patrimony with which the former dissidents identify themselves. To see Eastern Europe as hostage to invincible traditions of ethnic strife does little justice to the true diversity of political cultures in the region. For this reason one should be skeptical of gloomy generalizations such as Tony Judt's: 'Only Czechoslovakia had something resembling parliamentary party politics before 1938. Elsewhere, there wasn't even anything to be destroyed.' So much for the Polish non-Leninist, socialist tradition, or the Romanian constitutional monarchy and the imperfect but real parliamentary experience between the wars, of the Hungarian urban intelligentsia, or the memory of 1956 and the workers' councils, or the Prague Spring, or KOR and the intellectual-workers alliance in Poland. So much for the struggles of the last twenty years, or the dissidents' saga of resistance and the patient construction of the parallel polls.

According to this utterly pessimistic view, the only thing the non-Czech nations can refer to is an atavistic past, marked by feuds, chauvinism, hatred, and profoundly anti-European sentiments. Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the shallowness of liberal tradition in this region. These countries have by now had enough of the authoritarian forms of collectivism and regimentation. There may be nostalgia for individual security and paternalistic protection, but there is little yearning for new dictatorships. Istvan Csurka and his crusaders for the 'Hungarian road'—one stripped of any Jewish cosmopolitan influences—were rejected even by the deeply conservative Magyar Democratic Forum.

The conflict in East-Central Europe opposes not the former dissidents to the nation, but the emerging liberal democracy to the forces inimical to it. What should the dissidents be doing at this historical moment? Should they limit themselves to writing memoirs, or should they rather work for the consolidation of precarious but real liberal institutions and values? If 'life is elsewhere,' one wonders where: in the wild competition of naked selfish interests? A former colleague who turned down Havel's invitation to fill an important government position did so on the basis of the well-worn argument of 'someone has to remain independent.' But this is the opposite of what responsibility is about. In speaking about this incident, Havel correctly pointed out that if all democratic intellectuals followed this escapist example, 'nobody will be able to remain independent because there would be nobody in power who would make possible and guarantee your independence.'

To devalue Eastern Europe's critical intellectuals, to see only their failure in the years since 1989 to move the new world in a civil direction, ignoring their role in breaking the old one apart, is to abandon them midway. Given time and support, they may yet develop a new type of politics, one that allows the individual to act as a dignified and responsible human being.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.