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  • The Post-Totalitarian Blues
  • Jacques Rupnik (bio)

The post-totalitarian blues are haunting the countries of the “other Europe.” The euphoria that accompanied the fall of communism has given way to disappointment, social anomie, and the emergence of new dangers. The unity of the great mass rallies for democracy has shattered, and wide-ranging economic hardship has overshadowed political gain for most citizens. Instead of civil societies, one sees a splintered landscape teeming with corporatisms and resurgent communal loyalties. Václav Havel paints a somber tableau of postcommunist political life that does not pertain to his country alone:

Rancor and suspicion between ethnic groups; racism or even signs of fascism; brazen demagoguery; deliberate scheming and lying; political chicanery; wild and shameless squabbling over purely particular interests; naked ambition and lust for power; every kind of fanaticism; new and surprising forms of swindling; Mafia-style machinations; and a general absence of tolerance, mutual understanding, good taste, and a sense of moderation and reflection. 1

Is this disenchantment part and parcel of any revolution? “Are all revolutions doomed to fail?” as Ralf Dahrendorf asks, hinging as they do on myths of unity, transparency, and innocence. 2 Is it inevitable that a drift toward varieties of nationalism and authoritarianism will follow the first elections?

While it is tempting for historians to compare the revolution of 1989 to others that started in democracy but ended in anarchy and terror, [End Page 61] reasoning by analogy is not always the most illuminating method for understanding Eastern Europe’s political dynamic, if only because revolutions are not what they used to be. Compared to the modern revolutions that began with the taking of the Bastille or the Winter Palace and continued for years in fire and blood, the negotiated transitions of 1989 were quick, easy, and nonviolent. In fact, 1989 brought to a close the era of revolutions precisely by its rejection of the idea of violence as a midwife for the birth of a new society. The revolutions of 1989 were unique in history because none of them claimed to bear within itself a new societal “project.” With no new social utopia, there is little reason to fear the combination of virtue and terror typical of past revolutions. The transitions of 1989 took their bearings quite explicitly from both Western democracy and the precommunist traditions of their own lands. It is in this sense that François Furet speaks of “revolution-restoration,” meaning the restoration of national sovereignty, the rule of law, and private property. 3

The real question, however, is whether a revolution that is negotiated or “velvet” can rightly be called a revolution at all. This is no merely theoretical issue, but one that deeply divides the political landscape of postcommunist Europe. On one side are those who demand a radical break with the institutions and personnel inherited from communism; on the other are those who favor respect for the rule of law, and thus a degree of continuity. The first group emphasizes “restoration”; the second, imitation of Western constitutional models. The paradox is that the partisans of “permanent revolution” generally belong to the conservative (even nationalist) Right, whereas those who support an “evolutionary” approach in the name of law are moderate liberals, who often were former dissidents. In 1980, Poland invented the “self-limiting revolution” in the name of geopolitics and the threat from the East; today, Poland practices it in the name of the rule of law and inducements from the West.

This split over continuity and change is at the heart of a double political game: that of decommunization and that of constitutionalism.

Justice, Reflection, and Old Scores

We now know that communism dissolves in voting booths. Its sudden collapse, finalized by the holding of free elections, allowed new democratic institutions to develop. But if communism is dead as an ideology and a system of rule, its encumbering legacy continues to haunt the political and social landscape. Since the transition was gentle, the bulk of the old nomenklatura remains, attempting at every turn, as Elemer Hankiss puts it, to convert its old politically based privileges into new economic rights. This spectacle has fostered a diffuse but profound sense of injustice...

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pp. 61-73
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