- Civil Society After Communism
It is now over half a decade since the revolutions of 1989 toppled the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. The intervening years have seen progress in the building of democracy, but also many setbacks and disappointments. Ex-communist parties, more reformed in some countries than in others, have achieved surprising success in returning to power through free and competitive elections. The heroic dissidents of 1989 have, for the most part, not fared well in democratic politics. And the ideal of “civil society” that inspired them, while it has gained worldwide currency and become a rallying cry for democrats almost everywhere, has also encountered unforeseen obstacles in adjusting itself to the shift from opposition to dictatorship to support for the new democratic reality.
Of all the postcommunist countries, the Czech Republic is generally considered to have gone the farthest toward becoming a multiparty democracy with a market economy. It has also been blessed with two outstanding leaders: President Václav Havel, a former dissident still highly esteemed both at home and abroad; and Prime Minister Václav Klaus, perhaps the most successful parliamentary and party leader in the postcommunist world. Moreover, unlike Hungary and Poland, the Czech Republic does not have to deal with a strong party of ex-communists. It is probably the closest thing to a “normal society” on the Western model that yet exists in the countries that endured communist rule.
Paradoxically, this may explain why the Czech Republic has seen an especially searching debate about what has been achieved and what remains to be done. It also may explain why some of that debate has a particular resonance for more established democracies, many of which are experiencing deep disenchantment despite enjoying stable democratic institutions and growing market economies.
In this debate, Havel and Klaus represent sharply divergent perspectives on the matter of civil society and on the path to be followed. Both are men of intelligence and learning, as their words show. We are pleased to present, under the title “Rival Visions,” excerpts from their exchanges, both direct and indirect, along with a short commentary by Petr Pithart. There follows a subtle and insightful essay by Aleksander Smolar that engages many of the themes of the Klaus-Havel debate, and traces the fate of civil society in postcommunist Central Europe. We believe that these writings illuminate not only postcommunist concerns but also the wider issue of the nature and meaning of civil society.
—The Editors, 12 December 1995