- Eastern Europe a Decade LaterVictory Defeated
A Hungarian émigré historian, Miklós Molnár, professor at the University of Geneva, called his important book on the 1956 uprising Victoire d’une défaite. In his view, although Hungary was defeated by the Red Army, the world communist movement was robbed of its most precious asset, its legitimacy: The purest proletarian revolution in history had been directed against the heirs of Lenin. The tide turned. The mesmerizing ideological force of radical socialism was broken. It became morally impossible for Enlightenment humanism to remain in cahoots with the butchers of Budapest. Sooner or later, radical socialism would have to lose the historic battle.
Is it possible to argue that what we now see, ten years after 1989, the annus mirabilis, is the moral exhaustion of liberal capitalism brought about by its global victory?
To offer at least a partial answer to this alarming question, we must first clarify the difficulties apparent in the Western understanding of the so-called new democracies, difficulties that have a perverse impact on the self-understanding of East Europeans themselves (by East Europeans I mean people from the former Warsaw Pact countries, including the former Soviet Union). It also has to be taken into account that East Europeans do not understand one another’s languages, and are aware of one another only via the West, usually the United States and France. That, by the way, has always been the case. I read T.G. Masaryk in German, not in Czech. [End Page 63]
The role assigned to East Europeans in the retelling of their own story is bearing witness. Our job is to furnish anecdotal evidence, the raw material of the analysis supplied by Westerners. I, for one, was more than happy to play the role of the native informant in the period when—due to censorship—Eastern Europe did not have its own voice. But now that it has got one, “martyrology” (martyr means “witness” in Greek) ought to stop. The voluminous political literature on contemporary Eastern Europe, with a few exceptions, pretends that East Europeans do not think about the changes in their own countries, that no theories are presented and no debates and quarrels are taking place. Once upon a time, the slightest stirrings in the Central Committee and the Institute for the Scientific Study of Marxism-Leninism were reported in excruciating detail by myriads of Kremlinologists; the infinitesimal signs of nascent baby heresy were scrutinized as portents of great events. Since the demise of communism, however, East Europeans have given up cerebrating altogether—at least as far as Western observers are concerned.
Yet the most interesting phenomenon in Eastern Europe today is the new press. Irreverent, raucous, passionate, invective-laden, pugnacious, it is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the new democracies. While in New York there is only one quality broadsheet and two tabloids, Budapest has six broadsheets and three tabloids and Bucharest about thirty dailies, and people are queuing up to buy them. Hungarian intellectuals publish their theoretical-cum-polemical essays in national weeklies with a readership of around 100,000 (in a country of 10 million). Of all this, not a whisper is heard in the West.
It seems that things keep happening to East Europeans, but they are totally passive and do not think about them. Events in Eastern Europe seem to be either economic in nature (i.e., “objective” in some sense) or “ethnic” (again, a tragedy arising from what is “given” [race], that is, something “objective”). East European parliaments do not seem to legislate. There do not seem to be left-wing or right-wing governments, only pro-market “experts” and anti-market lunatics. Skinhead-style (i.e., marginal) antisemitic incidents are reported, but the centrality of the Jewish question (as Leo Strauss said, the social problem par excellence) is ignored. Western political scientists do not read novels, although the paramountcy of literature in Eastern Europe is unchanged; it is still the best source for understanding the region, far better than collections of footnoted scholarly articles by the usual suspects. [End Page 64]
In general, the parts of the story where...