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  • Eastern Europe a Decade LaterReassessing the Revolutions of 1989
  • Vladimir Tismaneanu (bio)

Ten years have passed since the momentous series of events in Eastern and Central Europe known as the revolutions of 1989. In that year, what appeared to be an invulnerable system collapsed with breathtaking speed, not from an external blow (although external pressure did play a role), but due to inner tensions that could not be resolved. The Leninist systems were terminally sick, and the disease affected above all their capacity for self-regeneration. After decades of flirting with the idea of internal reform, it had become clear that communism did not have the resources for readjustment and that the solution lay not within, but outside, and even against the existing order. The implosion of the Soviet Union itself, which took place before the eyes of an incredulous world in December 1991, was intimately related to the previous dissolution of the East European “outer empire” provoked by the revolutions of 1989. The historical cycle inaugurated by World War I, the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in October 1917, and the long European ideological warfare (some call it the “European civil war”) that followed had come to an end.

The importance of these revolutions cannot be overestimated. They represented the triumph of civic dignity and political morality over ideological monism, bureaucratic cynicism, and police dictatorship. Rooted in an individualistic concept of freedom and skeptical of all ideological blueprints for social engineering, these revolutions were (at least at the outset) liberal and nonutopian. Unlike traditional revolutions, they did not originate in a chiliastic vision of the perfect [End Page 69] society and they rejected any role for a self-appointed vanguard in directing the activities of the masses. No political party guided their momentum. In their early stage, they insisted on the need to create new political forms unlike traditional ideologically defined parties. The fact that these revolutions have been followed by ethnic strife, unsavory political bickering, rampant corruption, and the rise of illiberal parties and movements does not detract from their generous message and colossal impact. Where such revolutions did not occur (Yugoslavia) or were derailed (Romania), the exit from state socialism has been convoluted, tentative, and much more problematic.

These facts must be kept in mind when we face arguments that question the success of the revolutions of 1989 by emphasizing their ambiguous legacies. This “reactionary rhetoric” is designed to delegitimize change per se, by making it look impossible or undesir-able. 1 According to such arguments, either: 1) the postrevolutionary environment has unleashed long-dormant ugly features of national political cultures, including chauvinism, residual fascism, ethnoclerical fundamentalism, and militarism, and is therefore more dangerous than the status quo ante; or 2) nothing has really changed, and the same people have remained in power, simply donning new masks; or 3) contrary to the wishes of those who made the revolutions, the results have turned out to be extremely disappointing, opening the way for political scoundrels to exploit the new opportunities to establish their domination.

It is therefore politically, morally, and intellectually useful to remember the real message of these revolutions. We should not forget that at the beginning of 1989 the end of Sovietism was only seen as a remote possibility. It is true that some dissident thinkers (Ferenc Fehér, Agnes Heller, Václav Havel, János Kis, Leszek Kolakowski, Jacek Kuron, and Adam Michnik) thought that the system was slowly decaying and had no future, but even they did not think that the collapse was imminent. The philosophy of dissidence was predicated on a strategy of long “penetration” of the existing system and restoration of the public sphere (the independent life of society) as an alternative to the omnipresent ideological party-state. 2

Although a number of thinkers anticipated the inevitable collapse of Sovietism, hardly any thought that it would come so quickly and with so little violence. Leninist regimes had never accepted negotiations with the opposition, let alone the peaceful transfer of power. Thus one of the most surprising developments of 1989–90 was the willingness of communist elites in Hungary and Poland first to share power and then to give it up...