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  • The Crumbling of the Soviet BlocThe Democratic Revolution
  • Vilém Prečan (bio)

Nearly a century and a half ago. Marx and Engels declared that Europe was being haunted by the specter of communism. Today, however, communist Europe finds itself haunted by the specter of democracy. Not only is democracy the key concept in the political vocabulary of East bloc opposition movements; it has also become the most frequently used expression of those who are trying to save the communist system.

In three countries of eastern Central Europe—Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia—democracy is quite clearly on the march, although at a different pace in each of them. Can this march of democracy be considered a "democratic revolution"? This expression, which surprises many people and is rarely used in Europe, has an optimistic ring to it and inspires great hope and expectations—perhaps too great, in fact. Even so, it can be a useful term, with the following provisos:

  1. 1. The democratic revolution describes the underlying trend of our time towards democracy, a system based on mutual tolerance and spiritual, political, and economic pluralism. [End Page 79]

  2. 2. The democratic revolution in the communist world has been prepared by the gradual building of an independent civil society inside the totalitarian system. The democratic revolution commences at the moment when that civil society demand changes in the system on the basis of democracy and freedom, and formulates a political program for achieving them.

  3. 3. The democratic revolution in societies under communist rule is one of the least violent revolutions in history. Cars are not set on fire in the name of democracy, nor bombs exploded. It is not a revolution that rallies the masses with demagogic slogans. Its advocates are staunch opponents of violence and civil war. They are open to compromise and to ideas of national or social reconciliation that would break the existing chain of violence inherent in communism.

The era of democratic revolution nonetheless is full of violence and suffering. Although the threat or actual use of violence varies from country to country, it invariably comes from the party of guardians of the status quo-its police, its crack units and, in the case of Czechoslovakia, its terrorists from the ranks of the secret police posing as angry citizens.

Sources of Inspiration

The democratic revolution of the 1980s is not without its historical forerunners. The Kronstadt Mutiny of 1921, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, the Solidarity era of 1980-81—all had something in common, in spite of their individual characteristics and particular historical contexts. They all expressed society's desire to attenuate, to limit, and finally to eliminate the totalitarian communist system.

One essential step in the direction of the democratic revolution was the "moral revolution" that animated the dissidence of the 1970s: the new concept of human rights that emerged from the critique of communist totalitarianism, the cultivation of citizenship, the implementation of the principle of life in the truth, and the rise of independent culture and samizdat. The achievements of the moral revolution, often ignored or even ridiculed by advocates of realpolitik, are now becoming plain to see as civil society enters the political arena as a self-assured and independent force.

The democratic revolution we are now witnessing differs from its predecessors in that it is taking place in the period of what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called "the terminal crisis of communism." The crisis is of such magnitude that it cannot be solved by means of piecemeal remedies while leaving the system intact. The belief in the irreversibility of the communist system has been shaken to its foundations. The democratic revolution is both a response to this crisis and at the same [End Page 80] time a factor that further deepens the crisis, above all because it points to a radical solution that goes to the heart of the matter.

The question is sometimes asked whether the reforms undertaken or planned by the present communist establishment are not in fact part of the democratic revolution. To my way of thinking, these are two phenomena that differ in many respects, particularly in terms of their aims, but cannot be...


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