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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 119-129

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Rethinking the Legacy of Central European Dissidence

Jeffrey C. Isaac

It is now more than a quarter century since the first expressions of Central European "antipolitical" dissidence—Václav Havel's open letter to President Husák, Adam Michnik's essay "A New Evolutionism"—made their appearance, and a good fifteen years since the dissidents, through their very public efforts, helped to end the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and engineer "handshake transitions" to liberal democracy. 1 These dissidents, once viewed as upstarts, have thus been on the scene for some time, appearing first as anticommunist rebels and then as liberal and democratic intellectuals, activists, and politicians in the postcommunist period.

As targets of communist derision and persecution, the dissidents—Havel, Michnik, György Konrád, János Kis, Miklós Haraszti, Jacek Kuron, and so many others—came to be regarded as heroes and celebrities, by some among the countries in which they lived and by many more in the West, who regarded their cause as just and their methods as both just and virtuous. 2 Timothy Garton Ash's book [End Page 119] The Uses of Adversity was simply the most perceptive and influential of many accounts of the moral foundations of antipolitical politics and the strategy of nonviolent "refolution" to which it gave rise. 3 Who, outside of apologists for the communist regimes, could question the exemplary value of this dissident politics? When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Iron Curtain with it, the moment could be justifiably portrayed as one of triumph for the dissidents and for their values which, at last, appeared to be realized.

Of course, matters are rarely so simple, and debate ensued rapidly, among the dissidents themselves, and also among their Western interpreters, regarding the "meaning" of the dissident experience and whether the downfall of communism had neatly relegated that experience to the past. On one side of this debate stood those who embraced the new liberal, democratic, and capitalist dispensation, and who regarded the institutionalization of liberal democracy as the apotheosis of all that was best in the dissident agenda. The more credulous of these kept to the celebratory tone of Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" arguing that liberalism was the only viable road to freedom and that, insofar as the (now) former dissidents sought freedom, what they sought was liberalism. 4 Others, such as Garton Ash, observed a tension between the idealism (and enthusiasm about civic engagement) characteristic of many of the dissidents and the requirements of liberal-democratic politics: organized mendacity, corruption, and political opportunism. In either case, so the argument went, liberal-democratic normality represented the only plausible political telos of the dissidents' activity; and the dissidents themselves were either praised for their recognition of this fact or admonished to get with the program or return to private life.

On the other side of this debate stood writers who argued that dissident idealism had continuing importance, in the postcommunist world and in the world generally—including in the liberal West. Vladimir Tismaneanu's article, "NYR, TLS, and the Velvet Counterrevolution," published in these pages in 1994, gave voice to this sentiment. 5 In Tismaneanu's words, the idea of civil society retained "galvanizing power" after 1989, and he argued that "the politics of postcommunism continues to need the dissident perspective, that civil society in its true sense, as an area of autonomy... is still to be erected." 6 It is thus "much too early," he wrote, "to determine that the revolutions are over and that the critical [End Page 120] intelligentsia of East-Central Europe has exhausted its historical mandate." 7 Tismaneanu's basic point—one reiterated by him and various others, myself included—was that the moral and civic idealism and radical democratic experimentalism of the dissidents continued to be in desperately short supply in the 1990s and that this state of affairs was unfortunate. 8

To some extent this debate was theoretical, centering on the power of moral ideals and the role of intellectuals in liberal society...


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