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The Opposition

A comprehensive map of the opposition in East Central Europe today would resemble nothing so much as one of those kaleidoscopic multicolored maps of ethnic groups in this region before the war. In both Poland and Hungary, groups or grouplets whose identities or programs arise from specific postwar realities overlap or combine with groups raising almost every flag, slogan, aspiration, or prejudice of the prewar political spectrum (except communism): populists, reform economists, radical sociologists, Smallholders, Lutherans, Catholic “base groups,” evangelical sects, democratic opposition, democratic youth, democratic academics, Solidarity, Fighting Solidarity, national democrats, liberal democrats, Christian democrats, social democrats, liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics, Christian socialists, Jews, anti-Semites, advocates of workers’ self-government, apostles of free enterprise, syndicalists and monetarists, self-styled “crazy liberals,” “neorealists,” “neopositivists”: you name it, we have it. And this is merely the surface of explicit opposition. One could produce another rich catalog of official or semiofficial projects for “reform.” Hungarian political scientists have coined the delightful term “paradigm ecstasy.”1

Here I shall merely indicate four dimensions that every cartographer of emancipation must bear in mind.2 The first might be called a popular rediscovery of the national past: a widespread and passionate interest in history,3 pre-war national traditions, forgotten authors, ethnic minorities past and present (Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Hungarians in Transylvania and Slovakia), and regional ties (“Central Europe,” Germany, Lithuania, and the Ukraine). To subsume all this under the label “nationalism” would be crass oversimplification. Much of it is simply the quest for what is regarded in the West as a “normal” cultural continuity: an identification with national symbols, traditions, and even myths, as benign in moderation as it is dangerous in excess. The lack of “normal” access to the national past was a form of deprivation; the recovery of it is a form of emancipation. Tradition, said G.K. Chesterton, is the democracy of the dead. But does the recultivation of tradition necessarily conduce to the democracy of the living? What about the authentic, national un- or antidemocratic traditions? And cannot nationalism act—or be used—as a substitute for democracy?

This fear is particularly acute among the “democratic opposition” in Hungary. Why, they ask, did the new Party leadership, as one of its first acts, permit an independent mass demonstration against the Ceausescu regime’s persecution of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania? Partly, of course, to give vent to a burning popular concern, and gain social credit for so doing. But also, perhaps, because if you let people shout about national rights in Transylvania they may be less inclined to think about civil rights in Hungary. Certainly it was a strange affair, this torchlit demonstration on Heroes’ Square in Budapest. The speeches were an uneasy mixture of somewhat stilted liberal sentiments (universal rights, the poor Romanians suffer too) and purple patriotic rhetoric.4 My overwhelming impression was of a lonely crowd: men and women with slightly bewildered faces mouthing half-forgotten hymns, and just beginning to rediscover, for good or ill, what it means to be a nation; a spectacle at once pathetic, moving, and disturbing.

All we want is freedom and democracy for the Hungarians in Transylvania,” said a speaker at one point. Loud applause. Then, almost as an afterthought, “…and freedom for ourselves.” Still louder applause. If I was the new Hungarian Party leader, Károly Grósz, I should not be at all sure that I could separate the national from the democratic cause. It is a short step from asking why the Hungarian government is not doing more for the Hungarians in neighboring socialist states, to asking why you have the kind of Hungarian government that cannot do more. To some extent, the Jaruzelski government faces a comparable dilemma on the burning national question of the Katyn massacre, and the other “blank spaces” of Soviet-Polish relations. If you cannot make or obtain a clear statement of the truth, it may be safer to say nothing.

A second dimension is the revival of religion, not just in Poland, but also in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and even, on a very small scale, in Hungary. This, too, is exceedingly complex, whether one considers social roots, confessional forms, or political implications. Why do so many young people in Eastern Europe, often brought up in a wholly atheistic environment, at home as well as at school, turn to religion, or at least to the churches? Is it simply because nature abhors a value vacuum, such as the collapse of socialist ideology has left? Is it the search for comfort amid material decay, misery, and hopelessness?

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou, who changest not, abide with me.

Part of the larger rediscovery of the past? The impact of the Polish Pope? Divine intervention? All of the above? Religious participation can be a channel for basically secular, social, and political aspirations: as it is in part of the Church-protected peace and human rights movement in the GDR. But it can also be a substitute for social and political activism. The surge of churchgoing in Poland after the imposition of martial law had elements of both. Like the rediscovery of national history, the religious revival cuts several ways, and it is very difficult to say which cut goes deeper.5 This is a nice analytical problem for the scholar, but a hard political dilemma for the authorities.

A third important dimension is what has come to be known as the reconstitution of “civil society” in East Central Europe. There is already a substantial literature on this subject,6 yet the concept remains woefully imprecise, partly because of the variety of earlier uses (notably by Hegel), but mainly because it is currently used to describe two different things: (A) the entire range of social associations, ties, and activities independent of the state, from glee clubs to Charter 77, from samizdat to breviaries and from private farmers to homosexuals;^7 more narrowly, and more politically, the products of that strategy of “social self-organization” which was, broadly speaking, adopted by the democratic oppositions in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the mid to late 1970s. For them, the reconstitution of “civil society” was both an end in itself and a means to political change, including, eventually, change in the nature of the state.

(B) is a subcategory of (A). The growth of (A) will generally be unplanned, or at least not part of an overall political strategy, yet the emergence of non-political social associations and bonds has been facilitated by, and is deliberately included in, the strategy of (B). It might just be possible to call (A) simply “society,” except that in Poland the term “society” (spoleczenstwo) has come to be used precisely for those organized or civilly active parts of society (whether workers, farmers, or intellectuals) which, since August 1980, can meaningfully be talked of in opposition to the powers that be (wladza). So while elsewhere people say “civil society” but mean society, here people say “society” but mean civil society.

In Hungary, “civil society,” even in sense (A), was almost totally destroyed by Stalinism and János Kádár’s counter-revolution after 1956, but it has been slowly, quietly reconstituted. A rudimentary measure of this is the number of independent clubs and associations: more than 13,000 in the 1930s, sinking to as few as 1,000 in the 1950s, but up again to more than 3,500 by 1981.8 However, in the last year or two, and most dramatically in recent months, we have seen a sudden flowering of “civil society” in sense (B): the more or less spontaneous combustion of debating clubs, associations, and lobbies of different social and intellectual groups, most of whose members are consciously agitating as citizens, concerned not merely with their individual or group interests, but with the state of the nation. The appeal for the demonstration in Heroes’ Square was signed by no fewer than twelve such groups, and two of these were alliances: the Hungarian Democratic Forum for “populists” or nationalists, the Network of Free Initiatives for the rest.

Probably the most notable of these new groups are the Democratic Union of Scientific Workers (i.e., academics) and the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) (mainly students), both founded in the spring of 1988. These are the first independent unions to be launched in Eastern Europe since the banning of Solidarity. The differences between this ferment and Poland in 1980 are obvious and legion. Yet I must say that listening to a gloriously discursive meeting of the new academics’ union (only academics would try to write footnotes to a demonstration), or talking to the marvelously fresh and bright student activists of FIDESZ, I felt almost as if I was back in Poland in the autumn of 1980. How the Hungarian authorities deal with these groups will be one of the more interesting questions of the autumn of 1988.

In Poland, the situation is both worse and better. When, in the mid 1970s, the democratic opposition first embarked on the strategy of “social self-organization” and “change from below,” they never imagined a mass movement like Solidarity. They did, on the other hand, imagine that they might find some partners, albeit reluctant ones, within the system, and that the result might even be some new, explicit or implicit, “social contract.” In the late 1980s, civil or self-organized society exists in Poland on a scale no one then dreamed of. There is a fantastic landscape of independent clubs, associations, periodicals, publishers, and the like, and this, together with the existence of something called “the opposition,” is accepted by more realistic members of the nomenklatura, and even of the secret police, as a lasting feature of Polish life. In a long memorandum written last year, Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski—a Politburo member sometimes feted in the West as a “liberal”—noted that “in practice we have recognized the opposition as a lasting element on the country’s political map.”9

Earlier this year, the authorities felt themselves compelled by the depth of the economic crisis and popular discontent to start talking privately with this opposition again, very gingerly exploring the notion of an “anti-crisis pact.” In recent weeks, they have been compelled by a wave of strikes to start talking directly and publicly with the man whom they have so often said was no longer a “partner” for them: Lech Walesa. But, as I write, in mid September there is still nothing remotely resembling a “partnership” between the authorities and the “society” represented by Solidarity. There is no “historic compromise” or “social contract.”

This seven-year-old historic stalemate has had many demoralizing effects. Not the least important is that it has confined “civil society” largely to the realm of words. Written words—in samizdat journals too numerous to list, legal independent Catholic journals like Tygodnik Powszechny, Znak, or Wiez, internal university publications, samizdat books from publishers like Krag, Nowa, or cdn, political programs, long and short, moderate and extreme; spoken words—in sermons, hymns, lectures, legal and illegal seminars, worker education groups, theaters, cabaret, unofficial cassettes; audiovisual words—wonderfully funny tapes from the satirist Jacek Fedorowicz, wonderfully serious tapes about Friedrich von Hayek, passed around on the country’s now numerous videocassette recorders; words, words, words.

  1. 1

    For “paradigm ecstasy” see Rudolf L. Tökes, “The Science of Politics in Hungary in the 1980s,” in Südosteuropa, Vol. 37 (1/1988), p. 15 and passim.

  2. 2

    In my article in the September 29 issue, “The Empire in Decay,” I suggested that the decay of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe brings with it the possibility of “an unplanned, piecemeal, and discontinuous emancipation, both of the constituent states from the imperial center and of societies from states.” In this article I look at forms of social emancipation, taking most of my examples from Poland and Hungary.

  3. 3

    The observation about the interest in history is repeatedly made in a regular series of reports about Polish samizdat in the leading underground weekly, Tygodnik Mazowsze.

  4. 4

    See my article in The Spectator, July 2, 1988. One should note that the Romanian refugees in Hungary were also represented at the demonstration.

  5. 5

    Even in the most political churches, there is an extraordinary jumbling of national, social, and religious issues. At the last “Mass for the Fatherland” I attended at Father Popieluszko’s church in Warsaw, the preacher ended up exhorting the faithful to fight the good fight against alcoholism, robbery, abortion, and communism—in that order.

  6. 6

    See, for example, John Keane, Democracy and Civil Society (Verso, 1988) and John Keane, ed., Civil Society and the State (Verso, 1988), especially the essay by Z.A. Pelczynski.

  7. 8

    Excluding sports clubs. Quoted in a paper by Elemér Hankiss for the Woodrow Wilson Center European Alumni Association conference on “The European Question” in May 1988. (The papers from this conference are due to be published in book form.) The number of private foundations also rose from nil in 1977 to 380 by 1986.

  8. 9

    The leaked document is entitled “Reflections on some aspects of the political and economic situation in the Polish People’s Republic in the second half of the 1980s.” The sixty-page typescript is signed and dated “Warsaw. 8.6.–10.10. 1987.” Rakowski has privately confirmed that it is genuine. It is interesting that he connects this recognition of the opposition specifically with Western official visitors’ now regular practice of meeting with opposition leaders.

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