Eight years after the birth of Solidarity, occupation strikes once again spread across Poland. The workers’ first demand is: Solidarity. On the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion, ten thousand Czechs march through the streets of Prague, chanting “Dubcek!” and “Freedom!” With official permission, some forty thousand people demonstrate in Budapest—against the policies of a neighboring socialist state. Without official permission, half a million Czechs and Slovaks sign a petition for religious freedom. The Protestant churches in East Germany try to praise the recent policies of the Soviet Union, but are censored by the state. The Polish government spokesman invites himself to visit Radio Free Europe. A Hungarian Politburo member says he has “no arguments in principle for the one-party system.”1

These days one is mildly disappointed if, on opening a Polish or Soviet journal, one finds that some great, immovable, forty-year-old taboo has not been casually broken. It would be amusing, although perhaps a little cruel, to compile a small anthology of statements from Soviet and East European experts of the form “what is unthinkable is…” or “one thing is certain….”

It is not just individual taboos that fall like ninepins. Whole concepts have crumbled. “Normalization,” for example. After the imposition of martial law in Poland, most serious Western analysts concentrated on the “prospects for normalization” in Poland, where “normalization” might be defined as the attempt to return an East Central European country, initially by the use of force, to Soviet norms. The comparison was with Hungary after 1956 and Czechoslovakia after 1968. This line of analysis was entirely reasonable at the time. But what relevance has the concept today? Not only has the Jaruzelski team’s original vision of “normalization”—Kádárism à la Polonaise—failed, as the best analysts predicted it would.2 The very idea of what is normal seems to have changed.

Old concepts crumble, but, where are the new? Beside the novelty, intricacy, and fragility of internal developments in each country, and the central uncertainty about the nature, pace and durability of change in the Soviet Union, there is the problem of divergence. To generalize about “Eastern Europe” was always a difficult and questionable exercise—even at the height of Stalinist Gleichschaltung—but it becomes ever more difficult and questionable as individual countries become increasingly different, not just from the Soviet Union but from each other. The historian Joseph Rothschild calls his new political history of East Central Europe since World War II Return to Diversity. A knowledge of each country’s prewar, or pre-“Yalta” history is now quite as necessary as a general understanding of Soviet-type systems.

Eastern Europe today resembles a landscape on whose commanding heights vast uniform concrete blockhouses were built some forty years ago. There they stand, still inhabited, still hideous, from the wooded hills of Thuringia to the Great Hungarian Plain, and on their terraces the familiar fat-jowled proprietors still sit at lugubrious leisure, with their black, curtained cars and their prefabricated lies. But look again: strange things have happened. Here, a whole wing has fallen to the ground, rusty steel rods jutting out of crumbled concrete. There, the blockhouse has incongruously acquired a baroque frontage or a romanesque interior, repainted in the prewar national colors, while the strains of a patriotic march sound from the hall. There again, cottages in half-remembered versions of traditional styles shoulder up the hill toward it, while around the corner a private entrepreneur has built himself something altogether more modern and luxurious. And who is that man in a black soutane being ushered obsequiously across the terrace? And since when have blockhouses had spires?


Let us start with Mr. Gorbachev—which is not, however, to start at the beginning. Faced with this bewildering East European vista, most Western news commentators have taken refuge in a formula as simple as it is facile. Every new development in Eastern Europe is treated as a function of, or alternatively as a challenge to, Soviet glasnost and perestroika. Yet in truth, a serious analysis of Hungary or Poland’s present dilemmas could almost as well begin in the Middle East3 as in Moscow. Of course Gorbachev’s impact has been large: it has also been complex, ambiguous, more indirect than direct, and the “Gorbachev factor” has played into political scenes that, at least in Hungary and Poland, already had powerful dynamics of their own.

The most radical and basic speculative question about Moscow’s approach to its “external empire”4 might be called the TITO question: Troops In, Troops Out? In what circumstances might Soviet troops once again march into an East European country? Under what conditions might they march out?

Is the so-called “Brezhnev doctrine” of limited sovereignty within the socialist commonwealth, so eloquently presented by Mr. S. Kovalev in Pravda of September 26, 1968, still valid twenty years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia? At least two senior Gorbachev advisers have told Western journalists, on the record, that they regard invasion as unthinkable in present circumstances.5 In purely theoretical terms, the “new thinking” in Soviet foreign policy would at least demand a different ideological justification of such an action, in terms of “all human” rather than class interests. (The Soviets could say the ozone layer is threatened by pollution from Czech industry.) Two leading Soviet legal scholars argued in a recent article that the principle of “peaceful coexistence” must, in the context of the “new thinking,” be extended to relations between states with the same political and social systems.6 Gorbachev himself has emphasized the right of socialist states to find their own paths to socialism, notably during his visit to Belgrade.


On the other hand, in discussing the “priority area of relations with the socialist countries” the theses for the extraordinary Party conference in Moscow in May declared: “Our internationalist links are built on the basis of mutual benefit, a balance of interests and common responsibility for the fate and prestige of socialism and the enhancement of its role in world development.” Official Soviet commentaries on the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia (August 20–21) were largely unrepentant, although this can be explained by their concern not to embarrass the Husák–Jakes regime in Prague. During his visit to Warsaw in June, Gorbachev declined to renounce the “Brezhnev doctrine,” despite a direct public challenge to do so from a Polish intellectual.7

These statements are important, not least for their direct impact—simply as statements—on Eastern Europe. But they do not get us (or Soviet leaders) much further in determining what they would actually do were an East European country to blow up in their faces. Nobody can know that: not even Mr. Gorbachev. This question can only be answered in practice. All we can say is that, in response to the three major postwar East European challenges, the Soviet Union has each time hesitated longer—days with Hungary in 1956, months with Czechoslovakia in 1968, more than a year with Poland in 1980–1981. It has gone to increasing pains to disguise its intervention—unilateral in 1956, multilateral (Warsaw Pact) in 1968, Polish “internal” in 1981. It now has stronger reasons than ever for hesitating and fudging, since an invasion would be a blow to reform inside the Soviet Union as well, and since relations with the West are so important for that reform. The nature of the East European challenge has in each case been a matter of definition: What is “reform” and what “revolution”? What helps “the fate and prestige of socialism” and what harms it? What—to use the favored Western policy terms—is “stability” and what “dangerous instability”?

All Soviet leaders since Stalin (except the transitional figures of Andropov and Chernenko) have faced a major East European challenge. There are strong reasons for believing that this challenge will come sooner rather than later to this Soviet leader.8 Politically, it is therefore of the first importance that the West should prepare itself for such a crisis: analytically, psychologically, and by planning possible responses. One part of the response is precisely the matter of definition. In the past, major Western powers—and particularly West Germany—have too often adopted a restrictive, indeed almost a Soviet definition of “stability,” treating as symptoms of “dangerous instability” phenomena such as strikes and street demonstrations, which are an entirely normal part of political and public life in our own countries. Of course a strike in a socialist state selfevidently is a more important thing than a strike in a liberal democracy. But there is a strong tactical case for the West now to say (while firmly warning the Soviet Union of the disastrous consequences of the use of force, whether direct or camouflaged): “So [name of country] has fifty thousand people on the streets? There are strikes every week? They have independent political parties? So what! This is normal. This is fine. It’s reform, not dangerous instability. We call it glasnost and perestroika.” But that is a political argument. Analytically, there is little more of interest to be said on this subject, beyond registering the Soviet statements and signs.

It is more pleasant to speculate about troop movements in the other direction. In mid-July the Hungarian Party foreign affairs spokesman said on television that Soviet troops could be withdrawn from Hungary “in the foreseeable future.”9 This is a possible development to which immense attention has been paid in the West—mainly because of that “militarization of thought” about East–West relations which is the common weakness of American “cold war” thinking since the 1950s and European “peace movement” thinking in the 1980s. Plainly, any quantitative reduction or qualitative transformation of the military confrontation in Central Europe is bound to have an impact on the East European polities. Plainly, a physical withdrawal of Soviet troops—the very bearers and symbols of domination—would have more political impact than any changes in the structure of force, armaments, or military doctrine, although some of these might actually be more important for the military balance. But what exactly this political impact would be it is exceedingly difficult to say.


Any implicit argument suggesting, “Soviet troops brought communism to Eastern Europe forty-five years ago, so if Soviet troops go, communism will go,” contains an obvious, childish fallacy in its conclusion, as well as a small oversimplification in its premise.10 Yet it is far from obvious that such a half-articulated hope would not be raised in many a patriotic breast were the invaders to depart. In the short term, the new Hungarian Party leader, Mr. Károly Grósz, might well gain some popular credit for such a move. But in the medium to longer term, would not expectations be raised that he could not satisfy?

In general, the domestic effect of any Soviet military reductions will probably be to put the emphasis more nakedly, and even harshly, on the question of changing the political, economic, and social system that came with, or was at least partially restored by, those troops. Increased military “stability” can mean reduced political “stability.” This is patently not an argument against careful disarmament. It is just an argument for keeping our eyes open. The two halves of the TITO question are intimately related: Troops Out now can increase the danger of Troops In later. But any real political change in Eastern Europe is bound to be accompanied by some reduction in political “stability”—otherwise it will not be real.

The countries of East Central Europe11 at present divide into two categories: those whose regimes are rhetorically embracing the Gorbachev example, for their own purposes, and those whose regimes are still resisting, while their peoples wistfully embrace, the Gorbachev example. The Jaruzelski team in Poland and the new leaders in Hungary are not simply taking leaves out of Mr. Gorbachev’s book. Rather, they are taking his license to pursue national strategies that are deeply different and highly specific, but in some respects also more radical or “advanced” than those currently being debated in Moscow. The Jakes-Husák regime (mutton dressed as lamb) in Czechoslovakia and the Honecker gerontocracy in the GDR are not simply resisting glasnost and perestroika. They are also defending national strategies that have kept them in power, and their societies in relative quiescence (or “stability”?) for nearly twenty years.12

It is probably wrong to suggest that Mr. Gorbachev wholly deplores these latter regimes. Although, like Mrs. Thatcher, he cannot always resist the personal itch to preach his own solutions, his general message has been: “You must solve your own problems in your own way.” The last thing he wants is a new Prague spring to complicate his own. It is also wrong to imply that he is an entirely comfortable patron for Hungary and Poland. Economically, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union was in many ways a “softer” partner. Gorbachev’s hard-nosed approach to Soviet–East European trade, his insistence on the delivery of better-quality goods, his desire to revitalize Comecon integration, his penchant for Soviet–East European joint ventures (favorably mentioned in his book Perestroika): none of this necessarily helps economic reform programs whose success or failure is measured in hard currency.

The general position is, however, as clear as it is extraordinary. For the first time in decades the primary limits to political change in Eastern Europe are not external but internal. The ultimate limits are of course still external, even if no one knows exactly where they lie. But the barriers up against which the enterprise of economic and political liberalization in Poland and Hungary is currently pushing are internal, Polish and Hungarian barriers. Comparisons with Yugoslavia, a socialist state without the external Soviet limits, are increasingly apt.

Moreover, even if the Soviet Union is not directly pressing recalcitrant regimes to change, the indirect effect of the Gorbachev example is to increase the pressure from their own populations for change. This is demonstrably the case in the GDR and Czechoslovakia. There is a partial parallel here between the impact of Gorbachev’s “second de-Stalinization” and that of Khrushchev’s first de-Stalinization. But whereas the lessons of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization were first articulated inside the ruling parties of Eastern Europe, now we find that independent social movements, the churches, non-Party intellectuals, young people, and just the crowds welcoming Mr. Gorbachev are the first to spell out the lessons—and not afraid to do so—leaving the ruling parties embarrassed and straggling behind.

There is a swelling conviction in both Czechoslovakia and the GDR that their old, weary, wooden Brezhnevite leaders cannot last for more than another year or two. People looked with keen interest at Hungary’s palace revolution in May, when an extraordinary Party conference kicked János Kadár upstairs (to the newly created post of Party chairman) and expelled his whole inner circle, not merely from the Politburo but from the Central Committee as well.13 But when the change in Party leadership comes in Czechoslovakia and the GDR there will not simply be a populace eager to follow the Party’s new “Gorbachevite” line. Here too, albeit on a smaller scale than in Poland or Hungary, there will be non-Party intellectuals, the churches, independent social groups, the oppositional rainbow coalition of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, ecological, peace, and human rights activists, and the refuseniks in the GDR, all advancing their own programs for change. Each case will be different: Czechoslovakia because of the legacy of 1968, East Germany because of West Germany. But in both, the real trial is still to come. In Poland and Hungary, by contrast, the trial is already on.


“Finlandization” is the crude metaphor that has been used in the West—but also by independent East European intellectuals—to describe the direction and outer limit of desirable and conceivable change for East European countries. “Finlandization,” or “self-Finlandization,” is held up as a nightmare for Western Europe but a dream for Eastern Europe. The metaphor is not wholly useless to describe a condition in which an East European state would, like Finland, enjoy almost complete autonomy in its domestic social economic, and political life, while per force remaining compliant to the Soviet Union in military and foreign affairs.14

The term is, however, almost wholly useless to describe the process by which an East European country might get from here to there. Does it mean that the East Europeans should first give the Russians a bloody nose in a winter war? Obviously it cannot mean that; but would the Finns enjoy even their present measure of autonomy had it not been for their brave military resistance in 1939–1940? Does it mean achieving a new status in the context of an international settlement, a “new Yalta”? In all the Soviet “new thinking” about foreign policy—a fundamental reexamination of Soviet positions in many parts of the world—there has been no hint of Soviet interest in such a basic renegotiation of the status quo in Europe. The vagueness of the metaphor is amply illustrated by the fact that when applied to Western Europe it means the precise opposite of its putative meaning for Eastern Europe. For Western Europe it means a process of increasing dependence on the Soviet Union, for Eastern Europe, a process of diminishing dependence.

I have in the past offered an alternative metaphor, almost equally crude, but slightly better in indicating the nature of the process, though not the end result. This is the metaphor of the “Ottomanization” of the Soviet empire. I mean by this, in a very loose analogy to the decline of the Ottoman Empire, a long, slow process of imperial decline in the course of which one would see an unplanned, piecemeal, and discontinuous emancipation, both of the constituent states from the imperial center and of societies from states. This would occur not by planned reform from the imperial center, in the context of sustained growth and comprehensive modernization, but mainly by uncoordinated independent action, whether individual, collective, or national, by pressure from below or from outside, in an overall context of growing relative backwardness in relation to much of the developed world, and specifically to Western Europe. In a phrase, “Ottomanization” means emancipation in decay.

It is tempting to pursue the historical analogy. The Ottoman Empire, after all, also started out as an ideological empire: “the divinely protected well-flourishing absolute domain of the House of Osman.” It liquidated much of the old ruling class in several of the territories it conquered, and replaced them with a new and initially functional ruling class drawn mainly from lower social strata. These Ottomans had their own language, the Osmanlica; the Communist Nomenklatura has its newspeak. There was one great sociopolitical divide: between the Ottomans and the “reaya” or flock. Like communism, the Ottoman system assumed its functionaries to be angels: selfless servants of the cause, with no need for petty human checks and balances. As a result, they could behave like devils. This new class degenerated into what the historian Peter Sugar calls “ossified functionalism,” with the growth of corruption, the assertion of local and selfish interests, and the decay of an entrenched bureaucracy.15 The Ottoman Empire was imprisoned in a rigid, archaic economic and fiscal system, incompatible with the demands of the modern industrial economy emerging around it, and incapable of competing with the West. And then there is the parallel originally suggested by Hugh Seton-Watson: that the final collapse of the empire might result from the rise of a power in the East. Let China be to the Russian empire what Russia was to the Ottoman Empire!

All this is tempting; but the temptation must be resisted. For a thousand historians will at once reach for their pens to point out the numerous respects in which the decline of the Ottoman Empire cannot possibly be compared with that of the Soviet empire. Someone else will add, for good measure, that the Ottoman Empire finally fell apart in war, not in peace: “Is it war you want?” they will indignantly ask. So let me stress again that this is not a detailed historical analogy, just a crude metaphor, “good enough for government work” as I believe they say in the State Department.16

The metaphor of “Ottomanization” stresses, in very general terms, the overall context of imperial decline, and the unplanned, piecemeal, and discontinuous nature of that process. It allows both for attempts at reform from the center (Gorbachev as Selim III) and for attempts at revolution from the periphery, for the partial success and partial failure of each, and it recognizes, in the long run, the dialectical relationship between reform and revolution. Indeed, even in the mere forty-five years of the Soviet external empire we have already seen several turns of that dialectic: the reforms introduced by János Kádár were an attempted response to the Hungarian revolution of 1956, just as the Jaruzelski reforms have all been an attempted response to the Polish revolution of 1980–1981. This metaphor therefore invites us not to think of revolution as the end of reform, or of reform as the definitive alternative to revolution, but rather of both as part of a very long-term historical process—whose final outcome is, to be sure, almost impossible to conceive, since most previous empires ended in wars, but this empire has nuclear weapons.

Beyond this, we have to look in detail at individual countries that are, as you would expect in the course of “Ottomanization,” increasingly different. In what follows I shall look briefly at some symptoms of decay. In a second article, I shall survey some contours of emancipation, taking most of my examples from Poland and Hungary, and then pose the question of reform or transformation: that is, whether in either of these pioneer countries there seems any chance that the disparate elements of emancipation in decay can be combined, partly at the wish of the present political leadership and ruling class, into a new socio-political system: either into some “viable” 17 system short of liberal democracy as we know it, in Western, northern, and southern Europe, or simply into a Central European variant of liberal democracy.


Why should anyone in Eastern Europe ever support a socialist state tied to the Soviet Union? Forty years ago there were perhaps three main reasons for doing such a curious thing. First, there was the reason of force. Secondly, there was what presented itself as the force of reason: that is, ideology. Thirdly, there was the hope of emancipatory modernization. The reason of force had two sides. In Eastern Europe it was Soviet armies that defeated Nazi Germany; Soviet power could subsequently be said to protect the new territories of Poland and the restored territory of Czechoslovakia against a revanchist Germany. For that, some felt they had reason to be grateful. On the other side of this coin there was simply force majeure. The Soviet Union was self-evidently the single dominant power in the region. It, or its fraternal Communist parties, had the guns, the ammunition, the soldiers, the police, and the will to use them. If you resisted, they would crush you. There was no alternative. Not a noble reason for supporting a state, but a powerful one.

Soviet power came as “the wheel of history.” It brought a future that was both inevitable and sublime. Many reasons led sensitive and educated men and women to embrace those incredible, utopian claims of ideology: from the experience of social injustice, racial prejudice, and bigotry under prewar regimes to the indescribably terrible Central European experience of war, occupation, and holocaust. These reasons cannot be summarized or synthesized, for they are not only reasons but motives, drives, compounds of fear and longing, “of eros and of dust”: hunger for power, lust for destruction, vulgar ambition, but also desperate responses to such suffering as the human spirit simply will not acknowledge to be senseless. Literature and biography, rather than philosophy or history, are here the only ladders to Verstehen.18

The more rational part was the hope of emancipatory modernization. In, say, 1948 it was by no means wholly irrational to believe that some version of a Soviet-socialist planned economy could pull most of Eastern Europe out of its historic backwardness and dependency, and, particularly in the case of its developed parts such as the Czech lands or Silesia, even outperform the capitalist economies. Nor was it entirely absurd to imagine that a socialist state could achieve a standard of social justice and “social rights”—universal equal provision of employment, housing, health care, education, and so forth—far superior to the miserable standards of much of prewar Eastern Europe, and perhaps even superior to those achieved in capitalist states.

Up to the mid-1960s it remained possible to believe that something of this was actually happening. Growth rates were high, even allowing for statistical exaggeration. Western scholars wrote seriously about “convergence.” Khrushchev talked publicly of “burying” the West. The Czechoslovak leader Antonín Novotný worried privately about Czechoslovakia’s economic problems of success.19 As for “social rights,” there was already one great, structural inequality—automatically privileged status for the Nomenklatura—but it nonetheless really looked as if there could be jobs, housing, basic health care, and basic schooling for all. A certain rudimentary social security was an indisputable fact. So was the social advancement of a whole generation of workers and particularly peasant children, who found themselves, for the first time, in a modern apartment with running water and inside lavatory, or even in a lace-curtained office, with a potted plant and a plastic Lenin.

But what is there today? Growth rates have slumped since the mid-1970s, with an absolute decline in national product in some years, not only in Poland but also in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Eastern Europe’s total share of world trade is shrinking. Poland, Hungary, and the GDR are among the world leaders in per capita hard currency debt. 20 The model plants of Stalinist modernization—those Lenin steelworks, Lenin mines, and Lenin shipyards—are now mostly sheer liabilities. Even the most advanced and West German–subsidized GDR has fallen dangerously behind with essential investment, not merely in industrial plant, but in basic infrastructure: roads, railways, waterways, telephone lines, and so forth.

The Soviet Union offers less than before in hidden or open subsidy, and next to nothing in providing a model for economic reform, management techniques, or technology.21 Only by dint of their ties with Western Europe are some of these countries just barely clinging to the coattails of the revolution of high technology that is transforming the industrial West and Far East. The historical reckoning is drastic: “we have lost four decades,” “we are returning to the starting point of 1945–1946.” These are not the judgments of dissidents but almost casual asides from senior members of the government economic reform teams in, respectively, Hungary and Poland. If one considers the added dynamism that West European economies may acquire in the mid-1990s through the completion of the EC internal market, it seems fair to say that—barring radical change—Eastern Europe once again faces the prospect of growing relative backwardness vis-à-vis Western Europe.

If this is the objective reality, the subjective reality for the individual citizen is even grimmer. The economists tell us that material standards of living have stagnated or declined, with open inflation in Poland and Hungary. But the quality of life is felt to have sunk still further, because of pollution, because of the shortfall in basic investment—painfully visible in housing, hospitals, and schools—and because the members of the younger generation compare their situation not with their own countries’ recent past, but with the situation of their contemporaries in Western Europe, whither they travel in growing numbers.22

In international forums, and notably at the Vienna Helsinki review conference, Soviet and East European governments still advance their notion of “social rights,” with the clear implication that whereas people in the West may enjoy more individual or civil rights, people in the East enjoy more social rights. But in much of Eastern Europe those very “social rights” (to adopt the questionable terminology) have been eroded to an unprecedented degree, in both quality of things provided by the state and equality of access to them. Poland, where hospitals lack the simplest medicines, where children go to school in three shifts, for want of classroom space, and where a young couple can now expect to wait twenty years for an apartment, is obviously an extreme case. But even a good hospital in central Prague resembles an English hospital in, say, the early 1960s.

In addition, there is the injustice: not just the formal injustice of separate, better-supplied hospitals for the Nomenklatura and the police, but the informal injustice of corruption and graft, when in practice you have to pay illicitly (preferably in hard currency) for the surgeon to perform an operation, for the nurses to look after you in hospital, for extra tuition to remedy your child’s inadequate schooling, and even for the apartment that is theoretically yours by right.

Current projects of economic reform will certainly result in a further erosion of these “social rights,” including violation of the ultimate taboo of full employment, as loss-making factories are closed. Unemployment of about one hundred thousand people (some 2.5 percent of the working population) is now officially projected for Hungary. Even for those in employment, there is the frustration of senseless work, and a real sense of exploitation. For the younger generation of worker and peasant children, moreover, there is little prospect of the kind of social advancement that their parents’ generation enjoyed. Solidarity, it has been well observed, was to some extent a product of blocked social mobility. Not only social but actual physical life expectancy has declined in some countries. In Hungary, average male life expectancy has reportedly declined from sixty-seven to sixty-three over the last eight years. The statistics for suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse also show change for the worse.23

Of course the picture is not uniformly grim. Of course many young people in Eastern Europe have a rose-tinted picture of the West. But that itself is a reality that their governments have to confront. The general feeling is, I think, nicely captured in an exchange between Teresa Toranska, a Polish journalist of the younger generation, and Julia Minc, one of the old Stalinists she interviewed for her splendid book, Oni. Julia Minc has been defending the Afghan government, “which is trying to build socialism”:

Toranska: What is socialism?

Minc: A higher standard of living for everyone, free education and social security.

Toranska: Like in the West?24

Ah yes, socialism! The end of ideology and the bankruptcy of socialism in Eastern Europe have been proclaimed so often that one has to say more precisely what one means. In what senses is ideology more dead and socialism more bankrupt in Eastern Europe in the 1980s than it was in the 1970s? By then, of course, no one believed that heaven would be built on earth. Regimes sought their popular “legitimation” in nationalism or consumerism as much as or more than in socialism. Popular ignorance of and indifference to the ideology had already attained impressive dimensions. Generally, one would rather people learned things than not; yet there is something glorious in the capacity of millions of human beings to spend billions of hours being inculcated with Marxism-Leninism, and to emerge knowing nothing, but absolutely nothing, about it. In 1985 Radio Budapest sent two of its reporters to Marx Square to ask passers-by who Karl Marx was. The transcript notes:

Another voice: He was a Soviet philosopher; Engels was his friend. Well, what else can I say? He died at an old age.

A female voice: Of course, a politician. And he was, you know, he was what’s his name’s—Lenin’s, Lenin, Lenin’s works—well, he translated them into Hungarian.

The reporters then went to Engels Square.

Q: Who was Engels?

A: He was an Englishman, and he screwed around with communism.25

But this is light relief. There are three serious ways in which ideology has further decayed in the 1980s. It remained generally true in the 1970s that, although virutally no one had any use for official Marxism-Leninism, most people in Eastern Europe would probably endorse some variant of something called “socialism,” or, even if they reacted against the term (because it was poisoned by official usage), they had internalized some of what might be regarded as core values of socialism: egalitarianism, belief in full employment, social ownership of the means of production, a large welfare role for the state. Evidence for this assertion came from sociological research, opinion surveys, and, not least, from the demands made by the worker-activists and leaders of Solidarity in Poland. Yet there are now signs that even this is beginning to erode, under the impact of the economic and social crisis indicated above. At least among younger and better educated people (students as well as skilled workers) in Poland and Hungary, not just the Soviet-type system but some basic core values of socialism, such as equality or social ownership, are increasingly questioned. It is still unlikely that in a free and secret ballot you would find a majority for returning heavy industry to private ownership. (Apart from any theoretical preferences, this would involve many people voting themselves or their relatives out of a job. There is still widespread passive attachment to the old habits of “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”) But it may soon be right to talk, in this more fundamental sense, of a popular rejection of socialism tout court.26

Secondly, socialism has virtually disappeared from the language of opposition. Of course KOR and Charter 77 had already, in the late 1970s, taken a decisive step beyond the revisionist hope of “socialism with a human face.” Yet Adam Michnik ended his seminal essay on the “New Evolutionism” in 1976 with a sentence beginning “every act of resistance permits and allows us to build the foundations for a structure of democratic socialism…,” and much of the vocabulary of the opposition in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia was unmistakably of the left.

This is no longer true. The small refounded Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and the dwindling “Eurocommunist” faction of Charter 77 are the exceptions that prove the rule. If asked “how do you recognize a leftist opposition intellectual in East Central Europe today?” the unkind answer might be: “The leftist intellectual is the one who says that the categories left and right no longer have any significance in East Central Europe.” The right does not say that; and by now it is certainly possible to talk of a “right” opposition. Indeed, for good or ill, the fashion in oppositional thinking, whether in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia, is now for liberal, libertarian, conservative, or revived prewar nationalist/national-democratic/populist argument and/or rhetoric.

Thirdly, there is the change in official ideology. It has been customary to observe that although the leaders of socialist states might not privately believe a word of their own official doctrine, they cannot publicly abandon it, since this is the only fundamental legitimation they possess for their continued monopoly of power. Historical necessity must stand in for charisma, divine right, or the ballot box. Yet in Poland and Hungary the ideological pretense has been dropped to an extraordinary degree. The new Hungarian leader, Károly Grósz, has said that it is only because of “bad luck” (pech) that Hungary has ended up with a oneparty system.27 I cited at the beginning of this essay the remark of the most outspoken reformist in his Politburo, Imre Pozsgay, that he had no argument in principle for a one-party system. He went on to say that he had only a practical argument: the need for political stability.

In Poland, the Jaruzelski regime has not entirely abandoned ideological self-justification, and the most vaunted “reformist” in the Politburo, Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, believes in the leading role of the Communist party more fervently than many a “hard-liner.”28 Yet the defense of martial law—still an obsession with this group—was conducted in almost entirely nonideological terms. The government adopted what might be called a neobrutalist tone: “If we had not done it, the Russians would have. In any case, we have the guns and you do not: so what are you going to do about it? Come and get us! We know we’re a minority government. We know we’re hated. But we’re going to pull this nation up by its bootstraps whether it likes it or not. History will prove us right.” That, in effect, was the message of the likes of Rakowski, the government spokesman Jerzy Urban, and the Polityka columnist Daniel Passent. As for economics: in both countries the superiority of capitalism is more or less openly acknowledged.

Threadbare as the ideological legitimation had already become, its nearly total abandonment in favor of arguments of raison d’état, expediency, or efficiency is a significant development. In the short term this redounds to the popular credit of the leadership: “at least they are calling a spade a spade.” But in the longer term, one wonders. If Václav Havel is correct when he writes that the quotidian canvas of ideologically determined lies plays an important role in preserving the system, then the very public rending of this canvas cannot be without consequences.

The hope of emancipatory modernization has faded. Ideology is not only dead but officially buried. This leaves the reason of force—and only in its coercive aspect. For while Soviet leaders may still believe that Eastern Europe owes the Soviet Union a “blood debt”29 for liberation from Nazi occupation, I doubt if there is now a single human being anywhere in Eastern Europe who does not feel that this “debt,” insofar as it ever existed, has long ago been paid, with multiple compound interest. General Jaruzelski may still wheel out the old line about the Soviet Union protecting the Polish frontiers against German revanchism, but most young Poles have an increasingly positive view of the Federal Republic and certainly do not believe for an instant that the Red Army is there to protect them against the West Germans.30

The fear of Soviet invasion and internal repression remains. It was reinforced throughout East Central Europe by the example of Poland’s “state of war.” Yet at the time of writing, in the summer of 1988, even these fears have diminished. For reasons outlined above, it is rational to assume that the danger of Soviet invasion has at least temporarily receded. But it is also broadly true to say that the level of internal repression has decreased, even in Czechoslovakia and the GDR.

Very nasty things still happen. In May “anti-terrorist” forces broke up a peaceful strike at the Nowa Huta steelworks in Kraków with gratuitous violence. Also with gratuitous brutality, Hungarian riot police dispersed a small, peaceful demonstration in Budapest on the thirtieth anniversary of the judicial execution of the leader of the 1956 revolutionary government, Imre Nagy. The prime mover of the petition for religious freedom in Czechoslovakia, a splendid Moravian yeoman called Augustin Navrátil, has been committed to a psychiatric hospital. Germans are still imprisoned or shot just for trying to walk from Germany to Germany.31 But in general the risks of speaking your mind have become more calculable, and less extreme, although they still differ greatly from country to country. Adam Michnik says that this is not “socialism with a human face” but “totalitarianism with the teeth knocked out.” The metaphor is only half apt. Yes, this is a further symptom of the decay of a once-totalitarian system. But the teeth—the instruments of coercion—are still there, and indeed, in the case of Poland, more numerous and sharper than ten years ago. What is different is that the present heads either have less will to use them, or more desire not to use them, or indeed—for reality is complex and messy—a bit of both.

Yet this is surely the least irreversible of the trends of decay. One can hardly imagine a successful revival of ideology. A recovery of state-directed emancipatory modernization seems scarcely more probable. But one can all too easily imagine the recovery of force in states that still possess formidable apparatuses of repression. This might take new forms: the murder of Father Popieluszko in Poland four years ago was more reminiscent of El Salvador than of “classical” totalitarian repression. It might be an autonomous response to domestic unrest, or unwilling compliance with a conservative backlash in Moscow. As this goes to press it appears that the Polish authorities, having contained the latest wave of strikes by a mixture of cajolery, threats, and direct police intervention, now hope to end them by reopening a dialogue. What kind of dialogue, and with what prospects, I shall consider in the second part of this essay. Yet even if there were to be a reversion in Poland to the systematic use of force, one can already say, with confidence, that this would not stem but rather hasten other processes of decay.

At the time of writing, the net result of all these different sorts of decay—imperial, regional and national, economic and social, ideological and political—is that, in Hungary and Poland at least, there are more and larger spheres in which the state does not in practice intervene, or intervenes ineffectually, more opportunities for the individual citizen to speak and act for him or herself (but also more need to fend for yourself), more de facto pluralism, than at almost any time in the last forty years.32 How, then, do people speak or act in these expanded spheres? What are the contours of emancipation? What are the prospects for reform—or revolution?

August 31, 1988

This is the first of two articles.

This Issue

September 29, 1988