A Sweet and Sour Victory
in Eastern Europe
Arpad Szakolzai and Agnes Horvath
Sudden and unexpected changes have an air of miracles about
them. And the events that are happening right now in Eastern
Europe certainly belong to this category. The pace and character of the changes are inexplicable, not only for people
unfamiliar with the region, but for the most informed part of
its inhabitants as well. It was almost an axiom for intellectuals living in the area that the system was unalterable. If only
for this reason, even the most violent dictatorships of Latin
America looked less menacing than the grey, dull, senile
regimes of Eastern Europe. In Hungary, for example, just in
this past winter, when the aura of irreversible changes was
present everywhere, it was still possible for leading intellectuals to argue seriously that the single most important factor
distinguishing right-wing authoritarian regimes and bolshevik-type party states was that, while the former eventually
disintegrate and thus open up the possibility of a more democratic system, the latter – as history shows – never change.
Today these same systems are falling with an unbelievable speed and smoothness. It seems thus necessary that
we give up some of the certainties held for decades about the
‘nature’ of the system. The framework of thought in which
we lived and thought about the bolshevik-type party states
cannot explain, let alone accommodate, what is happening
right now. Not that this framework was just a veil of errors,
illusion and ideology; it had its roots in a very real life
experience: the fears and repressions of the ’50s. Only the
framework of thought remained unchanged while, somehow,
the actual grounds of these assumptions were altered considerably. If we would like to get some grasp of the events, we
should turn first to these changes. This requires a serious
work of thought, including work upon ourselves, both in the
East and in the West: the questioning of our most cherished
axioms and truths; the willingness and ability to overthrow
dogmas whose sole justification in the past was the conviction that this system will never be altered substantially.
There are a number of easy answers on our way that
should not be rejected, but at least we should not be misled by
their pretentions of giving a complete explanation. The fact
that so many of the changes happening right now seem to be
so easy, peaceful, matter-of-fact may give the impression that
the system itself was always weak; that it was a paper tiger;
that all this could have happened long ago, if only ‘we’
wanted it to happen earlier. But the present situation shouldn’t
be projected backward. Things happened, processes unfolded
in time that made the present changes possible. One would be
wrong to argue that all is due to the Gorbachev effect. In one
sense, the impact is obvious; in another, it just begs the
question. Gorbachev is neither an external agent, nor a messenger of God; he is very much the product of the internal
working of the system. His education and career is connected
to the party. This is important not as a statement questioning
his sincerity or integrity, but as an indication that the realisation of the crisis and the subsequent need for reforms have
deep roots inside the party as well. It has a tradition on its
own; one only has to refer to Khrushchev. And one can’t be
satisfied with the often-mentioned opposition between the
state (or the party-stage) and the (civil) society, or the similar
language that attributes the events to the. struggle of the
‘people’. The former is unsatisfactory because, in the way it is
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990
used in current political arguments, it assumes a rigid, unchanging concept of the society as separate from the holders
of the power, when perhaps the most interesting question now
and especially concerning the future is: what will be the type
of society emerging from the ashes of communist power, and
to what extent will it be shaped, either positively or negatively, by that power? And the latter is not satisfactory either,
because it begs all explanation by referring to the mythicaldialectical logic of the struggle. Of course, ‘people’ didn’t
like to be oppressed or exploited. They never do. And they
particularly did not like it in Central Eastern Europe, where
they did wage revolts several times. But the claim that the
present changes are somehow the cumulative results of past
changes is either an empty truism – as, obviously, if there is
no popular pressure in some form, then why would changes
occur; or a plain mistake – as more than once the intensification of these struggles in the past only led to the hardening of
the system. It cannot explain either the timing or the modality
of the present events.
The current changes are basic, almost revolutionary in
character; and yet, they are quite uncharacteristic of the way
we conceive of social revolutions. These are, almost by definition, violent events. Yet one of the most curious aspects of
the current changes in Eastern Europe is that they have been
remarkably peaceful, though in the past, the holders of power
did not shy away from using violent means even against
persons whose ‘revolutionary’ activity was restricted to the
leaving of the country.
It is all the more surprising because, in the past, the gap
between the rulers and the ruled in Eastern Europe was
enormous. The elite was unapproachable; made decisions
completely on its own; often lived a separate and different existence. And now they suddenly descend from the height and
mix with the people. The gap once thought to be unbridgeable
turns out to be a mere fissure. And, if we refuse to accept the
claim that it was always so, there is only one thing to say:
somebody must have already bridged it before the final spectacular step could have been made.
Who did it, then? The people, of course, one may say.
But something is wrong here. The people, of course, always
resisted this power that created and enforced the gap – with
due allowance to those who, in different periods, were supporters for one reason or another. B ut the aim of this type of
popular struggle was not the narrowing of this gap, but a
better living, or, in political terms, the elimination of the other
side, the power elite. The present scenario is simply not
compatible with that model. The “people” were undoubtedly
a moving force behind the events; but one should explain how
and why this was channelled into the present forms and
slogans of ‘reform’.
If we consider the reformers, we find that most of them
are intellectuals, and as the forerunners and shapers of the
whole movement, we find party functionaries or intellectuals
close to the leading circles of the party. The first reformers
were communists – either in Yugoslavia, in Hungary, in the
Soviet Union or in Czechoslovakia. Obviously, they were not
the first opponents of the communist system, but these others
were not talking about ‘reform’. And today it is quite obviously the language and reality of reform that is winning out
now; even if it turns out to be different from what had been
planned by the first reformers.
The central elements of the language of ‘reform’ are
almost unchanged since the early ’50s: on the one hand, a
more efficient, market-oriented economy; on the other,
broader participation in the political decision-making process. It was the first party reformers who were first ‘over’ with
Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990
the creed of Communism. The extra-party opposition was
never ‘over’ with Communism. It was never engaged to it.
And, whether we like it or not, we, Eastern or Central-Eastern
Europeans were ‘engaged’ to Communism in the last forty or
so years. It is not surprising therefore that the ideas of the first
party reformers are stamped all over the present slogans.
After all, we’ll be living in a ‘post-Communist’, and not in a
‘non-communist’ country. The sacred cow of the leading role
of the Communist Party will eventually have to be abandoned,
and is already disposed of in Poland and in Hungary; but
instead of a defeat, shouldn’t we consider the question of why
it perhaps became superfluous? As this already suggests, we
do not intend to provide a definite explanation, but rather to
raise some problems that seem to be lost in the present feeling
of euphoria. We will mostly refer to the case of Hungary, but
argue that it does provide something of a model of ‘reformism’.
If we want to understand the character of present
changes, the preconditions of the current bridging of gap
between rulers and ruled, we have to move beyond the top
level of ideology and decision-making. Another fairly important, if unknown, aspect concerns the everyday working of the
party, the apparatus. While its exact role and behaviour was
and is an enigma, it played a decisive role in bridging the gap,
in familiarising the party in society. First, and most obviously, because its pronounced task was to build up all the
different links among the members of the society – the individuals, the economic units, the local councils; to put it
bluntly, to build up society from scratch. The main purpose of
the elimination of existing ties and affiliations and the enforcement of a large gap earlier was to create an opportunity
for the build-up of the ‘new society’. Even though this project
failed, the society nonetheless was changed. Second, the party
functionaries had a key role in stopping the Stalinist purges.
The hunt for enemies, first directed against the former ruling
classes, spread to the popUlation and finally hit the central
core of the party apparatus as well. It was at this point that
eventually the process was stopped and reversed. In a sense,
this provided the first impulse of reformism.
These three things, the party apparatus trying to build
up ‘new society’, the end of the search for enemies and the
spread of reformism within and outside the apparatus were
combined. This combination provided a reinforcement of the
continuous stream of civil or popular resistance, and was able separation of the two Germanies was quite obviously artifito accommodate the demands coming from below. This made cially and externally maintained. In Czechoslovakia, where
a silent compromise possible in the past, made life in the the events of the 1968 invasion stopped the intermingling of
system tolerable, and slowly eroded the enormous gap sepa- party and society, reopened the gap and made its subsequent
rating the party and the population. On the other hand, at the closing impossible, the hard-line leadership still hangs onto
top level of ideology, politics and the public image of the the past. And, finally, in Romania, it is the ethnic gap stirred
party, nothing changed. The impact of the ’50s did not fade between Rumanians and Hungarians that divided the populaaway, and the repressive organs of the state carried the same tion itself and helped to justify the Stalinist regime, to maintask of the preservation of the status quo, the maintenance of tain the gap, making the scenario of the other countries inconceivable until the very last moment.
the gap, as before.
Today, there is a lot of talk about the ‘demonstrationParty and society permeated each other. Party workers
no longer fit the old image of being brainwashed, walking effect’ of the changes in the region. The example of one
with gun in hand and harassing the peasants to join the country serves the others as a model and a stimulant. It is quite
agricultural cooperatives. They are soft-speaking intellectu- true. But without the previous internal ‘preparation’, this type
als with a degree in economics or law; often in both. And, as of change could not have happened. Had this demonstration
the language of reform overtook the discourse about political . effect happened in the ’60s, the results would have been quite
or economic change, the intellectuals began to dominate the different. But it didn’t happen – probably because it couldn’t.
scene in political life as well. From this perspective, it is quite That is why we have such mixed feelings about the events
interesting that in Hungary even the leaders and the candi- today. The victory is sweet, as the changes herald the fall of a
dates of the populist party, the Democratic Forum, are intel- system which was oppressive and based on a lie. But it is also
lectuals. According to an article in a popular opposition sour, as it happened at a time when the former adversaries
magazine, one can hardly gain political currency today in have already thoroughly permeated each other; and it seems
as if this interpenetration was the very precondition for the
Hungary without being an intellectual.
Thus, once the previous rift between rulers and ruled, present success.
the party and society has been slowly filled up, it was only a
matter of time when this would be effectively realized at the
top levels of politics and ideology. Where the rift was not Arpad Szakolczai is a researcher in the Institute of Sociology,
filled up earlier, or where it was doubled over or reopened, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest.
changes are slower to come. In the GDR, the Berlin wall was
a visible embodiment and reinforcement of the gap. The .4.gnes Horvath works in the Department of Political Science,
changes came slowly, but all the more drastically, as the Faculty of Law, Elte University, Budapest.
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Radical Philosophy 55, Summer 1990