By Wolin, Sheldon
The Nation , Vol. 250, No. 11
This is the third in a series of articles on -The revolution of 189, what it means, where it's heading, what is to be done.
Unlike the old regimes challenged by the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, the toppled totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe appear to have generated no strong loyalties, no counterrevolutionary movement among true believers, no plans for a government-in-exile, only apparatchiks scrambling for survival. They had little support because they weren't grounded in a genuine political culture. But if the political/cultural revolutionaries of 1989 make it necessary to rethink the nature of totalitarian systems, they have made it even more urgent to rethink the meaning of revolution. Revolutions are not only about change but about the power to define the direction of change. The understanding of revolutions concerns not only their fate but, as we shall see, ours as well. A true revolution, Marx argued in his younger days, was social rather than political. A political revolution was restricted to proclaiming the rights of abstract individuals while leaving economic relations unsocialized. Only a total or social revolution would enable human beings to reclaim and redirect the alienated socioeconomic powers that were rightfully theirs. What is most striking about the Central and Eastern European revolutionaries, particularly in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, is their invention of political life. With the exception of prewar Czechoslovakia, a common civic life was barely experienced by any of these societies. In the aftermath of World War II, they experienced, albeit as passive objects, Marx's total social revolution, largely imposed by force or the imminent threat of it. The experience of Communism has been, like most of fife under the prewar regimes, an experience of political deprivation in the extreme.
The explosion of political activity, which began with the rise of Solidarity in Poland, points up two profound weaknesses of classical Marxism: the failure to realize that talk about democracy without insuring access to political experience and encouraging what Solidarity called corrective "self-organization" is empty chatter; and the assumption that postrevolutionary economic problems would be technical in character, and hence the proper way of handling them was by administrative organs. The substitution of the party for free politics spelled ideological catechisms for the many and the politics of nomenklatura for the few. The result was less a system than a monstrosity in which public office became privatized and corrupt while what passed for politics was repression tempered with whimsy.
Accordingly, the political revolution initiated by Solidarity, the Civic Forum of Czechoslovakia, East German opposition groups and, more problematically, the National Salvation Front in Romania, involves a deeper conception of revolution than the political revolution Marx portrayed as simply the attainment of individual and political liberties, guarantees of private property, a representative parliament and the celebration of private life and its pleasures. The "velvet revolution" Vaclav Havel's phrase) has been liberal but it has also been importantly democratic. The 'revolution in quotation marks' (Havel again) has taken power into its several hands, chosen who would speak on its behalf, designated the main policies and leaders of the old regimes that would have to go and set conditions for the reconstitution of political legitimacy. The revolutionaries have appealed to traditions as old as nation. and religion and to innovations as recent as the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Their style has been spontaneous, participatory, prudent, egalitarian, patriotic and concerned with the common good rather than individual interests alone. As revolutionaries go, they have been (Romania aside) remarkably even-tempered and restrained.
Western democracies, led by the United States, are eager to write finis to the democratic moment of revolution and to have 'stable' systems installed, ones that can effectively "govern" and take hard choices. …