Eastern Europe: An Uphill Road to Freedom

By Liehm, Antonin | UNESCO Courier, July-August 1992 | Go to article overview
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Eastern Europe: An Uphill Road to Freedom

Liehm, Antonin, UNESCO Courier

Post-communist societies face many pitfalls as they seek to modernize themselves.

LESS than three years have gone by since the collapse of communism in central Europe, and we are only beginning to realize the extent of the fail-out and to come to terms with the problems its heirs--and by extension all Europe-will have to resolve.

Central Europe had been subjected to totalitarian regimes--first nazi, then communist--for more than fifty years, leaving two generations with no experience of any other system, least of all democracy or a market economy, which were not even a distant memory. Such systems survived only as dreams, fleeting images whose shape changed according to whatever scraps of rhetoric or other information people had gleaned at random, mainly from hearsay.

Like all dictatorships, the communist regimes were profoundly conservative in their structures and manner of operation. Despite the resolutely forward-looking beginnings of communism, its ethics and even its aesthetics remained firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. In its turn, it provoked anti-communist trends that also took their cue from the past, whether in the form of rampant economic liberalism, a certain form of nationalism or an aesthetic of rejection. So when exponents of these trends came to power two years ago, they gradually transformed the anti-communist revolution into a restoration of the ancient regime. Only in Germany was there any kind of corrective counterweight.


We knew that the fall of communism would reveal the depths of the ideological and political pit the communist movement had dug, in flagrant contradiction with its own doctrines. Nevertheless, many of us thought that the vacuum would soon be filled, first by a return to religion and then by a restoration of democracy, tolerance and political ecumenism, at least in those countries that had a democratic tradition. It was clear, of course, that communism had done nothing to solve the problems of nationalities, which it had merely glossed over or concealed. Even so, few of us foresaw that the nationality issue would erupt as suddenly as it did. In some countries, nationalism-with the backing of the churches---filled almost the entire ideological vacuum left by the collapse of communism.

Half a century of totalitarianism had also left other dismal legacies, among them the myth of social equality, which was for the most part achieved by a levelling downwards, and the illusion of full employment. The very idea of a society made up of the rich, the poor and the unemployed is a difficult one for most people to accept. A sense of responsibility (except for one's own destiny) and the spirit of individual initiative have also both disappeared. The middle class hardly exists except in a form inherited from communism, namely a mass of state employees and functionaries on the one hand and a class of small or big-time speculators, crooks and parasites on the other. The latter group is best placed to benefit from the new situation. One interesting development is the growing esteem in which the old titled nobility is held, echoing the respect once enjoyed by the party elite, the nomenklatura. One last factor we have to bear in mind is the complete absence of structures governing labour relations, as well as the lack of trade unions and employers' and business organizations.


In politics, the organized successors of the communist party, which, surprisingly, remain relatively strong, have been boycotted by all the other formations, thus upsetting the normal democratic process of alternation in power. Confronting them is a liberal right intent on putting the clock back, flanked by a chauvinistic and often racist extreme right wing. In between lies a fragile centre-left and various timid social democratic groupings that hardly dare mention the words "social" or "left" for fear of being tarred with the communist brush.

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Eastern Europe: An Uphill Road to Freedom


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