East's Dissident Heroes: Lost without Their Enemy Central Europe's Communist Regimes Feared Dissident Intellectuals with Good Reason: They Helped Push the Warsaw Pact Nations toward Revolution Five Years Ago. but Their Egalitarian Philosophy Clashes with Laissez-Faire Capitalism, and Their Moral Force Is Waning When It's Needed Most

Article excerpt

REVOLUTIONS have a way of treating their makers harshly. Events can gobble up - or disillusion - those who initiate them.

It was that way for Robespierre in the French Revolution and also for the Bolsheviks who carried out the Communist coup in 1917 only to fall in Stalin's purges.

The same is now happening to the dissident intellectuals who played a leading role in dismantling the Soviet empire in Central Europe. Even for the few still in high-profile positions, such as Czech President Vaclav Havel, the transformation has proved rocky.

In the five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, most prominent Communist-era dissident intellectuals have disappeared from the political stage that they so conspicuously took to in 1989. Unlike their predecessors, today's Central European revolutionaries escaped from the fray with their lives. But the bitter experience seems to have sapped their desire to speak out.

Their departure has left a potentially harmful void in Central Europe as it strains to transform from communism to market democracy.

"Intellectuals played a major role in the collapse of communism and their action and ideas are just as necessary in the construction of democracy," says Jeff Goldfarb, a sociologist at the New School in New York City and a specialist on intellectuals in Central Europe today.

After World War II, the Communists co-opted all leading intellectual institutions in order to buttress totalitarian rule. The repression inadvertently catalyzed a unique hybrid - the dissident-intellectual.

Such a person might not have the same liberal education or creative talent of his or her counterpart among Western intellectuals. But that wasn't so important. Above all, dissident intellectuals needed the willingness to publicly oppose the system when such action meant virtual career suicide, and often a jail term.

Dissident intellectuals provided the only domestically produced alternative point of view to that of Communists. Relatively small organizations, such as the Czechoslovakia's Charter '77 human rights group, commanded considerable attention.

But the end of the cold war has shifted the philosophical base underneath these intellectuals, who now must refocus their energies from communism to the future. Many observers say a Communist comeback in Central Europe is now impossible, but the end of history is nowhere in sight: It is likewise impossible to predict what kind of economic and political systems the region will end up with.

So far, the countries that have made the largest strides toward reform - the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland - are gravitating toward the liberal Western European model. Meanwhile, the nations that have lagged behind, particularly Slovakia and Romania, seem headed for a more authoritarian style of democratic government.

But all Central European nations lack to a degree the respect for law that supports all civic societies. Disregard for rule of law may be communism's most damaging legacy.

As long as the rule of law has not sunk deep roots in Central Europe, market democratic reforms still can take unpleasant twists and turns. Nationalism menaces Central Europe, as does simmering apathy with democratic process. Ukraine, for example, still has not filled its parliament from elections held in March because voter turnout has not reached the required 50 percent in several constituencies. Needs of the hour

According to Mr. Goldfarb and other Central Europe observers, it is in this arena - the promotion of civic society - that intellectuals have something to offer. "Their future role isn't a heroic one, it's more pragmatic. It means expanding the capacity of public life," Goldfarb says. "Talk, based on principle, is a key."

In theory, it all may sound easy. But it is not so simple in practice. Naive visions in the months following 1989 have largely discredited the intelligentsia, many of whom have withdrawn from public in disappointment. …


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.