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
"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
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
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
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
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
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. …