From Purity to Politics

We live in the aftermath of politics. A decade or so ago, the bloodless revolutions of Eastern Europe and South Africa made real the highest political dream: the peaceful triumph of the good. Right principles and popular will gave each other force, and people moved from capital streets to parliaments to remake the world.

That high drama ushered in a longer and more pedestrian process: the movement from resistance to rule. In Nelson Mandela's South Africa, Vaclav Havel's Czech Repub lic, and an Ireland that may now be said to include rather than suffer from Gerry Adams, leaders who have spent their lives as rebels are emerging into democratic politics. Their transition is not simple. When they were dissenters, their powerlessness gave them the curious privilege of moral clarity. Their task was to remember the principles that their governments ignored, and to draw enough of their fellow citizens to those principles that remembrance could become hope. Now, like any other democratic rulers, they must negotiate the compromises and ambiguities of ordinary politics, where clarity is rare and heroism rarer.

Meanwhile, in America—the country that practically invented ordinary politics by founding its constitution on the idea that political action should never again change the world without long deliberation between competing factions—democracy has gone dead to the imagination. A long season of scandal in which no one has behaved well has left people disgusted and exhausted. There is a strong and well-earned sense that politics makes nothing happen, that it is a cultural sideshow whose appeal is prurience or the entertainment of stylized competition. Some Wash ington operatives now perceptively dub the City on a Hill "Hollywood for ugly people."

There is a commonality between these two experiences of political exhaustion. In both, people confront a democratic politics that seems in some ways small and mean, and struggle—if they do—to recall why anyone would want such a politics in the first place.

In places like Eastern Europe, the question has a special poign ancy. There, dissidents developed a rich idea of the moral import of politics and turned that idea into a political program that, in the magic year 1989, seemed to triumph across the region. They knew better than anyone else alive, it sometimes seemed, how politics matters. The hopes of idealists have rarely enjoyed so prominent and thorough a chance for realization. What those idealists still know, a decade later, provides an idea of what politics can be now, between the high purpose of Warsaw and Prague in 1989 and the low despair of Washing ton in 1998.


To Live the Truth

The founding idea of Eastern European dissent was that truth and integrity were the greatest political weapons. It was an idea posed in answer to grim conditions. The dissidents of Czech oslovakia's Charter 77 organization and Poland's Workers' Defense Committees (KOR) (which was later absorbed into the trade union Solidarity) faced a public life drained of high purpose. Communism had won over some of the brightest and most morally sensitive members of the anti-Nazi resistance in Poland and the prewar progressive movement in Czech oslovakia; but by the 1970s, the Comm unists had gone the way of all immovable ruling parties. The Communist Party, the sole occupant of the region's public sphere, was corrupt, repressive, and populated by opportunists. Besides being corrupt, public life was also unreal. The state-controlled media spoke the language of propaganda, denouncing enemies in headlines and misrepresenting everything from farm production statistics to geopolitical conditions. Private experience contradicted much of what was publicly declared, but announcing that experience, making it public, was a crime. So politics and public life became separate from ordinary reality, and people inhabited one world even as they were addressed and expected to answer in the language of another. All this was not only unsettling, but also quietly humiliating. In public speech and action, citizens were required to betray their own knowledge and convictions; if they gave up on the public world altogether, as most did, they retreated into a private life hemmed in on all sides by the political and economic power of the Communist Party.

The centerpiece of Eastern European dissent was the aim of recovering personal integrity and public truth with a single gesture. The dissidents' chief instrument would be neither the bullet nor the ballot, but the truthful sentence. Barred from practicing their professions, often imprisoned, they persisted in a kind of civic testimony, the declaration of principled defiance directed at the nakedness of the communist emperor. Havel wrote of a fictional grocer whom he imagined refusing one day to place a piece of state propaganda in his shop window: "By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances."

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Shattering public appearances also meant reclaiming the personal integrity that collaboration with the gov ern ment constantly eroded. The dissidents' motives were as intensely personal as they were political, as existential as they were programmatic: dissent was an attitude to the world, a way of comporting oneself that, many felt, was an honest person's only way of avoiding humiliation in a regime that compromised everything it touched. Adam Mich nik's most powerful essays from that period address this situation with pleas for resistance in the face of seeming hopelessness. Faced with interrogation by security forces, Michnik wrote, "You find yourself engaged in a philosophical debate with them about the meaning of your life. . . . You are engaged in the argument of Giordano Bruno with the Inquisitor . . . of Carl von Ossietzky with the blond Gestapo officer. . . . [Y]ou score a victory not when you win power, but when you remain faithful to yourself." Michnik made good these declarations in 1984, when his cell door was opened after the end of Poland's martial law. He refused to leave without a trial, symbol of the rule of law that he had been fighting for all along, which meant more to him than his personal liberty. This faith sustained the dissidents, even when other kinds of victory seemed unattainable.



The political victories of 1989 changed all that. In a flash, Adam Michnik was Deputy Michnik, parliamentary representative from Warsaw. Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia, the country that would soon split, over his objections, into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. With power came new divisions. Charter 77's successor organization, Civic Forum, splintered bitterly between members who wanted to form a traditional political party and others who hoped to develop a new kind of governance from truthtelling and moral consensus. The second, vague ambition had hardly been articulated before the idealists were pushed to the margins of politics and the realists moved to the fore as a party of free market reformers. In Poland, Lech Wal esa's popularity and massive ego carried him to the presidency at the cost of breaking apart his coalition irreparably: Catholic conservatives went rightward, liberals and social democrats followed Michnik left, and Walesa's administration attracted only what he, with characteristic candor, called "third-raters." Within a few years, most of the dissidents were out of politics.

Under communism, the dissidents had presented the regime with a curious mirror image of itself. Authoritarian politics had moved into every sphere of life. The dissidents' response was to make high-minded liberal politics into a form of life that was also a form of opposition. They were perhaps the last serious people for whom politics fulfilled the promise, born with the French Revolution, that had ironically been one of the great attractions of communism: providing a basic orientation to the world, and answering the inescapable questions, What shall I do? and How shall I live? A rare moral clarity crystallized in the politics of dissent.

Ordinary democratic politics denies that clarity to its participants. It is a politics of compromise, ambiguity, and almost inescapable ambivalence. Even when an issue seems clear, no party is without its contemptible motives or dubious alliances, no program lacks worrisome elements. Above all, the programs of democratic politics are answers to specifically political questions. They do not give moral clarity, the elusive quality of "meaning," to lives that do not already have it. Dissidents for whom politics had been irresistible because it was their only way to that clarity in a befogged society now found found governance a source of confusion and frustration. Politics had become home to what they had worked all along to avoid: banality and compromise. Vaclav Havel is the tragic hero of this transition. His moral charisma and elegant prose have enabled him to remain a hero to most Czechs, when other dissidents are largely forgotten. However, his calls to truth and honesty have been received more as homilies than as serious proposals. He could not stop the division of Czechoslovakia or the campaign of political retribution that exposed and humiliated collaborators with the old regime, and his office has become chiefly a ceremonial and hortatory one. Many Czech observers perceive him as bitterly disappointed by a democratic politics that muddles in demagoguery, self-interest, and game playing. He saw Jericho fall, seemingly at a trumpet blast, and now finds his countrymen indifferent to that same trumpet.

Havel's phrase for the political practice that "shattered the world of appearances" was "living in truth," and the perception that the dissidents stood for truth against a regime of falsehood was widespread. Michnik asserted that Poland's communist state was administered with "a language that has lies and blackmail at its core," and Havel insisted that "the main pillar of the system is living a lie." Now it seemed that the commitment to truth as the heart of politics might make sense only in struggling against a government that rested on falsehood. After the achievement of democracy, facts became less embattled and relatively less precious than in the authoritarian era, while the moral issues up for dispute often lacked obvious answers. Where dissident politics should go, and whether its spirit could survive at all, was poignantly unclear.


Integrity and Doubt

Perhaps the best warning against the excesses of political certainty comes from the example of those who have tried to hold onto it where it is no longer possible. Antoni Macerewicz, a KOR veteran, parliamentary deputy, and publisher of a small, Catholic newspaper, believes that Poland is not yet free. For him, "The essence of Polish oppression was Communist occupation." Today the former Communists, who dominated the old state industries and financial structures, have done well in the often corrupt privatization process or have used political ties to advance their financial speculation. At the same time, they have often kept control of local governments. Macerewicz does not stipulate how these old Communists should be eliminated from the new economy, but his language suggests that a crusade of some kind is required to make Poland whole. In its proper role, the nation is "a guardian of Christian civilization," whose values are embattled in the West. When pressed, Macerewicz will say that Poland stands at the crux of "the problem of white civilization—Europe, North America, and Australia—facing billions of people with completely different values."

Macerewicz's eerie rhetoric has become familiar across Poland with the advent of Radio Maria, a Catholic, openly anti-Semitic network that purveys conspiracy tales in which Michnik and other Jewish leftists orchestrated the fall of communism. Michnik and his comrades, the story goes, handed the old Communists the economy in exchange for a share of political power. Poland is neither free nor pure; it is still occupied. Radio Maria counts a number of prominent Solid arity veterans among its devotees, including members of the current parliament and Father Henryk Jankowski, Lech Walesa's priest in Gdansk.

This strand of Polish politics is not delusional, only dangerously exaggerated. The old Communist ruling class's achievement in buying or stealing state industries, robbing public coffers, and holding onto towns and villages is impressive and disturbing. When the dissidents realized that getting rid of their former oppressors would mean a terrible purge, most decided in favor of a studied reconciliation instead. Recon ciliation, though, does not come easy in the face of the continued prominence of the people one has devoted decades to overthrowing.

Still, Macerewicz and his allies display at their core a desire for the old certainties, a time when evil seemed to lie in one place alone, and good belonged to those who opposed it. By making the conflict between authoritarianism and democ racy a prelude to the crisis of Western civilization, they have preserved the certainty of their moral compasses, but perhaps at the cost of what Isaiah Berlin used to call "the sense of reality."

It is revealing that those who arguably have the most claim on the old certainties have also been most adamant in insisting that they no longer hold. Michnik has insisted repeatedly that the moral absolutism that almost inescapably accompanies antitotalitarianism has no place in democracy. Instead, he suggests, entering into democracy "requires overcoming the contempt for imperfection." In the same vein, Havel has overcome some of the air of anachronism that had clung to him by making it one of his themes that no one was truly untouched by complicity in the old regime, and so "we are all guilty." Both he and Michnik have opposed identifying and purging old Communists. For them integrity has become a more complicated matter than ever before, if not a more difficult one. Both have concluded that self-scrutiny and forgiveness are now its first requirements.


The Political and the Public

The disappointments of ordinary politics were especially keen for the dissidents because Michnik, Havel, and others had imagined that their work displayed a model not just for dissent but for renewing the politics of a democratic country. By night, sometimes in hiding, they had created a small and beleaguered free society within their unfree nations. Solidarity, which at its peak included ten million members, and KOR were efforts to develop an independent civil society where not just a few intellectuals but ordinary men and women could speak and act freely, give and receive mutual aid, and otherwise share in the political community that an authoritarian state denied them. Michnik and other strategists suggested that a sufficiently strong society might induce the state to wither away, in Marx's phrase—but as a way out of, not into, communism.

Many dissidents began to see adversarial power politics as a social deformation, and imagined replacing it with a public life of reasoned dialogue and service to a commonly recognized good. They imagined a kind of civic third way, public life with neither the state repression of the East nor the politically indifferent consumer culture of the West. Havel wrote in 1984, "I favor 'antipolitical politics,' that is, politics . . . as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them." Govern ance, like dissent, could be an essentially moral exercise: politics would follow from the marriage of moral truth and high motive. Havel called such politics "service to the truth," and leading dissidents across the region came to treasure the idea.

The rapid death of this hope did not produce only despair and extremism. It also drew many dissidents toward a broadened idea of where public work could lie. If the expansion of politics into all realms of life under communism had been a distortion, so also was the effort to bring all varieties of moral aspiration into the narrow realm of politics proper after 1989. However, many of those aspirations have a place in public life, in institutions and communities that are not properly political, but whose health is indispensable to the health of politics.

The first leading dissident to understand this fully was Adam Michnik. In 1990 Michnik recruited most of the staff of the leading underground weekly, Tygodnik Masowsze (Mazovia Weekly, from the traditional name for the region of plains that surrounds Warsaw), to found Poland's first legal "opposition" paper, Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Paper), whose title recalls its initial mission in that extraordinary year. When the election ended, Michnik and his collaborators saw that the opposition press was on its way to becoming a dinosaur, while a nascently democratic Poland desperately needed responsible, nonpartisan media. A core group of opposition veterans crafted a daily newspaper that serves as Poland's New York Times and New York Review of Books rolled into one, and also—not least because of its top-drawer classified and consumer affairs sections—easily maintains the country's highest circulation. The paper has earned a reputation for liberal opinion and objective and scrupulous reportage. Its investigative reporters turn up political and financial scandals with unsettling regularity, while its editors turn a chilly, often sarcastic eye to both nostalgic communist apologists and would-be anticommunist crusaders.

Although most have at least one independent, well-edited newspaper, no other postcommunist country has benefited from the level of journalism that Gazeta Wyborcza has brought Poland. Ironically, the flamboyant dissident Michnik may have made his biggest contribution to Polish democracy in the relatively undramatic work of making the free and independent press a reality. Mich nik's many Warsaw admirers like to observe that he has simply followed his old principle of pursuing the most difficult and urgent work of his time: overthrow in one period, building-up in another.



Michnik's work today finds echoes across Poland and the Czech Republic. Former dissidents work as journalists, as environmental advocates, as members of local and national nongovernmental organizations, as teachers, and as religious leaders. Those who remain in electoral politics are mainly connected with these broader communities, and they are as much emissaries to politics as they are themselves politicians. A representative figure is Jacek Kuron, a tireless Solidarity organizer and close advisor to Walesa before 1989, who holds a senatorial seat in addition to his chief work as director of a service organization that feeds and educates needy children. As a senator, Kuron works mainly to aid this population and Poland's Roma, or gypsies, and refers to himself wryly as "the minister of poverty and hopelessness." For these people, politicians and otherwise, public life is now a matter of maintenance and slow construction rather than transformation; but when that is the most important work, it is just as necessary as the headier project of revolution was a decade ago.

This species of public commitment has been especially important in Eastern Europe as an answer to the libertarianism that sprang up there with the revolutions of 1989. Especially in the Czech Republic, where intellectual life had been starved by censorship since the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, the leading altern atives to Marxism among intellectuals were paeans to the unfettered market by Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Vaclav Klaus, the Czech prime minister who had spurred the initial split in Civic Forum, pronounced a kind of inverted Marxism: the free market, permitted to go its own way without government interference, would automatically produce a liberal, democratic culture and cement the rule of law. Klaus made plain his scorn for the idea of "civil society" as a thing apart from the market, expressing ironic puzzlement that anything so ostensibly valuable should be unable to turn a profit.

Now the results of that attitude are becoming clear. Much more even than in troubled Poland, economic privatization has gone off track in the Czech Republic because of a lack of political control. Corruption is widely suspected in the handoff of big industries to well-connected investors. Politi cally powerful individuals have bought controlling shares of former state companies, then funneled assets to their own corporations and left the old companies shells; under Czech law, minority stockholders have no recourse against this kind of economic cannibalism. At the same time, Prague, a city of a million, now houses more than 1,200 private security companies, many of them effectively debt-collection agencies: the courts and police are too inefficient and corrupt to enforce either private contracts or criminal law, and rule of law has become something like a private commodity. In turn, the whole mess has produced a class of wealthy and influential figures with no interest in effective political or economic reform: corruption engenders its own defense. Last year, slow economic growth slipped into contraction, and more and more Czechs began to wonder whether Thatch erism had been an appropriate import for a nascent democracy.

Their doubt confirms one of the most important of the dissidents' surviving convictions. In the wake of an era when it has been common to hope for too much from politics, the greater and more dangerous temptation now is to hope for too little from public life. Politics often registers as distasteful, prurient, and, in the libertarian fantasy of a wholly private life, superfluous. The dissidents of Eastern Europe never had the privilege of developing the last delusion: they could never doubt that the health of public life was intimately related to the well-being of everyone in their countries, and that politics and the broader idea of public depended intimately on each other. Even if they have not invented a new kind of politics, they have maintained some of their old clarity and vitality in their current work. The rupture of 1989 is striking; but just as impressive, on examination, is how many motives remain intact on both sides of that divide.



"Banality is an achievement." This phrase, from a KOR veteran who now writes for Gazeta Wyborcza, captures much of the paradox of politics in Eastern Europe today. It is an instructive paradox for politics everywhere. It is the mark of Eastern Europe's recent accomplishments that the region no longer inspires much histrionics, or has need of much heroism. Yet a political achievement is not to be taken for granted. It is always either a continuing accomplishment or an eroding one. It requires the sustenance of unheroic work.

To be sure, liberating private life from politics is one of the great attainments of liberalism. Comm unist repression touched the dissidents most intimately here, denying them the liberty to write freely, to speak their minds, to pursue their vocations. The intellectual freedom that they fought for means precisely the freedom to be unpolitical. Former underground editors recall with delighted relief the disentanglement of professional and political standards that became possible after 1989, when they once again felt free to exclude bad poetry from their pages no matter how staunch the author's democratic convictions. The freedom to distinguish between good and bad poetry, regardless of politics, can sometimes seem as compelling a recommendation as any for liberal democracy. For all this, though, free private life is an achievement of political institutions, and a broader public life, that require unending maintenance. In keeping up our share of that maintenance, it is instructive to recall that liberal ideals can touch women and men intimately enough to sustain what seems a lost cause. They can be as concrete as the desire to avoid prison and to pursue one's career, as universal as the impulse to live in dignity rather than prostration. We in the West are largely committed to the idea that politics does not save souls, and that truth and integrity do not always save politics. If the dissidents have come hard to these lessons in the past decade, they have also suggested along the way that these things at least have much to do with each other.

Heroism and banality have a curious coexistence in ordinary politics, and it is probably salutary to concentrate much of the time on the latter. Still, it is important now to be reminded of the urgency of public things. The truth of liberal democracy is that we cannot do without politics and public life, and that ignoring them is the surest way to hasten their decline. We serve that truth working in a public life that cannot make us whole, but helps to keep us together. Eastern Europe's dissidents have the right, if anyone has, to issue that reminder.

You may also like