Derniers articles publiés

György Schöpflin : 1989 with 20/20 hindsight


It is always difficult to separate perceptions in the present from those that dominated in a previous era. The benefit of hindsight is that it allows us to reevaluate past events and, if the conditions are auspicious, gain better insights into our own earlier shortcomings.

What was understood about communism in 1989, therefore, was very much at variance with what we can see now. Hence the assessments that were made then, the strategies that were developed, the policies based on them were all necessarily subject to two serious handicaps. One of these was the accumulated information about the communist world and the deductions that were made about how the populations of the communist states would behave once the communist system disappeared. The other was the sheer speed of events, which meant that what was valid on Monday was unthinkable by Thursday.


In the case of Central and South-Eastern Europe the complex of problems was further affected by the strongly influential role of the external actor, the West, together with the illusory beliefs that communist societies entertained about what is properly called the "mythland" that the West represented - far away lands of which nothing (or not much that was useful) was known. These can readily be regarded as mythic narratives, because they had been deeply integrated into the assumption sets of Western policy makers and their advisers, and, therefore, were very difficult to shake.  One of these myth-based beliefs was that communist regimes were there to stay, that they did not and could not collapse, and anyone who thought otherwise was either a fool or a knave. This belief was deeply held and it underlay Western thinking throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

On a personal note, I recall a fairly high level meeting in the summer of 1989 with German, French and British policy makers. When I suggested on the evidence of the transformations in Poland and Hungary that the communist systems were crumbling and that sooner rather than later this would also affect the GDR, the West Germans present were united in their shock and horror at the idea, not least because a disintegrating GDR would immediately bring the issue of reunification to the agenda, as did, indeed, happen.  The effect of this belief was, in essence, that stability was superior to human rights, so that there should be no dangerous dreaming about introducing democratic norms to communist societies.


A parallel mythic belief was strongly held by the European left, to the effect that though deviant, these were after all left-wing systems which could, therefore, be ameliorated, at some time in the distant future, maybe, but that criticism of the communists was reactionary and deplorable. In other words, democracy was fine for West Europeans, but Central and South-Eastern Europeans should not expect this, because if they made such demands, the Kremlin would get angry and that would mean Third World war.   


The deeper analytical argument to be drawn from the foregoing was that the West, the captive of its established view of the communist world, was woefully unprepared for the events of 1989. When things began to move that year, the dominant interpretative framework could not make sense of them. If communism, like diamonds, is for ever, then what was the meaning of the Round Table negotiations in Poland and the agreement of 3 April that elections would be allowed with some candidates not approved by the party? And what was the meaning of the declaration in January 1989 that in Hungary the events of 1956 were no longer to be seen as a "counter-revolution", but as a "popular uprising"?

What took a long time to get through was that communism was not only a power-political system and an ideological language, but also came to create its own cultural capital. These meant forms of adaptation to the exercise of arbitrary power, transforming it where possible into predictability, accepting it, benefiting from it, resisting it. One of the central requirements of this system was not to accept the obvious as truth, but to look for hidden meanings and to insist that all events had a cause, that chance, accident, coincidence were unreal and, equally, that one's own agency was negligible. These features made up the cultural capital of these societies constituted a very serious obstacle to the introduction of democracy.  Democracy works because institutions have authority and the rule of law is respected. There was a fairly widespread assumption in the West, and to some extent among the local reformers, that the introduction of new institutions was enough to ensure democratic behaviour. This was decidedly naive. The new and old institutions did not command the same authority that they did in the West – they could hardly do so, given the deep-rooted belief in institutions as façades.

The local reformers, some of them at any rate, took the view that more or less everything was up for grabs in terms of transformation. But this reckoned without the accumulated cultural capital, the established norms and the varying political will to bring about radical change. Here it is clear that where real or symbolic revolutions took place, the chances of a refoundation were better (Baltic states, Czech Republic), but other factors, like elite adaptation could put a brake on this (Romania, Slovakia).

The West proceeded from the assumption that an economy-led transformation would (automatically?) result in democracy, i.e.. democracy would arise phoenix-like via private property and prosperity, together with a new class of capitalists who would behave like Western capitalists, like accept risk taking. This notion had its ultimate origins in the Washington consensus, that free markets solve all problems.

In addition, the introduction of the democratic process brought into being new political groups, that had next to no experience of politics, administration and management, and were thus easy prey for the sophisticated and manipulative nomenklatura bureaucrats. At the same time, the cognitive, semantic and intellectual deficits of the population made it very difficult for a civil society to emerge.   


Ultimately, the West's theory of democracy was seriously deficient in that it had no understanding of what was required to construct democracy and citizenship against the cultural capital inherited from communism. This is all the more surprising when one considers it, given the rather dismal record of the West in introducing - imposing - democratic systems on former colonies, most of which degenerated rapidly. If nothing else, Western policy makers should have understood that cultural factors are neglected at one's peril when it comes to transmitting political knowledge and institutions from one system to another.

Further reading


  • Special section on the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall (in French)