Renouncing Humanity

June 4, 1989 was an important day in the history of communism. It was the first time a communist party in power, having agreed to submit to an election contest, suffered a crushing defeat and accepted the loss.

Yet it was not this event that made front-page news in the world’’s newspapers. The event that did was the Tiananmen Square massacre in the centre of Beijing, where the communist regime annihilated the Chinese students’’ movement for freedom. That is why June 4 now stands for two ways communist dictatorships responded to a major crisis, choosing the path of democracy or the road to other forms of oppressive rule.

Demonstrating a peculiar kind of solidarity with Moscow, Honecker and Ceausescu chose the Chinese path, the path of repression of the striving for democracy in their own nations. The Polish and Hungarian leaders, as well as the Lithuanian and Estonian ones, set out on a different path.  While Gorbachov with his perestroika pushed open the door to freedom, it was our nations who stuck their foot in the open door. They were joined by the ruling communist party elites who made use of the widening margin of freedom.

However in joining, the ruling elites followed varying goals. Those in Warsaw or Budapest made use of the margin of freedom to negotiate a form of compromise with the democratic opposition while those in Berlin, Prague and Bucharest rejected the philosophy of perestroika and chose to strengthen dictatorship through oppression. Ceausescu did so particularly forcefully, even suggesting to Moscow a military intervention in Poland after its parliament appointed the first non-communist government under Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

In those days the departure from Soviet-style communism took one of two forms:  towards nationalism and authoritarianism, or towards democracy with all its trappings.

Either way, the anti-communist opposition was just as diverse. Two names – Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrey Sakharov – are a good illustration of this diversity.  Solzhenitsyn sought to overturn communism in the name of a traditional, orthodox and patriarchal Russia, while Sakharov longed for a country governed by liberal constitutional democracy.  It was the national principle versus the civic principle.

Which response to communist dictatorship was chosen depended on which guise the dictatorship had assumed.  If it arose predominantly as a result of foreign domination, nationalism was the natural response. If it arose out of a conflict between dictatorship and the idea of democracy, the opponents of freedom had to define themselves in a different way.

So what sort of animal was the communist party? Aleksandr Wat, the Polish poet and essayist, defined it as a cross between a religious sect and the mentality of defenders of a besieged fortress. The communists were anti-fascist by conviction and their defence of the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty was born out of the conviction forced upon them by their fanatical faith in the wisdom of Stalin’’s decisions. They were internationalists proclaiming the fraternity of nations, which in practice meant loyal service to Soviet imperialism.  Stalinist internationalism ended when the Soviet Union proclaimed itself the Fatherland of all the working people of the world.

Internal policies in the countries where communism prevailed had much in common. They all used terror to impose a totalitarian approach throughout public life, social institutions, economy and culture. They all deprived society of its cultural, religious and historical identity. They imposed a life of lies and fear. The ruling communists were perceived as butchers and they behaved as such.

Yet it was the communist circles that produced the first rebels against the dictatorship: Milovan Djilas and Imre Nagy, František Kriegel and Josef Smrkovský, Władysław Biełkowski and Alexander Tvardovsky, to name but a few who stand for many.  So what was it that made communism so attractive? Was it possible for a decent person to be a convinced communist? These questions have not lost their ability to perturb. I tend to answer them in the affirmative.

The attractivness of communism was rooted primarily in the response to World War I. The revolutionary slogans exhorting people to rise against governments that had unleashed a war as senseless as it was bloody; the slogans proclaiming a coalition of the world of labour against military regimes, bourgeoisie and landowners; the slogans declaring war on war and calling for all land to the peasants were certainly attractive. Their attractiveness was intensified by a rhetoric promising to open the door to a better world for the poor and the dispossessed, for the downtrodden and humiliated.  The chaos and injustice of the capitalist market was to be replaced by a planned economy and a just division of the goods produced.

It was in the name of these slogans that idealist communists were willing to justify terror (as long as it was red), lies (to ensure that the revolutionaries did not lose hope), wickedness (provided it was aimed at the counter-revolutionaries). One might say that communism appealed to what is best in human beings in order to extract what is worst in all of us. The idealist turned into a butcher who silently watched as communism changed its colours; as Stalin turned from Hitler’’s ally into a member of the anti-Hitler coalition; as revolutionaries were relegated from the Soviet pantheon to be replaced by Aleksandr Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Suvorov, Kutuzov and the Orthodox Church. Internationalist rhetoric was gradually replaced by Russian nationalism.

Then nationalism started creeping into the communist propaganda of the conquered nations – it may have been anti-German or anti-Ukrainian, anti-Turkish or anti-Semitic, as long as it was not anti-Russian or anti-Soviet.

This nationalism was effective. The conquered peoples hated communism yet without realizing it they gradually became victims of the system’’s depravity. Everyday life in communism was ruled by fear and hypocrisy, opportunism and spying on one another.

Perhaps the greatest illusion that we, people of the democratic opposition, had laboured under was our conviction that we lived in societies comprising honest and noble people who had simply been silenced. We believed we were the voice of those who had been silenced and that is why our rebellion was fundamentally a moral one. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn told us not to live the lie.  Leszek Kołakowski asked us to “live with dignity. John Paul II exhorted us: Don’’t be afraid! and he promised that truth would set us free.  Václav Havel believed in the power of the powerless.

For us, dissidents, this ethical motivation strengthened our morale but it also turned us into elitists. Being a dissident required being in open conflict with the dictatorship and everything it entailed: oppression, loss of opportunities, exclusion and often imprisonment. Yet our conviction that our voice was the voice of the enslaved nation was only part of the truth.  In defending the historical truth and religious and civil liberties we articulated the collective consciousness. Yet our call for active resistence and for breaking the barriers of fear and apathy remained unheard.  The ethical perfectionism of a Sakharov, a Havel or a Kuroń simply could not be shared by everyone, certainly not by the majority. The majority stayed silent and we assumed this was out of fear.

Yet fear was not the only reason for the silence of the majority.  The silence also resulted from an acquired helplessness that failed to transform itself into the power of the powerless.  In the end, it was the result of the development of social attitudes. With each passing stage of the communist dictatorship the utopia of an international fraternity of labourers was replaced by nationalism as well as by the practice of full employement, which offered protection from unemployment.   And finally, the rule of the people was replaced by a strong repressive rule, which in turn offered ordinary people protection from gangs and mafias.

Weak democratic traditions in Central and Eastern Europe were further undermined by collective apathy. However, the region had great potential for national feeling and in the interwar years these degenerated into chauvinistic and fascistic currents.

While the acquaintance with the nightmare of fascism had turned some into communists, familiarity with fascism afforded others protection from faith in communism. While some were driven to communism by an education from totalitarian ideologues who despised democracy, others found that a youthful involvement with fascism and totalitarian infatuation protected them forever from getting involved with a totalitarian regime of another type.

In the early 1960s Zbigniew Brzeziński stated in his book Unity or Conflict that the conflicts of interest that existed among the satellite states in the Soviet bloc might grow into actual conflicts.

These conflicts are plain to see in the history of communism in Romania, Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia. By evoking the national traditions, the communist elites, initially perceived as dictatorships imposed by Moscow, sought to establish ties with the people. E.M. Cioran, an acute observer of the period, noted: In adopting an ideology alien to its own traditions, every nation endowed with imagination will absorb and distort that ideology, adapting it to its nation’’s lot and falsifying it to its own advantage so that it becomes indistinguishable from its own genius.

With this statement Cioran hit the nail on the head. Although it was possible for a new variety of communist nationalism to be sparked off by an argument over the model of industrialization, as in Romania, every argument with Russia was a symbol of independence that appealed to national dignity. The argument resulted in the return of banned symbols, traditions, songs and customs, in a returning sense of identity and pride in the nation’’s history. The new nationalism had a different face in each country:  sometimes it was an anti-Hungarian face (in Romania), sometimes anti-Romanian or anti-Slovak (in Hungary), anti-Turkish (in Bulgaria), anti-German and anti-Ukrainian (in Poland), anti-Soviet (in Romania and Albania), anti-Semitic (in Hungary, Romania, and Poland).  Sometimes it was anti-Western.

In order to survive people had to wear a mask and conceal their thoughts. A system of doublethink, which Czesław Miłosz referred to as the captive mind, was born and spread. As time passed the mask merged with the face – especially if it was the face of nationalism. Obviously, the mask served to hide what was meant to be concealed.  And the communists, in their search for a way of rooting themselves in the national tradition, appealed to that which was hidden.

In Poland and Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 they appealed to the hidden freedom-loving and democratic traditions. Yet this tradition turned out to contradict the communist system and the democratic communists – Imre Nagy, Alexander Dubček or Władysław Biełkowski – were eliminated from the political scene. Democratic tradition equalled pluralism while communism equalled uniformization.

Ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, worked brilliantly as the ruling regime’s natural mode of existence.  In Poland a prime example of this kind of nationalism was the current identified with General Mieczysław Moczar, the head of the state security system. This current used the language of germanophobia and ukrainophobia, overt anti-Semitism and covert anti-Sovietism. It was a variety of nationalist communism, which relied on police repression of democratic strivings, similar to Maoism in China, Enver Hoxha’’s rule in Albania or Ceausescu’’s in Romania.

This nationalism was different from state nationalism, as exemplified by Titoism in Yugoslavia. Rather, the communist variety of ethnic nationalism resembled a peculiar mix of communism and fascism, of Mussolini and Brezhnev, our own Central-East European Molotov cocktail resulting in, to quote Vladimir Tismaneanu’’s apt definition, an anti-Soviet Stalinism.

Let’s think about it: under communism nationalism fulfilled a dual role. Initially it was an expression of concern for the identity and traditions of conquered nations; a form of self-defence against the bolshevization of consciousness and the domination by the Soviet-Bolshevik Russian culture. Eventually nationalist emotions, absorbed by the official propaganda discourse, became a permanent feature of the communist party ideology. It was a totalitarian nationalism, one that was anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-Western, and pitted against democratic, so-called dissident ways of thinking whose discourse was based on the notion of individual freedom and human rights.

This nationalism was often very effective.  It was also – to quote Ionesco – a crushing and oppressive weight that the world exposes us to and we reciprocate: it is people who produce tyranny and breathlessness when they are being crushed by fascism of a left-wing or right-wingvariety.  At times like these each and every one of us can turn into a monster.

And people did turn into monsters: the monstrous in us, as Ionesco reminds us can prevail. This is what he used to say about his play The Rhinoceros: These people have renounced their humanity, i.e. they have renounced their life, their individuality and may have derived joy, a kind of beastly happiness from this renunciation.

With bitter cynicism, Cioran commented: The people, such as they are, encourage despotism. They endure great tests, sometimes they even ask for them and then they rebel against them only to go after new ones, even more monstrous than the previous ones.

Fortunately, communism is now extinct. But it has left behind nationalism, a nationalism practised by people who derive a kind of beastly pleasure from renouncing their humanity.  It lives on in the form of nostalgia, a phobia, an anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-European and anti-American ideology. You meet people who think like this among the political elites of all post-communist countries – from Bucharest and Moscow to Berlin, from Warsaw to Prague, from Zagreb to Belgrade.  Nationalism in the post-communist era can take a variety of forms: that of the nostalgic communist Milošević, the post-Soviet dictator Putin, or the post-Soviet anti-Communists Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński. Their common denominator is invariably a resentment of the liberal rule of law, of the philosophy of dialogue, of the spirit of pluralism and tolerance.

Let’’s just look at Vladimir Putin and his sovereign democracy doctrine. What is the meaning of this doctrine, apart from a firm conviction that Russia’’s ruler has the sovereign right to imprison anyone he wishes – for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky – based on his convictions and the certainty that no intervention from Brussels or Strasbourg can stop him? Is this a step on the path to the ‘‘Chinese’ model (dictatorship plus free market), which is supposed to rid Russia of the spectre of democracy for years to come? Can this model prove to be a permanent example for other post-communist nations?

After all, the Khodorkovsky trial shows that it is the elites in the security apparatus who are in charge of the so-called free market in Russia. And a sentence passed in his trial means that independent judiciary in Russia is a fiction.   An advisor to Putin publicly explained that under Yeltsin it was the oligarchs who used to decide who would become a minister, while in Putin’’s sovereign democracy it is the minister who decides who will be an oligarch.

The essence of the system of sovereign democracy is the annihilation of independent media, the de facto elimination of the multi-party system (reducing parliament to a prop), the elimination of the independence of the judiciary, and ultimately the notion of politics as a series of operations carried out by security forces. Could this scenario be repeated in other post-communist countries?

And another thing: democracy equals pluralism: it implies that we agree to disagree; that we are all different, with varying interests and outlooks. But what we keep hearing and dreaming of is the need for national unity, as if it were not obvious that such unity – necessary in time of war – is impossible in normal times.

That is why we are told that these are not normal times, that there is an enemy out there to get us. The enemy can be our neighbour; it can be an ethnic minority in our country; it can be a mysterious communist, a masonic or Jewish conspiracy; it can be a gay and lesbian coalition that is out to annihilate our civilization.  In this moment of danger – we keep hearing – parliamentary democracy amounts to idle talk and manipulation; a market economy linked to a parliamentary system equals corruption; it is nothing but the criminal entanglement of the worlds of politics and business. And that is why – we are told – we need a strong government, which can deploy special measures to establish national unity and eliminate corruption; that is why we need – others claim – a  sovereign democracy or a  moral revolution.

Outrageous conclusions are based on reasonable assumptions. The prospect of a world dominated by oligarchs who have corrupted the state is obviously horrendous.  However, the prospect of a world dominated by a state apparatus that has eliminated democratic institutions and the rule of law and destroyed the market is equally horrific. Until recently we lived in a world that was a mix of Brezhnev and Mussolini; nowadays we are faced with the sinister spectre of a world that is a mix of Putin with Berlusconi, of secret services with big money gained by corrupt means.

In the 1920s and 1930s democracy failed to protect the rule of law and the result was fascism and communism.  The question that bothers me today is: can we muster enough courage and imagination in order effectively to protect the republic and the open society that we failed to protect from fascism?  The answer to this question continues to elude me.  All I know is that its final wording will depend on us.

We may understand Cioran’s and Ionesco’s words from half a century ago either as a curse or a prophetic warning.  I regard them as a warning.  Totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have taught us that each one of us may yet start bellowing like a rhinoceros.

Translation: Julia Sherwood


An abbreviated version of a speech Adam Michnik gave in Washington in December 2009 which first appeared in Gazeta Świąteczna on 22. 3. 2010.