Ethics & Public Policy Center

Light From the East


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Press and popular attention to matters of East and West naturally tends to focus on the extravaganzas: summit conferences, the public diplomacy of presidents, prime ministers, general secretaries (and now general secretaries’ wives), and so forth. We all like a show, and these things are part of the show of international public life, so one shouldn’t be too demeaning of them.

Yet this froth on the simmering brew of East and West can be so distracting that it obscures important realities down in the kettle itself.

Take, for example, the following declaration, issued last October to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the abortive Hungarian revolution:

“On the 23rd of October 1956, workers, students and soldiers stormed the radio building in Budapest because they were fed up with the official lies and wished to hear the truth and to voice their demands…. They destroyed Stalin’s statue and the credibility of the regime, which had called itself the dictatorship of the proletariat and the republic of the people. The struggle made it clear that what the Hungarian people really wanted was independence, democracy, and neutrality. They wanted to live in peace, in a free and decent society….

“The Hungarian revolution as well as the uprising in East Berlin, the Prague spring, and the social movement of the free trade union Solidarity in Poland were suppressed either by Soviet intervention or domestic military violence…. “Over the last 30 years, life has become easier for many. Some people speak up without being thrown into jail, but the basic demands of the revolutionaries have not been realized….

“We declare our joint determination to struggle for political democracy in our countries, pluralism based on the principles of self-government, peaceful reunification of divided Europe and its democratic integration, as well as the rights of all minorities.”

This “Budapest Declaration” did not come from exiled dissidents now resident in the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, or London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. Rather, it was the work of 54 Hungarians, 28 Poles, 24 Czechoslovaks, and 16 East Germans, all 122 of whom are currently active in literary, peace, and human rights circles behind what we used to call (and many of them still do call) the “Iron Curtain.”

Just prior to the October 1986 declaration, Timothy Garton Ash profiled three of the document’s signatories—the Czech Vaclav Havel, the Hungarian George Konrad, and the Pole Adam Michnik—in a New York Review of Books essay, “Does Central Europe Exist?” It would be an insult to the originality of these three men if an analyst were to reduce their work to variations on a common theme. Timothy Garton Ash avoids that temptation, but does point to shared currents of thought among them—themes that are of capital importance to all those who would work for both peace and freedom.

The first “main element of the shared intellectual subsoil” from which Havel, Konrad, and Michnik think and write is summarized in the title of one of Konrad’s books: Antipolitics. Konrad explicitly rejects what he terms the “Jacobin-Leninist tradition” and what Havel calls “politics as a rational technology of power.” Adam Michnik makes a parallel point in his 1985 “Letter from the Gdansk Prison”: “Taught by history, we suspect that by using force to storm the existing Bastilles we shall unwittingly build new ones.” One may reply that there is little here except common sense, since the Red Army remains intact, and it seems rather unlikely that Havel, Konrad, or Michnik will be offered a cabinet position in their countries in the near future. But that would be to miss the authors’ important point about the nature of life under Leninism.

This point comes into clearer focus when we note, with Timothy Garton Ash, that the new Central European intellectuals consider the old categories of “left” and “right” sterile and analytically useless. According to Michnik, “The very division ‘Left-Right’ emerged in another epoch, and it is impossible to make a meaningful reconstruction of it in present-day Poland (and probably also in other countries ruled by Communists).” What is General Jaruzelski: a man of the right, or of the left? The standard taxonomies quickly become absurd.

And the revelation of that absurdity creates space in which Havel, Konrad, and Michnik can focus their attention (and ours) on what is truly important. Timothy Garton Ash again: “In place of the old division between left and right, they offer us the even older division between right and wrong. This, they insist, is the truly operative distinction for those living under such a [communist] regime…. Reversing the traditional priorities of socialism, they begin not with the state or society but with the individual human being: his conscience, his ‘subjectivity,’ his duty to live in truth and his right to live in dignity. ‘First change thyself might stand as the common motto of their work. But, they all insist, the attempt to live in truth and dignity does not merely have profound implications for the individual; it can also have a substantial impact on the communist state. For, as Havel puts it, ‘the main pillar of the system is living the lie.’…

“Havel illustrates this with the now celebrated example of the greengrocer who puts in his shop window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan, ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ ‘Why does he do it?’ Havel asks.

“‘What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irresistible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals?’

“Of course not. He is signaling to the authorities his willingness to conform and obey. That is the meaning of his sign. He is indifferent to its semantic content. But ‘if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth.’

“The mendacious tissue of ideology partly conceals the true nature of the power in question; more importantly, it enables the individual citizen to conceal from himself the true nature of his submission to that power. It is this canvas of ideologically determined lies which, Havel argues, really holds the system together—and keeps society in thrall to the state. Each of these tiny acts of outward semantic conformity— each in itself so trivial as to seem nugatory—is like one of the miniscule bonds with which the Lilliputians bound down Gulliver; except that here men and women are binding themselves. By rendering this seemingly meaningless tribute, or even by not protesting against it, people

 

 

” ‘…live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.’

 

“The ‘line of conflict’ does not run simply between victim-people and oppressor-state, as in the conventional image, not just between different social groups, as in a more traditional dictatorship. ‘In the post-totalitarian system, this line runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system.’ Except, that is, for the few who have decided to ‘live in truth’—and in the West are so mistakenly known as dissidents.”

This politics of truth—the antithesis of the Jacobin-Leninist tradition—combined with the theory and practice of nonviolence to create the Solidarity movement in Poland. Here, claim Havel, Konrad, and Michnik, is “where Central Europe confronts Eastern Europe: in the autonomous sphere of culture, in the kingdom of the spirit.”

This conviction gives the Central European intellectuals a distinctive aim: “The operative goal is not the reform of the party-state but the reconstitution of civil society, although, of course, if the strategy is at all successful the party-state will be compelled to adapt to new circumstances (if only by grudgingly accepting an incremental de facto reduction in the areas of its total control).”

And the means for achieving this aim? Michnik, according to Ash, persistently quotes Pope John Paul II: “Zlo dobrem zwyciezaj,” “Vanquish evil through good.” And, as Ash reminds us, this is “not merely preaching. Michnik personally helped to save several policemen from being lynched by an angry mob in the small town of Otwock in May 1981. (He won the crowd’s confidence by declaring, ‘My name is Adam Michnik. I am an antisocialist force.’)” Michnik’s nonviolence, and Havel’s, is thus based on an ethics of sacrifice, including self-sacrifice, rather than an anti-ethics of accommodation.

Here, too, is where the Central European intellectuals have much to teach the peace movement in the West. They want to be sympathetic with Western activists; in fact, as Havel puts it, they share a “prerational” sympathy with those who put the good of others above their own private interests. But, as Ash wrote, Havel, Michnik, and Konrad “also begin with a healthy skepticism—nourished by Central European experience—of the peace movements’ tendency to utopianism and ‘the various much too earnest overstatements (which, at the same time and not accidentally, are not bought at a high cost) with which some Western peace-fighters come to us.’ (Havel’s rather contorted sentence repays a careful second reading.) They insist, against much of the Western peace movement, that the danger of war arises not from the existence of weapons but from the political realities behind them.

” ‘The cause of the danger of war is not weapons as such but political realities. … No lasting, genuine peace can be achieved by opposing this or that weapons system because such opposition deals only with consequences, not with reasons.’

“Thus Havel. And from his prison cell Michnik sent an almost identical message: ‘Western public opinion has allowed itself to have imposed on it the Soviet pattern of thinking—arms are more important than people. But this is not true. No weapon kills by itself.’

“The main ‘political realities’ in question are the division of Europe and the continued Soviet domination over half of it. ‘It is an unobservant European,’ declares Konrad, ‘who fails to notice that the Iron Curtain is made of explosive material. Western Europe rests its back against a wall of dynamite, while blithely gazing out at the Atlantic.’ ‘What threatens peace,’ Havel agrees, ‘is not the prospect of change but the existing situation.’ The key to a lasting peace lies not in disarmament or arms control as such, but in changing these political realities … the key to a lasting, genuine peace between East and West in Europe (as opposed to the present state of ‘nonwar’) must lie in working toward greater respect for human rights and civil liberties in Eastern Europe. The struggles for disarmament and human rights do not merely go hand in hand (as a minority—and still only a minority—in most Western peace movements maintain). The struggle for human rights has an absolute, logical priority. Michnik: ‘The condition for reducing the danger of war is full respect for human rights.’ Havel: ‘Respect for human rights is the fundamental condition and the sole genuine guarantee of true peace.’

“So on the one hand the ‘Central European mind’ . . . comes up with a warning of the true nature of Soviet-bloc states that could warm the cockles of President Reagan’s heart. Indeed, in his latest essay Michnik quotes with approval some of Reagan’s remarks about the difficulty in reaching arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. On the other hand they talk about respect for human rights as the fundamental condition and the sole genuine guarantee of a true peace—to which a Western peace activist might well reply, And who is being Utopian now? The message that combines these two aspects might be rudely summarized thus: The best thing that West European peace activists can do for peace is to support the democratic opposition in Eastern Europe.”

Indeed.

The fact that this comes as a shocking statement sheds some needed light on the operant assumptions about what constitutes “work for peace” in the United States and Western Europe. West of the Elbe River, “work for peace” has come to be identified primarily—in some instances, even solely—with resistance to weapons. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the objects of resistance have been Western weapons.

Things look different from east of the Elbe. Vaclav Havel, George Konrad, and Adam Michnik, all men dedicated to the politics of truth and nonviolence, remind us that “peace” necessarily involves a recognition of inalienable human rights, a civil society, and a state whose concern for the public order is at the service of freedom.

This key point of the new Central European intellectuals is not simply a matter of abstract speculation. It has been empirically validated beyond cavil by the history of the twentieth century. Recent research by R. J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii, for example, demonstrates that while 35.7 million people have been killed in wars since 1900, 119.4 million have been killed by their own governments: 95.2 million by Communist regimes, 20.3 by other antidemocratic states, 3.1 in partially free states, and .8 million in free states. (Rummel is actually a bit conservative on the Communist side of the ledger, for he charges to the account of the West the many thousands of Central and East Europeans forcibly returned east of the Elbe after World War II.) Tyranny, especially the great tyranny of the Lie that is being challenged by Havel, Michnik, and Konrad, has been, indisputably, the greatest killer of the twentieth century. This fact simply must inform the analysis and work of any peace movement worthy of that honorable name.

Since the October commemoration of the Hungarian revolution, the screws have tightened: seven members of the jazz section of the Czechoslovak Musicians’ Union were recently arrested for, among other things, publishing a book on music in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and a dictionary of Czechoslovak rock-and-roll; Senator Edward Kennedy was denied entry to Poland, for a trip on which he intended to present the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award to Adam Michnik and his Solidarity comrade, Zbigniew Bujak. The guardians of the Lie remain vigilant against the politics of truth.

Which is, to make an antiphon of it, all the more reason for peace and freedom activists in the West to make the cause of Havel, Michnik, and Konrad their own.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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