The Values of 1989

Perhaps the most important element of the Velvet Revolution was the experience of community, and the most vital value the sense of solidarity among the protesters. On November 17, the police tried one last time to suppress the demonstrations by brute force. Several hundred protesters, mostly students, were badly beaten up. The police aggression violated a fundamental social value—that guardians should protect, not attack, their charges. Over the following days, tens of thousands of demonstrators returned to Wenceslas Square (Václavské naměstí). Soon the center of Prague became too small for the throng. Consequently, the opposition started holding rallies on the Letná, a large parade ground and park close to Prague Castle. On November 25, at least half a million people were gathered there. The next day, a Sunday, another 250,000 protesters appeared.11 At that time, the capital of Czechoslovakia had a population of around 1.2 million. That weekend, more than half the population of Prague turned out to support “the revolution,” as people were hesitantly starting to call it.

The demonstrations were attended by a highly heterogeneous cross-section of society, from all classes and age groups. They brought together individuals and groups who would otherwise probably never have met. In contrast to the French and Russian Revolutions, the Velvet Revolution mobilized the entire country within a few weeks. Similarly to the GDR, even residents of small towns and villages took to the streets by the tens of thousands to demand the end of the old regime.

The crowds developed common rituals, such as shaking bunches of keys (to symbolize funeral bells ringing out the demise of communism), singing songs, performing jumps in unison against the cold, and, in December, shouting the political rallying cry “Havel na Hrad” (“Havel to the castle”), demanding Václav Havel as president. He, more than any other person, reflected the mood of solidarity in his speeches. He addressed the protesters as “friends,” and used other terms that underlined the sense of community, such as “unity,” “fraternity,” “solidarity,” even “love.” This heartfelt exuberance, the Romantic phase of the revolution, could obviously not last forever. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to understate the emotional aspect and common experience of revolution, to which Hannah Arendt refers in her writings.

Humanity (in Czech, lidskost; in Slovak, l’udskost; sometimes also humanita) was one of the key concepts of the revolution. The importance of this elusive notion can only be fully grasped against the background of the inhuman regime of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The communists had reduced the country’s citizens to mere cogs in the system. But the tables turned. The revolutionaries demanded the protection of human dignity (in Polish, godność) and respectful, friendly relations based on a sense of solidarity—in short, human compassion. In winter 2013–14, such demands were revived in Ukraine when the protesters on Kyiv’s Maidan spoke of a “revolution of human dignity” (in transcribed Ukrainian, revolutsiya gidnosti—the close relation to the Polish language, especially the word godność, is evident).

Is the concept of humanity, which was endowed with such significance by the historical context, still relevant? To philosophers and scholars of the history of thought, it certainly is. Lidskost has a long and interesting prehistory, starting with the humanist pedagogue and theologist Comenius (in Czech, Jan Amos Komenský) and stretching to Jan Patočka, Václav Havel’s philosophical mentor, and other Czechoslovak dissidents.12 More than twenty-five years after the revolution, is there not a lack of lidskost, of humanity, all over Central Europe, and even the West in general? Some of the social cuts in East Central Europe and the labor market reforms in Germany certainly contradicted key values that the demonstrators of 1989 stood for. German welfare recipients, for instance, especially those who survive on the minimum Hartz IV payments, are too often treated with contempt. Derided as Hartzer, they are socially branded in everyday language. No wonder, then, that so many welfare recipients suffer from a lack of self-respect. Such moral considerations may appear old-fashioned today, but many dissidents and above all Václav Havel dwelled upon them in their speeches and writings of 1989–90.13 They also wrestled with the problem of personally leading a “life in truth” while 1.5 million Communist Party members (almost 10 percent of the population) and large parts of society had complacently accepted the contrat social—more mass consumption in exchange for political compliance. Yet already in 1990, the dissidents’ claim to the “truth” and the moral high ground had begun to grate on the public. Civil rights activists in other Eastern Bloc countries experienced similar disapproval.

Arguing implicitly from a postmodern Western standpoint, where there are no absolute truths or certainties, Timothy Garton Ash also criticized Havel’s moralizing and questioned whether it was possible at all to rise above the murky terrain of everyday party politics.14 His doubts were eventually vindicated. In the long term, Havel was not able to remain aloof from the petty intrigues of Czech party politics, and increasingly clashed with Václav Klaus, the finance minister in the first postcommunist government and later premier. Havel inevitably had to take a stand on the latter’s radical reform program, with which he partly disagreed, and several other questions of daily politics. When the civil rights activists lost out at the parliamentary elections of 1992 (the Civic Party, Občanské Hnuti, led by Jiří Dienstbier, did not even clear the 5-percent threshold), Havel found himself necessarily drawn in, ultimately becoming a political party in his own right.

As they debated the shape of the democratic future, the protesters of fall and winter 1989–90 considered not only the political system but also the economy, the education system, and other institutions.15 By demanding the democratization of all these fields, they were in line with many ’68ers and West German chancellor Willy Brandt, who in 1969 had called on the country to “dare to have more democracy” (“mehr Demokratie wagen”). Self-administrative socialism, which the Solidarność movement had incorporated in its program of 1980–81, was initially considered as well. But the severe crisis and de facto national bankruptcy of Yugoslavia in 1989 put paid to this idea. West Germany’s model of trade union representation in the management of large companies (known as Mitbestimmung, that is, employees’ participation in decision-making) would have also interested the activists, had they known about it. But the German government under Helmut Kohl preferred to keep this achievement of the trade unions quiet. Eventually, privatizing state enterprises took precedence over democratizing the economy in Czechoslovakia and all postcommunist countries. The intended university reform became bogged down in endless discussions and debates; in other words, in the murky terrain of democratic practice.

Moreover, the economic troubles of the years 1990–91 created singularly unfavorable conditions for reflecting on the best democratic form and practice. The collapse of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, and thus of the region’s most important export markets, the need for fundamental economic restructuring, and the growing deficits of many major industries and national budgets demanded quick decisions of the respective national governments. They did not have scope for theorizing or conducting political experiments. In the mid-term, then, democracy’s idealization during fall and winter 1989 had negative repercussions. The practice of electioneering and parliamentary power-plays revealed sides to democracy that the public had not reckoned with. This engendered disenchantment and cynicism.

The conflict between functional and normative approaches also gave rise to misunderstandings in post-1989 discussions of Europe. Despite the frequent complaints of “Euro-fatigue,” the member countries of the European Community took its existence largely for granted. On the whole, they viewed European integration as a (technocratic) process. But east of the Iron Curtain, Europe was defined in idealized terms as a community of values. Expectations of it were consequently high. During the 1990s, these were encoded in the often-invoked idea of a “return to Europe” (návrat do Evropy).16 By this, Havel and other Eastern European intellectuals implied more than one-sidedly adjusting to Western European ways. The Czech “poet-president” envisioned a normatively defined, postimperial Europe, shaped by democracy and freedom, in which the “small” nations would have their place. (The fact that the European Union actually made this possible, before and after expansion, is one of its major achievements). This conception of Europe was influenced by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937), the founder and “philosopher-president” of interwar Czechoslovakia, who had propagated the idea of the Czechs as a historically democratic nation. By “návrat,” Havel meant a return to these philosophical traditions, among other things. When Eastern European countries recalled their national histories, they emphasized their sovereignty as well as supported their candidacy for European Union membership. They saw Europe as an association of fatherlands. This may have seemed nationalist and hidebound to Western proponents of a supranational state, but it complied with the structure and concept of the European Commission before the Maastricht Treaty.

Perhaps the opportunity was missed to discuss the goals and limits of European integration more openly before the enlargement of the Union. In 2005, just one year after the inclusion of ten new member states, France and the Netherlands voted against a European Constitution in public referendums. Like most votes on Europe, it was influenced significantly by the situations in domestic politics. The French public used the ballot to put the increasingly unpopular president Jacques Chirac in his place. But in the paternalistic terms the European Union tended to use on its eastern “candidate countries,” one might say that the French and Dutch populations were “not yet ready” for EU expansion. The outcome of the constitution referendums might well have been different if politics and the public had embraced the debate about values that had blossomed in 1989–90 rather than persisting with a process-based conception of Europe.

Another controversial issue, especially in Poland, was the question of the European Union’s Christian identity. Regarding European integration predominantly as a process, Westerners considered the continent’s cultural or religious definition a secondary concern. Debating the matter from a normative point of view, the same question was bound to play an important role in Central and Eastern Europe. Opinions diverge even in Poland, where there is a strong, often overlooked anticlerical tendency. This is partly a reaction to the utopia of a re-Christianized Europe that emerged in the eighties, under the influence of Pope John Paul II, and can be regarded as another legacy of 1989.17

A further central value motivating the revolutions was freedom. Initially the focus was on freedom from something—from Soviet domination, from the communists, from censorship, and from persecution, oppression, and paternalism in various other areas of life. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin differentiates between these “negative” freedoms, which are stressed in classic liberalism, and “positive” freedoms to do something.18 The latter dimension had less relevance during the revolutions and in the first years thereafter. Postcommunist societies were preoccupied with freeing themselves from communism and its legacies, especially reckoning up with the leaders of the ancien régime and secret police informers. Insofar as one adheres to Isaiah Berlin’s conceptual differentiation (a philosophical appraisal of which would go beyond the scope of this book), transformation was attended by a partial loss of positive freedom for the postcommunist societies. Indeed, this is a general problem of the new, neoliberal order. Since the crisis of 2008–9, rising unemployment has reduced the numbers of those who enjoy the freedom to pursue their personal goals, even in Western Europe.

The crisis in agriculture and old industry, mass unemployment, the social decline of minorities such as the Roma, and other new inequalities left only a minority in the postcommunist societies able to take advantage of the newly won freedoms. The situation could perhaps have been remedied by observing an ethic of freedom, as the Canadian philosopher and communitarian Charles Taylor proposed.19 In the mid-nineties, Taylor fundamentally criticized the liberal idea of freedom and outlined the risks of giving absolute precedence to free self-determination and individualism. Drawing partly on discussions with former dissidents at the IWM in Vienna, Taylor stressed the need for more community spirit and solidarity. Thus he echoed the protesters of 1989. They, too, thought largely in communitarian terms, though they did not usually refer directly to the concept. But it was demonstrated by the ubiquity of words such as “humanity” and “solidarity” in their flyers, pamphlets, and writings of the winter season 1989–90.20

In the postrevolutionary transformation era, consideration of the ethical and social implications of freedom largely died away. The normative exuberance of the revolution in postcommunist societies was replaced by a decidedly antiutopian mood. Furthermore, the hegemony of neoliberalism marginalized all other ideas and ideologies. As early as 1990, the principle of freedom became concentrated on the economy. The aforementioned TV series presented by Milton Friedman, the aptly titled Free to Choose, was an important mouthpiece. The third episode, devoted to “Freedom and Prosperity,” discussed the end of communism briefly but paid far more attention to the liberation of the markets from government restrictions. In this way, Friedman set out his desired sequence of freedoms: after gaining political freedom, nations should lose no time in establishing free market economies—only then would there be complete freedom. Appearing every inch the benevolent and wise old uncle from America, Friedman explained to the poor deprived Eastern Europeans how to tackle reforms. His choice of terminology was remarkable: in speaking of an “unlimited” and “pure” market economy, he suggested that all other variations were impure. No mention was made of the civil rights activists such as Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, who had actually fought for their countries’ freedom. But Czech finance minister Václav Klaus was invited to appear, and portrayed as a courageous reformer. In an appropriately real socialist setting, he treated Friedman and his wife, Rose, to coffee and cakes while reiterating the program’s message: only free market economy has any future; political freedom must be followed up by the removal of economic constraints.

Once the concept of freedom had been appropriated by economics, it gradually disappeared from public debate. Politicians such as Klaus continued to propagate freedom for the economy in their speeches, especially to international investors. Some years later Friedman awarded Klaus membership in the Mont Pèlerin Society, where neoliberal thought had originated in the postwar period. But to the national public, the record was beginning to sound scratched. Indeed, neoliberalism’s reliance on rationality is probably a major hindrance to its broad public acceptance. The arguments in favor of free market economy might have convinced in theory—Leszek Balcerowicz’s analyses and reform plans are still compelling to read, whether one agrees with them or not—but they had little emotional appeal. The party conferences of the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, or ODS), founded by Klaus, did not muster much enthusiasm even among attendees. (In the mid-nineties the ODS was the strongest neoliberal-oriented political movement in East Central Europe, and probably in Europe as a whole.) There were no pamphlets, chants, or demonstrations calling for free market economy. Prominent figures such as Leszek Balcerowicz in Poland and Yegor Gaidar in Russia exuded the aura of technocrats and business managers; they did not have or want any more charisma.21

The political-economic concept of freedom was reiterated at the celebrations marking the twentieth anniversary of the revolution in 2009. The German government thanked all those who had played a part in emancipating Germany and Europe and praised the progress of reforms. But German president Joachim Gauck’s speeches emphasizing the value of freedom were unemotionally received, hinting that this rhetoric had already passed into contemporary history. The freedom gained in 1989 is now largely taken for granted in the EU. Perhaps the case of Ukraine will reignite the debate in the coming years. Its outcome will depend upon which concept of freedom is adopted: the comprehensive, ethically grounded variety of the revolution era or the reduced, economic one of the nineties.

One aspect of freedom was completely overlooked in 1989: women’s rights. Although women certainly took part in the demonstrations just as men did, they did not voice gender-specific demands. This was due in part to the fact that, on paper, men and women were equal under state socialism. In practice, however, women shouldered greater burdens than men, not only going to work but also running the households and looking after the children. Their most pressing need at that time was a fairer distribution of responsibilities within the family. In the nineties, however, women were also worse hit by economic reforms than were men. They were affected by dismissals and restructuring in major industries disproportionately often (for instance, when service-oriented departments such as cafeterias were outsourced). Moreover, the new system drastically reduced state childcare and brought a shift in ideals, back toward a traditional conception of gender roles. Vladimir Putin’s offensive machismo is one example of this shift. In fact, it provides the foundation for his domestic and foreign policy. In Poland, the influential position of the church led to the criminalization of abortion. Such developments in the gender field seem to corroborate Jacques Rupnik’s thesis that the radical changes of 1989—or their outcomes in the nineties—marked a sort of “anti-’68.”22

Yet there are glimmers of light on this horizon. For instance, in Poland the gap between men’s and women’s average incomes is small in relation to that in other countries. The country ranks fifth in OECD statistics on the male-female pay gap, well ahead of Germany and Austria, where it is twice as large (at over 15 percent).23 Long before Angela Merkel became German chancellor, Poland had a female prime minister (Hanna Suchocka in 1992–93) and a female president of the national bank (Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz 1992–2000), and has more women in leading positions in business and university education than most Western countries. However, this can not be attributed entirely to the revolution. It owes more to the social and cultural dynamic of transformation.

Postrevolutionary disenchantment has clouded the public’s memory of the values of the 1989 revolution. This is particularly evident in conversation with intellectuals and former politicians who played leading roles. Many now perceive the postrevolutionary “Realpolitik” as an inevitable and ultimately positive development, having paved the way for new affluence and European integration. But this political-realist reception of the revolution might in turn lose currency. Canadian historian James Krapfl, for one, has hinted at this in his empathetic analysis of revolutionary writings and culture in Czechoslovakia. Krapfl shows that the values of the Velvet Revolution still hold relevance, though primarily on the periphery of or outside Europe. A few years ago, for instance, some five thousand intellectuals and opposition activists in China signed the manifesto “Charter 08,” calling for the democratization of China, an end to one-party rule, and, not least, greater social equality.24 The Ukrainian revolution has also revitalized some of the values of 1989, which is why it is so despised by the former KGB functionary Vladimir Putin.

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