After the Revolution

by Adam Michnik | April 18, 1993

Politics is the art of achieving political goals — of achieving what is possible in a given situation, that is, in a situation that has its conditions and its limits. In this respect, the ethical point of view, the consideration of what is good and what is bad, what is fair and what is unfair, what is honest and what is dishonest, is external to politics. An ethical action, like an unethical action, is usually analyzed by politicians purely in pragmatic terms. Does it lead toward the goal or does it lead away from it? Montaigne observed, in his famous polemic against Machiavelli, that if a politician rejects ethical norms it can make him untrustworthy, and sometimes deprive his political actions of effectiveness.

Politics and ethics belong to different worlds. Yet we, the men and the women of the anti-totalitarian opposition movements, have a different view of politics, and of our participation in it. The politics of those totalitarian regimes was, after all, an open attack on ourselves, on our freedom, on our dignity, on truth. The elementary reflex of defending those elementary values entangled us in politics, transformed people of culture into people of politics. Thus there was born the phenomenon of an artist or a humanist occupying the center of the political stage in our part of Europe. Thus there was created the political idea of building civil societies outside the totalitarian state (for example, the Workers Defense Committee, or KOR), what George Konrad has called anti-political politics, what Vaclav Havel has described as politics based on the power of the powerless

Now we are leaving totalitarianism behind. Our nations are shedding the fetters of dictatorship, spitting the gag of censorship. We are engaged in a great experiment of confrontation between the idea of politics based on the power of the powerless and a social reality that was shaped when politics was based on the power of the powerful. We have always announced that our politics will be carried out without violence, without hatred, without revenge. True to the Christian message of our culture, we have always distinguished between the sin and the sinners. We have always tried to behave according to this difference, and we are trying to behave like this now.

But we are encountering the resistance of the social fabric. We see acts of violence, we hear shouts of hatred, we come upon calls for revenge. Sometimes we feel like the sorcerer's apprentice, who released forces that he could not control. These aroused ambitions, these displays of belated courage, these intrigues and personal conflicts, these slanders, these accusations of embezzlements against any adversary, or of being secret agents or crypto-Communists—where do they come from? We look around and ask, Where does this taste for kicking those who are down come from, this ever-growing area of intolerance, this urge to imprison people of the ancien régime, this dream of vengeance, this chauvinism, this xenophobia, this egalitarian demagoguery proper to populism that conceals simple envy? Where does this return to the idea of a nationalist state come from? This explosion of hatred for everyone—for gypsies, for AIDS patients, for all who are different?

What is the mechanism behind this revival of hatred for adversaries in public life? we wonder with concern. And we wonder, after all, whether we are not all children of totalitarian communism, whether we do not all carry inside ourselves the habits, the customs, and the flaws of that system. The death of the Communist system does not mean the end of totalitarian habits. The carefully bred slave of communism did not die with the end of the Communist Party's reign. Even the enemy of communism was often formed in the likeness of the system he was fighting.

We must reflect on what these new developments mean. The hateful chauvinism is a degenerate reaction to the human need for national identity and national sovereignty, a need that was beaten down by communism. The envious populism is a degenerate reaction to the human longing for a just social order. Into the place left empty by Communist ideology, these two fiends steal. Like a cancer attacking the fragile human organism, they attack the tender emerging organism of our pluralist European democracy and our normal market economy.

Let us recall that historically, in our region, nationalism mixed with populism produced fascism. The central contest of this period of transition from totalitarianism to democracy is not mainly a contest of parties or political programs, but a contest of two cultures. It is best symbolized by the names of two outstanding Russian activists of the anti-Communist opposition, Andrei Sakharov and Igor Shafarevich. Sakharov was an exponent of the European tendency within Russian culture; he rejected communism because it trampled on human freedom and human dignity, because it was the dictatorship of the minority nomenklatura over the majority of society, and at the same lime it persecuted all minorities in the Soviet Union. Shafarevich rejected communism because it was a system foreign to Russia, because he perceived it as a European creation brought to the Russian land by foreigners, and because it preached a godless ideology. So we are returned again to the fundamental dilemma that was formulated by Leszek Kolakowski many years ago. Is communism evil because it is atheist or because it is totalitarian? Do the Communists sin by not adhering to a doctrine or did they stifle the very essence of human and national freedom?

 

The present period of transition from dictatorship to democracy must consist of a compromise among the main political forces. There must be a pact for democracy. The breaking of this pact makes public life brutal, and introduces anarchy, and eventually chaos. And chaos cannot be reformed. Chaos leads inevitably to dictatorship.

Every revolution, bloody or not, has two phases. The first phase is defined by the struggle for freedom, the second by the struggle for power and revenge on the votaries of the ancien régime. The struggle for freedom is beautiful. Anyone who has taken part in this struggle has felt, almost physically, how everything that is best and most precious within him was awakened. Revenge has a different psychology. Its logic is implacable. First there is a purge of yesterday's adversaries, the partisans of the old regime. Then comes the purge of yesterday's fellow oppositionists, who now oppose the idea of revenge. Finally there is a purge of those who defend them. A psychology of vengeance and hatred develops. The mechanics of retaliation become unappeasable: witness the Jacobin terror and the Iranian revolution.

We inherited from the totalitarian era, like a birthmark, the conviction that wisdom is the same as permanent suspicion. Jozef Tischner is right in saying that this is one of the most serious threats to democratic order in Poland. And yet contemporary Europe provides examples of countries that were able to stop after the first phase of the anti-dictatorial revolution, and thanks to that, they may now enjoy democratic order and wealth. Take Spain. Its transition from dictatorship to democracy demonstrates that a state can be built in which yesterday's political adversaries, the prisoners and their guards, do not lose their political identity, but can, and wish to, live next to each other in a common state, in a state in which they are able lo respect the rules of pluralism, tolerance, and honest political struggle.

 

But we know, if only from looking into the mirror, or deep into our own hearts, how- perverted we are by totalitarian communism. We lack democratic culture and democratic institutions. We lack the tradition of democratic coexistence in the framework of a democratic order. In Central and Eastern Europe, each of our countries has its distinct biography, its own secret knowledge about threats to democratic order.

I think of Poland. The Polish experience is well symbolized by Jôzef Pilsudski. Pilsudski was, in my view, the incarnation of the best Polish traditions of struggle for freedom and for independence. He was, after 1918, the first chief of the independent state, the guarantor of the first free parliamentary elections, and of the passage of the most democratic constitution in Europe. He was also the guarantor of the first democratic election of the president of Poland, Gabriel Narutowicz. And he was witness to the moment when Poles suddenly lacked the sense of compromise, the moment when this first democratically elected president was murdered following a brutal campaign of hatred in the press and in the streets. Pilsudski retreated to Sulejówek, and the Polish Parliament proved incapable of creating a stable government. Three years later, in 1926, he returned to power at the point of a bayonet. The long and painful agony of Polish parliamentary democracy began.

In sum, the man who fought and won freedom for Poland, the father of Polish independence, also laid the foundation for dictatorship in Poland. He hurled abuses at parliamentarians and at Parliament; he offended political adversaries and was responsible for the shameful Brzesc trials, in which some of his parliamentary opponents, on the left and the right, were imprisoned. The dramatic story of Pilsudski holds a dramatic warning for us. We must always bear in mind this fragment of our heritage of independence, this time when, without Communists and without Soviet advisers, we squandered our opportunity to build a democratic and lawful state.

An intellectual is pretty helpless in the face of these dangers: as a political man he must be efficient, as a man faithful to the ethical origin of his commitment he knows that he must abide by the truth. That is how we are, divided in two. We know how fragile are the bases of democratic order in Poland, and we know that to denounce continuously the slippages in our democracy will make it even more fragile. We face, in these circumstances, a peculiar conflict of loyalties. What is more important, we ask ourselves, the fragile democratic order or the defenseless truth? None of us has a ready answer to the question of which of these two loyalties should prevail. We are doomed to inconsistency. We are doomed to live in a state of tension, uncertainty, permanent risk.

Still, it is not true that we know nothing. We are children of a certain tradition. And we know that this tradition does not permit us to renounce the truth with impunity. We are the children of our Judeo-Christian culture, and we know that this culture, which recommends loyalty toward the state, commands us to bend our knees only before God. We know, therefore, that we should put faithfulness to truth above participation in power. We know, by reaching for our roots, that the truth of politics resides, in the end, in the politics of truth; that every political order is polluted by the original sin of imperfection. We reject the belief in political Utopia. We know that our future is an imperfect society, a society of ordinary people and ordinary conflicts — but. precisely for this reason, a society that must not renounce its ethical norms in the name of political illusions.

Yes, it is true that we are helpless before the many ethical traps of contemporary politics. It is then that we reach out for the truth of our own roots, for the ethics of the power of the powerless, or simply for the Ten Commandments. The rest is lies, and has the bitter taste of hypocrisy.

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 1993 issue of the magazine.

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