17 March 2017

How and (Why) to Keep a Dissident Spirit in Spite of “Transition”?

 

AN INTRODUCTORY REMARK
 

Let me start by saying that dissidents were one of the best products of Communism. Probably the best. At one point, Václav Havel said: A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe: a spectre of what in the West is called dissent’.”

The living conditions of this spectre were tough. It was not easy to be Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, or Mrožek, or Czesław Miłosz. It took an enormous amount of courage to advocate the dissident ideas that led to the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. The title of the famous poem of Gyula Illyés marking the 1956 Revolution is “One Sentence About Tyranny”. (The poem was written in 1950, yet it only got published during the first days of the Revolution.) This one sentence is a poem of 50 strophes, revealing and emphasising that if we have tyranny, we have tyranny everywhere and in everything. Except, of course, in the minds of those who have lucidity and courage to see this.

Today, we more or less know what happened to dissidents under Communism. We know how they were oppressed, we know how they became famous. Of course, our information is more or less restricted to those dissidents who became prominent. But there were quite a few dissidents among us during the Communist times, who had stamina, but did not have the intellectual brilliance and/or luck needed to become famous. Their destinies also deserve attention though. The topic of this essay is, however, not the destiny of famous or less famous dissidents, but rather what has happened to the dissident spirit in post-dissident times.

Before addressing this question I shall first try to take a closer look at the environment in which dissident spirit was shaped.

 

I. DISSIDENT MINDSET SHAPED IN SOCIETIES MARKED BY EXALTATIONS

 

Approaching the question of how (and why) should a dissident mindset be kept, I would first like to say something about the possible ways in which dissident mindsets have been shaped.

Dissident mindset is a reaction to an oppressive environment. Oppression has many forms. The most obvious ones arise in environments that one could call “exalted societies”. Such societies are marked by a persistent endeavour to overshadow life by a dominant agenda. This agenda is communicated with exaltation, but at the same time, true intentions are veiled underneath that same exaltation. The agenda is not accepted by everyone within the society, but leaves a trace on the fate of everyone. I have recollections of two exalted societies that I saw from close- up during my life. The first one was Communism. The second was a society driven towards war, guided by ethnic fury.


Options before intellectuals in Communist societies my experience in the former Yugoslavia


Since I would like to piece together what I saw personally, I shall devote particular attention to the former Yugoslavia. During Communist times, some patterns of behaviour, or variants of maintaining or abandoning intellectual integrity, were essentially the same in all Communist countries. But there were some differences and nuances as well, particularly with regard to Yugoslavia.

Like most people in my generation who lived in Eastern Europe, I had personal experience of several types of agitated societies. I was only five years old by the end of the Nazi occupation of the region of Banat that includes my home town, hence my first real experience came later. It came with Communism. In Yugoslavia, Communism was followed by anxiety and zeal crafted by the Milošević years. Certain patterns of revolt, just as patterns of accommodation, continued. As a matter of fact, some of these patterns of conduct continued in the years of “transition” as well – and not only in former Communist countries – but in a milder and less perceptible form.

In Communist countries, intellectuals – not only top intellectuals – had several options. I remember very well facing these options when I was trying to become an intellectual half a century ago. Essentially, we had three choices: to join the party line, to try to find escape in the realm of some esoteric topics, or to become a true dissident. Life allowed – or sometimes imposed – alterations, compromises, or shifts between these options. Before he became an unyielding dissident, Sakharov (as a physicist) was a “hero of socialist labour”: he received both the Stalin Prize and the Lenin Prize. Milovan Ðilas, probably the most prominent dissident during Tito’s time, held high party positions before he opted to become a dissident – and before he had to serve a nine-year prison sentence. Even heroes had lives that cannot be simply reduced to a symbol.

Among the options intellectuals faced in Communist times, the simplest one (and the most profitable one) was to take the position of the party – to join the party line. This was an option taken by many. It was also a temptation. Following the party line was lucrative, and did not require creative thinking. It rather required creative oppression of thinking. Today, several decades after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, this is not a revelation anymore. But let me add that not all people who took this option during the first years of Communism were simply cowards or driven by greed. Some did it with persuasion, although in the case of true intellectuals, this persuasion sooner or later vanished.

I would like to take as an example a close friend of mine – Nebojša Popov. In the former Yugoslavia, Communists were the only powerful opponents of the Nazi regime, and this is what gave Tito a degree of legitimacy that other East- European Communist leaders did not possess. Hungary’s Rákosi, for example, did not spend the years of the Second World War in Hungary, but in the Soviet Union in exile. In Yugoslavia, many of my friends used to say (and I agreed with them) that had we had free elections during Communist times, Tito would have probably won them. But this assumption was never verified – we did not have free elections. Tito’s legitimacy was in a way tested when he broke with Stalin in 1948, yet remained in power. Other Communist leaders in Eastern Europe would in all likelihood not have passed such a test.

Nebojša Popov was born in 1939, his parents were on Tito’s side during the Second World War, and he perceived Communism as the antipode of Nazism. When we studied together, he asked me several times to join the party I have to say though that he did not try to put on me any pressure. He was the party secretary of the Belgrade Law School (his deputy was none other than Slobodan Milošević). Several years later, the same Nebojša Popov became one of the most famous and courageous dissidents in the former Yugoslavia. He continued to be a dissident for half a century, until he passed away in 2016. As a university teacher and researcher he joined the student movements in 1968, left the Communist party in 1970 stressing that the party did not allow freedom of the press. He joined the dissident review PRAXIS, and was a prominent participant of gatherings of dissident thinkers on the island of Korčula. He was the editor of the review Republika which maintained a dissident spirit under various rules. He was also one of eight renowned university teachers expelled from Belgrade University in 1975 in a most unusual manner. The party ordered their firing, but the mechanism proudly introduced by the Yugoslav Communist Party did not yield this time the expected result. We had “self-management”, decisions about firing had to be taken by an assembly of workers. These decisions were often dictated by the party. A bizarre example of party-dictate under the guise of “workers’ self-management” was the refusal in 1975 by the workers of the printing house in the town of Sisak to continue printing the dissident philosophical review PRAXIS. The printworkers stated that they deeply disagreed with the philosophical views expressed in the manuscripts sent to be printed, and they could not put their name to such ideas. One may pause here, and reflect on the right of workers to refuse to print a text they find repugnant. Today, the owner of a printing house could refuse the printing of a say, racist or anti-Semitic manuscript, referring to his or her dignity. Do printworkers also have a relevant dignity? Would it be just absurd to argue that they could also refuse printing, or would such an argument make sense in the context of the (often oppressed or disregarded) human rights in corporations? Is this a forgotten angle in considering human rights and dignity? The question may be an interesting one, yet it was not really relevant in the actual context of the Sisak case. What happened in that case was just party dictate, by way of a cynical abuse of the idea of workers’ dignity and workers’ self-management.

In the case of Nebojša Popov and his colleagues, workers’ self-management did not yield the expected result. Although the majority of the members of the assembly of teachers were party members, they did not vote in favour of firing. After this, the Serbian Parliament had to enact a special act (lex specialis) on firing of dissident university teachers and researchers.

Nebojša Popov wrote a number of books, which gave a lucid and uncompromising analysis of the society he was observing. During the Milošević years, most of his activities and writings were aimed against war and nationalism. He was one of the founders of the first alternative political party in Yugoslavia (the UJDI – Association for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative). Once again, he invited me to join his party – and this time, I did join. We celebrated together in 1990 when I was elected to the Serbian Parliament as a candidate of UJDI. (At that time the Serbian Parliament still had a strong pro-Milošević majority.) During the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces, Popov organised demonstrations, and led a group of citizens called “To Live in Sarajevo”. After the fall of Milošević, during the so-called “transition” years, he perceived some privatisations as plunder, wrote critical articles, and again organised demonstrations. His work is viewed as a model of dissident thinking in Serbia.

Trying to reconstruct my own personal experience, I am tempted – as are many people today to portray my life under Communism as that of a relentless dissident. There are some facts that support this assumption but the truth deduced from those facts would not be the whole truth. I did have some publications – including a literary book about life reduced to slogans and phrases – which could be qualified as dissident by the neutral observer, but I also had a life in the legal profession. Within this profession, the first option (to follow the party line) did not really tempt me, but the second option (finding escape in some esoteric realm) did. I grew up in an environment that had stuck to the legal profession through generations, and enjoyed a relatively stable existence. Thus, after I graduated, it appeared to me that I could continue the same path – the one which avoided tantalising options. But the situation changed when I turned towards an academic career – and I had to choose a field. I had an interest in legal sociology (just like Nebojša Popov had). Yet we were in the early sixties, and my fear was that as a teacher and researcher in this field, my choices would essentially boil down to two destinies: that of a tragic hero, or a shady opportunist. I wanted instead to be a legal scholar. So I opted for Private International Law, an esoteric island away from cruel alternatives. Within this realm, at a distance from dominant convictions and mandated options, it was possible to have doubt (and to enjoy doubt) regarding dominant opinions, and to follow without much risk one’s own wisdom (or foolhardiness) in weighing scholarly alternatives. I also have to say though, that this esoteric realm was not completely protected. I was removed from my comfort zone on several occasions.

One such occasion was when the whole of Yugoslavia celebrated one of Tito’s round-number birthdays, and the anniversary of his leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party. Contributions were expected from everyone, and everybody was expected to be enthusiastic about the “double jubilee”. We did not have to think about how to contribute. This was the job of the party. The University Party Committee arrived at the idea of obliging all teachers (not only party members) to put together special publications. Faculties in the area of social sciences had to produce a special book, in which every professor would submit a scholarly article about Tito’s invaluable contribution to his or her field. (Thus, the articles expected from law professors were to have topics like: Tito and Family Law, Tito and Civil Procedure, Tito and Civil Law I, Tito and Civil Law II, etc.) This also meant that I was supposed to write an article about Tito’s invaluable contribution to Private International Law. Tito, of course, had neiter interest in nor a clue about Private International Law. One should not blame him for that. I suppose Winston Churchill had no clue about Private International Law either. By way of writing a “scholarly” article about Tito and Private International Law, I would have completely abandoned the scholarly integrity that I had tried to keep safe and immune from daily politics – and I could not have designated myself as an intellectual in good faith anymore. Trying to avoid direct confrontation, I made a proposal of which I am not particularly proud today (neither was I really proud of it at that time either). At a meeting of the teachers’ assembly devoted to the “double jubilee”, I proposed that all of us should invest our best efforts to write a scholarly article that would be better than what we had produced so far. This article may or may not refer to Tito (depending on the subject) but it should reflect our endeavour to produce something exceptional; we should produce something new that would deserve many international citations. We could then collect these articles, and include them into a volume dedicated to Tito. What I had in mind was that if I wrote an article the content of which I could sign off on with clear conscience, then it would not matter that much that this article would find its place in a volume dedicated to Tito. But even this not-really-courageous compromise was perceived as obstruction in bad faith. It was brought to my attention that making an alternative proposal signifies doubt, and undermines the dignity of the University Party Committee. I was stunned by a remark by a colleague – a professor of legal theory, if I remember correctly – who said that “on the path of progress, doubt is unpatriotic”. My proposal was doomed, and was rejected almost unanimously. After this, I was forced to adopt a real dissident position. I refused to contribute. I suffered some sanctions, but they were not brutal. I did not lose my teaching job.

Dissident behaviour was sometimes simply the result of being pushed to the edge. At the same time, there were people who had to face a life without safe (or relatively safe) resorts, and who had no other option but defiance, if they wanted to save their integrity. Life under Communism was not simply unicoloured, most human destinies had turns and nuances. Dissidents and dissident mindsets were part of this life, and allowed us to walk, rather than just to follow, and gave us a chance to see an environment beyond posters.

 

The need for dissident thinking during the Milošević years

 

Denial of doubt – bluntly expressed by my colleague at the Novi Sad Law School – may be a result of party prohibition, but it may also be the result of frenzy and exaltation. I remember an event during the first years of the wars in the former Yugoslavia (probably in 1991). The Danube drifted a dead body to the shore in Novi Sad. I met a Croatian friend, who commented on this, and said: “You see what the Serbs are doing to us Croats, they are just killing us.” I asked him whether he knew anything about the victim. He had no information, but he was sure that the corpse was the body of a Croat. A couple of hours later I talked to a Serbian friend, he also brought up this issue, he explained that Croats were killing Serbs, and the body belonged to a Serb. I asked later a professor of pathology who inspected the body. He told me that they did not find any lead that would have helped to discover the identity of the person. They were only able to establish that it was a male about 40 years old. Yet, my Serbian and my Croatian friend, who knew way less than the professor of pathology, had no doubt whatsoever about the ethnic identity of the victim. This absence of doubt was part of a growing exaltation, and it was one of the main vehicles that led to war. Denial of doubt closes all escape routes around a captive mind. Hence, just like under Communism, one of the key intellectual goals of dissidents was the reinstatement of doubt. And we did have anti-war dissidents both among Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Hungarians and others, who managed to maintain human doubt, confronting exalted nationalism, brutal trends, obstinate prejudices and frozen beliefs.

 

II. DISSIDENT MINDSET SHAPED IN SOCIETIES “IN TRANSITION” Did independent thinkers have an advantage as well under Communism?

 

One could make the argument that being a dissident, and maintaining a dissident mindset under Communism was more dangerous, often painful, sometimes punishable – but in a way also easier. Some things become clearer if a brutal variation confronts you. And pressure can yield value. Clear-cut opposition is more readily forged and articulated in agitated, one-minded societies. Just as pearls can be shaped under brutal pressure in pearl shells.

In a way, dissident intellectuals in Eastern Europe were luckier than their colleagues in the West. The pressure was much more obvious. Prevailing patterns were politically more oppressive, but by the same token, intellectually easier to recognise. The options replacing creative thinking were less deceptive. Non-conformism may have been dangerous, but at least, it was less difficult to distinguish it from conformism.

The perception of desires is also simpler in agitated or exalted societies. During Communism, our predicament was complex, but our vision was quite simple. We wanted an environment in which one could discover and uncover ideological and other patterns without fearing oppression – and with a chance to publish it. Then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the question arose how new ideas can be fermented without the pressure and heat of oppression – and how can one retain the flair of unconventional thinking.

When Communist countries became “former-Communist countries”, the question arose whether the status of dissidents would necessarily get reduced to that of “former- dissidents”. Amidst endeavours to retain the flair of dissidents, the temptation arose to equate disadvantages stemming from not belonging to governing political and financial circles, with hindrances caused by brutal prohibitions in Communist times. Many things were not anticipated. Nobody asked how discoveries will gain relevance without oppression, how manuscripts will become important without impediments to their publication in the country of the author. Nobody asked how poets will make peace with their ego after their manuscripts were rejected, and after they were deprived of the most dignified of all explanations: “my work was rejected for political reasons”. What we did not anticipate either, was the question what will happen to our patterns of revolt against stereotypes, how will our intellectual attitudes and techniques fare in a different environment. Shall we have an edge or a handicap in creative thinking?

The question also arises who is actually a dissident today, and what challenges are being faced by those who endeavour to follow a dissident mindset.

 

Who is a dissident today?

 

Trying to perceive anti-establishment thinking in a post-Communist environment, a forgotten question returns to my mind. Living under Communism, and seeing dissidents in my everyday environment, I often asked myself whether those people in the West who advocated similar ideas as dissidents in the East, were also dissidents – and whether they would be dissidents if they lived among us. This would have had to be tested – but there was no way to test it. I am as sure as one can be that Chomsky would have been a dissident, had he lived in the Soviet Union. The same could apply to, say, Stéphane Hessel, the author of Indignez-vous!, and probably to many others. But how about people who played a crucial role in Western politics and thinking, people like Milton Friedman, or George H. W. Bush, or Margaret Thatcher? They did oppose Communism, but did they have a dissident mindset? Had they lived in Communist countries, would their mindset have led them towards being a dissident, or towards being a party secretary? I do not really have an answer to this question.

The question I raised in connection with Margaret Thatcher, George H. W. Bush and Milton Friedman is, of course, bound to remain a hypothetical one. Another question that arises concerns the playground of real experience. That is whether slogan-based thinking can survive totalitarian settings – and whether the dissident mindset can survive the collapse of the system against which its dissent was directed.

In post-Communist countries there has been a temptation (some resisted it, some did not) to continue to fight against dogmas that deserve rejection – but which are not dogmas of the political power anymore. This temptation is probably not restricted to post-Communist countries. What is the intellectual value of rejection of already defeated ideologies? Saying after Hitler or after Stalin that Hitler or Stalin were bad, is certainly OK. But does such a criticism make you a dissident thinker? Or at least a critical thinker? Can you still be a critical thinker when you find yourself as being part of a new crowd? And what happens to dissident ideas when they become dominant ideas? Some transformation will definitely take place. In a different environment, the same idea may get a different value – and possibly a different content as well. Just as, after a while, breaking news is not breaking news anymore.

During the Nazi occupation of my hometown, the slogan HEIL HITLER was visible on most public buildings. Every decision of administrative offices and courts ended also with HEIL HITLER. But on some fences another slogan appeared: SMRT FAŠIZMU – SLOBODA NARODU (Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People). My father told me that on the fence in a neighbouring street, he also saw a Hungarian version of this slogan (HALÁL A FASIZMUSRA – SZABADSÁG A NÉPNEK). Those who scribbled these words on fences needed a lot of courage. They were risking their lives. Their slogan was challenging one of the most inhuman zealotries in history. After the Second World War, SMRT FAŠIZMU – SLOBODA NARODU gained ground everywhere. Not only on fences, or on buildings in the centre of the town, not only on judgements and other decisions of the new authorities. Every claim or submission addressed to some authority also had to end with SMRT FAŠIZMU – SLOBODA NARODU. A husband asking for divorce on the ground of adultery had to put at the end of his claim “Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People”. The wife denying adultery had to close her arguments with the same words. The question is, did SMRT FAŠIZMU – SLOBODA NARODU still remain a brave and dignified motto?

With time, not only the weight, but also the function of trustworthy statements and praiseworthy convictions changes. After my home town was liberated from Nazi occupation, and a new administration was being shaped, a debate erupted over the powers of specific territorial units. A partisan hero (and candidate for the position of mayor) argued that it was “more antifascist” if the town (rather than the county) had more authorities. Another Communist leader, who also earned respect during the Second World War (and who was a likely office holder in the county), argued that the opposite was true, and that it was more antifascist to give more competencies to the county.

To give another example from a completely different environment, I shall mention an oral admission test at the Central European University in 1993 or 1994. I asked an applicant from Ukraine, when the CISG (the UN Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods) applied. I was planning to direct our discussion towards the question of whether place of business or nationality (of the buyer or seller) was more relevant in establishing links with States that ratified the Convention. Yet the first sentence of the student appeared to bar any legal discussion. He said that we had abandoned Communism, that we now lived in a market economy, and that the CISG was pro-market economy – hence the CISG should always apply. (Let me hasten to add that he did not pass the admission test.)

Browsing my recollections, a university conference comes to mind that was held in Yugoslavia under Communism, and was devoted to (one of the many) reforms of higher education. The two introductory speeches were not particularly attention- grabbing. I counted how many times the two speakers uttered the words “socialist self-management”. I kept the notebook in which I wrote this down. The first speaker mentioned the magic words 31 times, the second speaker 28 times. (Both speeches lasted about 20–25 minutes). And then, in the nineties, in the European Union, I also attended a conference on reforms in higher education. Continuing my practice inspired by Communism, I made notes during the opening speech, and counted how many times the speaker from a West European country uttered the phrase “sustainable development”. This time the count was 26, and the speech lasted about 20 minutes.

To give a further example, about a year ago, in an international arbitration case in which I was one of the arbitrators, a witness was asked during the oral hearing why his company used “isosugar” instead of crystal-sugar. The question was a somewhat sensitive and challenging one, but the witness found refuge in a bomb- proof parallel world. He said that the reasons were transparency and sustainability. (He may have added the war on terror.)

Is this different, from replacing arguments (and answers) with words like “socialist self-management”, or “Long Live Comrade Tito”?

According to a spirited sentence in Goethe’s Faust: „Denn eben wo die Begriffe fehlen, da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein.” The temptation to shove in a trendy word where notions and concepts are lacking is a durable phenomenon. It is not restricted to Communism or other totalitarian societies. (And the character who is saying this in Goethe’s work, is Mephistopheles.)

The problem with the Heil Hitler slogan was not only that it hailed a monster, but also that it replaced human thinking with a catchphrase. Do we have a full victory over Heil Hitler if we change the slogans, and if we insert into speeches and documents other (possibly nicer) phrases, but do not change (or only partially change) their function?

A dissident mindset is still needed. Buzzwords and slogans can only hide rather than fill emptiness. Change of slogans from Communist catchphrases to new more modern and enhanced ones does not really help. If you have potholes on the road of your thoughts, it does not really matter whether you are driving an old or a new car. A dissident will challenge slogan-based reality as such, rather than just specific slogans – and a dissident mindset could also protect concepts that deserve attention from the danger of becoming mere gadgets.

 

How can one see a system?

 

Under Communism elections did not yield changes in political options, there were actually no changing governments, and there was no such thing as balance or compromise between government and opposition. The government was in effect the system. Hence perceiving what the government was actually doing, was unmasking the system. And this is what dissidents were doing. Criticising the government was a criticism of the system. The attitude continued by inertia – in Eastern Europe, in particular.

Today, in post-Communist countries, the party (or coalition) making the government is not the system. Criticising the leftist or rightist government may take courage, it may show truth, but it is not the same clairvoyance as a critique of the system – it does not amount to debunking the system. It is rather part of the system. And the same applies in the West as well. The real task of a dissident (or, let us say, of an independent thinker) is not to reveal whether Trump or Hillary Clinton is the better (or the less bad) candidate. What is needed is a revelation of the system that yielded the juxtaposition of these two candidates.

Thus, if dissidents want to remain dissidents after the fall of the Berlin Wall as well, they need to recognise that some things have not become easier, but more difficult.

 

How to remain important without oppression?

 

Some Western intellectuals who visited us in Eastern Europe, and who had the same (or similar) views about Communism as Solzhenitsyn or Miłosz, often considered themselves as belonging to the category of thinkers where dissidents belonged. Did they really deserve the flair of dissidents? Probably not. And this is now clearer than earlier, because important thinkers in the East who acted in spite of oppression are losing their importance and significance even if they are sticking to the same ideas.

Is this unfair? Did East European thinkers who stuck to their ideas, which needed audacity and courage during Communism, remain dissidents? Did the flair remain?

Today, when we are witnessing attempts to buy the title of dissident hero” at a discounted price, the question arises how to maintain relevance and importance without direct oppression. Thinkers who defied oppression, and who were truly victims and heroes in, say, the Sixties or Seventies of the last century, still deserve to be called heroes, and the defiance of oppression gives an added value to their work. But thinkers who are advocating the same ideas in 2000, or say 2016, are missing this added value – and they are not deserving it. They have to add something new. They also have to face a new threat, that of losing importance, of being stripped of relevance.

And what about values that are nowadays challenged by indifference, rather than by mandated beliefs and prohibitions? After Hitler supporters burned books in Berlin in 1933, the Hungarian writer Mihály Babits wrote a spirited essay, in which he noted that the Berlin bonfire may have been barbaric, but it was also the expression of respect towards books. The books had to be burned, because they were important. Can dissidents save the reputation of books that are not heaped up to be burned, but simply forgotten? Can they – within a new system of shaping and sharing ideas and information – impede the drift towards the borders of relevance?

 

The perception of transition

 

I am inclined to criticise the notion of transition. Yet I am aware that this notion has some justification. After Communism, we did not get a new social, economic and cultural system overnight. Something new and different was being shaped, and it makes sense to call this phenomenon “transition”. Yet, at the same time, the perception of “transition” (particularly at a remove of some years) might be creating a false awareness of the reality.

In the second half of the 20th century, realities and postulated realities in Communist countries had incorporated a twist. During the years of Communism, only the West said that we were Communist countries. States in Eastern Europe did not label themselves as “Communist countries”. Instead, we were “building Communism”, “building Socialism”, or we were “in transition towards” Socialism or Communism. The reason behind this rhetorical attitude adopted by the governing elites was obvious. If Communism was supposed to be shiny, affluent, free, fair and equitable, and this image had to be upheld, then it would not have been wise to emphasise during the fifties or sixties that what we had was already Communism. Therefore, we were constantly “in transition”, we were “building Communism” by way of never-ending reforms – and all responsibility for the suggested (imposed) concept was postponed. This approach aimed at imposing a less critical approach towards realities, and tried to insert caveats into judgements. At this point, no structural change took place after the demise of Communism. Nowadays we are talking about “transition towards Western-type democracy and market economy”, or we say that by the vehicle of “structural reforms” we are “building a market economy”. We identify ourselves as “transition” countries now. The mental matrix has not changed, and as a consequence, the established attitude toward realities tends to continue by inertia. What the catchword “transition” suggests is that although what we have might not be all that pretty, we need not be concerned, because this is not “it” yet. The perception of transition erects a conceptual wall between us and the reality.

The intellectual impact of a perpetual transition is probably the perpetuation of a mental handicap. At some point we shall have to confront the simple fact that this is already it. What we have around us is already market economy, and a multiparty political system. It is imperfect, it has many variations, it can be improved. We are in deep waters, and we have to abandon the ideological safety buoy of transition. It impedes swimming.

Let me repeat that it is undeniable that after Communism something new started to get shaped – and this shaping takes time. But let us also remember that the amount of time elapsed since Communism is getting closer and closer to the time spent under Communism. We may need dissidents to reveal where we are, and to see reality hidden by the posters showing direction.

Speaking of transition, one may also raise the question: transition towards what? The perception of transition assumes that we have an uncertain and not easily defined passage between something rather clearly defined, towards a target also clearly defined. We started from Communism, and we are now swimming towards the other shore which is stable and solid, the shore of Western democracy and market economy. But are Western democracy and market economy stable shores, or are they part of the changing streams in which we are already swimming?

What is actually the target of transition? What is Western democracy? If we take a look at facts and events around us, not all of them fit into the same picture. I read about a month ago (in the autumn of 2016) that American vice president Biden stood by Turkish president Erdogan, and endorsed him both with words and with a friendly smile, when Erdogan said that he will take further military actions in order to forge democracy in Syria. Is the Erdogan-type democracy the target of transition, or is it (together with better examples) part of a shared reality into which we have already arrived?

What I am trying to say is that it does not help critical thinking if we believe that the problems we have are just signs that we have not arrived yet, because we are still in transition.

 

*****
 

It is not easy to retain (or reincarnate) dissident thinking. Yet we need it.

My fear – and my hope – is that stifling indifference, overpowering trends, suffocating fashion, dominating lobbies, overused buzzwords might create (or perhaps have already created) sufficient pressure to spark again some true dissident thinking.






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