On novelty and oblivion:
What we can learn from dissidents
Aleksa Djilas, Belgrade
At the beginning of his essay “Of Vicissitude of Things,” Francis Bacon stresses the futility of all human endeavors: “… ‘There is no new thing upon the earth.’...all novelty is but oblivion…the river of Lethe runneth as well above ground as below.” Who has not experienced such weariness? Everything changes but is eternally the same. Nothing is truly new – it only appears so because we have forgotten. And soon we realize this. Like the dead in Hades we drink from the river that makes us forget but, alas, oblivion is merely temporary, and novelty vanishes.
Not long after Bacon died in 1626, England experienced civil war, revolution and restoration. Had Bacon witnessed them, would they have challenged the deep skepticism of a seasoned politician and man of the world? The fate of Charles I might have amazed him, though not simply because a king was beheaded. Bacon was a learned historian. He knew the similar fate of many other kings. But this regicide was lawful and that was historically genuinely new. And what of England as a republic in the middle of the seventeenth century? It lasted only eleven years and with Cromwell a Lord Protector, it was a dictatorship enforced by a professional army. Yet nothing unusual there. The world would have to wait nearly a century and a half for the birth of a truly novel republic – one both vast and free.
Abraham Lincoln was wrong. A Confederate victory would not have brought about the disappearance from our planet of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” While he was delivering what would be known as the Gettysburg Address, there were several countries in the world in which citizens exercised without fear freedom of speech, where elections were regular and fair, and where government ruled in accordance with law. The Union, with Lincoln as president, would have remained a free republic without the southern states. A triumphant Confederacy might have disintegrated into independent states and the political ambitions of some of its war heroes might have threatened Confederate free institutions. Yet complete pessimism about Confederacy’s fate was not justified. Even those millions of Americans held in bondage south of the Potomac would have been freed by, say, the 1880s – many Confederate politicians saw that this was inevitable.
And yet Lincoln’s melancholy forebodings were not unfounded. The disintegration of these United States of America would have proven to many all over the world that a republican government was unable to provide lasting unity to a populous country with considerable territory. The implications would have been that large countries – those that tend to dominate world politics and determine world history – require rule by monarchs or princes, oligarchies or juntas.
While reading the Gettysburg Address in Belgrade, with memories of Yugoslavia’s disintegration and of several civil wars of the early 1990s still fresh in mind, what struck me most was the complete absence of any nationalism in it. Reading it in this current America of Bush and Cheney and Rice and Fox television, the impression is not much different. Lincoln was even above ordinary patriotism. He praised his country for making a contribution to the global realization of universal principles of liberty, and expressed gratitude to Union soldiers for defending them. He avoided those patriotic references to national character and courage, to tradition, culture and way of life, that even moderate politicians make in wartime.
In 1968, Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed the liberal reformers leading the government and the communist party. The newly installed Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husák was sometimes mockingly called the “President of Forgetting,” since his main task seemed to be to make people forget, or at least pretend not to remember, the freedoms they had enjoyed only recently. With the demise of the “Prague Spring,” the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe entered the period of so-called “Brezhnev Stagnation.” The one-party régimes were failures and repressive but seemed immutable. At that time, Yugoslavia was independent and also more prosperous and open than its eastern kin. But government sponsored economic projects often turned into disaster and unemployment was rising, relations among Yugoslavia’s constituent nations were deteriorating, books and movies were banned, and people were arrested because of their critical views – sometimes they were my friends or acquaintances. I still remember my feeling of hopelessness and how the streets of Belgrade, otherwise pleasant and lively, seemed to have become a maze from which there was no escape.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, a genuine novelty appeared in the Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia. The voice of dissidents! Slowly but steadily it rose above the dull and empty political life, demanding respect for human rights, rule of law, and economic reform.
Although the historical significance is slighter, the texts of many dissidents reflect a profound resemblance to the Gettysburg Address. They are also simple and natural, as if spoken before written. Indeed, while reading them I have the pleasant illusion that I can hear the authors’ voices. Further, they are modern in their concept of political life but also possess an aura of ancient wisdom. Further still, they are dignified without being pretentious, and spiritual without conventional religiosity. Finally and perhaps most importantly, they exhibit no hatred of the enemy and no wish for revenge or punishment. Communist bureaucrats and policemen, like Confederate officers and politicians, had little to fear.
Suppressing these powerful emotions was a major effort. One had to summon all moral and spiritual forces in order to fight against oneself on behalf of ones enemy. As Polish poet and dissident Adam Zagajewski wrote:
How easy it was to hate
Even his face seemed to us
a part of his uniform.
It was Lincoln’s political wisdom to remind fellow Americans, as the Union’s victory in the Civil War was approaching, that their country was a novelty, an original contribution to political practice and to political philosophy, a “new thing upon the earth.” The wisdom of the dissidents, however, was to say that they did not want a new political and economic system in their countries. They firmly rejected any idea that went under the label of the “third way.”
No, they said, we do not want socialist democracy – that is, some political system not yet seen and which would somehow bridge East and West. We want Western democracy or, simply, democracy. And what about developing socialist legality? Well, they replied, this might be an improvement on the present system where the courts are controlled by the communist party. But it could never be a substitute for a Western-style judiciary with its independence firmly rooted in constitutional law and actual practice. A number of dissidents preferred Scandinavian countries with their developed welfare state to more “capitalist” versions of capitalism, like that of the United States. But no dissident wanted a socialist market economy. A Western market economy would do nicely, thank you.
The dissidents actually feared the “third way.” For it meant the prolongation of one-party rule, at best in a modified and less severe form. If proposed by Western conservatives, it implied that Eastern European nations, because of their weak democratic traditions, were not mature enough to have as much freedom as the West. Last and least, when advocated by Western left-wing intellectuals, the “third way” was a proposal to make their countries a testing ground for some, most likely Marxist, political Utopia. But dissidents, including those who had once been communists and Marxists, were weary of experiments.
Timothy Garton Ash was the most astute and the most sympathetic Western observer of the dissidents, both when they were persecuted under communism and when they became opposition leaders in the late 1980s. In his book We the People: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague, he noted: “It is perhaps an irony that revolutions led by intellectuals should produce no new ideas – only new realities.”
Yet we should salute all dissidents and especially those who led the revolution of 1989 for overcoming their pride and suppressing the desire to be original at all costs, which is typical of so many intellectuals. By rejecting the “third way” they opened the door to realistic and practical policies which would benefit their countries. But they also demonstrated to the whole world that there is only one kind of democracy – the one which is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Everything else is a dictatorship – harsh or not so harsh, disguised or undisguised.
This was an important lesson for the all-too-relativistic West at that time. And it is worth resurrecting from oblivion today. For the United States is more prone than ever to commend countries as democratic or censure them as undemocratic according to their willingness to adapt themselves to American foreign policy. It gives little attention to internal evidence, which should be the only matter for consideration.
The greatest achievement of the 1989 revolution was of course democracy. In some countries it was seriously flawed, and regretfully in Yugoslavia we had bloody nationalistic conflicts. Yet there is no doubt that in the enormous space from East Germany to Russia’s Far East and from the Baltic countries to the Balkans, freedom has made major steps forward. No less astonishing than the revolution itself was that it occurred without violence.
The only exception was Ceausescu’s Romania, for even in the conflict-ridden countries of former Yugoslavia the changes of communist régimes were relatively painless. For example, the presidential election in Serbia in the autumn of 2000 was followed by mass demonstrations which were not entirely peaceful. Yet no one was killed, and Milocevic resigned.
Both the democratic revolutionaries and their communist adversaries deserve credit for the peaceful character of the changes. The revolutionaries not only refused to hate the ruling communist bureaucracy that was responsible for the dictatorship, indeed was the dictator, but forced themselves to see it as a potential collaborator, almost an ally in the transformation of society into democracy. So when the round table discussions about the transfer of power began, they made deals and agreements with the former enemies, promised not to touch their property no matter how it had been acquired, and often gave amnesty even to those who were guilty in the most obvious way. This was often unpleasant, sometimes even painful, but the alternative was revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence. Further developments proved that the democratic revolutionaries had been wise to consider peace as more important than complete justice.
The dissident movement had adopted non-violence as one of its principles at its inception in the late 1960’s. Western analysts often claimed this was a tactical tool. It is true that when communist authorities put their critics on trial they sometimes dubbed them “violent men” and “terrorists,” and the dissidents were taking advance measures. Nevertheless, non-violence emanated from the deepest moral convictions of the dissidents. For violence meant victims and wailing, hatred and lies. It reduced the moral value of the dissidents’ struggle, corrupted its spirit, and led to new violence.
And yet the dissidents were not pacifists. They did not trust the Soviet Union’s peaceful rhetoric and feared its fast growing military. Yugoslavia’s Milovan Djilas, for example, often warned the West not to have illusions about Soviet intentions and pleaded for its public commitment to defend Yugoslavia in case of Soviet attack. Not a few dissidents – including a minor one like myself – had some sympathy for Ronald Reagan’s increase in American defense spending and his general firmness in relations with the Soviet Union.
The dissidents were without exception opposed to all proposals for unilateral Western disarmament. Poland’s Adam Michnik, Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel and Hungary’s György Konrád were prominent among those who publicly criticized Western peace movements and exposed their ignorance and naïveté. Engaging in such criticism in Eastern Europe was incomparably riskier than being an active member of a peace movement in Western Europe. All three pointed out that it was people and not weapons who kill, and that the Soviet Union should prove its peaceful intentions through respect for the human rights of its citizens and by lifting the Iron Curtain. Seen in that light, the dissidents’ defense of human rights was also a struggle for peace.
At that time, there were many in the West, who like the dissidents, understood that it was not arms but the hostile intentions of those who bore them that were the main cause of war. This profound realization, though not completely forgotten, has now been pushed aside in the United States by a conviction that a lasting victory and an enduring peace can be achieved by destroying the weapons of a hostile country. Yet the defeated people can become an even more bitter enemy, and build or buy or acquire new weapons in other ways, weapons perhaps more lethal than the old ones. The American Civil War lasted just under four years – to be precise, from the 12th of April, 1861, to the 9th of April, 1865. The 18th of March this year was the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War and its end is not in sight.
The dissidents did not want the West to lower its guard but neither did they believe that democracy could be imposed by force from the outside. No one advocated a global Western military crusade in the name of human rights, free speech and rule of law. Perhaps my imagination needs to be restrained but I am again reminded of Abraham Lincoln. More than any other American president he was a warrior and more than any other American president he was a man of peace. There were for him certain values which were absolute and worth sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men. But in all other circumstances, he believed, the main task of a statesman was to negotiate and seek compromise, to forgive and look towards the future. The Confederacy had to be defeated by force, but unity in freedom could only be restored by moderate political means.
In their non-violent struggle, the dissidents exhibited great vigor, ingenuity, perseverance and, of course, courage. They wrote critical books and articles and published them in the West or as underground publications, often of the samizdat type; gave interviews and information to Western media and lectured in private apartments; advised workers how to form trade unions and fellow citizens how to defend their rights and boycott officially sponsored activities; organized public protests, demonstrations and workers’ strikes; turned courts in which they were on trial into speaking platforms and went proudly to jail, where they continued writing, protesting, and going on hunger strikes.
In his sensitive biography of Andrei Sakharov, Richard Lourie pointed out that the “genius who can demonstrate the exact political consequences of courageous moral action has yet to be born.” Indeed it was impossible to establish any direct connection between what dissidents were doing and political changes in their countries. The dissidents knew that and found the strength to accept it. Nor were they discouraged by the slow, gradual way in which their activities were producing results. They were intellectually the liveliest of people, curious and restless, but they did not think that the meaning and purpose of their struggle was diminished because it went on for a long time. Naturally impatient, they became good at waiting.
Eastern European one-party régimes routinely accused dissidents of being lackeys of Western capitalism, enemies of the working class, or traitors to their countries. Another favorite theme of official propagandists was the irrelevance of the dissidents. In newspaper articles, radio and television programs, and even books they tried to prove how the dissident movement was diminutive, represented no one, and had achieved nothing. Many people outside the communist party, often themselves intellectuals, engaged in similar disparaging attacks – for them it was a convenient excuse for their passivity. But the intensity, frequency and vehemence of media campaigns were themselves a proof that dissidents’ activities mattered. They were an unintended recognition and encouragement.
At the same time, what seemed like victories for one-party régimes were often in fact defeats. In December 1981, for example, General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law in Poland, banned the workers’ union Solidarity, and put dissidents in jail, all in the name of order and stability, socialism and patriotism. And it seemed a complete victory: the opposition was crushed, and life in the country “normalized.” But the coming years would show that the régime had struck a blow to its own legitimacy from which it would never recover.
Two decades before Jaruzelski’s coup d’état, in his 1961 Inaugural Address, John Kennedy revealed his vision of America’s role in the world and announced that under his leadership America shall “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship … in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Taken literally, this statement was a massive exaggeration since countries make such gigantic sacrifices only when they are directly threatened. Yet Kennedy’s words bore witness to an era to which that much abused term ''idealistic'' applied much more than to our own. Although today Western democratic countries often underline their desire to promote democracy all over the world, their leaders are not seriously committed to such a global endeavor – they are neither devising a program of action nor looking for men and resources. The usual excuse for the absence of any determined effort is that the world is vast and populous and has enormous problems. Indeed it is. But the Soviet Union and its empire once also seemed unchangeable and yet this did not discourage the dissidents. The West should re-examine some central concepts in its thinking about international affairs, especially the quest for direct and immediate results and a very narrow definition of success and failure. It could then perhaps begin to struggle to unify humanity in freedom – unencumbered by great expectations and content with all but invisible changes.
Being a dissident had a price. Many went to prison and some were killed. They often lost their position, rank and even employment, could not publish their works and were denied access to the media. Some were forced to emigrate while many others could not obtain passports. They had special difficulties getting an apartment, receiving proper medical care, and educating their children in schools without distress. Then there were relatives and friends who denounced them or simply abandoned them, acquaintances who avoided greeting them in the street, and the hostility of many ordinary people who saw them as traitors or mad or both. This engendered a powerful sense of exclusion and isolation. And all these tribulations went on for years, sometimes decades.
Were the dissidents seeking martyrdom? No, they simply believed that there were principles and beliefs for which it was worth suffering and even dying. This was their great victory against the cynicism and moral insensibility, mendacity and corruption, which were prevalent in their countries. But it was also an important message for the West to be on guard against encroaching superficiality, self-centeredness, and general indifference.
While the dissidents did not wish to suffer and accepted suffering only when it could not be avoided – admittedly, it was often obvious that it would be unavoidable – they became adept at transforming it into a tool of their struggle. By remaining steadfast in whatever difficult and precarious circumstances they found themselves, they could prove the seriousness of their commitment to freedom. Their plight massively increased the significance of their message and the attention it got, including, crucially, attention from the free media in the West, and it conferred on them an aura of moral authority which would ultimately help them lead their people out of hopelessness and lethargy.
Living with tribulations quickly became an integral part of the dissidents’ predicament and therefore of the concept of dissident as it is generally understood. Like a soldier who has to fight in a battle to really be a soldier, so a dissident, in order to be accepted as a dissident, had to risk something valued for the sake of his convictions. Indeed, a dissident who lived comfortably and undisturbed became suspect of opportunism and cowardice.
There are many ways in which one could define dissidents but the simplest is as men and women who told the truth out of a sense of moral duty in circumstances in which it was dangerous to do so. They were convinced that for truth it was never too early and could always be too late. While themselves refusing to bow to political necessities and often entreating in their texts “let us not accept lies, let us live in truth,” they never actually censured other people for not doing so. Still, they did believe that their fellow intellectuals had a special responsibility towards the truth and were betraying their calling by remaining silent.
Did the dissidents believe in the power of truth? Yes, very much so, but only in the long run. However, they would add that truth publicly expressed was a protest and a demand for change, and therefore a political act, and that it did not matter if many people had known it all along or had never heard of it. Once made public, truth became something novel, for it underwent a transformation from a mental fact into a fact of political life.
The dissidents expressed many forms of truth. In their poems and novels dwelt the sorrowful or funny artistic truth, while in works of economics, sociology and history resided a serious and scholarly one. They produced powerful critiques of Marxist ideology and perceptive analyses of the communist political system. But perhaps the most important form of truth they offered was simply facts. Eastern European socialism made great promises to ordinary people but the standard of living – wages and living accommodation, health care and life expectancy, transportation, roads and environmental protection, and much else – lagged behind the reformed capitalism of Western Europe and America. The gap was also substantial and increasing in computers and communications, technology and new materials, and scientific research in general. Much of this was known, indeed directly experienced in everyday life by everyone in Eastern Europe, but it was of crucial importance that it be established accurately and supported with solid evidence – and stated publicly.
Dissidents’ truth-as-facts directly threatened the ruling communist bureaucracy, but others were disturbed as well. Many intelectuals who were passive and withdrawn, or who were pursuing careers, felt offended because it made their opportunism and lack of courage obvious to everyone including themselves. Sometimes even ordinary people experienced the publicly stated facts as an unwelcome, cruel reminder of their position, indeed as an accusation for accepting it. All these sentiments easily blended with the régime propaganda, and hostility towards the dissidents increased as a result.
It speaks well of the dissidents that they descended so easily from their realm of spiritual, transcendental values and high moral truths into the real world of facts, and understood their crucial role in subverting the legitimacy of the one-party régimes. And it would be difficult to find many other cases in the last century where the intellectual élite showed so much common sense and such great understanding about the experiences of ordinary people in everyday life.
When pointing out many facts which were generally known, the dissidents believed they were doing their duty. But they took particular delight in exclaiming as loudly as they could the legal norms that were formally enshrined in the constitutional law of their countries and that guaranteed freedom of speech and assembly (including the right to criticize state bodies), open trials and rights to the accused, free flow of information, the right to form trade unions, and more or less all other liberties found in the West. As early as 1965, Alexander Esenin-Volpin organized a public protest in central Moscow in defense of several imprisoned dissidents. Around two hundred people attended, including Western journalists and numerous agents of the secret police. Leaflets were distributed and Esenin-Volpin carried a banner “Respect the Soviet Constitution!” In the Soviet Union and other countries of Eastern Europe, the liberal legal norms had not actually been consigned to oblivion but everyone had to pretend not to remember them or at least not to understand their true meaning. Dissidents made them into their battle cry and this insistence that their governments should observe their own constitutions became an essential part of their struggle.
In August 1975, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, produced Helsinki Accords whose main document was the so-called Helsinki Final Act. This meeting of representatives of thirty five nations was much more a result of Soviet than Western diplomatic initiatives since for many years Brezhnev and his colleagues had been trying to achieve public confirmation of existing borders in Europe and therefore recognition of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. For the West, it was a continuation of its policy of détente, that is, of restraining Soviet foreign policy through relaxation of tensions while at the same time maintaining American military presence in Europe. For West Germany in particular, it was a new step in its Ostpolitik, which sought closer ties with East Germany. In his Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, Mark Mazower gives a compelling reinterpretation of both European history and of the ideas, values and beliefs, often very dark indeed, that formed it. He gives a succinct summary of attitudes and prejudices behind the Western policy of détente:
Western governments – and in general, Western public opinion, too – never seriously challenged the communist hold over the region. In fact, given the West’s basic acquiescence – right through the 1980s – in the Cold War division of Europe, it is hard to criticize East Europeans for their lack of more vigorous opposition. Few people anywhere, after all, believed in the possibility – or even perhaps the desirability – of a rapid introduction of multi-party democracy.
So much for the West. But why were the Soviet leaders so eager to have their Western counterparts sign a new batch of declarations repeating old stories everyone knew – that Europe is divided? The Soviet Union’s international position was at that time exceptionally strong. Since the Cuban Crisis of 1962, there had been a permanent decrease in the chances of the United States and the Soviet Union unintentionally descending into an armed conflict. In the mid-1970s, America was only just beginning to recover from the multiple trauma of the Vietnam War, and its power, influence and self-confidence were declining. Western Europe was militarily weak and preferred trade to confrontation. The Soviet Union’s revenues from oil exports had been increasing since the oil crisis of 1973 quadrupled world oil prices, and its defense budget was by most accounts substantially larger than the American. In intercontinental ballistic missiles it had achieved strategic equality. It was also a leading global exporter of arms and its navy was growing fast. So why Helsinki?
Soviet leadership craved legitimacy out of a sense of insecurity that was largely rooted in its fear of opposition inside its bloc, both from dissidents and from reformers within communist parties. Like many other authoritarian régimes in the past, it was trying to achieve geopolitical legitimacy as a substitute for genuine legitimacy, which of course requires acceptance by the people. Not trusting its allies, nor communist comrades, nor workers and peasants, it had to look for guarantees from the very Western capitalist countries that its Marxist-Leninist ideology considered doomed.
It was the West Europeans at the conference, and not the Americans, who insisted on including in the Final Act, together with declarations on political and economic issues, stipulations on human rights and fundamental freedoms and the obligation to “act in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Soviet leaders accepted them unwillingly but without much protest either, since these universal principles already appeared in the international law and in their own constitution.
The dissidents all over Eastern Europe, but especially in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia, felt encouraged. Or, strictly speaking, decided to feel so. Never mind the success of the Soviet Union at Helsinki and its ever-growing power! Let us take its leaders at their word and struggle for the realization of rights and freedoms which they approved with their signatures! Better than seasoned Western politicians and diplomats, the dissidents sensed the crisis of legitimacy in the Soviet bloc and understood that it could be exploited in the struggle for human rights, without any risk of return of Cold War tensions. All those from the East or from the West who at the Helsinki Conference had carefully calculated long-term strategies and wanted, in whatever way, to control the future, would be disappointed. The dissidents, however, who had no plans but only values and faith in the future, would ultimately be proven right.
Soon after the Helsinki Conference, the so-called “Helsinki groups” of dissidents began to appear all over Eastern Europe to monitor the observance or rather the non-observance of the human rights provisions and report their findings to international human rights organizations and media. And in Czechoslovakia in 1977, several hundred intellectuals signed Charter 77, which demanded from the authorities the freedoms guaranteed by the Helsinki process.
In his original and challenging The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama considers the loss of legitimacy, which he also defines as a “crisis on the level of ideas,” to be a major factor in the downfall of powerful régimes, including the communist ones in Eastern Europe:
The years 1989 and 1990 saw one of the most massive shifts in the balance of power that has ever occurred in peacetime, as the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and a unified Germany emerged in the center of Europe. There was no change in the material balance of power: not a single tank in Europe was destroyed in combat, or even displaced because of an arms control agreement. This shift occurred entirely as a result of a change in standards of legitimacy: as communist power was discredited in one Eastern European country after another, and as the Soviets themselves did not have the self-confidence to restore their empire by force, the Warsaw Pact’s cohesion melted much more quickly than it would have in the heat of a real war.
One could even add that a real war in which the Soviet Union would have been attacked would have strengthened the legitimacy of its communist régime, as happened after the invasion by Nazi Germany in 1941.
Fukuyama and other scholars who study legitimacy in communist Eastern Europe do not try to describe precisely and in detail the slow process of its deterioration and its final agony. They establish the main causes but not how its long illness and sudden death actually came about. Yet is it not very much worth discovering what specific events and experiences, what particular ideas and hopes, both lost and found, made individuals reject the political and economic system under which they lived? And how were they influenced by what the dissidents said and did and endured? Not less important is to understand how the ruling communist bureaucracy increasingly doubted the ideology from which it derived its right to rule and gradually lost the resolve that was necessary for dictatorial exercise of power. Nor should the police and the military be forgotten. Alas, there is little systematic effort to find answers to these questions although most of the documents are preserved and it is possible to interview many former leading communist politicians, officers and policemen or those who were close to them.
State archives in Eastern Europe now reveal what has been known all along – that the activities of dissidents were closely followed by the secret police whose reports were carefully scrutinized by the ruling communist élite, which also read dissidents’ publications and listened to their appeals and interviews on Western radio stations. The élite’s interest was not limited to the dissidents at home but was also directed at activities of well-known dissidents in other communist countries.
An example is Milovan Djilas’ The New Class, a study in which he criticized the communist system and ideology. It was first published in the USA in 1957 but soon translated into dozens of languages. Djilas received for it a seven year prison sentence, while in the Soviet Union, the punishment for possessing The New Class was three years of imprisonment, and for distributing it as much as fifteen. A distinguished Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was arrested among other reasons for the possession of The New Class. But it was not only the dissidents who were interested in it. In Peking, the decision was made to publish a translation into Chinese and it was then distributed to the top party echelons. Would it not be valuable to know what their reactions were? Initially, they probably felt indignation and were ready to punish severely all who agreed with it. But what happened after some years? And had Deng Xiaoping, China’s future leader and economic reformer, read it?
Lament over the agony of culture can be heard in all parts of the world. Educators complain that even students at élite universities read less than previous generations. Needless to say, they show scarce interest in learning Latin and Greek and few teachers or professors dare to require from their students to learn poetry by heart. Further, there is not much place for tradition in the practice of higher education and scholarship. The familiarity with what one may call the basic contours of culture – knowing which artists, thinkers and writers belong to what style, movement and school and in which epoch they lived – seems to be disappearing among the educated. Sales of classical music and of more demanding forms of modern music are declining and audiences in concert halls are getting older. Today we see a general lack of belief in the importance of artistic beauty, and art is increasingly understood as a sophisticated form of entertainment.
In spite of all its serious flaws, liberal democracy is the great masterpiece of Western political culture and it is a great blessing that it has spread into many other parts of the world. The West has a right and a duty to do its best to make it encompass the whole of mankind. But on its world tour liberal democracy is accompanied only with massively commercialized, mostly American, popular culture and not at all with high culture. Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with popular culture. It is often entertaining and sometimes rather clever and charming. I greatly enjoyed Terminator 2: Judgment Day even before the machine whose artificial heart becomes increasingly kinder was seriously discussed as the possible candidate for the president of the United States. But what about masterpieces? Is it not somehow profoundly wrong that we advocate global triumph of Western political institutions while relegating its culture to oblivion?
The idea that culture improves us morally and is therefore significant for the development and preservation of democracy is considered old-fashioned and élitist and has fallen into disrepute. Even some practitioners and defenders of culture doubt its moral relevance and we usually hear from them about Nazi mass murderers who had university degrees, were well-read in humanities and listened to classical music. Further, while we mostly reject as naïve and romantic Rousseau’s concept of noble savage we seem captivated by the idea of a civilized and highly educated man as the archetype of evil. In the brilliant thriller The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter speaks flawless English, reads poetry and eats human flesh. There are many other villains in movies and novels, in comic strips and TV series, who are sophisticates and aesthetes, who quote classics and are connoisseurs of art.
Now it is true that culture is far from omnipotent in the realm of morality and politics. Indeed, it can sometimes coexist with radical evil and perhaps even encourage it. But surely there are many more instances where it is a source and ally of good. Dissidents were almost without exception deeply attached to it. Milovan Djilas, for example, while in jail translated Milton’s Paradise Lost – he had to write on toilet paper since prison authorities did not permit him writing paper.
Some dissidents were writers and artists, or philosophers and scholars, but their fellow combatants who were from other fields often shared their enthusiasm for humanities and arts. Andrei Sakharov, for example, was so enamored of Pushkin’s poetry that he studied his life and times with more enthusiasm than that of his fellow physicists. Not a few dissidents were profoundly erudite and had a developed artistic taste, and many of them, given free time and opportunity, devoured books, and most certainly not only those about politics. It was in philosophy and literature that they looked for an inspiration for new actions and for the deep sense of purpose which they needed to continue their struggle in spite of all hardship and discouragement. And of course philosophy and literature could be in times of adversity compassionate companions and wise counselors with a sense of humor.
In the dissident milieu in which I have spent a large part of my life, conversations about politics were passionate and endless but they were interspersed with discussions about great eternal themes of human life and its meaning. These great questions precede the tragedies of Aeschylus and were not answered by the novels of Dostoevsky; the Bible, needless to say, was fully aware of them but no theologian provided a satisfactory reply; Heraclitus and Spinoza put up a good fight but from Heidegger to postmodernists there is a strong feeling that we are still groping (this is true, of course, only in the unlikely case that I have understood them).
What I am trying to say is that my dissident friends knew, and so did I, that there were no solutions to these problems, and that indeed they may not be problems at all according to modern intellectual standards, and yet we somehow kept returning to them as if we felt that we would harm our political struggle and ourselves if we ceased debating them. I can say with only slight exaggeration that such debates had something of a prayer in them and that they infused our political conversation with a spiritual quality. Am I too severe a critic if I say that the language which is used today by the West in debating central issues of freedom and democracy does not possess such a characteristic?
It was my aim to show that the dissidents under communism had contributed something truly novel both to practice and to theory of democratic politics and that this contribution is important for the great political issues confronting us in the twenty first century. The dissidents, I believe, should not be surrendered to oblivion. It is of course not up to me to judge how successful I had been in my endeavor. But at the same time I am haunted by dissidents’ relentless pursuit of truth, no matter what the risks, and their belief that anything else would be a betrayal of themselves. For it is difficult to serve the truth under the most favorable circumstances. So whenever I worry that I have failed I know that it was not because of a lack of good example. Indeed, I have only myself to blame. And so do you.
Belgrade, February-March, 2007
Aleksa Djilas can be reached at email@example.com
© TFF & the author 1997 till today. All rights reserved.
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