EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Reflections on a Revolutionary Imaginary and Round Tables

The new always appears in the guise of a miracle

This is the prepared text answering the question “What do we really know about transitions to democracy?” for  the General Seminar of The New School for Social Research, March 19, 2014.

It was a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, that a new kind of revolutionary imaginary emerged, one that promises a new beginning, and demonstrates the possibility of comprehensive systemic change without bloodshed. Velvet or otherwise un-radical, this kind of revolution has become a site of tangible hope, a site in which words have power, where people regain their dignity, and realize their agency through instruments other than weapons. Negotiated revolutionis not an oxymoron, but it is still an extraordinary event, as dictatorships are by definition opposed to any spirit of dialogue and compromise.

The shift from the logic of revolution to the logic of negotiation had been tested in Spain in 1975 and Chile in 1988, and it made possible the negotiated transitions in Poland and Hungary in 1989, and in South Africa in 1993. And yes, it was not a miracle, but it was new, and as Arendt suggested, it did appear in the guise of a miracle. The very fact that the new formula was developed locally, setting in motion a mechanism for negotiating the transformation of a dictatorship into a democracy, may be the most precious political accomplishment of an otherwise dark century rife with wars, genocide, and an array of modern despotisms, the termination of which has too often been left to the mercy of multinational institutions and alliances.

No matter how widely spread the new imaginary has become, the transition to a meaningful and enduring democracy, never an easy project, has a chance to succeed only if it is initiated and owned by the local people, and sustained by their voices, imbued as they are with their respective histories, cultures, and economies. And we saw this whether at the front gate of the Gdansk Shipyard, or in Tahrir, Taxim or Maidan. People who gathered there saw themselves above all and for the first time as citizens, and indeed the squares, activated by a newly arisen public realm, have become both sites and narratives of societal hope.

The emergence of such a realm creates the conditions for dialogue, engaged conversation, negotiation, and compromise deeply invested in the democratic promise, but this is only the first act. How to move from here, and how tojump-start change when the storming of the Bastille is collectively taken out of the equation?

I like to think of the furnishing of democracy as beginning with a particular piece of furniture, the round table, which becomes the main prop of the drama I am taking about. It was exactly 25 years ago, in the spring of 1989, that this table facilitated the dismantling of the one-party system in Poland. It was made on special order in a furniture factory near Warsaw, was about 26 feet in diameter, and accommodated 57 people. As much as it is often an actual piece of furniture, the Round Table itself is above all a conventional act, an idiom of political compromise, which is both a site of, and a powerful instrument for, the release of political performativity. Whether real or symbolic, with no privileged seats, it has the effect of safeguarding equality in communication when the word crosses the barriers between the speech zones of the participating parties. Such participation, mediated by a reasoned and informed exchange, implies the possibility of learning, of self-transformation on the part of those participating, and therefore, the possibility of compromise. And finally it establishes the grounds for a new order, and marks the beginning of the long, tedious, and less thrilling process of building the new democratic order.

In Poland, or in South Africa, the two cases I know best, the Round Table provided tools for institutionalizing a dialogue between those who held dictatorial power and those social movements which — though still illegal, and often represented by people just back from prison or exile, and labeled enemies of the state — were now acknowledged by the regime, however reluctantly, as the only ones able to bring credibility to the proposed dialogue and an eventual contract. Many years later Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who had become the first Prime Minister in democratic Poland, remembered: “It is really uncanny that we sat down with them at the round table, but we did.”

The two Round Tables brought together a pragmatically motivated, but until recently a rather unlikely assembly of modern subjects, half of whom, the oppressed, were well aware of having been stripped of their basic rights and capabilities as citizens. The other half, the oppressors, acknowledged — even if reluctantly — that they were the keepers of a system whose very existence depended on excluding large parts of society from participation in the political decision-making process, and therefore from access to the resources and capacitiesneeded to advance the well-being of both the community and its individual members.

The Round Table institutionalizes dialogue by providing a space of appearance (a concrete temporal and spatial framework), by authorizing and legitimizing the actors, by necessitating the drafting of a script, by establishing rules for the conduct of negotiations, and by foreseeing the need for a contingency infrastructure in which a lack of agreement or specific stalemates can be dealt with.

In this situation the agreement expected to be produced at the Round Table represents more than what it states. The Round Table itself, however extraordinary it may have appeared, becomes an event staged according to agreed-upon conventions. And it is this very aspect of the whole arrangement that makes its performativity possible, as it acquires the status of an effective practice endowed with power for jump-starting a change of the political system. I would like to think that this is not only a real alternative to tanks and bullets, but also a kind of force that can help recover the lost dignity of people and their identity as citizens.

The round table talks that facilitated the democratic transformation of Poland’s one-party state took six weeks — they began in February and concluded in April 1989, at a time when the communist system in the region had still seemed to be — even if not robust any more — certainly irreversible. Yet clearly those talks were a lot less visually spectacular and telegenic than the joyous crowds hammering at the Berlin Wall half a year later. The talks that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, though lengthy (extended over twenty-three months and interrupted by dramatic and unplanned intermissions), did not produce stunning images either: certainly nothing comparable to those one-person, one-vote images of the winding lines of people waiting to vote for the first time in their lives. The real work of hammering out such agreements is simply not mass-media-friendly, even if it is a critical space of appearance, in which both subjugators and subjugated are devising and testing a new formula for sweeping political change. What is most important: the launching of such a dialogue is not the result of the “good will” of the ruling regime, but a combination of factors, one of them being recognition by the regime of a creative, emancipatory invincibility demonstrated by society, the other party to the negotiations.

Of course, the cases of Spain, Chile, Poland, and South Africa are hardly analogous. The one thing they had in common was, generally speaking, the ostentatiously non-democratic character of their regimes, which were otherwise very different from each other. What may seem a paradox at first glance is that while in Poland it was the hegemonic communist party that was the ultimate confiscator of civil and human rights, in Spain and in South Africa it was the outlawed communist party that acted against their respective dictatorships of fascism and racial apartheid.

Perhaps the most important question concerns the prerequisites for entering into aprocess of negotiating change. What does it take for a dictatorship to bend enough to open,and to open up for a Round Table or any other idiom that might facilitate a dialogue with an ignored society and its outlawed civic structures? What can persuade the oppressed — in fact the very people, often yesterday’s political prisoners, who are known for their indomitable tenacity — to sit at the same table with their oppressors?

First, it is important to observe that in such cases the ancien regime is usually in the process of weakening. Its core ideological motivations are long gone, or they are disoriented; it has trouble paying its bills and dealing with social unrest, and it loses its few foreign supporters. Fascism in Spain began to deteriorate in the1960s. Communism in Poland lost face once and for all in 1981 when, unwilling to broaden the public sphere, it imposed martial law. In South Africa, the economic sanctions and international isolation began to take their toll on the apartheid government in the mid 80s. In each case it took approximately one decade for the ancien regime to realize that it could no longer manage crises, and that the existing institutions of public life were unable to bring stability (let alone creativity!) to the economic, political, and cultural realms. Such governments still have considerable force at their disposal; so they can stay in power but do little else.

A second element facilitating the Round Table is less frequently discussed: the precarious state of the anti-regime movements, the valiant society itself: its organizations and its leadership showing visible signs of fatigue. And it is precisely because of this kind of balance of weakness on both sides that the Round Table is not only possible but in fact unavoidable. Adam Michnik, in a lecture delivered at the annual Democracy & Diversity Institute, organized by the New School’s TCDS in Krakow, Poland, July 1999, put it this way:

Negotiations are possible when the resistance of the democratic opposition is strong enough that the dictatorship cannot destroy it completely, and when the dictatorship is strong enough that the opposition cannot overthrow it from one day to the next. The weakness of both sides becomes the national opportunity.

Joe Slovo, the legendary father of the South African Communist Party, announced boldly:

We are negotiating because towards the end of the 80s we concluded that as a result of escalating crisis, the apartheid power block was no longer able to continue ruling in the old way and was genuinely seeking some break with the past. At the same time, we were clearly not dealing with a defeated enemy and even a revolutionary seizure of power by the liberation movement could not be realistically posed.[1]

In both Poland and South Africa the actual negotiations were preceded by years of cautious contacts and informal,often failed, communication between the adversaries. The gradual regaining of real subjectivity — the process enabling members of society to become the agents of their own lives, which in the case of South Africa meant non-racial democracy — was part and parcel of the negotiation process, and radiated well beyond the space and the actors of the talks themselves.

The usual prerequisites for launching a dialogue are the freeing of political prisoners (like Michnik or Mandela), a stipulation that the negotiations will be preceded by, or will include, the legalization of outlawed organizations (the Communist Party in Spain, Solidarity in Poland, the ANC and other liberation movements in South Africa), and that they will establish freedom of speech and information. In South Africa an important condition was that both sides renounce violence, which in the case of liberation movements had meant armed struggle, and in the case of the apartheid regime had meant the use of specialized state security forces. A separate and very sensitive stipulationconcerned the past, i.e., crimes perpetrated by the dictatorship and sometimes by the liberation movements: namely, a tacit understanding on both sides that a successful Round Table would exclude guillotines or Nuremberg Trials.

As the launching of a dialogue between enemies is a daunting task, an external third party, serving as promoter, guardian, or intermediary in the process, usually assists it. Interestingly, those are often surprising or even unlikely allies. In South Africa they were the Afrikaner nationalists, or more specifically the verligte wing of the governing National Party, enlightened Afrikaner intellectuals, mostly academics, but still loyal to the nationalist outlook. It was they who initiated and cultivated the early clandestine contacts with the ANC leaders in the late 80s, and it was they who within their own party started a discussion on the necessity of reforms.[2] Both in Spain and in Poland the third parties that facilitated the dialogue were pre-modern institutions deriving their own legitimacy not from the people, but from divinity, the institution of the monarchy and the Catholic Church, respectively. Still, perhaps one should not wonder: after all, it was precisely these forces that in the past had paid the highest price in the course of modern revolutions.

The Polish and the South African negotiations were each additionally facilitated by an unusually favorable external context. In the case of Poland it was the only foreign context that mattered to the dependent societies of the communist bloc: the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika and glasnost thatdisoriented the hard-liners in the communist party and severely shook their self-confidence, while encouraging the society.

The end of the Cold War, the democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the Soviet Union had an impact on the situation in South Africa as well. It not only further weakened support for the apartheid regime in some corners of the world (it could not exploit the fear of communism of its few remaining foreign allies anymore), but it also terminated the support extended by the Soviet Union to the communist party of South Africa, an important actor in the anti-apartheid movement. Moreover, the Gorbachev reforms lessened the suspicions of the Pretoria regime that the anti-apartheid movement was directed from Moscow.

Finally: the would-be negotiators both in Poland and in South Africa worked in a climate influenced by the presence of a new global actor, an increasingly influential human rights community, expressing itself through overlapping networks of non-governmental, transnational organizations monitoring abuses and systematically reporting them to key international institutions and to the world at large.

Even if not particularly telegenic, the Round Table process in Poland was an intense 59-day-longpolitical drama with over 400 performers (a panoply of negotiating teams representing both sides), taking place sometimes simultaneously on three round stages, where three separate ensembles debated the problems of the economy and social policy, trade union pluralism, and political reforms.

Though politically representative, the Polish Round Table was absurdly, and disappointingly, gender exclusive. Only five women were invited as negotiators at the three main Tables — so women represented just a shade more than 1 percent of the Round Table cast. In South Africa, just five percent of the negotiators were women, also a very low number given the vibrant women’s organizations there, and the attention given to gender issues by the liberation movements. Yet — unlike those in Poland — women were mobilized across racial and political lines by their absence at the negotiating table, and launched a nation-wide campaign to claim their civil rights and to fight against their conspicuous political marginalization.

As successful as these two Round Tables were, sharp criticisms of the agreements emerged very quickly in both Poland and South Africa, denouncing them as dirty deal-making, as a conspiracy in each case between elites.

I like Michnik’s rejoinder in that Krakow lecture:

The path of negotiations brings many disappointments, bitterness, and a sense of injustice and unfulfillment. But it does not bring victims. Disappointed are those who are, after all, alive.


[1] This is also why Mandela and De Klerk, despite continuous threats to the fragile process of negotiations coming from all sides, kept resuming the talks). The image, sometimes translated as “mutual siege” (or mutual dependence), was brought up by Jeremy Cronin at his lecture in Cape Town in January 17, 2006, at the annual Democracy & Diversity Institute organized by the New School for Social Research in collaboration with IDASA. Cronin, who took part in the CODESA talks as a representative of the newly un-banned Communist Party of South Africa (SACP), was at the time of the lecture in Cape Town the deputy secretary of SACP, and a Member of Parliament representing the ANC.

[2] I’ve been cautioned about emphasizing the one, verligte–related narrative by one of the members of this group itself, Professor André du Toit, who took part in the 1987 meeting with the ANC in Dakar.

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  • Jeremy Varon

    I loved this post and the history it smartly and soberly references. I wonder if the uprising in Egypt might have benefited from closer study of the cases in question. Alas. And Michnik’s concluding line is funny and profound all at once.

  • Melvina Versant

    “The path of negotiations brings many disappointments, bitterness, and a sense of injustice and unfulfillment. But it does not bring victims. Disappointed are those who are, after all, alive.”
    Of course, this quote can justify just about any failure of the process – it’s the ultimate cop out – at least we are alive.

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