From Velvet Revolution to Velvet Dictatorship
Reflections on Democratic Regression
Let me start by describing how communism died. The first thing to perish was the communist faith. And this faith had two dimensions. It was a faith in the project of a just world, a world of solidarity and freedom. And it was a conviction that people had finally deciphered the secret of world history — a belief that communism was an inevitable stage of human progress. This faith died gradually as it encountered communist realities. The first rebellions against communism were led by people who had envisioned a bright communist future and who confronted this vision with reality. Communists imposed their system on Poland and thus emerged victorious in the war against all those who rejected communism. But they were unable to claim victory over those who rebelled against communism under the banner of communist values. Some classic examples come to mind: Trotsky in the USSR, Djilas in Yugoslavia, the Hungarian revolution and the Polish October in 1956, or the Prague Spring in 1968. All these rebellions were inspired by a vision of real socialism — socialism with a human face.
1968 brought this phase to an abrupt end. In Poland, the government resorted to anti-Semitism to put down the student revolt in March. And anti-Semitism was a negation of all the values that had inspired many people to accept communism in the first place. In August, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. From that point on, critics of communist regimes understood that attempts to improve communism were futile – we now had to defend ourselves against it. But what should this defense look like? From the perspective of time, we can say that what was taking place in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and parts of the Soviet Union could be called the construction of civil society. And this broad opposition movement always had two faces: a civic and a national one. People demanded civil rights, and also demanded national rights. Two classic examples of this in the USSR were Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, both Nobel Prize laureates, each accentuating a different face of opposition, linked to a different understanding of civil society.
In Poland, the key thing was to defend people who were targeted by the communist regime, and to make this defense public. The crucial moment came when workers took to the streets in 1976 to protest price increases and demand economic justice. When the government started arresting and jailing striking workers, intellectuals founded the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR). Poland became an extraordinary laboratory of the encounter and collaboration between workers and intellectuals. And the relatively powerful Catholic Church spoke out in defense of the workers, thereby agreeing with the postulates of the democratic opposition movement.
At the same time, Polish intellectuals were asking: what was the meaning of Marxism? Bolshevism? Dictatorship? This debate was often conducted under the guise of debates about history. The great Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote essays about heresy and the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. Professor Jerzy Szacki wrote about the paradoxes of counterrevolutionary thought, emphasizing that counterrevolution can never mean a simple return to the status quo from before the revolution. And Professor Bronislaw Baczko investigated the mechanisms of ending the terror during the French Revolution. All this created a certain framework and a specific climate for thinking about the future. We understood that violence always begets violence, that revolutions started in the name of freedom create new dictatorships, and those who tear down the Bastille erect a new one the very next day. And this, it seems to me, is the meaning of the velvet revolutions of 1989: they were revolutions without utopias. The very thought that communism could be dismantled was utopian enough.
The basic idea was not to repeat either Bolshevism or Jacobinism. In 1980, a major opposition movement emerged in Poland and many of its leaders came from among the dissident intelligentsia. The August Accords were the first instance when communists gave in and decided to reach a compromise with the striking workers. A hole was knocked out in the wall of dictatorship. And all the ideological and political tendencies that had been latent in the Polish opposition movement now came to light: from Trotskyite Bolshevism all the way to right-wing nationalism. But most fundamentally speaking, this was a rebellion in the name of normalcy.
The government responded with martial law. They put us in prisons. Yet with time, Gorbachev’s perestroika came to our aid. Polish communists understood that Moscow would not defend them with its tanks. Most important, all this led to the Round Table negotiations — negotiations, one might say, between prisoners and prison-guards. And this was a miracle, if I ever saw one.
If in 1987 God had asked Poles what their three most fervent wishes were, they would have said: First, we want to live in a country with no political prisoners. Second, we want a country without censorship and foreign armies. And third, we would like the Soviet Union to fall apart. And good God listened to Poland, and all three wishes came true. We got freedom.
And today God is asking Poles: what did you do with that freedom?
Everywhere in the region, in other European countries, and not just in Europe, we see a regressive tendency. There is a democratic regression — after the velvet revolutions, we now have velvet dictatorships. And everyone wants to know how it came to this.
First there was Lukashenka in Belarus, a classic of the genre. Putin imitated him well. Then came Hungary, Turkey, Poland. And it keeps going. Anti-democratic processes are also taking place in Western Europe — we had Brexit, the Italian elections, Catalonian separatism…
Clearly there’s no single answer as to where all this came from. We are dealing with a new phenomenon, and we do not yet have a name for it. It contains elements of communism, fascism, and populism, but it is something new. Perhaps it is closely linked to globalization, which dealt a blow to national identities and other forms of identity.
We are experiencing a deficit of democracy — corruption has become an irremovable part of the political system. Under dictatorship we dealt with censorship. Today we have cacophony, especially on the internet. There is a flood of information and an ordinary person cannot differentiate between truth and lies.
I was horrified when nationalist and right-wing tendencies took over in Poland. I didn’t know what to tell my American friends who wanted to know what was going on. Then Trump was elected and I breathed a sigh of relief: clearly Poles were not the only ones who have gone mad.
Today, we find ourselves at a turning point. And if today we asked Hannah Arendt how to live, she would say: do not be afraid of truth, do not be afraid to think, do not be afraid to take risks. No one can enslave us without our permission. This was one of the reasons for the success of the negotiated revolution: those who negotiated on our side were people of truth and freedom, and not of revenge. Today our hope lies in our striving for a democratic community capable of embracing everyone — including those who now side with authoritarian tendencies, but who may decide to participate in future public life by respecting the rules laid out in a democratic constitution.
Adam Michnik is a Polish historian, essayist, former dissident, public intellectual, and editor-in-chief of the Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza. This essay was translated by Agnieszka (Aya) Marczyk.