Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999

Adam Michnik S P E E C H:
The Return to History
Speech delivered at Forum 2000 conference
Prague, 12 October 1999

Adam Michnik

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ten years later we can speak about things that were and things that are now. To a considerable degree I agree with what has been said by my friend Timothy Garton Ash, and, like him, I too would define this decade as an achievement, but also as a kind of difficulty. This success, this achievement is evident. We have traveled the road from dictatorship to democracy, from monopoly to pluralism, from the status of a satellite country to a sovereign country, from the Warsaw Pact to NATO, from an economy of scarcity and a planned economy to a market economy and economic growth, from censorship to freedom, from closed borders to open borders, from state ownership to privatization.

Looking at this decade from the point of view of my country, the success is greater because of the fact that it was difficult to forecast. I often reflect on the large number of works that could have been written by Polish historians, or the number of excellent essays that could have been read by us in French, German and English if the transformation had not succeeded in Poland, if Poland today were a country similar to Serbia. Then the historical arguments would speak of anarchy, narrow nationalism, the division of Poland in the 18th century and so on. It is difficult to explain the success of Poland, all the more so in light of the fact that our geopolitics have changed completely. People of my generation knew for most of their lives that Poland had three neighbors: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic. None of these countries exist today. Poland has other neighbors now, and it has had to learn a new geopolitics. And the first thing that we have learned, and that too is surprising, is the fact that - practically for the first time in our history - we are not in conflict with our neighbors. We also are not in conflict with ethnic minorities in our country. And I could expand on this list of achievements were it not for the fact that, ten years after, it seems to me that it would be more fruitful to think and reflect on the difficulties. I will try to point out some of them.

The first is as follows. The democratic opposition before 1989 had its specific ethos. It was the ethos of human rights, it was the ethos, as Vaclav Havel said, of the power of the powerless, it was the ethos of Polish Solidarity. To use Evangelical terms, it was the ethos of those who bear the burdens of others. So, what emerged after the defeat of Communism, was the ethos of competition, the ethos of getting wealthy, and if the democratic opposition tried to promote the civil ethos, the ethos of civil society, then the ethos of democracy which was, or is, as Timothy [Garton Ash] said, sometimes a bad copy of Western democracies; this democracy creates an ethos of a party state, a republic of good palls.

The reaction to this is a nostalgia for a secure life, a nostalgia for Communism. It is difficult to understand, especially difficult for us - for people who fought against Communism and rejected it - to understand. This nostalgia, however, has two very important roots which must not be forgotten. First, it is the longing for safety. It is the longing for a situation in which the state assumes a considerable part of care for the fate of its citizens. And this whole ethos of the market economy is a challenge to be responsible for one's own fate, but at the same time it is also the reflection of large social groups, and the placement of these groups into greater risk.

After all, in Poland the workers from large industrial enterprises, by their strikes, achieved freedom. And during the period of economic transformation, it was these same workers who were the first to become the victims of this transformation. They became unemployed because the plants in which they worked had not been modernized, and the factories became good for nothing. And now, in this ethos of a functioning democracy, it seems to me there was too little space for real care for those people who were pushed to the margins of society. Instead of this care, a populist demagogy emerged which blocked the transformation, just as in Poland the revolting farmers often block Polish roads or protest against imported wheat. That is another group which was pushed to the margin.

Another source of the nostalgia for Communism is the fact that an ideology emerged which I would label as anti-Communism with a Bolshevik face, that is, the ideology of revenge and the ideology of settling scores, with a fanaticism, a passion worthy of the Bolsheviks of the 1930s. And now all this is an expression of nostalgia, or prospective or retrospective utopia. The prospective utopia is a utopia in which everybody would have a standard of living the same as the wealthy people of Manhattan, the same kind of social security as they had in Sweden a couple of years ago, and would work in the same way as people worked in Poland under Communism, that is, not at all. But there is also a retrospective utopia, which idealizes the past. This utopia perceives the past as a safe time, although it was actually a dangerous one. Those were times when the word "safety" or "security" evoked fear and horror. In my country, there was no word more dangerous than "security." Today, however, in Germany, in the east of Germany, in the Czech Republic, the parties who directly associate themselves with this Communist legacy are doing very well. These parties which reach for this language, that is used in Russia by Boris Zuganov for example, are able to use this language to respond to those needs in important sectors of society where liberal definitions are not able to recognize, to define, to satisfy the needs, to answer the questions posed.

The problems of democracy ten years after, and in this we are very similar to Western democracies, is corruption as a component, as an element, of the political system. Today, it is difficult to imagine an accurate description of a political and economic system without corruption, without corruption as an element inherent to the system. And it seems that for the future of the democratic, or let's say liberal, order this is a central issue.

The second issue is media. In Poland, we have often asked ourselves why there hasn't evolved a reformed model of media which would give it the quality, make it the equivalent, of the BBC in the United Kingdom. After many discussions, we came to the conclusion that there is only one reason why a BBC is not possible in Poland. And that reason is the fact that we have no Brits. In Poland, we do not have Britons, and that is why we cannot have British public television such as the BBC. This is a problem because we have not managed to shape a of democracy that would contain civil society as one of its elements.

In Poland, we have analyzed not ten years but, in fact, 20 years. In June, Pope John Paul II visited Poland and in his sermons referred to his first trip to Poland 20 years ago. And only these 20 years taken as a whole give a picture of the enormous path that we have covered during this period. This was a great celebration in Poland; we were joyful. But at the same time that we were together with the Pope, reminiscing on our successes, our farmers blocked our roads, nurses decided to occupy the building of the Ministry of Health and some of the trade unions were warning that they were planing a large march on Warsaw under the slogan of "Topple the Government." This is okay. This happens in all democratic countries today. This is the other face of democracy. But it seems that in this whole democratic situation, there is one dangerous syndrome that I find very difficult to define. Perhaps we are as who did not know that he was speaking in prose. This may be due to the fact that we do not define in any consistent way why, at the moment when the European Union started to enlarge all of a sudden, it suffered this very profound crisis, [with] all the disputes among its members. Why is it that, after the fall of Communism, this crisis of the coherence of the state is being experienced not only by the former Soviet Union but also by Spain? Why is it that not only Chechnya is calling for freedom, but also Corsica and Quebec? Why is it that in a stable, prosperous, affluent Europe, in peaceful, democratic Austria, Haider's party has become so powerful? What kind of a worm is it that is gnawing - from below, from inside - our Europe?

In 1990, Andre Glucksmann wrote a commentary on one of Vaclav Havel's lectures called "The Return to History." And I think there is very much a telling diagnosis within this abbreviation; that history is not only the good history to which Havel returns but also the bad history to which Haider returns.

If I were to sum up what I think has happened over the last ten years, then for me this period has seen the end of the classical division into left and right. This division began with the French Revolution and ended with the anti-Communist revolution. Today the division line runs between those who want an open society based on individual human rights, a multicultural society, and those who diligently build bastions of closed societies. And I wish to believe that this conference of ours is some kind of step toward an open society, in which there is enough room for everybody, and the difficulties of which are dealt with within the strict framework of a market economy, but also with a strong coefficient of solidarity.

Thank you for your attention.

The above is an unauthorized, translated transcription prepared by Forum 2000.

See CER's interview with Adam Michnik in this week's issue.



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FORUM 2000:

Interview with
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Michnik on the Return to History

Imposing Visions
of Globalisation

Anyone Listening to the "Great Minds"?



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