Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

Book cover B O O K   R E V I E W:
Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe
Andras Bozoki (ed)
Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 1999
xi + 292pp
ISBN 963-9116-21-1 (pbk)

Sean Hanley

The importance of intellectuals to the politics and history of East and Central Europe is so well-known as to be almost something of a cliche. As most standard histories of the region will tell you, by the late 19th century the relative weaknesses of domestic middle classes, the need for the new nations of Central Europe to forge new national identities (sometimes quite literally), and their frequent resort to a "non-political politics" of culture and ideas in the face of foreign domination combined to give intelligentsias of the region an importance and prestige quite out of proportion to their real social and political weight.

As Andras Bozoki notes in the introduction to Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe, however, unlike the Russian intelligentsia's status as a separate caste of "superfluous men," Central Europe's intelligentsias remained within more diverse groups whose role as the guardians of national culture and the conscience of the nation gave them clearly established, if distant, links with their societies.

The political instability, economic stagnation and rampant corruption of many new states of Central and Eastern Europe established after 1918 accelerated a trend for intellectuals in the region to discard liberal values in favour of radical alternatives. As Alina Mungiu-Pippidi notes in her chapter on Romania, many embarked upon a journey that would lead to Communism, although sometimes via a detour into the right-wing authoritarian nationalism of the Iron Guard or the Arrow Cross.

Such re-alignment was prompted not only by the political and economic crisis of inter-war Europe, but more particularly by the chronic unemployment and underemployment experienced by many of the young and educated in stagnant societies offering few opportunities - a phenomenon particularly marked in Poland, Hungary and Romania.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, having taken power across the region, Communist regimes started on the creation of a new technical and cultural intelligentsia loyal to the new order. However, Communist-oriented writers and Marxist intellectuals became increasingly reform-minded, while the rise of new layers of technocratic specialists and administrators represented a latent conflict of authority summed up by one 1960s American Sovietologist as "Reds vs Experts."

Moreover, as Ivan Bernik argues in a rare and welcome piece on Slovenia, socialism "created" intelligentsias in Eastern Europe in another way. Oversimplified class ideology and social homogenisation inadvertently lumped together professional groups such as doctors, artists and town planners, whose interests would otherwise have been wholly different. As Bernik notes, this broader "intelligentsia" - an educated stratum extending far beyond more defined intellectual and cultural elites - was united by, amongst other things, a "status inconsistency," which saw it benefit from the cultural and educational opportunities available under socialism without gaining political influence, economic power or material reward.

In 1968, the crushing of Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring dashed hopes of political and economic reform or cultural regeneration from within the Communist system. Although, they had surreptitiously made up much of the ground lost by the non-socialist intelligentsia in the Stalinist 1950s, "intellectuals" - whether elite or merely educated - were hardly "on the road to class power," as Gyorgy Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi famously argued in The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (Brighton, Harvester Press, 1979) in the mid-70s. Indeed, while Konrad and Szelenyi were mistaking the continuing latitude of the Kadar regime in their native Hungary for a silent technocratic takeover of socialism throughout the region, in reality (even in Hungary) a non-socialist (or no-longer-socialist) intelligentsia was rapidly detaching itself from official structures and trying to create its own social and intellectual space. It is roughly at this point that the papers gathered in the new CEU collection Intellectuals and Politics take up the story.

Journalistic mythology has it that the intellectual Davids of the dissident movement slew the Goliath of Communism in 1989 with a few slingshots of truth and integrity. As the contributions in Part I of this book make clear, however, the picture was a much more complex one, and one which varied markedly across the region. Helena Flamm's chapter on East Germany, for example, contrasts the lack of social rootedness of the dissident movement in the GDR with the crucial role of the intelligentsia in Poland as the nucleus of an increasingly broad-based national opposition movement.

Whereas East German dissent merely sought critical dialogue with a regime little inclined to it, and left the GDR's key ideological rationale as a socialist German state largely unquestioned, in Poland a tradition of intellectual dissent, unbroken since the 1950s, challenged the very legitimacy of Communist Poland. By the 1970s Polish intellectual dissent had already coalesced into the foundations of the Solidarity movement that was to burst onto the political stage in the 1980s. In the GDR, by contrast, the carrot of emigration to West Germany and the stick of Stasi repression left East Germany fragmented, leaderless and with no real sense of political purpose. When the Honecker regime finally collapsed in October 1989, East German dissident intellectuals enjoyed a brief moment in the political limelight before being swept aside by the popular desire for tried-and-tested West German political recipes.

However, as Irina Culic and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi relate in successive chapters, the Orwellian regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu left intellectuals in a still bleaker position. Drawing on the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Culic argues that it was writers as holders and producers of "cultural capital" who were the key intellectual group. The Romanian Writers Union and certain academic journals represented islands of precarious independence. However, as Ceaucescu and his wife Elena imposed an increasingly stifling straitjacket of Socialist Realism and leader worship on Romanian society, they increasingly obliterated any meaningful notions of culture. In 1985, for example, not a single volume of new poetry was published in Romania.

As pragmatic collaboration yielded fewer and fewer returns, writers' options for preserving their cultural capital soon boiled down to intellectual elitism, stubborn professionalism or mere silence. However, as Mungiu-Pippidi makes clear in her chapter, in a country where every last typewriter typeface was individually registered, the "symbolic-ideological" force of the regime's virulently nationalist ideology was perhaps less important than the sheer weight of repression it could exert.

In contrast to Poland and East Germany, Romania's post-Communist intelligentsia thus lacked both historical and moral legitimacy. Fragmented into anti-Communist, monarchist, liberal, social democratic and nationalist camps, with some of its most respected figures having intellectual roots in the extreme nationalist Iron Guard of the inter-war period, after 1989 it wavered between the off-hand dismissal of a depoliticised "communised" populace and a guilt-ridden contemplation of its own passivity and collaboration under Ceaucescu. After the transition from Communism that they had done little or nothing to bring about, Culic and Mungiu-Pippidi agree, Romanian intellectuals' attempts in 1990 and 1991 to embody a civic and moral opposition to take on Ion Iliescu and his neo-Communist interim National Salvation Front government were irrelevant almost before they had begun.

Iliescu might have been a half plausible stand-in for Honecker or Husak; Bucharest's Group for Social Dialogue (formed in December 1989) was perhaps a passable imitation of Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 or Poland's KOR; and the Civic Alliance movement, which mobilised hundreds of thousands in the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities in late 1990 and 1991 certainly had an air of Civic Forum or Solidarity.

But even in an era of rough-and-ready post-Communist democracy Romanian-style, the game had already changed. Faced with a National Salvation Front which swept all before it in free, if not entirely fair, elections in 1990 and again came out on top electorally in 1992, many of Romania's fractious politician-intellectuals could find no better response than appeals to international opinion, before following their East German counterparts into political oblivion.

The rise of Serb nationalism

In one of the book's most impressive chapters, Ninad Dimitrijevic analyses the Serb nationalist intellectuals' articulation of this post-Communist nationalism during the last days of post-Tito Yugoslavia as it moved from small enclaves within the Serbian academic establishment to dominate public discourse by the late 1980s. In contrast to the belated and ersatz civic opposition of Romania's intellectuals, Serbia's nationalist thinkers and writers were "artificers of reality" par excellence, intellectually underwriting a transition from Communism more completely than even their Polish colleagues - a transition sadly less democratic and infinitely more violent in consequence.

Dimitrijevic focuses on the notorious 1985 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, which offered an intellectual and historical justification for overturning the old federal structure of Yugoslavia in favour of a Serbian-centred Yugoslavia based around the re-assertion of supposedly ignored Serbian national interests. Quoting at some length from the Memorandum, whose key ideas he crisply summarises, he analyses the dance macabre of intellectuals in Serbia's academic establishment and factions in the Serbian apparatus seeking a new basis for their rule.

After the death of Tito, Dimitrijevic argues, Yugoslavia's crisis was a surprisingly long time coming, because the Communist elites could find neither the language nor the concepts to navigate the break-up of the old Federal Republic. However, the sudden synthesis of post-Communist apparat power politics and a reinvented Serbian "nationalism of resentment" found expression in the rise of Milosevic on a tide of populist-nationalist "anti-bureaucratic revolution," initiating a train of events whose logic was as much intellectual and ideological as historical and political.

The fall of the Central European intellectual

Vaclav Havel's status as the Czech Republic's "playwright President" is already the stuff of guidebook cliche. His post-1989 transformation from dissident advocate of an ethically based anti-politics of "living in truth" to compromised statesman and politician has also been well rehearsed, most recently in John Keane's readable but flawed biography of the Czech President (Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy In Six Acts, London: Bloomsbury, 1999).

The same theme is tackled with less purple prose and more intellectual gravitas by Aviezer Tucker in the present collection. Examining Havel's writings and statements on a range of issues before and after 1989, Tucker concludes that by 1990/1991 the Czechoslovak President had passed from an "ethic of moral conviction" based on the dilemmas of the individual to an "ethic of social responsibility" seeking answers to social problems through individual action.

This, however, introduced a difficult logic of ends, which Havel was reluctant to accept, preferring to frame politics in philosophical terms and cling on to a residual anti-politics, which often left him without any clear position on critical issues. This was the case, argues Tucker, in key debates such as those over economic reform and de-Communisation and left Havel a political hostage to politicians with clear priorities and policies.

But whilst analytically impressive, the chapter tells us little about Havel that has not been said before. It therefore seems a pity that Tucker did not choose to excerpt another part of the excellent book from which this chapter is drawn, Phenomenology and Politics (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), his masterly study of the philosophical underpinnings of Czech dissent.

More seriously, though, the chapter - subtitled "The Fall of Czech Politician-Intellectuals" - perpetuates the myth that Czech intellectual dissent can be summed up in the writing and career of Vaclav Havel. In fact, Havel's anti-politics and anti-partyism were at the radical end of Charter 77. Many important, but less internationally known, dissidents active in Czech politics after 1989 held eminently realistic views on these subjects. If they foundered in politics, it was less because of anti-political party phobia than a failure to appreciate that civic consensus did not do away with the need for ideology and political competition.

A welcome corrective to this focus on one internationally famous individual is provided by Edvard Snajdr's carefully researched analysis of the role of Green intellectuals in Slovakia. Snajdr relates how in the late 1980s non-conformist intellectuals in the Slovak capital Bratislava in "islands of positive deviance" used official conservation bodies and the officially sanctioned notion of "environmental protection" to prise open a space for broader public criticism and discussion.

However, the collapse of Communism in Slovakia's own much overshadowed November 1989 Velvet Revolution required the redefinition of "environmental protection" in terms of the bigger issues of democracy, nationalism and the market, leading to a rapid fragmentation of the efforts and ideas of Slovak "environment protectors." Some went into conventional politics via the Green Party; some joined the all-embracing Public Against Violence movement and occasionally its pro- and anti-Meciar successor parties; others turned to civil society, some focussing on traditional "environment protection," and others on social activism or single-issue campaigns.

The notion of Central European intellectuals as disinterested, if naive, seekers after truth and civic virtue seems increasingly unsustainable in a post-Communist context. It is a notion challenged head-on by Bill Lomax and Andras Korosenyi in separate chapters on Hungary.

Korosenyi argues that the position of the Central European intelligentsia has always left it fundamentally ambivalent about the notion of democracy - in favour of it as an ideal or a model, but less keen on "really existing democracy" which, like the market, is driven by popular preferences, not intellectual arbiters of what is proper and what is not.

More radically still, Bill Lomax claims that the liberal intelligentsia of post-Communist Central Europe is animated by unconcealed elitism and powerful fear of "the masses." Such attitudes, he suggests are deeply archaic and undemocratic, resembling those of Victorian liberals in early 19th century Britain rather than modern public intellectuals. How the problems of the intellectual-society relationship should be resolved, however, is far from clear.

Lomax's concluding call for Central Europe's intellectuals to become "champions of those less privileged than themselves," for example, seems to smack of the very elitism he seeks to condemn. Moreover, as Ivan Bernik argues, even under Communism the "civil society ideology" fitted uncannily well with the group interests of intellectuals both as narrowly defined elite and wider educated strata.

Ivan Szelenyi

Ivan Szelenyi

Following the American political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, who defined intellectuals as producers of symbols and norms, most contributions in the book deal with the traditional humanist intelligentsia: dissident or "non-conformist" novelists, poets, playwrights, philosophers, historians, a bespectacled, bearded cohort of ex-dissident forty-somethings now staffing post-Communist academia, journalism or the "third sector" (the gender-specific language is intentional).

But what of the technocrats? Now that the "Reds" have gone, or at least gone into business, what of the "Experts"?

Despite an interesting chapter by Josef Borocz, arguing that the much vaunted technical know-how of many Central European economists is much more ideological and less technical than many would care to admit, Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe largely ignores this question. Although interested readers can turn to Ivan Szelenyi's book Making Capitalism Without Capitalists: The New Ruling Elites in Eastern Europe (London and New York: Verso, 1999) for the great Hungarian sociologist's latest take on the technocratic class power of intellectuals, this seem a major omission.[Josef Borocz's website devoted to a Festschrift in honour of Ivan Szelenyi's 60th birthday can be found here.]

The definition and role of the intellectual

This leads us to a further question: how should we, in fact, define "intellectuals" and the "intelligentsia" in contemporary East Central Europe?

Pierre Bourdieu's concept of cultural, political and social capital is touched on by several of the book's contributors. In a society in which capital in the traditional sense did not exist, the argument runs, intellectuals can indeed be seen as those rich in the "cultural capital" of erudition, knowledge and know-how, and poor in the "political capital" and "social capital" of power and influence, which is held by the bureaucrats and apparatchiks who are the big players in the system. In this perspective, the coming of democracy and the market economy after 1989 represents a kind of gigantic currency trading session, a hectic scramble to convert varied currencies of status and power under the old system into something equally bankable in the new order.

However, Irina Culic, the one contributor to explore Bourdieu's ideas at any length, offers a confusing, and in places impenetrable, rendition. As the same basic point is made more effectively by Ivan Bernik, using the much more traditional sociological concept of "status inconsistency," the theoretical debate appears to have some way to go. Such problems of definition are neatly sidestepped by Ninad Dimitrijevic and Edvard Snajdr, who examine specific social and political discourses (Serbian nationalism and Slovak environmentalism) rather than looking at a specific social group, taking a leaf out of Katherine Vedery's classic study of Romania's weird brand of ultra-nationalism and Stalinism under Ceaucescu (National Ideology Under Socialism, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991).

Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe is in many ways a typical mixed bag of academic conference papers. It provides uneven coverage of a variety of themes and cases, juxtaposing insightful analysis with potted history and abstruse theorising. The overall picture it paints, however, is of intellectuals in East Central Europe having come down in the world since 1989 to 1990.

Paradoxically, their very success in inaugurating and defining an era of post-Communist mass politics has, it seems, undercut their earlier role as conscience and tribune of "society" or the Nation. Moreover, even in the purely cultural sphere, "good" literature and ideals of social responsibility have been driven out by mass culture, consumerism and commercial pressures, as much Western coverage of the tenth anniversary of 1989 has reminded us. How much more mileage, one wonders, will Timothy Garton Ash get out Czech Nova TV's naked weather forecasters?

However, the idea that intellectuals as a group have, intellectual freedom aside, been losers in post-Communist transformation is questioned by some contributors to the book. Bernik, for example, argues that while they may have lost out in politics, with the exception of groups such as academics, teachers or research scientists, intellectuals have usually gained economically.

Bill Lomax goes still further, arguing that the cultural and educational inequalities established under Communism have been the main conduit for creation of the new post-Communist social and political inequalities. Despite their continued penchant for high-minded discussion and speechifying, he suggests, one-time tribunes of the Nation and spokespeople for society have slotted effortlessly into post-Communist power elites. Not so much nomenklatura capitalism as intelligentsia capitalism?

The same point is made in a more restrained way in Marian Kempny's chapter on the self-image of the Polish intellectuals, which suggests that many Central European intellectuals still need to think their way into the new collective role they are adopting: that of a West European style class of professionals rather than a Board of Guardians for the national soul.

On the bigger question of the role of intellectuals in contemporary East Central Europe, the book's contributors converge on two concepts: intellectuals as a select group of critical thinkers disinterestedly thinking through the problems of society on the one hand, or the intelligentsia as a class in and for itself caught up in the interstices of state power and greater social forces. On the whole, the contributions in the book suggest that despite periods of heroic isolation as spokesmen of "society," the latter concept is - and perhaps always was - more realistic.

Disconnected from politics and wider society, intellectuals in Central Europe count for little. Wired into circuits of political power and social change, however, they have sometimes been able to deliver convulsive political shocks. Perhaps even in this age of post-Communist democracy and consumerism they may one day do so again.

Sean Hanley, 9 December 1999

Sean Hanley's Archive of CER Articles

Intellectuals and Politics in Central Europe
from Amazon.com.

Some other works mentioned in the review:



1999: The Year in Review
Czech Republic
The Baltics
Franjo Tudjman
after Tudjman


Zhidas Daskalovski:
Schengen's Iron Curtain

Sam Vaknin:
1) Post-Communist Post-Communi-cation

2) Conspiracies behind Every Corner


Interview with Csaba Bollok

Young Hungarian Film


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Greens Lose Ground in the Czech Republic

EU Enlargement after Helsinki


Williams Replies to Keane on Havel

Cynicism Is Spot on

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