The impact of the events of 1989 on democracy and democratic theory has been mostly understood as a reconfirmation of Western political modernity and the idea of liberal democracy as its central idea. In this regard, the impact of the ‘revolutions’ of 1989 as well as the dissident actions and ideas leading up to these events have been interpreted as ultimately underwriting Western political modernity and not offering new insights for our understanding of the theory and practice of democracy. In this, four problematic and mostly ignored aspects can be identified: first of all, the revolutions as well as the dissident discourse in Central and Eastern Europe were not merely echoing Western concepts of rights and the rule of law, but were grounded in local traditions and values regarding democracy and the rule of law. Second, the understanding that the impact of the 1989 events is exhausted in a confirmation of Western liberal democracy overlooks the importance of alternative, non-liberal models of democracy that emerged in both discourse and political action, as well as distinct ways of institutionalizing emergent democratic orders after 1989. Thirdly, 1989 has been mostly understood as inaugurating a ‘catching up’ of the East with the West, but in this little attention has been paid as to how the events and the democratic regimes emerging in its wake have transformed the democratic imaginary in both East and West. Finally, understanding Europe’s new democracies as the mere corroboration of Western democracy means to ignore the possible impact the political ideas informing the events of 1989 may have had on transnational discourses on democratic theory and practice.
The contributors panel will discuss each of these four caveats in existing research and offer original and alternative interpretations of 1989 in the light of its impact on democracy in both Eastern and Western Europe. Blokker’s paper shows that 1989 involved the articulation of a variety of democratic models, and in this he attempts in particular to retrieve the ideas of ‘democracy of dissent’ and cosmopolitan democracy from the margins of debate in political theory. Brier’s paper focuses on the contribution of Polish dissident thought on transnational discourses. He argues that a transnational discourse community emerged that possibly influenced the elaboration of new ideas on the traditional left in Western Europe. Renwick criticizes mainstream political science that prioritizes power over ideas, and argues that, in contrast to such assumptions, the revolutions in 1989 can demonstrate us the role ‘impartial values’ can play in the construction of democratic orders. Cirtautas draws attention to the fact that the memory of 1989 in the post-communist societies themselves is highly contested, and points in this to a more general lesson, that is, that with 1989 the possibility for the legitimation of democracy by means of consensual discourses seems no longer possible. In this, she points both to wider implications of 1989 for the democratic imaginary as well as to the specificity of post-communist transformation.
1. Political theory and democracy after 1989
The revolutions of 1989 have predominantly been understood as the confirmation of Western, liberal democracy as the ultimate model of the modern polity. The fact that 1989 was about a dual language that not only emphasized the rule of law and the implementation of rights, but also articulated ideas of democracy alternative to the mainstream liberal-constitutional idea has not been at the forefront of interpretations of 1989 in democratic theory. This does not mean, though, that 1989 has not had implications for the Western democratic imaginary. Indeed, here it argued that 1989 has had subtle implications for such an imaginary that are still being played out. 1989 should therefore not confined to a triumph of Western liberal democracy, but instead, it should be recognized that the events of 1989 and dissident thought also entailed a variety of alternative democratic models, the retrieval of which can help reinvigorate (and in many cases has already done so) current debates on democracy. In the essay, I will first argue that the general interpretation of 1989 as merely a confirmation of a liberal-constitutional imaginary of democracy is too narrow. I will then proceed by discussing four alternative understandings of democracy that have emerged with 1989, without pretending to be exhaustive. For analytical purposes, the democratic orientations or understandings are represented as democratic models: radicalized liberal democracy, republican democracy, civil democracy, and cosmopolitan democracy. I conclude that the alternative dimensions of democracy as articulated by East-Central European dissidents have indeed been sensed, picked up, and re-elaborated in political theory since 1989, in this contributing to perceptive shifts in the democratic imaginary.
2. The transnational impact of Polish dissident thought. East-West intellectual interaction during the late Cold War
The aim of the proposed paper is to problematize the view of 1989 as the mere confirmation of Western modernity by discussing the possible contribution of Polish dissident thought on transnational discourses. The paper is divided into three sections: First, I will discuss very briefly how the Polish democratic opposition drew the attention as well as the support and solidarity of a number of leftist West European and North American intellectuals. The paper’s second section demonstrates the significance of this international support by analyzing the events of 1989 in the ideological context of the late Cold War. In particular, it will be shown how Polish intellectuals combined more conservative and religious ideas with decisively left-wing concepts such as social self-organization. In this way, they designed an anti-communist ideological counterproject to which Western leftists could connect. Thus creating a transnational discourse community of sorts, West and East-Central European intellectuals jointly delegitimized Soviet communism's claim to be part of the political project of the international left and of modernity more broadly. Interpreting these findings in the light of John W. Meyer’s neo-institutionalist sociology, the second section concludes by showing how this cross-border intellectual cooperation destabilized the Polish regime of the 1980s and, arguably, made a certain contribution to ideological changes within the Soviet Union itself. In a third section, I will discuss the possible impact this transnational discourse had on the way democracy is practiced in Western Europe and, in particular, in France. The reason why Polish dissident thought drew the attention and support of Western left-wing intellectuals was that at least some of them, such as France's »nouveaux philosophes«, were seeking new forms of political thought and activity going beyond the more traditional practices of the orthodox left. Many of the core features of the contemporary European left such as the essentially non-revolutionary and political – rather than socio-economic – goal of defending human rights, the organization around practical concerns rather than around full-fledged utopian projects, or the form of social movements may very well have been inspired by or at least emerged in cooperation with East-Central European dissident thought. Whereas East-Central European dissident thought might thus not have produced full-fledged new forms of social order, it did have a significant impact on democratic practices even in Western Europe.
3. The Role of Values in Institutional Choice: 1989 in Comparative Perspective
Alan Renwick, University of Reading
Choices of political institutions have many impacts. Most importantly, they influence the power of politicians and other political actors and they influence a range of impartial values pertaining to the nature, quality, and stability of democracy and governance. The literature on these choices has generally argued that they are driven primarily by politicians' power interests, with impartial values playing at most a subservient role. Yet there are circumstances in which that may not be the case: in which values do come more to the fore. This paper will examine the hypothesis that a principal legacy of significant democratic dissident activity is to enhance the role of impartial values in initial choices of political institutions. It will begin by exploring theoretically the reasons for expecting such an association. It will then examine that hypothesis empirically, drawing principally on cases from East-Central Europe in 1989, but also on democratic transitions elsewhere.
4. Commemoration and Contestation: the politics of democratic perception after 1989
Arista Maria Cirtautas, University of Washington
Even as the events of 1989 have inspired the “democratic imaginary” and democratic practices in the West and beyond, the politics of electoral contestation have rendered the memory and commemoration of the Revolutions of 1989 highly problematic in the local context. If modern democracy has been legitimated by founding myths that enshrine constitutional principles and elevate emblematic individuals to embody the democratic nation, the highly contested post 1989 environment in Central and Eastern Europe has not provided a ready basis for the legitimation of democratic governance. This paper will examine how dissident thought and action has interacted with post 1989 political processes to produce a situation in which the emergent democratic orders are based not on broadly consensual narratives of democratic foundings, but instead rest more precariously on continuous efforts to install such a post-revolutionary orthodoxy and on equally continuous efforts to challenge such efforts. Specifically, the paper will draw on the Polish and German experiences. While Germany is often excluded from comparative studies of post-communist transition, it has seen the emergence of a similarly contentious political environment in the aftermath of reunification. Perhaps illustrative of these similarities is the fact that, almost on the same day in May 2008, Lech Walesa and Gregor Gysi both faced conservative attacks on their personal and political integrity and, by extension, on the memory of the historical moment they represent. (Clearly, Walesa and Gysi represent 1989 in very different ways. Interestingly, however, they have both been accused of the same transgression, namely, past collaboration with the secret police.) Ultimately, the question arises as to how we should evaluate this situation: is this a “normal” trajectory of the post-revolutionary consolidation of political authority which, as the French case demonstrates, can take many decades, or is this a novel situation produced by the conjuncture of the specificities of the post-communist context with the particularities of a post-modern era in which hegemonic narratives can no longer be sustained and the practice of democracy itself is undergoing profound change? If Western democratic perception has been invigorated by the examples set in the East in 1989, East European democratic thought and structures may not have benefitted equally from the reverse flow of ideas and practices. Although this paper cannot establish a definitive answer to this question, a careful examination of the legacies of 1989 in the local context can, hopefully, serve as a useful step toward a more precise evaluation of the longer term impact of the Revolutions of 1989 and of the post 1989 political processes on the unique configurations of Central and East European democracies.
Paul Blokker, University of Trento, e-mail: email@example.com
Robert Brier, German Historical Institute, Warsaw
Arista Maria Cirtautas, University of Washington
Alan Renwick, University of Reading