>Dissident ideas and the fall of communism

>Read two interesting articles by Alan Renwick in the small hours, both looking at the role of dissident ideas in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The first makes the long overdue point that East European dissent was often not as ‘anti-political’ or as straightforwardly ‘anti-political’ as much of the literature on post-communist politics suggests, in attributing the failure of dissident-politician and popular disengagement to the legacy of dissent. The hallmarks of anti-politics are defined following Linz and Stepan as inter alia a stress on the ethical nation as actor; a denial of internal difference; a rejection of interests for ethics as the basis of politics; an absolutist moral rejection of compromise; a rejection of both the institutions of the communist state and the political sphere per se (any institutions).

Renwick identifies a number of sets of strategies: 1) ignoring the party state (intellectual anti-politics proper – rejection of the political sphere per se – and the creation of a parallel polis bypassing (but also ignoring) the regime; 2) engaging the party-state from outside to influence policy (defence of human rights, creation of free forums for debate; creation of pressure/interest group); and 3) entering (and colonizing or taking over) the state to effect political change (co-operation/cooptation; revolution (off the agenda for all but a radical Polish nationalist fringe by 1970s); and political opposition based on a presented counter-programme). This more subtle typology echoes the more historically grounded approach in Wielgohs and Pollacks’s Dissent and Opposition in Communist Eastern Europe, although Renwick achieves a degree of comparison absent in this edited collection.

Only the early stage of Czech dissent, he argues – on the whole rightly, although even in the early state it is far from the whole story – was truly anti-political. Polish and Hungarian dissent was, despite anti-political leanings, in various subtle ways merely anti-communist and used the strategies of pressure group, political opposition although Czech dissident later leapfrogged them to conceive of itself as a political opposition by 1988 inthe Democracy for All manifesto. Not quite ‘a conscious rejection of the Havelian approach of Charter 77’ (316), whose founding Charter was partly drafted by eminently political ex- reform communists)

The article is impressive, but rather oddly overlooks ideological divisions within dissent and, while impressive in drawing on both Polish and Hungarian languages sources, is much weaker on the Czech case. It also tends to rather brutally pigeonhole different thinkers ignoring their ambiguity, inconsistency and learning over time – Havel is not only the theorist of anti-politics, but also the drafter of Democracy for All… As President in 1990, he doesn’t like parties and doesn’t like the state or politics much either, but can hardly deny them and no longer does

Its distinction between strategies of ignoring the state and engaging the state also seems to muddy the waters between the political and anti-political slightly – the difference between types of strategy Renwick argues is that the former ‘proposed no mechanisms by which their activities might influence the state. Indeed they evinced no interest in such mechanisms: their overwhelming concern was with the condition of society’ (292). This seems a rather arbitrary distinction. It also suggests that in certain situations dissidents might ignore the party-state but maintain an intellectual commitment to politics in some form – this is the view of Benda’s famous, but not often read, ‘parallel polis’ essay, but a strategy forced by the realities of repression in Czechoslovakia.

Renwick’s second highly impressive article explores similar territory. It examines how the framing of dissident strategies for political change in Poland and Hungary in 1980s led to different outcomes in 1989 (semi-democratic elections in Poland; fully competitive elections in Hungary). The choice boiled down to demands for state pluralism (multi-party elections) or the legalization of independent social organization with a parcelling out pf political power (social corporatism). Both strategies had their supporters in the two case, but the dominant frame in Poland was that of social corporatism, in Hungary that of state pluralism. Renwick makes a convincing case that timing alone was not the key factor as the Hungarian opposition was demanding free elections in 1988, but is less convincing when arguing that the structure of the opposition was less important. The Hungarian opposition could hardly speak on behalf of a social organization that had never existed; the Poles could hardly ignore the Solidarity tradition. Ultimately, despite much excellent analysis the article gets bogged down in trying to find instances where it can be shown that ‘ideas mattered’ and structures/resources didn’t or didn’t explain all.

This proves very difficult and leads to a very particular focus on different responses to similar reformed communist election laws in 1985 (allowing more than one candidate), although even here purely strategic considerations of how likely the regime was to block independents seems an equally credible explanation. Renwick also develops a kind of path dependent argument stressing the unhappy experience of the Polish Znak movement’s token representation in parliament 1950s, which has no Hungarian parallel. Ultimately, we have only a rich subtle, theoretically grounded description of mechanisms… (again).

Ideational analysis is a bitch…

A Renwick (2006), ‘Anti-Political or Just Anti-Communist? Varieties of Dissidence in East-Central Europe and Their Implications for the Development of Political Society’, EEPS 20 (2), 286-318.

A Renwick (2006), ‘Why Hungary and Poland Differed in 1989: The Role of Medium Term Frames in Explaining the Outcomes of Democratic Transition’, Democratization 12 (1), 36-57.


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