The Communist Hangover

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By George Weigel

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No small part of the West’s confusion and consternation over the tribulations of post-communist societies is the result of a residual, debilitating misunderstanding of communism. That misunderstanding (coupled with the historic myopia noted above) has, in turn, fueled Western incomprehension about the sources of the extreme nationalism, ethnic violence, and barbarism that have broken out in several parts of Stalin’s old empire.

It seems that it has to be said again, and again, and again: communism was not just another form of political tyranny. Communism was a form of totalitarianism: it sought the transformation, not just of men’s politics, but of their souls, their relationships, and their identities. Even under the “bureaucratic totalitarianism” of the post-Khrushchev era, during which the fires of Marxist-Leninist ideological conviction burned less brightly than in the old days, the very nature of communist social control mitigated against social normality and human decency. And the results are too much with us.

 

A Damaged Moral Ecology

 

In a recent lecture at George Washington University, President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic made a similar point, in attempting to analyze the “root causes” of the difficulties of post-communist societies:

 

 

Communism was far from being simply the dictatorship of one group of people over another. It was a genuinely totalitarian system, that is, it permeated every aspect of life and deformed everything it touched, including all the natural ways people had evolved of living together. … It was a perverted structure . . . but society nevertheless internalized it, or rather was forced to internalize it.

 

That “perverted structure,” the communist culture of the lie, collapsed with communist power in 1989. But, Havel argued, “people couldn’t simply absorb and internalize a new structure immediately, one that would correspond to the elementary principles of civic society and democracy. . . . [T]o build a new system of living values and to identify with them takes time.”

Thus the old system and its anti-values had collapsed; but the new values necessary to sustain civil society and comity had not yet achieved critical mass throughout Central and Eastern Europe. And into this vacuum came “radicalism of all kinds,” the “hunt for scapegoats,” and the “need to hide behind the anonymity of a group, be it socially or ethnically based.” The net result was an “unparalleled flourishing of selfishness,” itself an expression of the moral-ecological damage that communism left in its wake.

The result, Havel said, was a “vast shroud of uniformity, stifling all national, intellectual, spiritual, social, cultural, and religious variety.” That, in turn, led to “the monstrous illusion that we were all the same.” When communism collapsed, so did that shroud of uniformity—and from beneath it there emerged all those differences that “proletarian universalism” was supposed to have smoothed out. After the long, dark night of enforced sameness, each of these traits, Havel argued, “felt a natural need to draw attention to itself, to emphasize its uniqueness and its difference from others. This is the reason for the eruption of so many different kinds of old-fashioned patriotism, revivalist messianism, conservatism., and expressions of hatred toward all those who appeared to be betraying their roots or identifying with different ones.”

And that dynamic has played itself out in particularly bloody ways in the former Yugoslavia, where the understandable (and ancient) urge to emphasize one’s ethnic and religious uniqueness was married to nationalism and then exploited by the demagoguery of unscrupulous politicians.

 

The Return of History

 

At the end of The Final Revolution, my study of the role of the Catholic Church in the collapse of European communism, I wrote that the “final revolution”—the revolution of conscience that shaped the non-violent political revolution in Poland and Czechoslovakia—was not the end of history but the return of history to its normal patterns and rhythms. President Havel takes that analysis a step further, arguing that communism not only stopped history but thereby forestalled, in parts of Eastern Europe, the development of the attitudes and understandings that sustain democracy and pluralism—social traits that had evolved in the West over a long period of time. Moreover, “national and cultural differences were driven into the subterranean areas of social life, where they were . . . prevented from developing freely, from taking on modern form in the fresh air, from creating, over time, the free space of unity in variety.”

To compound these difficulties, several countries that had fallen under communist rule had not, before their fall, resolved some of the crucial questions—especially about pluralism—involved in their very nationhood. These issues lay trapped under the ice of the communist system. Then, when the icecap broke up, Havel writes, “thousands of unresolved problems suddenly burst forth”:

 

 

It is truly astonishing to discover how, after decades of falsified history and ideological manipulation, nothing has been forgotten. Nations are now remembering their ancient achievements and their ancient suffering, their ancient suppressors and their allies, their ancient statehood and their former borders, their traditional animosities and affinities—in short, they are suddenly recalling a history that, until recently, has been carefully concealed or misrepresented [emphasis added].

 

What is at issue today, then, is not simply the result of the Yalta imperial system, but also the long-term residue of the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain-Trianon at the end of World War I. Some, Havel observes, want to go “even farther back into history and exploit the greatest freedom some of them have ever had to make further amends” for even more ancient grievances. Thus among the ironic “accomplishments” of the communist empire was that it spared the West, for some forty-five years, the results of Western folly in 1919. We are to be spared no longer, it appears.

 

Questions of Scale

 

Finally, Vaclav Havel asks us to remember the magnitude of the historical change that is now under way in the aftermath of the communist crackup. People who never knew how to think about communism imagine that the problems of post-communism are roughly analogous to those of any political transition: one set of rascals gets thrown out, another bunch gets in. But the post-communist world is not to be understood on the analogy of Spain after Franco, or France after Napoleon, much less America between presidents. Rather, Havel argues, “the fall of the communist empire is an event on the same scale of historical importance as the fall of the Roman empire.” A vast, continental system of social control has collapsed, leaving behind a jumble of peoples, race, and nations in varying degrees of economic, political, and cultural chaos.

Some of them will recover rather quickly: the Poles, the Hungarians, and the Czechs are three good bets, if they stay the present economic course and if no mass refugee wave washes over them from an imploding Great Russia. Others—and here we come back to the unhappy southern Slavs— haven’t even entered the recovery ward. Thus it seems prudent to see the wisdom in Havel’s judgment that building decent societies “on the ruins of communism might be as extended and complex a process as the creation of a Christian Europe— after the great migrations—once was.”

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.