Intellectuals did not take the responsibility, So somebody else had to

Shortly before one of the anniversaries of November 1989, I received a phone call from Ferko Mikloško. He told me that our friends from the former Public against Violence (PaV) movement had prepared a petition proposing that in 2014, 25 years after that November, a memorial would be erected on the Freedom Square, where the mass demonstrations had taken place. I felt uncomfortable, as I had to turn my friend down, and then I explained my reasons…

Photo: CreativeCommons/Pavel Matejicek


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A petition for such a memorial should not be proposed and signed by the very people who were the protagonists of a revolution – ‘It is rather strange to propose a memorial to oneself’, I said.

I had other reasons, too, and these were significantly more important. However, I did not mention them because the explanation would have taken too long and he might not have understood me, anyway. I would like to explain them now.

In the past few years, I have often imagined that a young man or woman in their twenties would stop me in the streets of Bratislava, and ask: ‘How could you mess it up so badly? It is your fault we are living like this.’

Nothing of this sort has happened so far, but maybe I am just lucky that young people have been blaming the sorry state of Slovak democracy, politics, and in the end economics and culture, on other more visible people, like Vladimír Mečiar, Mikuláš Dzurinda or Robert Fico.

However, if they had a closer look at Slovak modern history, especially at the first months following November 1989, they would quickly discover that part of the blame should also be put on the revolutionaries and intellectuals, who back then stood at the heart of the events.

History of mankind obeys the same principles as physics. The state of our universe is directly derived from the Big Bang, which determined the future in a split second, from the universal constant to the gravity that imprisoned us on this planet.

November 1989 was indeed a “small bang” – much, much smaller than the French Revolution 200 years earlier or the Russian one in 1917.  Nevertheless, it was similar in its essence: at the beginning, after the collapse of the former regime, everything was open, often literally so, as were the doors to government for example.

The problem with contemplating the failures, or to put it more mildly, the mistakes that we made, is that doing so is made difficult by the fact that our actions and decisions were motivated by the best intentions.

However, as history taught us once again, the consequences of a good will are often hellish.

I was a frequent witness to the debates of the Communists in the 1950s, to which my father also belonged. The best of them suffered from a deep sense of guilt because they stood at the birth of an inhumane regime. Yet at the same time they were able to describe in detail the reasons leading to their participation.

Very often, these were reasons that we generally consider virtuous – the desire for justice for example. Sometimes, participants of these debates included non-Communist peers, former political prisoners such as the author Karel Pecka. His reaction was an ironically brief one: ‘So what?’

When I think about November 1989, I imagine a similar reaction from young people today, to whom I would explain why we made this or that mistake.

The second problem lies in the fact that practically everyone who belonged to the closest circle of the former revolutionaries united under the PaV, ended up there also on account of their earlier manifestations of courage and integrity.

(‘So what?’ Karel Pecka would say.) But also among the former Communists of the 1950s, there were many brave people who risked their lives in the Nazi resistance. Venerable character is not enough to guarantee infallibility. Such people can miss the mark in new situations, just like anyone else.

The third problem with reflecting on the failures is simply that the situation in Slovakia is not that bad after all – the aftermaths of the “small bang” are substantially better than in a typical revolution.

Instead of executions and imprisonments, we now have the kind of freedom that this country has not experienced up to date; instead of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks, we have regular politicians that do not threaten our lives, even if their qualities may be doubted.

In short, the hands of the Slovak revolutionaries haven’t been smeared with blood and so it is hardly possible to speak of blame. Yet, is that enough of a defense?

The fourth problem is the unwillingness to even mention any degree of failure. Some time ago, I found myself in the company of friends from the closest circle of the PaV, and the topic of the discussion was the profound dissatisfaction with the developments in this country.

Someone suggested that we should speak up; write a joint declaration in which we would name all the evils happening around us. I pointed out that if we wanted to do that, we had to first admit our share of responsibility for the situation, otherwise no one would take us seriously. We had to admit our own failures.

Silence followed, and then a surprised question: ‘What failures?’

It is probably true that in Slovakia we have never nurtured a self-questioning culture, and that admitting one’s own mistakes is considered a weakness. However, I partially grew up in the environment of Czech dissent, which consciously fostered criticism of its own ranks.

Its outer resistance against the Communist regime was matched by an equally profound inner resistance against the illusion of its own moral or intellectual superiority; it was a survival instinct.

I know about my own failure enough, and a few sentences suffice to describe it. In those first months after November 1989, I do not recall any act of my own that could be considered a substantive contribution to Slovak democracy.

I gladly remember the debates with friends on the premises of the PaV – they often lasted till the wee hours – but I do not remember volunteering to do anything truly useful, if I don’t count founding a publishing house or editing PaV’s political agenda.

Realpolitik, ceaseless negotiations and practical decisions did not interest me. I was simply lazy. In addition, I was undereducated; I knew almost nothing about the functioning of parliament, not to mention the functioning of a state.

It is true that I was some ten years younger – I was 33 years old then – than most of the key people in the PaV, but that does not excuse me. If a young man or woman would stop me in the street with the question from the introduction of this article, I would have little to say in my defense.

Nevertheless, some of my failures were also typical of my friends, and these are the ones I would like to talk about. This text does not aspire to provide a detailed historical account. It is more an attempt to offer a subjective reflection, which is why I chose not to base it on a facts and memories galore.

And of course, I myself have identified a number of arguments that could rebuff or challenge what I am about to write…

Rejection of politics

We failed, because we did not have any idea about the state or understand how political power can be used as an instrument to put such idea into action.

This resulted in an unease with respect to power, which could also be attributed to the fact that the core of the PaV was composed of intellectuals: that is, sociologists, writers, artists of all sorts, and occasionally activists, whose professions were miles away from the theories of politics and the state.

Sure, after the students, we were the first to revolt. Nevertheless, our legitimacy, above all, was born from our courage more than our knowledge (yet in those times, nobody in Slovakia apart from the Communists understood how the state and power really worked anyway).

But does that defense suffice? A crash course in politics can be completed within a few days or weeks – after all, we were going through it anyway.

Why did we then refuse to make use of the power, leaving instead the first “government of national understanding”, as it was then called, in the hands of Communists, even if it was only to those whom we found to be somewhat reformed?

It was simply because we did not want the power; we even considered that to be our virtue. I do not know if there is any other example of revolutionaries in history who did not fear their opponents when they were in power, but only became scared of them the moment they fell to their knees – or more precisely, became scared of their own victory.

Sure, we were disadvantaged by our awareness of too many revolutionaries who grasped the power only to end up eaten by their own revolution. Did we want to avoid this fate?

We used to say that this revolution was primarily meant to enable free elections; we believed that these would bring about a good government, which would allow us to come back to our own hobbies, occupations and careers and thus rid us of the responsibility for the fate of the country.

I am afraid that the main motivation of our actions really was the desire to leave that ominous space where power had manifested itself as quickly as possible, to escape from it, and to return to the safe havens of the intellectual life, where responsibility was such a pleasantly abstract notion.

Sometimes I get overpowered with a sense of shame, when I remember how much time we spent in those first weeks after November attempting to transform institutions that were so bizarrely marginal, such as the Writers’ Union.

Sure, the fighting spirit of the elites of the former regime, who refused to give up their positions, should have warned us that the transformation of society would be much harder than it had initially seemed.

Sure, Communism nurtured its writers at its ideological basis. But today, who still cares about Slovak writers?

Our unwillingness to seek real power had profound effects. The chaotic months leading to the first elections made people insecure and frustrated to the extent that they ceased to trust us. But even more importantly, our reluctance to engage gave to those who – unlike us – longed for power a signal that the way was more or less free. One of these people was Vladimír Mečiar.

He became the Minister of Interior after we announced a call for the position, because we could not find anyone in our circle that was interested in taking it. I am not sure if history knows any other examples of such revolutionary naivety. Mečiar would have perhaps come to power regardless of our support; nevertheless, this argument cannot excuse us from our responsibility for paving the way to his Premiership and the ensuing six years of decline. Unfortunately, the fact that we became his first major opponents matters little in our defense. (‘So what?’)

It is probable that even if we had decided to harness our power and had succeeded in this endeavor, we would have lost it soon after. However, we could have at least tried to change this country for the better in the time that we were given. We did not use it. The most important people in the PaV were so thorough in their resistance to power that they did not even run for Parliament.

We considered politicians to be clerks, whose role it was to do what we, the intellectuals, would tell them. When Vladimír Mečiar rebelled against the PaV and founded his Movement for Democratic Slovakia, he had a number of repulsive reasons. Nevertheless, one of them was correct: he was right when he accused us of refusing to assume political responsibility while we dictated what he should do.

Today, Slovakia is a country where power is typically longed for by people who are unworthy of it. The endless series of disappointments that accompanied our political life have incited such resentment towards politicians and their activities, that very few decent people are willing to attempt to overcome it and seek this type of power.

However, we were the first ones to exhibit this contempt for politics, even though the power was then at our feet, and we could have at least tried to give it some dignity. We are the last ones to have the right to complain about our political culture.

Rejection of the Left

Early in 1990, when we decided that the PaV would become a political movement and attempt to win the elections, we asked ourselves, ‘to which political stream should we belong?’ Slovak politics was still at a very nascent stage and there was a general dislike of ideological dogmas.

Partly as a joke, each of us filled out a questionnaire that was meant to help us answer the question of who we were. A number of my friends, myself included, discovered that we belonged to the moderate liberal Left. We felt awkward.

A year later, in debates during what we used to call the “political club”, I realized with surprise that we were discussing our movement’s transformation into a right-wing party.

The arguments appeared logical. The Federal Government in Prague advocated radical market liberalization and the massive privatization of state property, and we supported this government and even had our ministers in it.

Nevertheless, I could not have imagined that I would have been a member of a right-wing party. If there is such a thing as an internal political compass, then it was what raised its voice inside me.

The PaV was converted into a right-wing party (it was called the Civic Democratic Union), but I did not join it. My short political journey was over.

It is a seemingly banal story of one movement, however, its consequences are far-reaching. The PaV was originally founded as a movement of intellectuals who were trying to create as free a space for the natural development of the Slovak society as possible. Yet by transforming itself into a right-wing party, it virtually announced to the nation that the space of freedom is situated exclusively on the Right.

Since the PaV was the bearer of profound moral ethos, it was easy for the Slovak elites to join the ranks of its transformation.

The Left thus became not only a political, but also a social depository of such vices as nationalism, defense of the former regime and vulgar demagogy.

Sure, one may object and say that the Left alone is to blame for not creating its own value system. But who should have delivered it?

In the years that followed, the Slovak intellectual space found itself captive to the prejudice and contempt against anyone who dared to admit any Leftist tendencies. Only few managed to do so, but simultaneously, they succumbed to the “dissident syndrome” and retreated into radical intellectual opposition, which was just as unpleasant as the arrogance of the Right.

It took almost two decades for the Rightist occupation of values, such as the freedom or human rights, to end and this was caused primarily by the failure of the right-wing parties themselves.

Today, the Right has been left with just one remaining stronghold – the occupation of November 1989. The logic is rather comical: Since the PaV was transformed into a right-wing party and many right-wing politicians espouse November 1989 (some rightfully so, others not), it is actually thought to be a rightist revolution.

In Central Europe, Slovakia is unique in this sense. In Poland, Czech Republic or Hungary, the intellectuals and former dissidents, who had taken part in the changes of 1989, divided themselves between the Right and the liberal Left more or less proportionally (just for illustration, proponents of the Left included Jiří Dienstbier or Pavel Rychetský in the Czech Republic; Adam Michnik and Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland; and György Konrád, Miklós Haraszti, László Rajk and others supporting the coalition of Liberals and Post-Communists in Hungary).

The ideological vacuum of the Left also brought about something that usually comes when the free movement of ideas is artificially impeded.

The fenced in playground of the Right, which proclaimed itself to be the only alternative, has over time turned into a concrete parking lot of ideological wreckage and stuffy phrases, in which the fragments of political parties aimlessly crash into each other like the molecules in Brownian motion.

It is a sad view – for me all the sadder, as I realize that the intellectuals of the PaV stood at the birth of this political misery.

Economists’ victory

Sometime at the beginning of 1990, the contemporary Minister of Finance, Václav Klaus, visited the headquarters of the PaV in order to explain the idea of the coupon privatization to us. (For the sake of historical accuracy I would only add that I had heard about this idea for the first time before Klaus, from Augustín Marián Húska, who later became one of Mečiar’s key ideologists).

It was an impressive lecture and it seemed to address the greatest riddle of those times – how to restore natural ownership relations – in the words of a contemporary slogan, ‘how to turn a fish soup into a living fish’.

It was a strange situation: we were sitting in a big room – around twenty of us – and none of us were economists. We had spent our previous lives dealing with literature or the social sciences, and the legitimacy of our revolutionary qualifications was limited to our courage to say aloud that the Communist regime was non-functional and criminal.

Nevertheless Klaus did not speak of righting any wrongs; there was no space for any moral categories in his speech. He talked about how it would all work, and that this was the way to capitalism.

I raised my hand and asked him how he knew that it would work, and what might happen if it did not succeed. ‘In that case I’ll go and lecture about it at a university in California’, Klaus answered with a smile.

I still can’t forget that sentence and I reproach myself for having considered it just a witty remark. For not having understood the profound truth pronounced in that fit of honesty, not just with respect to Klaus alone, but also the uncertain science of economics.

Today, after the financial crisis, bank failures, market hysteria and Europe’s unsuccessful attempts of to dig itself out of debt via drastic spending cuts, we know that economics belongs to the humanities, just like sociology, psychology or literature studies. There is no such thing as a homo economicus who acts rationally in line with mathematical models.

We now know that the mathematics in economics has nothing to do with the mathematics in physics, which describes the nature of the world. Mathematics in economics only describes the economists’ hopes that the world is the way they would ideally want it to be.

When a certain mathematician, a Chinese American named Li, discovered a formula for calculating debt risk in the 90s, bankers thought he had found the Holy Grail, and began to invent financial derivatives based on his formula.

It is true that the formula held with only a 95% probability, but no one paid attention to those other 5%. The gamblers of the financial markets behaved like people who build their houses beside rivers, profoundly convinced that floods would never come.

However, we did not know all this back in 1989, or in the years to come. We had dedicated our entire previous lives to advocating freedom and we believed wholeheartedly in its beneficial effects on society. So when the economists came and started talking about the free market, in our perception, they were talking about freedom.

After all, “free” and “freedom” are almost identical terms. Yet at the same time, we realized that we did not understand their language – we had no clue about capital flows, or about the functioning of the stock exchange or currency exchange rates.

In our eyes, economists were something like shamans who understood mysterious flows of money and had the power to open the floodgates and drown out the decades of Communism.

We trusted them when they explained that it was necessary to give capable people an opportunity to get rich quickly, because they would then become the engines of the economy and at the same time, their wealth would make them feel responsible to the society. We really trusted them.

It was also convenient for us. We were glad that economists were assuming responsibility for future development; they looked so much more confident than us – the doubting and indecisive intellectuals.

A long time ago, thanks to my father, I had the opportunity to witness the deep trauma experienced by his Communist generation as they were feeling the shame, primarily for their intellectual failure. They had accepted the Communist idea without reservation and they were ashamed by this idiocy. They excused it because of their youth and a bitter encounter with democracy, which had betrayed them because it was not able to defend them against Hitler.

I listened to them carefully and I swore to myself that nothing like this would ever happen to me; that I would always be wary of any ideology and anyone who would claim to have a reliable recipe for the problems of the world.

Today I have to admit that I failed as an intellectual, because I gave all my trust to economists and abandoned my own belief that justice – that is, good legislation, the rule of law and an insistence on moral values – is superior to everything, including economics.

Sure, the story has been the same virtually all over post-Communist Europe. I am not able to explain this to myself, but maybe the reason for this is that the intellectuals and former dissidents did not truly believe in the historical power of the ideas, for which many had served a jail term.

The sudden encounter with the riches of the West and the consumerist frenzy that overtook our societies made them accept the explanation that the fall of Communism was caused primarily by its economic incapacity.

And when it became obvious that the free market – free of good laws – challenged the very foundations of society, because it impaired it through corruption; that the newly rich only felt responsible for protecting their own, often embezzled money, and would do anything to keep the corrupt system alive – it was too late.

Maybe this development could not have been prevented and would have been the same even if we had stood up to the economists who, in the words of Václav Klaus, were not willing to distinguish between dirty and clean money.

It is quite likely that our insistence on morals would have missed the target. In the end, the few who tried to remain in politics with such an agenda were quickly eliminated by the voters themselves.

Nevertheless, this does not excuse in any way our failure – our fascination with the science of economics, which turned out to be so disastrously fallible.

I am sorry

I could list a plethora of further arguments to explain and defend our actions in those crucial months following November 1989. After all, most of us have remained upright people rightfully belonging to the narrow circle of the Slovak intellectual elite. Yet this is precisely why we do not need any defense.

The fact that in the times of the “small big bang”, we made mistakes, which due to serious consequences can also be labeled failures, is the natural fate of any revolutionary. The only strange thing about this in Slovakia is that we are silent about it.

I have nothing against a memorial on Freedom Square that my fellow revolutionaries demanded. They certainly mean well, and also intend to dedicate it to the tens of thousands who came to that square in November 1989 to freeze and rattle with their keys. It just amazes me that the idea has not come from one of those tens of thousands. Is it possible that it has not crossed their minds, because they do not consider this revolution to be an event worth commemorating with pride and tears of sentimentality?

I fully understand them. And why should that idea not come from their children who are now 20? Do they not cherish the freedom that we won for them with defiance?

I fully understand them. The freedom is not the goal; it is merely a necessary condition for a decent life, which it, however, by no means guarantees. If a young man or woman stops me in the street with that question from the introduction, I will have no other choice but to say, ‘I am sorry’

(The original Slovak version of the article was published in the webzine Projekt N: Intelektuáli neprevzali zodpovednosť, tak musel niekto iný).

Martin Milan Šimečka

Martin Milan Šimečka

is an author and journalist, currently editor of Respekt, a Czech political weekly and member of editorial board of Denník N. In 1990 he founded and led an independent publishing house Archa. He later became editor-in-chief of Domino-forum, a Slovak weekly. In 1997 - 2006, he acted as editor-in-chief of SME and in years 2006-2008 he was editor-in-chief of Respekt, from 2009 he changed his positon to editor and contributor.