CEOL - The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Intellectual

November 19, 1999
By Sasa Cvijetic

This autumn, we commemorate ten years since the events that marked the end of Communism in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It is a matter of indisputable fact that intellectuals - writers, painters, film-makers, actors - played an outstanding societal role in the years that preceded these "velvet revolutions." Culture, in all its forms, took the lead when politics could not. As Hungarian poet Gyula Illyes has said: "Each time that politics was found lost in our lands, it was the culture that took its place." This is, indeed, true not only for the former Communist countries but for all closed societies in general. In such regimes, culture and intellectual creation play a role that is much more important than in open societies, for it is a matter of an expression of a certain freedom that becomes explicitly political.

The Soviet regime did not impose limits only on the political, social and economic spheres but on artistic expression as well. Socialist Realism was defined by very strict canons, which were difficult for artists to follow. However, in a very closed hierarchical system as was the Soviet one, even a minor departure becomes dangerous: an aesthetic "deviation" is easily interpreted as a political misdemeanor. In Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, one could find artists loyal to the socialist system who at the same time refused to submit themselves to aesthetic regulation. There were also artists who opposed the Stalinist regime since the very beginning and whose revolt soon transformed into a political gesture. These were intellectuals who never accepted the Communist system and in their arts or their writing were searching for a means to fight against the regime, to the extent that this was possible.

Throughout the entire period of Communism in Europe, culture was gaining more and more freedom. After Stalin's death, the thaw in Russia was to a great extent also cultural. In Hungary, the 1956 revolution had its source among the writers around the Petofi Circle. In 1968, the Prague Spring arrived on a wave of culture. In Poland, it was the authorities' prohibition of a theatre piece that provoked fire in 1968.

The role of intellectuals within Communist regimes has undergone several phases. However, there was hardly a single country, with the exception of East Germany (GDR), in which culture did not question the system. The GDR and Poland were somewhat different, due to the enormous influence of their churches - Protestant in East Germany and Catholic church in Poland - which represented the main refuge for the population. As a result of this, culture in these two countries was to some extent pushed to a secondary position.

The 1960s, which were generally the years of liberalization, were followed by a more rigid period, albeit not everywhere. In Poland, the 1970s and 1980s were the years of Solidarnosc, which was a political and trade union movement rather than a cultural one. In Hungary, "Goulash communism" opened up more and more space for culture, which enabled other types of opposition to the regime, which were not entirely cultural.

Whereas Communism pretty much succumbed completely in 1989, dissidence - whether it was as massive as Solidarnosc in Poland or on the smaller scale of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia - carved the longevity of the system into the unconscious. The activists and opponents of the Communist regime never really reflected on what it means to "get out from under Communism." Following the turnover, fast solutions had to be found. They were not offered by old dissidents, however, but by economists and financial experts, already active in the old regime, who had ideas and precise plans: Leszek Balczerowicz in Warsaw or Vaclav Klaus in Prague, to name two. They were the people who led the liberal economic and political transition, in which there was virtually no place for culture.

Intellectuals and artists accepted this liberal vision without suspicion, believing that public authorities were the arch-enemies of culture and that it was the best time to get rid of them. Public financing of culture was radically reduced and culture was subjected to the laws of a market economy. In a small country of 10 million people such as the Czech Republic, or even in a larger one such as Poland, this evidently represented a huge shock for the national culture, most of all in the domain of visual arts. Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda once said: "We have fought for years for the freedom of film, and now, we have the freedom but we do not have films." Once a source of national pride, today the existence of Czech, Polish and Hungarian cinematography, now subjected to the stringent market rules, is threatened.

The intellectuals committed two major mistakes after 1989: first, they thought that public funds were the enemy of culture. One year after the Velvet Revolution, Jack Lang, former French culture minister and a great defender of the public financing of culture, warned prophetically in Prague: "By no means, do not abandon public financing of culture!" In response, he was accused of being a Communist. Culture financially supported by the state reminded his hosts too much of the old days.

The second mistake was more structural. In the words of Antonin Liehm, a prominent Czech intellectual, the novel that best resembles the spirit of post-Communist Europe is Stendhal's The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (recently edited by Catherine Slater), since it is inherently about restoration. Each restoration, whether it was English or French, whether it took place in the 18th, 19th or 20th century, had its own internal logic that did not leave too much space for intellectuals. Considering retrospectively, the years of restoration were in principle times without ideas. The last decade of the 20th century, both in the East and in the West, appears to be yet another such period without ideas.

Today, intellectuals are obviously afraid and do not exercise their critical role. Some of them act as courtesans serving the post-Cold War establishment. In turn, intellectuals who became politicians in the post-Cold War years stopped being intellectuals and adopted a convenient political discourse. This holds true, for example, for Polish historian Bronislaw Geremek, currently Polish foreign minister, or Czech writer Vaclav Havel, now president of the Czech Republic.

Havel wanted to be president, and his function of intellectual was not interesting for him any more. Over the years, he developed a sense of Messianism. He seemed to believe that his people, and perhaps even the entire world, are in absolute need of him. This is a legitimate belief, since a Homo politicus like Havel, whose political actions are founded on his conception of morality, cannot fulfil his function without such Messianic convictions.

However, no country in the world needs intellectuals in power. Real intellectuals usually make very lousy politicians. An intellectual, it is usually claimed, is a special human being. More often unhappy than happy, he does not accept the world as it is, poses unpleasant questions and turns the established order upside down. More than anything else, he is capable of doubt. An active politician cannot allow himself such a luxury. Czech writer Milan Kundera left Czechoslovakia, because he wanted to be a writer; Havel stayed because he wanted to practice politics.

It is difficult to predict whether the new generation of intellectuals, which still has to appear on the horizon, will build on the experiences of its predecessors. At the moment, there is not yet any sign of this. The generation that has come to power believes that intellectuals of the 1960s were actually trying to save Communism. It is, of course, always the winners who write history. In addition, some of these intellectuals were even considered suspicious in 1989 and accused of leaving their countries in the time of trouble (after actually provoking the Soviet invasion) and enjoying for 20 or more years the privileges of living in the West. Dialogue became virtually impossible.

In 1989 and the years that followed, it was very "politically incorrect" to criticize those who were orchestrating the transition. There was a blatant lack of audacity in judging the new establishment and its actions. It seems that under the Communist regime, in spite of the risks encountered, people were much braver.

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