Wed, Nov 17, 2004 - Page 9 News List

What communism still teaches us

The fall of communism in Europe created an opportunity for people there to participate in politics. But conventional two-party democracies have not been conducive to an active citizenry

By Vaclav Havel

YUSHA

The 15th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on Nov. 17, 1989, which brought an end to 41 years of communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, is an opportunity to ponder the meaning of moral behavior and free action. Today we live in a democratic society, but many people -- not only in the Czech Republic -- still believe that they are not true masters of their destiny. They have lost faith that they can really influence political developments, much less influence the direction in which our civilization is evolving.

During the communist era, most people believed that individual efforts to effect change did not make sense. Communist leaders insisted that the system was the result of history's objective laws, which could not be challenged, and those who refused this logic were punished -- just in case.

Unfortunately, the way of thinking that supported communist dictatorships has not disappeared entirely. Some politicians and pundits maintain that communism merely collapsed under its own weight -- again, owing to the "objective laws" of history. Again, individual responsibility and individual actions are belittled. Communism, we are told, was only one of the dead ends of Western rationalism; therefore, it was sufficient to wait passively for it to fail.

The very same people often believe in other manifestations of inevitability, such as various supposed laws of the market and other "invisible hands" that direct our lives. As there is not much space in such thinking for individual moral action, social critics are often ridiculed as naive moralists or elitists.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why 15 years after the fall of communism, we again witness political apathy. Democracy is increasingly seen as a mere ritual. In general, Western societies, it seems, are experiencing a certain crisis of the democratic ethos and active citizenship.

It is possible that what we are witnessing is a mere change of paradigm, caused by new technologies, and we have nothing to worry about. But perhaps the problem is deeper: global corporations, media cartels, and powerful bureaucracies are transforming political parties into organizations whose main task is no longer public service, but the protection of specific clienteles and interests. Politics is becoming a battleground for lobbyists; media trivialize serious problems; democracy often looks like a virtual game for consumers, rather than a serious business for serious citizens.

When dreaming about a democratic future, we who were dissidents certainly had some utopian illusions, as we are well aware today. However, we were not mistaken when we argued that communism was not a mere dead end of Western rationalism. Bureaucratization, anonymous manipulation, and emphasis on mass conformism were brought to "perfection" in the communist system; however, some of the very same threats are with us today.

We were already certain then that if democracy is emptied of values and reduced to a competition of political parties that have "guaranteed" solutions to everything, it can be quite undemocratic. This is why we put so much emphasis on the moral dimension of politics and a vibrant civil society as counterweights to political parties and state institutions.

We also dreamed about a more just international order. The end of the bipolar world represented a great opportunity to make the international order more humane. Instead, we witness a process of economic globalization that has escaped political control and, as such, is causing economic havoc as well as ecological devastation in many parts of the world.

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