From Revolutionaries to External Vanguards

Andrew Arato, New School for Social Research

This is a great occasion, a great 20th anniversary of events that had world historical importance. But so that we do not forget where we currently are in Central Europe, we should also recall what happened in 2001 when the macabre “coalition of the willing” was formed. I at least cannot forget that with the notable exception of the two greatest, Jacek Kuron and Janos Kis, the whole cohort of the best Central European intellectuals became cheerleaders and enablers on the road to the Iraq war. The revolutionary impulse led them to support what revolutionaries from 1791 to 1948, with a few exceptions, always supported, revolutionary regime change carried out by an external vanguard.

When in 1981 my then journal Telos planned an eventually successful issue on the Polish workers movement, the editor, the late Paul Piccone, predicted that the end result of Solidarity would only be Polish Meanys and Hoffas. He did not say Polish Torquemadas only because, at heart a good Catholic, he probably admired the Inquisition. More subtly perhaps, in 1989 Jürgen Habermas skeptically called the Central European transformations “nachholende Revolution,” catch-up revolutions, and our relations have been strained ever since. I did not think the great transformations were revolutions in my definition of the term, and certainly thought that something new and important was being created.

Neither Piccone, nor Habermas, nor anyone else could have had the imagination to predict either the “coalition of the willing,” or the Polish twins (Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, holding the top two political positions in Poland between 2006 and 2007), or for that matter the possibility that the Hungarian hard right would get over 70% of the actual votes in a European election in 2009.

But I hold on to my claim (that owes much to the theoretical considerations of Janos Kis and the great research of Andras Bozoki on the Hungarian Round Table), namely that 1989 did produce something dramatically new: a political paradigm of radical transformation significantly beyond the dichotomy of reform and revolution, yielding a historically new, superior model of constitutional creation beyond the revolutionary democratic European models, and more generalizable than the American version with its dangers of dual power whose results we have seen in Russia.

More importantly, I would now argue that it was insufficient understanding and internalization of what was actually new and dramatic about 1989 that led intellectuals at least toward the hard right internationally or nationally or both, though generally either one or the other. In short they came to think of themselves either as the revolutionaries of the journalistic cliche “the revolutions of 1989” or, more accurately but even more fatefully, as the protagonists of a revolution that did not happen, or: a “betrayed revolution” that needed to be resumed.

The revolutionaries of the imagined “revolutions of 1989” like most revolutionaries everywhere wished to see their revolution extended and exported. And indeed, how could anyone in Central Europe not observe the fall of the dominos with pleasure, or if they could overcome their fairly general Euro-centrism, the full realization of the new paradigm in the dramatically successful transformation of the Republic of South Africa in the 1990s. As long as one focused on the actual details of the paradigm, and not what was intrinsic to the category of revolution with all its elitist and authoritarian implications – Carl Schmitt’s sovereign dictatorship in the domain of constitution making – there was no risk in these aspirations.

But it was especially fateful when the supposed revolutionaries relied on the concept of totalitarianism, something they often did in spite of the fact that no concept could be more misleading for Gierek’s Poland, Kadar’s Hungary, Gorbachev’s or even Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, or even, pace Kanan Makiya, Sadam’s decrepit Iraq, more a failed state than a system of total rule. It was this concept that led them to discover a la Jeanne Kirkpatrick places that on their own could never generate civil society based oppositions, the fundamental pre-supposition of negotiated transformations such as their own. Then the revolutionary impulse led them to support what revolutionaries from 1791 to 1948, with a few exceptions like Giuseppe Mazzini, always supported, revolutionary regime change carried out by an external vanguard. Their earlier staunch critiques of Leninism were now sacrificed to their hatred of a supposed totalitarianism. The much admired Hannah Arendt’s explicit warning that totalitarianism is a highly exceptional historical regime, as well as her implicit diagnosis that revolution leads to constitutional democracy again only in highly exceptional circumstances with inherited republican structures of self-government, were entirely forgotten.

I will not focus on the right today that rejects the Round Tables and the paradigm of 1989 because they did not represent true revolutions. Quite consistently they have fought for a genuine revolutionary rupture since 1989, and have so far, probably because of the role of the constitutional structures and the influence of Europe, not succeeded. Let us note, however, that their strategy of de-communization has been aped by the American occupiers of Iraq whose de-Baathification has helped to make an unlikely road to constitutional democracy less likely still. The revolutionary right in each country, as the communitarian left in South Africa, can be effectively opposed in my view only if we become clear about what was done in 1989 and the 1990s and what it is that must be avoided both at home and abroad. Again focusing on international politics, the lesson will be especially important with respect to a place like Iran whose democratic activists have great reasons, strategic and normative, to reject the entire heritage of revolution, Islamic or any other. We must on our part spare them all threats, real and imaginary, of revolutionary regime change imposed by an external vanguard. Nothing will be more useful in their own internal attempts at regime change than the dissolution of such a specter now again linked to a hysteria over WMDs. Can we finally learn from the not so distant past?

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: