The Not So Lost Treasure of the Revolutionary Tradition: 1989 and the Politics of Small Things

Jeffrey Goldfarb, New School for Social Research

I think that the kind of activity that Hannah Arendt named “the lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition” was a visible part of the transformations of 1989, and has continued to play a significant role in the politics of transformation. I believe there is no way to better mark the 20 anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall than to try to illuminate this. I will outline here how “the politics of small things,” my way of thinking about the lost treasure beyond fatalism, was a crucial part of the struggles in the former Soviet bloc, and has played an increasing role in the democratic politics in the United States and elsewhere. Recognizing that the lost treasure is not so lost highlights the importance of public sphere processes in our times.

Arendt wrote about the lost treasure in tragic terms. There was an experience of being alive, fully, of being a part of a public that constituted its own destiny. In the French resistance during the second World War, her example as she opens her preface to Between Past and Future, she observes: “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute willy-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country was transacted in deed and word.” But “it did not last long.”

It was a lost treasure, a recurring pattern. She laments: “The men of the European Resistance were neither the first nor the last to lose their treasure. The history of revolutions – from the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia and the summer of 1789 in Paris, to the autumn of 1956 in Budapest – which spells out the innermost story of the modern age, could be told in parable form as the tale of an age-old treasure which, under the most varied of circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again, under different mysterious conditions, as though it was a fata morgana.” Yet, she notes that on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century there were names for the apparent mirage, her lost treasure, public happiness in America, public freedom in France – “the difficulty for us is that in both instances the emphasis was on the ‘public’.”

I first read this depiction when I was working with the democratic movement in Poland in the late 1970s. I was both moved by the way she described what I was seeing before my eyes, and committed myself to trying to understand how the remarkable activity I was observing might persist in Poland and elsewhere.

Much of my research and thinking since has been motivated by this. I have tried to document and theoretically clarify the accomplishment of a free public life, independent of official institutions, and tried to think about it in a way that might reveal that it is not a mirage, but an ongoing political possibility. I compared public life in Poland and America in On Cultural Freedom, my first book directly influenced by Arendt’s notion of the treasure. I argued that public freedom and happiness were key to understanding the politics leading up to 1989, in Beyond Glasnost. I have continued to work on the importance of this special type of publicity in my research on American political culture and my study of the role of the intellectual in democratic society (in The Cynical Society and Civility and Subversion). But, unlike Arendt, I turned away from the heroic melodrama of the lost treasure, and wanted to show how the special fruit of a self created public, with its happiness and freedom, has played an ongoing role in functioning liberal democratic practices.

More recently my work on the democratic opposition and Solidarnosc, both above and below ground, and on the democratic transformation all over the old bloc in 1989, suggested to me a way to confront the problems after 9/11. As I was observing the development of the anti war movement, and later the Dean campaign, I saw the same patterns of action as I once observed in Poland and among its neighbors, and it reminded me again of Arendt.

I noted how people then and now met and spoke to each other, and acted in each other’s presence, told stories about the actions, and developed a capacity to act together in new ways, “bringing something new into the world,” as Arendt would put it. In simple everyday terms, that is what she was celebrating in her notion of the lost treasure. She placed these activities in heroic, world historic contexts, the great revolutionary tradition, but it really is a capacity built into everyday life, I think. This is my notion of the politics of small things. Key to the appreciation of these developments is the understanding that in public people can create among themselves a capacity to act together toward political ends. They may not be able to challenge directly the prevailing powers, but the simple possibility that they can control and govern their own domain creates new political realities which can be, under certain conditions, decisive.

In the 1980s and 90s, people in Central Europe acted as if they lived in a free society, and when the full force of a repressive state was not forthcoming, they created zones of freedom in the Soviet bloc. 1989, it seems to me, represented the radical expansion of these zones. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not asserting that in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the transformations were simply a result of opposition activity, that more macro factors only played a minor role. What I am saying, rather, is that the opposition was a primary agent of the change, that it enacted the change as it was happening, influenced as the participants were by their own previous actions and more global developments. People earlier met, spoke and acted in each other’s presence and created an alternative public apart from officialdom. This had immediate and long term consequences. They prepared illegal publications in private homes (but even clandestinely in the basement of the communist party headquarters in Warsaw). They attended unofficial university seminars in apartments. They created and observed the performances of banned plays or music concerts (often quite sacrilegious) in the annexes of churches, and planned strike activities (I observed all this first hand). They created the opposition in the 80s, changing the political landscape and in the process our geopolitical world. Public freedom and public happiness were involved, contributing in significant ways to the transformations of 1989.

I know that this account may sound overly romantic, long on idealism, short on realism. Yet, if we overlook this dimension of political life, we don’t only become ignorant of “a case history of hope,” as Flora Lewis once put it in her book on Poland in 1956, we also overlook a solid foundation for power.

In the book, The Politics of Small Things, I analyze how the same power, of the not so lost treasure, based on social interactions, was observable in the anti war movement and the Dean campaigns in 2003-4. With a difference: “the politics of small things + the internet = alternatives,” as one of my chapters was entitled. And now, there is Obama. In both the Dean and the Obama campaigns a new form of electoral politics has appeared. A major difference between the two campaigns is the political talent of the leader: Dean of the scream, Obama, one of the most eloquent orators of the recent and really even the distant past. His expressive capacities are an important part of the power he is generating. Another significant difference between the campaigns, more sociological, less personal, is the way the social interactions of the web has helped in the constitution of an independent public space for political action in the Obama campaign. It is similar to, but much more advanced than, the Dean campaign.

But commonalities are more important than differences, illuminating a general development in the transformation of public life. In the making of 1989, in the anti-war movement and the Dean campaign, and in the campaign and Presidency of Barack Obama, the fact that the lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition is very much a part of our political world becomes evident. It is apparent that a kind of power, under-theorized in the social sciences, is not only worthy of attention, but demands it. If we follow Arendt more than Habermas in our understanding of the public domain, or more precisely, the domain of publics, we realize its dynamic contribution to the major historical developments in our times. It became central in 1989, all around the old bloc, and has contributed to remarkable developments, facilitated by the new media, all around the world, from Ukraine, to Lebanon, Burma and Iran, demonstrating the power of the powerless. And most intriguingly, it contributes to an understanding of the emerging leadership of the most powerful, the President of the United States, Barack Obama.[1]

1.  For a full description of the revolutionary nature of the Obama campaign and early months of his Presidency see my “On Barack Obama,” Constellations vol. 16, no. 2, 2009.

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