Public Spheres, Private Lives, and Roundtable Negotiations in 1989 and 2009

Michael D. Kennedy, Brown University

Even for Poland, 1989 was a surprise, but not in the same way as for other parts of the region or of the world. And that was due to the existence of a profound opposition, a mutable communist authority, and an influential and diverse set of Catholic authorities. Poles knew that transformations were likely, for struggles abided.  But what kind of change was not at all clear.  And the public sphere, as concept, as place, and as practice, bore complex relation to all of the above. By contrast, civil society was obvious.

Drawing on and together with others, I have argued that civil society as vehicle, vision and space was central to 1980s transformative praxis. It was critical because it could suture independent trade unions, critical intellectuals, religious, nationalist and other social movements, entrepreneurs of the second economy, and the underground press into a common sense dedicated to pluralism, legality, and publicity. But perhaps the greatest transformative praxis was less public.

The symbol of 1989’s breakthrough should be roundtable negotiations, not the fall of the Berlin Wall. The latter appeals because it symbolized the exhaustion of communist rule and the reintegration of Europe, but it also was an effect, not an ignition or inspiration, of social conflict and systemic change. It also was not so complex as roundtable negotiations.

Roundtables were both public and secret, conflictual and collaborative, legitimate and traitorous, a democratic negotiation to produce compromise democracy, all the while validating civil society and diminishing it too. For the region’s first roundtables, Poland’s represented, and transcended, these antinomies. Much more needs to be researched and written about these negotiations between February and April, 1989, not only for Polish history, but for understanding the conditions of negotiated revolution.

I have contributed some to this effort, and continue to work on this theme. But let me take that example to consider further some of the themes of this occasion.

There are without question heroes of the democratic movement, those who risked lives, family, and well-being, for democratic principles and justice. There are without question bastards who have tortured, killed, and destroyed. The former deserve recognition, the latter punishment. Principles sustain civil courage before criminals in power, and the dream of justice cannot be denied when conditions allow. But peaceful change also means finding ways to bring some who associated with tyranny to democratic futures. And those associated with illegitimate authorities need to find ways to that future.

By 1989, many Communist authorities knew they had limited legitimacy and certainly no monopoly on truth or effective rule. Very few of them realized how little support they truly had. That was fortunate for democracy’s prospects, for those authorities had to believe, if they were to compromise, that they had a place in the future public and commercial order.

Consider the status of those visions, vehicles, and spaces of the authorities’ transformation. They are not at all public. For those who see the roundtables as red-pinko sellouts, those secret compromises are the foundations of a corrupt system insufficiently purified. But one need not take this conspiratorial view to recognize the hidden spaces within which the old authorities found new futures. And they were not alone.

As Havel’s greengrocer made famous, communist rule forced compromise onto most, given the contradictory lives ambition demanded, where intellectual aspiration, organizational responsibility, and political or military leadership involved not only intra-psychic conflict, but some of the greatest pains and losses among family and friends riven by the disgusts of illegitimate compromise. These communist-made contradictions of the private sphere, productively channeled by roundtable negotiations into a public good, were critical to the peaceful changes of those early months of 1989.

Of course it was the character of public discourse that framed and channeled those private sphere contradictions into the roundtables’ transformative praxis.

The common awareness of the Poles’ precarious geopolitical existence made the priority of national belonging an anchor that would make self-limiting revolution and democratic institutional compromises not only understandable but responsible praxis. The spirit of democracy, variably inhaled, gave everyone a way to see how they might move together away from the precipice that would not only save Poland from Soviet invasion, but from perhaps the greater crime where Poles would once again kill Poles. But the bigger question for me remains – how did the value of negotiated compromise among jailors and jailed take priority over simply formulated interests and over the pressure for justice or domination fueled by corresponding publics?

Whatever the answer to the last question, the condition for success is clearly the authority of the leaders themselves within their own publics. For negotiations to have succeeded, the communist authorities compromising had to have credibility among these less pliable, and the opposition had to have enough scars of struggle not to have their own dedication to the cause questioned.  And it certainly helped that in those negotiations, Catholic clergy leant not only their personal integrity but also a plausible claim to privileged access to a transcendent truth beyond public and private. But it wasn’t enough to have authority among these various reference groups. It required a change in disposition, away from mobilizing on behalf of clearly constituted publics, toward the making of a newly unified public through reasoned dialogue among erstwhile enemies. How did they turn battle into contest?

That transformation is critical for addressing not only the foundational questions of modes of governance, but also how to address the crises before us today.

It should not be difficult to recognize the crises today that most resemble those in 1989 – where public and peaceful protest demand authorities to respect the rule of law and the dignity of the individual, where religious figures might invoke divine inspiration to find the higher truth that affirms the value of the nation, and the lives of its people, and where authorities are, if their eyes are open, aware of the profound contradictions of their system and the injustices committed in its name.  But the lessons of the roundtable, and its relationship to private and public spheres, are also instructive for other crises facing not only particular nations, but those facing the entire world.

Consider the negotiations over the long-term environmental crisis. Like the roundtable negotiations, these are both public and private conversations, with leaders struggling to transcend personal interests in the name of longer term goals. Except in these 2009 negotiations, negotiating authorities represent no obvious publics, nor stand for any solidarity beyond a sociological fiction based on planetary futures. Nations are not the meaningful imagined communities for these or other world systemic crises, even though some places suffer more than others depending on financial and geographic contours. Movements are not obvious either; the contradictions are too many. But two lessons from 1989 inspire.

First, although there were clear constituencies roundtable negotiators represented, the sense of public that these roundtable negotiations anticipated was one that transcended opposing sides, and was dedicated to principles of higher public goods that might be won through reasoned dialogue among those differently identified. Perhaps like those working to assure planetary survival, those Poles in 1989 recognized that it was less important to seek redress for past sins, and was rather more important to build an order for the well being of their children and grandchildren. That constituency of future generations can be the only pressure group that moves some issues, like global warming, to the front of an agenda so filled with other crises. But to get it there, we need something more than good heart and good vision about future public goods.

While the roundtable negotiators may have had a vague sense of common futures, the critical vehicle to moving success was a common awareness of the value of non-reformist reforms that built trust over time, keeping changes moving in the right direction. For that first third of 1989, it was built on the anticipation of a partially free election in June, 1989. When those election results were upheld, despite the reasoned expectation that communists, given poor showing, might wish to annul them, another incremental step toward that common public was found. And step by step, a more complete democracy was built.  All before the Berlin Wall fell. And because of those steps, the Berlin Wall could fall in peace and joy.

It is hard to imagine any equivalent wall fall for the environmental crisis before us. But it is possible to imagine those gradual non-reformist reforming steps, as in the development of nationally appropriate mitigation actions instead of unremitting negotiations over which emission reduction targets are right for which nations. It is, rather, movement in the right direction that might just accelerate under the right conditions. But what might be those right conditions? Two more implications from 1989 appear.
First, during 1989, changes in one country inspired greater changes in another, and so on. While it is true that each nation, at the time, had its own national public sphere pressuring change, Hungarians were quite aware of what Poles were doing, as Germans were aware of Hungarian actions, and Czech and Slovak actors aware of what took place elsewhere. Overlapping publics, inspired by other nations’ prior roundtable negotiations, built on the successes of others to create a cascade of ever greater democratic transformations. How might a similar cascade of nationally appropriate mitigating actions take place?

That, then, is the second implication of 1989. Activists and movements were directly aware of one another, working hard not only to build interpersonal ties and common visions, but struggling very hard to imagine what solidarity meant for various civil societies in the struggle against communist rule. This could not be quite public, for too much publicity led to repression. Private meetings among activists in the Tatra mountains come to mind, but it was on those foundations that the communicative mechanisms underlying the cascade were made.

It is appropriate and important to recall the public spheres, private lives, and transformative praxis of 1989 in order to do justice to the emancipations reasoned dialogues can produce. But to do that year proper justice, we should work harder to think about how the values of communicative rationality can be embedded in the most critical challenges of our time.

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