1989 and the Theater of Politics

Elzbieta Matynia, New School for Social Research

No matter how miraculous the turning point of 1989 appeared to be, it was hardly a miracle; rather, it was a marvelous staging of freedom in several acts, a modern performance, as it did not have one author, or even one director: it was the collective creation of self-educated citizen-actors, with its most visible grand finale played out atop the Berlin Wall. As unexpected as that particular event was for most of those who watched the merry crowds on TV, it had actually been made possible very gradually, through an incrementally recovered and then furnished public space, a space where words, not bullets, have performative power, thus opening the way for a radical, indeed revolutionary change to be achieved by non-violent means.

I would like to highlight certain aspects of the evolution that led to 1989, ones that I feel may not be fully appreciated in the west. The first one was the incremental crafting of an Arendtian space of appearance, the reconstruction of public space through the gradual repossession and expansion of sites where people could speak and act. One should remember that along with the economy, land, and infrastructure that became the property of the state in the satellite countries of the Soviet Union, so did the realm of “the public.” The dialogical public sphere, as I argue elsewhere, had been fully eradicated and replaced by a monological “official” one, and any public-spirited civic longings had to seek substitute sites or would more likely end up in the opaque zone of the private. This relocation of the public into the private resulted in the peculiar zone of a privatized public realm – where classes of the Flying University took place, where student theaters could pose serious questions to tiny audiences, where poetry could be typed on thin tissue paper (12 copies at a time!) and then circulated (given that copy machines were locked inside state offices), and where students could collect money for imprisoned workers. This privatized public realm was already in the early 1970s a nascent public sphere.

I would also like to highlight the role of the arts, especially theater, the most social of all art forms, where two groups of people, actors and audience, meet face to face in one place. In the context of a dictatorship, theater allows people safely to enter hypothetical worlds, to interact, imagine, speculate, re-enact. In Eastern Europe a young theater movement offered a dialogical intermission in an otherwise monological world, and thus created the conditions – even if initially limited – for the emergence of public discourse and the opening up of the public sphere. That budding sphere had been auspiciously empowered by the Helsinki Agreements signed in 1975 by the entire Soviet Bloc, especially by the declaration of a respect for “human rights and fundamental freedoms,” including “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”  The privatized public realm, which was an objectified, embryonic, discursive sphere open to a very limited public, was gradually expanded, and it was in this context, protected by various international human rights watch groups, that the first openly pro-democratic institutions and initiatives emerged, like KOR (Committee for Workers’ Defense) in Poland (1976), Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia (1977), or Beszelo, the first clandestinely published periodical in Hungary (1981).

A major education in matters public and a true civic competence were acquired during the extraordinary 16-month period of Solidarity, with its symbolic space of appearance, the Gdansk Shipyard, and its leading actor, Lech Walesa, who spoke and thought so refreshingly “otherwise.” This indigenously inspired en-acting of democracy by citizens, practicing publicness, dialogue, and compromise – something I call performative democracy, with all its humanity, its drama, its brilliant inspiring moments, its spirit of improvisation, and its imaginative solutions – spearheaded the peaceful transformation of an autocratic environment into a democratic one in Central Europe. Deeply rooted in distinct and diverse socio-cultural sites, performative democracy is neither a theoretical model, a political ideal, nor a tested system of governance. It assumes an array of forms and is expressed through various idioms, but when it occurs under the conditions of authoritarian rule, it usually reflects its actors’ basic sense of democratic ideals, and their belief that there are indeed places – “normal countries” – where civil rights are observed, and where democracy is actually implemented and practiced. And one should not dismiss the power for such people of the image of a normal country.

Among the new political idioms of 1989, which dramatically speeded up the end of communism in Eastern Europe, were the Roundtable Talks conducted in Warsaw between the Communist government on one side, and its recent political prisoners on the other: workers, dissident intellectuals, leaders of underground Solidarity.  The talks took six weeks and were concluded in April 1989, establishing the grounds for a peaceful dismantling of the system. With its eye on publicness, dialogue, and compromise, the Roundtable generated a culture in which insular groups that exploited fear could not feel comfortable. A few months later, in the summer of 1989, similar roundtable talks took place in Budapest, initiating a transformation in Hungary.

There were striking similarities between the Roundtable Talks in Poland and those conducted a few years later in South Africa, which suggests that the formula of dialogue at a round table, with no privileged seats for any party, and with the idea that this might achieve fundamental change peacefully, may be one of the most positive political inventions of an otherwise dark 20th century.  Not only is the roundtable — like the ones that ended the Franco regime in Spain, Communism in Poland, and apartheid in South Africa — a well-tested instrument of political change, but it is also a powerful instrument for individual growth, learning, and the self-transformation of participants on both sides.  The outcome of the roundtable – the dialogue-produced word — is a compelling consensual word, and it carries with it undeniable obligations that are key for the early stages of democratization.

The very theatrics of the negotiated settlement in Poland had been surprisingly analogous to those in 1993 that led to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. In both cases the peaceful transformation was accomplished by providing a space of appearance (a huge piece of furniture around which the talks were conducted and reported to an anxious public), by authorizing and legitimizing the actors, by requiring the drafting of a script, by establishing the rules of negotiation, and by foreseeing the need for a contingency infrastructure in which any lack of agreement could be dealt with. In such a situation the agreement expected to be produced at the roundtable represents far more than what it actually states. Hence the roundtable itself, as a conventional act, becomes a political genre, an idiom of political compromise, which is both a site of, and a powerful instrument for, the release of performativity.  Performativity is the domain of the political — it can arise either where there is no democracy, or where democracy has become complacent and weakened. In both places, Poland and South Africa, it established the grounds for a new order, and marked the beginning of the long, tedious and less thrilling process of building institutions and nurturing the culture of democracy.

The legacy of performative democracy includes various lessons, but I would like to focus on two of them, as I believe they ought to be given serious consideration by policy-makers trying to address an increasingly violent world that endangers the lives of citizens and communities. The lessons I have in mind are a lesson in civil society and a lesson in revolution.

The emergence — however slowly — of a public space, or initially even a semi-public space, is the foundation for a civil society — a foundation of sites where private citizens learn to act on behalf of the public good. In non-democratic systems these launch a process of learning, forming opinions, reasoning, appreciating the value of compromise; and this process is indeed transformative for those who take part.

This micro-political facet of modern politics, especially critical for the birth of democracy but also important for an established democracy to thrive, should not be ignored by political thinkers or policy makers, whether domestically or in their foreign agendas. And more importantly – especially when one looks at the post-9/11 world menaced by Bushism — the transition to a meaningful and enduring democracy, never an easy project, has the best chance to succeed if it is initiated and owned by local people, and takes into account their voices, imbued as they are with their respective histories, cultures, and economies. I would like to think that this is not only a real alternative to tanks and bullets, but also a kind of force that can help recover the lost dignity of people and their identity as citizens.

And one word about a lesson in Revolution. As the first decade of the new century is coming to an end, the politics of hope and any developments that raise political hope are of great interest to very many people around the globe.  We all search for alternatives to violent solutions and despair. And in this context the question whether revolutions — as many past and present thinkers suggest, could be still “proxies” for hope — returns again and again.

I like to think that in 1989 a whole new kind of revolution emerged, delivering hope without bloodshed. So bloodless were these revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, which nevertheless led to the dismantling of authoritarian regimes, that they would have seemed “unradical” in the eyes of 19th-century revolutionaries and thinkers, for whom the French Revolution of 1789 had served as a model. Yet 200 years later it was this very kind of revolution that captured people’s imagination and led to fundamental systemic change. “Velvet” or otherwise unradical, this kind of revolution has become a site of tangible hope, a site in which words have power, in which language has performative power, where speech is action, and where words act.

The revolutions of 1989 replaced violence with acts of speech, or speech action, through which the human condition regained its full dignity, and realized its agency through other instruments than weapons. So here’s a lesson — and it’s not an oxymoron but a new political invention: To bring about fundamental change, negotiate a revolution!

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