After the Fall

Marxism is dead. Long live…?


The West has been watching, stunned, as a corroded Iron Curtain crumbles rapidly and irrevocably, the rust of its contradictory ideology finally giving in to the weight of time and irrelevance. Meanwhile the opposition in these countries is tasting power for the first time in nearly five decades and faces tough choices. It is now no longer enough merely to oppose Marxism. A positive plan must be forthcoming. And yet, while it is generally clear to the opposition that the free market is superior to a centrally planned economy, there is much talk about "the Swedish model," welfare rights, and, yes, equality. The nations of Central Europe, far as they certainly have traveled, are still in need of painstaking education in the moral and legal foundations of capitalism. Their encounter with democracy is, after all, not only geographically and historically distant but tarnished by decades of egalitarian indoctrination.

There is little doubt that Marxism-Leninism has long been discredited. The challenge before us is to rescue from under the rubble of its fatal misconceptions a philosophical base strong enough to see the long-mutilated nations of Central Europe emerge into Western civilization once again. For the logical leap from repudiating Marxism to defending capitalism is not apodictic.

Even the brilliant analyst of the demise of Marxism, Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, whose trilogy Main Currents of Marxism was first published in English a decade ago, has found it difficult to embrace pure capitalism. On the one hand, Kolakowski fully appreciates the fact that Soviet-style communism was no mere Leninist aberration but rather a well-founded, logical interpretation of Marxism. "It was Marx," he writes, "who declared that the whole idea of Communism could be summed up in a single formula—the abolition of private property." He understands too that the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the nationalization of industry and agriculture followed naturally. And once "having nationalized the means of production, it was possible to erect on this foundation a monstrous edifice of lies, exploitation, and oppression."

Yet at the same time Kolakowski supports capitalism only reluctantly and on egalitarian grounds. He attributes its success to the fact that the system made it possible to "limit exploitation by progressive taxation, partial control of investment and prices, welfare institutions, increasing the social consumption fund, etc., even while private ownership of the means of production continues and exploitation has not been abolished." With such faint praise from an intelligent critic of Marxism who has been in the West for years, we can imagine how difficult it is for Central European intellectuals to accept the virtues of free enterprise.

Some progress has occurred. The failure of Marxism has precipitated serious intellectual reexamination of first principles even among ordinary people with little or no philosophical training. As Josiah Lee Auspitz wrote in a June 1989 Commentary article, "Young Poles seem to understand that concepts like a legal person, freedom of contract, civic virtue, trust, separation of powers, and the rule of law must be reconstructed from the ground up, if prepared minds are to seize such opportunities as may present themselves."

The variety of philosophical schools that currently flourish in Poland is indeed testimony to the intellectual health of this nation newly emerged from communism. This is surely a momentous opportunity: There is a good chance that totalitarian ideology will be replaced by a healthy appreciation for pluralism, coupled with a rejection of simplistic scientism and ubiquitous, stultifying planning. For there is little doubt that communism, or socialism in its extreme form, has lost all credibility in the Soviet Bloc.

At the same time, the ideas of capitalism have made some inroads. British philosopher Roger Scruton explains in a recent journal article that what he calls "new right" philosophy (essentially, classical liberalism) has been infiltrating Central Europe for several decades now. Increasingly, he finds, this thought is influenced by "the phenomenology of socialist failure, the attempted return (perhaps in a state of unbelief) to Christian roots and to the 'symbolic order' which has grown from them, and the idea of the market as an expression of responsibility."

Yet the capitalist credo is by no means dominant in Poland, members of the labor union Solidarity only recently having started to convert to nonsocialist ways of thinking, with still a long way to go. Neither has the Catholic Church traditionally been an enthusiastic supporter of capitalism. Miroslaw Dzielski, the late president of the Krakow Industrial Society, a free-market-oriented association, was initially shunned by the Catholic Church and later embraced only with reservations. Shortly before his untimely death last November, Dzielski told me that the Poles are not yet ready to understand the significance of guaranteeing property rights. In an interview published by the Gdansk-based Mloda Polska journal on June 22, 1989, Dzielski said that "for the time being the left dominates the scene" in Poland, since "all [recent] democratic changes in Poland have been instigated by the left."

The problem, familiar to libertarians in the West, is that people see capitalism as an engine of material progress but not as a morally superior or politically attractive way of organizing human affairs. Dzielski told Mloda Polska that the last decade has seen many changes in Poland; the concept of free enterprise has made great advances. The Krakow Industrial Society has gained respectability and influence, to the point that Dzielski could say that in fact "today there is no 'left' thinking in economy in Poland. In other words we seem to have succeeded." But, he admitted, "the left has a natural political and social support. This is the obstacle one finds hard to overcome."

Although the Krakow Industrial Society has been painstakingly educating Poles in the principles and mechanics of private initiative for nearly a decade, the road to privatization in Poland is still a thorny one. The society was legalized two years ago and is gaining increasing official recognition, with three of its members in top government positions, including the minister of industry. Yet there is still far to go. Its proposal to create a credit bank to make small loans to entrepreneurs flounders for lack of a paltry $1.5 million in capital. Meanwhile, the Polish government asks Western governments for aid totaling billions of dollars—aid that, unlike the credit bank's loans, would likely not be repaid. Notes Polish free-market economist Rafal Krawczyk of the Catholic University of Lubin: "The Poles do not understand free enterprise. They apply it haphazardly and mix it with government controls."

Similarly, the statement of principles of the Hungarian Alliance of Free Democrats blends classical liberal ideals with welfare state rhetoric. So, for example, the Free Democrats declare, "we are heirs to European and Hungarian liberalism, which seeks to restrict the power of government over society, which desires an end to human defenselessness and which aims to realize the autonomy of the economic sphere." But they also say, "we are heirs to European and Hungarian social democracy, which was the first to discover efficacious means to protect working people against exploitation, making them conscious of their right to a decent living." The platform calls for "the right of individuals and collectives to have full jurisdiction over their property and…a free enterprise system." But it also speaks of "the right to minimum income" and "the right to prosperity."

Central European intellectuals, particularly in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, often not only have failed to fully understand free enterprise but have adopted a distrust of systems and ideologies in general. The Hungarian intellectual George Konrad, for example, writing in a "manifesto" entitled Antipolitics, opts for "a healthy pagan cynicism toward dedicated fanatics" of any stripe. Konrad favors a transcendent, transpolitical, or nonpolitical system of values—reflecting an abhorrence of all ideology.

Czechoslovakia's new president, playwright and former dissident Vaclav Havel, often couches his political writing in poetic language. In his 1984 essay, "Politics and Conscience," he decries Marxism as the most dangerous illusion of all, "a vision of a purely scientifically calculable and technologically achievable 'universal welfare.'" But his distrust of planning and science extends to a general suspicion of all ideologies, even, one might conclude, the non-directed system of capitalism.

He resists ideological categories, deeming them out of date and too impersonal: "Or the question of socialism and capitalism! I admit that it gives me a sense of emerging from the depth of the last century. It seems to me that these thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories have long since been beside the point. The question is wholly other, deeper and equally relevant to all; whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speaking, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral and dignified human I, responsible for ourself because we are bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything, of his banal, prosperous private life—that 'rule of everydayness' as Jan Patocka used to say—for the sake of that which gives life meaning. It really is not all that important whether, by accident of domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power."

On a less abstract level, the recent democratic revolution in Czechoslovakia seems to have been the work of young, largely apolitical students. Jailed with old-time dissidents in a crackdown last fall, the students learned the techniques of 1968 from their elders. But their anti-establishment fervor represented the rebellion of youth. Although they demanded elections and an end to the communist system, they offered no platform for what would come after. Alongside wall posters of Karl Marx, they hung pictures of Groucho Marx and John Lennon—neither exactly a symbol of a coherent philosophy.

Opposition to authority clearly does not automatically translate into a libertarian philosophy. Karel Dyba, a senior researcher at the Academy of Sciences in Prague and former Communist Party member, observes that free enterprise has won the intellectual battle among many serious economists in Czechoslovakia. But, he adds, implementation of free markets will face many obstacles. Interest groups will undoubtedly be hurt as, for example, some prices increase. Already in Czechoslovakia, parliamentary deputies from mining regions have raised objections to free-market reforms that could put miners out of work.

But Dyba also notes that few people understand just what "the free market" entails. Deep-seated egalitarianism, reinforced by decades of Marxist assumptions, may rouse people to oppose the privileges of the communist system. But it may also make them uncomfortable with the inequalities of capitalism—as Soviet citizens have begun to resent the prosperity earned by owners of private co-ops.

Central European opposition groups, who overwhelmingly draw their leaders from among intellectuals, face another problem as well: adapting to the realities of politics. Romanian-born Vladimir Tismaneanu describes the psychology of the Central European intellectual: "swinging between utopia and despair, East European intellectuals have acquired a sense of surreal political sociology unknown to their peers in the West. They are inheritors of that culture of apocalyptic irony symbolised by names like Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Karl Kraus, Arthur Koestler, or Elias Canetti, a world where dreams and politics were mysteriously intertwined in a foreboding allegorical texture."

Such a mindset ill equips the intellectual to run for office. And in some cases those who seek political involvement may be doing so for unfortunate reasons—such as the newly acquired taste for power and publicity. The hard work of campaigning and earning public support, moreover, requires respect for the opinion of common folk. Intellectuals now have to develop a popular base, which is no small task. In some cases, they are facing the challenge surprisingly well—witness the successful referendum sponsored in Hungary by the Alliance of Free Democrats in November. By contrast, the populist Hungarian Democratic Forum appealed to the baser instincts of some ordinary Hungarians, including remnants of anti-Semitism, only to see the tactic backfire.

It is impossible not to speculate about the psychology of the long-captive Europe. In the absence of reliable opinion polls, let me suggest a poem by Adam Zagajewski, a talented Solidarity activist born in 1945, by way of illustration for what I take to be some of the principal lessons learned by the people of Central Europe. The poem is entitled "Fire."

Probably I am an ordinary middle-class
believer in individual rights, the word
freedom is simple to me, it doesn't mean
the freedom of any class in particular.
Politically naive, with an average
education (brief moments of clear vision
are its main nourishment), I remember
the blazing appeal of that fire which parches
the lips of the thirsty crowd and burns
books and chars the skin of cities. I used to sing
those songs and I know how great it is
to run with others; later, by myself,
with the taste of ashes in my mouth, I heard
the lie's ironic voice and the choir screaming
and when I touched my head I could feel
the arched skull of my country, its hard edge.

The blazing appeal of the fire which parches the lips of the thirsty crowd is the inebriating seduction of Marxism, or indeed of any ideology that promises to recreate humanity through state power. A similar seduction was described by Plato in The Republic; another version was responsible for the French Revolution; its most horrifying 20th-century expression was the Holocaust created by the National Socialists under Hitler. Its temptation is timeless. Yet it burns books, chars the skins of cities, and later there is the taste of ashes in one's mouth. The lie, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn also eloquently wrote, is only a natural corollary.

Like the writings of Havel and other intellectuals, the poem suggests a strong suspicion of ideology, or at least of ideologies that would sacrifice individual humanity to their cause. But it leaves space open for the individualism and spontaneous order of capitalism. Zagajewski speaks undoubtedly for millions when he describes himself as "an ordinary middle-class believer in individual rights." Quite simply, "freedom" is a concept that is best applied not to classes but to individuals; that, in a nutshell, is the message of collapsing Marxism.

Yet individualism does not imply turning inward: The people of each Central European country continue to love their nation. Zagajewski continues to feel the arched skull of his country, its hard edge, as if it were his own—and it is, indeed, his own being, his own reality, reborn, refound. The people of Central Europe have developed a deep love for their respective tortured nations, and a long, rich cultural heritage has fostered a sense of pride. Thus Havel, at least, does not beg for Western help, believing that the people of Czechoslovakia, in particular, must help themselves. Yet neither does he deny the universal relevance of what has happened there: for what is at stake is "the salvation of us all, of myself and my interlocutor equally. Is not the destruction of humans in Prague a destruction of all humans?" What happened in Central Europe after the Second World War is the monstrosity of state control writ large. This experiment, therefore, has implications beyond Prague—or Budapest, or Warsaw.

It is not hard for me to imagine the state of mind of Central Europe. I recall that misty day in October, 28 years ago, sensing the despair I was leaving behind in my native Romania. In Romania, communism was born brain-dead, with little chance of ever gaining support. Yet as I left it, I had no appreciation whatever of capitalism. That knowledge would take years to gain, and longer yet to embrace.

Juliana Geran Pilon is executive director of the National Forum Foundation in Washington, D.C.