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My Dinner with a Prophet of the New World Disorder

An excerpt from Stan Persky's new book 'Post-Communist Stories.'

Stan Persky 15 Nov

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book is Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desire, published by Cormorant Books and excerpted here with permission.

[Editor’s note: The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in an era that philosopher and writer Stan Persky, who splits his time between Vancouver and Berlin, reflects upon in his new book Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires. An interview with Persky runs today on The Tyee. And here is an excerpt from his book, the chapter titled 'City Without Citizens (Budapest, 1993) '.]

I returned to Budapest in June 1993 because I'd read an essay by Gaspar Tamas. My previous trip there had been to cover Hungary's first post-Communist election in 1990. Now, three years later, it was clear that the transition from Communism to whatever was next would be far more complex than the early enthusiasts had thought. Apart from wanting to wander through Budapest once more and again to cross the bridges that spanned the Danube River, which ran through the centre of the city, I wanted to measure the political and cultural changes in Hungary since the fall of Communism.

A few weeks before I arrived, I'd read a lucid, bitterly self-critical essay by Gaspar Tamas, "The Legacy of Dissent: How Civil Society Has Been Seduced by the Cult of Privacy." Tamas was a philosopher, university prof and opposition member of the Hungarian Parliament. Accompanying his article in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement (May 14, 1993) was a 1988 photo of him being arrested in the streets of Budapest for dissident political activities and led away by the Communist police.

If anyone could explain what had gone wrong in Hungary since 1990, Tamas was the man. It proved easy enough to get a telephone number in Budapest for him, he was at home when I called him from Berlin, my unfeigned enthusiasm for his essay appeared to please him, and he invited me to visit him when I got to Budapest.

That something had gone wrong in the years immediately after the Central and Eastern European revolutions of the late 1980s was not in question. While parts of the new Europe were painfully transforming themselves into capitalist democracies, elsewhere the end of Communism had produced chaos, kleptocracy, and horror.

The Soviet Union had ceased to exist, collapsing into its component ethnic parts, and was daily threatened with further splintering wherever a local militia could assemble enough men and weapons to raise a flag for a new Absurdistan, as such entities were sarcastically dubbed by the international media. The former Yugoslavia had been turned into a multi-ethnic pit of terror. Now people spoke of the process of change requiring a generation, rather than a mere, if bumpy, two or three years.

In Budapest, I quickly found out that its parliamentary government was, if unloved, sound enough (there were preparations for future elections as the first four-year term wound down). I had some idea of its standard of living: impoverished compared to Western Europe -- precarious even -- but not in utter ruin, as was the case with several of the republics that had emerged from the former Soviet Union; and there was sufficient pluralism that my host at the apartment where I was staying, a zany composer, could imagine that his melodies might inspire a social movement.

Yet the story whose spoor I followed was that of the fate of a certain kind of thought. What had happened to the ideas of the dissidents who had helped end Communist rule, or to their theory of ''civil society''? Despite brief moments of ''action'' -- a drink in a bar, the playing of a piano, a walk over the Danube -- this story was discursive. It hinged on reflections about the unexpected outcome of the fall of Communism and I kept losing my grip on it in my dreamy perambulations through the streets and over the bridges of Budapest in the hot summer sun.

On Molnar Street, a block back from the Danube, I arrived one late afternoon in my overheated state at Gaspar Tamas's apartment. He led me into a study lined with books from floor to ceiling. Not only were the shelves full, but piles of books and journals occupied every available surface, spilling onto tables, chairs, a small day bed against the wall. I mopped my forehead with a handkerchief.

"Here, let me," he said, hauling away a tottering heap of books to make a space for me to sit down. Tamas was thinner than in his dissident days, his once bushy beard now carefully trimmed, his fluent English still tinged with the accents of an Oxford don.

Tamas, though now a critic of his old idea of civil society, was still interested in it. The notion that there could be a civil society existing parallel to authoritarian Communist governments had informed the resistance to dictatorship not only in Hungary, but throughout Eastern Europe.

Tamas's essay about the legacy of dissent began with an enquiry into the post-Communist "general antipathy felt toward dissidents" by the new conservative rulers of Hungary. The dissidents had been the ones to resist the Communist state, while conservatives had been ''sleepers'' who kept their mouths shut; once the Communists were gone, it was the conservatives who had gained control of the state, and the dissidents, again in opposition, were scorned and resented.

Tamas' deeper interest was in the dissidents' own understandings and misunderstandings about a number of central ideas: civil society, democracy, and the resistance to the Communists that Hungarian writer Gyorgy Konrad had dubbed "anti-politics." What Tamas found profoundly disturbed him.

The idea of a civil society held by the Eastern European opposition had been inherited, Tamas noted, from Enlightenment liberalism in the West. The classic problem of Western liberal society, where the power of the state was weak compared to the absolutist monarchies that preceded it, had been to fashion a civil society in which the initiative necessary for self-government could be sustained through the activity of citizens in voluntary associations. "In other words," Tamas put the question, "how were they to hold society together in the absence of a pre-ordained hierarchy?"

But the problem faced by East European opponents of the Communist regimes was entirely different. If Western theorists had to figure out how to "persuade the autonomous individual in a free society to be a citizen ... my generation in Eastern Europe had to counter the crushing preponderance, the all-pervasive omnipresence of the police state. Our fear was not ... that individuals would become 'atomized,' disoriented, amoral, oblivious to duty. We were afraid that without diversified, pluralistic voluntary associations the dutiful citizens of the totalitarian state would become automata."

The East European idea of civil society, Tamas argued, therefore had to be pitched against the state. If the Western idea of civil society was political, "the East European dissident idea was anti-political. The East European idea was, as can be seen from the works of Havel and Konrad, to avoid politics altogether with the aid of a straightforward morality which would stress the beauty of everyday life, integrity in small matters ... and above all, authenticity." Havel had called it "living in truth." The result was a deep suspicion of institutions, particularly those established and controlled by the state. Tamas thought that such anti-political disdain for "institutional discourse, the imposition of codes of behaviour, ideas of justice, and an abstract universal language" were contributory factors to the present disarray in Hungary and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc.

The human rights for which Tamas and others had fought, he now believed, had been selected "so as to be anti-political," to interfere little with the existing structures of power. Perhaps this was understandable, given the overbearing and violent reality of Soviet power and Western acquiescence to the status quo of a world divided by the Iron Curtain. But it also reflected the view that for most dissenters, "civic community, the state, the law were all suspect. Freedom resided in individual moral action. In Eastern Europe, dissenters believed, human rights would leave action to a very small state manned by administrators."

In the end, those rights would "nullify any conceivable claim of the City on its citizens: the exodus of the citizen from the City would be completed. Dissidents, who have led the exodus, the desertion of the City, now find themselves in the wilderness. They find themselves faced with a body of opinion which fails to recognize any institutional authority, any civic duty, any political obligation, any idea of the common good, while at the same time impatient with disorder and squalor."

It was a withering critique, I thought, and one that also applied to the societies of the West, where the retreat from politics was as widespread as Tamas claimed it to be in post-Communist society. The sources of disaffection might be different -- consumerism, entertainment, trivia, a media-driven disdain for the "City" -- but the results were similar.

"It seems to me that this is a very lacerating self-criticism," I said about his essay, once I had settled myself into the crowded study.

"Well, that's what it is, yes," Tamas agreed, as he wedged a window open to stir the sticky, warm air of the room.

I was curious to know how he had made the journey from the dissident insistence on individuals "living in truth" to views that seemed to sail within sight of Plato's Republic. Tamas had begun as something of a libertarian and now he was a parliamentary representative of a left-centrist party. Yet his thinking had brought him to an ancient notion of the body politic.

"Well, we went through this period of self-admiration," he began, then, as if impatiently brushing it away, added, "and we've had quite enough of all that. It was time to find out what had happened to us, and what happened to this country, to establish the part of responsibility we share for what I see as a flop of these Eastern European democracies."

He underscored the word "flop." "We shouted on the streets of Budapest, 'We want democracy!' Not rule of law, not liberty, not justice, but democracy." And now one could see what the idea of democracy had amounted to, simply by looking at what people presently considered anti-democratic. "Imposition of political will by an elite -- law -- is anti-democratic. Coercion used to elicit uniform behavior -- public order -- is also anti-democratic." And the list continued, through representative government and the redistribution of wealth through public taxation -- all were seen as anti-democratic. What was left but "an overwhelming desire for the obliteration of the public realm"?

Tamas looked back on it ruefully. "We were all part of the great web, weren't we; the heroic times, thank God, are over, a new world begins, a world of creative disorder," he said, ironic to the end. But despairing also. "We cannot describe it, since the public words capable of speaking of things that are not personal, were exiled together with all of us, when we left the City, all together," he had written.

It was late when we left the stifling study and walked through the dark, empty streets, past the closed courtyards of apartment buildings that lined the neighbourhood streets. Tamas told me about his past as a boy growing up in the provincial Transylvanian city of Cluj, a member of the Hungarian ethnic minority in Romania.

But it was not his student days that were on Tamas's mind so much as the views of his students at the institute where he now taught. "I see the new generation of students," he said, "and their perception of the democratic changes and mine are diametrically opposed to each other. What do they say? They say that the present-day democracy is an abdication. They think that there was a socialist dream, which was beautiful, but human nature is so depraved that we just cannot live up to that vision, and so we have to face the prose of everyday life, the sinful nature of man."

"My students say the same thing," I commiserated.

"And they're bored," Tamas added.

The restaurant we went to was an expensive, well-appointed basement establishment. Tamas was known to the management, who fussed over him. Across the crisp linen, we shared a bottle of wine through a procession of dishes. When the brandy arrived at the end, we were still engrossed in the image of the endangered City.

"There's a shyness and taboo everywhere when it comes to thinking about the state," Tamas insisted. He cited as examples the current bloodbath in Bosnia and the lawlessness of Russia. "Essentially you're saying that, insofar as you had an influence, you created a city without citizens," I said.

"So it unfortunately seems," he concurred. "My fear is that there will be no city. No city can survive for long without citizens."

At midnight, we emerged from the underground eatery. The air was still warm. The streets were deserted, but shadows flitted along the arcades of the silent buildings. We had come to the surface of a city that seemed, for the moment, to be emptied of a citizenry. It was not the Ancient City, but our own. If Gaspar Tamas was right, then the ruins of the abandoned city would not only be found in Budapest.  [Tyee]

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