[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Harlequinade

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John Gray: Harlequinade
The Times Literary Supplement, 3.1.31

    A CARNIVAL OF REVOLUTION. Central Europe, 1989. Padraic Kenney. 341pp.
    Princeton University Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley. £19.95. 0
    691 05028 7.

    Many explanations of the Communist collapse tend to focus on the
    economic failure of state socialism, but - as anyone who visited
    Central and Eastern Europe during the Communist period knew - that was
    hardly novel. Under central planning, shortage and corruption were
    endemic and chronic; one way or another, people in Soviet bloc
    countries had learnt to live with them. The economic failings of state
    socialism played little role in triggering the regime changes of 1989.
    Nor did the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev. The chief constituency of
    the reformist Soviet leader was always in the West. In Russia, his
    policies served only to reveal the Soviet system's lack of legitimacy,
    even among members of the nomenklatura who benefited most from it,
    while in Central and Eastern Europe he was widely perceived as trying
    to rescue a regime that was flawed beyond recovery. Though Gorbachev's
    unwillingness to sanction the use of repressive force made life easier
    for dissident movements, it does not explain the sudden political
    meltdown that began in Central Europe at the end of the 1980s.

    Part of the problem with conventional academic accounts of Communism
    is that they have always relied heavily on official sources. Visiting
    scholars could not be sure of getting another visa if they showed
    themselves to be too critical of their hosts. As a result, many of the
    worst features of the Communist regimes failed to register in the
    standard academic literature. As an example, the degradation of the
    environment in Russia was rarely mentioned in the voluminous pseudo
    discipline of Sovietology, and never in ways that reflected the scale
    of the damage that had been done to the natural world and human
    health. Yet the Soviet environmental catastrophe was common knowledge
    among emigres and dissidents, and - in conjunction with the Chernobyl
    disaster -it contributed to the constellation of forces that toppled
    Gorbachev and overturned the Soviet regime.

    An ingrained deference to authority is poor preparation for
    understanding a time of political upheaval. A corresponding poverty of
    first-hand experience debars most Western academics from giving any
    useful account of the events that transformed Central Europe in 1989.
    Against this background, Padraic Kenney's A Carnival of Revolution is
    seminal and indispensable. Using his first-hand acquaintance with many
    of the key participants in the movements of intellectual and popular
    resistance that developed in the late 1980s, including some who remain
    little known, Kenney has given us a pioneering oral history of the
    "revolution from below" that redrew the political map of Central
    Europe. Strikingly well written, A Carnival of Revolution weaves
    personal narratives of protest into an illuminating historical
    analysis of the changing environment in which a new kind of politics

    In referring to the movements that took shape in countries such as
    Poland, East Germany, Slovenia, Czechoslovakia and western Ukraine as
    a "carnival" of actors and issues, Kenney seeks to distinguish them
    from anything like a conventional political opposition to the
    Communist apparatus. For one thing, they were far more pluralistic. As
    he observes:

    This was not simply a tolerant pluralism of parties and movements, in
    which one person might be a socialist and another a conservative, or
    one person focused on environmental problems while another worried
    about nuclear war. I think of it as internal pluralism: one mixed and
    matched identities, and issues, as necessary, depending upon what was
    necessary to defeat the Communists. A nationalist pacifist, or a
    pro-market green, was not an uncommon species.

    Not only were the new movements refreshingly hybrid in their
    intellectual outlooks, they were highly innovative in the techniques
    of protest they employed.

    Groups such as the "Orange Alternative" in Poland used "socialist
    surrealism" - painting their faces and wearing elf-like costumes, for
    example - in a surprisingly effective campaign of ridicule and
    derision against the Communist authorities. Elsewhere in Central
    Europe, a ragtag army of punks, hippies, greens and peace campaigners
    used techniques of mass protest to set the scene for revolutionary
    political change.

    Kenney performs an invaluable service in recovering the inspiring
    motley of Central European dissidence from the memory hole of history.
    At the same time, perhaps inevitably given that he is swimming against
    the current, he tends to overestimate the impact of the protest
    movement on subsequent political developments in the region. Reading
    Kenney, one would scarcely suspect that former Communists had returned
    to power in eastern Germany, Hungary and elsewhere. Nor would one
    guess that with the passage of time some of the more familiar aspects
    of Central European nationalism, such as xenophobia and anti-Semitism,
    have revived as significant forces in politics. Kenney is keen to show
    that the countries in which oppositional movements were most highly
    developed are those that have since done well in combining the
    economic transition from state socialism with democratic governance.
    There is some truth in this view, but what it misses is the larger
    contribution made by the differing histories of the countries of
    Communist Europe.

    If Poland has done best in handling the problems of transition, one
    reason is that the Communist regime in that country never succeeded -
    as it very largely did for a time in Hungary and Czechoslovakia - in
    destroying civil society. If one looks further back, and considers
    countries not included in Kenney's survey, we find that those that
    lacked experience of democratic government in the pre Communist period
    - such as Romania - are experiencing considerable difficulty in coming
    to terms with the dilemmas of post-Communist reconstruction. There is
    a lesson here.

    By humbling the ruling regimes of Central Europe in 1989, Kenney's
    carnival of anti-authoritarian movements achieved a peaceful overthrow
    of tyranny on a scale unprecedented in history; but they could not
    shift the larger burden of the past.

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