The Hour of the Demagogue

The Hour of the Demagogue

Mini Teaser: As fate has it, Russia is given to the power of extremes,.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

Now everyone is familiar with the tut-tutting Western commentaries and editorials that this episode produced.  Walesa's victory allegedly demonstrated that the Eastern European revolutions had a very dark side.  They allowed the resurgence of nasty pre-democratic folkways--the preference for one-man rule, the paranoid search for the enemy within, and so forth.  Equally important, the rejection of Mazowiecki showed that economic collapse was too much for representative institutions to handle.  Even analysts with some sympathy for Walesa joined the indictment.  Timothy Garten Ash suggested in the New York Review of Books that Walesa's themes reflected a considered judgment about how to make the transition to democracy: a Polish leader who cannot deliver a higher standard of living any time soon has to pander to popular blood lusts instead.  He does this by offering Communist heads on a platter (figuratively, of course; there were no executions).  In a clever phrase, Ash called this approach "Salome tactics."

Clever as it is, the description misstates what is at stake.  The real issue is not how to distract people from hardship, but rather how to make sense of it for them.  Hardship can be adequately rationalized only if it is part of a program that realizes the goals of the revolution.  Leaders who seek to sustain popular support during the transition to democracy have to prove that a real revolution, not a halfway one, is taking place; that the country won't wake up at the end of the process to discover that the same people are still in charge.  This is why anticommunist rhetoric has been a crucial source of legitimacy.  Middle-class intellectuals who disdain it are unlikely to convince people that the revolution will be carried through to the end.  They may even produce disenchantment with popular government itself.  If this is what their vaunted "moderation" leads to, then who are the real gravediggers of democracy?

In Poland, misplaced moderation gave way only to a tougher brand of anticommunism; democracy itself did not give way.  In 1917, by contrast, Kerensky's mistakes did promote the victory of illiberalism.  Yet the basic pattern--the collapse of centrist reformism--was the same.  Fifty years ago, it provided the basic theme of Crane Brinton's study, The Anatomy of Revolution, which remains one of the best explanations of the weakness of men like Mazowiecki and Kerensky in a revolutionary environment.  In analyzing the English, American, French and Russian revolutions, Brinton found that in every case a first wave of moderate reformers was given a chance to remake the old order, and that their response to this opportunity was almost always the same:

to set about quite naturally cultivating the sober virtues that go with power.  Such virtues, however, make them inadequate leaders of militant revolutionary societies.

The moderates also displayed a deeper weakness: a lack of conviction that the people were able to detect.  In the French and English revolutions, Brinton wrote, the moderates

used grand words and phrases grandly, as a consolation and a joy to their listeners and to themselves.  But they did not believe in them as the radicals believed in them; they did not intend to try to pursue them to their logical conclusions in action.

This is still a remarkably fresh account of what we would today call the credibility problem of moderate reformers throughout the old Soviet Empire.  It pervaded Mazowiecki's half-hearted campaign, which he waged in nineteenth-century style, rarely leaving his office except for weekend speeches.

In retrospect, Mazowiecki's weak defense of himself and his policies is itself defensible only if one concludes that the future of Polish democracy was not in fact hanging in the balance.  Had Walesa been a true tyrant in the making, Mazowiecki's readiness to send the good democrats down to defeat for the sake of a lot of Communist holdovers would seem absurd.  After a lifetime in opposition, he could hardly have believed that he owed the nomenklatura a graceful retirement.

Mazowiecki's handling of anti-Semitism was an almost equally incomprehensible case of self-restraint.  He refused to dignify with any response the insinuation that he might be part Jewish.  Scorning the obvious ripostes (how dare Walesa degrade Poland's elections! or, this shows Lech's no democrat! or, look at what he'll do to avoid spelling out a real economic program!), he simply said nothing.  To many, this silence under attack seemed wonderfully decent, even saintly.  But, again, such admiration rests to a large extent on not taking the threat of Walesa's anti-Semitism too seriously.  Had his rival been a truly ominous figure, Mazowiecki's aloofness would seem more a mark of impotence than honor.

To defend himself fully, of course, Walesa has to establish more than that his campaign of self-aggrandizement did no real harm.  He has to argue that Polish democracy needed a more capable defender--to secure it not against the likes of Lech Walesa but against other challengers who might not be democrats at all.  The election returns seemed to bear him out.  Mazowiecki so jeopardized support for the democratic transition that he actually received fewer votes than the mysterious Stanislaw Tyminski, an almost unknown Peruvian-Canadian spiritualist-businessman who was widely thought to be working for the secret police.  As the Communists themselves always say, a revolution must be able to defend itself.  Mazowiecki's was not.

Postcommunist Eastern Europe

The choice between Mazowiecki and Walesa has, in a variety of forms, been posed in almost every country of Eastern Europe since 1989: it is the choice between relying on old institutions as a bridge to the new, and pushing forward hard to overturn the communist order as quickly as possible.  Should the old guard be treated as potential coalition partners or as criminals?  And, the crucial question, which approach does more to strengthen new democratic institutions?

The answer to at least the first of these questions is quite clear.  Throughout Eastern Europe, governments that tried to follow strategies of institutional continuity and national consensus lost ground; they were either obliged to pursue more radical policies or were replaced.  This was even true in Czechoslovakia, where the Communists had been thrown out in what was called the "Velvet Revolution," a slogan meant to suggest that the convulsion underway would be barely perceptible and certainly not painful.  The usual revolutionary excesses would be prevented by persuading people, as President Vaclav Havel tried to do in his 1990 New Year's Day address, that everyone was to some degree implicated in the old order.  By the same token, the new order would rest on the unifying principle of "culture" and have room in it for everyone.

Havel's own prestige was so great that this formula seemed to have a chance of working.  And yet it soon became clear that not all Czechs subscribed to the universal-guilt thesis.  They wanted visible confirmation that the revolution, Velvet or otherwise, was really happening.  Within months, the Havel government had to announce that it was launching investigations and trials of the Communist old guard.  This retreat was important not because it showed that the revolution in Czechoslovakia had some of the attributes of revolutions everywhere but because the legitimacy of the revolution would otherwise have been undermined.

If Czechoslovakia seemed the most promising place in Eastern Europe for a painless democratic revolution, Bulgaria seemed one of the least promising for self-government of any kind.  While Communist regimes were falling elsewhere, Bulgaria continued to be seen in the West as having so little awareness of the outside world and such weak democratic traditions that the Communist Party might rule indefinitely on a constitutional basis.  At first these expectations were borne out: the Communists came out ahead in the elections of spring 1990 and formed their own government after the alliance of liberal parties rejected a national unity coalition.  A coalition, the liberals believed, could only legitimize the idea of continuing Communist leadership.  Waiting for an opportunity to take on the government, the opposition organized the only successful general strike in the history of the communist or postcommunist world.  In November the government fell, and a new cabinet with a non-Communist prime minister was formed a month later.  By refusing to compromise and by conducting a strategy of confrontation, the liberals had made the Communists their junior, and fading, partners.

Gorbachev and the Demagogues

The most prolonged clash between moderate reformism and radical demagogy was the one carried on until last month between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.  In the space of just a year and a half, they were by turns adversaries (in the spring and early summer of 1990), and then collaborators (in the late summer and early fall of that year), then adversaries once more (from the end of 1990 through April of 1991), and finally collaborators again (until Gorbachev's fall in August).  Yet throughout this period, even when working together, they stood for deeply different approaches to changing the Soviet system, a disagreement that has not been made any less basic (or any less bitter) by the hardliners' coup.  To the moderate reformer, Yeltsin may always be guilty of having pushed too hard, of overplaying his hand.  To the radical demagogue, Gorbachev brought on the counter-revolution by failing to break the power of the old guard when he had the chance; he underplayed his hand.

Essay Types: Essay