Stuck Back in 1989
The Final Revolution
By George Wiegel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: John Luxmoore & Jolanta Babiuch
Now that the “I Was There” books about 1989 have been mostly, and rightly, forgotten, attempts to explain Communism’s downfall have entered a more serious phase. George Weigel’s book is certainly one of the best so far, because it looks beneath the surface of events and penetrates to a deeper level. But The Final Revolution, for all its pithiness, will irritate eastern Europeans, many of whom will see it as another telling of their story from a selective Western viewpoint.
In the euphoric atmosphere four years ago, most of us would probably have nodded in vague agreement at the tone of Weigel’s preface. “There are few moments in history,” he says, “particularly in this bloodiest of centuries, when the good guys win, cleanly, and against great odds. This is what happened in Central and Eastern Europe in the Revolution of 1989.”
But the spirit of 1989, alas, is not the reality of 1993. We are all bit older and wiser, or at least we should be. In today’s frenetic climate, Weigel’s picture of eastern Europe seems sadly outmoded.
Notwithstanding that, there is much in this book that readers will find interesting. The events of 1989, Weigel contends, cannot be explained solely in political and economic terms. Instead, we have to look beyond, to the realm of religious faith, seeing the changes as tantamount to a “revolution of the human spirit.”
Not everyone will agree with the degree of importance Weigel attaches to other factors. The much-vaunted “Basket Three” of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, for example, certainly encouraged eastern Europe’s already well-established dissident movement. But contrary to what Weigel believes, it said nothing about “human rights,” only about humanitarian cooperation, and was seen by some eastern Europeans as a carefully stage-managed Western sellout. Likewise, while Reagan’s saber-rattling added to pressure for change, most oppositionists, even now, have probably never been able to dissect the strategic logic of SDI.
Yet Weigel has shown sound instincts by taking the ethos of peaceful resistance seriously. What in the end damages his book are its lyrical assumptions.
Nowhere in the book does he define his understanding of “revolution” or “freedom” or “democracy,” or take much account of the profound dilemmas his larger-than-life protagonists faced.
The Final Revolution‘s subject matter is limited to Poland and Czechoslovakia, two countries with very particular experiences that are hardly shared elsewhere. Even here, Weigel shows a poor grasp of the significance of principal characters. Leszek Kolakowski was deported for something a great deal more important and interesting than trite-sounding “anti-communist writings.” Curiously, the equally great Jan Patocka, whose ideas formed the basis for Charter 77, rates a mention only because the police apparently tried to disrupt his funeral.
Weigel seems not to have heard of any underground samizdat titles other than Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Nor does he appear to have heard of any secular dissidents other than now much-criticized former Party members like Adam Michnik and Bronislaw Geremek — and he offers no analysis of their relation to, and philosophical dialogue with, the Catholic opposition, which helped lead to Solidarity.
Likewise, Weigel’s well-worn account of Vatican Ostpolitik fails to establish its importance. He rightly questions the judgments of researchers like Hansjakob Stehle, but in places allows his description to become crudely simplistic.
Weigel’s chapter on the Polish Church is largely just a retelling of the by now familiar story of Cardinal Wyszynski and the Catholic hierarchy. His chapter on Czechoslovakia (where the Church was allowed no hierarchy) is better for being largely about ordinary priests and believers. But here too Weigel’s account still lacks something supremely important — an ability to distinguish the influence of Christian ethics from the actions of Church personnel. Indeed, Christianity helped undermine the Communist system. But this means the values of Christianity, not necessarily its institutional servants. That these values were shared by non-Christians accounted for the rise of mass resistance. But they were discovered, mostly, by experience and instinct, rather than via the explicit teachings of the Church.
Another telling weakness arises from the author’s treatment of Marxism, which like much else, suffers from a non-analytical, ahistorical approach. “Communism was, first and foremost, a heresy,” Weigel writes. “It was a defective and deforming vision, of the human person, human community, human history and human destiny.” And so it was. But “communism” (also undefined here) could and did evolve — from the ideological totalitarianism of Stalin to the pragmatic authoritarianism of Jaruzelski. It also had deep-rooted causes and will leave profound scars.
We may not agree with Poland’s Tadeusz Mazowiecki that Marxism was in essence “Christianity’s own bad conscience.” But we must certainly ask hard questions if we are to avoid such calamities in the future. Why did the Church and Christianity prove so weak in the face of the ideological onslaught against them? And what has the Church — not to mention democracy and capitalism — learned from the experience?
Those who believe, like Weigel, that Communism was just a “heresy” imposed by force of arms are unable to ask such questions, let alone answer them. They ignore the fault lines in our societies which Communism successfully exploited, and which have by no means been removed today.
But Weigel’s biggest mistake lies at an even deeper level — in succumbing to the romance of “revolution” allied to Western triumphalism. Communist millenarianism has been defeated, he implies (relying for most of his historical analogies on the now dated work of Norman Cohn). But does this mean we can now simply return to comfortable verities and business as usual? The truth is we can’t. Just because reality can’t be made perfect doesn’t mean we have no duty to change it. And just because social justice requires moral methods doesn’t mean we can ignore its call to action.
Weigel has been right about many things. But he is not right about eastern Europe. He conjures up a grand formula from a collection of images and impressions. But this will not do. There has been no “final revolution,” nor will there ever be. We should have learned by now to put such fantasies to rest.
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