Social Currents in Eastern Europe: The Sources and Consequences of the Great Transformation

Social Currents in Eastern Europe: The Sources and Consequences of the Great Transformation

by Sabrina P. Ramet

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Social Currents in Eastern Europe traces the diverse social currents that have developed alongside and interacted with political and economic forces to bring about change in Eastern Europe. In this second edition—which significantly updates and expands the previous edition to include a new introduction, revisions throughout, as well as five new chapters,


Social Currents in Eastern Europe traces the diverse social currents that have developed alongside and interacted with political and economic forces to bring about change in Eastern Europe. In this second edition—which significantly updates and expands the previous edition to include a new introduction, revisions throughout, as well as five new chapters, including timely material on ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia—Ramet extends and develops the theory of social change upon which the book is based.
Ramet draws on interviews conducted over a ten-year period with individuals active in arenas for social change—intellectual dissent, feminism, religious activism, youth cultures and movements, and trade unionism—in eight East European countries: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. She shows how the processes leading to the ultimate collapse of communism began more than a decade earlier and how they were necessarily manifested in spheres as diverse as religion and rock music.
Ramet also examines the consequences of the "Great Transformation" and analyzes the numerous unresolved problems that these societies currently confront, whether it be in the arena of economics, political legitimation, or the challenges of establishing a civil society free of chauvinism.

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Social Currents in Eastern Europe

The Sources and Consequences of the Great Transformation

By Sabrina Petra Ramet

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7772-6


Aspects of the Transition from Authoritarianism to Pluralism

Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state is not far off; but if the law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.—PLATO, The Laws, 715d

This book is about change and the forces of change. At the most basic level it takes one side in a long-standing but rarely conceded covert debate between, on the one hand, those who take a mechanistic approach, lodging the causes of change primarily (or in some cases, even exclusively) in statistically measurable increases in popular political participation, declines in industrial production, changes in the number of people existing below the poverty line, and so forth, and, on the other hand, those who take a more phenomenological approach—in the sense in which Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty use the term—and who trace social changes ultimately, and in the first place, to changes in people's thinking, recognizing that such changes may be produced either by substantive changes in real terms or by elite manipulation of media images or by religious conversion or by other factors or by a combination of these. For the phenomenological school, thus, if a population is completely unaware of any change in its material well-being, then statistical indicators of "real" economic decline will not point to any drift toward social chaos or protest, all other things being equal. This book is firmly phenomenological in thrust (in the sense indicated), despite the citation of extensive statistical indices of economic decline in chapter 2.

The book's central arguments may be stated as such: (1) The pressures for change in Eastern Europe built up over years because of the communist regimes' inability to solve the central problem of legitimation, and these pressures found multivarious outlets—in culture, in religious organizations, even in rock music, while simultaneously exciting tensions along latent axes such as those of an ethnic nature (as in Kosovo) or of a class nature (the Polish trade union Solidarity being a case in point). (2) The regimes' inability to quash incipient reflections of these pressures led to a proliferation of such pressures, as one success (even if only temporary) in dissident activity encouraged other efforts. (3) Because of this relationship among social forces, serious political complaints and demands could be read first in more "sanguine" contexts, allowing political observers to predict the ultimate upheaval without being able to determine its exact timing. (Among those who predicted the ultimate collapse of communism in the region were Ernst Kux in 1980, George Schöpflin repeatedly in the early 1980s, Dimitry Pospielovsky in 1987, Ivan Volgyes in 1987, and William C. Fletcher, while this book was itself undertaken in early 1988 with the original purpose of demonstrating that dramatic political change had become unavoidable.) And (4) although often described as a revolution for democracy, the political shift that became explicit in 1989 and that resulted in the removal of the old communist elites everywhere but in Serbia, was a revolution—and I shall insist on that word—against communism, but not necessarily with the same understanding throughout the region and among different actors as to what programs and institutions should be established; it also has opened a Pandora's Box of troubles, ranging from the challenges of institution-building, to the perils of privatization, to a new strength for chauvinism—whether of an ethnic, religious, or sexist stripe—to the disintegration of the preexisting state community, as in the cases of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. These "troubles" directly threaten aspirations to create and legitimate a stable democratic order anywhere in the region.

Although I have been emphasizing the impact that social and economic pressures may have on political outcomes, and the procreative energy of changes in social values and beliefs, I would nonetheless agree with Rustow's caution that "not all causal links run from social and economic to political factors," and "not all causal links run from beliefs and attitudes to actions." The point is rather that there is a reciprocal and organic relationship among political, social, and economic factors, so that perturbations in one sphere are apt to have repercussions and reflections and effects in other spheres.

The book's theoretical presuppositions involve five components, to be reviewed in this chapter: (1) a theory as to which factors make for political decay and system collapse (based largely on the writings of Crane Brinton, Ted Robert Gurr, Adam Przeworski, James C. Davies, and Herbert Blumer); (2) a theoretical mapping of the dynamics, pace, and phases of transition from authoritarian/totalitarian rule to pluralism (drawn from work by Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter); (3) formulation of a working definition of democracy, followed by a theoretical construct of the necessary preconditions of democracy (which will be set forth against a discussion of the writings of Robert A. Dahl, Barry Holden, Dankwart Rustow, Terry Lynn Karl, Giuseppe Di Palma, Valerie Bunce, and others); (4) an elaboration of the differences between a "strong" society and a "weak" society and an assessment of their importance for considerations of system vulnerability to change (derived directly from the ideas explored under point 1); and (5) a theory about the weakness of new systems and about the relationship between political decay and civil strife (inspired by Crane Brinton and Samuel P. Huntington and based, in part, on previous work of mine).

1. When Do Systems Collapse? (That Is, Why?)

In his classic study of revolutionary processes Crane Brinton outlined seven factors that rendered a system vulnerable to collapse or overthrow. These are (1) economic deterioration; (2) the mobilization of new groups; (3) the defection of the intellectuals; (4) inefficiency and corruption in the system; (5) the loss of credibility by the regime; (6) the loss of self-confidence by the ruling elite and the appearance of fissures and factions within that elite; and (7) the inept use of force. This book was originally launched in early 1988 in the belief that these seven measures could serve as a guide to assessing the prospects for the collapse or overthrow of the communist regimes in the region.

Of the seven factors, three are explicitly subjective in character (numbers 5, 6, 7), depending entirely on what either the society or the elite (or both) may think about the given issue. A fourth factor—economic deterioration (number 1)—is also latently subjective, because, as Gurr reminds us, its capacity to frame and shape political choices depends entirely on its perception and construal—what Gurr calls relative deprivation. Adam Przeworski has similarly laid stress on collective perception as the mediating variable between objective conditions and system vulnerabilities. The remaining factors on Brinton's list (2, 3, and 4) have a more "objective" character, although the importance that corruption (factor 4) has is also ultimately a matter of collective subjectivity; to put it another way, if nobody cares about corruption, it is not politically important.

The transition from an authoritarian system to a pluralist system does not come about as the result of a sudden snap. Even revolution is an evolutionary process, which unfolds over years through definable phases. In the first phase, there is the organization of underground resistance, the creation of the political alternative, which, as Przeworski notes, is the ultimate sine qua non of revolution. This phase necessarily involves years, because the resistance needs time first to build itself, and second, to prove itself. The process involves the establishment of a network of committees at central, district, and town levels, and the establishment of secure underground channels of communication. The process in contemporary authoritarian systems is the same whether one speaks of post-1980 Poland or Iran in the 1970s or certain Latin American countries in the 1970s and early 1980s or the organization of the Resistance in Vichy France.

As long as the regime can break up opposition cells and arrest their members, severely restricting the circulation of opposition publications, the regime remains in this first phase, and it is not in danger of collapse. It is when the regime loses the ability to control its political environment that the system may be said to have entered into its second phase: regime deterioration. As Baloyra points out:

Deterioration is the loss by an incumbent government of its ability to cope with the policy agenda, particularly the two key concerns of political economy—security and prosperity—and other salient issues of high symbolic appeal to the public. Deterioration is the situation in which governments find themselves when they are unable to conjugate minimally acceptable levels of efficacy, effectiveness, and legitimacy.

This phase is likely to stretch over years, although its most telling moments are often compressed in a few months. Finally, the society reaches a threshold, at which real change suddenly seems irreversible. James Davies has underlined the importance of this factor—the expectancy of change—and I have therefore added it as factor 8 among the measures applied in the next chapter. However this expectancy is triggered—whether by internal developments (e.g., the dramatic roundtable talks in Poland in late 1988) or by external events (e.g., the deep impression that changes in the GDR, Poland, and Czechoslovakia had on the Bulgarian elite and public in late 1989)—it signals the society's arrival at a moment of climax.

Now someone might object that this sketch assumes something that cannot be proved, namely, that all peoples want democracy and that it is only a question of building up societal strength in order for everyone to eventually live under democratic systems. In short, it might seem that I am making some assumptions close to those made by Francis Fukuyama in his essay on the "end of history." And to these supposed assumptions it may be objected that no automatic connection can be shown between the strength of a society and its proclivity to democracy. To this, I reply that democracy in its Western form maximizes certain values, but there are other values that, in given contexts, may be better served by other systems. Hence, while no society would freely say "Let us be oppressed," a society may, all the same, freely choose an authoritarian system, and, in any case, it cannot be assumed that democratic systems are always best suited to accomplishing whatever tasks may confront given societies. That said, it is a historical fact that the development of democracy came, in part, as a response to the rise of strong urban centers in which, by comparison with the countryside, information circulated more rapidly and people more commonly came into contact with other cultures and points of view, thus creating pressures for tolerance and for a "liberal" solution.

2. Phases of Transition

As Josep Colomer points out, about one out of every three contemporary democracies is the product of a transition from an authoritarian system undertaken since 1973. The chief regions affected by these processes have been Southern Europe (in the mid-1970s), Latin America (in the mid-1980s), and Eastern Europe (since the late 1980s). This large number of cases, from diverse social settings, permits us to inquire whether any parallels or uniformities can be found in the processes of transition.

Between 1979 and 1981 the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C., was host to a series of meetings and conferences entitled "Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy in Latin America and Southern Europe." Organized by Guillermo O'Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, the project took up the question we are examining here and eventually resulted in the publication of a four-volume collection. In the concluding volume O'Donnell and Schmitter outline what they take to be the typical features of transitions from authoritarianism. Based on South European and Latin American cases, these features seem strikingly apt in describing the disintegration of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

As these authors note, authoritarian regimes create an illusion of "social peace" and "tacit consensus" by destroying the possibility for unofficial political activity. That the illusion is successful can be illustrated by recalling the fuss made in the West about the so-called Kadar formula in the mid-1970s and by perennial suggestions that people had become reconciled to their supposed "fate," and perhaps even that they had been socialized to "prefer" communism. But, in fact, this ostensible "social contract" rests largely on force—or on the absence of alternatives—and hence, "once the government signals that it is lowering the costs for engaging in [alternative] collective action and is permitting some contestation on issues previously declared off limits, these regimes quickly discover that the socalled peace and consensus were, at best, part of an imposed armistice."

Artists, performers, intellectuals, and other "exemplary individuals" are the first to express open opposition to authoritarian rule, as O'Donnell and Schmitter note. One need only think of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, or of many other examples documented in this book, to see the parallel in Eastern Europe. And inevitably, in a system that aspires to dictate what is proper (or "correct") and what is not, "even such apparently trivial things as dress or gesture may become generalized acts of defiance"—a point stressed by Volgyes in a 1978 work.

The skepticism of some social scientists notwithstanding, the brave souls who first remove the leader's picture from the store window or who first sign a manifesto that no one is allowed to read but everyone is expected to condemn are viewed not as mentally unbalanced (as the regimes often pretend), but as courageous, highly moral persons. It is for this reason that "when the transition is launched, human rights organizations and activists emerge with enormous moral authority. This provides them with a large audience for their eloquent critique of the authoritarian regime, a critique that inevitably spills over to include political and social rights which only democracy can reliably guarantee." The rapidity with which political chaos opened up demands for democratic reforms—whether in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1980—and the proliferation of groups in Eastern Europe in the mid-1980s that seemed to demand "the impossible," confirmed the continued inability of the communist systems to convert the illusion of consensus into the reality of consensus. They also underscored the growing vulnerability of these regimes to social pressure; that their vulnerability was growing was obvious to at least some observers. Whether it would reach the point of "all or nothing" was another matter.

The recurrence of demands for democracy betrayed the failure of socialization, the failure of the communist regimes to implant their values in the population. According to O'Donnell and Schmitter:

it is therefore hardly surprising that an enormous backlog of anger and conflict accumulates during [the period of rule by] these authoritarian regimes and that, as soon as it becomes possible to do so, this results in an explosion of worker demands. Many such demands focus on matters of immediate satisfaction—higher wages, better working conditions, less arbitrary policies of hiring and firing—but others aim at creating (or recreating) institutions for class representation: freedom of association, the right to strike, collective bargaining....

But as long as the regime can lock up the troublemakers and reimpose discipline, the most it has to fear is occasional temporary breakdown. The critical threshold that transforms the entire political landscape, as Przeworski wrote in 1986, is the creation of a coherent political alternative. Until such an alternative is created, the regime may well seem indestructible. "A regime does not collapse unless and until some alternative is organized in such a way as to present a real choice for isolated individuals," according to Przeworski.


Excerpted from Social Currents in Eastern Europe by Sabrina Petra Ramet. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sabrina P. Ramet is Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington. She is the author and editor of numerous books, including Nihil Obstat (Duke University Press).

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