Ten Years After 1989: Agnès Heller

Ten Years After 1989: Agnès Heller

I have never been a disinterested observer of Central and East European politics. I grew up in Hungary and lived there until I was almost fifty. In only two of those years was there a political order that resembled democracy. Mainly, I lived under semi-totalitarian and totalitarian political systems in a semi-independent country under the shadow and the command of mightier neighbors and occupiers. First there was Hitler’s Germany, then Stalin’s Soviet Union, followed by Brezhnev’s. It is easy for me to summarize my single greatest political desire: that Hungary and its neighbors finally become “normal” modern states. By normal I mean democratic, with political systems that rest on the rule of law, equality before the law, free parliamentary elections with multiparty competition, and the protection of human rights and the rights of citizens.

Many years ago, Ferenc Fehér and I carefully examined Soviet-type societies in our book Dictatorship over Needs, and became certain that they would collapse. Yet we had no idea when and how. Contrary to many Western friends, we didn’t believe Soviet systems could be reformed. If by some miracle these dictatorships disintegrated, we thought radical changes would follow, in both economic and political spheres. We concluded that the idea of a socialist market is humbug. And of course a “democratic” single-party state is like a square circle.

We had no confidence that radical change would happen in our lifetimes. When it did, we rejoiced, as if it were a wedding day. After a wedding day comes the marriage itself, and no marriage retains all the enchantment of the honeymoon. Conflicts, sometimes serious ones, are inevitable, as are disappointments. But the marriage can still be good and, in the last instance, happy.

It is easy for me not to be disappointed. After I left Hungary in 1977, I reached a conclusion like Churchill’s: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I had plenty of opportunities to see the dark side of modernity, including the dark sides of capitalist economies. But I still wanted my country and its neighbors to become “normal”—that is, to share the injustices of the modern world, and allow citizens the opportunity to oppose injustices overtly. This has now developed in much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Those who promised a rose garden in 1989, and those who believed in such promises, are disappointed today. Some people swore that in one stroke Hungary would become as rich (and perhaps as boring) as Austria. I never believed this, and expected difficulties instead. Some of those difficulties have come about and are indeed intolerable, such as the impoverishment of the lower middle classes or the hopeless situation of men and women whose skills are no longer wanted.

Politically, however, my hopes have been realized. Central European states have now functioned democratically for a decade, with al...