Dissent Milan Otáhal

The fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe came about under specific external and internal circumstances. From an international viewpoint, the decisive factor was the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as head of the Soviet Union and his efforts to reach agreement with the US and Western Europe. The relations between the USSR and its satellites were also in line with these objectives and were no longer determined by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine to the same extent as in the past. This opened the way for the satellites to resolve their own internal issues without the threat of intervention from their “Big Brother”—in other words it meant they had considerably more “freedom.” Under these circumstances, the mutual relations between governing political entities, the opposition, and broad layers of inhabitants, who did not form cohesive wholes but rather aggregates of diverse opinions, became the decisive factor in determining systematic change in these countries.

The contributions made by individual social groups to the collapse of communism differed in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary and depended on overall developments in each country. In all of them, however, an important role was played by intellectuals and the intelligentsia. At a particular stage in the development of the communist regime—the period when it was in profound crisis, which also had a moral dimension—citizens lost hope of being able to oppose it in any effective way; in Czechoslovakia this was the case after 1968. That was when intellectuals unwilling to resign themselves to the status quo made a stand. In a political system based on ideological terror they considered the preservation of the human spirit to be of utmost importance and “living in truth” in the spirit of Solzhenitsyn became their moral guideline. Even though the reaction of intellectuals throughout Central Europe was initially similar—i.e., “nonpolitical”—soon the ways they tackled reality became more and more profoundly differentiated. In Poland the dire, sometimes almost desperate, socioeconomic situation prompted the instigation of a mass movement of workers which became the key antiregime force. It reached such proportions that the center of power was at times forced to deploy the security forces against the workers, even with the consequence of loss of life. Concurrently with this movement, but independently of it, intellectuals such as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń also started making public statements. Soon they grasped the importance of this mass movement, establishing Komitet Obrony Robotników, KOR (Polish: “the Workers’ Defense Committee”) and joining the workers in forming an independent organization—Solidarity. The intellectuals and the intelligentsia then played the role of a political entity within the framework of this larger social movement. The intelligentsia also played an important part in the roundtable talks between Solidarity and the communist leadership in 1989, whose aim was to move toward free elections as the main instrument for resolving issues of political power. The talks included the participation of committees which besides other matters held negotiations on specific issues such as legislative and judicial reform, media policy, local government, laws regarding demonstrations and the freedom of assembly, the problems of the young generation, agricultural and environmental issues, health care, and the like. Because emphasis was placed on specialist rather than political viewpoints and input, those who took part were mostly experts in different fields of knowledge and expertise; more than 150 such professionals took part on behalf of Solidarity.

It is thus clear that the importance of the intelligentsia at these meetings was exceptional. It did not participate as an independent entity, however, but as an organic part of a united opposition front. Intellectuals and the intelligentsia also played an important role in the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, formed after the first free elections, but even then it was as an indivisible part of the victorious Solidarity movement. Their influence during the transfer of power in Poland was important, but it was primarily due to the existence of a mass movement of workers’ in opposition with which they had joined forces. This was one of a number of specific aspects of the developments in this country.

In Hungary, intellectuals and the intelligentsia played a more independent role. A key event in the country’s development was the people’s uprising of 1956. After it was defeated, J. Kádár became head of the Communist Party and the state—in dealing with the inhabitants he followed the maxim: Whoever is not against us is with us. Thus he did not exclude any social stratum from participating in public life in advance—on the contrary, he tried to get everyone to support his political line. This end was also served by the economic reform implemented by Kádár’s regime from 1968 onward, for a time with a degree of success. Its goal was to modernize the economy, improve the provision of goods to satisfy the material needs of the citizens, and get them involved in working with the regime, which in the case of the intelligentsia also meant giving it more space for free development.1 Because free elections were out of the question, Kádár attempted to strengthen the legitimacy of the regime by co-opting representatives of the intellectual community and the intelligentsia into the regime, without requiring them to accept the system unconditionally without any dissent and tolerating criticism. The approach adopted contributed to fostering a certain form of loyalty within this class and despite certain interventions against creative freedom, as in the case of the Budapest sociology school, for example, most members of the Hungarian intelligentsia were integrated into the system, in other words became part of the “state”—with the exception of its most critical section, which in the mid 1970s became open opposition.2

The departure of J. Kádár from the leadership made it easier for reformists to acquire decisive influence within the Communist Party and helped to create the basis for a society-wide dialogue. The intelligentsia was also changing the nature of its relationship with the center of power, which had been losing control over it since 1988. It formed two groupings: the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which brought together national conservative and populist intellectuals and has been an independent centrist political party since June 1989, and the Alliance of Free Democrats, which formed out of the democratic opposition and became a political party in October 1989. In May 1988 more than 1,000 scholars from universities and academies founded the first democratic and independent trade unions. The intelligentsia, which had transformed into a political force through these and other organizations, became a partner for the elites in power at a series of roundtable talks3 during which decisions were made on genuine issues concerning power structures and politics such as free elections, presidential elections, and the role of political parties.4 In Hungary, then, the intelligentsia became an independent entity and played a decisive role in the takeover of power.

A key milestone in the development of Czechoslovakia under communist dominion was 1968. The suppression of the revival process and the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the armies of five countries of the Warsaw Pact had far-reaching consequences and led to the imposition of the Normalization regime. Husák’s leadership, which had been instigated by the Soviets, characterized the revival process as a counterrevolution and thus considered it a priority to confront and deal with all the forces and sections of society that had supported it. Purges became the instrument for this and were conducted more extensively than in any other Central European Soviet bloc country, impacting half a million members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (Czech: Komunistická strana Československa, KSČ); the consequences included direct effects on people’s livelihood. The creative and artistic intelligentsia, which was among the most active entities during the Prague Spring, was particularly afflicted and many of its members lost the possibility of working in their field of research, becoming important elements of the dissident movement.

Having dealt with the communist reformers, suppressed any expressions of opposition and discontent, and consolidated power, the new elites tried to formulate the nature of their relations with society. The so-called “social contract” became the basis for this, but its motto—whoever is not with us is against us—was rather different from that in Hungary. The essence of this policy was thus not to involve the different social strata in collaboration and get them to support party and government policies, but rather to depoliticize and neutralize them. The Communist Party leadership made sure citizens had a degree of social security, thus ensuring that the majority settle on democratic values and the right to take part in public life, adapting to life under real socialism and fulfilling their aspirations in the privacy of their homes. Despite growing problems, the center of power managed to ensure that the country had one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet bloc and for this reason the social and economic situation did not provide an impulse for the instigation of a mass workers’ movement as it had done in Poland, where it became the social basis of the opposition. As a result, the intellectuals and the intelligentsia, who were at the core of the dissident movement, did not find an important ally such as workers in opposing the Normalization regime, and remained isolated to a significant extent within society.

The feeling of desperation and hopelessness prevalent after the occupation of Czechoslovakia also took hold of a considerable number of those members of the intelligentsia unaffected by the purges. They too were forced to adapt to life under real socialism, but unlike in Hungary they did not become integrated into the Normalization regime and thus did not become, except for a small section, intelligentsia of the “state.” But then again, Czechoslovakia’s political leadership did not even try to make that the case, as it still mistrusted the intelligentsia.

The cultural and artistic intelligentsia did not react to the imposition of the Normalization regime in a uniform manner. Some of its members did not adapt to the new circumstances and pursued their activities outside of official spheres, especially through samizdat publications or journals published abroad, while others engaged themselves fully in the services of the new leadership. A numerous grouping was known as the so-called gray zone, which included artists who had not fully embraced the new circumstances and had certain “blemishes” from the past, but were allowed to publish officially and make public appearances—sometimes having made public statements of self-criticism. This included a number of rock and folk bands, small theaters, filmmakers, writers, and visual artists. Their importance and influence was all the more significant because they were in direct contact with a broader section of citizens than could be reached by the independent culture.

The situation was similar with respect to scholars. Some of those active in the field of humanities who had been forced to leave their jobs also tried to continue doing research, despite deteriorating conditions, and published work in samizdat form or in the West. Others were in the service of the Normalization regime. In certain fields, however, especially those of the technical and natural sciences, there existed room for more free creative work, meaning that Czechoslovak scientists even at that time achieved results on European and worldwide standards.

The majority of the members of the creative intelligentsia who were part of the gray zone or were active in official institutions did not change the views they had held in 1968 or their opinion of Husák’s leadership. However, social circumstances did not allow them to speak out against the Normalization regime in public until the mid-1980s, so the majority of them concentrated on specialized research and maintained a neutral, sometimes almost opportunistic, attitude with respect to the regime.

After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, the situation in Czechoslovakia also changed significantly. Although particular individuals expressed their disagreement with the political leadership, only the intelligentsia was active as a social grouping, taking on the role of an active opposition. This change was influenced by a weakening of the center of power, a spontaneous people’s movement, and the fact that it no longer wished to reconcile itself with the fact that the Normalization regime did not provide it with sufficient space for free self-realization and creative work.

Artists and scientists first took action in the public domain after the events of January 1989, which represent a turning point in the development of Czechoslovakia. They chose the form of petitions in which they protested against the actions of the security and police forces and the arrest of Václav Havel. Already at this stage certain differences became apparent between these two groups in their approach to social issues. Artists reacted spontaneously but had significantly more impact on inhabitants, motivating them to take action. Scientists used the opportunity to highlight the deeper causes of the crisis and decided to develop the petition movement into a higher, institutionalized form, setting up their own organization outside of the official as well as dissident structures—the Independent Intelligentsia Circle (Kruh nezávislé intelligence), which represented one of a few elements of an emerging civil society. Its importance lies primarily in the fact that it set the analysis of the state of Normalization society as its main goal, through which it wished to contribute to the drafting of an opposition program. Artists, on the other hand, because they had their own organizations, tried to extricate themselves from communist control and get their own antiregime representatives elected to the leadership of these organizations. Although the intelligentsia did become an important social factor, unlike in Hungary it did not transform itself into an independent political entity and thus did not become a partner of the powers that be in searching for ways out of a severe crisis; the fact is, however, that it had not even set itself such objectives. It saw its mission in awakening citizens and helping them get rid of their fears. At the same time, by distancing itself from the political leadership it helped significantly to isolate it. With their efforts to analyze society, scientists wished to provide input and background material for the dissident movement so that it could draft a program that would serve as a template for resolving issues related to the transfer of power and for the subsequent period of building a democratic society.

In Czechoslovakia, the dissident movement, which was a specific social force and had a degree of authority, became the representative of discontented citizens. It was with its representatives that the more realistically-minded group around Ladislav Adamec made contact and negotiated on the transfer of power. It did not consider the intelligentsia to be a factor that it would have to respect. The problem, however, was also the question of whom it would have talked to; the only organization representing this social stratum was the Independent Intelligentsia Circle which, however, did not have ambitions to represent the inhabitants in political negotiations.

The situation in Czechoslovakia was also complicated by the fact that the leadership of the party and the state refused to implement major reforms and rejected Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, since both would have meant loosening their grip on power. That is why no reform wing could have been formed, nor was formed, within the Czechoslovak Communist Party capable of adequately reacting to the situation that had arisen and aware of the need to negotiate with representatives of the opposition. In fact the regime simply collapsed and as a result the takeover of power was also different in nature from those of the other Central European countries of the Soviet bloc. Its essence was the reorganization of the federal and national governments—in other words the executive—but questions concerning reforms of the political and economic system were not on the agenda in the same way as had been the case in Poland and Hungary. Under these circumstances, neither of the partners in dialogue required the work of experts, and thus the importance of the intelligentsia as a social class also diminished.

In the days following November 1989, members of the creative intelligentsia became involved in the struggle against the political elites in power and made an important contribution to getting citizens on the side of the dissident movement. As individuals, artists, and scientists held important positions in the Civic Forum and various top-level bodies and took part not only in formulating strategies for dealing with communist centers of power, but also in drafting the “What we want” program. Unlike the student movement, however, the creative intelligentsia did not take action as an independent political entity, even at this stage. Its contribution to the downfall of communism was none-the-less highly significant as it was the only social stratum which stood up to communist rule as a social entity.


1 / For more on this issue see e.g. László J. Kiss‘s study, “Warum scheiterte der ‘Gulaschkommunismus’?” Der Umbruch in Osteuropa, ed. J. Elvert, M. Salewski, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 1993, p. 121−134.

2 / Relations between Kádár’s regime and the intelligentsia and the growth of its social importance led Ivan Szelényi and George Konrád to their conclusions concerning the rise of the intelligentsia to the ruling class. See their The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1979; and George Konrád, Antipolitics, Henry Holt, New York 1984.

3 / Of the eight original participants delegated by the different opposition groupings, three were lawyers, two historians, two sociologists, and one a writer.

4 / Also for the needs of these negotiations expert committees were established, of which six were concerned with political issues (constitutional changes, election law etc.) and six with economic ones (e.g., ownership reform and budgeting). Experts were also involved in their activities.


Milan Otáhal, “Závěr,” Podíl tvůrčí intelligence na pádu komunismu, Kruh nezávislé intelligence, Brno 1999, p. 145−150.