Postcommunism as Panic Václav Bělohradský

Postcommunism is primarily a state of panic. The citizens of communist states, lived in a society which was regulated and controlled; now they are being tossed about by chaotic currents and movements whose consequences no one knows, nor could know. It is as if the wheel of history had been turned back and society had fallen into disarray. Postcommunism is thus a state of panic stemming from the disorderly nature of a society in which the behavior of individuals is not controlled by some central body. We describe such disorderly societies as being complex. After the First World War, most intellectuals perceived the Soviet Union as a state where rational political power—rather than the blind forces of the market—ensured that technological growth had meaning for human beings. Some intellectuals hesitated when faced with the extremism of the communist state, but no one contested its historical legitimacy. The world war had shown that democracy was too weak, had not accounted for technology and was based on compromise and a regard for the individual. Only the Soviet total state of mass mobilization—where “tomorrow means yesterday”—constituted the way to a historically higher form of social organization.

Postcommunism is the definite divorce of reason from the total state: the rational organization of society requires the contradictory dynamics of democracy, a diversity and dispersal of viewpoints and information arising within society in an unplanned manner. Democratic disarray is the prerequisite for reasonableness.

The word “complex” functions as a metaphor expressing a certain unease about the fact that interaction between increasingly rational individuals leads to the development of an increasingly disordered whole. It is derived from the word “complexus”—a fabric woven from many different kinds of thread. What triggers unrest is that people are increasingly dependent on one another, but at the same time do not know how to grasp this interdependence, running away from it into various nationalisms and particularisms, as shown by the political development of Europe in this decade. The major unifying forces of modernism—scientific knowledge and the ideology of emancipation—have exhausted themselves. The problem is not that we do not know what the problem actually is in this case. Perhaps we have to become emancipated from science and emancipation in order to be able to understand in what sense complex society is problematic. I believe that the concept of “complex society” can be defined in terms of the following four aspects.

Firstly, society becomes “acentric” in the sense that it has no center from which it would be ordered and controllable. Order cannot be created within it by structuring all its units hierarchically or, in other words, at a particular distance from the center. At the same time, however, the awareness of everyone’s dependence on one other, the infinitely complicated consequences of each action in society, grows. We are unable to manage this basic situation because we cannot imagine order without some kind of center and hierarchy. And thus so far the awareness of mutual interdependence has only made itself known through our fear of environmental disaster.

Secondly, a complex society consists of “steam and ice at the same time.” That is how the German sociologist Claus Offe encapsulates the basic contradiction of our lifestyle. Steam means a growth of possibilities to freely set our goals. For example, a dense network of motorways provides me with the possibility of moving freely in a given space and for this reason my life possibilities expand like steam. But the motorway itself brings an element into our lives that can only be changed and controlled with immense difficulty because doing so requires a huge investment and because it cannot be private property. A motorway is ice in the sense that the will to move quickly in all directions drags us into the sphere of influence of something immovable and rigid.

Thirdly, a complex society demands infallibility. Sometime in May I saw warning posters on walls in Prague put up by environmentalists with this sentence: “Nuclear energy is inhuman because it does not allow for mistakes.” Another reason why our society is complex is that it is depends on the management of processes that would threaten the living potential of an enormous number of people if they got out of hand. A state thus emerges within the democratic state whose principle is supposed to be infallibility. Let us call it the “nuclear state.” While democratic institutions are constructed on the assumption of the fallibility of every person and every government, the nuclear state must guarantee infallibility. Is this compatible with democracy?

Fourthly, a complex society is postmodern in the sense that the modern ideal of the unity of all human beings, based on a shared model of life, cannot be taken seriously. If the Chinese were to reach the same standard of living as the Czechs, it would rapidly lead to environmental catastrophe. The fundamental ideal of the West, however, was equality and universality. How can one reconcile the selfish particularity of our lifestyle with the ideal of equality from which democracy draws its legitimacy?

Let us say that in our tradition rational behavior requires overview, detachment, outlook, and supervision. Having an overview means that there exists some approach, some method and some place in society which enables us to “see the whole.” Detachment is being removed from our immediate interests, ensuring that we have a certain degree of neutrality and thus the potential to solve conflicts between contradictory demands. Every action must also be assessed from the viewpoint of its future consequences—that is outlook. Every hierarchy and control—supervision—must be made legitimate by overview, detachment, and outlook.

In a complex society all these moments of rationality are diffused and transitional—they arise, entering in an unpredictable manner into dialogue with others, and cannot be coupled to a particular place and institution in a fixed way. No one can say in advance who, when, where, and for how long, will get an overview of the society in which they live, or where and why a viewpoint will emerge which most people will perceive as being detached.

Thus in a complex society a certain degree of disorder is a prerequisite for rationality: a rational society is one in which these fortunate and unexpected moments of overview, detachment, and outlook are not squandered, but on the contrary form a starting point for a rapid redefinition of society.


Václav Bělohradský, “Postkomunismus jako panika,” Kapitalismus a občanské ctnosti, Československý spisovatel, Prague 1992, p. 112–114.