How To Kill a Dream: Our Life after 1989 in the Limbo of the End of History Pavel Barša

Every revolution needs a utopia—that is to say, a vision of a final state of affairs that it aims for, one which differs radically from the existing state. In terms of etymology, utopia means “no-place,” in other words something that does not exist anywhere in the world, but could exist if people made efforts in the right direction. I will attempt to answer two questions here: What was the mobilizing utopia of the Velvet Revolution and what happened to this utopia during the 20 years that have elapsed since the revolution?

I / The West as Utopia

And because the best way to pin down the nature of a particular phenomenon is to examine the antithesis of a different, but still comparable phenomenon, I will begin my answer to the first question with the contrast between 1989 and 1968. The utopia of the Prague Spring was socialism with a human face—that is to say, a society that would overcome the totalitarian traits of Soviet socialism without returning to the negative social features of Western capitalism. Such a society was a utopia in the true sense of the word, since at that time it did not exist anywhere in the world. It was an experiment through which something new, historically unprecedented was to be established. The paradox of 1968 in Czechoslovakia is that this potential revolution was presented by its exponents as mere political reform. The year 1989 concealed a different, deeper paradox. The mobilizing utopia was not something that as yet did not exist anywhere, but on the contrary something that already existed. This utopia, this “nonplace” had thus found its “place.”: the geographical and political space on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The utopia of the Velvet Revolution was the West.

As I have already said, revolutionary actions need a utopia. This is because they cannot do without a generous dose of idealism—making an ideal that does yet exist into an objective has the power to generate the energy needed to overcome inertia or cowardice, and to mobilize people to take action to overthrow the existing order. The ideal can only have this kind of mobilizing effect thanks to its unrealistic, utopian characteristics—in other words, it can do so precisely because it does not exist anywhere, and cannot thus be called into question by having to its contradictions and pointed out. How is it possible that in 1989 in Czechoslovakia this mobilizing function was performed by the notion of something that already existed? The answer is simple. The factor responsible was the Iron Curtain. Because it limited free movement and communication, preventing Czechs from encountering the reality on the other side, it led them to idealize this reality. The West was becoming something unreal, something disengaged from the contradictions and coordinates of historical time and place. It was becoming a dream, something radically different, an idealistic fulfillment of desires which had been frustrated by life under socialism. This socialism was altogether too real, omnipresent, and pervasive— impossible to escape from. In contrast, the West was something unreal, intangible, and unattainable. It did not exist in a concrete “here and now,” but only in the imagination, as an ideal. It was precisely because we were separated from it by walls and barbed wire, because we could not touch it, experience it firsthand, that the West could function as a screen onto which we could project the fulfillment of our unfulfilled desires—whether those desires were inwardly spiritual, such as the need for meaning, or mundanely materialist, such as the desire to have Western consumer goods.

II / The Return to Europe

From a political perspective, the West could be used as a reference point by social democratic admirers of the Scandinavian model and by the neoliberal admirers of Thatcher and Reagan—by both liberals and conservatives. The environmentalists could point to the much more developed system of environment protection and the first successes of Western green parties; advocates of the interests of minorities or women’s rights could point to the more developed Western standards in this area. Perhaps only the traditional radically leftists critics of capitalism (including its socially democratic version) were excluded from the pro-Western consensus at the end of the 1980s, but their numbers were so negligible that they did not play any significant role. The first political manifesto to come out of the milieu of Charter 77, Demokracie pro všechny (Czech: “Democracy for All”), published in October 1988, was based on this pro-Western consensus, as were the basic program documents of the Civic Forum. The progressive detachment of individual political currents and parties from the Civic Forum may be viewed in terms of a dispute between various interpretations and specifications of one common idealization of the West.

The paradox of a utopian vision that does not aspire to something as yet nonexistent, but on the contrary to something that already exists, was further strengthened by the notion that moving toward the specified goal actually entailed returning to a place where we had already been, and from where we had been violently expelled. “The Return to Europe,” as it was then referred to, was a return to a normal, natural state of affairs from which we had been removed by the artificial experiment of Soviet socialism and its perverse consequences. For 40 years we had simply found ourselves in a cul-de-sac of history and we now wished to return to the mainstream. The contrast compared with 1968 could not have been greater: the Czechs did not wish to create a path for others to follow, but to return to the beaten track; they did not wish to be exceptional, but normal. By making this shift from experimentation to normalization, they took on some of the traits of the official neo-Stalinist discourse of the 1970s and 1980s, giving it diametrically opposed meaning, however. The normalization regime claimed that the Prague Spring’s attempt at democratization was an aberration, and that the return to normality was its defeat by neo-Stalinism. The Velvet Revolution, on the other hand, was based on the assumption that Soviet communism itself was an aberration and the return to normality had begun with its defeat.

Taking this desire for normalization into consideration, it is no wonder that the most successful politician of the last 20 years swore by the rejection of all third ways, emphasizing that after the experience of the blind alley of socialist experiments we had to be consistent in employing “standard” solutions. Ideologically, many Czechs experienced the early 1990s as Fukuyama’s “end of history,” without necessarily having to read his 1989 article. History was supposed to have come to a stop in places where liberal democracy had been established with a functioning market economy and a legally consistent nation state. Not only ordinary people and the political elite, but also academic observers were gripped by the idea of the end of history. I expect that those who experienced those times will remember one of the most famous witty commentaries of the time, a statement by Ralf Dahrendorf, who said that in trying to reach this goal it would be possible to transform the constitutional and political system within six months, the economy within six years, and civil society within 60 years. Back then, it occurred to hardly any of those of us who respectfully circulated Dahrendorf’s statement that the final figure in particular presupposed a total suspension of historical time and presumed that the destination would be the same in 60 years time as it is was then. That would assume, however, that Western societies themselves—as an empirical model of transformation—had already reached a final state of immobility. As we now realize, having become a fully-fledged part of the Western world, nothing could be further from the truth.

III / What Is the Destination?

And with this I have already begun to answer the second question: What has happened to the utopia of the Velvet Revolution over the 20 years that have elapsed since November 1989? Human experience teaches us that the surest way to kill a dream is to make it happen. It was no different in this case. In line with the degree to which we have come close to becoming integrated into Western structures, we have begun to realize that the West is not the Promised Land and a final destination beyond historical time and space, but rather a concrete historical formation, burdened by many as yet unresolved contradictions and thus also open to an unknown future. As time has passed, the contradictions of the West have also progressively begun to penetrate our political scene. Up until accession to the EU in 2004, however, they were dampened by agreement on the main point of the political agenda—EU accession as such. With it we crowned the post-November transformation. Despite our original expectations, however, we have not actually entered a safe and calm harbor, but on the contrary have found ourselves in the uncertain waters of the open ocean, where we are being confronted with issues that we had previously been protected from within the framework of the post-November consensus. We had considered some of them to have been resolved, such as the future of global capitalism or the transatlantic alliance. There were other issues about which we had not the foggiest idea at the start of the 1990s—because at that time our entire horizon was occupied by the West, we did not consider the relationship between the West and the non-Western world to be an issue.

With our return to Europe, we have thus paradoxically not confirmed the end of history, but instead have rediscovered history with an open ending. Postcommunist transformation presupposed that history’s final destination—some form of its necessary and natural conclusion—was known in advance and embodied by the West. Having reached it, however, we have realized that Western societies themselves are subject to constant transformation, within the framework of which various ideas compete with each other about the nature of the final destination. Instead of taking us into a state of peace and calm, the “transition to democracy” has thrown us into a state of never-ending transition. Over the next 20 years we will have to get used to life without an ending announced in advance, one toward which we might aim.


This lecture was given on November 10, 2009, in Prague during a panel discussion to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.