Lessons from a revolution
Timothy Garton Ash looks back at the momentous events of 1989 and asks if it’s time to take to the barricades again
18 Sep 09

tgaTimothy Garton Ash looks back at the momentous events of 1989 and asks if it’s time to take to the barricades again

This is an edited transcript of a talk delivered at the 2009 Hay Festival and sponsored by English PEN

Free speech has something to do with what I want to talk about today, because if ever there was a moment — an explosion of free speech — it was in 1989 on the streets of central Europe. I remember that in the Velvet Revolution in Prague, in November 1989, Václav Havel actually spoke from the balcony of a newspaper called the Free Word — an official newspaper that had turned to the side of the revolution, albeit rather late in the day. So he spoke from the balcony of the Free Word to the people on Wenceslas Square.

Being able to speak the truth was in itself a revolutionary act in a system that was based on systematic organised lying, of the kind described by George Orwell in 1984; on a semantic occupation of the public sphere. What I want to do before I throw this open to a conversation is two things. One is to remind you all, if you need reminding, what an extraordinary moment this was in 1989. The other is to ask if it’s time for another velvet revolution, in several different places. Let me start with what happened then.

I think if you are about 20 today you quite likely take it for granted that you can just take a plane to Prague for the weekend and that you will be going from one free country to another. Or to Warsaw, or to Budapest, or to a Berlin that is one undivided city — and that we are part of a Europe that is fairly united and pretty free.

Twenty years ago this was totally unthinkable. As late as May 1989, if you had said this was the Europe we will be living in 20 years hence, they would have sent for the men in white coats. You would have been considered certifiably bonkers. One of the most difficult things for historians to recover is what people didn’t know at the time. At the time, people didn’t know that it was going to turn out okay.

This is what the French philosopher Henri Bergson called “the illusions of retrospective determinism”. It seems to us with hindsight that what actually happened had to happen; history is like a series of straight paths through a French formal park. But it is not like that: history is at every moment open, full of possibilities, full of things that might have happened otherwise. There was actually a series of miracles through the whole of 1989. I remember at the time of the Polish round-table talks, in February to April 1989, the most people thought they could hope for was a communist-led coalition government with Poland still in the Warsaw Pact, still in a divided Europe. Even after the great election victory in Poland on 4 June, nobody knew whether the Soviet Union would accept a non-communist prime minister.

A few weeks later, I travelled to East Germany and talked to a group of East German dissidents who said: “Well, that may happen in Poland, but that is totally impossible here. Not in a month of Sundays. The Berlin Wall will still be here in 20 years’ time.” That is what the ruling communist party thought too and that is what Mikhail Gorbachev thought.

Even when it had happened, and happened peacefully, nobody knew whether they could turn these countries into liberal democracies, with market economies. The joke at the time was: “We know, after 40 years of communism, that you can turn an aquarium into fish soup; the question is — can you turn fish soup back into an aquarium?” Nobody knew if it could be done and nobody knew how it would be done.

So that’s the first thing I want to say: in judging these events, please remember that at every stage nobody knew that it could be done. A violent turn was possible at every stage. I will never forget on the day of the Polish elections, on 4 June 1989, going into a Polish newspaper office and seeing on the television screen the first shots of the massacre on Tiananmen Square, which happened on that same day — 4 June. Everybody thought “it could have been us”.

At the end of the year, having made it up as they went along, my friends in central Europe suddenly discovered that miraculously they had done two things: first of all they had dismantled not just an empire, but a nucleararmed empire, with hardly a shot fired in anger. Secondly, they had created what I want to call a new model revolution — the new model of 1989, which replaces the old model of 1789.

You see, for 200 years, revolution meant violence. If you look at AJP Taylor’s book on the history of revolutions, published in the late 1970s, he defines a revolution as a violent upheaval. I remember a rather surreal debate among the leaders of the Velvet Revolution in Prague. The question raised was: “Should we really call this a revolution? Because a revolution means violence and we don’t want to be violent, so maybe we shouldn’t really call this a revolution?”

It had been like man-woman, white-black — and suddenly there it was. You still had the revolutionary crowd, you had hundreds of thousands people on the streets of Budapest and Prague and Warsaw, and to be in those crowds was the most extraordinary experience. I don’t know if anyone here has been in one or other of those crowds, but they have a personality of their own. Let me just give you one moment: 300,000 people on Wenceslas Square in Prague, Václav Havel speaking from the balcony of the Free Word with Alexander Dubcˇ ek, and suddenly someone — no historian will ever know who — took out their keys from their pocket, held them aloft, and started shaking them. Within a minute or two, 300,000 people had their keys out and were doing that. I can tell you the sound of 300,000 people’s keys shaking is the most incredible sound — like 300,000 Chinese bells. That became a habit of the revolution. So the crowd was incredibly spontaneous and creative. It kept inventing these new gestures, like the keys. I don’t know if you want to try it here . . . perhaps you’re all too British for that.

Unlike in most revolutions before, from 1789 and 1917 to 1956 in Hungary, the masses were not out for blood, they were not out to go and burn the Winter Palace and hang or shoot the tsar. They were there, and they knew they were there, to generate peaceful pressure on the rulers, to compel them to negotiate with opposition elites at a round table. The great symbol of 1989 was not the guillotine but the round table. The Polish round table was specially made for the occasion: you can still go and visit and touch it in the presidential palace in Warsaw.

This was to be a negotiated transition to democracy, involving a conscious compromise. What was new in this form of revolution was not where you ended up but how you got there. The originality lay not in the ends but in the means. I think one of the key insights of 1989 was to reverse the old Jacobin-Bolshevik logic. It’s not just that the end does not justify the means — which was the old Jacobin-Bolshevik position. It is that the means you employ actually determine where you end up.

One of the leaders of 1989 in Poland, Adam Michnik, put this wonderfully. He said: what we have learnt from European history is that those who start by storming the Bastille will end up building new Bastilles of their own. So you have to start as you mean to go on. I think that is absolutely true: there is a profound correlation between the means you employ, the peaceful revolution, and the kind of regime and society you build afterwards.

Now, you might have said in 1989: okay, well this was a great event but it was a very special set of events to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a flash in the pan. One thing we know 20 years on is that actually that is not so and actually it is a new model of revolution. In my new book, Facts are Subversive, I describe two cases from the last decade, both of which I witnessed: the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the toppling of Slobodan Milosˇevic´ in Serbia. The greatest European war criminal of our times was finally ejected from power by his own people, with hardly a shot fired; they got rid of Milosˇevic´ in a velvet revolution.

We could also talk about Slovakia, Croatia, Georgia or South Africa — which in its way was very much a velvet revolution, with many of the elements of the 1989 model. Not all of them were successes — the velvet revolution in Burma of 2007 has so far not been successful, quite the reverse.

There are a couple of problems with this new model of revolution. In my view, the biggest is that, unlike in 1789 or 1917, you don’t have that moment of revolutionary catharsis — the moment when the king’s head is cut off, and there is a great orgasmic gasp from the public, and everybody knows there has been a great change. A clear line is drawn between the past and the future. You can’t have that in a velvet revolution, in a pacted transition. And so, years later, people are still thinking that something is missing: where was the great break with the past? And I have views about how you need to address that, perhaps with the help of a truth commission.

Now is it time for another velvet revolution?

“Yes” [response from the audience] Where? “Here” [response from the audience]

I’ll come to that in a moment! But let me talk about a few other countries before coming to us.

First of all, is it time for another velvet revolution in other dictatorships? Absolutely yes. It’s time for a velvet revolution in Moldova — which just nearly happened, but didn’t quite. It’s time for a velvet revolution in Belarus. It’s over time for a velvet revolution in Burma. One of the essays I have in Facts are Subversive is an account of going to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, when one could still see her, when her house arrest was not so strict. She knew all about the velvet revolutions, she’d read Havel and Michnik, she’d read about what had happened elsewhere in Europe and she had learnt consciously from it. She would love to make a velvet revolution, but of course you need the conditions to make that happen, both domestic and external.

I believe we in Britain and we in Europe should support people in trying to make velvet revolutions in dictatorships, support them by peaceful means. One of the great achievements of the Bush administration is that it almost succeeded in giving democracy a bad name, because it made its whole foreign policy, particularly in the second term, in the name of promoting democracy with a big D — and it said that’s what we’re doing in Iraq.

I remember people in Egypt saying to me, “Well if what the Americans and British are doing in Iraq is democracy — we don’t want democracy.” But we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. Even if the United States is now doing less, we in Europe should do more to support independent media, to support NGOs, to support election monitoring, to give people within a dictatorship the tools with which they can finish the job. Then it’s up to them how they want to do it. So that’s number one: more velvet revolutions in dictatorships.

Number two: what about central and eastern Europe today? Is it time for another velvet revolution in the countries of eastern and central Europe? There’s no question that the crisis that we are all experiencing, the global crisis, is hitting these countries particularly hard. The latest forecast for Latvia, for example, is that its GDP will shrink by eight per cent. All these countries have the same problem. Twenty years ago they set out to build capitalism without capital. How do you get your capital? Either you privatise what used to be the property of the state, or you get your capital from abroad. One of the things that has happened in this crisis is that much of the foreign capital has dried up or been withdrawn from these countries. Poland, for example, has lost 1.4 billion euros of foreign direct investment in just the month of March.

Having said that, I don’t think these countries are in a revolutionary condition. In fact, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s political instability index, Poland and the Czech Republic are less likely to have a revolution than Britain. Maybe we will see great upheavals again in central and eastern Europe — we have already seen some in Latvia — but I suspect not, partly because these countries have been through so much in the last 20 years.

They have had so much bitter experience, this is just another thing to swallow. But what I do think is that, from the perspective of 2009, you can reflect quite interestingly on one or two things that we maybe got wrong 20 years ago.

One is that there was a kind of “end of history”-ism about our thinking in central Europe in 1989 and afterwards. There was a feeling that now we’re going to get the western model, now we’re going to get the Mercedes of politics. It’s going to be a market economy and a liberal democracy and the rule of law and a civil society — and it’s all going to come in an envelope marked “Europe”. Then we’re going to be all right. All good things would come together and success would be sealed by our belonging to the European Union. And then suddenly, here these countries are, they have their market economy, their democracy, though not enough rule of law; they’re in the European Union and Nato, and yet they have a massive crisis. That wasn’t meant to be. It’s as if they’ve come through a valley of tears, they come out the other side, and suddenly they see another valley of tears in front of them.

The other reflection is that all these countries did, in the nineties, adopt, with many variations, a model of capitalism which had a strong neo-liberal or Anglo-Saxon component, as proposed to them by people like Jeffrey Sachs, as encouraged by the IMF and the World Bank, by the so-called Washington Consensus, and by the Thatcher-Reagan example — which was at that time at the height of its apparent success. I think it is fair to argue, 20 years on, that the social costs of the transition, which were bound to be large, might have been somewhat less if people had been somewhat more pragmatic and flexible in building a free market economy, in building their model of democratic capitalism. If they had had, as it were, a bit less Friedrich von Hayek — the utopian systemic version of liberalism — and a bit more Karl Popper or Isaiah Berlin — the open society with multiple possible solutions.

In short, I think the intellectual political mistake was to think that there is, as it were, one ready-made model of democratic capitalism, rather than understanding that actually there have always been “capitalisms” — in the plural. There have always been many very different models of capitalism, even within Europe. There is certainly not one single model of European capitalism and that is in fact one of the great strengths of capitalism: that there are far more varieties of capitalism than there were varieties of communism. So the mistake is, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, to be a hedgehog rather than a fox: to think there is one big thing you can take over rather than many small things you can combine in your own model of democratic capitalism. And going forward, next time someone makes a velvet revolution, that’s one of the lessons to be learnt. Yes, you have to take some of the essentials from existing western models, but when it come to forms of ownership, or particular systems of regulation or the role of the state, you know best what is good for your country.

In sum, I don’t think it is an ultimate crisis of capitalism. I don’t think 2009 is going to be to capitalism what 1989 was to communism. But who knows — let’s meet again next year and maybe I will be proved wrong.

Finally, let me turn to Britain. I spent the last two weeks travelling round central Europe. While I was travelling round these rather stable, prosperous, democratic, liberal countries, rumours of a velvet revolution were reaching me from a far away country of which they know little. Yes, Britain. Clearly this is an extraordinary moment in our history. Now you answered me a moment ago, like a crowd on Wenceslas Square, that yes, in Britain, this is where we want the velvet revolution.

I have to sound a note of caution here. As the great Bishop Butler said, “Everything is what it is and not another thing.” We in Britain have not been living in a dictatorship, we haven’t even been living in an authoritarian system. We have been living in an increasingly dysfunctional democracy and it is that dysfunctionality of our democracy that has now come to a head. But to call it a revolutionary moment is, I think, to be in grave danger of hyperbole. Revolution is a word that is much over-used. One hears of a revolution in vacuum cleaners or a revolution in Italian cooking. Revolution is an important word and let keep it for a really major moment, like 1989.

But I do think that this has the real potential, in fact should be a constitutional moment. Not a revolutionary but a constitutional moment. I feel quite passionately that the time has come for us in Britain to have a written constitution with a clear separation of powers, in which we know exactly what our rights are and how they can be defended and by whom. I hope you agree. (Applause)

Let that message go out to Westminster from Hay. Let me illustrate why, with the following very personal comment. I first started travelling in central Europe 30 years ago. When I went to live behind the Berlin Wall in East Germany, my working assumption was that I was coming from a free country — Britain — to an un-free country. I wanted the East Germans to have a bit more of what we had.

Thirty years on they do, and that is a wonderful thing. Thirty years on, East Germans, Poles and Czechs are as free as we are. In fact, in some respects they are more free. On a sober analysis, East Germans today are in important respects more free than we, the British. Please reflect on that for a moment: East Germans are more free than we are. Not in every respect, but for example in the way in which the state and the courts defend your privacy against things like electronic surveillance, against your email and web records being searched routinely by government, your DNA going on a database, and detention without trial. In all these respects, in law and administrative practice, the East Germans are more free than we are in this country. I find that a shocking statement. What have we come to when we can say the East Germans are more free than we are?

Now we in Britain have to fight back on that front, and several others, to claw back some of those freedoms that we have lost. And to get a proper, explicit separation of powers — executive, legislature, judiciary — which is one of the best guarantees of human and civil rights. For that, I don’t think we need a revolution, but I also don’t think we can leave it to Messrs Gordon Brown and David Cameron and Nick Clegg, which is the traditional British system: you elect the government and then they do it for you. That is no longer enough. There has to be, in my view, some exceptional and extraordinary form of popular mobilisation — of democratic pressure through the media, maybe even on the streets, in conventions — I don’t know exactly how one would do it, but some form of extra-parliamentary mobilisation to bring our leaders to introduce this essential constitutional reform. To put them on the spot.

One of the crystallising moments of many velvet revolutions is the moment of election, because many of these semi-authoritarian regimes do actually have elections. Milosˇevic´ , for example, was toppled at an election. Now we have an election coming up, so I do feel that we should in some way try to mobilise towards the next election to demand some changes in the way we are ruled.

I thought for a moment of proposing that the assembled congregation of the Hay Festival should march on Westminster — all of us rattling our keys as we go. Yet I somehow suspect I wouldn’t have a vast crowd following as we set out down the B3451 on the road to Westminster. But something should be done and I think we should be talking now about how we make this, if not a velvet revolution, then at least a constitutional moment.