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Turncoats and Scapegoats | The Nation

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Turncoats and Scapegoats

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Boris Yeltsin, the former chief apparatchik in Sverdlovsk, and Gennadi Burbulis, the former professor of Marxism-Leninism in the same town, are the men behind the prosecution in the case against the Communist Party, which opened in Moscow's Constitutional Council on July 7. The idea of these former party stalwarts sitting In judgment on the sins of Communism seems almost surreal. But keep in mind that Eastern Europe is now in transition. Periods of restoration are marked by sudden conversions and strange amnesias; they are propitious for pragmatists rather than for people of principle, and the acrobatics performed by turncoats are often a comical sight.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

But if the manner is comic, the matter is not. The purging of former members of the C.P. or the punishing of alleged police informers is a serious problem. There were millions of party members throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, accounting for a substantial proportion of the adult population in all those countries. So any form of collective ban or discrimination is bound to affect the general political climate. Because the secret police could shred some documents and forge others, the publication of lists of suspects and the absence of legal safeguards for people who should be presumed innocent could cause countless human tragedies. With the promised land of capitalism appearing ever more distant on the horizon and the people losing their patience, it is convenient for their rulers to put all the blame on the evil past and divert attention to scapegoats.

The purges are clearly inspired by political rather than moral considerations, and they are spreading. After the release of the East German Stasi files and the passage of Czechoslovakia's lustration law, it looked as if it was Poland's turn. Until the timely collapse of the government this past June, its Interior Minister, the sinister Antoni Macierewicz, threatened to reveal the names of countless security police informers who are now high-level public servants, ministers and members of Parliament and of lower local assemblies. His minions were preparing bills destined to ban from the administration and state-owned factories all those who had, at any time since 1945, been elected to any Communist office, down to the local student union. Rumors in Warsaw spread out of control. Even Lech Walesa was not above suspicion. When they reach such levels of absurdity, why aren't such campaigns quickly discredited? Because even the obvious settling of political accounts simultaneously touches a chord: a society's need to come to terms with its past.

Using the Czechoslovak example, Aryeh Neier showed in these pages the dangers of collective guilt and the artificiality of analogies with de-Nazification in Germany [see "Watching Rights," January 6/13]. On this last comparison I would like to add an abstract point with very concrete consequences. The mass murder of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals fit perfectly into the Nazi ideology. In contrast, Stalin. at his bloodiest, had to use Orwellian doublespeak to find a "Marxist" justification for his crimes. The now fashionable attempt to lump together Nazism and Communism is not innocent. Consider the law passed by the Czechoslovak Parliament last December, which promises a sentence of one to five years for those who support groups promoting "national, racial, class or religious hatred," adding, so that there should be no misunderstanding, "such as fascism or communism."

Whether one should allow parties or publications preaching hatred of blacks, Arabs or Jews is highly debatable. There are people who claim that, for the sake of democracy, we should in Voltairian fashion "fight to the death" for the right of people to express views we abhor. But this is not the real problem with the Czechoslovak legislation. To put it plainly, under the law as it stands, I could go to jail in Prague for having written in these columns that Michael Milken made in one year as much money as it would have taken an American on the minimum wage 74,000 years to earn. Such information, I would have to admit to my judges, was not designed to promote love between the exploiters and the exploited. True, this part of the law has not been applied so far, though it is not difficult to imagine to what use it could be put by a pugnacious and reactionary prime minister faced with a winter of discontent.

Indeed, how political the whole process has become is illustrated by the fact that the call for revenge does not come from the main victims. It is not former dissidents like Jacek Kuron in Warsaw or Petr Uhl in Prague, record-breakers for years spent in jail, who clamor for purges; they are against blanket punishment. The champion of lustration is the new Czech Prime Minister, the Thatcherite Vaclav Klaus, who never signed Charter 77 and who on the eve of the "velvet revolution" sat not in jail but in a comfortable chair at the Institute of Economic Forecasting. The reason for his success is not only that most Czechoslovaks were no more heroic than himself (out of 15.5 million people fewer than 2,000 did sign the charter); it is that many of the grievances are genuine.

In a lengthy interview given to Adam Michnik at the close of last year, President Vaclav Havel quoted the example of a friend of his who, handicapped in his career by political persecution under Communism, now gets a pension of only 1 ,000 crowns, whereas his prosecutor, who climbed the ladder, has one of 5,000 crowns. In cases such as this, where someone was so obviously victimized, something can probably be done to redress the balance. But the reasons for discontent go much deeper. Eastern Europe is once again entering an era of dashed hopes and broken promises.

This is best shown through the mood of the millions who once belonged to Poland's Solidarity. Here was a vast movement that fought for both democracy and social justice. But once it triumphed, the workers, who were its backbone, became the first victims of the ensuing economic reforms. Altogether, most of the former rank and file, while freer, are now worse off than before, and not only in material terms. In the past, they could dismiss the privileged apparatchiks as usurpers. Now they must assume that the ostentatious new rich deserve their Mercedes cars and their swimming pools. Money being the new moral standard, the worker, the teacher and the doctor in state service must conclude that their meager salaries measure their worth. They are both frustrated and humiliated. Yet those in power think that blaming the nomenklatura for the nation's troubles can, in some magic way, make the people feel better.

"Decommunization," to use the clumsy neologism, is also a weapon in the complex battle for power and property, a struggle that does not take quite the same form in, say, Warsaw and Prague. In Poland, resistance to witch hunts is led by the "Europeans," who might also be called "Westernizers" by analogy with Russia in the last century. They are mostly former opposition leftists now converted to the gospel of the International Monetary Fund. Like Tadeusz Mazowiecki. the first post-Communist prime minister, they believe that a "thick line" should be drawn between past and present. Let crimes recognized as such by law be punished, and then let bygones be bygones. They are for moderation because the transition so far has been smooth, because they are for the rule of law and because they know through experience what happens once the mincer has been set in motion. But they are also against purges because they want to build a capitalist society and are aware that without the managers, most of whom had a party card, they don't stand a chance.

Ruthlessness, on the other hand, is preached by those who might best be described as Catholic nationalists rather than "Slavophiles," politicians who are fond of capitalism provided it is served with Vatican sauce and who are ready to enter the European Community if it is presided over by the Pope and morally inspired by the Irish and the Poles. By contrast, in Czechoslovakia, the purgers are the champions of the Western model in Its most vicious capitalist version. Klaus used lustration as a weapon against less right-wing members of the Civic Forum, the original party formed by those who championed the velvet revolution. It would not be surprising if he were to use McCarthyist methods against the labor movement once his privatization scheme reveals its true nature and the economic crisis fully hits Bohemia and not only Slovakia.

Yet one question affects both countries and, in fact, the whole of Eastern Europe: How long do the new rulers expect to convince their impoverished populations that the rich are sinners if they are former reds but saints if they are ex-swindlers or members of a new nomenklatura? Or, to put it differently: How long can they conceal new social conflicts with the smokescreen of purification?

The trouble when dealing with this recent past is that one must combine legal caution with historical intransigence. The precedents, such as they are, suggest that one should stick to clear, striking cases, to top culprits rather than small fry, since the purpose is to draw a lesson and not to create a climate of snooping and suspicion.

Another reason for vigilance is the tremendous scope for manipulation of the process. When two Slovak ministers accused each other of being former informers, was one to call the secret police to settle their conflict? In Warsaw, Macierewicz allegedly wanted to reveal the names of all the former collaborators except those In the Catholic clergy. Once you start picking and choosing, the possibilities for distortion are enormous. All this pleads in favor of legal precautions and exquisite care.

On the historical front, it's a different matter entirely: What is required is boldness. Naturally, the Soviet conquest should not be treated in the same way as the Nazi one. This should not be interpreted as a whitewashing of Stalinism and Its sequels. Quite the contrary. The Russians will have to go back to the 1917 Revolution and seek the roots of the horrors that followed. The Eastern Europeans will have to examine their first Stalinist decade, the less ruthless repression thereafter and each nation's black spots: the suppression of the Hungarian insurrection in 1956, of the Prague Spring in 1968, of Solidarity in Poland in 1981.

But the question at the heart of this analysis must be--and here the difference from Nazi Germany is fundamental--how did a revolution that was supposed to give people freedom and mastery over their fate bring about such contrary results? What went wrong, at what stage, and who was guilty? The answers to these questions cannot be written solely in black letters it must include the hopes and even the achievements--the spread of education, the social advance of the children of the downtrodden. Otherwise, it will be impossible to understand why, even in Eastern Europe, the regime, though brought in from the outside, was at first welcomed by many; why a number of Communists rebelled against the regime In the name of its own ideology; why in Eastern Europe until the 1970s and in the Soviet Union until Gorbachev it was assumed that the regime would reform itself from within.

To say all this is not to suspend judgment. It is to move from demonology, with its spells and incantations, into the rational realm of judgment delivered in a historical context. It is quite understandable that the new rulers, trying to thrust upon the population a new system of exploitation, prefer to dismiss the past forty-five years as an undifferentiated age of darkness and proceed with purifications. They can thus put all the blame for current troubles on the past and provide scapegoats instead of explanations. The left, which hitherto has behaved ostrichlike, as if it could revive through oblivion, has the very opposite interest. Indeed, to probe the truth to its bitter end and publicize the results is the only chance it has to strip socialism of its Stalinist associations.

It is easier to say what should be done than how it can be achieved. It is probably too early, or possibly too late, for some sort of international tribunal (such as the one organized by Bertrand Russell against the U.S. war in Vietnam) to ascertain the guilt and the attenuating circumstances. With so many archives open, the moment is right for historians to tackle the material thoroughly and to put the new facts, if any, into their analytical context so as to give them meaning. It is also time for political parties to face the issue in terms other than rhetorical, to link past and present, looking at both with sharply focused lenses. And it is the time for a New Left to reaffirm its belief in socialism, while showing no indulgence whatsoever for crimes committed in its name. Here is an example to clarify the kind of debate I have in mind. I will feel much happier when, say, in Poland the military coup of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski will be defended, nay praised, by those who, on reflection, see in it an important step on the country's road toward capitalism, and condemned by others who perceive it as a terrible blow against the Polish labor movement that still weighs on the country's political situation.

Such lucidity is for tomorrow. Meanwhile, the purging in Eastern Europe sets up a test for us in the West. Incidentally, there is a pause just now in the rites of purification. The Russians have not yet started the farce of apparatchiks judging one another for their common sins. In Hungary the proposed discriminatory law was halted by the Constitutional Court; in Poland the purge was stopped by the fall of Olszewski's government. Still, allowing for the absence of democratic traditions in the area and for the Stalinist heritage, it would not be surprising if, when the process resumes, we find ourselves with a lot of cases, like that of Jan Kavan in Prague [see Christopher Hitchens, "Minority Report," May 20, 1991], requiring our vigilance and intervention. As we seek allies for such action we shall rapidly distinguish between those who used to defend dissident intellectuals and strike leaders in Eastern Europe--the genuine liberals who acted on their principles--and the propagandists for whom it was simply a gimmick in the struggle for capitalism. Aristotle used to claim that "truth should be dearer to us than Plato." For these honorable gentlemen profits stand before all.

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