The 1989 uprising against communism in Eastern Europe was a bid for freedom, and for many commentators it was little more than that. The oppressors happened to be the Communist Party, backed up by their Soviet masters, but they might have been the henchmen of a tin-pot dictatorship or a gang of Mafiosi. The important point, for many observers, is that the oppressors had set out to control things, and the people had at last said no.
Yet to see things in that way is to overlook the peculiar contribution of communism to the tyranny exerted in its name. It is also to ignore the abiding relevance of a political system whose charm in Left-wing circles, as we learn from the pronouncements of Jeremy Corbyn and Seumas Milne, has been barely diminished by its enormous legacy of human suffering.
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Let us go back a little further than 1989, to 1977, the year when the seeds of what became known as the Velvet Revolution were sown in the former Czechoslovakia. A group of intellectuals, among them the playwright Václav Havel, were in the habit of meeting in private apartments in Prague, where the philosopher Jan Patočka would lecture on Plato, Aristotle, Husserl and Heidegger.
Patočka had been forcibly retired from the university after 1968, and his private seminars were conducted in secret. There was a real fear that, should word of them reach the ears of the secret police, arrests would follow. After all, what business did ordinary citizens have in discussing philosophy outside the official universities?
Confined within a secure lecture hall, supervised by scholars trained in Marxist dogma, philosophy had a legitimate place in the system. But, discussed in a private apartment into the early hours of the morning, by people spurred on by the spirit of free enquiry, it was evidently a threat to the state.
The suspicion was justified. In due course there emerged from these private discussions a charter of rights, asking the state to respect the elementary freedoms granted under the Helsinki Accords to the citizens of Czechoslovakia. Charter 77 was signed by those attending Jan Patočka’s seminar, and by a widening circle of brave friends and sympathisers. Patočka himself stepped forward as the Charter’s first spokesman, was arrested and brutally interrogated, with the result that he became ill. Taken to hospital, he continued to be interrogated until he collapsed and died.
In those times, when private education was criminalised, and the universities and colleges were devoted to Marxist-Leninist dogma, the older generation of professors, the best of whom had been expelled from their positions following the Soviet invasion in 1968, had no other way of passing on their knowledge than through such secret seminars. For most of them publication was impossible, and the important books were unavailable or banned.
The chain of intellectual inspiration had been broken, and they were owners and curators of its last severed link. They lived at the end of an educational tradition, and their attempts to nurture that tradition and to pass it on had to be conducted underground. Do not think that this was an accidental feature of communism: it was the real political meaning of the system. Knowledge means privilege, advantage, curiosity, free enquiry, all of which were threats to the proletarian revolution and to the Party that had taken charge of it.
The Prague of those days was the perfect setting for this drama. A full stop had been put to its spiritual life, but somehow the city stood, half decrepit, above the memory of its greatness. Its dilapidated palaces looked down on the routines of a frightened people, with police on every corner, and deserted churches and civic buildings reminding the citizen that communal life had stopped.
You could be compelled to take part in the joyless May Day parades, but anything like spontaneous social life had vanished long ago. Buildings were boarded up, their crumbling facades raining down on the wooden scaffolds that protected pedestrians from these falling fragments of Heaven. A strange silence prevailed, interrupted only by the squeal of trams, and the city still held onto fragments of its former life like a beautiful statue on a tomb.
Thanks in part to that extraordinary atmosphere, the underground became a moral idea, and around that idea there congregated all the hopes of an educated class deprived of recognition, and forbidden to teach. Through my own contacts with that class, I came to understand why those attending the underground seminars were treated so severely.
What disturbed the authorities was not the fact that these peculiar people were studying Plato. After all, Plato was studied in the official universities too. The problem was that they were studying Plato together, and without asking permission. They had created a club of their own, outside the vigilance of the state, and they had united in friendship to pursue that goal. They had created a fragment of civil society, and in doing so had brought meaning into their lives beyond anything delivered by the grim routines of the communist bureaucracy.
In the Czechoslovakia of those times there was a hunger for civil society. Older people remembered the clubs, troupes, parades, pilgrimages, dances, bands, teams and regiments that were the lost heart of their nation. Younger people looked enviously at those Western societies in which pop groups, dances, festivals and protests offered a life outside the system. And the more serious the desire for those things, the more determined was the Party to forbid them.
The underground meetings and seminars opened a path back to civil society. They promised a society shaped by the free decisions of its members, in which differences of opinion, outlook and purpose would be smoothed away by the sheer joy of cooperation, and in which there would be neither top-down dictatorship nor ideological conformity.
The war on civil society is the essence of the communist project. Appointed as home minister after the communist takeover of Hungary in 1948, Janos Kádar abolished 5,000 associations in the space of a year, from brass bands to knitting clubs, from scout troupes to shooting parties, from church charities to private schools. He made it a criminal offence to gather money for charitable purposes, and made all schools and youth organisations into the property of the state. Similar policies were undertaken in Czechoslovakia.
All free associations were seen by the communists as places of danger, where hierarchies, distinctions, privileges and deals could challenge the role of the Vanguard Party in its fight for equality and “social justice”. Reflecting on this, I came to see why freedom of association belongs with freedom of speech in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Those two freedoms are the foundation of civil society, and the necessary shield against the abuse of political power.
Take them away and all power ends up in the hands of the state. The result is what we know as “totalitarianism”.
Communism vanished from Europe 30 years ago — but the totalitarian impulse remains. Freedom of association has no sacrosanct status on the Left; in our country we see this in the matter of country sports which are, and will always be, the targets of leftist disapproval.
The Labour Party does not see certain laws forbidding free association as an assault on legitimate freedoms but as a moral duty of the state. After the ban on fox hunting, the Party has likewise set its sights on grouse shooting, not from any concern for the grouse, which are well cared for only because we shoot them, but out of hostility to the kind of people who congregate with guns on grouse moors.
But the associations that most need protecting, now in Britain as then in Central Europe, are not those devoted to the leisure of country people but those in which people associate for the sake of knowledge.
At the recent Labour Party conference Left-wing activists called for private education to be criminalised, as it was by the communists, and the funds of private schools to be confiscated and used for the “common good”. Meanwhile leftists in universities are mounting effective campaigns to prevent free discussion and to expel those professors whose views they dislike. Politicised subjects like Gender Studies, which forbid ideological disagreement and have doctrine and dogma as their goal, are driving free discussion from the curriculum.
It is not clear, yet, how far this will go. But the arguments given and the tactics adopted are exactly those of the communists in 1948. The state is seen as the guardian of public morality; it must therefore forbid the misuse of our freedoms.
It is surely likely that the underground university that operated in Czechoslovakia in the Eighties will be needed before long in Britain. In preparing for that moment we should be looking back, not to 1989 but to 1977, when the battle which had been fought and lost in the post-war years began again in earnest. And it is our battle today. Once again we must fight for civil society against the state, and for free association against totalitarian control.