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Remembering 1989

Ed Lucas at the Economist has a review of a new academic paper by Paul Linden-Retek which makes a comparison between the political philosophies of Jurgen Habermas and Vaclav Havel.  Lucas argues that a revival of the vigorous public sphere participation which defined the Velvet Revolution is what is urgently needed now in East – that this is the bridge between old and new Europe.

Mr Linden-Retek’s study shows that Messrs Havel and Habermas essentially share a critique of post-1989 politics in central Europe. Totalitarianism is gone, but milder doses of repression, apathy, injustice, and alienation remain. But Mr Habermas misses the big lesson of 1989: that politics need not be just the boring business of elites and insiders. It is, at least potentially, an exciting affair in which outsiders, even against great odds, can make a difference. Those who took part in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or in the wild enthusiasm of Barack Obama’s campaign for the American presidency felt something of the same (regardless of the disappointment that the first has delivered and the second may bring). (…)

Having swallowed (but not wholly digested) a Western menu after the collapse of communism, might east Europeans now be ready to take a critical look at the political model that resulted? It is tempting to hope so.

As Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian pundit, has noted, the model of elections contested by parties with mass membership and historically defined positions didn’t work very well even when it was braced by the cold war need to compete against communism. Twenty years on, amid huge technological, social and economic changes, it looks threadbare in both east and west: money matters too much, ideas too little. What, for example, does e-democracy (for example, wiki-style public input to lawmaking) mean for Mr Habermas’s deliberative model? Those planning next year’s anniversary festivities in Prague could do worse than to invite Messrs Havel and Habermas to a public discussion.