Hoaxes of the Gentle Revolution
In today’s escalating witchhunt, it is important to remember that the Gentle Revolution in Czechoslovakia was started by a hoax and was accompanied by a series of hoaxes. The student march of 17 November 1989 would have been an ordinary demonstration if Radio Free Europe had not leaked the fake news that student Martin Šmíd had been murdered during the march. Šmíd was neither dead, nor a student, but it was anger upon this gossip that drove hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.
From the beginning, the representatives of the new power convinced the population that they did not want a return to capitalism (according to opinion polls, only a tiny percentage of people wanted it). They claimed that they would achieve social change without unemployment and that within five years we would catch up with Austria in terms of economic maturity. Those who denied this with real numbers were called “dark forces” by Havel and his supporters (note the similarity with today’s conspirators).
Václav Havel himself persuaded Mikhail Gorbachev back in February 1990 during a visit to the Kremlin that “we are not going to return capitalism and the factories to the owners.”
In the legendary first live TV broadcast of the Studio Dialogue on 24 November 1989, the Verejnost proti nasiliu (VPN, iPublic Against Violence) representatives present laughed at the fears of Associate Professor Milan Kurucz from the University of Economics about the restoration of the capitalist system. Milan Kurucz stressed the need for a historical consciousness of where we came from, rejected the idea that everything that was created in Czechoslovakia was dubious, and recalled “overcoming the economic, social and cultural dumbing down of the Slovak nation” during the post-war decades. We can talk about whether all chances were taken, but to deny any positive trends is not true, he said. He therefore demanded real guarantees that the revolution would preserve the working man as the real sovereign of power. He recalled the situation in neighbouring countries (Poland, Hungary), where working people were already at that time on the margins of being able to influence anything.
For this reason, he stressed that “the working class does not wish to see land parcelled out, cooperatives and factories sold off”.
He provoked the laughter of the present representatives of the VPN, Milan Kňažko, Ján Budaj, Fedor Gál and Vladimír Ondruš. Ján Budaj called it demagoguery and Vladimír Ondruš (deputy chairman of the first post-November government) laughingly retorted to Kurucz that nobody wanted that. His government had nevertheless parcelled out the fields and destroyed the working cooperatives.
Milan Kňažko added that “nobody wants Slovnaft or Dimitrovka to be owned by Jožko Mrkvička” (it was not Jožko Mrkvička, but Oszkár Világi did, and Kňažko himself became a minister in Dzurinda’s government, which enthusiastically privatised strategic enterprises). Ján Budaj, on the other hand, demanded democracy without attributes and without ideological labels – today he claims that democracy other than liberal democracy is unacceptable. The VPN’s position on current problems at that time, as presented by Milan Kňažko, is also very informative. When you read it, you have the feeling that he is talking about the actual present, or that you are hearing an echo of the laughter of history from 33 years ago:
“The leaders of the state are incapable of solving the accumulated problems. In this republic there used to be honest work, no stealing, people had respect for the worker, for the doctor, for the teacher. The average life expectancy is shortening, morbidity is increasing, heart diseases and cancers are rising alarmingly, the number of childhood allergies is rising sharply, our whole society is sick, as defined by the chairman of the Matica slovenská, the national artist Vladimír Mináč. The soil is losing its fertility, we have poor quality food. The main problem is a dysfunctional political system. If we do not trust the people in charge, they need to be replaced. In governments, in companies and in schools. Such changes are natural and not to be feared. We are thinking of workers working in conditions that offend human dignity, of young families without housing, of pensioners and of all vulnerable citizens. And of the filth of corruption around us. We think of unearned privileges, of the neglected state of education, health care, and forests. Postponing these problems suits those who don’t want to leave their comfortable seats.”
The present bears all the hallmarks of neo-normalisation
It is important to be aware of these contexts. Ján Budaj, in the aforementioned Studio Dialogue, boasted that ‘we have to create a round table for fifteen million people’, that every single opinion is important and everyone counts. Today, as a member of the government (Budaj is a minister of environment protection in the current Slovak government), he is one of those who vociferously support the introduction of censorship (whatever you want to call it, regulation, blocking or whatever).
The situation in Slovakia and the Czech Republic bears all the hallmarks of neo-normalisation. Critically minded people are being persecuted: we are being thrown out of our jobs, we are not yet being imprisoned, but lifelong dissident Ján Čarnogurský laughs that this too shall come to pass… The supporters of the current regime deny these trends, but in doing so they resemble the Bolsheviks indistinguishably. But while during normalisation at least “islands of positive deviation” were created, today there is no critical mass that is aware of this. The revolutionary-minded students have become a malleable atomized layer afflicted with “digital dementia” (Manfred Spitzer), “the stupidest generation that threatens our future” (Mark Bauerlein).
I was reminded of this again while watching a recent interview with Professor Petr Drulák for Staritup.sk. This portal is a symbol of the total decline of Slovak journalism, a media cesspool where uneducated weirdos can become editors, who do not even know the basics of craft, grammar, ethics, cannot think in context and are so stupid that they cannot even evaluate what is happening around them every day.
Petr Drulák was explaining in vain to a young, totally unprepared presenter how censorship works in today’s world, that even the mainstream creates disinformation, that in a pluralistic democracy one argues, not bans. Šimon Žďársky did not understand this at all and kept arguing that we cannot let people say what they want… And these people who cadre, scandalise, smear and ostracise are today the ones who speak the most about the values of November 1989. The aforementioned moderator was even so stupid that when he reproached Professor Drulák for respecting Ľuboš Blaha or me, he did not even remember that our joint provocative photograph with the note “In good company”, which irritated him so much, did not belong to the Smer MP, but to me, and that I did not argue that Ukraine is a terrorist state, but that it is not a democratic state. But then, when I found out that this committed young man has become active in protests against the Robert Fico government and is also a deputy of the Trenčín Region, I stopped wondering about everything. It is just not clear to me how it is possible to be a politician and a journalist at the same time and no one sees a conflict of interest there…
The main values of November 1989 were dialogue and non-violence
Worse than a disoriented young man, however, is when things are distorted by the President of the Republic. Zuzana Čaputová repeated on all channels that the message of November for her is decency. This is not the first time that representatives of the current government have distorted the meaning of historical events.
I would therefore like to remind everyone, especially the younger generation, that the two main values of the Gentle Revolution were DIALOGUE and NON-VIOLENCE. The most valuable part of democracy is not elections, but tolerant discussion.
The first demand of the protesting masses was precisely dialogue – but instead of dialogue, a surprised handful of revolutionaries were given power and dialogue was quickly forgotten. There was no catharsis. Unlike in South Africa, the Slovak post-revolutionary elite did not grow to the greatness of Nelson Mandela, who healed society by patiently working in the established Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead of sincere dialogue, hatred of the losers soon began to cultivate, drowning out any attempt at deeper discussion and reflection on the state of society.
Not revolutionary dialogue but the arrogance of power established a tradition in which pluralism was all too quickly replaced by ‘common interests’, debate was replaced by smear campaigns, rational argumentation was replaced by emotive ridicule, polemic was supplanted by discredit, and tolerance gave way to the search for ‘public enemies’. Imposing the only correct opinion, scandalising and media lynchings of people with a different opinion have once again become the working method of most journalists. Dialogue is a weapon against ignorance, bigotry and unawareness; it is a weapon against the idea of truth as private property.
Another emblem of the Gentle Revolution was the slogan “We don’t want violence!” It stood on a banner carried by students at the head of a demonstration on 17 November 1989. It became the basis of the name of the Slovak revolutionary movement Verejnost proti násiliu (Public Against Violence). And the public really stood out against the violence.
The actor Stanislav Štepka wanted to be “funny” and shouted from the revolutionary tribune that we should not send the communists to the shovels, but that we should go at them with a shovel. The crowd of two hundred thousand on SNP Square spontaneously started chanting, “We don’t want violence!”. It was magical, powerful, and the shamed artist apologized.
The peaceful division of Czechoslovakia was the culmination of the non-violent democratic revolution. This process was unique. In Europe, it was rather an anomaly when looking at what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, but also in the former Soviet republics – something we have not yet been able to appreciate. But the new power soon began to apply structural violence as the main method of its policy – against the poor, against the dispossessed, against the socially excluded – and it also began to apply violence in international relations. Not to mention the increasing aggression and hatred in contemporary society.
Decency as moral kitsch
Zuzana Čaputová is therefore wrong when she claims that what changed the regime and what is the main message of the Gentle Revolution is “decency”. That this vague word is nothing more than moral kitsch was explained to her long ago by Milan Kundera (if she had read him). At this point, however, I feel it necessary to point out that the notion of “decency” was not introduced into political discourse by the actors of the Gentle Revolution, but by the neo-Nazis, who were the first to set themselves apart from society as the “decent” ones.
In Brno, the neo-Nazi, racist and ultra-conservative movement “Slušní lidé” (Decent People) was even founded six years ago. Only then did the petty bourgeoisie start talking about decency in politics, using it to call everything unpleasant and uncomfortable, any emotion against the sterility of the mainstream. Today we know that the protests of “For a Decent Slovakia” served only to bring Čaputová, Šeliga (a Slovak MP, Za Ľudí) and others to power. Decency is not a political program, it is not even a value, it was only a tactic to gain power.
Moreover, decency is a very relative concept, it is the norm of a certain culture, which not only changes over time, but its standards are different all over the world. ‘Decency’ in politics today is more likely to be used as a bludgeon for the opposition, for silencing uncomfortable voices and for marketing purposes. The elites of the post-November period have robbed us decently, they have deceived us decently, and some of them have got rich decently, but in no way can we speak of decency as a value of the Gentle Revolution. That was dialogue, which was completely stifled by the current power, and non-violence, which again served only as a tactic to gain power, which was immediately abandoned once the power was gained.
We do not live in truth
The legitimacy of any regime is based on its fulfilled promises. Today, freedom and democracy are not being deepened but curtailed, we are not catching up with the West but have become its colony, and Europe is no longer a peace project but a permanent war thanks to the export of conflicts. Even Václav Havel, who spent his whole life promoting ‘living in truth’, could no longer pronounce it at the end of his life. Life in a lie has not disappeared.
The main feature of this regime is the contradiction between what we live and how we think. Politics is pure self-presentation by those who don’t even know who they are, what their motivations and goals are, because their actions are driven by PR and marketing. Behind their masks is the daily editing of the truth, a socially tolerated or even desired lie that well-paid teams work to perfect.
As during normalisation, cynicism is growing again – people do not believe what they see in the mass media, they know that reality is different, and so, once again, it is not the truth that has triumphed, but presentation. To live in the truth today is to refuse to participate in this game that can engulf us.
Therefore, don’t let the current rulers talk about the Gentle Revolution, and let’s not allow those who trample it the most to take freedom and democracy in their mouths. Ask those who today have nothing to live on, who are losing ground, who are being persecuted, shamed, pushed out of public life, and who are creating an ever-growing army of losers. These are the heirs of the revolution from which the future revolution will be born.
Eduard Chmelár is a Slovak political and media commentator, columnist, historian, university lecturer, civic activist and the founder of Socialisti.sk, a Slovak leftist political movement. This text was first published in Slovak by Casopis Argument.
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