Research & Studies

Democracy and Civil Society: Outlines of a New Paradigm

Evaluating 1989 has divided analysts from the outset. The majority of political scientists and sociologists saw the events as the victory of liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Thus, Jürgen Habermas or Timothy Garton Ash did not see the ‘velvety revolutions’ as offering anything new, they did not believe that any original or innovative idea appeared or even became institutionalized during the ‘velvety revolutions’. According to this view, 1989 simply set things right and if we can talk of revolutions at all, even in the best of cases this is the process they served („nachholende Revolution”, or „rectifying revolution”)1

Others, like Andrew Arato, hold a sharply divergent opinion. They believe that 1989 had a radically new message within the field of democracy and civil society.2 I myself share the view that the meaning and message of ’89 places theprevious history of Central European and European democracies in a very new framework and sheds a new light on them, and also opens new perspectives for the future on the global level. This is true even if the results which the transition processes of the Eastern and Central European countries have produced over the past two decades have not met with the expectations and plans of the supporters and activists of the democratic transformation. The contrast is particularly sharp if we compare results to the opportunities which arose on the regional, the European and the global level when the Berlin wall went down and the ironcurtain ceased to exist.

Two decades grant us sufficient distance to compare and re-evaluate once more the sharply diverging views which were voiced at the time. More accurately, in the light of the past two decades we can weigh from a practicalpoint of view the ideas and ideologies which served as guidelines for political action, or inaction, as the case may be. The more so, as analyses regarding 1989 and the subsequent ‘transition’ are still forthcoming – the most recent achievements include some more nuanced and subtle pieces which are occasionally self-critical or offer a new, refined variant on some previously rather extreme view.3 In a new, synthetic and comprehensive paper Paul Blokker argues that 1989 has several important implications which political theory neglects or entirely ignores.4 Similarly to the present author he proposes a full re-evaluation of 1989, particularly as regards the current views and theories regarding democracy and civil society.

Read more on the Institute for Social & European Studies website.