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From Dissidence to Neoliberalism? Reflections on the Human Rights Legacy of 1989

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International respect for individual rights experienced a tremendous boost from the revolutions of 1989. Many of the revolutions’ protagonists – the so-called “dissidents” – had been involved in a broader human rights revolution since the late 1960s. Is respect for human rights thus a legacy of their struggle and of 1989? To answer this question, the essay seeks to reconstruct the specific meanings human rights acquired in the writings of East-Central European and Soviet dissidents and contrasts it with the social “imaginaire” underpinning the human rights culture of our time. The article is thus a contribution to a new historiography of human rights which understands them as a contested notion.

It is now clear that the “events of 1989” ushered in fundamental changes in European affairs and world politics. Chief among them is an unprecedented proliferation of human rights norms. The end of the Cold War, the expansion of international human rights treaties, the democratization of many post-communist countries and their later EU accession have all dramatically increased the respect and protection of individual liberties in Europe and worldwide. Concepts like “humanitarian intervention” or “responsibility to protect” describe a very robust interpretation of this “extension of international law from the exclusive rights of sovereign states towards recognizing the rights of all individuals by virtue of their common humanity” (Dunne 2007, 44). But the collapse of state socialism and the Soviet withdrawal from East-Central Europe not only paved the way for this proliferation of human rights; some of the main protagonists of the annus mirabilis, the so-called dissidents of the Soviet bloc1, were simultaneously protagonists of an international human rights revolution in itself. In the late 1960s, when human rights were still the domain of obscure organizations and international lawyers, they began to challenge their governments by taking international human rights treaties seriously. Thus, they partook in a rather sudden breakthrough of human rights activism in the 1970s and 1980s (Moyn 2010, ch. 4; Eckel and Moyn 2013).

But what are human rights? Which grievances should be framed as universal rights claims and which should be left to the democratic deliberations of national societies? In our own time, with more and more people invoking human rights for their diverse goals, this has become an increasingly difficult question. For many dissidents, this does not seem to have been a major issue. One of dissidence’s iconic texts – Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 – was, as Jonathan Bolton (2012, 153) notes, written in an uninspiring language – a choice that seems to have been deliberate. Many dissidents had experienced directly what a painful and fundamental impact the ideas found in “intricate and abstruse books of philosophy” (Miłosz 1953, 3) could have on the lives of entire societies; many dissidents had also once been adherents of such ideas. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, therefore, the turn towards human rights was a turn away from explicit ideologies. Against the elaborate social blueprints of the “age of ideologies”, the dissidents did not propose a utopian vision of their own, but the apparently simple idea that everyone, everywhere is entitled to a minimal protection of his or her liberty. The dry, almost bureaucratic language of Charter 77 was intended to convey a selfevident moral message by letting injustice speak for itself (Bolton 2012, 193).

The transnational community of human rights activists, too, eschewed debates about political philosophy or ideological program. Amnesty International, for instance, declared that the precise reasons for political repression were not relevant to its work, merely the fact of repression itself. This antipolitical interpretation of human rights was reinforced in 1989 when western observers were trying to make sense of what went on in Warsaw, Prague, or Leipzig. Jürgen Habermas or Ralf Dahrendorf saw little revolutionary in what was happening in Europe’s east at the time. The demonstrations seemed completely devoid of innovative political ideas. The people in the state socialist countries, it seemed, did not want a new experiment but to catch up with processes already under way in the West. The fall of Communism, Habermas thus wrote, was merely a “rectifying revolution” – the East’s return onto a universal path of progress embodied by the West (Habermas 1990; Dahrendorf 1990). Some dissidents subscribed to this view. “We did not invent this pursuit of liberty,” Ludmila Alekseeva wrote; “we reinvented it for ourselves and our country. [...] We were ignorant about the West, where such ideas had been around for centuries” (quoted in Nathans 2007, 633).

My central thesis in this article is that we will be unable to assess and understand the human rights legacy of 1989 if we adopt this apolitical and naturalizing language. In this essay, I therefore seek to historicize this reading of human rights and of 1989 by bringing out the multiple meanings human rights could have in East and West. My interpretation is thus an attempt to contribute to an emergent historiography of human rights which, as Johannes Paulmann (2013, 336) writes, “highlights ruptures rather than continuities, in which human rights emerge as a historically fluid, highly contested concept rather than as a fixed doctrine.”2

Firstly, such an approach can reveal how innovative dissident activism really was. Alexeeva is correct that the term “human rights” had been around for some time. The idea, however, that such rights can be claimed against one’s own state had not had much traction until it was picked up by, among others, an isolated band of intellectuals in the Soviet Union (Eckel and Moyn 2013). Secondly, it will demonstrate that the dryness of the dissidents’ human rights conceals how the emergence of dissidence resulted from and was accompanied by very intense debates about democracy and totalitarianism, philosophy and religion, literature and national culture. Like the strings on a guitar, human rights claims needed these debates as the corpus or sounding board which amplified them and provided them with social meaning. Thirdly, the legalist language of human rights leaves one puzzled as to how human rights emerged from the obscure texts of international law to become a rallying cry for global activism. The language of human rights may be that of international law, but human rights campaigns were driven by solidarity and political identification. The question of how human rights transformed international politics, then, is also the question of why human rights made certain political claims resonate with distant audiences (Eckel 2009; Eckel 2011).

If human rights need such a “sound board” of political commitments, they can mean different things to different people. Soviet bloc dissent did not witness today’s elaborate discussions about the scope of human rights; most dissidents, moreover, preferred an activism focused on political and individual rights. Programs to implement social and economic rights, they feared, would reintroduce the very utopian projects the dissidents had come to reject. And yet, they translated the abstract language of human rights into their specific discourses and thus gave them a specific meaning. Even political rights can be based on different understandings of the “selves” or subjects that are the bearers of rights, of their relations to other people and to the wider social world; they also imply specific ideas about those who suffer persecution and those who are called upon to help them. It is only by assessing this context of human rights activism in the Soviet bloc and by reconstructing the specific meanings which human rights thus acquired that we can answer the question as to whether the human rights regime of our own time is a legacy of 1989.

The Literature on Human Rights during the Cold War

The literature on human rights during the Cold War overwhelmingly focuses on the consequences of the Final Act of the Conference on Security of Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a major success of East–West détente, signed in Helsinki on 1 August 1975 by the Soviet Union and its allies, by the members of NATO, as well as by the non-aligned European states. Crucially, the Final Act defined respect for individual rights as a pillar of a cooperative framework of international relations. It thus not only connected human rights to détente, a policy the Soviet bloc was vitally interested in, but also introduced periodic review conferences that monitored the implementation of the Final Act’s provisions. This way, dissidents in the Soviet bloc were given a forum where they could expose how their governments violated the human rights section of the Final Act. Using this approach, private individuals from Eastern Europe turned human rights into a central issue of East–West relations and tied it to the gains Moscow hoped to reap from the CSCE process (Thomas 2001; Snyder 2011; Peterson 2011).

In any account of dissent, thus, the “Helsinki effect” will play a major role. Yet the overwhelming attention it receives – especially together with attempts to explain the end of the Cold War – has two very problematic consequences. First, by indiscriminately labeling a wide array of dissent initiatives as “Helsinki inspired” or even as “Helsinki watch groups” these studies create the impression as though the CSCE somehow “created” Soviet bloc human rights movements (Thomas 2001, ch. 5; Snyder 2011, ch. 3; Eichwede 2010). This is false. Dissent originated in the mid-1960s when the Russian mathematician Aleksandr Volpin had the seemingly paradoxical idea that the best way to sustain some degree of individual liberty in the USSR was to demand that the Soviet authorities respect their own constitution and laws. 1968 became an important year for this movement of “rights defenders”: The United Nations had declared it an international year of human rights to commemorate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Moscow had signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights along with the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This prompted the “rights defenders” to shift their focus to international treaties and appeal to the international community for support. The Chronicle of Current Events, the Soviet Union’s most important samizdat periodical to document human rights abuses, was founded in 1968 and was initially called “An International Year of Human Rights” and each of its issues featured article 19 of the Universal Declaration on its cover.3 The first Soviet human rights group, the Initiative Group to Defend Human Rights, was founded in 1969 by the signatories of a petition to the U. N. Human Rights Commission; a year later, a more organized Committee on Human Rights was formed in Moscow. These groups also began to establish international contacts. They would befriend western journalists and establish a Soviet section of Amnesty International (Horvath 2005; Voronkov and Wielgohs 2004; Nathans 2007; Nathans 2013; Metger 2013; Walker 2010).

This kind of activism was an important inspiration for other non-conformist intellectuals in the Soviet bloc. Poland had witnessed nationwide student protests in 1968. The authorities had reacted with police repression and by orchestrating an anti-Semitic campaign to purge the Community party and Warsaw University of revisionist intellectuals and student radicals. During the early 1970s, after they had been released from prison, these non-conformist groups sought new ways of broadening the sphere of individual liberties in Poland. Completely disillusioned with the possibility of reforming Sovietstyle communism, they perceived the Soviet rights defenders as a model they wanted to adapt to their own situation. A second, rather unlikely inspiration came from the Catholic intelligentsia in Poland which, under the influence of personalist philosophy and the Second Vatican Council, had come to perceive human rights as a possible common ground with post-Marxist intellectuals.4 The event that electrified these groups in 1975 was not the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, but the Nobel Peace Prize for Andrei Sakharov, the leading exponent of the Soviet human rights movement (Friszke 2011, 79–81). It took another year until these activists founded Poland’s first opposition organization in the communist period, but this had nothing to do with the CSCE. Instead it was domestic labor unrest that prompted them to create the Workers Defense Committee. Though human rights language featured prominently in this activism, the Final Act was only marginally important as a source of inspiration being usually overshadowed by the covenants of 1966 which came into force in 1976 (Mazowiecki 1978, 143–144; Jarząbek 2013).

Even with Charter 77, the initiative which can most clearly be related to Helsinki, the situation is much more difficult than the idea of a “Helsinki effect” suggests. Here, as in Poland, the direct reason to form an initiative was domestic: a government crackdown on Prague’s musical underground.5 The decision to invoke international human rights documents came only after the decision to draft a note of protest to the government. Charter 77, moreover, referenced the final act only indirectly as confirming the human rights covenant of 1966 (Bolton 2012, c. 5, esp. 143–144).

None of this is to say that the Helsinki Final Act was unimportant. It strengthened and focused existing groups, especially in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet “rights defenders” reconstituted their movement as Helsinki monitoring groups and one of the first spokespersons of Charter 77, Jiří Hájek, considered the CSCE a tremendous opportunity (Domnitz 2013). The emergent transnational Helsinki network was also an important medium to internationalize the dissidents’ cause, as Sarah Snyder (2011) has demonstrated. But, important though it was, the Final Act itself did not create anything in the Soviet bloc. The CSCE process, moreover, provided much less protection than is often assumed. When the second CSCE review meeting, held in Madrid, closed in 1983, the Moscow Helsinki network had been crushed and all leading figures of East-bloc human rights activism were either in exile or in prison.

The Helsinki narrative has another problematic aspect. By tracing the rise of human rights activism to an international document, it overlooks the complex processes in which activists in Eastern Europe appropriated the new vernacular of rights in their specific cultures. The focus on the “Helsinki effect” supports the very naturalizing tendency I seek to criticize in this article. The next section is therefore devoted to tracing these processes.

Truth, Dignity, Community: Human Rights in the Soviet Union and East-Central Europe

To what extent can we actually speak of a common or similar way in which human rights were understood by non-conformist circles in the Soviet bloc? The terms “dissent” or “dissidence” were labels introduced by western journalists and many of those thus labeled disliked these monikers (Havel 1985). The movements subsumed under the term “dissent,” moreover, had a very diverse membership. The physicist and secular liberal Andrei Sakharov and the mysticist and Russian nationalist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the reform communist Zdeněk Mlynář and the existentialist playwright Vaclav Hável, the former student radical Adam Michnik and the devout Catholic Lech Wałęsa – all these diverse people were labeled dissidents. The political realities of state-socialism made communication between these diverse groups very difficult. Direct contacts were sporadic, mail would be intercepted, and telephones were bugged. Does it then make sense to look for the common outlines of the human rights concept of dissident intellectuals in Eastern Europe?6

Dissent certainly never was a transnational movement comparable to, say, nineteenth century worker internationalism. However, non-conformist intellectuals did share similar experiences of life in a Soviet-style society. Even before the creation of the Helsinki Network, moreover, these intellectuals were in touch with ethnic diaspora groups in the West, professional Cold Warriors, correspondents, and human rights activists. These exchanges were intensified when many prominent dissidents – Jiří Pelikán from Czechoslovakia, Leszek Kołakowski from Poland, Natalia Gorbanevskaya from the Soviet Union – were forced to emigrate to the West. Émigré journals, which were smuggled into Eastern Europe, as well as the programs of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, would provide information about developments in the Soviet bloc and thus foster the circulation of ideas among intellectuals from different parts of the Eastern bloc. In the late 1970s, there were even direct meetings between dissidents group, especially Polish and Czechoslovak (Vilímek 2013; Kind-Kovács and Labov 2013; Friszke 2011, 423–433).

Two seminal texts: dissident Adam Michnik’s essay “The New Evolutionism” and Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” were actually products of such transnational exchanges. Michnik’s essay was based on a presentation he gave at a conference held in 1976 in Paris to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising. Western intellectuals, scholars, activists, and politicians, veterans of the East European and Russian émigré circles were attending, as well as prominent recent political exiles from behind the Iron Curtain (Ostrowska 1976). “The Power of the Powerless” was written for a Polish-Czechoslovak seminar on human rights activism to take place during clandestine meetings on the Polish-Czechoslovak border (Keane 1999, 268). While these meetings did not come to pass and while the essay itself bears the unmistakable philosophical imprint of its author, “The Power of the Powerless” nevertheless betrays its transnational origins; in fact, it reads like a summary of discussions that had been held in, as well as between, different parts of the Soviet bloc over the previous ten years or so.

The similar themes discussed by dissident intellectuals and their similar form of activism, then, are strong evidence for the existence of a transnational Verstehensgemeinschaft or “epistemic community” (Haas 1992) based on shared normative beliefs, a common way of understanding life in state-socialist societies, and the joint political project of increasing respect for human rights by the paradoxical strategy of “radical civil obedience” (Nathans 2007, 630; see especially Falk 2003).

What were the central ideas of this Verstehensgemeinschaft? One of them was truth. From Kołakowski’s “Theses on Hope and Hopelessness” (1971) to Solzhenitsyn’s “Live not by Lies” (1974) to Michnik’s “New Evolutionism” (1985, originally published in 1976) and Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” (1985, originally published in 1978) or “Politics and Conscience” (1984), there seems to have been a consensus among these authors that the power of the socialist systems rested on their ability to saturate public life with ritualized ideological lies. This point was made most famously and most elaborately in Havel’s allegory of a greengrocer who put the slogan “Workers of the world unite!” into his shop window. The greengrocer, Havel explained, was not stating his ideological beliefs; indeed, he was indifferent as to the slogan’s meaning. What he communicated, instead, was his subordination to the authorities: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace” (Havel 1985, 27–28). Though the greengrocer would not have put up the slogan himself, its ideological content had an important function nonetheless: it cloaked the greengrocer’s obedience in a statement of lofty principles and thus spared him the embarrassment of openly displaying his submission. The fact that public life in state-socialism was plastered with slogans no one read or cared about convinced the greengrocer that he was merely doing what everyone else did and it showed that everyone contemplating dissent from this practice faced the threat of social exclusion.

One consequence of this analysis was a strong commitment to individual autonomy and a complete rejection of all things ideological. Any social blueprint or political program that would restrict individual liberty for the sake of a radiant future or some collective ideals was discarded. This current was particularly strong among Polish intellectuals like Michnik or Jacek Kuroń, who had a past of Marxist activism. “[...] we had already experienced the adventure of a utopian faith,” Seweryn Blumsztajn, a close friend and political companion of Michnik and Kuroń, said, “that it was possible to create an ideal society, and had learnt that the final social result would always be unjust. So this time we were not interested in any ‘final’ aim or idea. Instead, we sensed that we were by-products of the failure of ideology – of the entire 50-year communist experiment” (quoted in Luxmoore and Babiuch 1995, 79; Gawin 2013).

This rejection of ideologies, of what we would now call “metanarratives,” did not turn the dissidents into post-modernists avant la letter. On the contrary, their quest for individual autonomy and liberty was not a quest to live any kind of life; by refusing to put up phony slogans, Havel’s greengrocer “discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth” (Havel 1985, 39). Havel’s allegorical greengrocer stood for the conviction that the citizens of the Soviet bloc, by perpetuating a ruling ideology and thus “living in a lie”, were complacent in their own oppression. “[...] we lie to ourselves for assurance,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. Thus, “[...] it is not they [the authorities] who are to blame for everything – we ourselves, only we.” The first step to both one’s own self-liberation and the liberation of society, therefore, was not a retreat into the privacy of one’s idiosyncratic beliefs but a commitment to truth. “If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside. That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world” (Solzhenitsyn 1974).7

Given, on the one hand, the dissidents’ rejection of ideology and, at times, even of positivism and, on the other hand, their commitment to objective truth, their writings often had strongly religious connotations. This is most obvious in the case of Solzhenitsyn or of Catholic activists like Tadeusz Mazowiecki in Poland or Václav Benda in Czechoslovakia. But even an intellectual like Kuroń, a former Communist and lifelong non-believer, discovered religion as a conceptual grounding in a social world characterized by state arbitrariness and the pressure to publicly conform to obvious nonsense (Gawin 2013, 218–223). Havel, too, never considered himself Christian and only very reluctantly, if at all, used the word “God” in his philosophical essays (Hipp 1995, 323–325); yet his writings have clear religious references. In “Politics and Conscience,” he compared totalitarianism to a smokestack he had seen as a boy. This “‘soiling of the heavens’ offended me spontaneously. It seemed to me that, in it, humans [...] destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things, and that such things cannot go unpunished.”8 He felt his revulsion so deeply because, as a boy, he was still deeply rooted in “‘the natural world,’ or Lebenswelt ” 9, that is, the world of one’s “direct personal experience” and a world that “functions and is generally possible at all only because there is something beyond its horizon, something beyond or above it that might escape our understanding and our grasp but, for just that reason, firmly grounds this world, bestows upon it its order and measure, and is the hidden source of all the rules, customs, commandments, prohibitions, and norms that hold within it.” It thus “bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which [...] we can only quietly respect.” For Havel, the crime of totalitarianism was that it denied this wider horizon in the name of a pseudo-scientific ideology and therefore colonized the “natural world” submitting it to “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparatus, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.” Resistance to totalitarianism thus meant to “honor with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence. We must relate to the absolute horizon of our existence which, if we but will, we shall constantly rediscover and experience” (Havel 1984).

This (quasi-)religious approach also provided the framework for the dissident interpretation of human rights. In a comment on Charter 77 that was hugely influential in Czechoslovakia, Havel’s philosophical mentor Jan Patočka wrote that

The concept of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that states, too, and all of society are placed under the supremacy of moral feeling; that they recognize something unconditioned, above them, something weighty and sacrosanct (untouchable) even for them; and that, by their own powers with which they create and secure legal norms, they intend to contribute to this goal. (quoted in Bolton 2012, 155–156)

In Poland, Kuroń wrote that what he took away from his dialogue with Catholic intellectuals was the idea of “transcendent Moral Law. This gave a new, deeper meaning to our traditional left-wing belief in human freedom within a just social order – the most important value. Now our starting point was the sovereignty of the human person and from that point of view we reassessed the values of our vision of a just and free order” (Kuroń 2011, 378).

The writings of Kuroń not only show how dissidents sought a transcendent, even divine grounding of their human rights activism – the “sovereignty of the human person” is a term from the Catholic philosophy of personalism, which was widely used by Cracow’s then archbishop Karol Wojtyła (Porter-Szűcs 2011, 149–151). Kuroń’s texts also highlight the dissidents’ clear preference for individual rights and political freedoms. The linchpin of the transcendent order was human dignity, the absolute value of every individual human being which had to be defended against totalitarian attempts to submit it to ideological or collectivist projects. What united the diverse groups in the Polish opposition movement, Kuroń wrote, was the emphasis they all put on the ‘value of the individual, on inalienable human rights’ (Kuroń 2010, 45). For Kuroń, the main axis of political conflict in Poland did not revolve around the dichotomy “left vs. right” but “totalitarianism vs. democracy” (Gawin 2013, 334).

In acknowledging this dichotomy it is important to avoid a misunderstanding. Though using a term like “totalitarianism” and focusing on individual rights, few dissidents adopted classically liberal ideas, let alone a Cold War mentality. The post-totalitarian world inhabited by Havel’s allegoric greengrocer differed from George Orwell’s dystopian vision of Nineteen-Eighty Four, where Winston Smith, the novel’s main character, could escape “Big Brother’s” all-encompassing gaze only by hiding in an alcove in his apartment. Havel’s fictional greengrocer, in contrast, could have easily retreated to the relative liberty of his privacy by playing the system’s game, but he thus would have left the system’s fundament intact. In Havel’s analysis, then, totalitarianism enslaved the individual by colonizing social life. The individual choice to begin “living within the truth” became a political act only if it was made public through the refusal to participate in the system’s rituals. By ceasing to put phony ideological slogans into his shop display, by publicly manifesting his dissent from the system’s ideology, the greengrocer was sure to suffer repression, but he achieved a significant triumph nonetheless. He “shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth”. With his example, the greengrocer could awaken among his fellow citizens what Havel considered a universal longing of human beings “for dignity and fundamental rights.”10 This longing was the “power of the powerless”; awakening it through a multitude of individual acts of defiance, Havel believed, could have corrosive consequences for the system.11

The struggle for individual rights was therefore a struggle to reclaim a public space. In both theory and practice, this aspect was brought out most clearly in Poland. The most promising strategy of the opposition, Michnik or Kuroń argued, was not the direct confrontation of the government but the self-organization of society. Beginning with small groups and milieus, an independent space of social communication was to be created where individuals could discuss and solve the problems that concerned them directly; gradually, the public space would be reclaimed from the system. Only by thus assuming a position of strength would society be enabled to lead meaningful negotiations with the government (Michnik 1985).

Here, we encounter an important difference from the individualism of classic liberalism. In dissident writing, individual autonomy was defined as against the state or the system, but not against society. Manifesting one’s individual autonomy from the state was, as Jerzy Szacki (1995, 85) has shown, “inseparable from the desire to participate in a community.” This community was often, though not exclusively, defined in national terms (cf. Ciżewska 2010; Kopeček 2012). This focus on the national community may seem paradoxical given the universality of human rights. In part, this reliance on national traditions was due to the necessity of translating abstract human rights claims into a language comprehensible for a larger group of people, as Michal Kopeček (2012) or Kacper Szulecki (2011) have shown. Yet it also followed from the very logic of dissident thought. As Kołakowski wrote, the power of a totalitarian system to colonize the public space rested on its ability to deform language and deprive it of its meaning. Words like “friendship” or “brotherhood” lost their meaning in public parlance because they were constantly used to describe Poland’s relationship to the Soviet Union. To reclaim the public sphere thus meant to reclaim language. Cultivating national language and culture was thus seen as a means of empowering the individual to confront totalitarianism; compared with the obvious non-sense of “newspeak”, the traditional language – which, of course, was constructed too – appeared “authentic”. The same impulse, then, to find a “pre-” or even “anti-political” sphere of “authentic social experience” that had led the dissidents to discover human rights may have led them to discover national culture (Gawin 2013, 317–326).

While the dissidents’ “collective individualism” (Szacki 1995, 84–92) was to some extent a result of the specific situation in post-Stalinist state socialism, many dissidents believed that their political thought could provide a general alternative to Western individualism. Kuroń, for instance, rejected the tolerance of “classic liberalism” which he saw as indifference to another person’s feelings or social situation (Kuroń 2010, 63). For Kuroń, in contrast, tolerance and respect for the autonomy of the human person was always intertwined with questions of solidarity and of love. Following a Marxist anthropology, Kuroń believed that all human beings create their world and thus themselves through their creative activity. Since humans could create their world only in cooperation with others, human identity was unthinkable in a social vacuum. Love in Kuroń’s understanding was “the desire to identify with another human being, to constantly overcome and constantly discover his distinctiveness.” Because this process was “endless, constantly fulfilling itself and unfulfillable,” love becomes ever “deeper, richer, fuller” (Kuroń 2010, 61). His anthropological credo was therefore that “to be human [żyć po ludzku] means to be creative [tworzyć] and to love and what is more they are in fact one and the same thing” (Kuroń 2010, 67).12

Though Kuroń would become an activist for the formal guarantee of individual rights and invoke international treaties, he had, in fact, a much “deeper” or “thicker” understanding of human liberty than the dry language of human rights activism suggests. For him, individual autonomy was thinkable only within a community of human persons and freedom meant the freedom to create the social world together with them. If Kuroń was no advocate for social or economic rights this was not because he had a preference for classical liberalism. Instead, he was concerned that this would increase the power of the state and thus reinforce the very social alienation he wanted to overcome (Kuroń 2010, 113). Politics, he insisted, had to come “from below”; they had to originate in the activity of human persons who jointly and in solidarity solved the problems that concerned them directly. Paradoxically, maybe, he declared the establishment of a parliamentary democracy to be his long-term goal and he defended this preference against western interlocutors who considered parliamentarianism an outdated system. Yet the formal guarantee of individual autonomy and the right to cast a ballot was only a precondition of human liberty, not liberty itself. “I declare,” Kuroń wrote, “that within a parliamentarian system I will join a movement for direct democracy. Without representative (parliamentarian) democracy, however, direct democracy is completely defenseless vis-á-vis the power of the state” (Kuroń 2010, 84). Formal representative institutions and the guarantee of rights, then, were to protect and enable citizens to come together in smaller or larger social associations in order to solve their collective affairs in creative ways.

Kuroń’s social vision thus went beyond the struggle with totalitarianism. In once again strikingly Marxist language, Kuroń argued that totalitarianism was not rooted in a specific ideology but in the modern human condition. “And, more precisely, in man’s loneliness and thus impotence toward powerful political and economic organizations – especially the state – which are the result of a far-reaching division of labor” (Kuroń 2011, 378). A very similar idea can be found in a more elaborate form in the writings of Havel. The two themes of his writings are the question of human identity and of human responsibility. Inspired by Patočka, Havel, too, believed that freedom could not be conceived and realized in abstraction from society. Responsibility, therefore, means the individual’s responsibility before the transcendent horizon of the “natural world” but also the responsibility for the freedom of others (Hipp 1995; Findlay 1999). Describing how Charter 77 was drafted in response to a crackdown on the musical underground in Prague, Havel defined freedom as something shared and lost by the human community:

Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life. The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society. People were inspired to feel a genuine sense of solidarity with the young musicians and they came to realize that not standing up for the freedom of others, regardless of how remote their means of creativity or their attitude to life, meant surrendering one’s own freedom. (Havel 1985, 46–47)

Though the “natural world” or Lebenswelt Havel wanted to defend against totalitarianism was given in one’s individual experience, it was always a world shared with others.

If surrendering someone else’s freedom, however remote her political attitudes or geographical location, meant to forsake one’s own freedom, the relationship between the dissidents and their western sympathizers was not ‘asymmetrical’; the dissidents’ experience had a universal importance. For Havel, the chimneys he saw as a boy were “not just a technologically corrigible flaw of design, or a tax paid for a better consumerist tomorrow, but a symbol of a civilization which has renounced the absolute, which ignores the natural world and disdains its imperatives.” Totalitarianism, therefore, was “a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of how that civilization understands itself.” Western generals drawing up plans to “dispatch [totalitarian] systems from the face of the earth” would be “no different from an ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror that reminds her of it.” Indeed, the arms race was a product of the same objectivism that tried to colonize the natural world. “Such a ‘final solution’ [of destroying totalitarianism militarily] is one of the typical dreams of impersonal reason – capable, as the term ‘final solution’ graphically reminds us, of transforming its dreams into reality and thereby reality into a nightmare” (Havel 1984).

Havel seems to have seen the western world even less as a political model than Kuroń. Western society, he wrote in “The Power of the Powerless”, could “only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself ” given its “mass political parties releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility,” its “complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion” and “the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture.”13 He favored “anti-political politics” instead, “that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and saving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans” (Havel 1984).

Before summarizing these observations and asking ourselves what the human rights legacy of dissent might be, it is important to underline a tension in dissident thought: The dissidents’ insistence on the collective context of liberty, the (quasi-)religious dimension of their thought, and the reliance on national traditions made their discourse susceptible to the very totalitarianism they sought to transcend. And indeed, there were authoritarian and nationalist tendencies in the dissident movements of the Soviet bloc. Examples are Solzhenitsyn’s conviction of Russian superiority or, more generally, the scare of “russophobia” that befell many former heroes of the Soviet dissident movement as well as nationalist and anti-Semitic currents in the Polish underground of the 1970s and 1980s. The writers discussed here were aware of that problem (Kuroń 2010, 123–128),14 but their thought is characterized by a tension between, on one hand, an almost post-modernist rejection of any meta-narrative or collectivist ideology and, on the other hand, the intellectual quest for an objective footing in religion or an authentic experience in national culture (Elshtain 1992). The latter, at any rate, were judged by their ability to protect and sustain individual human beings and to empower them to reclaim their Lebenswelt.

Which specific understanding of human rights emerges from this discussion of dissident thought? Four points seem most important: Firstly, dissident thought was characterized by a sharp focus on the individual, on the dignity and value of every human being. Following from this was a rejection of all kinds of systematic ideologies or utopian projects willing to sacrifice human freedom and individual autonomy for the sake of a national collective or radiant future. Secondly, many dissidents saw the individual embedded in a transcendent, even divine order of reality. On one hand, this meant that oppressing individual rights, stifling human autonomy was not merely the violation of a legal norm but of a natural order of reality. On the other hand, this idea of a transcendent order meant that liberty was bound to strong normative commitments – a commitment to choose truth over lies and a commitment to answer a call to responsibility for other human beings and the social world. Thirdly, liberty thus understood was possible only within a social community and in mutual solidarity. Freedom did not mean the freedom to retreat to the private sphere but the freedom to actively participate in public life and to shape, together with others, the public affairs of one’s community. Finally, though the dissidents would invoke international treaties, though they formed a transnational Verstehensgemeinschaft, and though they declared their solidarity with victims in other parts of the world, their activism remained focused on their immediate, local context. They did not differentiate between the struggle for rights and the struggle for self-determination; they made no distinction between civic and human rights, because, for them, claiming one’s universal rights meant to become a citizen – an active participant in social life.

The general “social imaginaire” which emerges from these four points was one in which human rights were supposed to empower individuals to become the agents of their own fate. The dissidents were usually grateful for international support and mobilizing it was an important aspect of their activism. But they did not want westerners to fight their struggles for them. Indeed, many believed that the dissidents’ experience had a wider significance and that the West could learn something from it.

The Fate of Dissident Thought in the 1980s

What is left of this specific way of thinking about human rights and of conducting human rights activism? To what extent has it left behind a legacy, that is, to what extent was it preserved in a distinguishable form and had a lasting influence on social life and international politics after 1989? This question is complicated by the fact that what we are dealing with here is a set of ideas and concepts whose meaning, as the preceding section should have shown, was never fixed. The process of appropriating dissidents’ ideas and thoughts for other contexts, moreover, began already during the 1970s. Though dissident activism was focused on the domestic context of individual countries, from its very beginning, it had a transnational horizon. When they were not in prison, many dissidents had to support themselves through badly paid unskilled jobs or were unemployed. For Havel, an important source of income was the publishing and staging of his plays in the West. But receiving western aid was not only a matter of supporting individuals: Funds were needed for the costly production of samizdat or to support the families of political prisoners; western correspondents had to be contacted to get one’s message onto the radio waves of the BBC or RFE (Radio Free Europe); western politicians and organizations had to be lobbied to put human rights onto the agenda of the CSCE or the U. N. (Bolton 2012, 103–104, 136, 148, 205; Brier 2011; Goddeeris 2010; Metger 2013; Snyder 2011; Szulecki 2011; Walker 2009, 377, 384–387; Walker 2010)

From the beginning of their activism, then, dissidents addressed audiences in the West. An important step in the development of Soviet dissent occurred in January 1968 when Pavel Litvinov and Larisa Bogoraz protested against a political trial by issuing an appeal that was not addressed to the Soviet authorities but to international public opinion (Horvath 2005, 56–57). The conference in Paris where Michnik gave his talk about the new evolutionism was not only intended for émigré groups but also garnered significant French and international attention (Ostrowska 1976). Havel’s “Politics and Conscience” was written as a speech on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Toulouse (Havel 1984). Such international awards ceremonies were a frequent forum to address international attention, though, like Havel in 1984 or Andrei Sakharov and Lech Wałęsa for their respective Nobel lectures, such speeches were usually read not by the recipients themselves. Jonathan Bolton (2012), then, is certainly correct that dissent was often misperceived; yet, as Julia Metger (2013) argues, it seems as though these misperceptions were actually an important part of the story of dissent.

How, then, was the dissidents’ message received internationally? The first appeals from the Soviet Union raised little interest in the West except for a small group of émigrés and Cold War Warriors. This would change rather radically a few years later. A key event was the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973 and its author’s forced exile a year later. Paradoxically, the book’s impact was particularly deep in France, whose cultural life experienced a veritable “choc du Goulag.”15 The “Soviet dissident” became a celebrated figure of the French left-wing intelligentsia which shifted its sympathies from the anti-colonial liberation struggles in the 1960s to human rights activism and a “crusading anti-totalitarianism” in the 1970s and early 1980s. By the early 1980s, Marxism – once the Master Narrative of the French left – had fallen completely out of favor.

Two aspects of “l’affaire Sojlenitsyne” are particularly puzzling. Firstly, Solzhenitsyn’s work did not reveal anything fundamentally new. His panorama of the Soviet labor camps may have been particularly impressive and his indictment of the Soviet system particularly stringent, but there was little in his book that was not known in the West already. And yet, French intellectuals – few of whom were actually Soviet sympathizers – would indulge in self-criticism arguing that the Gulag Archipelago had opened their eyes to the “true nature” of communism. Secondly, Solzhenitsyn – whose reactionary views became increasingly apparent – was an unlikely hero for intellectuals with libertarian left-wing views and often a Trotskyite or Maoist past. Yet major public intellectuals and philosophers – such as André Glucksman or Claude Lefort – would compose entire books centered on Solzhenitsyn and his writings in order to sketch a new approach in left-wing politics.

The broad popularity, then, which non-conformist intellectuals from the Soviet bloc received rather suddenly in France had as much to do with French intellectual politics as with those intellectuals themselves. ‘L’affaire Sojlenitsyne ’ was less prompted by the publication of the Gulag Archipelago than by how the French Communist Party (PCF) criticized its author and a French libertarian left journal that defended him. Among libertarian left-wing intellectuals and former student radicals, these attacks exacerbated fears about what they saw as the authoritarian tendencies of the established Left. Since the events of May 1968, France’s libertarian left – the so-called “Second Left” or “deuxieme Gauche” – had grown critical of the traditionally state centered approach of France’s leftist establishment and its main political force, the PCF. Favoring grass-roots democracy and workers self-management, the Second Left believed that this etatist approach would lead to authoritarianism. When the PCF attacked Solzhenitsyn, his book could be read not only as a description of the Soviet past but also as a dark vision of a French future under the government of the French communists. The dissidents were popular, then, because of how they served as a powerful symbol for French intellectual life. As victims of the very revolutionary violence the PCF and its supporters had once considered legitimate, they condensed and focused the Second Left’s criticism of etatism and its authoritarian potential. As lonely intellectual figures braving a Marxist orthodoxy, the dissidents were also a symbol around which French intellectuals could fashion their own identities as newfound critics of Marxism.

This French “anti-totalitarian moment” (Christofferson 2004) reached its apogee in a broad wave of sympathy and support for the Polish Solidarity movement. The sheer breadth of this movement turned it into an international icon of non-violent resistance against communism – a process accentuated and reinforced by the 1983 Nobel Prize for Lech Wałęsa. Two examples demonstrate the surprisingly different uses to which this symbol was put. On 21 October 1983, the Ethics and Public Policy Center – a conservative think-tank from Washington, DC – bestowed its annual award for integrity and courage upon Lech Wałęsa. The award ceremony at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which Wałęsa could not attend, featured a videotaped salute by President Ronald Reagan and was attended by a “who’s who” of the American foreign policy establishment. The evening’s keynote address, given by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, only touched upon Poland and Solidarity. In a talk entitled “We and They”, Kirkpatrick argued instead that the West needed to overcome its self-doubts and demoralization to confront what she saw as a “discouragingly familiar” pattern of Soviet expansionism (Ethics and Public Policy Center 1983; Kirkpatrick 1988, 35–41).

On the next day, some 6,000 km east of New York, another woman spoke to a major political gathering on a foreign policy question and, again, Poland’s Solidarity was a point of reference. Petra Kelly – a leading figure of the West German peace movement – addressed several hundred thousand people who had come to Bonn to demonstrate against the deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles. The demonstrations in Bonn and elsewhere, she said, were part of an international movement that transcended the competing political systems of the Cold War. “We now have the opportunity to live the beginnings of a society without violence,” she concluded. “[...] a Solidarność for peace, not only in Poland” (Kelly 1990). Two years later, she would even label dissident anti-politics an example for the Western left.

“Anti-politics” does not want power from above or share that power. That would be its very own contradiction. It already possesses power, but in a completely different moral and ethical sense. Through civil courage, through the capacity to endure suffering, but never inflicting it on others, through creative “disobedient” forces that range from Philip Berrigan and Liz McAlister and the US Pledge of Resistence to Vaclav Havel (Charta 77) to Adam Michnik (Solidarnosc) to Katja Havemann (Women for Peace)! (Kelly 1985)

These three examples – the French Second Left, U. S. neoconservatives, and West German peace activists – highlight the “thinness” of the human rights culture that would emerge in the late Cold War: The symbols and narratives of this culture are, as Kenneth Cmiel (1999, 1248–1249) noted, powerful not because they accurately convey a complex situation of political oppression, but because they evoke emotions. Images and pictures that “scream pathos or heroism [...] allow viewers to ignore any thicker, local context and to click on the phrase ‘human rights’ in their minds.” This culture turned social movements like Solidarity or exemplary individuals like Solzhenitsyn into “icons” – larger-than-life images which embody values like courage, defiance, integrity.

This “iconization” constitutes the appeal of human rights. At least apparently, Solzhenitsyn or Solidarity did not represent specific political views, but the universal right to express those views freely. But our three examples raise the question of how far this anti- or pre-political neutrality of human rights went. Individuals and groups in France, West Germany, and the U. S. did associate more particular political visions with the symbolic figures of human rights and the very “neutrality” of human rights culture may have enabled them to do so. In this culture, the specific features of dissident movements – such as the religious and national(ist) views of Solzhenitsyn or Solidarity’s character as a trade union – merely served to underline the universality of human rights, not to acquaint international audiences with the complex historical situation in which they were active. Mark Bradley (2012, 337) highlights how this culture thus tended to drain “the structural forces and local particulars that gave rise to [rights] violations” from such iconic cases. Yet an equally important aspect was how this culture, presenting local activists as victims of the violation of universal norms, drained from them their specific political aims and social visions. The terms these activists used to define their goals – “human rights” or “democracy” – may therefore have been given new meanings, and goals may have been ascribed to these activists which had not been originally theirs.

All three interpretations– the anti-totalitarian leftist, the neoconservative, and the pacifist – captured something correct about dissent. There were significant parallels between anti-politics and the direct democratic thinking of the French Second Left. Though anti-totalitarian and anti-statist, both French intellectuals and people like Havel or Kuroń remained committed to questions of social solidarity. Kelly, too, could point out significant similarities between her idea of an “Anti-Parteienpartei” and the political theory of Michnik or Havel. But by calling them peace activists, she also brushed aside important differences and conflicts. When she gave her speech in Amsterdam, a dialogue between western peace activists and representatives of Charter 77 had begun. This exchange, however, had been brought about by a major disagreement: the question of how to balance the goal of disarmament and that of protecting human rights in the Soviet bloc. Underpinning these debates were fundamentally different political lexicons; “totalitarianism” – one of the central terms of dissidence – was a concept most western peace activists considered an expression of a Cold War mentality. The dialogue between the peace activists and the dissidents thus remained fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. Havel even gave a votum seperatum in which he rejected the peace activists’ overwhelming focus on disarmament as lacking responsibility (Ziemann 2009, 368–370; Szulecki 2013).

The rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick – with its stark moral choices between liberty and tyranny, good and evil – resonated strongly with many dissidents, especially in Poland. This rhetoric, however, transported a larger social vision that was much further away from dissident thought than that of the French and West German left. For Havel, the arms race was an expression of the very technical civilization which was responsible for the crisis of modern society. The dissidents’ approach to human rights, moreover, was universal. “All totalitarian regimes are the enemy,” Michnik wrote in 1977, “whether capitalist or communist, Chile, the USSR, China or anyplace else where basic human rights are trampled upon and people are beaten down and oppressed in the name of higher ideals, religious or secular” (Michnik 1993, 192). As a political prisoner in the 1980s, he would speak out for Chilean rights activists and Solidarity repeated declared its solidarity with Chilean workers (Le Monde 1983). Reagan and Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, represented an approach to human rights activism which, under the name of “democracy promotion,” was willing to differentiate between authoritarian governments, where the focus should not be on human rights but the gradual building of democratic institutions, and totalitarian regimes (Kirkpatrick 1979; Bright 1990). This neoconservative approach to human rights was based on a specific social vision: Though anti-etatist, it understood society more as composed of isolated individuals who pursued their self-interest than the heavily embedded actors Havel or Kuroń saw as the bearers of human rights. Reagan finally was convinced the U. S. was the “city upon a hill” that embodied a fully democratic society (Reagan 1982). Havel’s sense of a universal crisis of modernity was completely alien to him.

This leads to a final aspect: Havel was, as noted, convinced that the relationship between, on one side, him and his fellow activists and, on the other side, their western supporters was not asymmetrical; the West could learn as much from the dissidents’ experience as the dissidents could learn from the West. In reality, however, the democratic transitions after 1989 were a very one-sided endeavor. Rather than rejuvenating democratic processes in Western Europe, the “post-communist” countries of Eastern Europe were forced to diligently meet criteria held up to them by the West in order to be allowed into the European Union. What many intellectuals in East-Central Europe had dreamed of in 1989 was a reunification of Europe – a meeting of equals, Smolar noted. Yet, “Instead of the dreamed-of union of equals, Central and East Europeans are faced with a laborious fulfillment of conditions from Brussels, a rigorous application of the EU’s commandments spelled out in 80,000 pages of regulations (the so-called acquis communautaire). European unification resembles the unification of Germany, except that in Europe as a whole the West lacks the same sense of profound ties with, and obligation toward, the East” (Smolar 2001, 12–13). 1 May 2004, the day when most post-communist states in East-Central Europe joined the EU is thus often seen as the completion of their transition to “normalcy.” “Democracy,” Havel had criticized already in 1994, “is seen less and less as an open system best able to respond to people’s basic needs, that is, as a set of possibilities that continually must be sought, redefined, and brought into being. Instead, democracy is seen as something given, finished, and complete as is, something that the more enlightened purchase and the less enlightened do not” (Havel 1995, 48).

Moreover, the “social imaginaire” underpinning the global human rights regime that came into being after 1989, with its dense network of NGOs, the International Criminal Court, and concepts like “humanitarian intervention” or at least the “responsibility to protect,” differs markedly from the “social imaginaire” of dissent. Both historians and political scientists have shown how, already in the 1970s but even more so after 1989, human rights campaigns are sometimes driven more by the needs and worldviews of NGOs and international institutions than by the actual victims of oppression. Which victims are able to make their voice heard depends as much on their ability to communicate with the gatekeepers of the world of transnational NGOs as on the repression of their suffering (Keys 2012; Simpson 2009; Bob 2005). Indeed the very term “victim” marks a move away from the discourse and thought of the dissidents who, though they certainly were victims, saw themselves rather as protesters and activists, as individuals who made moral choices and who claimed a universal right. The locus of agency, then, shifted from those opposing repression and struggling for self-determination to international actors and, paradoxically, governments (Cohen 2008; Guilhot 2005; Ingram 2008).

Human rights, it turns out, were no fixed set of norms the dissidents could invoke. As they began to oppose their governments and to address an imaginary “court of world opinion” they became participants in a process in which different actors in different parts of the world were competing over the meaning of human rights and of human rights activism. These debates turned the dissidents into international icons, but there was a price they would have to pay for this status. The richness of their debates on human rights and totalitarianism, on democracy and solidarity, on human agency and its ramifications, as well as the idiosyncrasies of these debates and their authoritarian potential, were stripped down to those aspects which tied in with aspects of western political struggles. As a result, the dissidents came to symbolize an understanding of human rights which differed fundamentally from their own vision of the 1970s. After 1989, democratization was defined as an imitative process where institutions were transferred from West to East rather than as a process of exchange where the West might learn from the East’s experience and the international protection. And human rights activism became the domain of transnational groups and governments, who protect victims, rather than a process driven by local practices and struggles of the victims themselves.

From Dissidence to Neoliberalism?

Was there a “human rights legacy” of 1989? Or were the dissidents a symbol which was hijacked for the project of a global neoliberal hegemony – with human rights activists serving as the latter’s “organic intellectuals,” as some writers indebted to Antonio Gramsci seem to suggest?16 Were human rights transformed from “weapons for the critique of power” into elements “of the arsenal of power”?17

This, too, seems to be an oversimplification. For all its thinness, human rights was a language of empowerment. French intellectuals, American neoconservatives, and peace activists competed over the meaning of human rights precisely because it had become a powerful source of international legitimacy. As international icons, the dissidents were valuable in these debates because, through their suffering and resistance, they embodied the ideas associated with human rights. This exposed them to clashing interpretations, but it also endowed them with moral authority and symbolic power. The dissidents were rarely shy to use this authority to make clear demands on their Western supporters. Challenging the West to live up to the values it had signed in Helsinki, then, they also challenged the West to define its identity.

Before the dissidents forced human rights onto the international agenda, all three western groups discussed above – the French Left, U. S. neoconservatives, the West German peace movement – had been indifferent or critical about human rights activism. This is most obvious in the case of France: As Claude Lefort observed in 1980 in a seminal article of the French human rights discourse: “The spread of Marxism throughout the whole of the French Left has long gone hand in hand with a devaluation of rights in general and with the vehement, ironic or “scientific” condemnation of the bourgeois notion of human rights.” It had only been after “the efforts of dissidents throughout the socialist states, availing themselves of the Helsinki Agreements in order to demand respect for human rights,” that individual rights “no longer seem to be formal, intended to conceal a system of domination; they are now seen to embody a real struggle against oppression” (Lefort 1986, 240–241). West German peace activists, too, had been critical about human rights activism in East–West relations. They feared it might exacerbate the Cold War but they also seemed to have submitted to an inverted Cold War thinking themselves. Seeing the U. S. as the main culprit in the arms race, they believed that supporting dissidents would simultaneously strengthen the U. S. Kelly’s approach signals a new attitude from a figurehead of the peace movement. She started to see peace and human rights as two sides of the same process and, in defending this approach, even argued that, in terms of their human rights record, western societies were superior to those of the Soviet bloc (Fischer et al. 1986).

Jeane Kirkpatrick or Ronald Reagan, finally, may have portrayed U. S. human rights policies as a simple continuation of the Cold War. In reality, however, both had been critical of human rights activism before Reagan came to office deeming it naïve and preventing Washington from fending off Soviet influences in Central America. One of Kirkpatrick’s most famous texts, in fact, is an article in which she rejected human rights activism’s universal approach outright and demanded different approaches for dictators in Latin America and in the Soviet bloc (Kirkpatrick 1979). Leading neoconservative intellectuals had little use for the activism of the dissidents or a social movement like Solidarity. They may have admired the dissidents and considered Solidarity’s suppression tragic, but seem to have believed that their fate had been inevitable anyway (Kahn and Podhoretz 2008; Krauthammer 1982).18

Even after 1989, dissidents could challenge and provoke western audiences. An emergent narrative may portray the expansion of the EU as a process in which West European countries shepherded “post-communist” societies into the democratic club. But the political scientist Frank Schimmelfennig (2001) has argued that EU enlargement ran counter to the interests of the majority of its members and there was, hence, little enthusiasm for it. In this situation, Czech President Havel used his iconic status as a former dissident and the EU’s public commitment to human rights to “shame” West Europeans into beginning the process of enlargement. While East European human rights activists certainly could not control the shape of the “liberal international order” that would emerge after the Cold War, they were not its passive victims either.


Robert Brier. Works as a research associate at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. His research interests include the modern history of East-Central Europe, the history of the Cold War, of human rights, the intellectual and cultural history of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the intellectual and international history of the late 19th Century. He is currently finishing a book manuscript in which he analyzes the history of the Solidarity movement as a case study of the international history of human rights. His most important recent publications include a special issue on the history and legacy of dissent of the journal East European Politics and Societies (co-edited with Paul Blokker) and an edited called Entangled Protest: Transnational Perspectives on the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.



1 For my understanding of the problematic terms “dissent” and “dissidence” see Brier (2013), pp. 13–18.

2 Paulmann’s text is a review of Hoffmann (2012). Such an approach need not necessarily question the validity of human rights as demonstrated by Hans Joas (2013); Joas (2000). For the history of human rights see Eckel (2009); Moyn (2012); Pendas (2012); for major texts of this new approach see the contributions to the volume edited by Hoffmann as well as Eckel and Moyn (2013); Iriye, Goedde and Hitchcock (2012); Moyn (2010); Simpson (2009). For applications to Eastern Europe see Nathans (2007).

3 The English translations of the Chronicle are available online from Amnesty International at: The Russian original is available from the homepage of Memorial, a Russian NGO that collects the documents of Soviet dissidents at: (both accessed Jan. 2013).

4 For Catholicism’s mid-1960s about-face on human rights see Moyn (2011); Sutor (2008).

5 Snyder (2010, 69–70) tells this story the wrong way round emphasizing international causes and relegating the crackdown on Prague, the main reason for the creation of Charter 77, to a footnote.

6 The following account is based on my own research on Polish dissent as well as on Friszke (2010); Friszke (2011); Gawin (2013); Arndt (2013). My account of Charter 77 draws heavily on Bolton (2012) though, obviously, I come to different conclusions regarding the existence of a transnational dissident community. For the history of Soviet dissent see Nathans (2007); Nathans (2013); Luks (2010); Walker (2009); Walker (2010).

7 For references to Solzhenitsyn’s text see Kuroń (2010), p. 55; Havel (1984).

8 Quotations are from the unpaginated online edition of Havel’s text.

9 Havel adopted this term from his mentor Jan Patočka but used in a different way. Findlay (1999), pp. 420–421.

10 Havel (1985), pp. 39–40, 42.

11 Kuroń

12 Though Kuroń (2010, 8, 59) proceeded from Marxist ideas in this text, there are obvious parallels between this reasoning and the French personalist philosophy favored by Warsaw’s Catholic intelligentsia. On personalisim in general see Moyn (2011). For its relevance for the Polish opposition see Miller (1983).

13 Havel (1985), p. 91.

14 Another example is the book Genealogies of the Defiant [Rodowody Niepokornych] by the Catholic writer Bohdan Cywiński (1971). One of the most influential texts of early Polish dissent, it sketched human rights and national history as a field were Catholics and Marxist intellectuals could meet. Its account of Polish nationalism and Church history openly discussed and strongly condemned nationalism.

15 The following account is based on two competitive but ultimately complementary accounts of French post-war intellectual history Khilnani (1993); Christofferson (2004). See also Horvath (2007); Howard (2002); Johnstone (1984).

16 Stuart Shields, “Historicizing Transition: The Polish Political Economy in a Period of Global Structural Change – Eastern Central Europe’s Passive Revolution?,” International Politics vol 43, no. 4 (2006), pp. 474–499; Jarle Simensen, “The Global Context of 1989,” in Transnational Moments of Change. 1945 – 1968 – 1989, ed. Padraic Kenney and Gerd-Rainer Horn (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), pp. 157–172.

17 Nicolas Guilhot, The Democracy Makers: Human Rights & International Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 5.

18 For the development of Reagan’s human rights policy see Bright (1990).


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