Friday, September 22, 2017

The point of an argument

In an earlier post I discussed the work of the French historian Muriel Blaive, who splits her time between Prague and Vienna and who is an advisor to the director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, or ÚSTR. Blaive is giving interviews about research she’s done in the archives which revealed more cooperation with the former communist government than resistance to it.

I discussed in that earlier post why that conclusion is potentially problematic in itself. But that raises the question of the larger meaning of her findings. In part, that relates to improving our understanding of how dictatorships work, whether we choose to call them “totalitarian” or merely criminal.

Marek Švehla suggests another factor that could be at play.

He first argues that Blaive’s work is missing the forest for the trees.
The absolute rulers didn’t need to negotiate with any of their subjects, and to the extent they did so, it was in insubstantial spheres of life in the Czechoslovak state, not in the principal matters. For that, we don’t need to pay for who knows how expensive research in a specially established institution.
For example, research into the question of why Czechs so easily came to terms with the normalization regime [the re-imposition of stricter controls on political views after the Warsaw Pact invasion of August, 1968] says a lot about us, but little about the system that ruled this country and punished the thought that things could be different. In short, a dictatorial or totalitarian (whichever you prefer) regime can’t be characterized on the basis of the privileged or satisfied members of society, but rather by those most oppressed. In other words, you can’t put on one side of the scale 10 judicial murders and on the other 10 million satisfied vacation-goers and pretend that the second of those is equally important information for the judgment—and condemnation or, perhaps, commendation—of the regime. (Marek Švehla, “How satisfied were the satisfied vactioners?” Respekt 37, 11 – 17 Sept., 2017, pp. 10-11)
He goes on to say that the ÚSTR is functioning relatively well. It’s providing reasonable access to the archives of the StB (Státní bezpečnost – “State Security”, or secret police), it’s putting on exhibits, issuing publications, and carrying on educational work. “In short, considering the normal quality of Czech public institutions, it doesn’t appear that the ÚSTR is particularly failing.”
But maybe that’s where we need to look for the roots of the criticism of the Institute. An institution established on a political basis with a guaranteed budget and authority protected by a scholarly advisory council has, to a significant extent, the key to the interpretation of the communist past, and so it will continually tempt politicians to try to influence it. The left doesn’t like the emphasis on criticism of communism and its totalitarian character, because that weakens the prospects that the current communist party could take part in a future governing coalition. And without the communists, the Czech left will never be able to put together a coalition of its own [i.e., without the participation of more center or right parties].
The struggle against inconvenient concepts like totalitarianism, and the laughable trivialization of dictatorship which Muriel Blaive is now presenting, is nothing more than an effort to bend history and redirect the functioning of the ÚSTR so that it suits the left.
Švehla here goes to motive, which is always tricky ground. He’s accusing Blaive of following a political agenda rather than doing honest scholarship. But regardless of her motives, it’s easy to see how her work plays into the current political scene.

In public discourse here it’s common to hear the Social Democrats lumped in with the communists and covered under one derogatory label. This is the same willing inability to distinguish between social programs and communism that infects the U.S. In that setting, it seems to me that quibbling over the terminology applied to the former communist regime is not the best way for the social democratic left to gain broader public support.

Next: Totalitarianism and game theory

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