Old Talk of New Normalisation

Michal Pullmann: Konec experimentu. Přestavba a pád komunismu v Československu. [The End of an Experiment. The Rebuilding and Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia] Scriptorium, Praha 2011

“The reason we found it so easy to slip out of socialism was because it already contained the seeds of capitalism,” noted the doyen of presentday social scientists Ivo Možný ten years after the 1989 revolution (adding that the reason why we found it so difficult to adjust to capitalism was because its foundations had already been laid under communism). Twenty years on he bemoaned the way the 1980s narrative had been simplified and turned into a fairy tale of communists, dissidents and ordinary people, and expressed the hope that the youngest generation of historians would come up with a new narrative.

That new narrative appeared last year. The study “Konec experimentu. Přestavba a pád komunismu v Československu” [The End of an Experiment. The Rebuilding and Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia] by Michal Pullmann (b. 1974) caused a minor uproar and became the flag waved by belligerent young historians who see parallels between the stiffened Czechoslovak “normalisation” of the 1970s and 1980s and the situation in today’s Czech Republic.

In fact, however, it is one of the most overrated books of recent times.

Pullmann’s book has two great strengths. The first is the linguistic analysis contained in every chapter: illustrating how the imperious tone in Yury Andropov’s speeches shows obvious signs of KGB rhetoric (“resolute strengthening of discipline”) or, by contrast, the verbal impotence of the Czechoslovak leadership who referred to the August 1988 rallies—held on the twentieth anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion—as “occurrences that occured”. As Pullmann says: “Once not only individuals but also events became devoid of fixed names and explanations while, at the same time, being impossible to ignore, the whole stigmatisation process stopped working, creating a space for wider solidarity with the oppressed.”

The book’s second strength is its fastidious use of copious sources. Pullmann immersed himself in Brezhnev’s speeches, pored through the “Memberof- the-Government-Committee-for-the-Planned- Management-of – National-Economy-Respondsto- Readers‘-Questions” columns in the official 1980s dailies, read obscure trade union bulletins no one else before him had opened and is unlikely to open for a long time. (At this point the reader might be reminded of a line from a popular Czech film depicting the 1960s and the normalisation period: “That must have been a hell of a job— hardly worth it for this piece of rubbish… !”) Pullmann uses his sources to illustrate the way Czechoslovakia’s communist leadership defied Gorbachov’s policy of perestroika, the opportunity this policy offered to technocratic managed economy experts to put forward their own ideas, and journalists and writers to cautiously test new, less officious topics and a new, factual language, as well as workers‘ distrust of official rhetoric. Does he reveal anything we didn’t know before? Actually, he doesn’t.

It is, without a doubt, valuable that Pullman has dusted off and rescued from oblivion landmark events (such as the March 1988 Depeche Mode Prague concert) or TV discussions of the day. However, we can find a much more profound analysis of the way individual sections of society behaved in Ivan Možný’s penetrating study “Proč tak snadno… Některé rodinné důvody sametové revoluce” [Why so easily… Some family reasons for the Velvet Revolution] written in 1990 (!). Rather than just recording phenomena, Možný homed in on their roots, describing how in the 1980s families “colonized the state” and showing that even despotic socialism’s ruling class longed to transform its social capital into economic capital, and to rationalize its exercise of power by dismantling the costly secret police and the machinery of propaganda.

So why so much fuss about a solid, but certainly not groundbreaking book? It was caused less by its content than the author’s personality and his views of the present.

In his introduction Michal Pullmann professes to be the kind of person whom some will regard as not sufficiently anti-communist, while others will criticize for not mounting a sufficiently staunch defence of “state socialism”. To use his own vocabulary, he strives for the legitimacy of a non-partisan expert. Only in interviews published later did he add that his father had worked for Comecon and the whole family had lived in Moscow from 1980 to 1986.

This information provoked an ad hominem attack from a reviewer who denounced Pullmann for having enjoyed a sheltered and privileged childhood, resulting in a protracted and very personal row involving friends and peers on both sides. But in fact there is nothing new or surprising about the book’s main argument, i.e. that in the 1980s dissent around Charter 77 was marginalized and that by the 1980s the system had long lost its totalitarian trappings. Yet Pullmann apparently relished the role of the lone fighter against the mainstream, which he accused of peddling a black-and-white narrative of the 1980s (although this has not been proposed by any serious historian).

Pullmann certainly captures the spirit of the era, claiming in his closing remarks that normalisation continues to this very day, except that communist vocabulary has been replaced by a (neo)liberal one; cliches of “socialism” and “planned economy” by the terms “democracy” and “markets” and that instead of Roma and dissidents it is now Roma, homeless people and immigrants who are being ostracized. Talk of a new normalisation is quite standard among certain humanities scholars. For example, the young historian Matěj Spurný (b. 1979) has publicly raised the question of whether we now “believe in capitalism” in the same way our forefathers believed in communism.

In fact, Czech reality post-1989 has about as much in common with neoliberalism as the “real existing socialism” of the 1980s had with the socialism of Marx and Lenin. This is just an extraordinary example of ahistoricism on the part of young historians, mechanically applying the language of the old struggle to the new situation, as if it were old wine in new bottles. However, the “new normalisation” metaphor has its agreeable consequences in that it automatically turns its spokesperson into a modern dissident. It appears to be an attempt to combine the advantages of both eras, allowing its proponents belatedly to join the ranks of the moral elite by written text alone, withouth having to take any risks.

Nevertheless, normalisation undoubtedly continues to cast a long shadow. However, rather than in alleged “neoliberalism”, it manifests itself in the chronic and constantly affirmed lack of trust in public institutions and people around us. But of course, these are not quantities COMECON technocrats used to deal with.

Tomas Němeček

Tomas Němeček is a staff writer on the daily Lidove Noviny.

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