30. Oct 2013 - DOI 10.25626/0009
Jakub Vrba is a graduate student at the Institute of Economic and Social History at the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University. His scholarly interests are late state socialism in Czechoslovakia and multicultural character of interwar Czechoslovakia.
The publication of Michal Pullmann's book "The End of the Experiment", which distanced itself from earlier approaches to the last period of state socialism from a methodological and theoretical perspective, provoked a debate at various levels. Several reviews of the book appeared. A discussion of Pullmann's text was launched on the pages of Lidové Noviny, one of the most popular daily newspapers in the Czech Republic. Readers of the newspaper were witness to a dispute between several journalists and the predominantly younger generation of historians. Several months later, there was an exchange of articles between Pullmann and the historian Karel Hrubý in a popular history journal in which they discussed the dispute about the totalitarian nature of state socialism in Czechoslovakia.
In 2011 a discussion about the recent past was initiated in the Czech media. It centred specifically on the late 1980s and the continuities or discontinuities between the latter period of state socialism and the present. The trigger for this discussion was the publication of Michal Pullmann's book "The End of the Experiment" and several subsequent interviews with him. It is not often the case that a history book causes such a stir in professional journals, let alone in the mainstream press. Hence, there was an intermingling of sorts on an academic and journalistic level, and - in the context of other open discussions - also on a political level. Pullmann belongs to the new generation of Czech historians who have attempted to pluralize methodological and theoretical perspectives in research on contemporary history and to break down what many of them understand to be a hegemonic or at least one-sided discourse on the recent past. He is currently the director of the Institute of Economic and Social History at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University.
In 2008 Pullmann published an article in the journal Soudobé dějiny (Contemporary History) entitled "Sociální dějiny a totalitně historické vyprávění" (Social History and Totalitarian Historical Narrative) in which he referred to the unsustainability of the model based on the theory of totalitarianism, whose alleged hegemony in historiography was beginning, in his opinion, to crumble. Pullmann's book was published three years later. In the book he focuses on the perestroika period in Czechoslovakia and is interested in broader developments and various social groups - specifically party members, experts and workers. Pullmann does not rely on the security services archives that tend to be prioritized nowadays, but rather on journals and party documents from that period, and in his analysis he focuses mainly on the ideological language of the late socialist dictatorship. It is this language that is the subject of his analysis and not dissent or a repressive state with control over society. He perceives this language as a basis for a "normalization consensus" and describes its demise during perestroika. From this perspective, the demise of the ideological language of the ruling party and the associated social elite was a fundamental condition for the collapse of the entire regime. Pullmann was well aware of the confrontational potential of the book. He even admitted in the first sentence that, thanks to the book, he probably would not be making "many new friends". In the introduction and conclusion to the book, he underlined that "normalization and the post-November system have much more in common than the demonstrators on the squares in 1989 had imagined." In Pullmann's view, after a short interlude in which human rights were to the fore, a new consensus emerged that became just as exclusive as the previous one, although the excluded groups were different - Romany, the homeless, immigrants. "Socialism and planning were consistently replaced with democracy and the market at the beginning of the 1990s." However, according to Pullmann, the emphasis on the "formality of words" and political rhetoric remained the same.
The actual publication of the book elicited no significant response. However, reactions did start to appear after an interview with Pullmann was published on 5 June 2011 in Mladá fronta Dnes, one of the most popular daily newspapers in the Czech Republic. In this interview, Pullmann indicated that his goal was to start up a discussion on the reasons for the "rapid breakdown of the system and its previous, relatively long stability." In his own words, this goal was "not motivated by either love or hatred for normalization". However, he reiterated the provocative theory he had outlined at the end of his book that "neo-liberal individualism was connected to normalization individualism." He added that "just like normalization, the situation in the Czech Republic today feeds off of ideological frameworks that are hollow and do not have any firm ethical stance."
Ondřej Štindl was the first journalist to react in another national newspaper, Lidové noviny. He acknowledged that there were many continuities between both regimes and that even the current regime relied on an abundance of rhetoric. He disagreed, however, that neo-liberal discourse was as dominant as Pullmann claimed. Two days later, the music critic Jan Rejžek contributed to the discussion. In his opinion, Pullmann "did not shamelessly retire to the serenity of his study, but he provided [...] an unbelievable interview last Saturday, which sought to provoke, even with the title 'Normalization Has Not Ended', as if it were from Haló noviny." Rejžek did not forget to mention that Pullmann's father had been employed in Moscow in the 1980s. He rejected Pullmann's description of the state socialist past or the liberal democratic present. In his view, society was atomized, the system was illegitimate, and the role of repressive elements was greater than Pullmann had admitted. Yet he claimed that neo-liberal discourse was not as hegemonic, and in the Czech Republic there was no censorship, unlike the former regime.
One week later, the historians Vítězslav Sommer and Jan Dobeš entered the debate. Both repeated the main argument of Pullmann's book and suggested that Rejžek's argument was typical of the normalization period. It was for both of them based on a type of socialist "classism" (kádrováctví), where an author is judged on the basis of their origins rather than their statements. At that point Jaroslav Koller stood up for Rejžek. Although he did not bring anything new to the criticism of Pullmann's theories, he moved the entire debate to a rather different level when he wrote that, in his opinion, "very few environments show as many traits of the normalization period as Czech historiography does. Clientelism, servility, and the removal of people are commonplace here." For Koller, the "young historian Sommer" was a case in point. He claimed that Sommer did not work on the projects he was in charge of and "instead of the work that Sommer is paid for, he participates in various debates in which he criticizes the policies of the current government and also his employers."
Sommer and Pullmann were supported by other historians, such as Jan Mervart, Markéta Devátá and Tomáš Zahradníček. They tried to defend the historian's position independent of political debate and their right to another perspective. They criticized the personal attacks and tried once again to explain the main intention of Pullmann's book. Only then was the conventional meaning of 'totalitarianism' put into perspective. In the meantime, left-wing intellectuals from other journals had also joined the debate - namely the political scientist Ondřej Slačálek and the philosopher Michael Hauser. As opposed to the historians, they were more interested in debunking the anti-communist narrative that, in their opinion, still dominated in Czech public discourse. It was Hauser in particular, who pushed this argument, comparing anti-communism to anti-Semitism. In his opinion, the same Lacanian jouissance was common to both of them. "Anti-communism is close to anti-Semitism or contemporary forms of racism. It is created on the basis of the fantasmata of 'communism' as its second absolute evil and searches for its contemporary offshoots." Ondřej Slačálek focused more on the role of utopias in modern Czech history. However, he did not forget to call Rejžek an ideological "nobody by profession".
The pinnacle of the entire dispute was a one-hour discussion of the book on Czech public radio in October 2011. The show's writer, Jiří Berounský, relayed his impressions of the book to listeners at the very beginning of the show. He understood the book as a contribution to economic history. However, in his opinion, it was not possible "to separate the economy of a certain era from the prevailing order. [...] It was still a period of totalitarianism, something the author almost doesn't mention." He also pointed out that "the public did not pay any attention [to perestroika]", claiming that the discussion "was conducted [only] between the communist government insiders, and respectable people did not want anything to do with them" and "nobody discussed" with the public. According to Berounský, nowhere else was it possible to "see a more really existing form [...] of the binary system [the nomenclature and the people [J.V.]] [...] than in Czechoslovakia." Pullmann's theories and methodological approaches were only barely mentioned and not explained in any detail, although citations from the book took up most of the programme. About halfway through the show, there was a 10-minute interview with the main protagonists of the whole debate - Michal Pullmann and Jan Rejžek. However, this did not lead to a catharsis. In addition to what had already been said, Rejžek raised new objections. The language of Pullmann's book, he claimed, was reminiscent of the language of normalization, and he accused him of not mentioning Petr Fidelius or Jiří Suk's works in his book. The fact that Pullmann so earnestly "analyses the gibberish of party functionaries" also bothered him, and he did not forget to return to Pullmann's origins - the first question he asked was when Pullmann had been to the West for the first time. Pullmann tried to defend his theories, but Jiří Berounský ended the whole discussion after just a few minutes.
In the context of Pullmann's comments on breaking down the hegemony of the totalitarian approach to the history of state socialism, several observations should be made. Tomáš Zahradníček wrote in an ironic tone that "we are only a short step away from declaring a new slogan of exclusion, 'one does not speak to anti-communists', which today [...] the majority of the university students could relate to. This is how these relations have developed over the past eight years." Vítězslav Sommer stated that Rejžek's approach was probably "only a hysterical reaction to the discovery that the golden years of the 'party-line' approach to the communist past are slowly coming to an end." Then, in defence of the whole historical state of affairs, Markéta Devátá pointed out that "historians cannot once again accept a social ban so that the period 1948-1989 is seen as the history of society's rebellion against or aversion to the communist regime (which thus far for unknown reasons lasted such a long time)."
In addition to the exchange of opinions on the pages of Lidové noviny, many other expert reviews of Pullmann's book and opinions with regard to the shift in the approach to modern Czech and Czechoslovak history were published. The first and possibly most interesting of the reviews, which dealt with society's overall relationship to the state socialist past, was an extensive review by the political scientist Pavel Barša. It was actually published in Lidové noviny prior to Rejžek's critique, but nobody reacted to it.
Barša pointed to the necessity of revising the traditional Czech approach to the history of normalization. Specifically, he argued that the form of social consensus described by Havel in his famous essay "The Power of the Powerless" could not have existed. In Barša's opinion, while Pullmann "was going in the right direction", the question was whether the theory of a broad consensus allegedly supported by the normalization regime did not just replace one bias with another. If mainstream historiography had previously ignored, with few exceptions, the consensual dimension of normalization, then Pullmann had ignored its repressive dimension in Barša's view: "If this mainstream historiography is divested of the active participation of the people in the regime, in Pullmann´s interpretation, the regime itself is disappearing and, together with the regime, also the nomenclature that governed at that time." Barša agreed with Pullmann that this discourse was capable of "accommodating special interests and identities existing in society. [...] But in that, it loses its central functional link to the interests and identity of the ruling nomenclature; a mythical image that the normalization regime created of itself is reproduced in an indiscriminate manner."
On the assumption that the theory of the similarities between the normalization and neo-liberal discourses only demonstrates the conformity of most people to "the discursively established social norm" in a period of stability, Barša argues that this theory is "correct, but trivial: it generally applies to all modern societies [...]. For our comparison to come close to the special characteristics of the pre- and post-revolutionary periods, the shift in the power context [...] and the shift in the norm have to be taken into account: the hegemonic discourse of communist normalization that called on a person to be the same as the others required different forms of social conformity than those required by the hegemonic discourse of neo-liberal normalization, which calls on a person to be different", Barša wrote.
In Barša's opinion, Pullmann's revision of the past also fell into "the general model of the politics of memory and historiography, as we know it from other European countries." He compared the situation in the Czech Republic to the rehabilitation of fascist memory in Italy, which led to the participation of the party that embraced the fascist legacy in government. Barša ended his review as follows: "Despite digging itself further into the mud of corruption, the crisis had not yet reached the same depths as the crisis in Italy at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. For this reason as well, it is not yet known whether or not the publication of Pullmann's book, which eliminated the stigma of the normalization regime, is the beginning of a process that will end with the Czech Communist Party participating in government."
Two further reviews on the book appeared in academic journals: articles by the historians Jan Mervart in Securitas Imperii and Milan Drápala in Dějiny a současnost. Both authors wrote relatively positive reviews of the book. However, both suggested that the picture of society reflected in it could have been described in more detail. In Mervart's opinion, society was seen "exclusively through the prism of the official media. [...] It would be worth investigating whether the non-exclusive acceptance of the predetermined method based on expressing the semantic development of the terms would necessarily lead to a dynamic view of contemporary society and whether, paradoxically, it would not lead to the use of a priori terms such as 'exclusivity', 'bargaining', etc." Drápala again referred to the role of the historical memory of individual social groups. According to both historians, many of the theories should be analysed in more detail. Mervart recommended a more in-depth analysis of the "distribution of power within the Czechoslovak Communist leadership" and an expansion on the ideas in the conclusion to the book. Drápala pointed to the need to apply Pullmann's theories to further research. For example, one could record "the ideologically conformist prefaces to professional publications that have otherwise escaped the 'normalized' production." In his opinion, "there can be a full range of approaches [...] - besides routine acceptance as a necessary condition, the authors could have doubts or an aversion to the ideological language, or even resign themselves to their jobs and comply with all such requirements."
In mid-2012, another historian of contemporary history, Jiří Suk, reflected on the changes in the approach of "younger historians" to the history of state socialism. As he saw it, their definitions with respect to the theory of totalitarianism had become the "norm". There were two reasons for this: "dissatisfaction with restored capitalism and dissatisfaction with the state of research on socialism". There were also two objectives: "exoneration of the twice rejected project of democratic socialism" and "a more holistic and in-depth understanding of socialist society and the state. [...] If the first aspect prevails, we can speak of political revisionism. If the second predominates, then it involves methodological revisionism."
Suk presented Pullmann's book as an example of political revisionism: "The adversary is the right-wing contempt for everything communist or socialist; therefore, his revisionism is in my opinion more political than methodological." According to Suk, the book dealt in principle with a "view of normalizers", even though he did not want to say that Pullmann shared this view. In his opinion, the author "cloistered himself too much in the five-year period and left out the impact of 1968, where the fate of perestroika looks somewhat different. The absence of the substantial 68/89 mirror perspective allows the moral dimension of the legitimacy of normalization rulers to be suppressed."
At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, the readers of the popular history journal Dějiny a současnost were witness to an intergenerational exchange of opinions between Michal Pullmann and Karel Hrubý. In the first article, Pullmann summarized the development of Czech historiography after 1989 and the gradual erosion of the totalitarianism model in recent years. By contrast, Karel Hrubý attempted to vindicate the interpretation of the old regime through the prism of the totalitarian model. In his reaction to Pullmann's piece, he wrote that many theories of totalitarianism exist. However, he argued that they all agree that "the monopoly on power in politics, the economy and ideology is connected by one hand (the power centre), which allows it to form and manipulate society in a more versatile way than in democratic systems." Hrubý said that Pullmann "confuses the formal side of power with the method of its application." Even "the absence or weakening of terror [...], however, does not disprove the totalitarian character of the regime." The totalitarian structure of the regime was, in his opinion, a permanent trait. The shift in Czech historiography would lead to "a picture of the totalitarian regime that is more differentiated, more dynamic, and more colourful. But it will still be a totalitarian regime".
In response, Pullmann wrote that "if we demonstrate the existence of spheres outside the immediate control of the apparatus (households, sports, recreation) and the effort of this apparatus to stabilize truth, we have before us a picture of a modern dictatorship, and not a totalitarian regime." Even totalitarian structures were created by people, in his opinion. With reference to a discussion being conducted abroad, he pointed out that the theory of totalitarianism did not allow us to sufficiently analyse state socialism. "If we were to adhere to the antiquated notions of a totalitarian regime as a front structure [...], not only would we not succeed in having a professional discussion, we would probably even lose sight of the urgent questions regarding historical continuity [...]."
The disputes that were incited by the publication of Pullmann's book are related to other recent public debates on historical themes in the post-socialist Czech Republic. They took place on two levels and overlapped with each other to a certain degree. On the academic level, there was a critical assessment of the key arguments presented in the book, especially the notions of a normalization consensus and the marginalization of Czechoslovak dissent in the course of the collapse of the socialist dictatorship. The author's methodological approach to sources was also appraised. More generally, the responses to Pullmann's book by academics were concerned with the change in the approach to contemporary history. The public debate that launched the discussion in the national newspaper was much more personal and political in its tone. Its main purpose was to challenge the public representation of the communist past and attempt to critically investigate that past more than two decades after the fall of the regime. Thus an integral part of this public debate was the discussion of continuities between state socialist dictatorship and post-socialist democracy. As such, these disputes were part of a search for identity in Czech politics and political society after 1989, which often took the form of a confrontation with the communist past.
Translated by Andrew Fisher-McKinney
Jakub Vrba: The Debate about Michal Pullmann’s Book The End of the Experiment. In: Cultures of History Forum (30.10.2013), DOI: 10.25626/0009.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Imre Kertész Kolleg, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the copyright holders. For permission please contact the editors.
Veronika Pehe · 11.05.2022
‘The Nineties’ on TV: Remembering the Transformation Era in Czech Popular Culture
Jiří Smlsal · 25.01.2022
The Stench of Pigs and the Authority of Historians: Czech Debates About the Lety Concentration Camp
Karolína Bukovská · 25.11.2021
(Re)construction of Czech History: The National Museum and its New Permanent Exhibition on the Twent...
Veronika Pehe · 21.07.2021
Czech Prime Minister Implicated as Communist Secret Police Agent – Yet Nobody Cares
Jakub Vrba · 18.12.2020
Monumental Conflict: Controversies Surrounding the Removal of the Marshal Konev Statue in Prague
Get this article as PDF download (including pictures).