IPA1 Democratisation as Meaning-Formation: Insights from the communist experience

Harald Wydra


This paper argues that the democratic breakthrough in 1989-1991 was prefigured by meanings of democracy that emerged during the political evolution of communism. Meanings of democracy are not understood as variations of a universal model but as contingent interpretive acts following the existential uncertainty of political crises under communism. Whilst institutional perspectives associate democratic freedom with abstract principles of individualism, autonomy, or the rule of law, the anthropological perspective on the experience of democratisation proposed here emphasises the power of spirit and consciousness in the formation of meanings. This argument is developed by elaborating three propositions: Historically, communism was not simply an undemocratic, totalitarian system but a social organism in gestation; The emergence of communism in 1917 in Russia and 1945 in eastern Europe, but also major challenges to its power in 1956, 1968, and 1980, created new democratic aspirations at the level of symbolism and political consciousness; Democratisation was prefigured both in the political imagination of democracy as an undifferentiated good and in the “power of the powerless,” by which Eastern European dissidence aimed to make a political choice at the existential level of recognising the people as a political subject.



  • Cambridge University, U.K.
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