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Regretting the Region's Right Turn

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Some of the first oppositionists to Communism came from the left, such as the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Later, in Eastern Europe, the first stirrings of dissent from below also came from the left -- workers in East Germany, dissident Communists in Hungary, reform socialists in Poland and later Czechoslovakia.

Even into 1989, many dissidents continued to espouse socialist philosophies, though by this time the opposition movements were quite diverse and included everyone from royalists to nationalists to anarchists. Only after the Big Bang of 1989 did the opposition movements break into different factions, and groups migrated to their respective places along the political spectrum.

Joanne Landy and Tom Harrison are veterans of the Left in the United States. Active in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, they became involved in Eastern Europe around the time of the famous manifesto of Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, two reform socialists who favored a worker's democracy in Poland. Later, after the emergence of Solidarity, Landy and Harrison created an organization that would eventually be called Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD). It formed ties with peace movements in Western Europe and democracy campaigners in Eastern Europe. CPD believed that peace should not be an issue simply of the Left and support for East European dissidents should not be an issue simply of the Right.

"Prior to all this tremendous upheaval in Poland" in 1980-81, Tom Harrison told me over dinner at a Turkish restaurant in New York last September, "it was a period in Eastern Europe of fairly isolated examples of dissidents and opposition. Because of our political tradition, we were very attuned to those things. And because we were part of a socialist tradition that did not consider Communist societies in any way progressive, we were very alert to any signs of democratic opposition and their potential. I think that made us particularly sensitive to the beginnings of these movements."

By 1989, many of the people that CPD worked with in the region were leaping the gap between opposition and power: Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron in Poland, Vaclav Havel and Jan Kavan in Czechoslovakia, Janos Kis in Hungary, and so on. But the countries did not embrace a version of reform socialism. Indeed, even the renamed Communist Parties quickly adopted some form of austerity of capitalism.

Joanne Landy was disappointed but not exactly surprised by this development. "Over the course of the next decade or two, we saw a generally more conservative trend among the dissidents," she said. "The disappointments that happened after 1989 were actually developing before 1989, for reasons that are not wholly due to the political mistakes of dissidents, but more broadly due to the declining power of the Left in the West and the inability of most of the Left to solidly support the burgeoning opposition movements in Eastern Europe. Those two things combined made it much more likely for many of the former dissidents to be complicit in the kind of shock therapy and abrasive unfettered capitalism that happened."

What happened in 1989 in Eastern Europe was largely but not exclusively the result of courageous individuals within those counties challenging the status quo. They also received help and support from the outside. And just as the political ideologies of the dissidents were varied, so were the sympathies of those in the West who were supporting them. CPD represents one of those strands, and Joanne Landy and Tom Harrison are an important link both historically and geographically to the transformations that both did and did not take place in East-Central Europe in the second half of the 20th century.

The Interview

How and why did you first get involved in Eastern Europe?

Tom Harrison: Joanne and I were both part of this group in Berkeley, the Independent Socialist Club, in the 1960s. Joanne's involvement precedes mine. But when I came on the scene in 1966, we were very soon heavily involved in defending left-wing oppositionists Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski in Poland. There was a great deal of interest about what was going on in Eastern Europe, so it was a natural thing to get involved.

Joanne Landy: Both of us were "third camp socialists," which meant we were for neither Washington nor Moscow, neither capitalist imperialism nor the oppressive Communist systems in Eastern Europe. And because I'm older than Tom, I also started doing this many years before Tom did--in the late 1950s actually. Then, in 1980, two things simultaneously burst upon the scene: the mass Western peace movement against the missiles in Western Europe and Solidarnosc in Poland.

We were excited about both of those things. We participated, of course, in the big peace march in Central Park in 1982. And as soon as we heard about Solidarnosc, we got together a bunch of people to build support for Solidarnosc among progressives in the United States, and I went over there to Poland. It was quite a trip. I couldn't fly there directly from New York, because it was the time of the PATCO strike. And so I had to take a train to Montreal and then fly to Poland. I had my "support the PATCO strikers" button on when I went into the Solidarnosc offices and into the airlines office of the Polish airlines, and got lots of V signs and cheers from people who saw the button. People were very solidaristic not only about having an American come to Poland, but an American pro-labor person.

What year was that?

Joanne Landy: The summer of 1981. I went to the Solidarnosc headquarters, and it reminded me instantly of our days in Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement. There was a kind of delicious chaos of people having meetings on every floor of this building that they had taken over. On one floor there were intellectuals, in another place would be steelworkers. It was just a beehive of activity of people who were disenfranchised but asserting their power through their self-organization. They were printing leaflets, having debates, and being very alive in a way that would be really alarming to the people in power. Although we didn't live in a Communist system, and we had certain democratic liberties that they didn't have, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley struck the same kind of fear in the hearts of people who ran things in California. So that was my first impression of Poland.

A group of us here in New York founded something that initially was called Solidarity with Solidarity. And then Gail Daneker, who did not come from a socialist tradition, but from a non-socialist Green tradition. She really taught me a lot about how to form an organization: how to get tax-exempt contributions, how to put together a board, how to go to foundations. She'd had many years of experience in Washington and elsewhere doing this, whereas I'd always been in small socialist groups that were pretty effective, like the Independent Socialist Club with Hal Draper in Berkeley, but which didn't organize in the non-profit world. Pretty soon we set up the Campaign for Peace and Democracy/ East and West. And when the Cold War ended, we just dropped the "East and West." But we kept up the idea of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, which remains (unfortunately) pertinent today.

Tom Harrison: Prior to all this tremendous upheaval in Poland, it was a period in Eastern Europe of fairly isolated examples of dissidents and opposition. Because of our political tradition, we were very attuned to those things. And because we were part of a socialist tradition that did not consider Communist societies in any way progressive, we were very alert to any signs of democratic opposition and their potential. I think that made us particularly sensitive to the beginnings of these movements.

Joanne Landy: The magazine we were and continue to be associated with, New Politics, was the very first place where the Kuron and Modzelewski manifesto was published. That was an indication of our interest. And, of course, in its initial stages, the opposition movement in Eastern Europe was quite left-wing, and we had high hopes for the idea of an opposition in Eastern Europe being simultaneously opposed to the regime and supporting working-class interests and deep democracy: not dismantling nationalized property but making it democratic and accountable.

Over the course of the next decade or two, we saw a generally more conservative trend among the dissidents. The disappointments that happened after 1989 were actually developing before 1989, for reasons that are not wholly due to the political mistakes of dissidents, but more broadly due to the declining power of the Left in the West and the inability of most of the Left to solidly support the burgeoning opposition movements in Eastern Europe. Those two things combined made it much more likely for many of the former dissidents to be complicit in the kind of shock therapy and abrasive unfettered capitalism that happened. First, we have a very powerful world capitalist system, and second, the Left was largely absent from solidarity actions with the people. Those two things made it very difficult for dissidents in Eastern Europe to deliver on the promise that I think millions of people in Eastern Europe, in a not completely ideologically articulated way, hoped for.

My disappointment isn't simply anger at the dissidents for not doing what I wanted them to do--although it's partly that. But it's also a deep sympathy or understanding of all the things that conspired together to make it very difficult for that revolution to deliver what people in those countries had hoped for.

Let's go back to 1989 for a minute. You'd been personally working on these issues since the 1960s and organizationally since the early 1980s...

To read the rest of the interview, click here.