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The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism
by george weigel
oxford university press, 255 pages, $25

It is now well over three years since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Scenes of Polish workers carrying Lech Walesa triumphantly on their shoulders, of students dancing on top of the Berlin Wall, and of throngs cheering Vaclav Havel in Wenceslas Square have been replaced by sickening images of “ethnic cleansing” in what was once Yugoslavia, and by the fear that the war in the Balkans may eventually engulf the region. The splintering of Solidarity, the break-up of Czechoslovakia, the rise of neo-Nazism in Germany are sobering troubles in a process that is still unfolding. 

Given the disillusionments of the period since 1989, it is possible to lose sight of the significance of the revolution: why it happened, the stakes that were involved, and its place in the history of our civilization. This is what George Weigel seeks to recapture in The Final Revolution . The book is primarily an account of the role of the Catholic Church in the overthrow of Communism in Poland and Czechoslovakia. But it is also an extended essay on the nature of democracy, its relation to religion, and the evil inherent in a utopian ideology that denies the contingency of human existence. 

Weigel’s most important contribution to the debate about the fall of Communism is to place the events of the last decade in a larger moral context. His contention that the political revolution of 1989 was made possible by a prior moral and spiritual revolution is based on the view that Communism was not just another form of dictatorship. Otherwise it would be possible to interpret Communism’s collapse by reference to the role of particular individuals (Mikhail Gorbachev or Ronald Reagan) or developments (the Helsinki human rights process or the economic crisis brought on everywhere the system extended its sway). Weigel rejects such interpretations because they miss the main point: that the essence of the Communist heresy was its claim of human omniscience and omnipotence. Its origin was in the millennial hope of establishing heaven on earth, and in the post-Enlightenment transference of the search for religious salvation to a political movement. 

In this sense, the fall of Communism was not simply an aspect of the Democratic Revolution, no different from, say, the fall of Pinochet in Chile or of Marcos in the Philippines. It signified the end of an era of utopian ideology, and the resolution of the fundamental moral and spiritual conflict between democracy and its totalitarian negation. This is the meaning of “the final revolution” as Weigel uses the term. This interpretation doesn’t mean that the closed system of Communism didn’t also succumb to the revolutions in communications and technology, or to movements of workers and dissidents that drew their inspiration and motivation from sources other than, or in addition to, the Church. It does claim, however, that these other interpretations, by themselves, are too limited in that they ignore the vast historical and moral drama that was being played out and the fundamental philosophical issues that were being contested, issues having to do with human nature and the distinction between good and evil. 

Such material interpretations also ignore”or underestimate”the immediate, demonstrable role of the Catholic Church, and especially Pope John Paul II, in inspiring, preparing, and mobilizing the Polish people to resist Communism. The main chapters of The Final Revolution explain the Church’s evolving strategy of resistance, which both reflected and conditioned the changing international political environment. The “martyr cardinals,” such as the Hungarian Jozsef Mindszenty and the Pole Stefan Wyszynski, were symbols of resistance to Stalinist oppression during the height of the Cold War. Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council initiated a period of dialogue with Communism based upon the view that movements could change, even if doctrines could not. Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Agostino Casaroli extended the policy of Ostpolitik in the hope of winning more “breathing space” for the Church in Eastern Europe. And then came the Polish Pope, John Paul II, whose election on October 16, 1978 marked the beginning of the end of Communism in Poland and in the rest of Eastern Europe.

The new Pope was Polish Communism’s worst nightmare. As a Pole, he could address the entire Polish nation with a special power, arousing the deepest feelings of piety and patriotism and exploiting the vulnerabilities of a system he understood from the inside. He was also a modern intellectual who could challenge the Communist lie, a universalist who could expose a false universalism, and a democrat who could offer an alternative politics of human renewal and ethical clarity. Unlike his predecessor Paul VI, he rejected out of hand the Yalta system of a divided Europe, along with the assumption that Communism was a permanent fact of life in the modern world. John Paul II came to his new position not content to contain Communism but with a desire to assault its legitimacy, expose its bankruptcy, and ultimately to isolate it and assure its demise. 

The Church had laid the groundwork for this final assault during the previous decades by fostering the recovery and reconstruction of a sense of Polish nationhood. Integral to this effort was the Great Novena, a nine-year program of national religious revival culminating in 1966 on the occasion of the millennium of Polish Catholicism. The effort also included the “Light and Life” movement of summer camps that reached hundreds of thousands of Polish youngsters, journals such as the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny that built a bridge between the Church and the lay Polish intelligentsia; and future Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s Clubs of the Catholic Intelligentsia. 

The momentum created by such initiatives was given a powerful new impetus by the election of John Paul II, whose moral leadership was complemented by an extraordinarily shrewd sense of tactics. Each step he took had a purpose, beginning with his installation, which was designed to last the exact amount of time set aside for its broadcast on Polish television, thus preventing the regime from putting its own “spin” on the event. His first pilgrimage to Poland was originally planned to coincide with the May 1979 celebration in his native Krakow of the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Stanislaw at the hands of the Polish state. This symbolism understandably alarmed the Communist regime, which refused to issue him an official invitation. In the ensuing negotiations, the Pope won a vast expansion of the scope and length of his visit in exchange for a month’s postponement, thus setting the stage for the triumphant nine-day pilgrimage that aroused and inspired Polish society and led a year later to the creation of Solidarity.

This and subsequent papal visits to Poland were actually part of a global engagement by the Pope in linking the Church’s mission to democratic struggles throughout the world. Samuel P. Huntington has written that “John Paul II seemed to have a way of showing up in full pontifical majesty at critical points in democratization processes” in many countries besides Poland: Brazil in June-July 1980; the Philippines in February 1981; Argentina in June 1982; Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Haiti in March 1983; Korea in May 1984; Chile in April 1987; and Paraguay in May 1988. In these and other countries that were part of what Huntington has called “the third wave” of democratic revolution, the Vatican played a crucial role, signifying an historic transformation of the Church from a bulwark of the status quo into a powerful, authentic democratic force. While the full story of this transformation has yet to be told, The Final Revolution tells the most important part since the revolution in Poland”a country Zbigniew Brzezinski calls a “geopolitical linchpin state””led to the unraveling of the world’s last empire. 

Weigel also describes the doctrinal and philosophical transformation that paved the way for the Church’s role in the democratic revolution, especially the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. By affirming the sanctity of the human conscience, the Declaration challenged the essence of the totalitarian state and its Leninist ideology and also, as Weigel notes, linked Catholic doctrine to democracy, the political system that most securely protects religious freedom. Weigel cautions, however, against thinking of democracy as simply a set of procedures and institutional structures, since such features of democracy are themselves grounded in a set of moral norms that transcend the political system. From this point of view, human rights cannot be legislated since they exist prior to an individual’s status as a citizen. By the same token, the state cannot take them away. They are inalienable, as the Declaration of Independence says. 

The linkage established between Catholicism and democracy is thus not a marriage of convenience. Democracy is to be valued not simply because its laws protect religious freedom, but because those laws implicitly acknowledge the existence of an authority that transcends the state and limits its power. It is perhaps true that with modernity has come a more formal or procedural view of democracy”a view, ironically, that is shared by the Islamic critics of the West who equate secular democracy with Godlessness. But this is a mistaken concept, and it can only be hoped that the fall of Communism, and the role of the Church and religion in that process, might rekindle in the democracies an understanding of the moral underpinnings of their own system. 

In fact, the fall of Communism seems to have produced a quite different result. Consider, for example, the following jeremiad by Vaclav Havel, whose call for a “politics of truth” so inspired the resistance to Communism:

Society has freed itself, true, but in some ways it behaves worse than when it was in chains. Criminality has grown rapidly, and the familiar sewage that in times of historical reversal always wells up from the nether regions of the collective psyche has overflowed into the mass media, especially the gutter press. But there are other, more serious and dangerous, symptoms: hatred among nationalities, suspicion, racism, even signs of fascism; vicious demagogy, intrigue, and deliberate lying; politicking, an unrestrained, unheeding struggle for purely particular interests, a hunger for power, unadulterated ambition, fanaticism of every imaginable kind; new and unprecedented varieties of robbery, the rise of different mafias; the general lack of tolerance, understanding, taste, moderation, reason. And, of course, there is a new attraction to ideologies, as if Marxism had left behind it a great, unsettling void that had to be filled at any cost.

Can this be what the revolution was for?

It is true, as Weigel notes, that it was Communism itself which fostered much of the fear and suspicion that surfaced after its demise. And we are only beginning to appreciate the immense difficulty of rebuilding normal societies after generations of living under a warped and oppressive totalitarian system. It is also true, as Timothy Garten Ash has written, that it is hard to make the adjustment from “living in truth” to working in half-truth. Everyday politics in a democracy is neither heroic nor inspiring, and grumbling is par for the course.

At the same time, “ethnic cleansing” is a far cry from normal politics. The death of Communism has not cleansed the world of evil any more than it has ushered in a messianic age. If we have learned anything from the anti-Communist struggle, it is that evil cannot be combated without a vision of the good. This is Weigel’s main message, one that needs to be remembered as we try to find our way in a new and troubling era.

Carl Gershman is President of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C.