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The Old-New Class

The Origins of Postcommunist Elites: From Prague Spring to the Breakup of Czechoslovakia. By Gil Eyal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xxix + 238.

Many social scientists have noted that the popular carnivals that accompanied the revolutions of 1989 did not last. When the masses returned home, the same nomenklatura elite remained in power, even if it had to share power with a new democratically elected political elite. [1] 1989 was not a year of social revolutions but of political upheavals. Since post-Communist civil societies are feeble or absent, elites have a far broader maneuvering space than elites in other democratic contexts. [2] Elite theory is increasingly useful and used for the analysis of post-Communist politics and societies. In the Czech and Slovak contexts, it is striking to note that the division of Czechoslovakia was agreed upon by the respective political elites in 1992 without popular approval. It is unlikely that the division of Czechoslovakia would have been ratified in a plebiscite. Accordingly, sociologist Gil Eyal attempts to understand the division of Czechoslovakia as neither the result of deep historical rifts between the Czech and Slovak peoples, nor of conflicting economic interests, nor of unintended game-theoretic implications of the 1968 Czechoslovak federal constitution, but of a deal between two conflicting wings of what he calls the Czechoslovak “new class.” Eyal’s new class is composed of “knowledge experts,” bureaucrats, the intelligentsia, managers, and technocrats. Since the Slovak elite has had a federalist, pro-Czech faction, and a nationalist, anti-federalist faction since the early twentieth century, Eyal’s interesting question is: How did the Czech and Slovak elites come to agree on the dismantling of a federation that held for three-quarters of a century?

In answering this question, Eyal makes ample use of the theories of Foucault and Bourdieu, wherein lies the chief weakness of the book. The impressive display of familiarity with French social theory is not always quite relevant; on some occasions the Czechoslovak evidence is squeezed into a theoretical straightjacket whose contours appear to distort Czechoslovak reality rather than offer a deeper insight into it. In a few places disregard of some peculiarities of Czech history may lead a social scientist astray in imposing a blunt theory on a more nuanced history.

Eyal draws a Bourdieu-esque field of power, where rulers have forms of “capital,” political for the bureaucrat, cultural for the intellectual. Possession of cultural capital is measured by educational credentials. Accordingly, Eyal suggests a late-Communist field of power composed of four elite groups with different types of capital: humanist intellectuals, technocrats, managers, and bureaucrats, in descending order of cultural capital and ascending order of political capital. Eyal considers the dissidents to have preferred their “cultural capital” to “political capital,” in the absence of economic capital.

This picture may be broadly helpful, but it is oversimplified. The “official” dissidents had political capital in the form of dense international political networks, and if they were arrested, international scandal and protest followed. “Cultural capital” can be quite vague. Many, though certainly not all, dissidents made contributions to culture. Others, for example religious dissidents, merely adhered to the tenets of their faiths without making or attempting to make a contribution to culture. Dissidents who were too young or old to be educated in the liberal sixties did not always have certificates of higher education. Given the quality of Czechoslovak universities, especially during the seventies and eighties, a certificate of higher education was hardly an indicator of cultural achievement. Despite official ideology, sections of the nomenklatura, especially the mangers, had been converting political “capital” into economic capital long before the collapse of Communism. Arguably, one of the reasons for the collapse of Communism was the interest of the nomenklatura in protection, further accumulation, and transfer of economic capital to their children. Bourdieu introduced the terminology of multiple types of “capital” in the context of debating Marxist materialism, arguing that there are more kinds of capital than Das Capital. But the terminology of multiple “capitals” may still be excessively reductive. Many of the dissidents were concerned with authenticity, morality, even transcendence. The accumulation of capital of any sort does not correspond with their practices.

Eyal examines a hypothesis promulgated by Czech dissident circles, claiming that the seeds of the division of Czechoslovakia were sown in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion, when reformers were purged from the Communist Party. The Czech elite and intelligentsia were persecuted more harshly than the Slovak elite. The Czech intelligentsia was then pushed into dissent while the Slovaks collaborated. After 1989, the Czechs replaced their political and cultural elites. In Slovakia there were no alternative elites, so former and reformed Communists retained power. Consequently, so goes the Czech hypothesis, the division of Czechoslovakia resulted from conflicts between corrupt Slovak Communists and pure Czech dissidents. Eyal’s more nuanced and balanced interpretation of this hypothesis is that the division of Czechoslovakia occurred as an intraclass struggle within “the new class” of educated intellectuals, who divided, following 1968, between intelligentsia in internal exile or dissent and a co-opted bureaucracy.

Following Foucault, Eyal perceives a discursive, truth-producing competition between the truth of marginal intellectuals, the dissidents, and the truth of the bureaucrats. The contestation, the struggle, between the discourse of the dissidents in samizdat and the official discourse ended with the decisive victory of samizdat in 1989. However, one may ask: competition over what exactly? The access of ordinary citizens to the discourse of the Prague dissidents was limited both by the limited distribution of illegal samizdat and the intrinsic difficulty of some of the samizdat documents, for example, those in phenomenology and literary criticism. Eyal claimed that the dissidents sought to regain their position in “the cultural field.” I think they struggled to be themselves irrespective of the consequences. Samizdat was produced by dissidents to a large extent for other dissidents. Conversely, samizdat did not have to compete with the official discourse because anybody could see the yawning gap between ideology and reality. I do not think that 1989 can be interpreted as the victory of dissident discourse, as much as the collapse of the official one. French theory, marked by the separation of language from reality, cannot recognize that reality itself can provide the coup de grace to a discourse, without reference to a competing discourse. Reality can “bite back.” Ordinary Czechs and Slovaks, even the Communists, came to reject the ideological gobbledegook, but they have not adopted the discourse of authenticity, morality, and phenomenology that the dissidents used.

Eyal extrapolates the extent of the post-1968 purges from the results of an imperfect 1993 survey. [3] He concludes that the number of Czechs and Slovaks who were purged is nearer to the official estimate of 350,000 than to the higher estimates from dissident sources. The consequences of the purges gradually decayed as some victims were reinstated after several years, or received a similar job to the one they had lost, though they had to start again on a lower rung of the career ladder. Academics were a minority of the purged, but were two to three times more likely to be purged. Despite plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary from dissident sources, Eyal finds no statistical evidence for discrimination in higher education against children of purged intellectuals born prior to 1968. I think this may reflect exclusive discrimination against children of dissidents. There were only a few thousand active dissidents, and Eyal’s survey does not distinguish them from the much larger population of victims of normalization. Be that as it may, Eyal concludes that there was no Communist war against the intelligentsia, but a war within it, between competing factions. I think there is evidence for a preemptive Communist war against the intelligentsia. As Eyal notes, there is a close link between higher education and the intelligentsia. Prior to 1989, only 1.2% of Czechoslovak students studied the humanities, in comparison with 8.8% of Polish Students, and 12.7% of West German Students. Of Czechoslovak students, 15.9% studied the social sciences and law, in comparison with 21.6% of Polish students and 28% of West German students. [4] The percentage of students per population was lower than in Western countries as in the rest of the Soviet Bloc. When we consider the actual content of the education of the lucky few who made it to university, the long dictations, the absence of reading and writing requirements, the shortage of instruction in foreign languages, etc., we get a picture of a policy designed to preempt the emergence of an intelligentsia.

According to Eyal, the purges in Slovakia were less severe than in the Czech lands, and almost exclusively directed against reformed Communists. A smaller percentage of Slovaks was demoted than Czechs, and many experienced upward mobility, replacing demoted Czechs and occupying new federal positions.

Excluding the security services from the survey, and given the meager 10% rate of response from the civil service, Eyal estimates that 63.5% of the 1993 Czech elite were high and midlevel officials and managers in 1988, in comparison with 77.5% in Slovakia. Of the Czech elite, 17.5% were professionals in 1988 against 13.3% in Slovakia, and 19.1% were workers against 9.2% in Slovakia. Of the 1988 elite, 51.1% of the Czech and 68.4% of the Slovak maintained their high and midlevel positions as officials and managers; 10.9% and 11.7% respectively became professionals, while 9.8% and 5.8% claimed to have experienced downward mobility to the working class; and finally, 28.2% and 14.1% respectively were no longer a part of the work force, having taken scheduled or early retirements or died. The Slovak result seems to reflect the expected percentage of retirements and deaths over a five-year period. The larger Czech figure seems to represent a degree of genuine elite replacement. Therefore, Eyal claimed that there was a considerable post-1989 reinstatement of the scions of the purged Czech elite to the elite, unlike in Slovakia where new members of the elite were 1968 reformed Communists.

Eyal suggests that dissidents were recruited from among humanist and social science scholars because they were most likely to have been fired after 1968. Philosophers, sociologists, and journalists were ill-suited to adapt to new conditions in alternative low-level jobs. Such dissidents opted then to “save their souls,” having lost their jobs. Eyal thought that dissidents first made an unconscious temperamental decision and then later found moral reasoning for it and joined a close community of people who made the same choice. Given this characterization of dissidents, Eyal’s actual listing of “dissidents” is somewhat puzzling, as in addition to Charter 77 signatories, he includes: a Boston University academic philosopher who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1948 (Erazin Kohak); a 1968 immigrant to England who was not trusted by most dissidents (Jan Kavan); a right-wing politician who studied law during the 1970s and worked in his profession until 1989 when he entered politics, only to resign in 1997 when it was discovered that his law doctorate was faked (Jan Kalvoda); and the author of the Czech constitution, who taught law prior to 1989, though his promotion was blocked because he studied abroad, at the University of Michigan, during the 1960s and was not a Communist (Vojtech Cepl).

Eyal’s characterization of dissent borrows much from Foucault that I find problematic. Eyal begins reasonably by connecting dissidence with Foucault’s “technologies of self.” However, he skips over the most important link here, the influence of the Czech dissident-philosopher Jan Patocka’s Socratic “care for the soul” on Foucault’s intellectual development. [5] Then Eyal strays further away from Czech reality to play with the jargon of “discursive strategy,” “regime gaze,” and “problematization.” He presents the dissidents as secular Lutherans, anxious that their actions may not be moral, and using sacrifice as the criterion to distinguish good from evil. Then, he mixes the Protestant with a Catholic metaphor, ascribing to the dissidents Foucauldian “pastoral power” to confess, absolve, and purge the sins of Communism. Eyal does not consider sacrifice, confrontation with finitude, and the resulting authenticity in their existentialist philosophical context, as developed by Patocka, but squeezes them to fit a Foucauldian straightjacket.

Central European dissidents in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary advocated the expansion of civil society to overtake the state, as an antidote to the totalitarian expansion of the state that abolished civil society. [6] In the Czech context, Havel initially gave it the sense of an existential revolution and advocated democratic elections without political parties. [7] Eyal presents anti-politics as the renunciation of political power for “pastoral power.” But this is more of a reflection of Foucault’s obsession with power relations than anything that can be ascribed to the dissidents. Many dissidents, perhaps most, were interested in being authentic; they did not care for power or their relations with society. Other dissidents, such as Benda, Dolezal, and Mandler, wanted political power. Eyal acknowledges that ordinary people did not recognize the “pastoral powers” of the dissidents, and yet he argued that the dissidents laid claim to it. I know of no evidence for this claim. After Communism nobody confessed and nobody offered absolution. Havel has been calling for the reconstruction of the authentic responsible self, following its deconstruction by alienating totalitarianism, but this is an individual process. It gives nobody the right to grant absolution.

Eyal notes correctly that the other Czech elite who ascended to political power were economists with some exposure to life in the West and western scholarship, who worked for the state bank and/or the economics institutions of the Academy of Science. Most were demoted for their 1968 activities. They chose internal exile and eventually monetarist theory, which Eyal quickly labels “a discursive strategy.” “Vaclav Klaus,” Eyal writes, “was the recognized leader of this group of economists partly owing to zeal and seniority, but also because he was the consummate economic theoretician” (80). Actually, Valtr Komarek was the senior member of the group, and Vladimr Dlouhy was the consummate theoretician. William Quandt, the former chair of Princeton University’s Department of Economics, who visited this group in Prague in the late 1980s, told me that Klaus was busy at that time studying American introductory textbooks on economics, while the younger Dlouhy was more on par with Western levels of education. However, Klaus was neither a Communist Party member like Dlouhy, nor a social democrat like Komarek. Most notably—and this vital piece of history is missing from Eyal’s book—Klaus was a member of Havel’s group in the late sixties and therefore was a natural link between the dissidents and the economists. During the liberal era in the late sixties, Havel co-founded and co-edited Tvar, the only non-Marxist journal that managed to be published. [8] The young Vaclav Klaus was an active member of that group and contributed articles to the journal. Another editor, Bohumil Dolezal, joined Havel in the main dissident group of Charter 77, despite their personal animosities. When Klaus entered politics, Dolezal became his chief political advisor and assisted him in his power struggle against Havel.

Eyal proposes that dissidents and monetarists created a coalition in 1990 in opposition to reform communism and the return to power of reformed Communists of the 1968 era. He draws general similarities between the “discourses” of the dissidents and the monetarists, which read like a parody: for example, between the phenomenological life in truth of the dissidents and the unregulated setting of market prices; or between “pastoral” and macroeconomic actions from afar. Klaus’s strategy was to distinguish himself initially from the policies and failures of 1968 and then from the dissidents. Klaus first used the alliance with the dissidents to fight the reform Communists on the Left, and then split the dissidents between conservatives and liberals over economic policy and lustration, the exclusion of former high level officers and agents of the Communist secret police from high level government positions. According to Eyal, Klaus used lustration against reformed Communists and against the dissidents, “whose names were often in the files as candidates if nothing else.” I am afraid there is no finer way of describing this last statement than as baseless nonsense. Only a handful of Charter 77 signatories were mentioned in the files in any category. The dissidents who opposed lustration did not do so out of personal interest. Eyal’s association of liberal dissidents with collaboration is nonsensical. His sole example is of Jan Kavan, who was not a dissident but was probably an agent of some sort, and who since then has proved himself to be deeply corrupt. Eyal further exaggerates the significance of lustration as an electoral issue, claiming that “lustration served to depose the dissidents” (160). This is simply not true. Most ordinary Czechs did not care much for lustration. The liberal dissidents of Civic Forum lost the 1992 elections because they appeared indecisive, without a clear ideology and policy, especially about economics; they also lacked a “professional” image. By contrast, Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party appeared unified, decisive, certain of its direction, and professional. Klaus attempted to demonstrate that he is “holier than the pope,” more anti-Communist than the dissidents who actually fought Communism and suffered because of it (most notably his main political rival, Havel), while absolving the great majority of the Czech population who neither collaborated nor resisted. This is typical of other cases of transitional justice where the leaders of a passive population are more supportive of transitional justice than actual victims of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. [9] Eyal interprets transitional justice as a ritual of breaking with the past, sacrifice, scapegoating, and confession. I agree that there was an element of scapegoating here, but unlike in South Africa, for example, there was no sacrifice, not a single confession, and no absolution. Rather than acceptance of guilt and purification of society, as in Eyal’s “Inquisition” interpretation of lustration, there is a loud silence. Not a single Communist, or agent of the secret police, or even the nomenklatura confessed or expressed any regrets. The nearest thing to a discussion of collaboration I have ever encountered was in Karel Vachek’s monumental documentary Bohemia Docta. [10] In it, Vachek interviewed two major figures of the Czech dissident underground, the writer Egon Bondy and the folk singer Jim Cert, who were listed in the files as secret police informers. Jim Cert refused to discuss the past and then went with the filmmaker to an underground cave, where he sang “everyday I am surrounded by demons.” Bondy said that Communism forced everybody to choose to be either with them or against them. Then, he went into a Marxist tirade about the inevitable decline of capitalism.

On the opposite side, Eyal notes the reformed Communist background of many of the post-1989 Slovak leaders. According to Eyal, “reform communism was a response to the crisis of 1968 that concentrated on cultivating one’s connections, not one’s self” (103). Reformed Communists used a scientific-technocratic discourse. Eyal offers a good discussion of the significance of prognostics as an alternative empirical teleology to Marxist ideology after 1968, but he fails to mention that Czech leaders like Klaus, Dlouhy, Zieleniec, Komarek, and others worked in the Czech prognostics institute. In addition to the reformed Communists, the Slovak elite consisted of managers who represented the industrial and agricultural estates, wielded enormous powers of influence after 1989, and were nomenklatura or sub-nomenklatura deputies with dense networks. Nobody disputes that the managers craved power and money and therefore needed subsidies and protectionism from the government. Eyal adds that these managers had a worldview. He believes that even corrupt individuals refer to self-image and ideal interests in order to construe their material interests. The managers presented themselves as representing specific Slovak interests to get subsidies and protectionism.

Meciar represented an approach to the past, continuity rather than break with Communism, opposition to lustration, privatization, and restitution, supported by the managers lobby. Eyal notes correctly that the gap between the actual economic policies of the Czech and Slovak governments was not that great, and that the Czechs had a “minimum bang” and no shock therapy (180). The gap in the rhetoric was greater. Meciar’s reformed communists built a coalition with the managers and nationalist intellectuals just as the Czech monetarists aligned with right-wing dissidents. Eyal’s argument is that once these two winning elite coalitions established themselves in the Czech and Slovak halves of the federation, they could not communicate, or “translate,” their discourses, and the fate of Czechoslovakia was sealed. The division of Czechoslovakia did not result, then, from conflicting interests but from incommensurability of discourses. The discursive strategies of each elite within its own state caused polarization within the federation.

I doubt that elites become hostages to their own rhetoric, discourses, or languages. When Klaus found it expedient, he replaced the monetarist discourse with a nationalist, anti-European, even xenophobic one. When he needed to make a deal with the Communist Party to be elected president after the end of Havel’s term, he was the first major Czech politician to break the taboo over negotiations with the Communists.

Eyal notes the positive correlation between level of education and political support for the Right in the Czech Republic. Czech right-wing delegates tended to be professionals, children of professionals, or married to professionals who were themselves children of professionals. Eyal draws the conclusion that the Czechs who voted for right-wing parties were upper-class and privileged. Since most Czechs voted for right-wing parties in 1992, he is led to the absurd conclusion that most Czechs belonged to the upper classes and were privileged, much like all of the children on Lake Wobegon are “above average.” Let me suggest an alternative interpretation: Unlike the Slovaks and the Hungarians, the Czechs had a massive non-Jewish bourgeoisie before the Second World War. For whatever reason, many of the scions of that bourgeoisie became Communists after the Second World War. Had the Communists attempted to exclude the professional bourgeoisie and its children from their new order, they would have had to exclude most of society. So, the bourgeoisie or at least much of it survived and preserved itself as a class through the political upheavals. If we consider the professions of the fathers of the main post-1989 Czech center-right politicians and the pre-1989 dissidents (including the ones who were Communists prior to 1968)—Havel, Klaus, Pithart, Dienstbier, and others—we find businessmen, accountants, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, etc., the solid middle and upper classes of interwar Czechoslovakia, especially Prague. In other words, we are not dealing here with a new class as Eyal claims, but with the old class of mostly Prague bourgeoisie. By contrast, in Slovakia, there is a new class of people whose parents were farmers and workers and who received their education and chances for upward mobility from the Communist regime. The Slovaks were not off the mark in accusing the Czechs, especially the ones from Prague, of Prague-centrism, of condescension and snobbism. The scions of the old Czech middle classes certainly looked down at the Slovak “country yokels.” Additionally, the elites competed over the distribution of subsidies and protectionism. Under the leaderships of Slovaks Dubcek and Husak, Communist Czechoslovakia transferred resources from the Czech lands to Slovakia. This policy continued automatically in the early 1990s. The Slovak elites had good reason to suspect that once the old Prague elite comes back into power, it will subsidize its own cronies. Crony capitalism works only if the politicians can provide for their own cronies and not for other politicians’ cronies. Conversely, the old Czech class reacted to the Slovak desires to secede as the residents of the Upper East Side would react to a desire on the part of Staten Island to secede from New York City: Good riddance to the rednecks. They can keep the garbage dumps!

This book review appears in Telos 136 (Fall 2006). Click here to purchase the full issue.


1. For an overview of this literature, see András Bozóki, “Research on Political Elites in East Central Europe,”

2. Marc Morje Howard, The Weakness of Civil Society in Post-Communist Europe (New York: Cambridge UP, 2003).

3. There is some information in a supplement about the survey, but what is left out is who exactly (which company, using which methods) conducted it and where the results are archived. According to Eyal, they had 50% success in locating the targeted sample. Within this sample, 30% of the members of the economic elite and 80% of civil servants refused to cooperate in the survey. The survey did not include former employees of the security services. On the general problems with conducting surveys in Eastern Europe, see Rachel Walker and Marcia Freed Taylor, eds., Information Dissemination and Access in Russia and Eastern Europe: Problems and Solutions in East and West (Amsterdam: IOS Press, 1998). With regard to the Czech Republic in particular, see Petr Mateju and Aviezer Tucker, “The Collection and Dissemination of Social Science Information in the Czech Republic,” in ibid., pp. 158–63.

4. Richard E. Quandt, The Changing Landscape in Eastern Europe: A Personal Perspective on Philanthropy and Technology Transfer (New York: Oxford UP, 2002).

5. Arpád Szakolczai, “Thinking beyond the East-West Divide: Foucault, Patocka, and the Care of the Self,” Social Research 61 (1994): 297–323.

6. Barbara J. Falk, The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe (Budapest: Central European Press, 2003).

7. Aviezer Tucker, Karel Jakes, Marian Kiss, Ivana Kupcova, Ivo Losman, David Ondracka, Jan Outly, and Vera Styskalikova, “From Republican Virtue to Technocratic Politics: Three episodes of Czech non-political politics,” Political Science Quarterly 115 (Fall 2000): 421–45.

8. For an anthology of articles from that journal, see Michal Spirit, ed., Tvar (Prague: Torst, 1995).

9. Jon Elster, Closing the Books: Transitional Justice in Historical Perspective (New York: Cambridge UP, 2004).

10. Veronika Tuckerova, “Karel Vachek’s Bohemia Docta,” Slavic and East European Performance: Drama, Theatre, Film 24 (Winter 2004): 56–67.

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