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Political Philosophy

The Moral Aspect of Political Protest
under the Totalitarian System

Tadeusz Buksinski

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ABSTRACT: The paper concerns the principles presupposed in political protest against the totalitarian regime. In contrast to the utilitarian view of participating in political protest (K.D.Opp, M. Taylor) the author tries to suggest the moral model of political protest. According to this model, the main reason and motif for challenging the regime is the transgression of the limits of concession, which jeopardizes the spiritual identity and essential qualities of the individuals and all groups (i.e., Church, family, nation). The participants of the protest do not calculate in terms of egoistic or private interests and utilities but in terms of moral values. They consider what action is morally "good" and "bad" or morally "better" or "worse" in this situation, disregarding their personal profits and happiness. The overthrow of the communist system is an incalculating and contingent result of combating the extreme manifestations and worst excesses of the system.

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1. Protest in Defense of Identity

There are three essential forms of opposing the totalitarian system: covert passive resistance, overt non-violent protest, and armed struggle. The first form of activity results, in a way, from a combination of utilitarian calculating and axiological considerations. The oppositionists may cooperate with the régime and publicly countenance it, while at the same time they venture to take action in order to liberalize the system and take the edge off the dictatorship, whenever this is possible, i.e., not noticed by the authorities, legitimate, or profitable in view of the mildness of the punishment faced by the offenders. Both individuals and institutions may follow this pattern. Under the Communist rule in Eastern Europe, even persons holding public offices in the administration adopted the policy of covert resistance. By putting up this cunctative opposition, such people renounce their moral principles for a quiet life. In this rational compromise with the system, evil is tolerated in order to avoid punishment, and certain values, including moral values, are sacrificed for material profit.

Activity classified as the second form entails evident opposition or dissidence. Disagreement with the system’s policies is declared, and an ideological stance is defined, critical of the régime. This is the level of political protest that we are going to investigate in this article. Under these circumstances, political protest demonstrates that there is a limit to utilitarian calculating. Concessions are made to the system (in order to avoid open confrontation and its aftermath), but when the limit is reached, the opposition, no matter what the consequences, challenges the régime. Obviously, this need not involve an eruption of riots, as people may refrain from waging a struggle or setting up barricades, and protest in a non-violent manner.

In 1953, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Primate of Poland’s Catholic Church, formulated the concept of the limit of concession by stating: "Non possumus—we cannot yield any more." In fact, he was punished for this declaration by imprisonment.(1) Since then, the opposition had ceased to pretend that it cooperated with the system, but was not openly contributing to overthrowing it, either. It merely established a limit that the system must not exceed. When the level of required concession approached the limit, overt and direct confrontation ensued, and then the régime "took offense," persecuted and imprisoned oppositionists, or even had them assassinated, striving to terrify the population lest it follow suit.

The limit of "non possumus" demarcates the effective intensity of the identity of the individuals, groups, communities and institutions making up the opposition: they cannot give in any further without jeopardizing their spiritual identity and losing the constitutive qualities of their essence; if their concession exceeded the limit, they might even cease to exist as physically distinct parties, and become dissolved in an alien element.

Identity is defined in terms of the moral values, principles and standards adhered to and implemented, as a discrete set of ideas of dignity, honor, respect and independence. It is the sum total of the qualities that make up the essence of an agent of activity, causing it to be identical with itself, in spite of the developments occurring inside and outside it. Thus, it is the spiritual core persevering throughout changes, and maintaining the unity and consistence of action. An important factor that sustains identity is the self-consciousness of one’s distinctness and individuality. It is due to their identity that individuals, groups and institutions exist as independent agents and have a positive value.(2)

It is the postulate of this article that any dissident activity undertaken under a totalitarian system comprises—as its substantial, and usually principal component—the concern over, or intention of, preserving oneself as a spiritual and moral being. Thus, what is always at stake is, among other things, the matter of remaining loyal to oneself, asserting one’s identity and fashioning oneself as a being possessed of a moral value, i.e., free, independent, genuine and maintaining its dignity.

Two aspects of identity are significant in political protest: the universal and the particularistic. The former is defined by universal values, rights and good. The struggle for human dignity, justice and liberty was an important facet of dissident activity. The concept of human rights, and the Charter of Civil Rights, adopted as the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975 (the Helsinki Accords), and signed by the Communist governments, were instrumental in the emergence of the anti-Communist opposition, whose representatives referred to them and demanded that they be observed.(3)

To protect the particularistic identity, people cherished their national culture, religious values and the ties of community, founded on language, customs and tradition, and demanded the liberty of promoting this heritage. The protesters identified themselves with them, and considered squandering it or relinquishing the struggle for it to amount to self-betrayal. The communities of family, the Church, literature and youth invariably resisted Sovietization, atheizing, and the upbringing of the young generation in the spirit of Communism.(4)

The deepest roots of protest against the régime are of a moral and ideological nature, and may be found in the individuals, their spirituality, values and self-definition of moral beings. Through resistance, an individual asserts itself as a moral being, and its decision to undertake dissident activity takes into account its personal meditation and experience, as well as the contemplation on the general human condition, on the significance of being human, and on the heritage and values of the community. It is in the light of these factors that an individual peruses and appraises a given situation, proposing a desirable state of affairs, and thereby voicing its defiance of the current circumstances and the practices of the régime.

In the course of this process, identity is sustained as well as developed and fashioned further. This is because both the individuals’ and the community’s spiritual activity is awakened and stimulated. Even if the process is spontaneous, it also evolves at a deeper, spiritual level.

Thus, it is not true that, as some claim, the dissidents are utilitarians or altruistic egoists, i.e., people driven by personal profit, different only in that it is in their nature to rejoice when they promote the happiness, liberty and interests of others. If this were the case, then dissident activity would be merely a variety of egoism.(5)

In instrumentalist, or utilitarian, activity, the aims are replaceable and variable, and there is a price to pay for each of them. They may be "bought," as those who pursue them are induced to give them up or change them. These are relativistic aims, established with reference to actual or imaginary needs, and easily replaced by other aims that are equally suitable for the needs. On the other hand, there are no alternatives to the values that define identity and are implemented even when the cost of the implementation is higher than the expected profits and benefits, regardless of the nature—subjective or objective—of the criteria applied to determine the latter. Dissidents do not seek profit, whether theirs or others’.

Those who oppose totalitarianism do not choose one of the several available clear-cut options. Their position is one of risk and uncertainty rather than of confidence. It is not a reckoning of cost and profit that makes them protest, but anger, desperation and the realization that they have reached the limit beyond which they do not want to be pushed. They protest because they feel that there is nothing else left to do and that they cannot go on like this any longer, since this would entail the loss of material or moral dignity, and denying themselves the right of self-determination and independent life.

The material standard of living in itself never stirs up opposition against the régime; it must be accompanied by—at least—a realization of its injustice or unsuitability for human beings, and a willingness to struggle in order to demonstrate the validity of one’s consciousness.

The limit at which the non possumus attitude emerges, varies with societies, nations, institutions or individuals. It depends on the culture, tradition, upbringing, morality, and even nature of individuals or groups. The philosophical consciousness and the ability to perceive situations in general terms are significant factors affecting the establishing of the limit of the concession to the system.

When exposed to the danger of totalitarianism, the particularistic identity tends to expand, i.e., to incorporate more and more new properties and values, considering them important components of itself, and to demand that others (and the system) acknowledge them. This expansion of the domain of identity and an increase in its intensity and weight are particularly conspicuous when individuals or groups and institutions are expressly threatened with physical violence. On such occasions, more and more qualities, rites and facts become important and sacred for a nation, family or religious group, and individuals are prepared to sacrifice all, including their lives, in their defense.

Conversely, when a régime has been imposed by a group that is alien in the sense of its nationality and religion, and that institutionally aims for a physical extermination of the oppressed group, then the latter group’s biological survival takes priority, and spiritual rejuvenation is put off until more propitious circumstances develop in the future. Such was the case in Poland under the Nazi occupation.

The representatives of the régime are themselves aware of the limits of identity. Sometimes they provoke controlled confrontation to suppress it at an early stage. The provocation consists in producing facts or conditions that certain social groups would deem "insulting" or "unbearable," e.g., arresting a respected leader, paying "unjust" wages, or dramatic price rises accompanied by wage-freezing. Such acts offend the sense of honor or dignity of extensive groups of society.

2. Practical Reason vs. Calculating

Utilitarian (purpose-rational or instrumentalist) action is driven by amoral interest, while moral (practical) action is motivated by moral values and good, and the principles of justness. In order to understand political protest, we must distinguish between personal (private) and social (universal) good and values. The former comprise an individual’s and its family’s life, health, liberty, safety, dignity and social reputation; the latter are the same good and values, although concerning the whole of society and the realm of relations between humans, and additionally the qualities characteristic of honest community life: justice, truth, equality, integrity, tolerance, liberty, etc.

In dissident activity, the rules of effectiveness and profit are subordinated to moral standards and good. This subordination occurs both at the social and the individual level. The usual case is that what is materially or politically profitable to the public at large is considered important, although less important than religious and national values or liberty and civil rights. Accordingly, the protesters appeal to society to "awaken," relinquish the comfortable life of collaboration and put up a struggle for spiritual values.

This subordination is even more conspicuous at the level of individuals, where personal happiness and interests, professional careers and a life of leisure are sacrificed for dissident activity and the struggle for the just and the good. Dissidents are not concerned about their own interests and profits, focusing instead on striving for the community’s good.(6)

Likewise, when choosing values, dissidents renounce their own (moral) good for a struggle for the community’s.

This, however, does not mean that dissidents adhere to the rules of value-rational action, as defined by M. Weber.(7) What they do is consider the advantages and drawbacks of each possible choice and struggle with themselves. Each such instance of choice is a private trauma, as it requires sacrificing one’s own and one’s family’s happiness for the community’s values and good or the principles of justness, without a hope of a "reward" for one’s devotion. Protesting amounts to making an offering of oneself to the values and principles, and renouncing profit for justice and the common good.

This choice is the more traumatic and complex as in order to struggle for the common good, the dissidents must maintain certain individual benefits and values: their health, life, and intellectual and physical ability; furthermore, action requires certain material facilities. Thus, dissidents are rational and do not neglect the instrumentalist aspect of action. Rather than merely immolating themselves, they strive to make their activity as useful as it is possible within the framework of the accepted principles and values. Still, this calculating of effectiveness is secondary to practical considerations of an axiological nature.(8)

Beside the above choices, the protesters must daily make yet another choice, of fundamental importance: that between greater and lesser social good, or between greater and lesser evil. As we have stated, what provokes political protest is not any threat to values and the good, but only the concern over such values as are significant and essential, and make up group and human identity in a given culture, thereby defining the limit that cannot be exceeded if one is to remain oneself. Such essential values cannot be given up or "traded," and other, less significant values are usually sacrificed to preserve the former.

This division into the more and the less significant is not always clear, as good and values are seldom ordered in an evident hierarchy, and normally are assumed as obvious features of activity. It is only when they are in danger that we have to think them over, establishing priorities of their importance and of action.(9)

The protesters’ meditation concerning the aims and manner of action in given circumstances, resembles the mode of reasoning that Aristotle describes in the Nichomachean Ethics when discussing the subject of what action is virtuous in a certain situation. Dissidents estimate whether in the current circumstances it would be wise to intensify protest (e.g., by calling strikes), or to content themselves with a verbal statement of the authorities’ unjust treatment of a certain group. The purpose of such estimation is to determine a wise course of action or a long-term moral optimum, taking into account the facts of the reality, among them the effectiveness of action.(10) This concept may be found, e.g., in Solidarity’s idea of self-contained revolution. Accordingly, dissidents usually do not call their activity "political," although it produces political results, and the régime very often considers it to be political.

The moral plane of struggle, and the struggle for morality, differ from the utilitarian and strictly political activity, for one thing in that the former represent a constant effort to sustain and expand the good. Thus, dissidents do not aspire to overthrow the totalitarian political system, which would be a hopeless and suicidal mission. Instead, they focus on combating extreme manifestations of evil, those that disregard the limit of fortitude and the traditional ceiling of the political, i.e., of submission to the authorities, and serve this purpose through demanding to curb the worst excesses, and publicly exposing and resisting them. Still, the "worst" does not cease to exist: as one opportunity for excess is banned, another one automatically emerges and replaces it.

As we can see, the aims of the spiritual, or moral, struggle are not as clear-cut as those of the utilitarian activity, and do not constitute specific objects or conditions, whose fulfillment would satisfy the agents and conclude a given action. Indeed, each moral aim may be achieved only imperfectly and temporarily, and has to be sustained through continuous effort; at the same time, a moral attitude requires that the fulfilled conditions be enhanced and expanded.

As certain worst circumstances disappear, the spiritual life of society at large becomes more profound and objectively better. The moral consciousness and the moral requirements that we set to reality undergo changes, as more and more limits are questioned, and more and more ideals develop and acquire a final shape in specific situations.

3. Developing an Alternative Society

Beside the form of opposition activity that we have discussed above and that overtly denies the absolute power of the totalitarian system, there also exists another, equally important realm of activity, which consists of developing situations and relationships based on such moral standards, principles and values as kindness, cooperation, liberty, friendship and religious beliefs. Such attitudes, actions and forms of community life are independent of the régime and confine its power, although in this case they do so by developing an alternative world. Thereby, society is offered a different type of life (to be lived within dissident or religious communities), whose framework is also defined by the authority of the system. This type of activity, which may be called "practical virtue," is communicable and spreads through imitation. Furthermore, it is difficult to fight it, as it pretends to be neutral to the régime: it questions the system at the pragmatic, rather than the semantic, level, by means of its assumptions, rather than of its express manifestos or the purposes that it pursues. Thus, e.g., the motto of the 1980s was: "Don’t set the buildings of the Communist Party committees on fire—establish your own committees." Consequently, a world emerges that competes with the official one and is inaccessible to the supporters of the régime. The inhabitants of this world consider themselves superior to and better than the proponents of the system, and defy the absolute and ubiquitous relations of power and supervision to which the system wishes to reduce all social interaction.

Let it be emphasized once more that, contrary to the utilitarian explanations, dissident activity in all of its forms cannot be considered a mere means to an external end, in the sense that the activity of a builder constructing a house is a means to the house which is its product. This is because the former type of activity is a part of the end, as the very fact of engaging in it undermines the régime. Thus, dissident activity produces a new reality through democratic cooperation, candid discussion, development of relationships based on trust, etc. The end, or aim, of such activity may be found in the activity itself. The very fact of protesting provides a certain worth, when it produces an extent of liberty and highlights values. For the protesters, it provides an opportunity to stop consenting to be treated as mere patients of action, and to turn into agents and competitors, or equal partners, of the régime. Those who protest do not allow the reduction of themselves, and others, to components of the system of authority, and develop a reality permeated with moral values and principles, revealing the unvarnished truth of the totalitarian world.(11)

In the totalitarian system, protesting amounts to walking the tightrope between life and death, freedom and imprisonment, concession and defiance. The régime treats dissidents like lunatics. In the Soviet Union, thousands of them were committed to insane asylums, prisons and gulags. In fact, they may validly be called insane, as their actions do not take utilitarian calculating into account. What is more, many dissidents are totally heedless of the rules of effective activity: they protest whenever they can see evil, although they know in advance that they will not overthrow the system, and will only place themselves in further jeopardy. In a way, they act like court jesters, except that the rulers do not tolerate their vagaries.

On the other hand, by treating all the protesters as lunatics and persecuting them accordingly, the system proves itself to be irrational and certifies itself as insane. The continuing operation of the régime becomes increasingly expensive, and those expenses are reimbursed by all the people subjected to its authority, sometimes even by those outside its sphere of influence. Being unprofitable, the system attempts to demonstrate its viability by demanding more and more resources, enemies and nations to be oppressed. The very fact of a formal and public denouncement of the system’s exceeding the permissible limits of tyranny, material and spiritual robbery, eradication of tradition, disregard for human dignity and freedom of religion, etc., constitutes a slap in its face and pillories it. It is so because the system essentially identifies itself with, and is made up of, its actions. Thus, challenging a specific action of the system’s implies defying the entire system, which bases on the logic of identity rather than of profit. Accordingly, when the degree of protest unwittingly and gradually exceeds the limit of the system’s endurance, the latter may collapse.

Let us finish this inquiry by the following statement: When the totalitarian system of Communism was overthrown, this was not the result of conscious organized effort expressly striving to defeat it, but a by-product of actions intended to establish this system’s limits. Border skirmishes, such as demands for the legalization of free trade unions, blur the limits and involve both parties in ambiguous contentions that obfuscate the definition of the conflict, give rise to doubts, make certain officials willing to grant minor concessions, and produce internal strife within the authorities. Thus, such skirmishes expose the system’s weaknesses, and especially its inability to cope with vague and complex situations, and reveal the strength of the opposition.

Consequently, this type of imperceptible friction may undermine the essence of the system. At the turning point in history when the trade-union movement of Solidarity was at the peak of its influence, leading dissident Jacek Kuron observed: "We wanted to discuss the nation’s issues with the Communist Party, but then it turned out that the Party was already disintegrating, and no one was willing to represent it."(12)

[Translated by Przemyslaw Znaniecki]

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(1) Cf. S. Wyszynski, Zapiski wiezienne [The Prison Notes], Kraków, 1982; A. Micewski, Kardynal Wyszynski. Prymas i maz stanu [Cardinal Wyszynski: The Primate and the Statesman], Paris, 1982.

(2) Ch. Taylor, „Zródla wspólczesnej tozsamosci" ["The Roots of Contemporary Identity"], [in:] K. Michalski [ed.], Tozsamosc w czasach zmiany [Identity in the Times of Changes], Kraków, 1995, pp. 9–21; Ch. Taylor, Etyka autentycznosci [The Ethics of Authenticity], Kraków, 1996.

(3) Cf. J. Kuron, Wiara i wina. Do i od komunizmu [Faith and Guilt: Toward and Away from Communism], Warszawa, 1990, and other works by the same author.

(4) Cf. S. Wyszynski, Kosciól w sluzbie narodu [The Church in the Nation’s Service], Kraków, 1981.

(5) Cf. J. Elster, The Cement of Society, Cambridge, 1989; G. S. Becker, Ekonomiczna teoria zachowan ludzkich [An Economic Theory of Human Behavior], Warszawa, 1990.

(6) Although certain observers, among them K.-D. Opp and M. Taylor, express a different opinion. In their view, individuals decide to protest for utilitarian reasons, when calculating has proved that this will be profitable to them; i.e., their motives are egoistic. Cf. K.-D. Opp, The Rationality of Political Protest, Boulder: San Francisco, London, 1989; K.-D. Opp, "Repression and Revolutionary Action: East Germany in 1989," Rationality and Society, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, pp. 101–138; M. Taylor, Anarchy and Cooperation, London, 1976; M. Taylor [ed.], Rationality and Revolution, Cambridge, 1988.

(7) M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, Tübingen, 1973, especially Chapters II & X.

(8) Cf. A. Michnik, Z dziejów honoru w Polsce [From the History of Honor in Poland], Warszawa, 1993.

(9) Cf. V. Havel, Sila bezsilnych [The Power of the Powerless], Berlin, 1995.

(10) Arystoteles [Aristotle], Etyka Nikomachejska [Nichomachean Ethics], Warszawa, 1956, Books III & V.

(11) T. Buksinski, „Kategoria etycznosci a rzeczywistosc krajów postkomunistycznych" ["The Category of the Ethical vs. the Reality of the Post-Communist Countries"], Edukacja Filozoficzna, 1995, No. 19, pp. 123–132.

(12) J. Kuron, op. cit.

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