THE SEMINAR ON POST-MARXIAN POLITICAL THOUGHT DEWAN BAHASA DAN PUSTAKA, KUALA LUMPUR, 28 SEPTEMBER, 1992
We must congratulate Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and the Secretariat for Islamic Philosophy and Science, of the Science University of Malaysia, for their bold endeavour in jointly organizing this seminar. The significance of this seminar is evident when we situate ourselves in the continuing debates on the various issues concerning society, individual rights and liberties, social order, forms of government etc. These are questions of vital importance as we prepare the balance sheet of the twentieth century.
As this century comes to a close, we cannot say with certainty whether we can look backwards with a sense of accomplishment or with grave misgivings. The success and grandeur of this century is not difficult to enumerate. The frontier of human knowledge was pushed to the furthest limits. We still hold in awe the towering achievements of an Einstein. The number of revolutions in science and technology surpasses that of previous centuries put together. The world has never witnessed greater accumulation of wealth and prosperity as in this century. Yet, the 20th century will also be remembered for the times when humanity steeped itself in deeds of unspeakable cruelty and horror, sinking to the level of the lowest of the low, to use Quranic imagery. There had been countless wars in history but none can match those of this century in terms of destructiveness, misery and cost to human lives. Weapons of mass destruction were created and multiplied by the diabolical ingenuity of twentieth century man. Those who believe, with the social Darwinists, so influential until early this century, that humanity would always progress to higher and higher levels of perfection, were certainly confounded by the phenomenal brutality of Hitler and Stalin. Indeed, it is a century of baffling contradictions.
Marxism, whose demise is the subject matter of your deliberations, is truly the child of the century. Although it was conceived in the last decades of the 19th century, its appearance on the world stage as a social and political force was heralded by the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. The new movement promised nothing less than a utopia -- the eradication of all social classes, freedom from all forms of tyranny, and economic equality. The state was henceforth to be governed by "the dictatorship of the proletariat" -- the ordinary working people who had always been subject to various forms of exploitation by the ruling classes. Now for the first time, they were to have a real say in the affairs of society. So powerful was the seduction of this ideology that soon every intellectual worth the name was under its spell. Yet this dream of an earthly paradise was soon revealed as a nightmare. Milan Kundera, the foremost novelist of Eastern Europe, describes it thus: "Lured on by the voice of utopia, they have squeezed their way through the gates of paradise only to find, when the doors slam shut behind them, that they are in hell".
The collapse of the Marxist states in Eastern Europe in 1989 was the culmination of a gradual process. In fact, the disillusionment with the Communist state did not take long to surface among Western intellectuals who earlier were ardent supporters of its ideals, hopeful that it would eventually rescue mankind from the evils of capitalism, industrialism and imperialism. This turning away accelerated after the infamous Moscow trials of the 1930's, confirming again the truth of what Pierre Vergniaud, a leading spokesman of the moderate Jacobin faction, predicted at the height of the French Revolution: "There is reason to fear that, like Saturn, the revolution may devour each of its children in turn. And devour them it did". (He was later to be one of the victims of Madame la Guillotine.)
These purges, show trials and internecine struggles were to be enacted again and again in the capitals of the Communist world. In fact, the survival of Communism after that were no longer dependent on the support of the people, but more on the ability of the leaders to coerce and keep the people in a perpetual state of fear and helplessness in the face of the dominant State apparatus. It was only a matter of time before the entire structure began to unravel. The system was replete with so many internal contradictions that it could not conceivably sustain itself. Once a chink appeared in the armour of the invincibility of the Soviet State, as witnessed the military debacle in Afghanistan, total collapse swiftly followed.
We do not enjoy the recitation of these events, as if to gloat over the collapse of a human enterprise inspired by high ideals. But in recalling the rise and fall of Communism, we hope to derive some important lessons. First, high ideals and good intentions do not promise anything. We must also be very clear about the means of attaining our declared objectives. We must not barter the good which is real and tangible, though imperfect or flawed, with something in the nature of a fabulous perfection, but which in the process of attaining causes us to abandon all the good which we have in hand. Secondly, we can learn that no collectively which is built upon violence can hope to avoid an equally violent reversal in the course of time. For a civil society to thrive, it must come about as a result of free association, where individuals are not forcibly melted into sterile conformity. It must be able to accommodate differences, and variety of expressions, within a shared framework of mutual respect and tolerance.
There has been a lot of wishful thinking in the wake of the downfall of Communism. The most famous example, of course, is the thesis of Fukuyama that liberal democracy is the end point of mankind's ideological evolution. According to him, there is now a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government and it has conquered all forms of rival ideologies. I think the reality is far more complex. To begin with, while we share many of the values and features of democracy, its successful application and viability in any particular society, must ultimately depend on the judicious adjustments and modifications it must undergo to suit particular values and circumstances. We say this not by way of apology, lest we may be accused of seeking some excuse for failing to live up to the ideals of liberal democracy. The truth is that we also live by other ideals that are not shared by the proponents of liberal democracy. Thus, the process of instituting viable forms of democratic governments requires not only courage but also imagination.
A rash and inappropriate plunge into the embrace of the community of democratic nations, democracy being defined in a very rigid and ideological manner in the West, can very well result in a severe shock to the society. We must ponder with Vaclac Havel, who contemplates with bitterness and disillusionment, in his own words, the "enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every imaginable human vice" with the return of freedom to Czechoslovakia. For Havel, as the foremost luminary of the movement to restore democracy in his country and who provided much of the intellectual and moral impetus for the great democratic revolution in Eastern Europe, this must be very hurtful and puzzling. In an article recently published in the New York Review of Books, entitled Paradise Lost, Havel noted that "...we are witnesses to a bizarre state of affairs: 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; intrigue, and deliberate lying; politicking, an unrestrained, unheedful struggle for purely private 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."
Czechoslovakia is in Europe. Despite the decades under totalitarian government, its society certainly has more in common with Western Europe and North America than any of the democratic societies in Asia. We in Malaysia, but for a brief period of about 20 months, have lived under a system of parliamentary democracy since the birth of the nation in 1957. I think, the ability to sustain democracy must be due to our practical approach to government and our commitment to ensure economic prosperity and the fair distribution of wealth. Indeed, economic prosperity is so important that democracy would be meaningless and irrelevant if it does not result in eliminating misery, disease and ignorance. The legitimacy of the elected government rests on its commitment to fulfill the aspiration of the electorate to better themselves economically and socially. At the same time, we have to preserve national unity, which hinges upon maintaining justice but also the delicate balance of conflicting and contending interests and passions. In this respect, we tend to agree with Samuel Huntington, when he suggests that "the interaction of economic progress and Asian culture appears to have generated a distinctly East Asian variety of democratic institutions." Professor Huntington notes that Malaysia, together with Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia, share a similar type of democracy which serves "not Western values of competition and change, but Asian values of consensus and stability." What Professor Huntington fails to observe, however, is that we do not see democracy as the sole and overriding goal of society. For us, with the peculiar nature and needs of our society, we have to go beyond promising freedom and equality, and even beyond maintaining consensus and stability.
I thank you for your kind indulgence. It is not often that we have such opportunities to exchange ideas on some of the great issues of our times. It is the very reason why this seminar is organized. We cherish ideas because they are so important and powerful in our lives. As John Maynard Keynes wrote, at the conclusion of The General Theory, "... the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." Therefore, I welcome you to this feast of ideas.