There has recently been a spate of articles about the end of the socialist illusion, about the failure of an idea, and even about West European or German intellectuals finally coming to terms with the past.footnote In them, rhetorical questions always prepare the way for the refrain that utopian thought and philosophies of history necessarily end in subjugation. The critique of the philosophy of history is, however, old hat. Löwith’s Meaning in History was translated into German in 1953.footnote1 So what are the terms of today’s debate? How should one assess the historical significance of the revolutionary changes in Eastern and Central Europe? What are the consequences of the bankruptcy of state socialism for political movements whose roots lie in the nineteenth century, or for the theoretical traditions of the West European Left?

The revolutionary changes in the Soviet bloc have taken many different forms. In the land of the Bolshevik Revolution itself, a reform process is underway that was introduced from the top, from the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Its results, and, more importantly, other unintended consequences, condense to form a process of revolutionary development, to the degree that changes occur not just at the level of general social and political orientation, but in essential elements of the power structure itself (of particular importance are changes in the mode of legitimation as a result of the birth of a political public sphere, the beginnings of political pluralism and the gradual renunciation of the Party’s monopoly on state power). This process is now scarcely controllable, and, moreover, is greatly endangered by the national and economic conflicts it has thrown up. Everyone involved recognizes how much depends on the outcome of this fateful process. It created the preconditions for the changes in eastern Central Europe (including the Baltic states’ declarations of independence) and in East Germany.

In Poland, the revolutionary changes were the result of the sustained resistance of Solidarity supported by the Catholic Church, in Hungary that of a power struggle within the political elite; in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the regime was overthrown by peaceful mass demonstrations, in Romania by a bloody revolution; in Bulgaria, the changes occurred only sluggishly. Despite the variety of its guises, the nature of the revolution in these countries can be deciphered from what has happened: this revolution produces its own data. It presents itself as a revolution that is to some degree flowing backwards, one that clears the ground in order to catch up with developments previously missed out on. By contrast, the changes in the home of the Bolshevik Revolution retain an opacity for which concepts have yet to be found. The revolution in the Soviet Union has, up until now, lacked the unambiguous character of a recantation. A symbolic return to February 1917, or even to Tsarist St Petersburg, would be pointless.

In Poland and Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria—in other words, in those countries which did not achieve the social and political structures of state socialism through an independent revolution, but rather ended up with them as a result of the war and the arrival of the Red Army—the abolition of the people’s republic has occurred under the sign of a return to old, national symbols, and, where this was possible, has understood itself to be the continuation of the political traditions and party organizations of the interwar years. Here—as revolutionary changes gather force and become revolutionary events—is also where one finds the clearest articulation of the desire to connect up constitutionally with the inheritance of the bourgeois revolutions, and socially and politically with the styles of commerce and life associated with developed capitalism, particularly that of the European Community. In the case of East Germany, ‘annexation’ (Anschluss) is literally the word, since West Germany offers to fulfil both desires at the same time, in the form of an affluent Western society with a democratic constitution. The voters here have definitely not ratified what the opposition had in mind when it overthrew the Stasi-oligarchy with the slogan ‘We are the people’; but the vote they cast will have profound historical effects as it interprets this overthrow—as a rectifying revolution. They want to make up for all the things that have divided the Western half of Germany from the Eastern for forty years—its politically happier, and economically more successful, development.

This rectifying revolution, in so far as it is meant to make possible a return to constitutional democracy and a connection with developed capitalism, is guided by models that orthodox interpretations consider the revolution of 1917 to have made redundant. This perhaps explains a peculiar characteristic of this revolution, namely its total lack of ideas that are either innovative or orientated towards the future. Joachim Fest has made a similar observation: ‘These events gained their hidden, confusing centre...from the fact that they did not emphasize the element of social revolution that has governed pretty well all the revolutions in modern history.’footnote2 This is particularly confusing because it seems to remind us of a vocabulary supposedly superseded by the French Revolution: the reformist picture of the return of political regimes following one after another in a continuous cycle like that of the heavens.footnote3