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Regime and Society in Eastern Europe (1956 - 1989). From Extended Reproduction to Social and Political Change

Final Report Summary - RESOCEA (Regime and Society in Eastern Europe (1956 - 1989). From Extended Reproduction to Social and Political Change)

The study entitled Eastern Europe: Regime and Society (1956-1989) sets out from a revision of the concept of regime and society in communist countries. Literature on these issues seems preoccupied by two extreme assumptions: society is either interpreted as entirely engulfed by the regime or as separate and hostile to it. Our study has shown that regime and society were closely interwoven. Comprising individuals and various groups, society was functioning within the bounds of the regime, succumbing to its rules yet pretty often hijacking its workings for its own ends. On the other hand, the regime was striving to sustain its total control, but it was also increasingly compelled to accommodate the attitudes or demands of various groups, entering a number of bargains or compromises. Our close scrutiny of occurrences in that society, our investigation at the level of particular individuals or groups gave us a chance to come closer to the real picture of life and change back then. Our micro-level analysis demanded focusing on individual cases. The lead researcher and the four senior researchers, each one in their own country (Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic), by working in various – often unsorted and hard-to-access – archives, scattered documents or memoirs, or by referring to oral history and socio-anthropological surveys, managed to build up a relevant bulk of sources to provide the basis of their analysis.

The scholarly contributions of our research might be classified the following way:

Thematic contributions: Recounting the regime's history through the prism of different unexplored (or little explored) social fields: the clash between science and ideology and the forms of questioning the ideological monopoly in the academic sphere; the industrial accidents; the migration process and, in a more general perspective, international mobility; generational or cultural clashes; and the contradiction between the drive for economic effectiveness and ideological bias.

Innovative methodology: The relationship between the communist regime and society was explored through the leading analytical concept of the "incident" and the conceptual trichotomy of "incident, status-events and the Big Event". The incident is a human act, which constitutes, from the vantage point of the system, a deviation from its established order. The incident is a controversy and a challenge and it implies initiative on behalf of its agent. The incident is a source of social interaction; it drags into its vertigo actors from various social and political fields. Incidents are not isolated, but they are not strung up in an ascending line: instead they form a dot-like process, which marks the current state of affairs and the changes in a certain social field – and only in it. As a concept, the incident stands away from the definition that theory usually gives to the concept of the event, meaning radical change. Besides, it is difficult to find a causal link between incidents. At the same time, it makes sense to assume that interim links do exist between a series of incidents and the radical structural change. Unless we do, we have to assume that several decades in the history of Eastern Europe saw no events at all – while a number of far from insignificant things took place in different fields of life.

This has led to revisiting the "event" as a concept, and to setting the "Big Event" (which is a radical change or a new beginning) apart from ordinary events. What we established were a multitude of "status or sectoral events" (restricted to certain social fields without threatening the system), which might be seen as the corollary from the cumulative effect of a series of incidents counting the peculiar temporal cadence of the system. Most often, these status-events had no physical representation, but they manifested the advent of sustainable structural changes in their field. Individual status-events are also incapable of setting off the Big Event on their own, but their cumulative effect is a key prerequisite for it. Incidents and status-events form various event chains. In the process of our comparative research, a multitude of event chains were traced inasmuch as various selective links were in action in different social fields. The Big Event itself came unexpectedly, mangling the scene as an explosion. Its conceptualising allowed us to reconstruct individual event chains, starting from the known end and going back to the unknown beginnings. Like a rearview mirror, the Big Event allows the separate events scattered down the years to reveal their meaning rambling in the form of traces and line themselves up in a coherent whole. Incidents, status-events and the Big Event build up the identity of the historical process only in their aggregate.

Some conclusions from our research:

(1) A widely shared myth was debunked: that the collapse of communism was unexpected and that freedom was a gift. Our explorations have shown that the change is a continuous process and the Big Event itself is not a structure changer – it simply provides identity to the change, marks it. It emerges within the context of a constellation of status-events in a variety of social fields, in the form of an outstanding incident the corporeal expression of which transforms into the carrier of the radical change's symbolic meaning. For instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall has grown into this kind of symbol.

(2) Another communism-related myth is its total control on society. The analysis of day-to-day life under communism has revealed the existence of a branched-out network of micro-power centres, which were able to loosen various fields out of this seemingly comprehensive grip from above. Paul Ricoeur's analysis of the relationship between power and domination helps us understand how these micro-power centres were possible in the conditions of totalitarian oversight. Domination undoubtedly overrides all the other types of rule, but it is incapable of abolishing them. In various professional and social fields, they asserted themselves as natural reigns resting upon personal qualities or upon attained authority and place in an unofficial publicity, accompanied by access to resources and the allocation thereof.

(3) The communist system suffered a key anthropological defect: its failure in incentivising individuals to take the initiative and develop their creative talents: its recognition and career promotion kit was inadequate. This caused consistent tensions between the individual and the system; at the end of the day, the regime lost the support of its own initial powerbase – the people in whose name it had come to power and who should have directly benefited from its reign.

(4) Our research has mapped the roads whereby social practices were being renewed: through the actions of the pioneers in nonconformist behaviour and their gaining popularity through unofficial publicity channels.

(5) The study also established multiple factors of change: contrary to the entrenched practice to focus on dissidents, we identified various categories of change, with each one of them making their specific contribution to social transformation. These agents functioned in different fields, including within the communist party itself, thus triggering an effect of overlaying pressure and deviations.