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Now out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989

  • Timur Kuran (a1)

Like many major revolutions in history, the East European Revolution of 1989 caught its leaders, participants, victims, and observers by surprise. This paper offers an explanation whose crucial feature is a distinction between private and public preferences. By suppressing their antipathies to the political status quo, the East Europeans misled everyone, including themselves, as to the possibility of a successful uprising. In effect, they conferred on their privately despised governments an aura of invincibility. Under the circumstances, public opposition was poised to grow explosively if ever enough people lost their fear of exposing their private preferences. The currently popular theories of revolution do not make clear why uprisings easily explained in retrospect may not have been anticipated. The theory developed here fills this void. Among its predictions is that political revolutions will inevitably continue to catch the world by surprise.

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1 Gwertzman Bernard and Kaufman Michael T., eds., The Collapse of Communism, by Correspondents of “The New York Times” (New York:Times Books, 1990), vii.

2 For an early statement of this thesis, see Arendt Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2d ed. (1951; reprint, New York:World Publishing, 1958), pt. 3. Arendt suggested that communism weakens interpersonal bonds rooted in family, community, religion, and profession, a situation that makes individuals terribly dependent on the goodwill of the state and thus blocks the mobilization of an anticommunist revolt.

3 Pipes Richard, “Gorbachev's Russia: Breakdown or Crackdown?” Commentary, March 1990, p. 16.

4 Kirkpatrick Jeane J., The Withering Away of the Totalitarian State ... And Other (Washington, D.C.:AEI Press, 1990). A decade earlier Kirkpatrick had articulated a variant of Arendt's thesis, insisting that the communist system is incapable of self-propelled evolution. See Kirkpatrick , “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary, November 1979, pp. 3445.

5 Graubard , “Preface to the Issue ‘Eastern Europe . . . Central Europe . . . Europe,’ “ Daedalus 119 (Winter 1990), vi.

6 Ibid., ii.

7 Naisbitt , Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (New York:Warner Books, 1982). The months following the East European Revolution saw the appearance of Naisbitt John and Aburdene Patricia, Megatrends 2000: Ten New Directions for the 1990s (New York:William Morrow, 1990). This sequel characterizes the East European developments of the late 1980s as an unforeseen “political earthquake” and then predicts that the 1990s will witness the further erosion of communism (chap. 3).

8 Economist, November 18, 1989, p. 13.

9 Havel , “The Power of the Powerless” (1979), in Havel et al., The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, ed. Keane John and trans. Wilson Paul (Armonk, N.Y.:M. E. Sharpe, 1985), 42.

10 Ibid., 87, 89, 96.

11 Havel, “Meeting Gorbachev” (1987), in Brinton William M. and Rinzler Alan, eds.,Without Force or Lies: Voicesfrom the Revolution of Central Europe in 1989–90 (San Francisco:Mercury House, 1990), 266.

12 Havel, “Cards on the Table” (1988), in Brinton and Rinzler (fn. 11), 270–71.

13 Tarrow Sidney, “‘Aiming at a Moving Target’: Social Science and the Recent Rebellions in Eastern Europe,” PS: Political Science and Politics 24 (March 1991), 12.

14 On the elections and the reactions they generated, see the reports of John Taglibue, New York Times, June 3–6, 1989. The events leading up to the April accord have been chronicled and interpreted by Timothy Garton Ash, “Refolution: The Springtime of Two Nations,” I New York Review of Books, June 15, 1989, pp. 3–10. He observed: “Almost no one imagined that the great gulf between ‘the power’ and ‘the society,’ between Jaruzelski and Walesa,; could be so swiftly bridged” (p. 6). For another informative account of Poland's political: transformation, see Abel Elie, The Shattered Bloc: Behind the Upheaval in Eastern Europe (Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1990), chap. 4. I

15 New York Times, November 12, 1989, p. 1. f

16 Question 36 on the East German Survey of the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, February 17-March 15, 1990, Archive no. 4195 GEW. I am indebted to Elisabeth Noelle-i Neumann, director of the institute, for agreeing to insert this question into a broader surveyj on East German political opinions.

17 Fischhoff Baruch, “Hindsight ≠ Foresight: The Effect of Outcome Knowledge on Judgment under Uncertainty,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 1 (August 1975), 288–99; and Fischhoff Baruch and Beyth Ruth, “‘I Knew It Would Happen’—Remembered Probabilities of Once-Future Things,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 13 (February 1975), 116.

18 “David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (London:Roudedge and Kegan Paul, 1971), chaps. 6–8.

19 For a compilation of pertinent reports from the New York Times, see Gwertzman and Kaufman (fn. 1), 153–84. Superb eyewitness accounts include Timothy Garton Ash, “The German Revolution,” New York Review of Books, December 21, 1989, pp. 14–19; and George Paul Csicsery, “The Siege of Nogradi Street, Budapest, 1989,” in Brinton and Rinzler (fn. 11), 289–302.

20 Amalrik , Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? (1969) (New York:Harper and Row, I 1970), esp. 3644.

21 Tismaneanu , “Personal Power and Political Crisis in Romania,” Government and Opposition 24 (Spring 1989), 193–94.

22 Brecht Bertolt, “Lob der Dialectic” (In praise of dialectics, 1933), in Gedichte (Frankfurt:Suhrkamp Verlag, 1961), 3:73; poem translated by Edith Anderson.

23 Skocpol , States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1979).

24 The seminal contribution is Olson Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965; rev. ed., Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1971).

25 This point is developed by Taylor Michael, “Rationality and Revolutionary Action,” in Taylor , ed., Rationality and Revolution (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6397. Taylor also offers an illuminating critique of structuralism.

26 Edith Anderson, “Town Mice and Country Mice: The East German Revolution,” in Brinton and Rinzler (fn. 11), 170–92.

27 On the availability heuristic, see Tversky Amos and Kahneman Daniel, “Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability,” Cognitive Psychology 5 (September 1973), 207–32. The biases that this heuristic imparts to the use of historical knowledge are discussed by Taylor Shelley E., “The Availability Bias in Social Perception and Interaction,” in Kahneman Daniel, Slovic Paul, and Tversky Amos, eds., Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1982), 190200.

28 For two of the major contribution to this approach, see Davies James C., “Toward a Theory of Revolution,” American Sociological Review 27 (February 1962), 519; and Gurr Ted R., Why Men Rebel (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1970).

29 Snyder David and Tilly Charles, “Hardship and Collective Violence in France, 1830 to 1960,” American Sociological Review 37 (October: 1830–1930 (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1975). For much additional evidence against the theory of relative deprivation, see Finkel Steven E. and Rule James B., “Relative Deprivation and Relate Psyechological The ories of Civil Violence: A Critical Review,” in Kriesberg Louis, ed., Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Chamge (Greenwich, Conn.:JAI Press, 1986), 9:47–69.

30 For a detailed analysis of this trade-off, see Kuran Timur, “Private and Public Preferences,” Economics and Philosophy 6 (April 1990), 126.

31 The theory outlined in this section is developed more fully in Kuran Timur, “Spark and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution,” Public Choice 61 (Aprf 1989), 4174. A summary of the present formulation was delivered at the annual conventioj of the American Economic Association, Washington, D.C., December 28–30, 1990. This pre, sentation appeared under the title “The East European Revolution of 1989: Is It SurprisiiT That We Were Surprised?” in the American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings 81 1991), 121–25.

32 Schumpeter , Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3d ed. (1950; reprint, New York:Harper Torchbooks, 1962), chap. 13.

33 Lucid analyses of bandwagon processes include Mark Granovetter, “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior,” American Journal of Sociology 83 (May 1978), 1420–43; and Schelling Thomas C., Micromotives and Macrobehavior (New York:W. W. Norton, 1978).

34 Under the term impression of universality, the concept was introduced by All-port Floyd H., Social Psychology (Boston:Houghton, Mifflin, 1924), 305–9. The term pluralistic ignorance was first used by Schanck Richard L., “A Study of a Community and Its Groups and Institutions Conceived of as Behavior of Individuals,” Psychological Monographs 43–2 (1932), 101.

35 Relatively high thresholds may also be associated with relatively great vulnerability to social pressure.

36 Tocqueville , The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), trans. Gilbert Stuart (Garden City, N.Y.:Doubleday, 1955), 177.

37 Each of these is developed by Finkel Steven E., Muller Edward N., and Dieter Karl Opp, “Personal Influence, Collective Rationality, and Mass Political Action,” American Polit-al teence Review 83 (September 1989), 885903.

38 Tilly , From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, Mass.:Addison-Wesley, 1978).

39 Oliver , “Bringing the Crowd Back In: The Nonorganizational Elements of Social Movements,” in Kriesberg Louis, ed., Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change (Greenwich, Conn.:JAI Press, 1989): 11:1–30.

40 The words of Leon Trotsky, cited by Arendt (fn. 2), 307.

41 Solzhenitsyn , “The Smatterers” (1974), in Solzhenitsyn et al., From under the Rubble, trans. P A. M. Brock et al. (Boston:Little, Brown, 1975), 275.

42 Ibid., 276; emphasis in original.

43 Havel (fn. 9), 27–28.

44 Manea, “Romania: Three Lines with Commentary,” in Brinton and Rinzler (fn. 11), 327.

45 Wierzbicki , “A Treatise on Ticks” (1979), in Brumberg Abraham, ed., Poland: Genesis of a Revolution (New York:Random House, 1983), 205.

46 The Charter 77 declaration is reproduced in Havel et al. (fn. 9), 217–21.

47 See Garton Ash Timothy, The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central (1983–89) (New York:Random House, 1989), esp. 6170.

48 Havel (fn. 9), 39; emphasis in original.

49 Ibid., 39.

50 Ibid., 37.

51 Timothy Garton Ash, “Eastern Europe: The Year of Truth,” New York Review of Books, February 15, 1990, p. 18; emphasis in original.

52 Wierzbicki (fn. 45), 206–7.

53 Havel (fn. 9), 37.

54 The metaphor belongs to Moore Barrington Jr., Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (White Plains, N.Y.:M. E. Sharpe, 1978).

55 Cited by Elias Norbert, Power and Civility (1939), trans. Jephcott Edmund (New York:Pantheon, 1982), 197.

56 Otava Jiří, “Public Opinion Research in Czechoslovakia,” Social Research 55 (Spring-Summer 1988), 249. Every issue of the Czechoslovak government's official bulletin on public opinion stated: “We remind all researchers that this bulletin is not meant for the public, which means not even for your friends and acquaintances, but serves exclusively as internal material for poll-takers and those who collaborate with us” (p. 251 n. 2).

57 See Tismaneanu Vladimir, The Crisis of Marxist Ideology in Eastern Europe: The Poverty of Utopia (London:Routledge, 1988), esp. chap. 4.

58 Hart Henry O., “The Tables Turned: If East Europeans Could Vote,” Public Opinion 6 (October-November 1983), 5357. The surveys reported by Hart cover Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

59 “Daten des Zentralinstituts fur Jugendforshung Leipzig” (Mimeograph), Tables 1 and 2. These tables were compiled by Walter Friedrich, the director of the institute, and distributed to the participants at a conference held in Ladenburg in February 1991, under the auspices of the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann brought the document to my attention; John Ahouse translated it into English.

60 For a fuller argument on how preference falsification distorts public discourse and how, in turn, this distortion warps the evolution of people's private preferences, see Kuran Timur, “The Role of Deception in Political Competition,” in Breton Albert et al., eds., The Compel-itive State (Boston:Kluwer-Nijhoff, 1990), 7195.

61 Though Shlapentokh develops the argument with respect to the Soviet Union, it applies also to Eastern Europe. See Shlapentokh , Soviet Public Opinion and Ideology: Mythology ani Pragmatism in Interaction (New York:Praeger, 1986); and idem, Public and Private Life oftkt Soviet People: Changing Values in Post-Stalin Russia (New York:Oxford University Press, 1989).

62 See Holland John H. et al., Induction: Processes of Inference, Learning, and Discovery [(Cambridge:MIT Press, 1986); and Tversky Amos and Kahneman Daniel, “The Framing [of Decisions and the Rationality of Choice,” Science 211 (January 1981), 453–58.

63 For details, see Tucker Robert C., Political Culture and Leadership in Soviet Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev (New York:W. W. Norton, 1987), chap. 7.

64 Economist, July 18, 1987, p. 45.

65 Z [anonymous], “To the Stalin Mausoleum,” Daedalus 119 (Winter 1990), 332.

66 With the revolution, the notion that Gorbachev would turn to the army and the KGB in a bid to stay in power lost plausibility. It regained plausibility in late 1990 with the resignation of his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who publicly accused Gorbachev of plotting with hard-liners to create a repressive dictatorship.

67 Recorded by Bell Daniel, “As We Go into the Nineties: Some Outlines of the I wenty-first Century,” Dissent 37 (Spring 1990), 173.

68 Kon Igor, “The Psychology of Social Inertia” (1988), Social Sciences 20, no. 1 (1989), 6074.

69 Gennadii Batyagin, TASS, June 28,1989, quoted by Teague Elizabeth, “Perestroika and the Soviet Worker,” Government and Opposition 25 (Spring 1990), 192.

70 Economist, July 18, 1987, p. 45.

71 Timothy Garton Ash, “Germany Unbound,” New York Review of Books, November 22, 1990, p. 12.

72 “Daten des Zentralinstituts für Jugendforschung Leipzig” (fn. 59), Tables 1 and 2.

73 This account draws on Ash (fn. 19); Anderson (fn. 26); and the New York Times reports compiled in Gwertzman and Kaufman (fn. 1), 158–60, 166–84, 216–22.

74 New York, Times, August 18, 1989, p. 1.

75 Ibid., October 8, 1989, p. 1. For a fuller account of the transformation, see Abel (fn. 14), chap. 2.

76 New York Times, October 26, 1989, p. 1.

77 Ibid., November 16, 1989, p. 1.

78 For an eyewitness account of these events, see Timothy Garton Ash, “The Revolution of the Magic Lantern,” New Yor\ Review ofBooks, January 18, 1990,42–51. See also Abel (fn. 14), chap. 3.

79 Economist, December 2, 1989, p. 55.

80 For a demonstration, see Kuran (fn. 31).

81 The pace of events was undoubtedly a key factor also in the failure of conservative groups in the Soviet Union to block Eastern Europe's liberation. Had events proceeded more slowly, they might have had time to oust Gorbachev and order the Red Army into action.

82 Ash (fn. 51).

83 “Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Revolution,” Uncaptive Minds 3 (January-February 1990), 11.

84 For the New York Times reports of these events, see Gwertzman and Kaufman (fn. 1), 332–39.

85 William M. Brinton, “Gorbachev and the Revolution of 1989–90,” in Brinton and Rinz-ler (fn. 11), 373.

86 Tocqueville (fn. 36), 20.

87 Peukert Detlev J. K., Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life, trans. Deveson Richard (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1987), 2728 and pas sim.

88 For a sample of explanations, see Algar Hamid, The Islamic Revolution in Iran (London:Muslim Institute, 1980); Arjomand Said Amir, “Iran's Islamic Revolution in Comparative Perspective,” World Politics 38 (April 1986), 383414; Bakhash Shaul, The State and Revolution in Iran (London:Croom Helm, 1984); Keddie Nikki R., Roots of Revolution (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1981); and Looney Robert, Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution (Boulder, Colo.:Westview Press, 1982).

89 Schapiro Leonard, The Russian Revolutions of 1917: The Origins of Modern Communism (New York:Basic Books, 1984), 19.

90 Chamberlin William H., The Russian Revolution, 1917–1921 (New York:Macmillan, 1935), 1:73–76.

91 Further evidence concerning the element of surprise in the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions may be found in Kuran (fn. 31), sees. 2, 6–7.

92 Kecskemeti Paul, The Unexpected Revolution: Social Forces in the Hungarian Uprising (Stanford, Calif.:Stanford University Press, 1961), 1.

93 Ibid., 60, 84–85.

94 Havel , Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíž&ala (1986), trans. Wilson Paul (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 109.

95 Dunn , Modem Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon, 2d ed. (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1989), 23.

96 Hayek , “The Pretence of Knowledge” (1974), American Economic Review 79 (December 1989), 6.

* This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. SES-8808031. A segment of the paper was drafted during a sabbatical, financed partly by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I am indebted to Wolfgang Fach, Helena Flam, Jack Goldstone, Kenneth Koford, Pavel Pelikan, Jean-Philippe Platteau, Wolfgang Seibel, Ulrich Witt, and three anonymous readers for helpful comments.

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