20 Years of Collapse

November 9, 2009


TODAY is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Duringthis time of reflection, it is common to emphasize the miraculousnature of the events that began that day: a dream seemed to come true,the Communist regimes collapsed like a house of cards, and the worldsuddenly changed in ways that had been inconceivable only a few monthsearlier. Who in Poland could ever have imagined free elections withLech Walesa as president?

However, when the sublime mist of the velvet revolutions was dispelledby the new democratic-capitalist reality, people reacted with anunavoidable disappointment that manifested itself, in turn, asnostalgia for the “good old” Communist times; as rightist, nationalistpopulism; and as renewed, belated anti-Communist paranoia.

The first two reactions are easy to comprehend. The same rightists whodecades ago were shouting, “Better dead than red!” are now often heardmumbling, “Better red than eating hamburgers.” But the Communistnostalgia should not be taken too seriously: far from expressing anactual wish to return to the gray Socialist reality, it is more a formof mourning, of gently getting rid of the past. As for the rise of therightist populism, it is not an Eastern European specialty, but acommon feature of all countries caught in the vortex of globalization.

Much more interesting is the recent resurgence of anti-Communism from Hungary to Slovenia. During the autumn of 2006, large protests againstthe ruling Socialist Party paralyzed Hungary for weeks. Protesterslinked the country’s economic crisis to its rule by successors of theCommunist party. They denied the very legitimacy of the government,although it came to power through democratic elections. When thepolice went in to restore civil order, comparisons were drawn with theSoviet Army crushing the 1956 anti-Communist rebellion.

This new anti-Communist scare even goes after symbols. In June 2008,Lithuania passed a law prohibiting the public display of Communistimages like the hammer and sickle, as well as the playing of theSoviet anthem. In April 2009, the Polish government proposed expandinga ban on totalitarian propaganda to include Communist books, clothingand other items: one could even be arrested for wearing a Che GuevaraT-shirt.

No wonder that, in Slovenia, the main reproach of the populist rightto the left is that it is the “force of continuity” with the oldCommunist regime. In such a suffocating atmosphere, new problems andchallenges are reduced to the repetition of old struggles, up to theabsurd claim (which sometimes arises in Poland and in Slovenia) thatthe advocacy of gay rights and legal abortion is part of a darkCommunist plot to demoralize the nation.

Where does this resurrection of anti-Communism draw its strength from?Why were the old ghosts resuscitated in nations where many youngpeople don’t even remember the Communist times? The new anti-Communismprovides a simple answer to the question: “If capitalism is really somuch better than Socialism, why are our lives still miserable?”

It is because, many believe, we are not really in capitalism: we donot yet have true democracy but only its deceiving mask, the same darkforces still pull the threads of power, a narrow sect of formerCommunists disguised as new owners and managers — nothing’s reallychanged, so we need another purge, the revolution has to be repeated…

What these belated anti-Communists fail to realize is that the imagethey provide of their society comes uncannily close to the most abusedtraditional leftist image of capitalism: a society in which formaldemocracy merely conceals the reign of a wealthy minority. In otherwords, the newly born anti-Communists don’t get that what they aredenouncing as perverted pseudo-capitalism simply is capitalism.

One can also argue that, when the Communist regimes collapsed, thedisillusioned former Communists were effectively better suited to runthe new capitalist economy than the populist dissidents. While theheroes of the anti-Communist protests continued to dwell in theirdreams of a new society of justice, honesty and solidarity, the formerCommunists were able to ruthlessly accommodate themselves to the newcapitalist rules and the new cruel world of market efficiency,inclusive of all the new and old dirty tricks and corruption.

A further twist is added by those countries in which Communistsallowed the explosion of capitalism, while retaining political power:they seem to be more capitalist than the Western liberal capitaliststhemselves. In a crazy double reversal, capitalism won over Communism,but the price paid for this victory is that Communists are now beatingcapitalism in its own terrain.

This is why today’s China is so unsettling: capitalism has alwaysseemed inextricably linked to democracy, and faced with the explosionof capitalism in the People’s Republic, many analysts still assumethat political democracy will inevitably assert itself.

But what if this strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself tobe more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal capitalism? Whatif democracy is no longer the necessary and natural accompaniment ofeconomic development, but its impediment?

If this is the case, then perhaps the disappointment at capitalism inthe post-Communist countries should not be dismissed as a simple signof the “immature” expectations of the people who didn’t possess arealistic image of capitalism.

When people protested Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the largemajority of them did not ask for capitalism. They wanted the freedomto live their lives outside state control, to come together and talkas they pleased; they wanted a life of simplicity and sincerity,liberated from the primitive ideological indoctrination and theprevailing cynical hypocrisy.

As many commentators observed, the ideals that led the protesters wereto a large extent taken from the ruling Socialist ideology itself —people aspired to something that can most appropriately be designatedas “Socialism with a human face.” Perhaps this attitude deserves asecond chance.

This brings to mind the life and death of Victor Kravchenko, theSoviet engineer who, in 1944, defected during a trade mission toWashington and then wrote a best-selling memoir, “I Chose Freedom.”His first-person report on the horrors of Stalinism included adetailed account of the mass hunger in early-1930s Ukraine, whereKravchenko — then still a true believer in the system — helped enforcecollectivization.

What most people know about Kravchenko ends in 1949. That year, hesued Les Lettres Françaises for libel after the French Communistweekly claimed that he was a drunk and a wife-beater and his memoirwas the propaganda work of American spies. In the Paris courtroom,Soviet generals and Russian peasants took the witness stand to debatethe truth of Kravchenko’s writings, and the trial grew from a personalsuit to a spectacular indictment of the whole Stalinist system.

But immediately after his victory in the case, when Kravchenko wasstill being hailed all around the world as a cold war hero, he had thecourage to speak out passionately against Joseph McCarthy’s witchhunts. “I believe profoundly,” he wrote, “that in the struggle againstCommunists and their organizations … we cannot and should not resortto the methods and forms employed by the Communists.” His warning toAmericans: to fight Stalinism in such a way was to court the danger ofstarting to resemble their opponent.

Kravchenko also became more and more obsessed with the inequalities ofthe Western world, and wrote a sequel to “I Chose Freedom” that wastitled, significantly, “I Chose Justice.” He devoted himself tofinding less exploitative forms of collectivization and wound up inBolivia, where he squandered all his money trying to organize poorfarmers. Crushed by this failure, he withdrew into private life andshot himself in 1966 at his home in New York.

How did we come to this? Deceived by 20th-century Communism anddisillusioned with 21st-century capitalism, we can only hope for newKravchenkos — and that they come to happier ends. On the search forjustice, they will have to start from scratch. They will have toinvent their own ideologies. They will be denounced as dangerousutopians, but they alone will have awakened from the utopian dreamthat holds the rest of us under its sway.


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