Tear Down This Wall

 

Was this the end of “communism”?

The events of 1989 are most often depicted as the failure of socialism. It’s a powerful interpretation that has served to discredit alternatives to the capitalist system, which is said to have triumphed, and to bestow upon capitalism an aura of legitimacy based not only on a reading of recent history but also on assumptions about the natural order, not least human nature. Capitalism, it is proposed, is the normal state of human traffic in what people make and value and need; socialism is the deviation. Capitalism responds to the nature of "man"–acquisitiveness, competition, egoism and the insatiable need for more. Socialism stands in the way of initiative, creativity and competition. Going by its nom de guerre, communism, it proposes radical equality in a world of unequals. Therefore, it can be maintained only by the coercive power of an entrenched elite and a repressive state. In the Eastern bloc, once that force was removed and party leaders lost confidence in their right to rule, communism naturally fell, and people’s instinctual drives for material accumulation were liberated. Markets won out everywhere, even when democracy did not.

History, however, is always more complicated and messy than the moral and ideological tales it may be called to serve. The history of Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century can be told as the story of two series of revolutions: the communist-led revolutions of the post-World War II years that ousted the former ruling elites and transformed largely rural societies into urban industrial ones; and the anticommunist revolutions of 1989, mostly peaceful and in one case even "velvet," that overturned entrenched party regimes already weakened by political sclerosis. In Eastern Europe, one form of "actually existing socialism" was established at a particular historical moment–the beginning of the cold war struggle between an enormously wealthy, nuclear-armed United States and a significantly weaker Soviet Union. Forty years later, communism fell when political crises, economic stagnation (but not economic collapse) and a will to change the way the system worked coalesced at another historical moment. To the lasting dismay of democratic socialists in Europe and elsewhere, it was a moment of Thatcherite/Reaganite neoliberalism, vigorous anticommunism and muscular military and covert operations against the left and radical movements in all parts of the globe. As for socialism, what originated in the early nineteenth century as a noble political philosophy devoted to promoting the common good was reduced to an epithet hurled at anyone skeptical of the workings of laissez-faire or the idea that capitalism is intrinsic to the natural order. Socialism has a long history, but it has not been able to escape the crushing burden of its recent Leninist incarnation.

The rest of Ronald Grigor Suny’s assessment in The Nation is here.

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