Ten Years After 1989: Alan Ryan

Ten Years After 1989: Alan Ryan

Bertrand Russell was not the most successful of political prophets. If he had not died almost thirty years ago of extreme old age, he would surely have been astonished to see that humanity has not yet blown itself to bits. But he did have an acute eye for the unregenerate side of political human nature. In a sprightly little essay on “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed,” he urged his readers not to confuse the need to liberate oppressed peoples from their oppressors with the expectation that they would behave nicely when they had been liberated. On the contrary, we might think that justice demands their emancipation, but we should expect them to use their freedom to settle old scores and to perpetrate a good deal of oppression in their turn.

It was a thought Russell might himself have reached for in the last years of his life, when he waxed sentimental about the Viet Cong; but it is certainly a thought that we all have to hang on to when looking back over the last decade. Two things were obvious all along, though their impact was not predictable. The first was that the failure of Soviet communism owed a lot to the failure of the 1848 revolutions to take liberalism, constitutionalism, and economic ambition into the farther reaches of Eastern Europe. Marx was right about the way socialism would have to draw on the resources of a liberal, progressive society if it was to prosper.

The second was that nationalism was more attractive to the average citizen than socialism had ever been. Hungarian friends of mine had been taught Russian in school for ten years and swore they understood not a word; of course, socialism had been imposed by the Red Army rather than popular feeling, but whether it was its coercive origins or its Russian associations that destroyed its chances of acceptance is hard to say.

But add the two things together and there is a recipe for trouble of the sort that Russell understood. In the absence of a bedrock conviction of the merits of tolerance, the return of democracy was always likely to be more impressive as a solvent than as a binding agent; multiparty democracy without a talent for compromise and coalition building is exceedingly hard to operate. The temptation will always be either to stand on narrow principle even when this means that no stable government can be established or to use political access to make off with whatever resources the old regime has left to be looted. If you stir ethnic and nationalist passions into that situation, you will be very lucky to end with nothing worse than the infinitely sad but happily nonviolent divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Like almost everyone else, I imagine, I did not think that Yugoslavia would bring pre-1914 Balkan infighting back to the edges of Western Europe. Although we had all abandoned our old hope that Yugoslavia might be the home of a socialist third way with real workers’ participation in the management of the compan...