Ten Years After 1989: Mitchell Cohen

Ten Years After 1989: Mitchell Cohen

Ten years ago I was quite unsure as to what would happen in the communist bloc. I certainly did not predict how vast the transformation would be. I did believe that it was a moment of contingencies and possibilities.

I can make these statements only because I did not (and do not) think like the conservative cold warriors. Recall Jeane Kirkpatrick’s claim—made half a decade before Gorbachev’s rise and just as Deng’s reforms were beginning—that since communist regimes remade every nook, cranny, and brain cell in their societies, change could never emerge from within them. Such “tough-mindedness” provided the intellectual justification for a great deal of foreign policy in the Reagan era. But Kirkpatrick had simply taken a (sometimes useful) conceptual tool, the ideal-type of totalitarianism, and declared it to be reality. Alas, reality changed, even though it was not supposed to do so. So 1989 marked the end of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s ideology.

“Tough-mindedness” also led many conservatives to advocate economic “shock therapy” for postcommunist lands. These same folks had long argued against anything anywhere that might be called “radical” (especially if the aim was some sort of social redress). Societies are complex tissues, they warned. Rend them and unintended consequences, apparently always bad, will follow. Yet now our conservatives were proponents of radical measures rather than measured reforms. If social pain accompanied these measures, well, sufferers were told to bear it for the sake of the long term—a formula curiously like that once used by communists to rationalize their policies. Why have things gone so badly in some places—like Russia? Our conservatives have an obvious answer: the Kremlin did not go far or fast enough in the 1990s. As a famous reactionary once put it, you can’t make an omelet without breaking the eggs.

Not all conservatives believed postcommunist history needed a push. If history achieved its telos with communism’s fall, no nudge was needed, not to mention imagination. Jeane Kirkpatrick proposed before 1989 that totalitarianism precluded the emergence of alternatives from within communist societies; Francis Fukuyama submitted after 1989 that the triumph of “the Western Idea” (his own, actually) precluded alternative thinking in general. If Kirkpatrick took an ideal-type for reality, Fukuyama took immediate events for Eternal Historical Reason. Memo to devotees of such theories: European communism collapsed but China’s communists have remained in power, remaking their country so radically that its society and economy are today unrecognizable by Maoist standards. And unless you really do believe in historical necessity—and that Boris Yeltsin incarnates the Western Idea—then you must admit that alternative possibilities (some positive, some awful) might also have materialized in Europe. Nineteen-eighty-nine and 1990 were not contingency-free...