Ten Years After 1989: Nancy Fraser

Ten Years After 1989: Nancy Fraser

In 1990 I spoke at a Chicago teach-in about the possibility that something genuinely new and emancipatory might emerge from the wreck of Soviet communism. I explained that the democratic deficits and economic failures of that social system in no way discredited the idea of democratic socialism. And I stressed that while East and Central Europeans would doubtless incorporate some Western legal and political forms as they reconstructed their societies, we in the capitalist world had much to learn from them as well. I suggested, in short, that the collapse of communism presented a historic opportunity to design a “third way.”

The subsequent hijacking of that phrase by Tony Blair sums up a decade’s worth of unfulfilled expectations. Far from opening the way for innovative projects aimed at combining markets with egalitarian redistribution, social planning with democratic control, the Soviet collapse led at its best to the consolidation of liberal democracies in Central Europe. At its worst it brought casino capitalism and Mafia-style politics to Russia, and fascism and “ethnic cleansing” to the Balkans. In Western Europe and North America, meanwhile, no intimations of democratic socialism appeared. On the contrary, the demise of communism seemed only to speed the process of neoliberal globalization, now operating largely under nominally social democratic auspices.

However initially disappointing, the outcomes in East-Central Europe seem understandable in hindsight. In 1990 I had not adequately reckoned with the authoritarian structures and ethnochauvinist traditions that have impeded liberal efforts to democratize the region at least since the French Revolution. Nor had I fully grasped the traumatizing effects of communism—in destroying civil society, deforming political culture, and discrediting the socialist project. Given such historic burdens, it was naive to expect an easy transition out of communism, let alone one to democratic socialism.

What remains far less comprehensible, however, and therefore still bitterly disappointing, is the collapse of the socialist project in the West. To be sure, that project needed a thorough reformulation. It had long been clear that socialism could only be conceived as a radicalization, not a repudiation, of liberal democracy, grounded on the priority of civil liberties, toleration, and democratic forms of public culture. In addition, socialism would have had to jettison longstanding habits of class essentialism and economism so as to encompass the breadth of postindustrial political life, accommodating the full panoply of collective subjects (not just “workers” but also women, gays and lesbians, indigenous peoples, and ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities) and the rich plurality of political arenas (not just labor but also ecology, sexuality, media, violence, reproduction, multiculturalism). Finally, it would have been necessary to overcome socialism’s histor...