Ten Years After 1989: Paul Berman

Ten Years After 1989: Paul Berman

What were my expectations for Eastern and Central Europe ten years ago? I did have my hopes. They were vast. I was hoping, a little wistfully, to see a new kind of society arise—a society with socialist values and libertarian practices. A republic of workers’ councils.

I had my logic. A libertarian socialist aspiration had become fairly popular in student movements all over the West circa 1968, which put me in a large company in the years that followed. I could cite a considerable theoretical literature, written by genuinely brilliant thinkers who speculated about the libertarian and socialist possibilities in the old Soviet bloc, if only the communists could be overthrown. I could cite historical precedents—aspects, for instance, of the East German workers’ movement in 1953, of the Hungarian workers’ councils in 1956, and of the Czechoslovak reform in 1968. I could cite the example of Polish Solidarity. Some of the more imaginative people in Poland during the 1980s gave active thought to the very ideas that I am describing. And so, I convinced myself that my own hopes were more than idle fancies.

Why was I wrong? I wasn’t, entirely. The 1989 revolution broke out, and I went to what was then Czechoslovakia, looking for instances of workers taking over production and forming democratic councils to administer the enterprises, exactly as predicted in the writings of Cornelius Castoriadis and C. L. R. James, who were my theoretical guides. And I found those instances, plenty of them. I wrote at some length about one—a colorful but fairly representative effort by the members of the Czech Philharmonic to take over their own orchestra.

The rebelling workers of 1989 did not want to create a republic of workers’ councils, though—not in Czechoslovakia or anywhere else. The East bloc workers organized their revolutionary councils and shop committees only as steps toward building a Western type liberal market democracy. Why had I failed to predict such an aspiration? And why did I fumble for a moment, before recognizing those liberal hopes as right and appropriate?

It was for reasons that seem painful to me now. The highest intentions of solid left-wingers like myself were these: to undo poverty, to make work more creative and fulfilling, to put muscle into the pieties of social solidarity, and to impose a rationality on large social and economic decisions. We leftists clung to a very peculiar way of expressing those intentions, though. We insisted on the utility of left-wing theory. And there our problems began. For, in the twentieth century, left-wing theory has been a giant telescope, trained on the past.

We members of the anticommunist left imagined that we were too smart to get lost in the past. We fought against communism, and the communists and their friends fought back, and our name was mud in the Nation magazine; and our struggles and even our enemies confirmed our self esteem. We...