Ten Years After 1989: Shlomo Avineri

Ten Years After 1989: Shlomo Avineri

The fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc initiated a sweeping transformation of world politics. How should we think about these momentous events and their implicatons a decade later? Dissent asked a group of European and American writers and thinkers for postcommunist reflections in response to three questions: (1) What did you think would happen in 1989?, (2) Were you right or wrong—and why?, and (3) What are the implications for your political thinking?—EDS.

How did I understand the unraveling of communism? There were two di-mensions. First, I thought the Soviet Union had finally proven to be the failure it was destined to be. Second, I had grave doubts as to whether democratization would go comfortably hand in hand with the development of market capitalism. I argued on several occasions that postcommunist developments would be far from uniform. This was why I found the faux-Hegelian triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama so annoyingly wrong. Its ideological subtext was simplistic Hayekian messianism. The idea that the end of the communist “idea” could be construed as an End of History was preposterous.

The historical development of Eastern Europe was actually arrested under the guise of Marxist-Leninism. Even if one is not a historical determinist, one can argue that what communism did to Russia in 1917, and to Central and Eastern Europe after 1945, was to thwart an eventual evolution toward Western-style societies. It also meant that the nationalist fervors unleashed by the destruction of three multinational empires (the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman) were being “overcome” only through repression coupled with a universalist ideology of revolution and mass mobilization.

Conventional wisdom had it that communism, either in its brutal Stalinist incarnation or the more benign Titoist version, at least succeeded in subduing extreme nationalism. This was one reason why many intellectuals applauded it, despite their criticisms of Stalinism. Communism was seen as a guarantee against vicious chauvinism. I thought, however, that neither the Soviet Union nor Yugoslavia actually created a postnationalist environment that would endure because the complex give-and-take of pluralist democracy was missing. Oppression could drive nationalism underground; it would not destroy it.

Perhaps one reason for my skepticism is the fact that as an Israeli I witnessed how immigrants coming from the Soviet Union to the Jewish state in the 1970s brought with them the sort of memories and sometimes a Jewish consciousness that we had assumed destroyed by decades of Soviet persecution. If those memories remained vivid among scattered Soviet Jews, I thought, surely the same is so for other ethnic and religious groups who lived contiguously in their historical lands. It may also be that my research on the early socialist (and later socialist-Zionist) Moses Hess suggested to ...