What Is to Be Learned? Thinking about 1989

What Is to Be Learned? Thinking about 1989

When the Berlin Wall cracked on November 9, 1989, the clock struck thirteen in the Soviet bloc, and its hands halted. History went on. Rotting dictatorships in eastern and central Europe, long sustained by and for Moscow, had been crumpling for some time. Western-style democratic structures (some sturdy, some less so) would supplant them. Europe’s politics and that of the world were recast in a largely unforeseen but exhilarating year of liberation from police states. In its aftermath, a newly unified Germany integrated both into Europe and the Western alliance, while a hobbling Soviet Union dissolved after a failed coup against Communist Party Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev in summer 1991. Then Boris Yeltsin’s “shock therapy” enfeebled further its Russian successor.

The Milton Friedmans explained then how all would be well so long as this emerging world shook an invisible hand. Two decades later, many people feel slapped by the back of the hand as we are a year into a globalizing economic crisis; and there is a good deal of shaking. Der Spiegel reported in July that 57 percent of former East Germans now defend the communist ancien régime and 49 percent think life was good under it (although, of course, mistakes were made). But when the Communists competed in the one democratic election that was held in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in March 1990, they received only 16.4 percent of the vote.

What is to be learned? In seeking (partial) answers to this question, it is helpful, I think, to move on different planes, all the while staying alert to, but also circumspect about, their links. And we ought to look through the cold war fog, which still dims some political quarters. When conservatives credit their own for 1989, they need to be reminded that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their intellectual comrades insisted fiercely in the late 1970s and early 1980s that “communist totalitarianism” could not change, since its ideology determined everything.

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish ideologues. One proposes that “democratic dictatorship” is the way to humanity’s liberation, another that a junta, say in Chile, is part of a “Free World.” We tend to forget that this South American country evolved toward political democracy in roughly the same period as the Soviet bloc did… and during which China did not. General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal coup in 1973 against a democratically elected (left-wing) government came with Washington’s support (although it was the doing of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, not Reagan). In the next years, disparities between rich and poor grew massively due, in part, to the prescriptions provided to Pinochet by Milton Friedman’s Chicago School. Naturally, the military regulated the population while the “free market” regulated itself. But both Santiago and Moscow began processes of change—“Transición” in the former case, “...

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