Two Decades After the Fall: Optimism of the Intellect

Two Decades After the Fall: Optimism of the Intellect

Two Decades After the Fall: Paul Berman

THE YEAR 1989 was a schizophrenic moment for some of us on the democratic left in the Western countries. We did hope, as the editors observe, that some kind of social democracy would replace the communism of the East Bloc. We entertained this hope because social democracy seemed to us a good idea. We recommended it to our East European brethren. We hoped that, given the opportunity, they would adopt the idea.

But we entertained a social democratic hope for another reason, as well. We hoped that, in spite of every terrible aspect of communist dictatorship, the communist experience would leave behind a few admirable aspects, and the terrible could be eliminated, and the admirable conserved. We hoped that communism could be “de-dictatorized,” so to speak, and social democracy would turn out to be the final sum. Or we hoped for something still better and more imaginative–a revival of grassroots, radical-democratic and libertarian socialist impulses from long ago: the ideas that used to be known on the left as council communism (duly denounced by Lenin in his tract Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder) and anarcho-syndicalism. This sort of thing did use to command a following here and there in Eastern and Central Europe before the communists were able to wipe it out. But in 1989 nothing of the sort sprung back to life.

The grand 1989 spectacle of East Bloc crowds filling the public squares and overthrowing the hated communists thrilled us, of course. Our hearts pounded in solidarity. We admired the new generation of intellectuals and activists who led a great many of the East Bloc uprisings–the bohemian Bohemians, the classical musicians (never in history have classical musicians played so great a role in political events as in 1989, in one country after another), and generally the victorious liberal dissidents. But we were slow to realize how thoroughly the communists had compromised left-wing political ideas of every sort. Thatcher, Reagan, and Hayek were, for the moment, gods in Central and Eastern Europe; Willy Brandt and Swedish socialism were not even semi-divine. And so, our hearts rose and sank at the same time. The simultaneously rising and sinking of hearts turns out to have been a fundamental feature of the revolutions of 1989 and their aftermath; and we in the Western democratic left went through our own version of the experience. It was the age of revolutionary heartburn.

Will our hopes nonetheless be vindicated in the long run? Will the authoritarian political systems of certain countries, post-1989, give way to liberal systems? And will the unchecked rampages of capitalists give way to checked rampages, better adapted to produce a well-being for all? I will observe, in response to these questions, that every great revolution since 1789 has produced a new wave of political philosophy, and the revolutions of 1989 have likewise produced a wave. But our modern philosophical wave instructs us to regard anyone who offers a confident prediction as a dangerous fanatic.

As for any possible recurrence of the nonviolent, democratic “velvet revolutions” of that long-ago time–well! We are living through such a moment right now. Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies speak all the time about their fears of a velvet revolution taking place in their own Iran. How wonderful that a velvet revolution should be their worst fear! Their fear is the proof that twenty years is not a very long period of time, and the spirit of 1989 continues to live, here and there, and we have reason to feel pessimism of the intellect, and yet again, optimism of the intellect.

Paul Berman is a writer in residence at New York University and the author of, among other books, A Tale of Two Utopias, which discusses the revolutions of 1989.